Some of My Favourite Films, Part 2
Watchmen, 2009. What if superheroes were real – I mean really real?
Directed by Zack Snyder.
Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse.
Scored by Tyler Bates.
If Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies are the best supervillain movies (meaning that the supervillains challenge the superhero not just physically, but mentally and morally as well), then Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” is the best superhero movie (meaning that the superheroes actually act like Ubermenschen would, and do not just echo the humanistic pieties of the Untermenschen who hate and fear them). In fact, the one superhero in the movie who does echo those pieties turns out to be a supervillain. The superheroes themselves, however, are “watchmen” fighting the law-breaking and defending the law-abiding, which is actually quite subversive in today’s “anarcho-tyranny.”
The most important thing about “Watchmen” is its characters – who, however fantastic, have interesting and realistic personalities. As Alan Moore, the author of the graphic novel on which the movie is based (but who refused any involvement in the movie), explained of his characters, “We tried to set up four or five radically opposing ways of seeing the world and let the readers figure it out for themselves; let them make a moral decision for once in their miserable lives! Too many writers go for that ‘baby-bird’ moralizing, where your audience just sits there with their beaks open and you just cram regurgitated morals down their throat…What we wanted to do was show all of these people, warts and all. Show that even the worst of them had something going for them, and even the best of them had their flaws.”
One character, the Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is a deep-state agent who carries out assassinations, coups, and other black-ops activities that would warm Elliott Abrams’ heart. He acts cynical and irreverent out of increasing disillusionment, which peaks when he finally realizes that the liberal decadence which he has fought for all of his life is not a deviation from American ideals, but rather those ideals come to fruition. “Whatever happened to the American Dream?” one character asks the Comedian, in the midst of nationwide riots. “It came true,” the Comedian replies, sadly.
Another character, Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Haley), is a vigilante who is absolutely uncompromising in his pursuit of justice. He wears a mask that looks like a Rorschach test – and much like those inkblot tests, how viewers respond to the black-and-white Rorschach says something about who they are and what they value. Where are they on the x-axis from “lawful” to “neutral” to “chaotic,” and on the y-axis from “good” to “neutral” to “evil”?
Dr. Manhattan (played by Billy Crudup), a physicist who was destroyed in an experiment but who returned, miraculously, as a godlike figure. He grows increasingly detached from, if not disgusted with, humanity, and it is his lover, “Silk Spectre” (played by Malin Akerman), who must remind him of the value of life.
Adrian Veidt (played by Matthew Goode) is a capitalist and philanthropist who, before superheroes were outlawed, was “Ozymandias,” named after Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the megalomaniacal Egyptian pharaoh. Veidt is a materialist (who believes that unlimited resources will bring universal peace) as well as a utilitarian (who thinks in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number, not right and wrong).
Silence, 2016. The story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to discover the fate of their mentor, who is rumored to have renounced his faith and gone native.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson.
Written by Martin Scorsese.
Scored by Kim and Kathryn Kluge.
Like “Gangs of New York,” this movie was a passion project of Martin Scorsese’s which he had wanted to make for decades. It is an intensely religious story about faith and doubt – God’s apparent “silence” as his followers suffer. When two Jesuit priests in Portugal, Sebastio Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (played by Adam Driver), hear that their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), has become an apostate, they embark on a mission to redeem him, even though Japan has closed itself off to foreigners. When Rodrigues and Garupe arrive in Japan, they are horrified to by the official inquisition against Christian converts, (who, if exposed, must either apostatize or be tortured to death).
