Shiny Shelf

The Liberal Style in American Action Movies

By Stephen Lavington on 02 May 2008

Conventional wisdom has it that Hollywood action movies are the preserve of the American right. The history of such movies is one in which trends of macho individualism, self-sufficiency and basic patriotism are as evident and persistent as the writing in a stick of rock.

If early gangster films are considered hamstrung in the independence of their expression by the Hays code, Westerns and war films are left as the ancestors of today’s action-adventure and in both cases the overwhelming archetypes are represented by the grizzled and reactionary masculinity of John Wayne or the more thoughtful but still fiercely patriotic earnestness of James Stewart.

Captain James Stewart USAF was an actual accredited war hero (Wayne just played the part). In later years this trend would develop in the political sphere as action stars such as Clint Eastwood, Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger threw their hats in the electoral ring – and emerged victorious – on the basis of solid Republican viewpoints, while Charlton Heston’s last screen role was as himself – spokesman for the National Rifle Association – in ‘Bowling for Columbine’. Most recently Mike Huckabee, the most rightwing of all candidates for the 2008 presidential election, enjoyed the prominent support of Chuck “there’s no chin behind Chuck Norris’ beard, just another fist” Norris.

Conversely the silence from action heroes on the left is deafening, especially as it is the Hollywood liberals whose politicking gets the most attention. Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Ben Affleck, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn. These lady-men (and in one case lady) are no match for the likes of Eastwood, Arnie or Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

However, the one liberal exception among the great action heroes of the past suggests that, in looking beyond the actors to the movies themselves, a trend can be seen that has made action movies of recent years actually more radical than they first appear and has led to the most modern blockbusters becoming actively liberal in their outlook.

In ‘High Noon’ Gary Cooper gave us the first action hero character who was simultaneously a liberal figure. ‘High Noon’ was about the hero who does not bow to oppression, to the weight of popular opinion, to tyranny supported by apathy but who makes a stand, even if he then judges the people he protects as unworthy of his protection. Most importantly Cooper’s Will Kane throws his Marshall’s star into the dust at the end, rejecting the very authority, that of the United States, which he has exercised and sought to maintain (an attitude linked to the HUAC hearings of the time).

It is in the questioning and rejection of authority that action films are at their most radical. The path of the individual, the loner who solves problems on his own terms, is one where the prevailing ethos is libertarianism rather than conservatism; self-sufficiency, independence but with a heavy element of altruism too. The true hero will not allow the innocent to be harmed.

For a time this element of independence could sit happily beside a patriotic acceptance that whatever the U.S. did was, basically, right. The changing point was Vietnam. In ‘The Green Berets’ the same gritty flag-waving that saw John Wayne take Iwo Jima seemed clunky and jarring. However, this war and the American film revival which accompanied it largely turned its back on the action hero. The cinematic supermen of the 70s were either amoral anti-heroes (‘The Godfather’; ‘The French Connection’) or bookish everymen without the resources of brute strength to fight their way out of trouble (‘Three Days of the Condor’; ‘The Parallax View’; ‘All the President’s Men’; ‘The Conversation’). These latter films also turned authority into a villain. If you supported the United States government you supported the shadowy agencies which killed to maintain hegemony, the shadowy corporations which pulled the politician’s strings or the shadowy President who ran the whole shadowy show. The atmosphere was one of paranoia where the only person a hero could trust was himself. This rejection and mistrust of authority carried across into the sci-fi genre (for example, ‘Alien’, ‘Escape from New York’, ‘The Thing, ‘Aliens’),

Something of this climate survived the transition from Nixonian bitterness and strife to Reagan-ite optimism and bellicosity. While movies such as ‘Top Gun’ celebrated the state and its shiny war-making apparatus, other films were more ambivalent. At face value ‘Predator’ is simple gung-ho escapism as muscled commandos are hunted by an invisible alien. At second analysis the subtext appears to be cold war propaganda as the intangible adversary in the South American jungle becomes a metaphor for the communist menace lurking in Nicaragua and Cuba. On third inspection the villain of the piece is as much the American government and the CIA whose spying is the reason for the commandos’ expedition and whose lying puts them in danger.

Similarly in ‘First Blood’, John Rambo finds himself fighting not Viet Cong but the forces of small town authority in the shape of a sadistic sheriff. Even the flag-waving ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ portrays the U.S. government as unable to get the job done and as ultimately betraying John Rambo when he sets out to settle things on his own terms. In ‘Rambo III’ he refuses to take on a mission to Afghanistan solely on his government’s say-so – it takes the capture of a close friend to push him into action.

