The Politically Incorrect Truths Old Movies Teach About America and Racism
Many young people nowadays are indoctrinated to believe that American culture has always been dominated by conservative, racist, and other nasty influences. Understanding this complex history has not been balanced by this new indoctrination and distortion. It’s merely been made biased in the opposite direction far more systematically than it ever was before. Racism against African-Americans and many other things in American history are undeniable -- and shouldn't be.
Consequently there was plenty of room for improvement. But that same history also shows there is no need for endless self-flagellation. I’ve often noticed this but it came to my attention again in rewatching the film that brought a certain man to stardom. So what better way to learn about the true and dominant themes than that classical Western directed by John Ford, Stagecoach (1939) [For full script see here.]
Let’s examine the politics of the film. As a traditional Western, it shows the Americans — not whites, Americans — as good guys in a battle with the Apaches. Aside from this, though, are the following plot points:
— The stagecoach driver is married to a Mexican-American woman. No negative aspersions are cast at all. This is totally accepted. Incidentally, all three of John Wayne's wives were "Hispanics."
— The heroes of the film are an outlaw, whose motives for killing a man are portrayed sympathetically, and a prostitute.
— One theme that runs through the film is how the “respectable” people are mean to the prostitute and that's a terrible thing.
— Although the women are treated by the male characters as delicate, etc., their behavior shows them to be courageous, clear-headed, and as tough as circumstances require.
— The main villains are a banker and an ex-Confederate officer who has turned gambler, shot men in the back, and is a social snob.
— The banker, who is absconding with his bank’s embezzled funds, is a super-patriotic hypocrite. He actually says the following things and I am NOT making this up:
“And remember this -- what's good business for the banks is good for the country.”
"It always gives me great pride in my country when I see such fine young men in the U.S. Army."
"America for Americans! Don't let the government meddle with business! Reduce taxes! Our national debt is shocking, over a billion dollars! What the country needs is a businessman for president!"
That's not in 2012 but 1939. And remember that he is the bad guy so when he says these things the audience could be expected to groan and think that such a person is horrible and disgusting. When the mass media in 2013 portray a group like the Tea Party as racist or in 2012 portray Mitt Romney unfavorably — a businessman for president? — the ground has been well-prepared. In what film was a community organizer a villain?
— The moralistic and deliberately uglified respectable women of the town are presented as narrow-minded prigs.
— One of the stations the stage coach visits is run by a Mexican-American team, including the manager, who are portrayed sympathetically.
— When one of the passengers makes a racist remark about the Apache wife of the Mexican-American manager, he's made fun of. And note that the man's statements are made in the context of fear that she might somehow be a spy for the Apache forces whose imminent attack they fear. And on top of that he's not from the West and unused to seeing Native Americans. The other man who distrusts her is, of course, the evil banker. While she might actually be helping the Apaches, the banker is wrong when he accuses her of being a thief of his stolen loot, which he soon finds.
— In an early scene, the cavalry scout has reported that the Apaches have gone to war. Asked how do they know he’s telling the truth, an officer replies, “He’s a Cheyenne. They hate Apaches worse than we do.” So all Native Americans aren’t alike; some are allies. Today, the fact that some tribes were aggressive and “imperialistic,” engaging in massacres and tortures of others — motivating the latter to side with the U.S. army — is hidden, since that would distract from the narrative that only whites are racist and aggressive.
I’ve seen this kind of approach in loads of films from the 1930s and 1940s. One of the most remarkable is The Human Comedy, based on a story by the marvelous Armenian-American writer, William Saroyan. Rooney is a telegraph company messenger boy in a small town (based on Fresno, California) who feels he is missing out on all the excitement of World War II, where his brother has gone off to fight.
There’s an amazing scene when the telegraph office’s manager is driving his girlfriend past a succession of ethnic holiday picnics and makes a speech extolling ethnic diversity in America. In the film’s most moving scene, the Rooney character delivers a telegram to a poor Mexican-American woman about her son’s being killed in the war.
In Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, (1944) about the first U.S. air attack on Tokyo after Pearl Harbor, one of the airman gives a speech about how the Japanese he knew in California were nice people. I’ve seen such statements made in other wartime films.
And the Chinese people, who helped save the lives of the crashed fliers, are shown as heroic. There were many other films with a pro-Chinese theme. Sometimes it is mentioned nowadays that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor partly in response to a U.S. oil embargo on Japan, a fact presented as if it indicates that Tokyo was thus acting defensively against U.S. bullying and imperialism. What is never mentioned is that the embargo was a humanitarian gesture to protest and weaken Japanese aggression in China, operations involving mass murder of Chinese on a scale surpassed only by the Nazi genocide in Europe.
Now it might be pointed out that Thirty Seconds over Tokyo was largely written by the pro-Communist Dalton Trumbo, who later turned against the far left. But the film’s director Mervyn LeRoy was well-known as very conservative just like the director of Stagecoach, John Ford. And both of these directors were personal friends of John Wayne to boot.
The director of The Human Comedy was Clarence Brown, a great director of Hollywood’s golden age who has been unfairly forgotten. He was, as far as I can see, pretty apolitical but he did quit the film business to become a very successful businessman.
It is possible to accumulate scores of such points about all aspects of American life and culture that have been buried in the creation of a left-wing narrative that it was almost exclusively about imperialism, racism, and capitalism.
And inasmuch as correction was needed on various points or aspects of the story, this didn’t happen yesterday. It is startling to recall that Little Big Man and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, two of the most powerful pro-Native American Westerns, were made more than forty years ago.
Incidentally, how often have you heard about a high-ranking U.S. Cavalry officer who courageously protested mistreatment of Native Americans and how they were being robbed by corrupt government officials? He even risked his career to prepare anonymous articles published in newspapers showing that the secretary of war was taking kickbacks from the scoundrels.
His name? George Armstrong Custer.
PS: Two case studies.
1. Not long ago I read a terrible biography of Ulysses S. Grant which had nonetheless won a major national award. Much of it was ripped off with few changes from Grant’s terrific two-volume autobiography. Anyway, the author claimed that the reason the Grant Administration was accused of so much corruption by later historians was because they were racists who opposed his policy on Reconstruction. This was nonsense — a typically fashionable distortion of U.S. history — since Grant’s administration, despite his greatness as a soldier, was possibly the most corrupt in U.S. history.
2. During a time when my son was attending school in America, one of the books used in class, Sitting Bull, depicted him as being liked by everyone because he was very nice. See here for my more detailed discussion of the role of tribal conflict in these historical events.