The Japanese point of view is similar to that of the Greek philosopher Celsus and the Roman Emperor Julian, both of whom opposed the Christianization of their peoples. According to Celsus and Julian, religion is not a matter of individual choice or free will, but is linked to particular peoples as expressions of their organic uniqueness. To the Japanese authorities in the movie, the Christian missionaries are a threat to the identity of their nation and the sovereignty of their state. Although the Japanese inquisition is portrayed, unflinchingly, as brutal (indeed, even diabolical, as the Japanese understand the Christians better than the Christians understand the Japanese, and are able to trick them into renouncing Christianity out of Christian motives), it is hard not to sympathize with the Japanese, who are simply trying to resist Western colonialism. Yet the Jesuit priests are not portrayed as chauvinists, either, but as earnest believers who are trying to save souls and are conflicted over the persecution that their presence causes. Indeed, to prepare for their roles, Garfield and Driver immersed themselves in the Jesuit lifestyle, and with the help of practicing Jesuits, even underwent the Jesuit rite of a seven-day silent prayer vigil.
True to its name, “Silence” is a quiet movie without much in the way of music. Instead of a score, there are the sounds of nature – of waves crashing on a rocky shore, of a nighttime forest buzzing with life, and so on. It is an utterly immersive experience.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 1993-1999. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav wars – in space!
Of all the Star-Trek series, “Deep Space Nine” is the most mature. “Next Generation” perfected the adventure format of the original series (uneven in quality and dated by sci-fi kitsch) and is enhanced by the acclaimed performance of Patrick Stewart. “Voyager” had Seven of Nine and “Enterprise” had Porthos. Yet “Deep Space Nine,” according to cast member Rene Auberjonois, “is the one that is almost like a Russian novel.” Indeed, as the show follows a well-sized cast of well-developed characters through war and peace, it is Tolstoyesque. While other Star-Trek series can be highly episodic, “Deep Space Nine” explored overarching themes of ethics, faith, identity, and more. While other Star-Trek series prioritized world-building over character-building, “Deep Space Nine” did both, building its own history and mythology as well as a highly individualized cast of heroes and villains. Speaking of villains, “the Dominion” is one of the most sinister villains in fiction: a galactic empire overseen by the “Vorta” (a genetically engineered managerial class) and “Jem’Hadar” (a genetically engineered warrior class), though ruled in secret by “the Founders” (a cabal of shapeshifters with a persecution complex who infiltrate and undermine other states which they have targeted for subjugation).
The Sopranos, 1999-2007. An Italian mob boss in New Jersey struggles to balance his two “families” – his fellow gangsters in the city with his wife and children in the suburbs.
This show blends thrilling criminal intrigue, moving relationship drama, dark comedy, and a skillfully deployed classic-rock soundtrack. It pioneered the often-imitated, rarely duplicated concept of making the protagonist an otherwise unsympathetic individual whom gives the audience a transgressive thrill. Mafia movies, along with Westerns, are a unique American art form, and “The Sopranos” is a Mafia story for this age of rootlessness, meaninglessness, and hopelessness. As Tony Soprano states at the very beginning of the show, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over…Take my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in ways he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, what do we got?”
Firefly, 2002-2003. “Space Opera” meets “Wild West.”
After reading The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel on the Battle of Gettysburg), Joss Whedon was inspired to tell a story about people who had fought on the losing side of a war and were seeking freedom on the frontier, like many ex-Confederates did in the American West after the Civil War. The result was “Firefly.” In the future, after Earth’s resources are depleted, the human race colonizes another star system. When the central planets (“The Sino-American Alliance”) try to take control of the outer planets (“The Independent Faction,” which is distinctly Wild West), war breaks out, and in the end, the Independents are badly beaten. Captain Malcom Reynolds, an Independents veteran, lives outside the law on the edge of civilization (known as “the black”), though he live by his own code of honor. The rest of Reynolds’ crew are all seeking their own forms of freedom, too: a city-slicker doctor, a high-class prostitute, a doe-eyed mechanic, a dim-witted mercenary, a fast-talking pilot, a kind-hearted preacher, and more. “Firefly” does what Whedon does best: tells a story filled with light humor around real depth of feeling. The cast is a salad bowl of different personalities and yet also a melting pot of one family. Just when the show seems not to be taking itself too seriously, it subverts expectations with a dose of sincerity, and when things are getting too serious, it subverts expectations with a dose of irony. Even the music stands out, which is rare for anything on television. Unfortunately, Americans would rather have a smorgasbord of never-ending sitcoms and procedurals, and thus “Firefly” was canceled midway through its first season. The show has a loyal fan-base, however (known as “Browncoats,” the unofficial name for Independents soldiers, and reminiscent of Confederate “Graybacks” and Union “Bluebellies”), and the show was continued as a movie, “Serenity,” which I also highly recommend.
