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James Coburn

Bodily Pragmatics


There was an article published in Movie magazine in the early eighties which suggested Coburn was, alongside Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin, the last of the hard men. But of the three, Coburn always seemed the most pragmatic, relaxed and eager to engage. Was he not the only one of the three we could realistically see in a Bondian spoof – the Flint films – and the only one who could bed a woman with charm rather than her respect for a lone wolf’s world-weary integrity?

Integrity might be a key word here, because it wasn’t (no matter the saintliness of his Sergeant Steiner in Cross of Iron) part of Coburn’s persona the way it was for Marvin or for Bronson. You could even say its very absence, or at least it’s being called into question, gave Coburn some of his best roles. Whether this takes the form of the casual pragmatism to be found in the Flint films, or the embittered pragmatism of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Coburn was a hard man with a malleable centre – a centre that in its malleability could give Coburn immense confidence, as in Flint, or the slowly eroding self-respect that’s so central to Pat Garrett.

In Coburn’s work malleability is clearly double-edged, and that’s part of its problem: how does one know whether that malleability works for or against the self? We might say two things here. One is that malleability is more likely to work within the framework of a certain youthfulness, as if the flexible mind is at one with the flexible body. Is this not central to the Flint films, where everything Coburn does, from bedding a woman to taking out half a dozen baddies with the aid of a trampoline and a bowling ball, carries a kind of energetic pair of inverted commas? Coburn may well have been in his late thirties when he made the Flint films, but in his tight, beige trousers and white polo neck he moves lithely through space, as if we’re to admire any contortionist trick this man can pull off, whether that be seducing a woman or getting into and out of a scrape; hence the casual pragmatism.

But what if the body no longer possesses that lightness, can the malleability lead to embitterment? This is central to the tragedy of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, where Pat sells-out to the establishment and then confirms his sense of betrayal by taking out his former friend, the still independent Billy. Initially, we might surmise, Pat’s compromising is just healthy pragmatism: times have changed; Pat Garrett goes with the changes. But when he realises the changes are likely to leave him with dubious values in a dubious society, Garrett takes a curious, reluctant revenge. He turns not against the society that’s clearly in the process of destroying his sense of integrity, but against the man who makes his betrayal a forced self-consciousness. If he can destroy Billy can he not also destroy his conscience, his awareness of his own selling-out? Thus there’s a psychological subtlety to the heavy symbolism when Pat, after shooting Billy, also ends up shooting at a mirror image of himself – as though killing Billy is a suiciding of the conscious self. Earlier in the film, when Billy says ‘we did have some times’, Coburn gives a nod of acceptance, but says nothing.

In an interview with the BBC’s Mark Cousins, one of the things that comes through is Coburn’s interest in physicality. He refers to Steve McQueen as ‘the least athletic of anybody I’ve ever met’ and talks about Bruce Lee’s one inch punch that knocked him over to the other side of the room. He even talks about illness as a response to negative emotion. Not just accepted ‘emotionally’ influenced illnesses like cancer, but even his own arthritis in relation to a divorce he’d just gone through when he was diagnosed with the condition in the late seventies. What Coburn was getting at in relation to his own life is the mind/body issue that’s surprisingly present in a number of the films, the way the body acts out the mental state. This can take the slow-burn manner of Pat Garrett as his body gets heavier as his mind becomes more embittered, or, conversely, the more immediate, positive mind/body combination we see it at the beginning of The President’s Analyst after Coburn’s been told he’s going to become psychoanalyst to the president. With his long legs, loping stride and smooth gestures, Coburn turns the scene into a musical number by other means as he wanders around New York. There’s a similarity here with what we might call the emotional psychology of the musical: the way the gap between thought and body is temporally almost non-existent: Coburn’s pleased about the new job, and immediately lives out the pleasure of the reaction, just as, say, Gene Kelly lives out the pleasurable fact that Debbie Reynolds is interested in him by singin’ in the rain.

