No escaping politics in movies

August 23, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Sometimes, in the weeks proceeding a presidential election, you wake up screaming under the impression that you're receiving paid political advertisements through your fillings.

That may have to do with the oppressive ubiquity of media: They are, truly, everywhere, even in your dreams. It may also have to do with the oppressive ubiquity of politics to the artistic mind-set and the subsequent way political values slip into entertainment. Politics is everywhere, even in the movies we see.

This really should be no surprise: Creative people live political inner lives just as richly as anybody: These politics, being a part of their lives, become a part of their works in the same way. Thus, when we are sensitive to it, as we tend to be this time of the electoral cycle, movies can often seem like paid political advertisements themselves.

I'm not talking about those few films -- "Advise and Consent" (1962), "The Best Man" (1964), "The Candidate" (1972), even "Billy Jack Goes to Washington" -- that take place in the political process. Rather, I'm talking about the subtle agendas or value systems that underlie nominally nonpolitical films and nudge us gently toward embracing a position without letting us know we ** are being nudged.

Such things happen regularly. Both liberals and conservatives have held sway in Hollywood, depending on the times and the cycles of such things. Liberal films were big in the '30s, then again in the '60s, periods of internal turmoil; the '40s, '50s and the '80s, periods of profound national self-satisfaction, were big for conservative films. Today, with an economy going nowhere, we seem to be in another period of liberal ascendancy.

But what is a liberal film or a conservative film? The answer can only be given in the broadest of strokes. Liberal films tend to be about empowerment and reform, while conservative films tend to be about authority and the restoration of order. Liberal films tend to celebrate a pluralistic culture and, at their worst, make a clumsy racial identification of whiteness as evil (as in "Bebe's Kids"). Conservative films tend to celebrate the institutions of society -- the police and the military, for example -- and at their worst tend to celebrate obedience bordering on fascism. Each has its own rigid brand of political correctness.

The most profound conservative film remains troubling close to 80 years after it was made. This is D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," a melodrama set during and after the Civil War. Griffith pretty much invented the grammar and vocabulary of modern movie making; he understood principles of cross-cutting, the relationship between master shot, mid shot and close-up that has become the staple of all narrative filmmaking; but he was racist scum. Perhaps it is understandable, given that he was raised in the South himself after the Civil War and that there was little that could qualify as racial enlightenment in those days.

Still, "Birth of a Nation" is a profound enigma to all who study it today: a moving, powerful, sweeping story in which the heroes of the Ku Klux Klan save the South from Yankee carpetbaggers and hordes of freed black men hellbent on subjecting the flower of Southern womanhood to degradation. In "Birth," the burning cross is a symbol of regeneration, not hatred; Griffith could not begin to imagine that black people were human beings.

Conservative westerns

But not all conservative films are shameful, just as not all liberal films are morally correct. The core of conservative films is probably the great series of late '40s westerns made by John Ford about the 7th Cavalry, starring John Wayne. Ford was by that time a veteran of considerable action in the Pacific -- he'd headed a documentary unit that photographed many of the great battles of the war -- so he knew that "patriotism" and "duty," though easy chords to sound in the vacuum of innocence, had far more troubling meanings in the sand and dust of a brutal campaign.

Thus his 7th Cavalry movies -- "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Fort Apache" and "Rio Grande" -- are about the cost of duty, or (if you will) the cost of empire. John Wayne is the perfect emblem in this quest: excessively masculine, uncomfortable with feelings, sublimely focused, a little shy and most happy in exclusively masculine company. The movies tend to be about the wisdom of the institution: In this case, the 7th Cavalry stands for the American government, which in its raggedy way is trying to establish order over the unruly plains.

It's not exactly WASP-land: Hordes of cantankerous Irishmen form a sort of prole's chorus in the enlisted and noncommissioned ranks. Moreover, leadership isn't necessarily above human flaw, as demonstrated in Henry Fonda's turn as Col. Owen Thursby in "Fort Apache," the greatest of the three movies, as a sort of Custer clone, who rides to ironic glory out of his own stubborn stupidity.

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