The Wire, 2002-2008: The story of modern-day Baltimore told from the perspective of different municipal institutions (the schools, the press, the ports, the politicians, etc.), particularly through their relation to law-enforcement.
“The Wire” is the product of David Simon (a reporter for The Baltimore Sun) and Ed Burns (a Baltimore police officer and schoolteacher), who had collaborated on a book about inner-city life in Baltimore. They prided themselves on the realism of their storylines and characters, drawing from their own experiences in the city and often using non-professional actors from the city. “The Wire,” while cynical about the effect that institutions (whether bureaucracies or gangs) have on individuals, is optimistic about the humanity of individuals themselves (whether police officers or drug dealers). “The Wire” is, perhaps most popularly, a vehicle for virtue-signaling politically correct opinions, such as “the need for criminal-justice reform.” While such liberal platitudes were, without a doubt, the intention of Simon and Burns (and they are not wrong that the “War on Drugs” does more harm than good), because of his integrity as an artist and a journalist, that was not the only message that was conveyed. In fact, “The Wire” was a spectacular “Kinsey Gaffe” in that unsparingly portrayed the downright feral behavior – sorry, but is there any other word for this? or this? or this? – of Baltimore’s “black community.” The transformation of Baltimore from “Charm City” and “Monumental City” to “The City That Bleeds” parallels what has happened to many American cities in the wake of the civil-rights revolution. In just a few generations Baltimore transformed from a thriving metropolis to a blighted slum. The city’s demographics went from 63% white in 1950 to 76% black in 2010. Like most urban areas that have undergone similar demographic transformation, the city is also depopulating – by 35% between 1950 and 2010, with a 75% drop in the white population. The result is the world of “The Wire.” As someone whose family is from Maryland (my father’s side is from Baltimore and my mother’s side is from Annapolis) “The Wire” bleakly illustrates what my family – and our nation and civilization as a whole – has lost.
Battlestar Galactica, 2004-2009: After an apocalyptic event on Earth, what is left of the human race must preserve not only its very existence, but its ideals – what makes them human.
The 2000s “Battlestar Galactica” is a remake of an earlier series from the 1970s, and is a rare example of a remake that is actually an improvement on the original. While the original is pure sci-fi kitsch, the remake is an intelligent show. Unlike the futuristic world of “Star Trek,” the world of “Battlestar Galactica” feels real. It is not just the aesthetics which feel real, however, but the issues faced by the remnant of the human race. Whether election fraud, martial law, acts of terrorism, vigilante justice, collective punishment, and show trials, the question that is asked again and again is, “Can the ends ever justify the means?” (Anyone with a categorical answer to that question is someone who either believes in nothing at all or in only one thing, both equally dangerous.) “Battlestar Galactica,” which took place in the midst of the “War on Terror,” is clearly influenced by the debate between “national security” and “individual privacy,” what is “necessary” versus what is “legal,” and whether perceived threats are real or fake. Unfortunately, as the show ends, it takes a self-indulgent dive, dropping its complex politics for an over-the-top mysticism that is head-scratching and eye-rolling.
The Tudors, 2007-2010. The story of the life and times of King Henry VIII, with particular emphasis on his six different wives.
