Right-thinker's film guide misinterprets the movies

October 23, 1994|By John Anderson | John Anderson,Newsday

Taking potshots at political correctness is a favorite conservative pastime, but few have been as lethal as the one delivered by the Oct. 24 issue of the National Review. Too bad no one knew the gun was loaded.

The cover story, by one Spencer Warren -- "president of the Insider's Washington Experience, a public policy seminar program" -- is a right-thinker's guide to the "The 100 Best Conservative Movies." Period. And, no, it's not an oxymoron.

Except for about a half-dozen, they're American -- "The Bicycle Thief" (Italian) sneaks in as Best Picture About the Relation of Property to the Human Soul; "My Left Foot" (Irish) is named Best Picture About Personal Achievement Against Heavy Odds. And speaking of heavy odds, there's a whole separate category for Ronald Reagan's Greatest Movies ("King's Row" and "Knute Rockne").

What's noteworthy, if not surprising, about Mr. Warren's list is its blinkered approach. Like the multiculturalists and "feminazis" who are anathema to the right, Mr. Warren chooses his texts according to a very narrow set of criteria, i.e. "family values," religious orthodoxy and anti-Communist sentiment (real, often just perceived, sometimes contrived).

Director John Ford is cited several times, but not for "The Searchers," his revisionist masterpiece and a potent plea against racism. Mr. Warren prefers "My Darling Clementine," because the "panoramic shots suggest a virgin land beckoning America's advancement westward."

Yes, Manifest Destiny and all its sexually predatory imagery is a big plus with Mr. Warren -- who was fired from the State Department for having leaked a memo that embarrassed the Reagan administration back in 1986, and doesn't seem to have seen too many movies since (he may have seen "Forrest Gump," although he dubs it Best Picture Indicting the '60s Counterculture, which seems a convenient misreading).

He's also big on Christianity: Jane Wyman's reciting the Lord's Prayer in sign language in "Johnny Belinda" is the Best Scene Dramatizing Faith. And "Rambo: First Blood Part II" is listed among Mr. Warren's favorite Pictures to Make the Patriotic Blood Boil.)

Some of the list is funny, but Mr. Warren's premeditated misinterpretations of films and filmmakers does start to get on the nerves. Take "On the Waterfront," which is his Best Picture Dramatizing Individual Conscience. Drawing a parallel between Marlon Brando's Terry Molloy and Poland's Solidarity as a way of flogging the Communists, Mr. Warren forgets or omits the fact that Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan made it as an apologist's defense of their behavior before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It wasn't Moscow, Mr. Warren, it was McCarthy.

Finally, there's Mr. Warren's real hero, Frank Capra (Special Lifetime Achievement). And as long as he's drawing parallels, let me draw one, too.

In the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, Joseph Brodsky wrote a wonderful piece about Robert Frost and his dark vision, dismantling the poet's lingering image as country rustic and deeming him "terrifying." So it is with Capra, whose gilded Americana hides a deeply troubled view.

Yes, "Mr. Deeds" and "Mr. Smith" and "It's a Wonderful Life" all end with tears and victory for those models of moral conscience whose values were dominant "during Hollywood's Golden Age, when the ideals of Western Civilization were almost universally accepted" (except where they weren't). But victory in a Capra picture is almost always the result of capricious fate -- a spontaneous outpouring of generosity, an uncharacteristic spasm of remorse -- that contradicts the structure of the world that got the hero in trouble in the first place.

Hollywood would never have let Capra abandon his characters to the fate they might have met in real life, so he saves them, sometimes by divine intervention, sometimes by the fantastical twist. Mr. Warren sees Capra as a realist, a perspective that's beyond blinkered.

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