The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle published an interesting thumbsucker this morning: "I suppose that to depict patriotism, as to depict romance, filmmakers feel the need to go back to an era in which people actually believed in such a thing." LaSalle's jumping off point was the upcoming opening of Flags Of Our Fathers, a film that is not as unquestionably patriotic as it sounds. Promoting his movie, Eastwood told the Daily Newsthat even though he doesn't mean his film to be a metaphor for the Iraq war, "I wasn't necessarily one of those people who were excited about going into Iraq."
While Clint Eastwood and his scriptwriters honor the Marines and sailors who fought so bravely in the Pacific War, there's an undertone of wrath at politicians, officers and spin-meisters. Those who feel that the Iraq invasion was heavy on the photo-ops, and light on the advance planning, might come out of Flags Of Our Fathers feeling that the flag-planting-on-Iwo-Jima photo was but the 1940s version of George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech.
LaSalle argues correctly that Oliver Stone's World Trade Center was less about the American spirit than the personal heroism of its two trapped characters. But I can't follow him hrough his quick march through American film history. Take his description of 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy as showing off "emotional, reflexive patriotism." It has a different approach than Eastwood's film, but Michael Curtiz's bio-pic musical of George M. Cohan is another demonstration of how patriotism can be used as the grounds for a smash-hit show. James Cagney's canny showman Cohan is clearly a song and dance man first and a patriot second. Cagney's Cohan is so exuberantly cocky and light on his feet that he can overcome many people's distaste at the simplistic idea of "my country, right or wrong" ... a motto another George -- George Orwell -- likened to "My mother, drunk or sober."
When we elected an actor as president, America showed how it prefers movies to history. Think of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance's concluding line: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" -- a summing up of Ronald Reagan's career. But the patriotic movies LaSalle mentions approvingly are from a far more unsophisticated era. How could they be reproduced now? Jarhead, Three Kings and innumerable political documentaries sum up the current war. On the whole, the public is too wise to fall for the old illusions of soldiers laying down their lives with a smile on their faces (LaSalle's example of the inspirational death scene of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, is the exception that proves the rule).
Instead of the old-time war movies LaSalle lists, or the Capra comedies which were the product of a man who grew increasingly reactionary as the years went by, I'd submit my favorite patriotic movie -- The Devil and Daniel Webster aka All That Money Can Buy. William Dieterle's 1941 pre-noir film uses fantasy, wit, and feel-good populism by associating the devil with domestic greed and selfishness, rather than with a foreign threat. In the courtroom, Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) reminds us that he's been in America ever since the first colonist killed the first Indian. The real-life Senator Daniel Webster (the hearty Edward Arnold, usually a villain type) is a politician with human temptations for ambition and booze -- a much less saintly figure than Henry Fonda's Young Mr. Lincoln, whom LaSalle loves. But Webster comes through for his damned constituent, knowing the truth will set him free. Arnold's Webster knows that the persuasive argument is every bit as effective as a weapon as a gun. That the politically-aware Alec Baldwin starred in (and supposedly directed) a semi-released remake shows just how lively the patriotic ideals still are in The Devil and Daniel Webster.