In a Plague-Time, Classic Films of Character and Courage
Ninth in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
Anxiety stalks the land. With the coronavirus pandemic now claiming over163,000 American lives and wreaking horrendous economic damage, combined with a racial reckoning forced by the killing of a Black man (George Floyd) by a white police officer, fully one-third of all Americans now report some level of mental distress (also here, here, and here).
While this mental distress is understandable, we must manage it — somehow. Everyone has his/her methods of coping. For me, one method is ranging back over the classic movies of the 1930s through the ’60s. In them we see the lineaments of the American experience and, more broadly, the human experience — both of which are now under severe strain.
More than mere entertainment, the following films have been selected for their specific utility in the present perilous moment. They show characters who must find the courage to front and prevail over the various existential challenges before them. In all these films, the necessity to find more courage creates in these central characters new depths of character. They come out altered, refined, better than who they were going in. As Anonymous said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
As such, these films reflect a seriousness of purpose not always seen in films from the 1970s onward, when attitude, pathology, confusion dominate. Being classic, “of an age,” these films will evoke memories of institutional and moral strength that seems to be slipping away. But watching these dramas of character and courage can also spark the will to bear up and, possibly, prevail again. Spoilers abound (sorry).
“TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH” (dir. Henry King; 1949)
Fear — not only of death in combat, but fear of not acquitting oneself in one’s own eyes as well as of others — is the theme pulsing through every scene in this powerful World War II film. In a pandemic, we fear agonizing viral death, not combat, but the fear of not acquitting oneself still applies, whether we acknowledge it or not.
“Twelve O’Clock High” centers on the only Americans fighting in Europe in 1942, the vanguard of the American bomber corps, based in England, who conducted “daylight precision bombing” of targets in France and Germany. Not only was this dangerous mission conducted in daylight, but at very low altitudes, for the precision. (Disbelief at orders to fly at 9,000 feet rather than the customary 19,000 feet opens the film.) The casualty rate is high, the replacement rate is low, and the hard-luck 918th Group is not pulling its weight. It needs a new command.
Enter General Frank Savage, played by Gregory Peck (photo at top). Peck, a favorite of mine who always brought a deep humanism to his roles, here plays a cast-iron commander whose first words are: “Yes, 9,000 feet. The Wailing Wall is around the corner.” The conflict then, apart from the one in the air, is about approaches to command: The outgoing commander Davenport (Gary Merrill) was close to his men, “over-identifying” with them, thus allegedly he could not exact the “maximum effort” needed from them for their life-and-death missions. Savage believes pride in a job well done trumps self-pity. In his first address to the group, he states: “Fear is normal, but forget it”; he even counsels, “Consider yourself dead.” Soon, though, Savage comes to admire the men he flies with (he’s no desk general), and in coming to care for the men, he becomes vulnerable to fear — and becomes human: We see in ourselves such vulnerability to fear. It makes for a searing climax to the film.
Most moving for me is the scene in which Savage visits in hospital an officer he had chewed out earlier as a coward, named Gately, son and grandson of “fine officers” (Hugh Marlowe). Now more human, Savage still can’t say “Job well done” to the officer who’s now earned it (flying three successful missions with a fractured spine), but in an indirect way Savage bestows a benediction. War veterans tell me this film is the best they know on command. It is also good on commanding fear.
“GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT” (dir. Elia Kazan; 1947)
With Black Lives Matter newly demanding an end to racism, this film about fighting another scourge, anti-Semitism, is instructive, both for illuminating the scourge’s systemic reach and the character needed to fight it. (Anti-Semitism is also rebounding now, with far-right nationalists seeking scapegoats.)
In this film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, magazine writer Phil Green (Gregory Peck again) decides that for his series on anti-Semitism he’ll pass himself off as Jewish. The revelations begin immediately: His secretary (June Havoc) reveals she too is Jewish, but applied for the job at their liberal magazine with a non-Jewish name. Phil’s Jewish childhood friend Dave (John Garfield), still in uniform and looking for housing for his family so he can accept a big company promotion, spends his days looking without success (this is postwar New York City). And Phil’s new love Kathy (he’s a widower with a young son Tommy) reveals herself to be what he’s found most disappointing in his project: the “nice people” who’d never yell “Dirty Jew” or tell Jewish jokes, yet allow others to because they don’t speak up. He’s horrified when she assures his son, “You’re no more Jewish than I am,” giving Tommy “that early taste of superiority,” that he’s “the most wonderful of creatures — a white Christian American.”
