Our new issue of Chronicles contains several essays that assess films that can be classified in some sense as “conservative,” or at least dealing with themes of interest to the political right.
Several of those who participated in making these movies and whom we discuss in this issue, such as Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, American director S. Craig Zahler, scriptwriter John Milius, and actors Walter Brennan and Randolph Scott, have identified themselves with the political right. Other filmmakers and actors have taken conservative positions without consciously acknowledging them. This, however, may matter less than the metaphysical and aesthetic gulf between films that were made in the “classical” era (dating roughly from the 1920s through the 1960s), and those that are now being marketed.
What differentiates classical Hollywood films from most present ones is their seriousness as an art form. High Noon, for example, made in 1952, celebrates the courage of a determined lawman, Marshal Will Kane. Confronted with the news that violent hellraisers are coming after him, Kane (Gary Cooper) adamantly stands his ground. In the face of this threat, he refuses to leave his frontier town with his bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), although he has just hung up his marshal’s badge and is ready to take up a new life. Kane fights and defeats the bandits almost single-handedly, except for the reluctant assistance of his Quaker wife and a teenage admirer.
Today High Noon, which exalts heroic individuality, has achieved libertarian cult status. When Fred Zinnemann directed and Stanley Kramer produced that movie, they did so surprisingly as men of the left. They intended the film as a protest against the zealously anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy and against the supposed failure of Americans to push back against his accusations.
The fact that High Noon has been interpreted in more than one way underscores a difference between old movies and what is now coming out of Hollywood. One is drama and the other low-level propaganda. Leftist political messages thrown together by cultural revolutionaries have become the cinematic fare to which we are now exposed day and night. In this (for most of us) not very palatable form of entertainment, Southern whites, policemen and believing Christians (although never devout Muslims) have become predictable fall guys, while black revolutionaries, feminist women warriors, and what comedian Dave Chapelle mocks as “the alphabet people” are ritualistically exalted as politically correct heroes.
Even advertisements often take their cue from Hollywood, courtesy of woke capitalists aiming at “diversity,” and feature fewer and fewer whites, although we are increasingly shown white women married to nonwhites, as well as white and black homosexual partners. Even attempts to sell insurance policies and fast food have become occasions for endless virtue signaling.
Such use of films and advertisements for blatant propaganda purposes is predicated on an undeniable truth. What viewers watch in movies or hear repeatedly on television or in electronic media can subliminally influence their attitudes and behaviors. This may work even if the intended message is delivered crudely, providing it is heard and seen often enough and emanates from multiple sources.
While we’re not claiming that movies of an earlier time had no political or moral lesson, they were rarely as preachy as what has taken their place. They were also less antiwhite, less anti-Judeo-Christian, and less anti-American than what the film industry is now giving us.
Although in my youth I read books more often than I viewed movies, certain well-made films shaped my historical views. It is impossible for me to think about the Civil War without recalling the film adaptation of Gone With the Wind, which I have watched from beginning to end about a half dozen times. I also read Margaret Mitchell’s novel on which the movie was based, and which won numerous literary prizes after it was published in 1936. (The four-hour movie was released three years later.) Both inspired reflection while fueling my imagination.
Contrary to media misinformation, neither the novel nor the movie glorifies slavery or racism. It reveals a stratified society run by a landed class. Although it may surprise our self-appointed moralists, such an arrangement was not a Southern anomoly but once prevailed in large parts of the Western world. Note that most of Europe once had a peasant class that owed labor services to aristocratic landowners. The most admirable figure in the movie is, incidentally, a black house servant, played by Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black to win an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress) in 1940.
It is hard to see how this lady’s portrayal of a dedicated, self-sacrificing servant was more insulting to her race than today’s depiction of black gang members on our TV screens committing acts of violence and selling drugs.
Gone With the Wind as both a novel and movie unfolds like a Greek tragedy. The Southern protagonists are heroic and honor-driven, but they are also boastful and initially welcome the war with the Yankees. Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) warns his fellow Southerners that their boastfulness is not matched by their resources for war, and that the struggle they rejoiced over would end disastrously. Quite predictably this happens. Having yielded to hubris and atê (delusion), the Southern warriors witnessed the destruction of their land, the devastation of their population, and, for those who lived long enough, an enemy occupation.
The second half of the story focuses on the attempts by the leading female character Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh) to escape the misery brought about by the South’s horrendous defeat. At the beginning of the film, Scarlett’s Irish immigrant father proclaimed to his daughter that only the land mattered. She sacrifices everything to preserve what her father revered, working relentlessly to return Tara, the home and estate he built, to its antebellum splendor. Scarlett achieves this goal but also loses Rhett, her third husband (and the only one she cares about) and sees a daughter die in an accident before Gone With the Wind reaches its elegiac end.
As an historian I reflected on that concern while trying to understand the landcenteredness of European aristocrats. Later when I encountered Eugene Genovese’s observations in The Political Economy of Slavery (1965) about the honor ethic of the Southern gentry and how it drove them to war, I recalled what I took away from reading and watching Gone With the Wind.
The Godfather films, particularly the first and second parts of the trilogy, also deal with a culture of honor. In a brilliant essay (and one of the best pieces ever published in Chronicles) Sam Francis explored the relationship between the Corleone crime family as depicted in the movies and the teaching of political realism in Machiavelli’s The Prince. Sam demonstrated to what extent the emphasis on cunning, dissembling, and the exercise of power as taught by the 16th-century Florentine is reflected in the conduct of the 20th-century Corleones.