In cop movies the impulse that started with Dirty Harry’s dislike of pinko liberals became an objection to authority figures in general. The cliché of the sergeant/lieutenant/police chief who keeps meddling with an important investigation has become well-worn (‘Beverly Hills Cop’ perhaps provides the archetype). However, this character remains somewhat avuncular – not actively opposed but a hindrance to the adventures of the protagonist. This changed somewhat in ‘Die Hard’ (another John ‘Predator’ McTiernan movie) where the police bureaucracy and later the efforts of the FBI actually formed part of the villain’s plans. Authority was in league, albeit unknowingly, with the bad guys. It is also telling that Die Hard features the following dialogue:

GRUBER: Well this time John Wayne will not ride off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.
McCLANE: That’s Gary Cooper asshole!

Despite the similarity in names John McClane is not the flag-waving sheriff who rides into danger without a care, but a man who does what he has to despite the strictures of authority and despite the griping of the people in whose interest he acts. He also suffers attacks by the media, formerly the friend of the people (‘All the President’s Men’) now just another monolithic institution with its own interest and agenda.

The heroes of these action films are not out to help or protect these identifiable institutions but to help and protect people (i.e. victims or potential victims) or ideals. In ‘Shooter’, Mark Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger, a military hero and loner who is consistently betrayed and attacked by his government and those institutions that control it. He is different from McClane, the first blue-collar action film, in that he fights to uphold his country as an idealised notion, rather than as the creature of special interest groups, and not just because he has to. In doing this he confronts the cynical politics of oil but, unlike Robert Redford in ‘Three Days of the Condor’, he’s packing a .50 cal sniper rifle and an arsenal of automatic weapons as well as righteous indignation.

The zenith of this particular trend for the idealistic action hero is Jason Bourne. Throughout the trilogy of Bourne films the titular protagonist is pitted against the shady government agency which trained and employed him. The villain is not now a few bad apples in corporations or in the Oval Office. Nor is it a system which unwittingly assists international criminals. The enemy here is US policy itself, a policy of deniable covert assassination which, in the current political climate, requires very little in suspension of disbelief. Bourne makes for an interesting contrast to Bond in that the former lacks all the hi-tech support and official approval of the latter. In this he embodies the independent frontiersman able to rely on nothing and no-one but his wits and his skills with a rifle.

The key development is from individuals who reject a strict adherence to authority in order to fight evil, to individuals who find their fight hindered by authority, to individuals who fight the authority itself. On top of that, this authority ceases to be just under the influence of bad men but inherently, institutionally, bad.

American action heroes have always tended to act alone, this representing the individualistic ideal of, in their earliest incarnation, the cowboys of the old West. However, as society has grown and developed so as to diminish these frontier freedoms, the encroachment of a broader control of the individual has affected these basic stories of one man against the world. Now that one man finds it increasingly difficult to operate as an individual, whether under constant observation by the system (‘Enemy of the State’), or under its control (‘Conspiracy Theory’, ‘The Manchurian Candidate (2004)’).

Since the 1970s cinema has seen the forces of the establishment ranged against the action hero. Control has been sought over the individual, control through monolithic institutions of government or comparably powerful corporate and media interests. However initial belief in the fundamental rightness of democratically elected government (‘Seven Days in May’) has given way to cynicism, ironically fuelled in part by the libertarian Reagan revolution of the 1980s. The most prominent political figure in the golden age of action movies, the man who idolised John Rambo, pedalled a political agenda built on distrust of government. At the time the macho heroes who followed this belief battled a liberal bureaucracy with their back to basics approach (‘Dirty Harry’). However the wheel has now turned full circle and it now suits the American right to build an extensive quasi-government on the basis of military contractors and a bloated military. In these circumstances some action heroes will fall into line (most notably in the staunchly neo-con TV show ‘The Unit’). However, the same libertarian doctrine that drove John Wayne drives Jason Bourne, and the action heroes on the big screen have increasingly found themselves ranged against the American state itself.

This is not a universal rule, and a lot of action films exist where generic evil enemies are defeated by sanctioned US forces (‘Delta Force’, ‘True Lies’). However, the very nature of the “true” American action hero is to defy authority and, in the currently political climate, to defy authority can easily segue into taking a stand which appeals to the liberal in the same way that the maverick actions of Rambo or Harry Callahan appealed to the conservative.

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By Stephen Lavington


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