January 18, 2009 - January 11, 2009
Friday, January 16, 2009
in 25 Movies...
. I appreciate the comments and I find some of your nominations
interesting, but I won't be responding to any of them until I have
finished filling in my complete set. It's the whole that's really the
point here, and I reiterate my suggestion that those who are intrigued
try to come up their own wholes. It forces you out of your usual
boundaries and preferences, which can only expand your perspective.
It's also a fun challenge. So let's get back to it.
11. Sea Biscuit
There's more than one decent movie about the Great Depression
obviously. It's one of our favorite subjects as a nation and one
Hollywood is better equipped to exploit than many others. Of the recent
set, I'm fond of Cinderella Man
, which immerses
the audience more deeply into the common experience of the depression
than Sea Biscuit
the story of the little horse who captured a nation's heart is much
more than another clicheed sports movie. And the characters make it
more than just a depression movie, too. With Jeff Bridges as the
self-made man who dares to tweak the noses of Old Money, Tobey Maguire
as the damaged jockey orphaned by the depression, Chris Cooper as the
pragmatic horse-whispering westerner, and William H. Macey as the
racetrack tout stand-in for the sporting press, Sea Biscuit
manages to interweave
the lives of a fair swath of 1930s America. Various minor characters
also contribute to this breadth, including Michael O'Neill as the
jockey's learned but depression-devastated father and Eddy Jones as the
haughty owner of Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The David McCullough
narration is over the top at times, and there are too many commercials
for FDR for my taste, but the economic context in which Sea Biscuit
became a national phenomenon is as important as the story's prime
players. Most appealing of all about the movie is its refusal to engage
in pity for the real tragedies experienced by its two main characters.
They're knocked down hard, but they keep getting back up again, which
is about as fundamental a part of the traditional American character as
there is. And they help one another, also without pity, but with quiet
understanding and humor. That's how we got through the depression as a
people, and it's why Sea Biscuit
works so well on so many levels. (clip
) (and a bonus
[Before the nitpickers point them out, I'll note the movie got a couple
things wrong. It's not true that Sea Biscuit drew more mentions in the
press in 1938 than FDR did; nobody and nothing could do that. And War
Admiral was not nearly as big (18 hands!?) as he was described in the
script. Both horses, in fact, were smaller than average for racehorses.
They were also blood relations, both descended from thoroughbred
royalty, but who says bluebloods can't also be heroes sometimes?]
12. The Aviator
A great production by Martin Scorsese and a truly outstanding
performance by Leonardo di Caprio as the legendary Howard Hughes
The scope of the man's interests and accomplishments was prodigious,
and so is the scope of this movie, covering his public and private life
from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. As you watch his innovations as
a movie producer (Hell's Angels
, 1930), his
relentless career as a daredevil pilot, and his near-psychotic
perfectionism as an aircraft designer and manufacturer and commercial
airline executive -- with time out for romancing the great beauties of
his day, and
nervous breakdown -- the refrain that keeps popping into your head is
"only in America." That a man so driven by crippling personal demons
could also be an astute and visionary businessman is an unusual and
much needed affirmation of the importance of individuality in our
nation's extraordinary history. We tend to think of tycoons and CEOs as
gray, dry calculating machines. Many are that way, of course, but there
are no epic film biographies of the bold men who built our biggest
industries from scratch: not of Andrew Carnegie
E. I. du Pont
, or William
. Like Hughes, they were all giants, flawed but ferociously
determined creators of wealth which has fed and enabled more people
than it has abused or oppressed. And Hughes, in this movie, is the only
one we're given a chance to observe and assess for ourselves. (clip
[TIME OUT: There was a war Hollywood has
covered voluminously, of course. Get out the long knives; everyone is
going to have his favorites here. I'm allowing myself three because
World War II has been so central to the lives and subsequent history of
Americans as a nation and a people. I'll explain my criteria briefly so
at least you'll know why some of your picks aren't mine. I left out the
Grand Hotel treatments that try to depict an entire epochal battle
because in character terms they tend to be superficial -- to my mind --
and distractingly studded with famous actors playing real people who
must always be presented in purely heroic terms. Thus, I've cut Tora!