The essay begins by comparing Mario Puzo’s 1969 bestseller The Godfather to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Both were livres de succès that were turned into blockbusting movies, the former by Francis Ford Coppola in 1972 (and 1974 when Godfather Part II was released). Moreover, the social situation in which the Corleone family found themselves, as upstarts one generation removed from the Sicilian peasantry, was comparable to the challenge of self-legitimation of the newly established princes in Renaissance Italian cities. It was for the latter that Machiavelli provided his book of precepts. Francis set out to demonstrate that the book also had applications for an Italian American crime family.
In both cases there is obvious need for a mailed fist beneath the silk glove, since those who were exercising power lacked the benefit of legitimate hereditary authority. A shared Latin background characterized those whom Machiavelli was addressing and the subjects of Francis’s essay. Neither their codes of honor nor deeply ingrained familialism were as prevalent in Northern European Protestant societies (emphasizing individualism and established government order) as they were in the Latin Catholic world.
That said, one does encounter the aforesaid characteristics in antebellum Southern society, which was predominantly Protestant and mostly of Northern European extraction. (Although Scarlett O’Hara’s family was Catholic, they are shown as blending into the Southern Protestant gentry class quite thoroughly.)
There are definite similarities between the honor culture depicted in Gone With the Wind and the one that Don Vito Corleone (played stunningly by Marlon Brando) observes. Both codes accentuate the duty of those in authority to protect dependents, and inculcate on the part of gentlemen deference toward ladies. Montesquieu and Tocqueville, both of whom sprang from French nobility, defined honor as the distinctive characteristic of aristocratic societies. It was a cultural and moral trait that according to these observers distinguished an aristocratic from a bourgeois mentality.
Evidence of an honor ethic is present in both Gone With Wind and The Godfather, but they take different as well as overlapping forms. For the Corleone family an honor ethic provides limits as to how far they may slake their appetite for revenge or indulge their greed.
When Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) kills his brother Alfredo (John Cazale) after his mother’s death for having once betrayed him, he is trampling on a sacred Italian value, unswerving loyalty to one’s kinfolk. Michael is also shown treating his wife Kate (Diane Keaton) vengefully after she underwent an abortion following years of neglect by her husband.
Family had greater meaning for Michael’s father, who affectionately cared for his wife and children and who forgave the obvious weaknesses of his erring offspring. The older Don was a scrupulous man of his word and avoided violating even those agreements he made with his enemies. Don Corleone also refused to enter the drug trade because he considered it to be morally unworthy as well as unnecessarily perilous for his soldiers. When Michael confesses his sins to Cardinal Lamberto in the third part of the trilogy, some of his transgressions run counter to his father’s honor code as well as Christian moral precepts.
In Gone With the Wind a sense of honor brings disastrous consequences. This comes from a certain excess of pride that accompanies the Southern gentry’s honor ethic. Of course, the coexistence of courage and headstrong behavior in a ruling class is not a theme that originated with Margaret Mitchell’s novel.
In Plato’s Republic, Book Eight, we are introduced to a form of government that Socrates placed below rule by the best (aristokratia), namely a timocracy in which “high-spirited” men reign because of their willingness to face dangers. Although Socrates finds merit in this regime, he also points out that warriors can be rash and even simpleminded in a time of crisis. Only when citizens are led by the truly prudent, we are told, can a regime avoid such pitfalls.
In High Noon, however, a brave warrior who lives by an honor code turns out to be victorious. He bests his adversaries, while those who sought to “beat the Yankees” tasted bitter defeat. The main reason for these different outcomes is that unlike the Southern landowners in Gone With the Wind, who counted their victories prematurely, Will Kane acts thoughtfully, with a sense of moral responsibility. His work as a marshal, he believes, cannot be properly concluded until he battles it out with the gang leader who has just been released from jail and who is now coming with his confrères to kill him. Will most certainly does not welcome strife, but he is determined to end it. He acts not only for himself but also on behalf of a town that he had been charged with protecting.
One among other reasons for focusing on films that deal with honor is that they accentuate the sharp contrast between classic movies and their more propagandistic successors. Today’s filmmakers generally eschew movies about traditional honor cultures because they may be emotionally and ideologically incapable of making or even comprehending them. Instead, they belabor us with scenes showing victim groups taking revenge on their onetime masters or rulers, as in Django Unchained (2012), a film vacuously applauded by our selfstyled cognoscenti. Thus, we get a steady diet of blacks killing whites in slave revolts, feminized women humiliating sexist men, and gays exposing the bigotry of homophobic Christian fundamentalists.
It should be mentioned that a similar degradation of cinema occurred once before. The distinguished diplomatic and military historian Sean McMeekin describes this shameful interlude in an essay featured in this issue of Chronicles. During World War II, pro-Communist filmmakers and scriptwriters filled their products with pro-Soviet messages and used the war to cast Stalin’s brutal regime in a favorable light. This was typically done in the name of “antifascism,” a subject to which I devoted my most recent book. The examples of Communist fellow-traveling that Professor McMeekin offers are truly outrageous; and we should keep in mind that these misrepresentations were being committed on behalf of a regime that murdered millions of victims, both before and during the War.
Despite this regrettable chapter in the history of American cinematic art, certain differences between this earlier descent into leftist indoctrination and what is now happening should be noted. Pro-Communist and pro-Soviet films of the 1940s did not attack gender roles, the white race, or the nuclear family. They were aimed at whitewashing and glorifying Soviet totalitarianism at the expense of Western constitutional governments. But this corrupting form of art or entertainment neither aroused hatred for normal human relations nor degraded white men.
The movies that Professor McMeekin examines were politically subversive and grossly dishonest, but not as viciously nihilistic as today’s cinema. To the extent that this is true, we are witnessing with our movies and their reshaping of popular culture a subversion of civilization itself.
above left: Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon (1952, United Artists); above right: Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)