By Steven Paul McSloy
Why Tom Cruise? He is our biggest movie star and thus our biggest teller of the myths America tells itself, myths which can be powerful and difficult to root out from society and from the law.
One of Cruise’s lesser works, the 1992 film Far and Away, opens with Cruise as a young man in Ireland, as English soldiers have come to take his family’s land. His father is dying of a heart attack during the foreclosure, and he grabs Cruise by the lapels and tells him, “Hold onto the land.” Cruise then goes to America.
To digress for a moment, Ireland was the practice run for the New World. Elizabethan England sharpened its legal knives about dispossession in rationalizing their conquest of Ireland, characterizing the Irish as tribal, pagan, matriarchal and without a fixed conception of individual property. As the “discovering” sovereign and with the good fortune of reading John Locke on property (“Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided…he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and [he] thereby makes it his property.”), the English had legal arguments to dispossess the Irish, and this idea was carried in ships to America.
Far and Away ends with Cruise at the starting line of a land rush, about to race forward and claim some land in Oklahoma, following the guideposts laid forth by Jefferson. Indian land had been opened as part of the Allotment process, and he is going to fulfill his father’s dying wish by taking Indian land, irony notwithstanding.
The dramatic image of Cruise at the starting line, ready to bring progress to the continent, is easy to imagine upon reading Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s 1823 opinion in Indian law’s foundational case, Johnson v. M’Intosh:
“Conquest gives a title which the Courts of the conqueror cannot deny, whatever the private and speculative opinions of individuals may be, respecting the original justice of the claim.”