, The Longest Day
, A Bridge Too Far
, and The Great Escape
. Sorry. I've
passed up the great biopics, like John Ford's The Wings of Eagles
much admired Patton
the greater story of World War II is that it was fought by an
overwhelmingly civilian military. How they did that is the point of
understanding a movie should seek to provide.
And before I get to my picks, I also want to acknowledge that, once
again, television has made some significant contributions. Most people
are probably familiar with Band of
; if you haven't seen it, do so. It's magnificent.
will be aware of a modest movie starring Tom Selleck as Eisenhower (I
know, I know, but it's good
during the planning phase of the Normandy invasion. It's called Ike:
Countdown to D-Day
. Even fewer of you will remember the 26-hour
long documentary TV series Victory at Sea
, which featured
scoring by Richard Rodgers and narration by the inimitable Leonard
Graves. It's mesmerizing and poignant and heroic all at once. I promise
you won't regret buying it.
All right. Let's get on with the show.]
13. Twelve O'Clock High
I've written about this one before
It's not just a great war movie. It's a great movie period. Its subject
is the Eighth Army Air Force stationed in England in the early days of
America's entry into the war. They pioneered daylight bombing
raids over Germany and suffered casualties so horrendous they rivaled
those of the entire Pacific theater. How can they climb into those
planes every day knowing that as many as a third of them won't be
coming back? Who can order them to do it, day after day and month after
month? That's the movie in a nutshell. With a fine performance by
Gregory Peck. (clip
14. Sands of Iwo Jima
Same question. How did they do it? All the U.S. Marines who landed at
Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Okinawa. This is the best movie about the
WWII marines because it's the closest in time and it doesn't sugarcoat
the mean hardness of preparing men for hand-to-hand combat against an
implacable enemy. One of John Wayne's few great performances. That's
all I'll tell you. If you haven't seen it, git 'er done. (clip
15. Saving Private Ryan
As you can see, my preference is for the
older movies about WWII because despite the limitations on violence and
language, they reflect a more intimate understanding of the people of
the time. Newer movies have a distressing habit of inserting more
sensibilities into the past, with frequently troubling discords. (The
best example I can think of is the character played by Donald
Sutherland in Kelly's Heroes
Funny at one level and just ludicrous at another.) But I'm giving my
spot to Saving Private Ryan
because its opening sequence makes
you feel as if you really are there on the beach at D-Day. It is
incredibly loud, jarring, shocking, brutal, and intense. World War II
take place on a
lot, and the killing and dying did not happen in sanitized soft focus
along artfully chosen lines of sight. This movie is the antidote for
posting this clip here because YouTube wants you to prove how old you
which could be administratively
unacceptable to some of you. So, if you're not 18
don't watch it. And if you recoil
from explicit violence, well, you've been warned.
I'll be back with more later.
. It always makes me nervous when people start tossing around
the term "miracle." Not because I don't believe they ever happen, but
because I can feel the insipid grin of the disbelievers, waiting for
any opportunity to restate for the umpty-umpth time the threadbare
objection, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Every purported
miracle is, to them, a reminder of all the miracles that somehow didn't
occur somewhere else at some
I hate that grin and all the arrogant banality which congratulates
itself on knowing the physics of a universe honest physicists know they
don't, and maybe can't, fully comprehend. So I'm going to risk the
scorn and ridicule of the sophists by proposing an analogy that may
help others consider a new way of thinking about the "bad things
happen to good people" objection.