But in some of Coburn’s seventies work the body’s no longer so able to express the malleability of thought,  and so we have a heaviness of  body that’s in keeping with – to some degree even creating – an embittered mind. Do we not see it in The Last of Sheila, with Coburn a wealthy mogul inviting half a dozen Hollywood luminaries onto his boat for a life-size puzzle game that serves as revenge for his late wife’s hit and run death?  Here the enclosed environment (despite the odd mainland detour) works well as Coburn creates an acidic, closed-off world that forces each of the guests to confront their own weaknesses. Each guest has a card detailing another guest’s failings – child molester, homosexual, convict – with the purpose of eventually revealing who murdered Coburn’s wife. As in Pat Garrett…, Coburn’s character functions ‘posthumously’ – his own post-existence settles on removing something vital in others. In Pat Garrett… Coburn has to kill to survive: to retain a sense of self he has to destroy Billy. In The Last of Sheila his embittered nature demands he manipulates others to function out of his own dysfunction.

What we have here then is a twofold lack of integrity that suggests Coburn has very little to do with the generally cynical yet integral sense of self practised by Marvin and Bronson. There is first of all the lack of integrity in an ethical sense: the way Coburn charms and dumps women in the Flint films. But there’s also this lack of integrity in the body, in its split between a youthful vigour and an ageing collapse.  However, how easy is it to find a position whereby the youthful vigour and the ageing body become ethically one? The body ages rather than the reverse, so wisdom comments on youthfulness after the event. Youthfulness thus becomes aware of its state – of its luxuriousness – in an aged body, and consequently often arrives at embitterment. It’s a sour position that comes not from seeing life as a continuum but as youthfulness as a self-contained value system that is actually unsustainable. Hence when Pat shoots Billy and his own mirror image, and earlier in the film when Billy says times have changed and Billy says but not me, what is being expressed is not simply the idealization of Billy and the failed self of Garrett, but two opposing systems of self. Billy’s chosen to die, because he’s accepted a youthful self that has no interest in crossing over to the side of agedness as Billy offers a variation on the cliche of dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse: he decides to die and leave a coherent if dubious value system. Pat’s decided to protect the body and hauls it into a generational state that nevertheless feels itself being commented upon by a younger self whose values were very different. Will killing Billy kill those thoughts?

The question we might then ask is how to leave a beautiful ethics without dying young, as one of the fascinations with the early death lies in this idea of a morality within youth; its absence in age. In Short Lives, Katinka Matson quotes Malcolm Lowry saying, “you cannot trust the ones who are too careful… Old Goethe cannot have been as good a man as Keats or Chatterton. Or Rimbaud. The ones that burn.”  But maybe part of this perceived ethical purity in the young lies in the difficulty of viewing a life posthumously yet ethically: of viewing one’s life from the position of one’s own advanced years, even death. Here Simone Weil’s comment in Gravity and Grace, ‘to philosophise is to learn to die,’ echoing the Ancients, ought to be tweaked a little. Can we not say philosophy teaches us how to live within a certain type of death: in a consciousness that sees a life not in mini-epochs of time, in generational time, but from a position beyond time? “Model your own peace of mind on your experience before birth” Pliny reckoned. When we talk of Pat and Billy’s opposing systems of being, we’re still thinking in terms of epochal selves, of Billy’s idealized youthful self, and Pat’s decision to survive into another era, to accept that times have changed, and that he’ll change with them. The film’s consistent with Lowry’s take. Yet Coburn tells a casual anecdote in the Cousins interview where director Sam Peckinpah came up to Coburn, shortly before filming the scene where Pat kills Billy, and wondered whether Billy might survive. Coburn understandably found the idea absurd: even the slightest fidelity to historical accuracy would have to include Billy’s death, but Peckinpah perhaps understood something about the problematic of Pat killing Billy: that by not killing Billy the pair of them could have moved towards a sense of self that wouldn’t collide – as Pat’s and Billy’s inevitably did – but would be sublimated and dissolved. When Weil says “I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness”, there is this idea of a being not only capable of crossing the epochal self, but also into another self altogether. However, this would require a philosophy of self, a philosophy that would go beyond one’s immediate epochal being, even beyond a clear notion of self and other, towards an abstract almost permeating notion of being. Peckinpah’s greatness, though, has often been as a director of hardened, epochal selves in The Wild Bunch, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia and Cross of Iron: he admires self-definition even if it often likely to end in self-destruction. If Peckinpah is a great filmmaker, it lies frequently in his ability to show violence as necessary for ‘self-preservation’, though not necessarily necessary for preserving being, but perhaps more especially for preserving the myth of self. Billy may have a death-wish, illustrated in an early scene where he goads the religious freak guarding over him, but Billy’s well-aware that any physical demise is secondary to the furtherance of the legend.

