Individualism and Commitment in Hollywood Cinema: Bogey (Humphrey Bogart) Model–Part III

Commitment in Hollywood Cinema: Humphrey Bogart

Part III of a Series of Articles

casablanca_1_bogart_bergmanThe Hollywood war film provides a strategic site for analyzing the myth of commitment, because its narratives deal explicitly with political issues. At the same time, conclusions drawn from examining war movies may be applicable to other genres. A consideration of screen heroism must include the war films made by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Humphrey Bogart, arguably some of the most durable stars in American films. It is no accident that the aforementioned actors became popular movie stars as a result of playing war heroes.

 

If I was asked to choose the most memorable film of each star it would probably be Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) for John Wayne, Casablanca (1943) for Humphrey Bogart, and Sergeant York (1941) for Gary Cooper. At the center of each film is the basic dilemma between individualism and commitment, or self versus collective interests. Moreover, the three stars embodied a different mode of commitment, which was consistently reflected in many of their films.

Bogart: From Cynicism to Involvement

Humphrey Bogart appeared in many war films, perhaps because he, like Wayne, was too old to be drafted. Most of his war films were produced by Warner Brothers between l942 and l945, fulfilling a similar function for his screen image. Like Wayne, Bogart was at the height of his popularity with such films as Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. In a typical Bogart film, he wears civilian clothes, usually a trench coat, and is placed in a foreign country.

At times, he is the only, or one of few, American on the scene. The titles of his films reveal their locales: Across the Pacific, Action in the North Atlantic, Sahara, Casablanca, Passage to Marseilles. The characteristic Bogart film is not the combat film, but the international espionage melodrama.

Casablanca

The kind of hero Bogart portrays in these films differs radically from Wayne’s. He usually starts as the cynical, sophisticated, and uninvolved man who is reluctantly drawn into the conflict. His transformation is gradual, though at the end he is fully committed to the cause. At the start of Casablanca, Bogart’s Rick Blain, the former soldier turned cafe owner, declares, “I stick my neck out for nobody,” and “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” By the end, however, he gives up the woman he passionately loves (Ingrid Bergman), to help her husband, an anti-Fascist leader, escape to freedom. Bogart’s cynicism derives from disillusionment with the world’s apathy to the Civil War in Spain and to Ethiopia; he smuggled arms to Ethiopia and fought with the Loyalists in Spain.

Key Largo

In Key Largo, directed by John Huston, Bogart plays another disillusioned war veteran, a disenchanted idealist tired of wars and killings. At the start, he refuses to kill Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) because, “One Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for.” He tells a young war widow (Lauren Bacall): “Me die to rid the world of Johnny Rocco No thanks.” Nonetheless, when Rocco murders the deputy sheriff and two Indians are wrongly accused and killed, he cannot compromise anymore. He gets a gun from Rocco’s alcoholic moll, and devises a plot to kill Rocco on his boat, endangering his own life.

Bogart’s unkempt, slipshod, gin-soaked riverboat captain, in The African Queen (1951), is talked into an act of heroism (blowing up a German battleship in World War One) by a missionary spinster (Katharine Hepburn), who, in the process, also softens his exterior toughness.

A romantic affair is essential to the Bogart character and central to his commitment. Bogart’s involvement with Mary Astor (Across the Pacific), Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca), Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not), and Katharine Hepburn (The African Queen) defines his heroism as much as the political issues themselves. If the women and romantic interest would be removed from Wayne’s films they would still be coherent and undamaged, because neither is important, which is not the case with Bogart’s films.

Moreover, in the Bogart films, as the late scholar Robert Sklar pointed out, the war is less a trap than a solution to private entanglements, a means to transmute one’s personal entrapment into sacrifice for a higher cause.

Bogart’s heroes, unlike Wayne’s, are men who find in their commitment to collective goals the answer to their personal problems and inner dilemmas.