Thus, when “nice” white people are at last speaking up for their Black fellow Americans (and more need to do so), Kathy’s conflict becomes key. Played by ever-gracious Dorothy McGuire, Kathy must acquire a new lens on her privileged life, new character — and in a riveting scene with Garfield, she does (photo above). Other notes resonate: For one, when Phil confronts the manager of a “restricted” inn where they planned to honeymoon. Beforehand, he calls out such establishments as “more than nasty little snobs, they’re traitors to everything this country stands for and on, and you have to fight them.” Phil’s mother (Anne Revere) reads back to him his own copy when he quits the project, about the Founding Fathers, who knew that “the tree is known by its fruit, and that injustice corrupts the tree.” (We’re reexamining now the Founding Fathers’ corruption of slave-holding.) Finally: In reply to Tommy (a young Dean Stockwell) who asks about the Atlas figure at Rockefeller Center, Phil says Atlas “carried the world on his shoulders,” to which Tommy says, “Grandma says that’s what you do.” Courage!
“IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT” (dir. Norman Jewison; 1967)
In this post-George Floyd moment, when White America is coming to understand the disparity in racial justice for Black America, it is a good time to revisit a film dramatizing those two Americas — “In the Heat of the Night.” Interestingly, it involves law enforcement. Virgil Tibbs, a Black man, is a homicide expert from Philadelphia, PA, who, passing through a backwoods town in the South, solves a homicide through his forensic skill. Things start inauspiciously, though: Passing through, Virgil is taken in as the prime suspect (the big reveal that the Black man is himself a police officer is wickedly drawn out). In the course of the investigation, he comes into direct conflict with Chief Gillespie over who is the killer. But, acting together, they ultimately get their man. Then Virgil leaves town.
That is the over-story; the real drama is the power dynamic between Virgil, played by the peerless Sidney Poitier, and the Chief, played by Rod Steiger with a menace leavened by hints of humanity. Ostensibly two characters of equal power — both are men of the law — the Chief constantly pulls rank, playing the white card. We see Virgil coolly keep his dignity, not giving an inch. It is fascinating to watch the two, by coming to each other’s aid during their investigation, attain a bond. The famous slapping scene, in which Virgil slaps back a white suspect who’s slapped him for the effrontery of questioning him, is key: The Chief sides with his partner.
Also on view is an ugly white supremacy, enacted by supporting characters and other police officers, that, sadly, reflects the now-overt racism of Trump’s America. We see how race-hatred blinds the white characters; conversely, we see how, on top of forensic skill, Virgil solves the case because he “gets” human nature. Yet Virgil can never relax, not even at the Chief’s house after a long day: When they share that neither has been married, and when Virgil says he’s no more lonely than the Chief, the Chief is incensed: “No pity!” Not from a Black man! We pity them, and the Chief, for the chasm reopening. Virgil is cool, though, but we see the cost.
“IN WHICH WE SERVE” (co-dir. Noel Coward and David Lean; British; 1942)
For its portrait of national cohesion at a time of maximum emergency (war) — and as tonic to those Americans distressed at the resounding lack of unity in our time of emergency — “In Which We Serve” will serve movingly. Created during World War II in Britain, it is a comprehensive look at war and its impact on both the fighting men and their families on the home front. In commemoration of a destroyer sunk by the Germans, playwright Noel Coward, coming off the West End success of his frothy comedy Blithe Spirit, wrote, scored, produced, co-directed, and starred in this film about the fictional destroyer, HMS Torrin.