In the Cousins interview, Coburn talks about the innocence of childhood being destroyed as a key theme in Peckinpah, but perhaps we shouldn’t see this as an inevitable loss in a world of culpability, but as an epochal stage of being, by a director fascinated by his very own three stages of man: childhood innocence, self-defined masculinity and ageing embitterment. When we witness that most famous example of dubious innocence in Peckinpah’s work, with kids at the beginning of The Wild Bunch watching a scorpion being eaten by insects, we should see it as the first epochal stage of man. It isn’t really childhood innocence Peckinpah’s focusing upon; more the first stage of existence where death is a casual spectacle one observes, just as the second stage is the heroism one tries to seal, and the third stage so often the despair and sense of defeat one’s trying to live with: the third stage so wonderfully illustrated not just in Coburn in Pat Garrett, but perhaps even more present in Robert Ryan’s sheriff in The Wild Bunch.

Might we go further then and say that the first stage needn’t have anything to do with childhood innocence as we usually perceive it, but that it is closer instead to childhood ignorance – to a lack of awareness of one’s being in the world – just as the second stage suggests also a limited if nevertheless more expansive view of being, and the third stage a fuller awareness of self but that is contained by a decaying body?  How to find a position on being that somehow moves beyond the bodily state so that an ethics can come out of self-consciousness that one doesn’t attain too late, or too unconsciously?

What we’re proposing here has nothing to do with an accepted, general social morality even if we’re trying to escape the idea of the body as the site for its own ethos, the body as a system according to its own needs.  Does the body not only see itself in its present state or its previous states, but cannot foresee its future condition except more generally: as a social body? It anticipates itself socially through savings, pension plans, even through children and grandchildren, rather than personally: through giving every action in the present an awareness of itself as perceived by the final stage of one’s existence. When Lowry talks about trusting Keats and Chatterton over Goethe, he perhaps seeks an ethics of the body over that of careful, considered living. But can we not trust even more a being that lives each stage of his existence as if in the process aware of the life lived whole rather than epochally?

It is something we see in Peckinpah and Coburn’s most heroic character, the German WWII Corporal Steiner in Cross of Iron. When he says to one of his new troops “And don’t call me Sir”, it serves a similar purpose to the reluctance he shows in the following scene where he grudgingly accepts his promotion to Sergeant. It’s not just the hierarchical Steiner rejects, it is also this idea of hierarchy attached to seniority – of life moving from epoch to epoch through age and achievement, so that each development in age demands an equivalent development socially. “Everything you are, and may become, is dependent on this present company” a senior officer insists. Steiner replies, however, “that man is generally what he feels himself to be.” Of course there is nothing ostensibly fresh in Steiner’s perspective, and Peckinpah plays the scene close to cliche with reaction shots and the usual shot/counter-shot approach to film arguments, but there is something in Steiner, and Coburn’s approach to the character, that manages to move the film into somewhere more interesting.