In the grand scheme of things, miracles are pretty rare. That is, the
kinds of events which even people who believe in them might call
miracles are rare. When you think about it, rarity is built into the
definition. If every bad thing that threatened to occur were somehow
prevented or reversed after the fact (like sudden total remissions from
terminal cancer), the outcomes wouldn't be considered miracles. They'd
just be the way things work. Miracles are an exception. OR they are
subject to particular conditions which are hard to bring about,
especially since we don't have much of an idea about what those
conditions might be. For example, winning the Powerball lottery is an
incredible long shot that nevertheless does occur; however, it does
have an unavoidable pre-condition. You must first purchase a Powerball
On to my analogy. From time immemorial divinity has been closely
associated with lightning. Zeus, Jove, Jupiter, and even the Bible's
Yahweh have been associated with lightning bolts, and there's no
mystery about why. It's an ipso facto perfect symbol of a power from
above visibly impacting the earth (and its inhabitants) below.
Lightning strikes are pretty common events. Fatal lightning strikes on
individual people are less so. That power from above is more or less
always there. Its direct connection with human beings is limited by
certain pre-conditions. People who know better than to wander around
out in the open during a thunderstorm are not likely to be struck. And,
generally speaking, lightning is more likely to strike big tall things
like trees and church steeples rather than little things like people.
does lightning strike
tall things? Repeatedly. Which it does. Does it know that the tall
things are there? And if it doesn't, why wouldn't it just strike
randomly all over the place until it happened to connect with something
it can light up? Why does it strike the tree more often than the
outstandingly conductive bronze lawn ornament 24 inches off the ground?
Why? Because a lightning strike is a two-way process. The lightning
bolt reaches down from the sky, and prospective targets on the ground
. They send out what
are called streamers, which meet up with the lightning bolt and
establish a connection. Here are two photos of streamers.
The streamer is, in our analogy, a pre-condition. It's the act of
buying the Powerball ticket. And it helps to be a tall tree or a church
steeple or a steel water tower at the center of town when a
thunderstorm is in the air.
All of which is a fancy way of saying that miracles may, in fact, be
precipitated by their recipients. Not through goodness or virtue alone
but because they are also associated with preparedness, mass of some
sort, and the kind of sharp focus we see in the streamer photographs.
That's what's so cool about the so-called Miracle of the Hudson. We can
actually see a confluence of circumstances that apparently, luckily, resulted in
-- but just possibly catalyzed -- an incredibly unlikely outcome. A variety of
fortunate circumstances cannot explain away the improbability of the outcome,
however much we want to play games with odds and statistics. The fact
is, commercial airliners without engines "fly" with as much lift as a
falling boulder, and they, well, effectively never
land with wings straight and
level on the water.
But in this case there were streamers. A pilot who was not only skilled
but learned in the split-second differentials of commercial air
disasters, who had made a long academic and practical study of air
safety under emergency conditions, and who (to be frivolous for a
moment) bears a striking resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
The Captain of Flight 1549 and
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Commander
Fairbanks's uniform is real btw. He
won the Silver Star in WWII.)
He was sending up a streamer. As were the ferry crews and FDNY
personnel who responded so swiftly, as well as the passengers who
quelled their impulse to panic and responded to the ancient call,
"women and children first." Preparation, determination, and cool heads
with a fervent desire to do the right thing are all streamers, and
there was mass behind the entire effort. The lightning bolt that could
have remained in the clouds reached down to make a connection, and the
incredibly (impossibly?) unlikely outcome occurred.
Just an analogy. Not even a theory. But if we follow the analogy, we
can also glimpse the possibility that just as lightning bolts are
chaotic things, so might be miracles. In my own mind, the collapse of
the Twin Towers was a miracle for its relatively
low loss of life. It could have been upwards of 20,000, as many
surmised it was in the darkest hours of 9/11. But how many brilliantly
bright streamers went up that day, from firefighters and policemen and
gravely unselfish civilians, to connect with the lightning that brought
so many thousands of people to safety? I know the grinners would cite
that day as a miracle that didn't happen. But you have to remember that
live in an irretrievably
drab world of actuarial tables and lottery tickets that win nothing but
heartache and ruin.