Opening with narrator Leslie Howard — “This is the story of a ship” — the film is also the story of a nation, made the more vivid because the Torrin is sunk early on and the story — of the survivors clinging to a raft, told in flashback — is powered by their most heartfelt memories: of wives and family, service, country. The action begins with the Torrin being rushed into commission. We see couples asking: Will there be war? In a stiffening-the-upper-lip exchange, Captain E.V. Kinross (Coward) tells wife Alix (the wonderful Celia Johnson), “No good worrying about it til it comes, and not much good then, really,” adding, “Don’t be sad,” to which she replies: “I’m not sad, really. I’m just gathering myself together.” Such rich vignettes — of the Kinrosses, of Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy (Bernard Miles) and wife Kath and mother-in-law, and Ordinary Seaman “Shorty” Blake (John Mills) and new wife Freda — reflect what New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called “a full and complete expression of national fortitude.” The film was enormously popular in England (though not with the Royal Admiralty, which dubbed it “In Which We Sink”). Enjoy the cohesion.
“ANN VICKERS” (dir. King Vidor; 1933)
Serious women still do not get serious treatment in film. But Sinclair Lewis took them seriously (perhaps because he was married to journalist Dorothy Thompson, who early on saw World War II coming). Lewis’ novel “Ann Vickers,” about a woman courageously navigating her way through life by her own ethical light, was turned into a compelling film. Played by Irene Dunne, a favorite of mine because she made womanly dignity appealing, Ann starts as a social worker in a settlement house, then turns executive running a women’s prison, where she runs into opposition from the warden for her humane reforms, is framed and fired — and writes a best-selling memoir of the experience. This feat enables her to enact her reforms heading another women’s prison. But the heart of the film is not her c.v., it is her relationships, not only with men and how they treat a “woman of affairs,” but also with other women and, importantly, with herself: We see, on her intelligent face, a woman learning of life.
An early lesson comes from a beguiling but inconstant Army captain (Bruce Cabot), who leaves her with child. To close friend Malvina (Edna May Oliver), a doctor, she confesses she’s learned a truth “every woman must learn” (Malvina quips, “Which one?”): How we deceive ourselves reading into another all we want to see. She loses the child, telling Malvina she’d already planned her daughter’s education: character, integrity, career. She then falls deeply in love with a judge (the excellent Walter Huston): Their portrayal of mature love ranks among cinema’s most moving. The judge, however, has unsavory acquaintances and is himself sent to prison for receiving bribes, prompting Ann to take a grievous misstep: asking an old flame now also a judge to pardon her lover. This viewer sided with him when he said, angrily, the old ethical Ann would never have asked such favor. How she sorts things out underscores the film’s theme: women and their standards. Which during World War I, the suffragist crusade, and Prohibition were as vital to keep as in these difficult times. (Memo to Hollywood: Give Malvina her own movie.)
“THE CITADEL” (dir. King Vidor; 1938)
In honor of the over 900 American medical workers who have died in this pandemic, heroically trying to save lives, this film is instructive in going into the emotional life of one such dedicated doctor. Newly minted Dr. Andrew Manson (Robert Donat, who’d famously play Mr. Chips the following year) arrives to serve in a small Welsh coal-mining town, only to be greeted with an outbreak of typhus. Echoing our pandemic, he meets resistance: The schoolmistress is reluctant to shut school, the villagers destroy his lab (where he correctly diagnosed the coal-miners’ coughing as tuberculosis). But before he quits in disgust, he falls in league with the town’s alcoholic surgeon Dr. Philip Denny (Ralph Richardson) and together, soused, they blow up the town’s typhus-laden sewer; and he marries the schoolmistress Chris (Rosalind Russell). They head for London, where Denny knew Andrew wants to go.
In London Andrew becomes a society doctor, thanks to running into a medical school pal (Rex Harrison) who introduces him to his “goldmine” of a practice: consulting fees, attending surgeries (just attending, not performing), seeing to high society’s trifling ailments. Chris grows unhappy, telling Andrew, “Your work isn’t making money, it’s bettering humanity, and you know it.” But he has had enough of penury. Through a tragic turn (too integral to the drama to reveal) and a dark, dark night of the soul, Andrew’s original dedication to medicine and humanity is reborn. He articulates it defending himself before the medical board, citing the Hippocratic Oath: “Into whatsoever house I shall enter I will work for the benefit of the sick, holding aloof from all wrong and corruption.” This film is based on the novel by A.J. Cronin, who himself was a doctor who once served in Welsh coal-mining towns. His best-selling novel is credited with laying the foundation in the U.K. for the National Health Service a decade later. Perhaps the medical “system” here could benefit…?
