Individualism and Commitment in American Cinema: Ideology Vs. Professionalism–Part IV

Commitment and Individualism in Hollywood Cinema: Ideology Vs. Professionalism

Part IV in a series of VII Articles

The American screen mythology has made important distinctions between ideological and professional commitment. The genuine American hero is not the professional soldier, but the converted civilian. Ideological-moral commitment (based on the belief in the cause) is favored over the strictly competent and relatively narrow commitment of the craftsman.

In Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957), Johnny Brock (Gene Barry) is a cynical man with no belief system. Like Bogart in the first part of Casablanca, Brock claims “soldiering is my business–Korea got cold and Indo-China got hot.”

In Apocalypse Now (1979), Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) takes the mission of exterminating the mad colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), not because he has faith in its rightness, but because it’s a mission assigned to him. In fact, Willard’s irony helps him preserve his sanity and commitment to the military code.

Under Fire

Under Fire (1983), contrasts three types of Americans caught up in the events surrounding the final days of Nicaragua’s Somoza regime. Concerned with the issue of how journalists become engulfed in events that challenge their professional ethics, the narrative raises questions about detachment and objectivity. Russell Price (Nick Nolte) is a typical Bogart hero, a celebrated and daring magazine photojournalist.

A swashbuckling professional, though not too sophisticated or knowing about political affairs, Price initially claims, “I don’t take sides, I just take pictures.” “Never mind the peasant shit,” he interrupts a serious discussion about politics, “I mean the important stuff, the best hotel, the best beer, good shrimps.” Like Bogart, he is a cynical, uncommitted freewheeler, out for adventure and good time. However, in the course of the narrative, he fakes the photograph of a dead leader, a morally dubious act, in order to help the Sandinista’s cause.

The younger and more attractive Price is contrasted with Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman), a middle-aged, star reporter, who is giving up the dangers and excitement of field reportage for a comfortable and prestigious network anchorman’s seat. Alex wants to settle down, professionally and personally. Ironically, it’s Alex, the honest and conscientious journalist, who gets killed in the chaos. Their ideas about objectivity in reportage and the press’s moral responsibility are thrown into a life-or-death dilemma. The film says that violation of the professional code is right (it’s O.K. to lie), if it is for a “good” (Leftist) cause; inventing the news for the Sandinista Revolution is perceived as a worthy cause.

Indeed, Price’s tough journalist sacrifices his journalistic ethos and professional honor much too easily. Oates (Ed Harris), the third American, is ideologically rejected. A mercenary, Oates is a nightmarish version of what a journalist (or any American) might become under the worst circumstances. Amoral and murderous, he lacks any conscience and does not care what side he is fighting on so long as he gets paid for it.

Variations of Bogart and Cooper’s Commitment

Despite changes in American society and politics, the myths of individualism and commitment as established in Cooper’s and Bogart’s classic films, have continued to prevail with very minor alterations. In the 1950s, the Cooper version dominated, but from the late l960s on, Bogart’s model was adopted. In the post-War era, there was an increasing trend toward economic and social homogenization.

The desirable lifestyle was suburbanism, and the ultimate role model the “organization man.” However, beneath the facade of conformity and homogeneity, there was an underlay of sexual repression and political hysteria, underscored by McCarthy’s witchhunting. However, America’s new status as an international leader and super-power nation wiped the pre-War ideological trends of isolationism and independence that were no longer appropriate. Cooper’s dilemma between pacifism and commitment in High Noon and Friendly Persuasion was expressed in other films.

There was also belief in the patriarchal order and mainstream society, which were still effective in asserting “morality” over its individual members. This trend could also be seen in the favorable portrayal of representatives of the law: sheriffs, marshals, policemen. In the James Dean films (Rebel without a Cause and East of Eden), the sheriff/policeman is more understanding than his biological father, functioning as surrogate father or social worker.

Brando

In The Wild One (1954), the first film to deal with juvenile delinquency, a gang of motorcycles terrorizes a small town. But like Rebel, the cause of their rebellion is diffuse and, at the end, they are asked to leave town by a kind and sensitive official.

Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning On the Waterfront (1954) was intended as an expose of union racketeering and labor organization. Its protagonist, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) begins as an ignorant, inarticulate, and complacent member of a corrupt gang. A small-time prizefighter, Malloy used to take obediently a “dive,” so that the mobsters could win on the opponent. Now he has a “cushy” dock job and makes a little extra on the side. But he wanders around the docks without much purpose, discontented with his life. When a dissident member breaks the D and D (Deaf and Dumb) rule and talks to the Crime Commission, the mobsters hurl him from a rooftop. His sister asks Terry’s help in bringing the racketeers to justice, but at first he is reluctant.

Terry’s brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), an opportunistically corrupt lawyer, offers him a foreman’s job if he kept silent during the Commission’s hearings. Later though, Charley breaks away with the mobsters and shows concern for his brother, but it’s too late; his reawakened conscience costs him his life. Terry’s tenderness and vulnerability make up for his passivity and indifference. Significantly, only when the mob kills his brother that he becomes involved, though his desire for vengeance is stronger than for justice.

Terry testifies against the racketeers, but his testimony alienates him from his fellow-workers. At the end, he wins the “battle” by circumventing the boss’s authority and personally leads the men to work. In its concerns, On the Waterfront is not different from The Virginian: Both are tales of moral awakening and personal redemption. Never thinking much about his life or himself, Terry finds meaning to his existence in his commitment to fight against corruption. It is another saga of an ordinary man who finds the courage to stand up and thus become extraordinary.

The Bogart version of commitment has prevailed from the late 1960s on, because it suited better the cynicism that characterized American society during the Vietnam War, the political assassinations, and the Watergate scandal, all of which resulted in an increasing lack of trust of the government and any form of institutional authority.

Cutter’s Way

On the surface, Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way (1981) is a murder-mystery, set among young Southern Californians who live on booze and drugs. Bone (Jeff Bridges), a good-hearted beach stud who sleeps with women to make a buck or two, becomes the chief suspect in the brutal murder of a high-school cheerleader. His alcoholic buddy, Cutter (John Heard), is a wounded, possibly psychotic, Vietnam War veteran, who wears an eye patch and artificial leg. The film juxtaposed Cutter’s self-destructive idealism with the moral apathy and complacency of Bone, who at first refuses to get involved. It’s Cutter who concocts a scheme to clear up Bone and trap the real killer, a corrupt oil magnate. Cynical, Cutter is filled with venomous desire to revenge himself on those in power who remained untouched by the war. Bone finally gets involved, but the scheme destroys Cutter and his wife.

Missing

In Costa-Gavras’ Oscar-nominated Missing (1982), Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) is a prosperous American businessman, a conservative Christian Scientist who fails to comprehend his son’s leftist views. The Harvard-educated Charles, a countercultural journalist, is murdered in Chile during the 1973 coup that destroyed the Marxist government. The narrative depicts the father’s growing desperation. “If he had stayed home,” he says, “this wouldn’t have happened.” Though the film never specifies just how politically committed Charles was, it suggests that he was executed with the tacit approval of American officials.

The film focuses on the political awakening and consciousness raising of a man who, until this devastating experience, always believed in the sanctity of the government and accepted its policies without question. The ideological cause functions as leveler of the generation gap: In Charles’s horrible death, father and son are finally reunited. Missing is basically a family melodrama about the enlightening of a conservative man and his growing respect for his politically aware daughter-in-law.