The appearance of this show is deceiving. On the surface, it may seem like a mass-market historical romance, where everyone is gorgeous and eager to rip off each other’s clothes. For instance, Henry VIII, rather than the husky man that we know from his portraiture, is played by a svelte Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who looks like he belongs in a cologne advertisement. It is a bit of a bodice-ripper, to be sure, but it is much more than that. It is also a compelling portrayal of English Reformation. While many historical liberties are taken, it is always necessary to cut and condense material when adapting a story – especially a true one. Catholics, in particular, will appreciate the unflinching portrayal of the Protestant revolution. “Idols,” such as art in churches or relics in shrines, were vandalized. Customs and traditions, such as festivals for saints, were outlawed as “idol-worship.” Homes were ransacked in search of “idols” (such as an image of a saint) and visiting a family graveyard to offer prayers for the departed was suspected as “idolatry.” Monasteries were abolished and their property confiscated. Rebellions by peasants who wanted to worship in their old ways were double crossed and stamped out. Catholic dissidents were executed. The Reformation, in short, was a period of hyper-fundamentalist repression. If the purpose of a historical adaptation is to create awareness of and interest in a particular event or period (even if every detail is not exactly right), then “The Tudors” succeeds marvelously.
True Detective (Season 1), 2014. Weird horror, cosmic terror, philosophical interludes, dark comedy, tempting women, and more.
In this Southern mystery, two detectives, Woody Harrelson’s Marty (an outwardly respectable family man, though inwardly a liar and a cheater) and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust (outwardly, a misanthrope, but inwardly, an honorable, lawful man), to solve a murder mystery which has haunted them for years. The show is set in Louisiana, because that is what the showrunner, Nic Pizzolatto (born in New Orleans, raised in rural Louisiana, and graduated from LSU) knows. It is no modern-day Southern gothic horror, however, like “True Blood,” but spends most of its time out in the sticks or deep in the underworld. In literature, the only place better for a horror story than New England (with its hyper-repressive hatred and fear of the unknown) is the South (with its grim resignation to the existence of evil). Southern writers, influenced by an older Christianity which has nothing to do with the fanatical Hebraic-Puritanism of New England, know that there is an innate evil in humanity which no social systems or progressive reforms, however well-intentioned and well-administered, can ever fully repress. “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks,” quipped Flannery O’Conner, “I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” As their suspenseful investigation uncovers darker and darker secrets, the detectives’ notions of morality and even reality are shaken their core.
And now, for American history. I feel the same way about American history and movies that the late Tom Wolfe did about modern American life and novels: with so much potential material out there, how is it that historical movies are so scarce (and when they exist at all, they are usually meant to make us feel bad about ourselves?). Why is there no historical adventure movie featuring John Smith, who was a real-life swashbuckling hero? Why is there a historical romance about the fictional romance between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but not one about the real-life romance between Thomas and his wife, Martha? The list of wasted opportunities is endless.
The Patriot, 2000. The story of the American Revolution in South Carolina, following a yeoman farmer trying to escape his reputation as a legendary Indian fighter and keep his family safe.
Directed by Roland Emmerich.
Starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger.
Written by Robert Rodat.
Composed by John Williams.
A brilliant but flawed movie which has become near and dear to my heart due to the fanatical, malicious criticism to which it has been subjected. Yes, the movie is, at times, melodramatic, and, at times, historically inaccurate, but other movies which grossly falsify history in order to be politically correct are not nearly as criticized as “The Patriot” was for its harmless fictional liberties here and there. For instance, 2016’s much-applauded “Birth of a Nation” rewrote the history of Nat Turner’s slave revolt: instead of a short-lived killing spree of white families in their sleep which was summarily crushed by the local militia, it was a heroic rebellion against white supremacy which held out until it was crushed by overwhelming numbers. In fact, criticism of “The Patriot” was one of my earliest encounters with the Cultural-Marxist Left: a young, teenaged me, “surfing the web” as we said back then, came across Salon’s hate-laced review, in which a neurotic, paranoid Jewish critic compared this conventionally patriotic movie to Nazi propaganda.
