Individualism and Commitment in Hollywood Cinema: Gary Cooper Heroic Model

Individualism and Commitment in American Cinema: Gary Cooper

Part IV of Commitment and Individualism in Hollywood Cinema

The Hollywood war film provides a strategic site for analyzing prevalent notions (and myths) of commitment, because its narratives deal explicitly with ideological and political issues.

At the same time, conclusions drawn from examining heroism in war movies may be extended and applicable to other film genres, such as actioners, adventures, and westerns.

The analysis of heroism and heroic models embodied by various movie stars must include the war films of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Humphrey Bogart, three of the most durable stars in American films.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the aforementioned actors became popular movie stars–and folk heroes–as a result of playing war heroes.

If one were 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 interest versus collective interest.  However, the three stars embodied a different mode of commitment, which was consistently reflected in many of their films.

Gary Cooper: From Pacifism to Commitment

Gary Cooper made many war movies, though, like James Cagney, over half of them were produced in the 1930s and thus dealt with the First World War. As such, they lacked the immediacy of the Wayne or Bogart movies, produced during WWII, while the War was still going on.

Cooper’s war films were not as important to his screen career as Wayne’s were.  Like Bogart, he usually played romantic heroes, in love with Nancy Carroll (The Shopworn Girl), Marlene Dietrich (Morocco), or Joan Crawford (Today We Live).

In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the first (1932) and better film version directed by Frank Borzage, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American ambulance teacher, falls in love with an English nurse (Helen Hayes). At the end of the narrative, Cooper deserts the Army to look for her–an inconceivable act for the Wayne hero.

p_14604.jpgFor Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

The romantic interest features prominently in another blockbuster, Sam Wood’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), based on Hemingway’s novel, which he allegedly wrote with Cooper in mind.

Cooper’s Robert Jordan, a courageous American teacher fighting with the guerrilla forces in the Spanish Civil War, is in love with Maria (Ingrid Bergman), an orphan who had been raped by the Nationalist soldiers. The film presents Hemingway’s notion of masculine adventurism, conveying Jordan’s single-minded commitment to the task of blowing up a strategic bridge in a mountain pass. Yet, this film is so diffuse, tedious in pace, and replete with close-ups (of Cooper and Bergman’s tearful farewell), that all one remembers is its romance.


Sergeant York (1941)

Sergeant_York_posterHoward Hawks’s Sergeant York (1941), was probably Cooper’s best war picture and one of the most popular American movies of all time. Its wide appeal rested on its timely release, but also perfect cast. It was one of the few films to have been made while their subject was still alive; the real York consented to give Warners the screen rights on the condition that Cooper portray him.

If John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), satrring Henry Fonda, celebrated the tenacity of country folks and simplicity of rural life with protest and anger, Sergeant York performed a similar ideological function in a quieter, and sentimental, way. Tracing its hero’s life from 1916 to the end of WWI, it is a tale of transformation of a Tennessee mountaineer-farmer from an obscure hillbilly to a great national hero.

The young Alvin York is a fun-loving man who likes to drink and to brawl. Back home, he is reproached by his mother (Margaret Wycherly), “Ye’re no good, ‘cept fer fightin’ an’ hell-raisin.'” Similarly to Ma Joad, Mother York is another Mother Earth. She believes that “a little religion won’t do him any harm,” but the Pastor (Walter Brennan) explains that the issue is not praying, but believing. However, York holds that “there ain’t no use for a feller to go out lookin’ for religion,” to which the Pastor replies, “it’ll come when you ain’t even lookin’ fer hit, like a bolt of lightnin’.”

As most heroes of this fiction, York’s goal is to own his own land. “A piece of bottomland would make a heap o’ difference,” he says, “there ain’t nothing I can’t get if I set my min’ to it,” thus repeating a familiar phrase uttered by other heroes (Young Mr. Lincoln). York brings soil to his house and looks at it with fascination. “I’m gonna get it!” he states with heroic determination. Hawks uses a montage, showing York plowing the barren land with two mules and a crude plowshare, a single man pitted against Nature. Swindled and cheated–the land promised to him had been sold–he sets out to kill the man. “I took your word,” says York, for whom a man’s word is more binding than a contractual agreement. The Pastor tries to console him, “it don’t make difference.” “It does to me,” he says, “This land was mine, nobody’s going to take it away from me.” Struck by lightning during a storm, York experiences a moment of revelation and subsequently becomes deeply religious.

