Conservatives often complain that Hollywood is a hopeless miasma of liberalism, full of left-wingers who fill the screen with pinko propaganda, even though such content alienates half the audience and risks box office failure. (There's a whole news blog devoted to that proposition, Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood.) Yet a new list of the top conservative movies of the modern era not only finds plenty of mainstream Hollywood hits (so many that there's an even longer honorable-mention list on the side) but also plenty of films made by liberal directors and stars. Which suggests that ideology in movies is a much more ambiguous area than Hollywood's critics, from right or left, would acknowledge.

The list, made by Nile Gardiner at the Telegraph, is understandably Anglophilic; an American-made list might have swapped out "Chariots of Fire" for fellow sports-and-faith flick "The Blind Side," or gone with "Red Dawn" instead of fellow war-and-empire movie "Zulu." But otherwise, one thing that's noteworthy here is how some of the most right-leaning movies on the list are by some of the most left-leaning directors. Gardiner acknowledges as much, regarding Steven Spielberg and "Saving Private Ryan," or "Zulu" and Cy Endfield, an American director blacklisted in Hollywood in the '50s for his alleged Communist leanings -- one of several such filmmakers who fled to England to find work.

What's also noteworthy is how hard Gardiner has to stretch to make some of his movies qualify as conservative. "Rocky" is a classic underdog tale about a guy from the streets taking on the establishment, represented by a boxing champ whose gaudy patriotism is self-serving and pandering at best. How, exactly, does that reflect conservative values? (Now, "Rocky IV," where our all-American palooka wins the Cold War against the Russkies in the boxing ring? Conservative all the way.)

Or "The Deer Hunter"? Gardiner insists that this Vietnam War drama can in no way be seen as anti-war, but actually, it takes a special kind of tunnel vision to see it as anything but anti-war. It's all about how the Vietnam War devastates a small American town by throwing its best young men into a foreign hell and having them return broken, bitter, or not at all. The rendition of "God Bless America" sung by the survivors at the end is certainly "moving and unforgettable," as Gardiner writes, but it's also deeply ironic.

There are two seemingly simple explanations for what's going on here. First, the list makes clear that a filmmaker's own personal politics don't necessarily color his or her filmmaking. This has always been true, whether it's Spielberg and Endfield on the left, or golden-age filmmakers John Ford and Frank Capra on the right -- directors whose own conservative politics didn't stop them from making movies as blatantly liberal as "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Meet John Doe," respectively.

Still, how do hopelessly lefty filmmakers end up making right-approved movies? Because they work in genres, and Hollywood genres -- war movies, romantic comedies, even horror films -- tend to follow conventions that make them inherently conservative, since they fit into comforting and reassuringly familiar narrative patterns. Hollywood movies tend to rely on a wide variety of unspoken assumptions -- monogamy is good, consumerism is good, a woman's goal should be marriage, force is often necessary to resolve conflict, sex is generally best left off-screen, crushing poverty doesn't exist, small-town values trump big-city values, law and order usually triumph, America is a force for good in the world, the presence of black supporting characters who help white lead characters achieve their goals proves that racism no longer exists, our fossil-fuel-based lifestyle is sustainable indefinitely, and so forth -- that tend to reinforce conservative beliefs.

You can go through pretty much any supposedly liberal movie (including "The Muppets," which is brainwashing kids to hate capitalism because the villain is a rapacious oilman named Richman) and find some of these conservative themes at work. By the same token, you can go through any movie on Gardiner's list and find liberal themes that undermine the film's supposed ideological purity.

"Saving Private Ryan" finds heroism in an ethnically diverse melting pot of American soldiers. "The Killing Fields" condemns the Communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, but it doesn't let America off the hook for the bombing campaign that helped put the Khmer Rouge in power. "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy has a strong environmental streak, in which Saruman's destruction of an ancient forest proves his undoing. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" has a lengthy subplot set on the Galapagos Islands in which a scientist finds evidence that Charles Darwin will later use to prove the theory of evolution.

None of this necessarily invalidates Gardiner's project; it just means that even conservative movies aren't all that conservative, just as liberal movies aren't all that liberal. Liberal filmmakers can make movies that are generally conservative, and vice versa. What Gardiner's list really proves, then, is that movies are a lot more complex than the mere propaganda that ideological critics find them to be. To expect (or fear) that movies will serve as direct political indoctrination tools is foolish and futile. Movies are not telegrams with discrete, neatly wrapped messages. They're Rorschach tests, and what we see in them tells us less about the movies than it tells us about ourselves.
categories Movies