And of course, it’s the audience that pays its salary, as Jonah Goldberg writes:
Early Cold War movies from the 1950s rank pretty high as targets for film-school vivisection. For decades, film historians have insisted that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is a thinly veiled (and paranoid) allegory about Communist infiltration. The movie ends with the protagonist screaming directly into the camera: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!”
The funny thing is that the filmmakers never saw it as an allegory about anything.
That doesn’t mean Body Snatchers didn’t reflect Cold War anxieties. But it’s a good reminder that filmmakers aren’t always aware of their inspirations and that sometimes the best way to articulate a larger message is to not try to.
Indeed, when Hollywood tries too hard, it usually comes out lame. The original Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was driven by a fear that the Cold War would turn hot and mankind’s propensity for violence would destroy the world. The 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves — playing yet another emotionally impaired, semi-stupid, quasi-robotic savior figure — was a predictably lame lecture about how humans (i.e., Americans) are bad stewards of the environment. It wouldn’t have been so annoying if it weren’t for the fact that the same movie is made nearly every year.
Since the end of the Cold War, Hollywood has been in desperate pursuit of enemies. You’d have thought that 9/11 would have provided a great opportunity for Hollywood to find a worthy enemy. But it turned out that moviemakers were more comfortable depicting jihadi terrorists before 9/11 than after (rent The Siege and Executive Decision if you don’t believe me). They’ve tried (and retried) aliens, drug kingpins, bad weather, and the always-enjoyable zombies. But, with a few exceptions, Hollywood is still most comfortable with the idea that the enemy is really us.
And it’s probably been that way for quite a while now. As PJTV’s Lionel Chetwynd once told the late Cathy Seipp:
When he was 17, Ike’s screenwriter and co-executive producer Lionel Chetwynd joined the 3rd Battalion Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), spending two years in the Canadian peacetime military. During that time he met some veterans of Dieppe, a bloody but necessary dress rehearsal to D-Day that established the futility of invading a fortified European port.Now in his early 60s, Chetwynd is a longtime naturalized American citizen who was born in England and raised in Montreal. He’d remembered from Canadian regimental history that of the 4,400-odd Canadians sent to Dieppe, about 3,600 were killed. Although they knew it was basically a suicide mission, not one man failed to report for duty. Chetwynd asked one of the old soldiers in his regiment, Sgt. Gordon Betts, why.
“My generation had to figure out what we were ready to die for,” Chetwynd recalled Betts telling him. “You kids don’t even know what to live for.”
Many years later, when Chetwynd was a successful Hollywood writer specializing in historical dramas, he told the Dieppe story during a Malibu dinner party — as a sort of tribute to the men who died there so people could sit around debating politics at Malibu dinner parties. One of the guests was a network head who asked Chetwynd to come in and pitch the story.
“So I went in,” Chetwynd told me, “and someone there said, ‘So these bloodthirsty generals sent these men to a certain death?’
“And I said, ‘Well, they weren’t bloodthirsty; they wept. But how else were we to know how Hitler could be toppled from Europe?’ And she said, ‘Well, who’s the enemy?’ I said, ‘Hitler. The Nazis.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I mean, who’s the real enemy?'”
“It was the first time I realized,” Chetwynd continued, “that for many people evil such as Nazism can only be understood as a cipher for evil within ourselves. They’ve become so persuaded of the essential ugliness of our society and its military, that to tell a war story is to tell the story of evil people.”
As long as they’re complacent middle class Americans — Hollywood obviously isn’t going to risk calling anyone who can shoot back evil.