Maybe Michel Foucault in an interview in Ethics can help us here when he says “freedom is the ontological condition of ethics…If you take a whole series of texts going from the first Platonic dialogues up to the major texts of late Stoicism – Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and so on – you will see that the theme of the care of the self thoroughly permeated moral reflection.” Foucault reckons at a certain point the care of the self became secondary to an interest shown in others where self-sacrifice was of central importance. He believes this happened during Christianity, where caring for oneself became an abstract notion of caring for one’s salvation: it becomes a curious care of self out of an assumption of the afterlife over a looking after oneself in the present one.  Does Lowry’s comment function as the antithesis to such Christian ideas, so that the self-annihilating instinct of Rimbaud, Chatterton etc. serves not the function of Christian self-sacrifice – which has its own abstract selfishness – but closer to an amoral sacrifice against the moral-preservation of Christian expectation?

What is interesting about Coburn’s Steiner is that he neither functions as heroically youthful nor cynically senior, but occupies a position in between, a position that seems to see life as a process whereby one holds to what Kierkegaard referred to as the ‘eternally firm’ taking precedence over any developmental state. When Steiner witnesses a teenage Russian soldier lying dead with his arm blown off from the socket he just says “nothing we haven’t seen before”, yet moments later, when the same soldier who commented horrifyingly on the boy lying dead prepares to shoot another teenager, Coburn tells him to put the gun down. Isn’t there a contradiction here – with Steiner indifferent to the dead boy but protective of the living one? We could just say it is an issue of practicalities: one boy is dead, the other living. But when it looks as if Steiner’s senior officer will shoot the young boy back at base, Steiner seems more insistent that the officer should do his own dirty work over protecting the boy’s life. When the officer asks him to shoot the boy, Steiner says “you shoot him, Sir.” So it isn’t that Steiner wants especially to protect the living over the dead, but that he wants to protect a coherent ethos over an inconsistent pseudo-humanism. While the horrified soldier is both humanitarian and functional man of war at the same time – moving from sensitivity to coldness within seconds – Steiner looks towards a consistency that goes beyond the assumed humanity of the self and the expectant inhumanity of the army, and towards a consistent acceptance of a more deep-seated firmness.

It is of course this very notion of deep-seated firmness that is irrelevant to Flint because of the agility of the body and the supple ethical doublethink of his mind, and that Pat believes is irrelevant when he expects to leave behind the physical, violent and independent self for the posthumous self already mentioned. But Steiner suggests a combination that refuses the dichotomous. When one of the more pensive officers back at base says “Steiner is a myth. But men like him are our last hope’”, he might specifically be commenting on Steiner’s soldiering abilities, but he’s also more allusively suggesting Steiner’s one of the few men capable of living without guilt and bad faith in a post-war Germany. What Steiner lives by, it seems, are values that are both immediate and yet timeless – values contrasted in the film with the aristocratic Stransky. During one key exchange between them, Stransky makes clear how attached he is to the values of the immediate in the social sense – how he wants the Iron Cross to satisfy his family’s ambitions, his own high-position in the social order –  but has no sense of the immediate in Steiner’s terms, in an ability to live by one’s instincts. When Stransky is actually forced to fight, he reveals how hopelessly out of sync with the immediate world he happens to be.

But how does Steiner avoid epochal existence? We notice he does so in several ways. First he lives for the moment, so that he never accepts an ageing state because each moment is lived in the present. Secondly he has little interest in promotion – he doesn’t want to separate himself from the moment. Thirdly, he stays in the moment by affiliating himself with the young. But this has nothing to do with someone who stays young by being around young people insistently, trying to feed off their youthfulness. Such an approach would suggest self-consciousness towards aging that Steiner lives too much in the present to possess.  No, when Steiner says a man is what he feels himself to be, he is alluding to the irrelevance of epochal being, and consequently moves beyond even Lowry’s glorification of the ethos of youth. For even this contains within it an overt awareness of epochal being. “Nobody’s serious when they’re seventeen”, Rimbaud suggested, but is such nonchalance towards life not a youthful obliviousness over Pliny’s insistence that one should model one’s peace of mind on our experiences before birth? Steiner might share the care-freeness of youth, but it is from a position beyond life rather than viewing it from its first or second stage. To have that care-freeness beyond one’s immediate existence yet still to be within that living body is surely the ultimate ontological achievement.