The protagonist, Benjamin Martin (played by a typically heroic Mel Gibson), is a composite-character of the real-life South Carolinians Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter, and the antagonist, Col. William Tavington (played by a typically villainous Jason Isaacs), is based on the Briton Banastre Tarleton. The movie accurately depicts the internecine warfare between American revolutionaries and loyalists which took place in South Carolina, the backwoods “guerrilla” warfare which superseded pitched battles, and the decisive importance of French intervention. The Battle of Camden is briefly depicted, and the final battle is based loosely on the battles of Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. John Williams’ martial score is full of bugles, drums, and fifes, sounding a lot like what the painting, “The Spirit of ’76,” looks like, and makes me long for the true sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – not a stylized R&B cover, but a poetic anthem which should be backed by the full force of an orchestra.
The movie has been justly criticized for falsely depicting the British as vicious war criminals and minimizing the presence of slavery. Indeed, British tyranny is almost entirely a figment of the American imagination, even back in 1776. Prior to the American Revolution, the colonists were already the freest people in the world, and it was that freedom which gave them the self-consciousness and self-confidence to break away from their mother country and central government. When it comes to slavery, while I object to the morbid obsession with it which masquerades as “historical accuracy,” I also object to cowering from it in the name of “political correctness.” Slavery existed in the Americas, because the Americas were colonized by Europe, and slavery existed in European colonies, as well as everywhere else in the world at the time and for all time. In fact, slavery’s roots in human history are so wide and deep that, technically speaking, it is arguably the natural state of humanity, and the idea that every individual is equal and has rights the profoundly irregular, unnatural state. I refuse to live in fear of slavery – that is, of being called “racist” for refusing to erase my history, deny my existence, and abort my future – and encourage all other Americans to emancipate themselves.
Gangs of New York, 2002. The story of tribal politics in New York City, riven by mass-immigration and the Civil War, following one man’s quest to kill the man who killed his father.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lorgan.
Composed by Howard Shore.
“Gangs of New York” is a superb movie, with the great director Martin Scorsese, the great actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio, and the great composer Howard Shore all at the top of their game. It is a Shakespearean tragedy set in New York City, 1863, with themes of honor, loyalty, and revenge. Portraying this period of American history (which is, in this case, based on Gangs of New York, a book from 1928 about the immigrant-versus-native gang warfare) was a passion project of Scorsese’s for decades.
The nominal antagonist, Day-Lewis’ Bill “the Butcher” Cutting, is, in my opinion, the real protagonist of the movie. At the very least, the nominal protagonist, DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon, has little to no redeeming qualities, while the antagonist has many. In the interest of not spoiling anything, all that can be said is that brutal as Bill is, he fights for his people and lives by a code of honor (just like his legendary enemy, “Priest Vallon,” and unlike Priest’s son, Amsterdam, driven by the low motive of revenge and willing to dishonor himself to have it). To borrow some lines from Bill himself, in a world of “base defilers,” it is only Bill who rises above the mob to be “a great man.” It helps, of course, that Day-Lewis is absolutely captivating as Bill, striding across the screen with charisma and machismo, unlike the skulking Amsterdam.
Unfortunately, most critics seem to have drawn the wrong conclusion from “Gangs of New York,” believing that it is merely another ethno-religious pageant of good immigrants versus bad nativists, in which democracy and diversity win out in the end. (Even contributors at VDare.com have criticized the movie along these lines, though not everyone agrees.) This is incorrect and unfair. The movie’s portrait of democracy is one of corruption and cynicism. Everyone is for democracy because everyone is cheating the system. Its portrait of diversity, likewise, is not one of vibrancy, but of squalor and despair. Immigrants are tearing down and burning the society of their host country, both figuratively and literally. Its portrait of the Civil War, even, is not one of the usual Yankee triumphalism: all of the main characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, are either uninterested or outright opposed to the war. Scorsese, justly famous for his visual spectacles, pulls off a long tracking shot which follows Irish immigrants as they disembark from a ship, are conscripted into the Union army, then put back on a ship heading to the war front – which is, at the same time, unloading coffins of Union soldiers. Far from an empty-headed applauding for the shlock and schmaltz, “Gangs of New York,” much like Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” has a deeply subversive message.