“A FACE IN THE CROWD” (dir. Eliza Kazan; 1957)
This film tells an unpleasant American story: how a “good ol’ country boy” from Riddle, Arkansas, who can sing and tell stories — Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, known as Dusty — becomes a media sensation with his “Cracker Barrel” TV show, in the course of which he comes to lust for power, to be “the influence” behind the President of the United States, to be “Secretary of National Morale.” Beneath that grandiose-but-possible ambition, however, lies his growing disdain for the “hicks” who made him popular: the people. Comprehensively unprincipled — Andy Griffith does comprehensively unprincipled to a fare-thee-well — Dusty knows no checks or balances, so somebody must stop him. Who will it be?
One thinks it will be the woman who discovered him and made him a star — roving reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) with her “A Face in the Crowd” radio show. The attraction between them intrigues: She is brainy and “respectable,” he is (again) “ol’ country boy.” It is Marcia who, early on, observes his power to sway people and queries him on it. To Marcia he confesses, “I know I sound like I ate the Western Hemisphere for breakfast, but down here in the boiler-room….” But she becomes so besotted with him she loses her principles (thus dramatic interest) and cannot act.
It is the show’s writer, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), who calls out Dusty as “dangerous” and finds the courage to act. Clarifying his vision: Mel loves Marcia. When she says he sounds “vicious” for a “mild man,” Mel says: “All mild men are vicious. They hate themselves for being mild and they hate the windbag extroverts whose violence has a strange attraction for nice girls — who should know better.” He quits, writes a book, “Demagogue in Denim” (“Never had such fun in my life!”), tells Marcia he’s signed a contract to publish. Together, they confront Dusty. Viewers will see the parallel to our comprehensively unprincipled reality-star President, also take a cue in November (I hope) from the “hicks” who, turning on Dusty, vow: “We’ll fix him.”
“A TOWN LIKE ALICE” (dir. Jack Lee; British; 1956)
Characters of high character do not feature much in film today. Filmmakers today, to make a character “more human,” tend to define humanity down. Which is why it is a pleasure to meet Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman working as a secretary in British Malaya, when World War II is underway (1942). When evacuation is ordered — the Japanese are near — instead of heading for Shanghai, Jean, conscientiously and fatefully, answers a last phone call: It is her boss’ wife, frantic her husband hasn’t appeared. Delay results in all being captured and separated — the men to prison camp, the woman and children being marched, and marched, and marched, endlessly. Terrible suffering ensues. When the wife dies, Jean takes on her children, including a baby. She sells her shoes for the baby’s milk. Soon all are barefoot, marching in the jungle heat, with half their number dying.
Such extreme hardship brings out character (or lack of it). Pretty and blond, Jean is propositioned by a Japanese officer: It’s an out, but she refuses (another woman gets in his car). Kindnesses — sharing water, soothing the dying — shine out, countering the cruelty. Romance would seem impossible in this Hell, but Jean meets Joe Harman, an Australian soldier who’s also a Japanese prisoner. Their paths crossing in tandem, they hold whispered rendezvous; their exchanges are elemental, like: Where you from? (Joe is from Alice Springs, Jean from Southampton.) Love happens. But then: Joe steals the Japanese commander’s chickens — for Jean’s starving group — then takes the blame when they are discovered feasting. The last Jean sees of Joe, he is being crucified by the Japanese. Not for the world would I reveal the ending.
Played by the fine English actress Virginia McKenna, Jean is a quiet hero. Joe is played by Peter Finch in his pre-leonine and thin days. The film is based on “true fact” from a novel by Nevil Shute (“On the Beach”). At a time of extreme partisan hatred in America, these lines echo: After Joe’s crucifixion, Jean, shattered, finally lets fly her hatred of the Japanese. Then she realizes: “You can’t really hate people, can you.” To which an older woman says, “It’s a wonderful thing to learn, isn’t it?”