It is this failure – its complete failure, one could say – that is at work in Coburn’s swan-song film Affliction. Here he plays a bullying patriarch who is both aware and unaware of the aging process but caught in feelings of the embittered as he constantly drinks himself into states of denial. In one scene he pinches the backside of his son’s partner (Sissy Spacek), as if a young lover acting friskily with his own mate. A little later on he says to the more or less middle-aged Spacek – “you think you’re pretty hot stuff huh, well you’re getting old too, and there’s not a god damn thing a woman can do about that.” For Coburn’s patriarch aging is something that doesn’t transcend the body as Steiner’s perspective allows, but somehow he feigns its non-existence: the body very much exists – its fatigue, its illnesses, its raw nerves – but Coburn pretends it doesn’t, or rather that it exists in a youthful state that can still screw, drink and fight. As Coburn walks around the family home abusing his obviously much stronger son (Nick Nolte), he acts like the man he would have been fifty years before, no matter the rheumatic movements and drunkenly erratic speech patterns.

It would be too easy to see Coburn’s character here as the ‘eternally infirm’, but he seems a man who has always paraded a prowess even if that physicality has long since vanished.  If Coburn’s patriarch is the most miserable, pained and anguished character Coburn has ever played, it lies in this relationship with the body. He is a man who seems to want constantly to escape the body and yet show it off, show off its lumbering size and its perceived power.  He wants to escape it as a nervous system and thus constantly assuages it with drink, but parade its externality as he walks around his farmhouse with his chest puffed up and his arms and fists ready to take out anybody who gets in his way. But of course the more he assuages the body with drink the more the paraded body becomes a joke at Coburn’s expense. We could just say this humorous aspect lies in the man’s contradictions, but we can also go further and look at these anomolies: that they tie into notions we’ve been discussing, ideas about ethics and the temporal.

Coburn’s character here is the ontological failure exemplified. Philosophers often talk about time being out of joint, that there is an aspect of time that makes it impossible to conjoin certain events. However, we can also think of time being out of joint in relation to character, in a character’s inability to live each moment in time according to a wider necessity – the necessity of the many variables at work that make an action ‘right’, a decision ‘correct’ – but instead demands that ‘reality’ fits in with the ego’s demands.  Steiner, for example, consistently gets time right – his timing towards actions and feelings are astute. When he questions Stransky’s notion of hierarchy, or looks at the options involved in killing or not killing the young boy, he conjoins time and being with great astuteness. He sees Stransky’s ambitions as relatively insignificant, and sees the boy’s life as not especially important in the wider scheme of things, but immensely important ethically: in that killing the boy wouldn’t just be about the boy’s life, but a wider notion of morality alluded to when the pensive officer suggests Steiner’s the country’s last hope. Hence when the pensive officer calls Steiner a myth, he is the opposite of Coburn’s patriarch in Affliction. Steiner is a myth from the perspective of others; the patriarch is a myth from his own confused point of view. Where Steiner becomes mythic because he lives in the moment, and reads it so well that it is as if he transcends time, the patriarch becomes a joke because he so insistently misreads it. Whether that be pinching his son’s partner’s bottom, or believing he can physically take on his son, Coburn’s time is constantly out of joint.

Can we say, then, that Coburn’s significance as an actor lies in this examination of temporality, morality and health? We don’t want to be too categorical here; all we have tried to do look for an illumination of certain modes of being, and actors who seem to contain these states particularly well. Coburn suggests, then, not so much the integrity we might find in the actors with whom he’s compared – the Marvins and the Bronsons – but a more subtle examination of integrity in relation to time, physicality and ethics.


©Tony McKibbin