Sergeant_York_3Drafted for service in World War One, 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 by the river. 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 concludes that the two are in harmony because they mean the same thing. In Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln too, the Bible and the Farmer’s Almanac, both sacred symbols standing for God and Nature, provide the base for Lincoln’s authority because they mean the same thing.

Transformation of Character

A major transformation of character is at the center of the narrative. Alvin York starts as a simple farmer and conscientious objector and his willingness to kill is caused by a close friend’s death on the battlefront. And at the end of the War, after showers of praise for his bravery, York returns to his former simple life in his Tennessee farm, where the story begins. The narrative thus goes full circle: the transformation of York from ordinary to extraordinary (international war hero) and back to ordinary citizen (peace-loving farmer). It illustrates the democratic credo that heroes are not born, but made, and that they could come from the most remote and unlikely places.

The screen persona of both Wayne and Cooper was endowed with physical and moral strength, but there were important differences between them. Cooper’s heroes were more laconic: His silences were meaningful intervals in which he confronted his soul. The quintessential Cooper hero is torn by an inner conflict: a struggle between his conscience (inner wholeness) and public responsibilities. In Cooper’s most convincing roles, he undergoes a transformation from privacy, at times renunciation, to social obligations and commitment to action.

The Virginian (1929)

In The Virginian (1929), the film that established Cooper as a star, his innocent cowboy must choose between the Eastern values of his Pacifist wife and his own conscience, which tells him he must hang his best friend for cattle rustling.

high_noon_posterHigh Noon (1952)

Fred Zinnemann’s controversial High Noon (1952), featuring one of Cooper’s two or three best performance, for which he won a second Best Actor Oscar, presents a similar situation.

Will Kane, an aging marshal, is about to leave town after marrying Amy (Grace Kelly), a Quaker, when he learns that Frank Miller, whom he had sent to prison, has been released and plans to come back to Hadleyville to get even with him. Burdened with fear of fighting along, after his plea for help is rejected by every member of the community, he must choose between running out of town (saving his neck), as his wife wishes, or face the gang by himself. True to his nature, he meets the challenge single-handedly, winning his wife’s understanding and ultimately her help.


high_noon_4_cooper_kellyHoward Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) originated in opposition to High Noon, which neither Wayne nor Hawks liked, feeling that its spirit severely deviated from their idea of the “Real West.” Hawks did not think “a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help.” Instead, “a good sheriff would turn around and say, “Are you good enough to take the best they’ve got'” And Wayne described Carl Foreman’s screenplay as “defeatist” and “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” He was especially offended by Cooper’s putting his U.S. marshal badge under his foot and stepping on it. Walking away from his job, as Kane did, was inconceivable to Wayne’s commitment to public office.

Wayne’s films are not concerned with their characters’ inner conflicts and moral dilemmas. His heroes are men of action, not words. The silence of the cowboy, as Joan Mellen observed, was one of the main tenets of the frontier code, according to which cowboys did not talk much and did not ask unnecessary questions. The Westerner is judged by how silently he can endure the rigors of life, and he is expected to be silent, even secretive, about his past and present missions. Questioned about his actions, a typical response is that of Cooper in The Virginian, “A man’s got to do what a man’s go to do,” or Wayne in Stagecoach, “There are some things a man just can’t runaway from.”

Cooper’s heroes think and debate within themselves before deciding to act.  Cooper, like Wayne, is forceful, but he is more vulnerable and less assured in his decisions and actions.

Friendly Persuasion

Friendly_Persuasion_posterIn William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956), Cooper’s most popular film of the 1950s, he plays Jess Bidwell, the head of a Quaker family in Southern Indiana. Initially, he is opposed to the use of violence, disapproving of his son’s wish to defend the community. But holding that, in the final account, every man should be guided by his own conscience, he lends his sympathy after his son is wounded in action. What makes Cooper’s dilemmas more dramatic is that in both The Virginian and High Noon, he has to make crucial decisions on his wedding day! Thus, whereas Cooper’s heroes ponder and torture their souls before choosing action, John Wayne’s heroes never experience–and/or never show–such inner turmoil. The typical Wayne’s hero is a stubborn man unabashedly committed to actiion at at all times and costs.