God, Man & Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinema from The Birth of a Nation to The Passion of the Christ by Mark Royden Winchell
The Hollywood film has been dominated by two eras of political correctness. The first kind of correctness, its proscriptions codified in the Production Code (also known as the Hays Code), extended from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s. It aimed to preserve and strengthen the institutions of American life. The second kind, never codified, and going strong, has had the opposite aim.
The Code decreed, for example, that “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld” and “No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith … ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.” Few films now do not include sympathetic adultery, and in cinema the admirable clergyman has long been a contradiction in terms.
Oddly, one proscription is common to both. As the Code put it, “Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.” It is sad to think of the consequent missed opportunities for the depiction of inter-racial friendships of all sorts, especially in view of the continuing rancour between the races in the USA. Over the decades, the sight on screen of the occasional loving mixed-race couple, or even just of unselfconscious friendship between people of different races, might have made a difference. The current politically correct version, as Mark Royden Winchell discusses in connection with several films in this book, is that people from different races cannot love or even like each other as equals (because of the insuperable obstacle of white guilt for past and present injustices, and similar pernicious blather).
The “politically incorrect” of Winchell’s title is, of course, the current version. He finds encouragement in a number of films “that do not fit the dreary conformist mold of left-wing groupthink”. After an introductory survey of the fashionable leftism that has pervaded Hollywood since the discarding of the Production Code, he treats the political incorrectness of twenty films in detail, and ends with a list of a further 100 recommended politically incorrect films.
The first four films, Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Song of the South and Intruder in the Dust, are set in the southern states. They have the temerity to treat white Southerners as sympathetic people, and have been attacked, in some cases picketed, by the politically correct. As a white Southerner, Winchell is particularly sensitive to the fashionable scapegoating of southern whites, but witty and restrained in writing about it. Although the rest of the USA continues to blame southern whites for the nation’s racial problems, the Code’s miscegenation prohibition shows that poisonous racial intolerance has been a nationwide phenomenon, not the special disease of the South.
The fifth film is Ben-Hur, made just in time (1959) for an unashamedly pro-Christian film to be produced by a major studio and succeed. The sixth is John Ford’s powerful classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which, among other things, society is shown to have its costs, notably the inevitability that compromise and utility will take precedence over honour. No film director has done more than John Ford, in resistance to an overwhelming artistic tide running in the opposite direction, to defend the deepest values of Western civilisation. As John Carroll wrote in praise of Ford’s Rio Grande, “It is rare almost to the point of uniqueness in the twentieth century to see a work that is without trace of decadence.” Winchell might have included more than one Ford film (Judge Priest) in the second half of his book.
Liberty Valance introduces four films whose choice might surprise some people: Patton, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and The Deer Hunter. Winchell’s main thesis here is that despite fashionable beliefs about the supremacy of reason and tolerance, sometimes the only way in which justice can be done and society protected is by combating violence with violence.
I think, however, that he has misunderstood Clockwork Orange—that is, he has misunderstood the film that people saw, which was not the same film as the makers thought they were producing. The philosophical matters relating to free will and the nature of evil, which Anthony Burgess’s novel dealt with, were inevitably less attention-grabbing than the film’s graphic depictions of violence and sex. Clockwork Orange was promoted with a poster of a mischievously smiling, knife-wielding Alex (the central character) and the tagline, “Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.”
The conservative American film critic George McCartney has recently written about the difficulty of getting political ideas across in a film. Our attention is primarily on the emotional tensions in the film as they affect the principal players—love, fear, happiness, despair—not on the film’s ideas. McCartney finds comfort in this inherently conservative element in a powerful and popular medium which is dominated by leftists. Thus Gone with the Wind, which pleases Winchell because of its southern sympathies and its message, “you not only can but must go home again”, chiefly affects its viewers as the love story of two strong-willed people set against the background of a war that destroys everything they have. I doubt if many viewers, even American ones nowadays, would understand or remember the political or philosophical details.
In the case of Clockwork Orange, Alex, though about as evil as a character could be, is one of the few characters with any vivacity. He lives the kind of life he believes in, in a decadent society in which nobody else seems to believe in anything. Viewers who can stomach the violence will develop some sympathy for him. Those viewers who are attracted by the promoters’ promise of violence will probably love him; it is hard to imagine them being outnumbered by those who watch the film for its ideas. As McCartney says, “It will be the personal, not the political, that viewers remember.” And as Winchell observes elsewhere about satires, many a film is “subtle enough to be misinterpreted by the terminally obtuse”. Films may be made by intellectuals, but they are watched by everybody.
Winchell begins the next section of his book with a fine essay on Driving Miss Daisy, particularly as it touches on the possibilities of friendship between two people regardless of their racial or social backgrounds. In a film of immense charm, rich, white, Jewish Miss Daisy and her working-class, black, Christian chauffeur Hoke eventually become the dearest of friends. It is a slender story on which to base a feature film, but the result is a triumph of subtlety and sympathy. The fact that it won the Academy Award for best film suggests that there may be a greater reserve of broad- mindedness and decency in Hollywood than Winchell acknowledges.
Another subtle (and commercially successful) film of friendship and love is Shadowlands. One needs to overlook its distortion of aspects of the life of C.S. Lewis—as Paul Tankard noted in Quadrant at the time, it makes the beliefs of one of the foremost Christian apologists of the twentieth century look shallow. Nevertheless, the Lewis character in the film is a Christian who takes his beliefs seriously, and the portrayal of friendship that intensifies to love—once again, as with Driving Miss Daisy, disdaining Hollywood’s usual obsession with sexual desire and satiation—is captivating.
Take away the gratuitous lashings of sex, spite, sentimentality and violence from most recent films and television dramas and very little would remain. These vices are usually regarded as the first resort of crass commercialism, and indeed they are. But they are also politically correct, in that they tend to subvert the values on which civilisation depends, such as the classical virtues of prudence, temperance and fortitude. Subversive is one of the highest compliments a politically-correct commentator can bestow on a work of art. As Winchell notes, this attitude is essentially juvenile: “the adolescent sensibility sees middle-class values as the ultimate enemy of the spirit”.
After looking at four recent films that present the nineteenth-century South sympathetically (Ride with the Devil, Gangs of New York, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals) Winchell ends the first half of his book with The Passion of the Christ and the controversies it generated. It could not have been made, Winchell notes, except by a rich person with a mission; the major production companies, cowed by Hollywood’s anti-Christian hordes, would never have touched it.
The second half of the book consists of two-page discussions of “100 politically incorrect films”. These films range widely—from classics like The Best Years of Our Lives and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and obscure films like We the Living and The Edge of the World, to more recent films like Tender Mercies and The Terminal, as well as the Decalogue series. This section is a useful resource for the perplexed: The Terminal, as I have now discovered, is a splendid celebration of cheerfulness and virtue in the face of adversity. If some favourites are missing from Winchell’s list, it includes many lesser-known films that are worth seeking.
Nobody will agree with Mark Royden Winchell on everything in this book, but it is full of fascinating detail and his writing is always intelligent and lively. Sadly, he died recently, a few months before his sixtieth birthday, not long after this book was published and while his last book of essays was in press. He was part of a distinctively southern tradition of letters that somehow manages to survive both in and out of academia: highly erudite and literate, engaged, civilised, calm and impervious to fashion.
George Thomas is deputy editor of Quadrant. Mark Royden Winchell’s book has its own website, www.godmanandhollywood.com .