But when their turn in the storm comes, they too will pray for a
miracle. And they might even receive it -- if they're prepared,
focused, and united in unselfish resolve.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
he can play God in a leather jumpsuit, he can play the Messiah
, we looked into our crystal ball and saw the usual idiocy
coming out of Hollywood:
With the world eagerly awaiting "W
Oliver Stone's movie treatment of George and Laura Bush et al, it's
probably not too early to start anticipating a docudrama about our next
First Couple. These things
take time to plan, fund, and produce, you know. So we thought we'd help
out with a few development suggestions for the movie we're pretty sure
should be called "O."
There's no question that it should be another Oliver Stone production.
He has a real talent for a creative approach to historical subjects
But it will have to differ in scope from "W," which is timed to
coincide with the end of the Bush administration and the election of a
replacement president. "O" needs to be released in October 2012 when
Obama is seeking his second term, which means that it will have to be
devoted less than half to the first term and more than half to the
incredible story of how Barack and Michelle -- against all odds --
stormed the gates of power to achieve domain over their racist nation...
You can see that the casting will be critical. We know the picture up
top [in the original post] suggests that the lead roles might be played
by Whoopi Goldberg
, but this is the movies and it has to be much much better
than that. We have some suggestions. There's only one good choice for
the part of Michelle... Vanessa Williams of "Ugly Betty
would rock as a kick-ass First Lady... And forget Urkel. There's only
one man with the cool and the ears to
play Barack the Stud...
Guess who we picked. Well, actually you don't have to guess. It's not a
prediction any more; it's news
Smith 'to play' Barack Obama as US President in Hollywood movie
Hollywood film star Will Smith has
staked his claim to play Barack
Obama in a movie about his rise to become US President and America’s
first black leader.
Smith has staked his claim to play the role, even before Barack Obama
has been inaugurated as president.
Speaking at the premiere of his new film Seven Pounds at the Empire,
Leicester Square, in London, Smith laughed about reports that the US
President-elect had indicated that he would like the actor to play him
if his life story were ever to be made into a movie.
“If I am ordered by my commander in chief to star in a film about him,
I will do my duty as an American," he said, beaming.
Now, if they'll just follow the
rest of our casting recommendations
, they'll have a pretty good movie
to romance us with in 2012. We also have a new title suggestion, just in case they don't like "O." How about "The Wild Wild West Wing"? Yeah, we like it too.
I'm sure Larry
and the other supine conservatives on the massive Obama
bandwagon (or is it a bus
can hardly wait.
in 25 Movies...
zero to the Jazz Age in 10 movies. Cool.
. For the record, my little experiment predates what's going on
right now at The
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Movie Blegging [John J. Miller]
What are the best conservative movies of the last 25 years?
This cinema epoch begins roughly with the release of Red Dawn in 1984.
I'd like the opinions of Cornerites. Email your suggestions to me at
nrorocks — at — yahoo.com. Send as many as you like, but please make
sure to include at least a line or two of explanation.
The fruits of your labors will become apparent within the next few
I'd also like to draw a distinction between what John J. Miller is
doing and what I'm trying to do. The term "conservative movies" argues
of some kind.
That's not what I'm after. I'm after a fair, as I've said,
understanding of the American experience, warts and all. It's a tougher
job than picking out a handful of movies that seem to emphasize only
those values to which I, or we, or any select set of people, subscribe.
In short, I'm trying to be inclusive and fair, not exclusive and
partisan. I may fail because I am
a partisan, but I'm trying to honor the incredible variety of
experience of my countrymen. If you want to see what Miller's call to
arms evokes, you can find it at Hotair.com, but I'm not linking to it
because I don't want to taint my own selections.
Now. On with what I started yesterday.