Gods and Generals, 2003. The story of the first two years of the Civil War, focused on Gen. Stonewall Jackson, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Col. Joshua Chamberlin.
Directed by Ron Maxwell.
Starring: Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, and Jeff Daniels.
Written by Ron Maxwell.
Composed by John Frizzell.
This movie is brilliant but flawed; it reminds me of a diamond with excellent color and cut, but poor carat and clarity. It is full of cumbersome and didactic writing, but it is also full of spectacular battle sequences (particularly Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville), as well as well-written, well-acted, and well-scored scenes which capture the pathos of the Civil War.
The critics do not hate it for its flaws, however, but for its virtues: it commits the thought-crime of humanizing the Southern people. In this fanatical “Battle Hymn of the Republic” school of history, there is no pathos to the Civil War: it was the smiting of evil incarnate, and the only tragedy is that the smiting was not bloodier and fierier. According to the historian Steven E. Woodworth, for instance, “Gods and Generals” is “the most pro-Confederate film since Birth of a Nation, a veritable celluloid celebration of slavery and treason.” To Woodworth, anything which presents the Confederacy in a positive light must, by definition, be “Lost-Cause mythology,” because, in his mind, there was literally nothing positive about the Confederacy – even depicting Confederate soldiers as a fearsome fighting force, a historical fact to which Union soldiers amply attested, is suspect.
All of this, of course, is quite insane. Granted, there is plenty of SCV-influenced historical revisionism in the movie (yes, slavery did play a role, and the sooner we understand how and why, the sooner we can more effectively defend our heritage and identity from anti-historical presentism and iconoclasm), but that is not the only reason critics like Woodworth hate it. They hate it because of Robert E. Lee’s reflection on what it means to fight for your homeland, the love and loyalty shown for one another by the white and black members of a Fredericksburg family, for the performance of “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and other such humanizing moments. Its predecessor, “Gettysburg” (which takes place after the events of this movie, yet was made in first in 1993) has all the same strengths and weaknesses as “Gods and Generals,” and our own Clyde Wilson, quite controversially, prefers Martin Sheen’s Lee to Robert Duvall’s.
The Alamo, 2004. The story of American folk-heroes Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Barret Travis in their last stand at the Battle of the Alamo.
Directed by John Lee Hancock.
Starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, and Patrick Wilson.
Written by John Lee Hancock.
Composed by Carter Burwell.
“The Alamo” is a big-budget battle movie. Prior to the battle itself, which is the movie’s set piece, there is a lot of expository dialogue on the historical background as well as the characters’ backstories, though it does not lay it on as thick as “Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg.” Patrick Wilson, playing William Barrett Travis, movingly portrays an idealistic but inexperienced young man struggling for the respect of older, harder men. Jason Patric, playing James Bowie, acts with the intensity of a rattlesnake about to strike, just like his character. Last, but not least, Billy Bob Thornton is perfect as the hard-bitten, wise-cracking Davy Crockett.
The Texan Revolution is one of many events of American history which cannot be squared with the cuckservatives’ Sunday-School lessons about American history. Where does a quasi-racial war between “Hispanic” Mexicans and “Anglo” Americans fit in with the bromide that “America” has no ethno-cultural identity or heritage, but is a “proposition nation”? Does anyone believe that Americans fought at the Alamo to “dedicate themselves to the proposition that all men are created equal”? David French, Jim Geraghty, and Kevin Williamson probably do, but imagine the laughter that such a notion would have elicited from Bowie, Crockett, and Travis!
