Monday, March 19, 2007

Osama's Bonanza

So, according to Lawrence Wright in his book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006), apparently Osama bin Laden was, when a child, a great fan of the western television series, Bonanza (which originally ran from 1959 to 1973, with seemingly perpetual reruns). Let us imagine young Osama eagerly tuning in:

Now, this is a rather striking image in itself. But let me explain why I consider it not merely bizarre, but significant. I am convinced that no one, not the most heinous monster, is content to think ill of himself (and I'm going to stick with a "he" here for this particular argument). Even if “no man is a hero to his valet,” every man is a hero in the story he tells of his life within his own imagination, the notion of the gleeful villain being purely an invention of melodrama. That being the case, the sources of a man’s self-understanding --- the myths and stories chosen as favourites, the sources in which the very nature of "heroism" are defined --- are crucial to understanding his nature. So, how exactly did Osama bin Laden, as a boy, feel about Bonanza? How did he position himself in the stories?

Well, pondering the Ponderosa through Osama's eyes, thoughts of Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright suddenly jogged my memory of a brief account of Osama bin Laden’s father that I had read in a biography of the son on the Frontline website some time ago.

Lorne Greene, Queen's University alumnus and Ben "Pa" Cartwright on Bonanza.

To make the point clear for those who have never seen Bonanza, I’ll start with a description of Ben Cartwright from a website devoted to the show:

"Ben Cartwright, a man whose quiet strength and perseverance has always been a steadfast and stabilizing influence on his sons.
A man who values family and moral justice . . . A man who stands fast when faced with adversity . . . A man who never allowed the wealth that he had accumulated to overshadow his beliefs.
He is a man who is no stranger to tragedy, a man who became a widower three times. After each of these devastating losses, the love he felt for his sons helped him overcome his pain and continue building his life’s dream, the Ponderosa, the largest ranch in the Nevada Territory.
Ben Cartwright never forgot his simple beginnings. A generous man, he has sheltered and helped many people, rich or poor, from every walk of life. He reaches out to his neighbors, never failing to offer them support in times of trouble. A tolerant man, who never judges another, who looks at a person for what they are on the inside, not by what they appear to be on the outside.
A righteous man, he firmly instilled his strong faith and unwavering convictions in his four sons. But he was also a gentle, loving father who knows instinctively how to give each one the guidance they need, to console in just the right way, a man who understands each son, who loves and 
accepts them no matter what circumstances they face.
Ben Cartwright, a man respected and admired by all who know him. He is the bonding force of the Ponderosa, whose deep voice and wisdom touches everyone
." (Source)

And now a description of Osama bin Laden’s father, from a biography of Osama written by a friend of his, and reproduced on the Frontline website :

"His father Mohammed Awad bin Laden came to the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] from Hadramout (South Yemen) sometime around 1930. The father started his life as a very poor laborer (porter in Jeddah port), to end up as owner of the biggest construction company in the kingdom…
…[Awad] bin Laden was so supportive to King Faisal [of Saudi Arabia] that he literally paid the civil servants' wages of the whole kingdom for six months....
The father was fairly devoted Moslem, very humble and generous. He was so proud of the bag he used when he was a porter that he kept it as a trophy in the main reception room in his palace. The father used to insist on his sons to go and manage some projects themselves.
The father had very dominating personality. He insisted to keep all his children in one premises. He had a tough discipline and observed all the children with strict religious and social code. He maintained a special daily program and obliged his children to follow. At the same time the father was entertaining with trips to the sea and desert. He dealt with his children as big men and demanded them to show confidence at young age. He was very keen not to show any difference in the treatment of his children.

The place in which Mr. Greene is currently rolling as I write this.

So, what lessons did young Osama take in at his father's/Ben Cartwright's knee? And which of the three sons did he most identify with: Adam, Hoss or Little Joe? Well, my guess is that it was not Adam, if only because Adam was gone from the series by 1962. But what part of the mythology embodied by Bonanza left the series along with Adam's departure? Well, consider this episode that someone has helpfully edited down (sometimes it seems you can find absolutely ANYTHING on YouTube) in which the venerable Ben Cartwright is bent on "taking the law into his own hands," and Adam, the rational liberal, attempts to reason with him. Try substituting the Islamic Holy Land for the Ponderosa ranch in your mind, and see how it plays:

But, it seems to me that the pseudo-liberal resolution arrived at in this episode was not exactly characteristic of Bonanza, and that the more frequent moral would be something along the lines of what Kenny Rogers declared in "The Coward of the County": "sometimes you've got to fight to be a man." And, indeed, it seems that after a time there was not quite room enough in Bonanza for the point of view represented by Adam, for the character lasted only three seasons, Pernell Roberts leaving the series in 1962 because of his disagreements with the writers. (To get a sense of what these disagreements were, it is important to note that Roberts was something of a liberal activist in real life, politically known for publicly embarrassing NBC about their lazy habit of hiring caucasian actors to play natives.) But it almost seems as though they could not allow Roberts to go without teaching his character a hard lesson in one of his last episodes --- one of the more famous from the series, number 94, “The Crucible." I’ve combined two different website sources to create this synopsis:

After completing a grueling cattle drive, Adam Cartwright takes a trip into the wilderness for some peace and quiet, Instead, he is robbed and stripped of his weapons and clothing by a pair of vicious outlaws. Left to die in the middle of nowhere, Adam attempts to make the grueling journey to Signal Rock on foot. Along the way, he meets prospector Peter Kane (Lee Marvin), offering to work Pete's claim in exchange for the man's mule. Alas, the mentally unbalanced prospector turns out to have an altogether different agenda in mind. He holds Adam prisoner and tortures him to prove his theory that anyone could be driven to kill, even a man as rational as Adam.” (Source 1 & 2)

In subsequent seasons, then (those which appeared after Osama had turned five, in 1962), Ben Cartwright represented absolutely the most authoritative view on show: wise and unopposed in his no-nonsense idea of hard-nosed, stand-alone justice --- the Texan ideal (although, yes, the Ponderosa is supposed to be in Nevada). So, am I suggesting that Osama bin Laden became a terrorist because Pernell Roberts left Bonanza? Well, I don't think I'd like to go that far. But I will say that all of this brings me to consider that, in terms of personal mythology, there is perhaps very little separating the ideas of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush except the accident of geography: for each seems determined to consider the world his own personal Ponderosa.


Andrew Field said...

Hi Craig,

Interesting stuff.

I find the passage of the Western genre in itself fairly fascinating. As you pointed out, from its writers through its stars it was a genre dominated by what might be termed traditional (as opposed to neo) conservative values of freedom, independance, isolationism and a scepticism about the dangers inherent in 'progress'.

It would be interesting to juxtapose this with say Science Fiction as a TV/film genre that I believe has its roots in the (predominantly) liberal Utopias of William Morris etc.

I wonder if the passage from the dominance of the former to the latter in the 70s shouldn't be examined closer in terms of the writers/directors/producers making decisions or of target audience of film/television in general.

It is also interesting that the one person that continues to blow a lonely furrow in the Western genre is Kevin Costner (from Dances with Wolves, through to the wonderful Open Range and even (very loosely) The Postman which if it wasn't such a catastrophe of a film would be a fascinating example of an attempt to bring Western values to the sci-fi genre). Costner interestingly came out on record during the last US election to state that he was so disolutioned with the state of American politics in general and the Republican Party in particular that he was voting for Ralph Nader in what he generally considered more of a political statement than an attempt at getting him elected.

I'm not sure exactly what these ramblings constitute other than a frightening interest in the life and work of Kevin Costner but there you go.

I found you via Debbie Pearson by the way - I was at Queens for a year on exchange from the UK a couple of years ago and even happened to find myself in Greg Wanless' achingly long version of Volpone.

All the best,


Miss Pearson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miss Pearson said...

To read more about why people with convictions are misguided, lucky or wrong, check out Charlie Brooker's article in the Guardian today:,,2042888,00.html

And to learn more about Osama Bin Laden and George Bush, listen to Jarvis Cocker's latest single. Because they're still running the world.

Miss Pearson said...

I accidentally erased this so I've had to post it again:


I was tempted to comment by the posting itself, then, seeing Andrew's comment about cinematic Desperado Kevin Costner, became utterly distracted. While I was working at Classic Video dear Andy once suggested we add Costner to an "auteur" section in the store. Three years later, and he still isn't joking. (Three years later, and I still haven't taken his recommendation to watch The Upside of Anger, so admittedly my opinion is graciously uninformed.)

But on the subject of righteously bad leaders (and not in the Bill and Ted sense of the term)- this is something I've thought quite a lot about. Even as a child I'd always wonder why all these "evil leaders" became leaders in the first place. Surely the whole super villain addage only makes sense from the outside. Call me an optimist, but I can't see why anyone would go to all of the trouble of leading if they didn't harbour some kind of conviction that they really could make a positive difference to those they lead. Leading is such hard work, it takes so much determination, and dare I say it, conviction.

But the C word is what it comes down to- especially in your comparison of Bush and Bin Laden, is the twee wild west notion of being Right. (President Bush's favourite film is High Noon, though eye witnesses have caught him impersonating Doctor Evil around the Oval Office. True Story.)

Perhaps as a child, the thing that I failed to understand about leaders was the lack of what Socrates/Plato referred to as Philosopher Kings. The best leaders will be those who never feel they are right, who question the "rightness" of everything- those typically least drawn to positions of power.

As a rule I distrust anyone who is too sure of themselves or their convictions. That old Greek Gadfly apparently agreed with me.

So the moral of the story? Some Westerns are cinematic triumphs and utterly beautiful. But if you live in the modern age and you're not able to recognize the irony of a Wild West comparison, ignore your desires to run for office or lead a terrorist organization.

And if you're worried that all this flexibility about right or wrong means a world without integrity, in the words of my friend Mike Stacey, "Integrity never got anyone anywhere. Just look at Sir Thomas Moore."

(On the topic of convictions, Kevin Costner seems absolutely convinced that he should still be making films. Nader or no, something needs to be said.)