6. Gangs of New York
. I've had many
quarrels with Martin Scorsese's choice of movies to make over the
years, but there's no doubt he's a gifted and brilliant director. This
is the one "mob" movie I'm glad he made. It illuminates a heretofore
invisible part of America's history, the life of urban immigrants at
the very beginning of the American industrial revolution. It's ugly,
violent, and repellent, but so was life for the millions of Irish
Catholics who came here fleeing the potato famine. New York was not
always the glittering Manhattan of our self-mythologizing media. What
the immigrants of that time eventually acquired they earned with
multiple lifetimes of toil and sacrifice. They weren't all good,
either. But enough of them were. Now "Irish" is a happy badge worn on
St. Patrick's Day. It wasn't always so. And when you've watched the
draft riots, how happy are you that Obama chooses to regard Lincoln as
the saint who complements his own divinity? (clip
7. Bite the Bullet
A leap forward in time, even though we're still in the Wild West. Funny
how that works. There are still sixguns, but there are also
automobiles, and this story of a horse race that resembles the Tour de
France includes an astonishing scene describing Teddy Roosevelt at the
battle of San Juan Hill. It's not a great movie because it includes,
among other things, an "emancipated" Candace Bergen in a paid acting
role, but it also highlights a typically American love of animals and
the kind of individualism that flies in the face of easy stereotypes.
And a dental scene that will chill your bones and remind you of how
much we moderns have to be thankful for -- if we can let go of our
nostalgia for the, um, wild west. The press is here too, in all its
inveterate scummy rapaciousness. Regardless of its nods to old movie
western traditions, this movie is a turn-of-the-century slice of life
that balances the American competitive spirit with our many better
8. The Greatest Game Ever
About golf. Frivolous? Hardly. The year was 1913, one of the great
turning points in American history. It was the year before the
beginning of World War I, the year in which the federal income tax was
ratified as a constitutional amendment, and the year of the Triangle Factory Fire
which exposed the horrid working conditions of so many sweat shops that
exploited immigrant workers. It was also the year in which Francis
Ouimet, a blue collar American amateur
upset the best golfers in Britain in the U.S. Open, permanently
changing the history of the sport and igniting a huge popular following
for what had once been a game chiefly for aristocrats. The movie
highlights the class issues as well as the qualities it takes to win
against great odds, which is perhaps the most uniquely American trait
of all. Guaranteed: You will tear up when Dad, in his hellish job in
the tunnels, sees his son on the front page of the newspaper and when
Mom impulsively breaches the class barrier to crash the U.S. Open golf
course across the street from her home. Sentimental? Yes. True?
Probably not far off. (clip
[YET ANOTHER HUGE HOLE: Hollywood has never
done a searching movie about the American participation in World War I,
which was unquestionably the most traumatic experience the world has
undergone in the last 150 years. So there's no entry here. This pains me
particularly because my own grandfather fought with the Rainbow
Division in France and never recovered from the ailments he incurred in
the trenches during months of vicious fighting. I mean, yeah, I know
there was Sergeant York
, who was indeed a
great hero, but the movie made it look as if you could beat the
Kaiser's troops bloodlessly by surprising them at the right angle. The
only treatment by an American film director that did some justice to
the subject was Stanley Kubrick's Paths
, which was about, uh, the French. In 1930, Howard
Hughes also released Hell's
, which is probably a masterpiece on a par with Citizen Kane
about World War I
aerial combat, but the air war was always a sidebar to the horrific
experience of the infantry, where 99 percent of the casualties
occurred. As with the American Revolution, the only movie that deals
with the reality was made for TV. If you're interested, see The Lost
I never liked this movie, but it's still an important part of the
American experience. Most people don't know just how early Communism
became a serious fixation of the American intellectual class.
Once again we're back to the year 1913 when a radical journalist named
John Reed becomes enamored of Marx and the budding revolutionary movement in Russia.
