Friday, July 20, 2007

Heroism and Nobility

By Drew

A couple of weeks ago I linked to James Bowman's site, in which he was providing introductions to a movie series called The American Movie Hero he was hosting at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. To this point, he's offered four movie classics that in some way all deal with heroism - Sergeant York, Sands of Iwo Jima, High Noon, and this week's entry, The Searchers.

You might notice that these four movies are dominated by two stars: Gary Cooper and John Wayne. Unquestionably heroic figures, and yet as Bowman points out, the heroes they play are as different as the stories in which they appear.

Relevant to our times, I find the most interesting discussion to come from Bowman's commentary for the Cooper western classic High Noon. I'm trusting you're all familiar with this story; if not, go here for the synopsis. But here Bowman brings into the discussion an element that resounds to the uncertainty and moral struggle we face - the question of violence, and when (indeed, if) good men are allowed to resort to it in defense of a greater good:

Amy [Marshal Kane's wife, played by Grace Kelly] replies: "I’ve heard guns. My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn''t help them any when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die. That’s when I became a Quaker. I don’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. There's got to be some better way for people to live." There’s the eternal plaint of the intellectual: fighting and killing is so horrible that there must be some way around it, if only we were smart enough to find it. "There’s got to be some better way for people to live." For there not to be is almost literally a thought unthinkable for the intellectual, as much a denial of who he is and what he believes as running from a fight is for Marshal Kane [played by Cooper].

It is a form of utopianism and one which a lot of people, then as now, would base on Christian principles. Dr. Mahin, the Minister played by Morgan Farley seems to want to do this, but he hasn’t quite got the face to do it in front of the Marshal, whose need is so desperate: "The commandments say ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but we hire men to go out and do it for us. The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here. But if you're asking me to tell my people to go out and kill and maybe get themselves killed, I''m sorry. I don''t know what to say. I'm sorry." In other words, it’s your job — and it’s your job precisely because we don’t want it to be ours. That’s a great line in the mouth of a clergyman: "The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here," though somehow what to do about it doesn’t seem clear at all. It’s just like Grace Kelly saying "there’s got to be some better way." Even the most unmistakable and obvious moral realities can be ignored if you can make yourself believe in an alternative world where they don’t exist.

It's one thing for us to discuss morality in the lab, Bowman is saying, but it's another thing altogether when you're out of the controlled experiment and into the real world. This has always been one of the purposes of art, to bring us out of our elements and allow us to view reality from a different perspective. And while the answers sometimes are easier when presented this way, just as often they cause us to look at our own world with a level of discomfort.

However, as Bowman continues, there's something else unsettling about High Noon, and that's the idea of one man standing alone against evil. "But it’s also a big temptation, especially for a civilization like ours which has been infected with the virus of utopianism. For the utopians are also trying to live in that world elsewhere."

[Spoiler alert ahead]

There is something, Bowman writes, about the ending to High Noon that's not quite right. Having successfully won the showdown with the bad guys, Kane - disgusted with the cowardice of the townsfolk, fed up with the whole thing - throws his badge in the dirt and leaves the town. Someone once wrote that High Noon was the most requested movie of Presidents, and with that ending it's not hard to understand. All leaders must feel that way at times, as if the ingratitude of the public both compels them to risk their own lives in defense of an ideal that only they seem to appreciate, and then repels them from the very people whom they've saved.

But, as Bowman says, one must keep in mind that High Noon, written by the blacklisted writer Carl Foreman, is often seen as an allegory of the McCarthy era, which means that the townspeople represent the American public, remaining silent during the so-called "witchhunt" of the 50s, while the brave writers courageously stood alone against the big bad McCarthy. Bowman wonders if this is what John Wayne sought to combat in Rio Bravo, his supposed answer to High Noon (this I did not know), which insisted the fight against evil was a "collaborative and not a solo effort."

So where are we at the end? Certain that heroism exists, and that sometimes it entails nobility as well. Equally certain that the right decisions are seldom easy, that idealists often lack a sense of realism, and that the real world is a harsh one. But ultimately, I think, Bowman reminds us that life is not and was not meant to be solitary. "No man is an island," Donne writes, and this is an important lesson to remember. What starts out as heroism can often morph into isolation, egomania, paranoia, tyranny. An essential part of the human experience is that we not deny humanity. Christ may have died scorned by the masses and deserted by the apostles (save one), but the women still wept at the foot of the Cross. He was not alone and, no matter how it may sometimes seem, neither are we. There will always be good men who fight evil, and we should neither be despairing nor egotistical enough to imagine that we are the only ones.

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