Myths in American War Films: Part Three of Four Articles

Charismatic Vs. Legal Authority

Anti-institutional authority has been another defining element of American war heroes. The authority of screen heroes is charismatic to use Max Weber's typology of authority models.

Charismatic authority rests on the leader's personal appeal and his exceptional abilities, perceived by his followers as a gift of grace. Charismatic heroes possess extraordinary virtues, on the basis of which they demand and get personal devotion from their followers. This type of leader differs substantially from the legal rational leader, whose authority is based on explicit laws and regulations, which define and confine his use of power.

The quintessential screen heroes of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and later, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, and Eddie Murphy have been charismatic because they gain and maintain authority by proving their extraordinary physical and emotional strengths. The heroes played by Eastwood, Stallone, and Murphy are more cynical and ambiguous in their attitude toward the law than their predecessors, in tune with the times in which these actor became a star. In each case, however, their personal strength and efficiency are far more important than the official positions they occupy in the hierarchy of their organizations (be it the military or the police force). However, being critical, or at the margins of the social system, by no means implies operating outside the legitimate order.

No performer has become a major star if he specialized in playing deviants or criminals, operating outside the frame of the law. Actors who began their careers in crime gangster films, became stars only” after they transformed their screen image into more legitimate, mainstream heroes. The best example for this trend is still James Cagney who became a major” star, not in his crime gangster films (The Public Enemy,” 1931), but rather when he played mainstream figures, such as patriotic showman George M. Cohan (Yankee Doodle Dandy,” 1942).

Similarly, Humphrey Bogart became popular with the public when he ceased playing villains (in most of his 1930s Warner movies) and began to be cast in heroic roles, such as The Maltese Falcon” (1941) and Casablanca” (1943).

Elitism Vs. Democracy

In The Flying Leathernecks” (1951), Major Dan Kirby (John Wayne), commander of the Marine fighting squadron in the South Pacific, is resented by his men because the wanted executive officer Carl Griffin, a more popular and amiable man, to get the command. They also dislike Kirby for his rugged ways and strict discipline. The film, however, makes it clear that it is Kirby, who is more suited for command, particularly under pressure. Griffin defends Kirby's tactic in front of the men but in private criticizes him, “No man is an island.” When he takes over the command, however, he models his leadership after Kirby. Furthermore, as in other war films, the soldiers learn to respect and even like Wayne for the kind of leader he is.

In John Ford's They Were Expendable” (1945), Lieutenant Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) insists that the PT boats, equipped with guns and torpedo tubes, could slip into the Japanese harbors. His temperament stands in sharp opposition to Lieutenant John Brickley, a calm, rational, and efficient commander. Ryan gets increasingly frustrated: the disbelief in the boats' potential and the lack of action bore him to death. Challenged by Brickley, “What are you aiming at, building a reputation, or playing for the team” Ryan replies, “for years, I've been taking your fatherly advice and it's never been very good. From now on, I'm a one-man band.” He become even more frustrated upon learning that the boats are assigned to messenger duty, claiming he is “bored to death running messages.”

Later on, when the boats are assigned to destroy a Japanese cruiser, he is eager to go out, but instead is rushed to the hospital for treatment of an infected arm. He arrives at the hospital screaming and when the nurse suggests to calm him down, perhaps even go dancing, he yells, “Listen, sister, I don't dance and I can't take the time out now to learn. All I want is to get out of here.” After his boat had been sunked, Ryan is ordered to fly back to Washington to organize new PT Boat squadrons, but he loathes leaving. He tries to get off the plane, offering his place to another officer. When the latter asks him to call his wife, Ryan explodes, “Phone her. I got business here and you got business back in the States.” All he wants is to be at the battle zone. But once again, it is Brickley who brings him into line, “Rusty, who're you working for Yourself”

Stratification Vs. Integration

Of all film genres, narratives of war films demonstrated best the ideology of American society as a melting pot, a pluralistic society consisting of various ethnic minorities. This film genre has also been the most optimistic concerning issues of ethnic and racial integration. Used as a microcosm of the society at large, social integration is achieved in the military through commitment to the value of equality.

Bataan” (1943), a tale of 13 battered soldiers, depicts the heroic efforts of a rear-guard “suicide” mission to protect the American retreat down the peninsula to Corregidor. It is a classic example of the platoon with cross-section personality types and ethnic groups, all banded together to fight the enemy. The group includes a conscientious objector, an immature adolescent, and a black studying for the ministry, a lovable Hispanic, a humorous and talkative Jew.

The film describes the ethnic traditions of the diversified platoon; the prayer of the Hispanic as he dies of malaria, the prayer of the black over the jungle grave of the captain. It shows that despite initial antagonism, based on lack of knowledge and/or awareness of other ethnic groups, the soldier are capable of communicating and socializing on equal bases. Equality and integration are endorsed as crucial conditions for the morale of the unit as well as its effective fulfillment of military functions.

Unique Vs. Ordinary

Howard Hawks's Sergeant York” (1941) is one of the most popular American movies of all time. Gary Cooper is cast as Alvin York, the pacifist Tennessee farmer who became the country's greatest hero of World War I, after capturing and destroying an entire German battalion single-handedly. As in the typical Bogart or Cagney war film a transformation of character is at the center of the story.

Drafted for service in WWI, York registers as a conscientious objector. Major Buxton gives him an American history book, which evokes the name of Daniel Boone. Isolated in Nature, he absorbs its contents, coming to terms with his own feelings about defense and freedom. This scene has similar effect to the one in Young Mr. Lincoln,” wherein Lincoln discovers the meaning of the law. In both, the hero must understand the new principles for himself” and from within.”

The film stresses York's great conscience struggle before joining the army. “Obey your God,” says the Pastor's voice, countered by Major Baxton's dictate, “Defend your Country.” A reconciliation of the two symbols, God and Country, is required, and York reaches the conclusion that the two are in harmony because they mean the same thing. In Young Mr. Lincoln too, the two symbols, the Bible and the Farmer's Almanac, both sacred (standing for God and Nature) provide the base for Lincoln's authority because they mean the same thing. Moreover, York's anger and willingness to kill are actually caused by the death of a close friend on the battlefront.

Tracing its hero's life from 19l6 in “the Valley of the Three Forks” to the end of WWI, Sergeant York” is a tale of transformation of a Tennessee mountaineer farmer, from an obscure hillbilly to a great national hero. As such, it belongs to genre of films about ordinary protagonists who become extraordinary,” as a result of charismatic personality and social circumstances.

The film demonstrates the democratic credo that heroes are not born, but made, and that they could come from the most remote and unlikely places. Indeed, at the end of the War, after showers of praise for his heroics, York returns to his former simple life on his Tennessee farm, where the movie begins. The film's wide appeal rested on its timely release, in July 1941, just months prior to the country's entry into the war. The transformation of York articulated the feelings of millions of Americans who initially were reluctant to fight.

John Wayne, possibly the most popular screen war hero, specialized in playing commanders, not the rank-and-file fighters. However, Wayne's commanders were ordinary, hard-working, upwardly mobile Americans, who became leaders for their strength and commitment to the cause–not because of their social backgrounds or elitist education. Wayne's most significant screen function, as was mentioned, was to provide exemplary leadership and to unite a diversified group of soldiers, from all walks of life and with different motives and different fighting skills.

Wayne's war films stressed strong individual and charismatic leadership, but they also emphasized collectively democratic values, such as mutual responsibility, group discipline, and concerted action. They showed that, under conditions of pressure and crisis, a genuine leader can bring about the best in everybody, and what better conditions for that than actual war and fighting.

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