The movie is long (very), talky, and annoying, but it fills in a gap in
our consensus history that tends to obscure the causes of American
reaction to FDR's New Deal and the red scares of the late forties and
fifties. To the extent that Warren Beatty is charming in this cri de coeur
of his filmmaking
career, you can see the attraction of the naive and
hyper-intellectualized philosophy that annihilated Russia and came
close to paralyzing the United States of America. (clip
10. The Great Gatsby
No, it's not actually a good movie and it doesn't do anything like
justice to the book, but the book is so good and important that even a
sincere attempt to render it on film is nevertheless worth looking at.
What were the rich people doing in the wake of World War I and
international communism and the travails of labor, race, marxists, and
global nihilism? They were simply being their vast, careless selves.
Which is probably the source of today's liberal guilt. It would be easy
to recast the whole movie today -- we'd never go for Mia Farrow as
Daisy and probably not Robert Redford as Gatsby, but all the lesser
roles were spot on, including Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan, Sam
Waterston as Nick Carraway, Karen Black as Mabel, Edward Hermann as FDR before the polio or some such thing, and Scott Wilson as
George Wilson, the man who shot Gatsby because his wife was sleeping
with Tom Buchanan. As I said, not a good movie, but it reminds us of
One afternoon late in October I saw Tom
He was walking ahead of me along Fifth Avenue in his alert, aggressive
way, his hands out a little from his body as if to fight off
interference, his head moving sharply here and there, adapting itself
to his restless eyes. Just as I slowed up to avoid overtaking him he
stopped and began frowning into the windows of a jewelry store.
Suddenly he saw me and walked back, holding out his hand.
"What's the matter, Nick? Do you object to shaking hands with me?."
"Yes. You know what I think of you.." "You're crazy, Nick,." he said
"Crazy as hell. I don't know what's the matter with you.." "Tom,." I
inquired, "what did you say to Wilson that afternoon?." He stared at me
without a word, and I knew I had guessed right about those missing
hours. I started to turn away, but he took a step after me and grabbed
"I told him the truth,." he said.
"He came to the door while we were getting ready to leave, and when I
sent down word that we weren't in he tried to force his way up-stairs.
He was crazy enough to kill me if I hadn't told him who owned the car.
His hand was on a revolver in his pocket every minute he was in the
house - -." He broke off defiantly.
"What if I did tell him? That fellow had it coming to him. He threw
dust into your eyes just like he did in Daisy's, but he was a tough one.
He ran over Myrtle like you'd run over a dog and never even stopped his
car.." There was nothing I could say, except the one unutterable fact
that it wasn't true.
"And if you think I didn't have my share of suffering - look here, when
I went to give up that flat and saw that damn box of dog biscuits
sitting there on the sideboard, I sat down and cried like a baby.
By God it was awful - -." I couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw
that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very
careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they
smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their
money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them
together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made....
I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as
though I were talking to a child.
Which brings us, in American movie history, to the time of the Great
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
in 25 Movies or Less...
Romance of America.
MORE MOVIE BESTS
. Consider it a distraction from the nauseating
mass media buildup
to the inauguration and the ensuing Obama adminstration. Consider it an experiment too. Is it really
possible to use Hollywood movies to recover our understanding of what
America is and what it it means to be an American?
I think so. At the very least, the task of compiling such a list can be
revealing about the values and beliefs of those who attempt it. Do you
have a friend, family member, or acquaintance with whom it's impossible
to discuss politics without the conversation becoming irrational and
pointless? Challenge them to pick the 25 movies that best represent
their understanding of the American experience. Don't quarrel with
their choices; study them and divine the viewpoint implicit in the sum.
You might find yourself understanding them
better even if you still don't agree with them.
That's why I'm going to perform the exercise here. There's no chance
anyone will agree with me on as much as half of the list, but I don't
mind objections or replacement nominations. It's called conversation.
Feel free to jump in with comments, although I'm going to complicate
matters by doling out my list in multiple posts. Until you've seen the
whole thing, you might want to confine yourselves to criticizing my
nominations and suggesting pertinent replacements. Or not.