Speaking of the Alamo and cuckservatives, an incident involving the two had a decisive impact on my then-young mind. In 2010, National Review, in an obituary for the actor Fess Parker, described Crockett (his most famous role) as a “gaudy self-promoter.” In response, “Carol L. Crockett” wrote a letter defending the memory of her ancestor from this completely uncalled for dishonor. Ms. Crockett quoted from Jay Winik’s review of A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, which had been published in National Review nine years earlier. In that review, Winik quoted the founder of and editor of National Review himself, William F. Buckley, who dismissed the revisionist history around Crockett as a “traditional debunking campaign” by “liberal publicists.” According to Buckley, “He’ll survive the carpers.” In reply to Ms. Crockett, the editors reiterated that while Crockett “died a hero’s death,” he was, in life, a “gaudy self-promoter.” “History is as simple as humanity,” they intoned, whatever that is supposed to mean. After that embarrassing exchange (there was no need to respond to her letter, and certainly not in such an arrogant and petulant manner), I promptly canceled my subscription. For years, I had read National Review with increasing dissatisfaction – mainly with its ideological neo-conservatism, but I had also come to hate the editors’ obnoxious habit of putting down well-meaning readers. They came off as schoolboys with more wit than wisdom (and not much of either, at that) who always had to get the last word. Read Chronicles and The American Conservative instead!
Like most movies about American history (at least those that are not guilt-fests over racism), “The Alamo” was critically panned, and, sadly, was a spectacular “box-office bomb.” In 2004, apparently, Americans would rather have watched yet another “Shrek” movie, yet another “Spider-Man” movie, yet another “Harry Potter” movie, and worse (mindless, tasteless garbage such as “Dodgeball,” “Starsky and Hutch,” and “Anchorman”), than a patriotic action movie about a true story so dramatic that it seems legendary – an American “Thermopylae.”
Sadly, mass-immigration – legal and illegal – has given away what was won in 1836 and 1848. Texas recently crossed the majority-minority demographic event horizon, which has already brought and will continue to bring cultural, political, and social changes. San Antonio itself, the site of the Alamo, is now a “sanctuary city” (and the kritarchy has, running interference for the Left as usual, prevented anyone from doing anything to stop that).
For what it is worth, the “Deguello de Crockett” scene is, in my opinion, one of the best portrayals of the spirit of the South. You’ll have to watch it to find out for yourself!
The New World, 2005. The founding of Jamestown, inspired by the legendary romance of John Smith and Pocahontas.
Directed by Terrence Malick.
Starring Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, and Christian Bale.
Written by Terrence Malick.
Composed by James Horner.
Terrence Malick, who directed and wrote “The New World,” was, refreshingly, not out to “deconstruct” the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, as many historians are eager to do these days. Just look at how “Pocahontas,” a charming children’s cartoon, is still sneered at for “neo-colonialism” and “cultural appropriation.” Whether literally true (in that their romance did indeed happen) or mythically true (in that their romance, like the Thanksgiving fable, is a metaphorical memory), Malick could not care less. To him, the story is a vehicle to illustrate how the American-Indian natives and the European colonists both discovered a “new world” at the same time. To the natives, “Europe” was as much a “new world” as “America” was to the colonists.
