Surprisingly enough, conservative values make good films

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Tory Historian, as most readers of this blog know, is addicted to films, particularly films of a certain vintage. It has always been a matter of some sadness, therefore, that so much of the film industry is and has always been in the grip of left-wing and socialist delusions.

Many of the best American films of the thirties show the evils of capitalism and capitalists, coming out on the side of the “little man”, that being the acceptable left-wing version at the time of straightforward socialism. (The idea of those big studios who destroyed anyone who got in their way coming out on the side of the "little man" is quite amusing but there is an interesting history behind all that.)

One can trace similar trends in British and Continental cinematography. In France, with the rise of the Front Populaire films that were much more obviously propaganda were made right up to the outbreak of the Second World War.

We know about the Communist infiltration of Hollywood. As Ronald and Allis Radosh have shown in their “Red Star over Hollywood” all those accused of being Communists were, indeed, that. Moreover, they used the hearings to shout their own propaganda, thus actually losing some support among their colleagues who preferred to stand on a position of free speech.

The situation now is well-known. There is no left-wing idiocy that Hollywood and the rather dilapidated British film industry will not embrace. And yet, and yet. It seems that no matter which way you turn it is conservative ideas that make good films.

Take, for example, “High Noon”, which is supposed to be a symbol of resistance against McCarthyism (only self-obsessed Hollywood types could talk about resistance against something so pathetic). Once you see it, you realize that it is nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it is no different from “Rio Bravo”, John Wayne’s supposed response to it. Well, actually, it is a little more conservative in its attitude, being a hymn of praise to individualism, courage against heavy odds and the need to use guns when necessary.

Both films display another conservative principle, as does “On the Waterfront”, the most openly anti-socialist film – human nature is complex and simple solutions do not work.

What of the many British films made in the late forties and fifties? Some are dark thrillers like “The Noose”, others are more light-hearted comedies and social dramas. By and large, they are morally ambivalent about crime, even murder. Above all, they show the British society in its heyday of socialism, the time all good Labour people hark back to, as being grimly dull and oppressive. It is individual endeavour that is celebrated, even if in a slightly back-handed way.

Libertas is a conservative American website devoted to films and film-making. There is a discussion on it at present about why it is that so many of the Hollywood mainstream films, made according to Hollywood’s ideas by Hollywood’s darlings bomb while films that are dismissed by all the biens pensants attract audiences of enviable size.

The answer may be that those despised films tell a better yarn. Or it may be that Dirty Harry, the main blogger, is right in that the films of gratuitous sex and violence, no moral grounding, no heroes, no-one to cheer for are actually seriously out of date as well as being establishment in its worst form. What audiences want is something completely different, something that is new. Or, perhaps, old.

There are some comments and disagreements as to whether it is movement forward or backward that is being approved of. The truth is that there is no real movement forward or backward, except maybe in terms of technology and technique. The same ideas come around again and again. This is what the more successful films tap into now as they have always done.

From the general to the particular. Tory Historian went to the Riverside Studios on Easter Sunday evening to see “A Foreign Affair”, one of Billy Wilder’s better known efforts. (Incidentally, how is it that no matter how many Billy Wilder films one sees, there is nary a dud one?) The film, which takes place in post-War Berlin, has just been kind of remade into a dud vehicle for George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, “The Good German”.

Let us focus on the original. Its main theme is simple: a group of Congressmen and one Congresswoman arrive in Berlin some time in 1946 or 47 (certainly, after fraternization had been allowed) to check on the American troops’ morale. They find that morale is very high, not least thanks to the fraternization with Germans, particularly the fräulein, and to some extent, other Allied personnel, particularly the Russians. Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, from Iowa, decides to do something about it and all sorts of romantic complications ensue with an ending that is not entirely straightforward.

The Congresswoman is played delightfully by Jean Arthur, one of the best comediennes, and the hero, Captain Pringle, by John Lund (who?). Then there is Marlene Dietrich, who plays her usual part, a development of Lola-Lola from “The Blue Angel”. She is a world-weary nightclub chanteuse, irresistible to men, with a past but determined to have a future. In this case, her past appears to include a long-standing affair with a Gestapo general and a position at the very top of the Nazi hierarchy. An interesting part for Dietrich who had spent the war entertaining American troops, because, in her words, “it was the decent thing to do”.

What is so fine about the film is its understanding of all the characters. Unlike the modern version (well, kind of version) the Americans are shown in a good light, if somewhat lax on questions of black market and chatting up German young ladies. The politicians are of little interest except for Miss Frost, who turns out to be honourable beyond her political convictions. The Germans are having a hard time and one can almost see them as victims until there is a little nudge from the Director that reminds one of why exactly they are in the position they are in.

Nobody is completely bad and nobody is completely good. Even the singer, the nearest we have to a bad person, given her past, is allowed one speech in which she describes what her life and that of other German women had been for the previous three or four years. Of course, had she been saying it to a British woman politician (hard to visualize) rather than an American one, she might have had a reply along the lines of: “Oh so you’ve been bombed out? Well let me tell you what happened to us in London or Plymouth or Coventry.” But even the British politician would not have been able to talk of starvation and the city being over-run by Russians.

If anyone is a hero, it is the colonel who is a secondary character. He knows a good deal of what is going on but disregards petty problems with his eye on the main task: to find the remaining Nazi leaders and to rebuild a country and a nation. Maybe playing baseball and being allowed to shout at the referee is a slightly simplistic way of changing children’s attitudes. And maybe not.

Through the complexity of various human emotions and reactions, the colonel and his subordinates assert definite truths of freedom, human endeavour and ordinary existence, all conservative ideas. Made in 1948, “A Foreign Affair” and its optimism for Germany as well as America may have seemed a little doubtful. But the colonel was right. Germany was reconstructed on acceptable principles.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. "Take, for example, “High Noon”, which is supposed to be a symbol of resistance against McCarthyism (only self-obsessed Hollywood types could talk about resistance against something so pathetic)."

    Without in any way being a self-obsessed Hollywood type, it may be that McCarthy himself was pathetic (which is how Lyndon, as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson nailed him) but McCarthyism was a powerful and disruptive force (which is why Lyndon Johnson made sure that the US Army took the lead in nailing McCarthy).

  3. I suggest you read "REd Star over Hollywood", Old Tory. It is quite gripping and shows up both the Communists in Hollywood, their successors who keep making propaganda and the pathetic nature of McCarthyism. Even if you take it seriously, it was hardly on the level of that wondrous system created by Lenin and Stalin that McCarthy's "victims" (not that anything much happened to the Hollywood ones) praised to the skies and worked for, whenever they could.

  4. Anonymous Says:
  5. But that's not the point, Tory Historian. McCarthy was pathetic but McCarthyism was both powerful and dangerous. The Hollywood Reds, &c, have nothing to do with it save for the fact that they were very convenient - and very visible - targets for populist isolationists in Congress who were starting to wiggle their feet in a global pond.

  6. Anonymous Says:
  7. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Conservative History Group.

  8. Well, FR, I am sorry to hear that. Perhaps our own version of HUAC or the Senate hearings?

  9. Jonathan Says:
  10. I am not much for films but High Noon is probably my favorite, for all of the reasons you mentioned.

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