There are a few rules I've imposed on myself to make the task more
manageable and focused on its purpose. For example, I'm generally (but
not always) leaving out what most of us would call "old movies," the
star vehicles of Hollywood's monolithic studio system. (John Ford
conspicuously excepted.) Partly this is because I don't want to deal
with the predictable bias against the sanitized products of the old
Hays office, which censored violence, sex, and political expressions to
a very dignificant degree. And partly it's because I'm also choosing,
wherever possible, to select movies that do not wholly rewrite history
for entertainment purposes when history is a key element of the story.
Of course, all moviemakers do this to some extent, but not with the
cavalier negligence of Hollywood's "Golden Age." This also means
that I'm passing up as candidates what we might call purely cultural
artifacts, such as Fred Astaire musicals, John Wayne westerns, and
Raymond Massey's portrayals of Lincoln. Yes, they're an ingredient of
our shared experience as Americans, but it's impossible to suggest that
we also share a common appraisal of their value and importance. Other
movies that didn't make the list are movies I haven't seen. For
example, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers
belong on the list, but I wouldn't know and can't say because I haven't
Other guidelines I've adopted will no doubt become clear as I explain
the list, which I'll present now, without further ado. Be advised this
is not a Letterman list. There's no ranking of any kind. Number One is
not better or more important than Number Twenty-Five. What order there
is is chronological, though I'll depart from that, too, where it seems
1. Last of the Mohicans.
We've written about this one before
so I won't try to reintroduce it from scratch. It's the best movie I
know of about the colonial American experience and the conflict between
our forebears and their European masters. Yes, it's heavily
romanticized, but it is also planted in the reality of the time's
complex and unscrupulous politics. It's also based on an historically
important classic of American literature by James Fenimore Cooper, who
wasn't quite as bad as Mark Twain said
he was. (clip
[A HUGE HOLE: Number Two should
be a great Hollywood movie about the American Revolution, but there
isn't one. The only two serious attempts are Mel Gibson's The Patriot
and an abomination
starring Al Pacino.
The former is a grossly fictionalized and romanticized treatment of
Frances Marion (the Swamp Fox), while the latter is just misbegotten
garbage. Neither exhibits the slightest interest in or understanding of
why the Revolution was fought in the first place. The only film
productions which shed any light on this seminal moment in our history
are modest made-for-television pieces like the George Washington
starring Barry Bostwick, A&E's Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor
and the recent HBO series John Adams
(which I haven't
seen and don't trust in today's political climate). Why is it that
Hollywood has never been interested in some of the most interesting men
who ever lived -- Jefferson (no, I'm not counting this
Hamilton, Madison, and Paine
Because they were men of ideas, just as this is a country built on
ideas. And Hollywood has never cared a whit about ideas, only emotions
and symbols. That's a permanent limitation of this list, just so you
2. The President's
So we skip forward to the first real post-revolutionary icon of
American history, Andrew Jackson. The movie has its weaknesses, but it
also features one huge serendipitous strength, the casting of Charlton
Heston as Old Hickory. Jackson was every bit as larger-than-life as the
actor who played Moses, El Cid, Judah Ben Hur, and the Voice of God.
Jackson was himself a theatrical personality who used his charisma, his
imposing physical stature, and his intransigent, choleric temper to
create the second
Revolution, in which the founding landed elites were at last countered
in force by the emerging American dream of common men attaining to
wealth, influence, and power. Those who are depressed by the sordid
tone of contemporary politics will be perhaps amazed by the ugliness of
the smear campaigns Jackson's "hick" presidency" engendered. In this
respect, we remain who we have always been, a brawling, contentious
nation of uncompromising partisans. Nothing is off limits in our
politics. That's a bad thing. And a good thing. Andrew Jackson survived
his ignominy to be remembered as one of the greats, flawed but
transcendant. What's the purpose of the list? Understanding. (clip
All we have to throw into another
huge hole in Hollywood's account of America. This single most traumatic
event in the history of our nation, the Civil War, is almost a blank in
movie terms. (And, yes, I absolutely refuse to count GWTW
, that miserable
farce of a soap opera, unless it's the other way around) But I don't
believe it's an intentional or careless omission. The fact is that
given the Hays Office and the technical limitations that existed prior
to the last 20 years, Hollywood could never have depicted Civil War
combat at Antietam or Gettysburg in its true savagery. It's the same
reason there's been no great movie about the Holocaust as it occurred inside
the death camps. Not even
the most dedicated actors can starve themselves to 60 percent of their
appropriate body weight to convey the extremity of the reality.
