Individualism and Commitment in Americam Cinema: Part VI–The Price

Part VI in a Series of VII Articles

The Price of Commitment

Though most films preach for greater political involvement, commitment is not without costs or a price. Most of James Cagney’s protagonists died in action in his war films, as well as the eponymous hero of Mister Roberts (l955), arguably Henry Fonda’s best-known role. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca loses the only woman he ever loved.

The price for Terry Malloy’s involvement in On the Waterfront is loneliness and ostracization by fellow workers. In Cutter and Bone, Cutter loses his life. The cost of the father’s political education in Missing is the loss of his beloved son.

Aside from the rewards associated with military career, John Wayne’s heroes have no marital or domestic lives. In most of his war films, Wayne plays men either estranged or divorced from their wives. Sergeant Stryker’s private life is in ruins and he is tormented by past mistakes; his wife left him, taking their little son with her. In The Wings of Eagle (l957), Frank “Spig” Wead’s wife is unable to cope with his frequent transfers. Wead becomes so estranged from his daughters that when he comes to visit them they don’t recognize him. A reconciliation is achieved between them, but it’s short-lived, as she refuses to submerge herself into his career.

Jimmy Stewart’s Commitment–It’s a Wonderful Life

Perhaps the ultimate statement about the price of commitment is found in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (l946), a Christian morality play about the loss and renewal of faith. George Bailey (James Stewart), a deeply depressed man, wishes he had never been born. It takes a guardian angel to show him what the world would be like if his wish had been fulfilled. The film’s most impressive sequence is a nightmare, a bitter and harrowing evocation of life without George and his values. Appalled by what he sees, he regains faith in life. Only by negating what George possesses, he is able to reassess the real value and meaning of his life.

All his life George has wanted “to shake off the dust of this crummy little town,” to do big things, explore the world, construct skyscrapers and bridges. “I couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of my life in a shabby little office,” he tells his father, “This business is nickels and dimes. Spending all the rest of your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe–I’d go crazy.”

Ironically, he ends up actualizing his worst fears, running his father’s business and never setting a foot outside town. George makes four attempts to leave town, but there is always an obstacle (a crisis) which prevents him. The first time, he is about to go to Europe, but his father dies and he has to stay home. The second, he is about to go to college, but is informed that his father’s company would dissolve without him. On the third time, he wishes to be mobilized, but is disqualified and discharged from the Army. The fourth time, he waits for Harry to graduate from college and take over the company, but he marries a city girl and accepts a position in her father’s glass factory.

Preaching self-sacrifice in the name of collective goals, It’s a Wonderful Life documents the heavy price George has paid in his life. As a child, he jumped into the icy river to save his brother and subsequently lost his hearing. He also saved a patient’s life, when he noticed that Mr. Gower inadvertently filled a prescription with poison, but the pharmacist beats him where it hurts most, at his ear. George is contrasted with two young men, his brother Harry and schoolmate Sam Wainwright.

George wants to go to war, but is exempted for medical reasons: his hearing is impaired. Harry distinguishes himself as a navy flyer and comes back as a decorated war hero. Both Harry and Sam represent the risk, adventurism, and allure of the “outside” world. Sam’s ambitions take him out of town and his rewards are materialistic (money, power, prestige); George’s are spiritualistic (helping poor people who can’t get loans from a bank).

Overall, Capra celebrates the heroism in living an ordinary life. George begins as a reluctant insider: His strongest wish is to become an outsider, literally and figuratively. If he can’t leave town, at least not to get involved in other people’s problems. But the film rules out detachment or partial involvement, preaching instead belongingness and total commitment to the community. Still, the reconciliation to domesticity (the sanctity of the nuclear family) and restoration of order may have diminished George’s frustrations, but they can never make them disappear. Capra uses the train’s whistle as a reminder of the outside world, of potential excitement, lost opportunities, and missed adventurism away from Bedford Falls.