Patriotism Goes to the Movies

November 7, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Patriotism,” says Paul Krugman. “is about making sacrifices for the national good, not serving your personal motives or interests.”  Krugman (in his blog, here ) was citing Michael Lind’s Slate article about “The Patriot,” the 2000 film starring Mel Gibson.  Lind complains that the Patriot of the title, “sits out the American Revolution, until a sadistic . . . British commander kills one of his sons. whereupon he spends the next two days – oops, I mean two hours – avenging himself.”

That’s not patriotism, harrumphs Lind, it’s “amoral familism”*
It appears that today's audiences can't imagine any cause that could justify political violence other than injury to a child or wife.
This movie is deeply subversive of patriotism. Indeed, patriotism is a concept that neither the screenwriter . .  nor the director . . . seems to understand.
Maybe so.  But the writer and director do understand something that Lind apparently does not:  movies are not real life.  If they are, then  “Singin’ in the Rain” is deeply subversive of rational reactions to meteorological events. 

Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but it’s no refuge at all for a filmmaker.  Real-life Americans are patriotic, sometimes to an extent others find offensive.  But that kind of patriotism doesn’t make for good movies.  In the American movies that I know, good guys never do their good deeds out of abstract idealism. Their motives are always personal.    (Even better than a non-ideoogical hero is the character who has an ideology but abandons it in order to kill bad guys – e.g., Grace Kelly in “High Noon”).  

America movie-heroes often take up arms against bad guys, but we would mistrust a hero whose actions are purely ideological and not rooted in personal revenge.  Our heroes, even when they are fighting for Good, have the decency to deny any ideological motive. Here’s one familiar (I hope) example:


I’m afraid Michael Lind would be disappointed in Rick, and in Grace Kelly shooting the bad guy to protect her husband.  “[In] the Zeitgeist in the United States in A.D. 2000 . . . American national patriotism is giving way . . .to the perennial rival of patriotism at all levels: amoral familism.”

If that’s the Zeitgeist, it’s a Geist that goes back a long Zeit.  “Casablanca” was made in 1942, “High Noon” in 1952.  Or take another classic from the early 1950s, “On the Waterfront.”  Marlon Brando winds up doing the right thing in ratting out the racketeer union boss (the right thing according to the film’s construction of morality).  But it’s not until he has a personal reason – the union boss has his brother Charley killed – that he takes action.  
You gave it to Joey, you gave it to Dugan, and you gave it to Charley who was one of your own.. . and I’m glad what I done to you!
The film’s attempts to make stevedores spout lofty motives ring embarrassingly false, as when one of the longshoremen urges Brando to defy the boss in order to
give us back our union, so we can run it on the up and up.
(I still cringe when I hear that line.)

Is this bias towards the personal and against the political an aspect of American culture?  Or is it the medium?  Maybe political ideals – socialist realism, capitalist realism, patriot realism, etc. – don’t make for compelling movies.  Movies are first about characters, not ideas.  The medium washes out the message.  

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* The term comes from Edward Banfield’s 1958 book The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.  Amoral familism, according to Banfield, was that basis.

1 comment:

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I used to listen patriotism music.I think the combination of the patriotism and the movies will go long.