Holocaust movies have to be peripheral to the most extreme events. And
until recently, Civil War movies have labored under the same stricture.
They have had to be merely mythic
commonly after the fact
Worse yet is the impossibility of producing an honest script -- one
that reflets the irony of troops who really are dying for a principle
of union that requires freeing the slaves even as they continually
reaffirm their personal beliefs that negroes are
an inferior race, requiring
protection precisely because
they are incapable of protecting themselves.
In this context, the only possibly authentic and realistic script one
could film would focus on the other side, the black troops who want to
fight for their own freedom and are prepared to endure extraordinary
sacrificices to do it. That's what Glory
does. It seems to be about black troops, but in its depiction of camp
life and the horrors of Civil War combat, it is also about all
the troops who fought in that
terrible conflict. The poor, the illiterate, the desperate, the proud,
the righteous, and the stoically decent. And it's also
about race. (clip
4. Fort Apache
A reality check for those who think no one in America sympathized with
the plight of the Indians until Dustin Hoffman's Little Big Man
. The Indian Wars
occurred, and the American west has had as complicated a relationship
with "Native Americans" as the south has had with African-Americans.
But it's not a story of genocide. It's a story of conflict,
misunderstanding, and competing visions of what makes for a good life.
Look at this "old movie" and realize that even the western pioneers had
more understanding of the lot of the Indians than muslims seem to have
for the far less alien beliefs of Christians and Jews. And hear the
constant diminishing echoes of the Civil War, the post traumatic stress
disorder of an entire nation, which remains with us still to one degree
or another. Being an American doesn't come without a cost. For those of
us who still believe in the originating idea. (clip
We've dissed this movie in the past. But only because it's a
particularly dark take on a theme that was raised well before
raised it. (We know he's intensely
of the legacy of John Ford.) Still. Most of the history of
the Wild West is mythology. The truth is that a frontier is a dangerous
place, and the process of civilizing a frontier is a messy business,
involving good men and bad on both sides of the law. Courage and
goodness don't always go together. Nor do law and virtue. Part of the
uniquely American experience is what we could call "rough justice," a
vigilante strain that has always existed in the American body politic,
which is responsible for both lynchings and the occasional overthrow of
entrenched authoritarian power structures. Americans don't like to be
told what to do, and the more adamantine the authority, the more likely
it is to be opposed and overpowered by Jacksonian rage. The value of
the Wild West as an analogy is that it exposes the rudiments of
American character. Ultimately, goodness did prevail. Law prevailed.
That speaks to the fundamental decency of the people, who value law but
do not regard it as a total replacement for the concept of justice.
There are, were, will always be excesses. But in the end, it is public
opinion which decides the outcome. Unforgiven
probably shows the west more the way it was than any other movie, but
it's a tribute to all Americans that the rough justice of the frontier
did give way at last to the Phoenix, Topeka, and Houston of today.
Rowdy chaos is in our genes. Civilization is in our hearts. But
sometimes, even now, we can all find the Clint Eastwood in ourseves
when the Gene Hackman of Unforgiven
pushes us too far. (clip
That's all for now. By all means, make up your own lists. Quarrel with
my first five entries. Isn't it better than listening to more corrupt
and sorry-ass inauguration
I'll be back with more tomorrow.