“THE GRAPES OF WRATH” (dir. John Ford; 1940)
When I planned this commentary, I knew it had to end with these last two films: tales of economic hardship and loss — of which we are seeing only the beginning from this pandemic’s fallout. Perhaps the pre-eminent novel on the subject is John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The iconic Joad family — Ma (Jane Darwell) and Pa (Russell Simpson) and their son Tom (Henry Fonda, masterfully contained) — suffer travails wreaked by economic forces that are both relentless (the Okies’ ramshackle homes are bulldozed flat) and invisible (their land is owned by a company that’s owned by the bank that reports to auditors “back East”). In other words, to the question, Who is responsible for all this destruction, or “Who can I shoot?”: No-one. We cross our fingers as their groaning truck, carrying 12, makes its way from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California, “Land of Milk and Honey” — which soon curdles.
With 40 million Americans now losing their jobs, the humiliations and injustices borne by the Joads resonate profoundly. Ma Joad cannot take a last look at her old home: “I never had my family stuck out on the road, never had to lose everything I had in life.” Tom’s credo — “I’m just tryin’ to get along without shovin’ anybody” — is soon bulldozed by unrelenting setbacks: from bait-and-switch promises on wages for fieldwork to scorn heaped on Okies as dumb and dirty. Tom rightly becomes enraged: “If there was a law working with me, but it ain’t the law. They’re trying to work away on our spirit, make us transients, make us crawl, workin’ on our decency.” And law enforcement? “These are our own people,” he says disgustedly of the law in league with the growers. Symbolically, loss of faith is expressed early on by Preacher (John Carradine), who says he’s “lost the spirit.” Famously, Ma Joad has the last word, an encouraging one, about “We the People.” When Pa observes, “We’ve sure taken a beating,” Ma says: “That’s what makes us tough.” Amen.
“IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” (dir. Frank Capra; 1946)
In all cinema, I do not know of a better representation of the abject terror of someone facing bankruptcy and losing everything — a prospect so many face now — than Jimmy Stewart’s indelible performance in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” So distraught at possibly losing his business — Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, started by his father — and going to prison for it, and feeling he’s worth more dead than alive, George Bailey contemplates suicide, so at least his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their four children can collect on his life insurance. He is saved from self-annihilation by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who restores him to himself by showing how humanity, and his town of Bedford Falls, would be so much worse off if he, George, had not been born. Thanks to Mary who enlists the help of all those George helped in acquiring a home or to get by, the humanity of Bedford Falls comes through for George in the end.
Such an old chestnut, you might say, yet at this time of upheaval and peril, it is good to spend time in familiar precincts, with a film most Americans know. In many ways we are today living in Pottersville, the alternate version of Bedford Falls if George Bailey hadn’t done daily combat with mean “Old Man” Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who owns everything and extracts every cent. (We have a Potter in the White House now.) Also, in this cynical age, some will scoff at the idea of a guardian angel. If so, disregard the angel and focus on his mission: to remind us of the irreplaceable human being. This viewing I was especially moved seeing that, if the irreplaceable George had not been alive to save little brother Harry after he fell into an icy pond, the irreplaceable Harry would not become a Navy pilot who saved a U.S. troopship from enemy planes in World War II.
The character and courage of the George Baileys of this world are irreplaceable. Despite early disappointments — not traveling, not going to college, not becoming an architect — George goes on, sacrificing for someone else to go on. Not without anger, though: We see how angry and hurt he is with his sacrifice. We also see how, in the end, his sacrifice is rewarded. It really is a wonderful life.
At this time of utmost crisis, this country needs all the George, and Georgia, Baileys it can recruit — people of character and courage. Take in these films, be fortified, and return to the fight to save America.
For other classic films of character and courage, see my posts on heroic women (including “Rome: Open City,” “Mrs. Miniver,” “Now, Voyager,” “The Shadow of a Doubt,” “The Night of the Hunter”) and on human drama, American and foreign (including “High Noon,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Bicycle Thieves,” “A Man Escaped,” “The Grand Illusion,” “The Battle of Algiers,” “Tokyo Story,” “I Know Where I’m Going!”).