Speaking of “myths,” one of the most annoying and undying “myths” of American history is that the American-Indians were peaceful people before and after the arrival of Europeans. As John Smith puts in the movie (in an adaptation of a passage written by an earlier English explorer, Arthur Barlowe), “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.” This belief in the “noble savage” is a form of the “romantic primitivism” which can come over civilized people when they first encounter an uncivilized “Other.” The Romans viewed the Germanic barbarians in the forests as noble savages. The English viewed the Scottish barbarians in the highlands as noble savages. When Europeans encountered the Indians, they viewed them as noble savages, too. The idea has always been that “soft” civilized life corrupts people, while “hard” savage life ennobles people. Many Indians, probably unknowingly, have absorbed this sentimental fantasy into their own identity. (Nowadays, the “noble savage” myth is not based on philosophical beliefs about the innate virtue of humanity and the innate depravity of civilization, but is based rather on the innate virtue of non-white people and the innate depravity of white people.) The reality is that the Indians were anything but “noble savages.” Reviewing “The New World,” Dr. Cathy Schultz, a professor at the University of St. Francis, objected that Powhatan and his people “were far from the innocent, childlike creatures we see in the film,” but that they “ruled by conquest over the surrounding tribes.” Indeed, in 1622, the Powhatan Chiefdom, in a coordinated surprise attack across several English settlements in Virginia, massacred one-third of the white population – assuming, incorrectly, that the English would act as other Indians would after defeat in battle and simply leave. Long before Europeans arrived, Indians fought wars of enslavement and extermination amongst themselves which, if most people knew about, would drain their blood and chill their bones. The cause of these inter-tribal genocides? Land! In fact, most of what people think that they know about Indians comes from the “New Age” movement, which – to borrow a term – culturally appropriates them as symbols of its nebulous spirituality. Of course, none of this is to excuse the U.S. government’s own savagery and treachery in its relations with the Indians. When more than one civilization comes to occupy the same space, coexistence is impossible and conflict is inevitable, yet even so, the U.S. government often dishonored itself in that conflict.
“The New World” is a movie of little dialogue but with lush visuals. According to one reviewer, the movie – a spellbinding spectacle of unspoiled sights and sounds – reflects Mallick’s obsession with “Eden.” Malick has probably not read Louis B. Wright’s Colonial Search for a Southern Eden, but his portrayal of Virginia as an “Eden” is exactly how the “Cavaliers” who colonized Virginia perceived it, in stark contrast to “Puritan” colonists up north, who feared the “howling wilderness.” Early in the movie (in a voiceover adapted from John Smith’s own words) John Smith expresses his high hopes for the New World: “A world equal to our hopes, a land where one might wash one’s soul pure, rise to one’s true stature. We shall make a new start. A fresh beginning. Here all the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor. Here there is good ground for all and no cost but one’s labor. We shall build a true commonwealth, hard work and self-reliance our virtues. We shall have no landlords to rack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labor. No man shall stand above any other, but all live under the same law.” While the Virginians were clearly optimistic – perhaps somewhat “utopian” – about what life would be like in the New World, they still identified as Englishmen and Christians and intended on maintaining historical continuity with their country and church. Once again, it was the Puritans who were the real “utopians,” cutting themselves off from the world while also setting themselves above the world, in order to found a “City Upon A Hill,” or a “Christian Israel” and “Hebrew Republic.”
Lincoln, 2012. The story of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by the Congress near the end of Abraham Lincoln’s life.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
Written by Tony Kushner.
Composed by John Williams.
Hear me out! The portrayal of Lincoln in the movie, which might seem hagiographic at first, is actually deceivingly historically accurate. For one, the movie clearly portrays Lincoln bribing and lying (not just to politicians, but to the public) in order to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the Congress. He offers patronage to politicians in exchange for their votes. “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!” Lincoln shouts. “You will procure me those votes!” He covers up negotiations with Confederate peace envoys (offering to restore the Union but leave slavery intact – a compromise which Northerners would have eagerly accepted), and when news of such a peace offer leaks, he lies and denies it. David Brooks, one of the “house conservatives” at The New York Times, wrote a whole column about how he hoped that Lincoln would not only inspire Millennials to believe in “the high vision” of politics again, but also teach them to accept the “low cunning” that politics requires. “It shows that you can do more good in politics than any other sphere,” gushes Brooks, “but you can achieve these things only if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise, and be slippery and hypocritical.” I can think of few better tableaus of the corrupted, degenerated state of Conservatism, Inc. than this column on “Lincoln” by Brooks.
For another, the movie shows Lincoln’s signature rhetorical style of twisting the meaning of questions he is asked and avoiding straight answers to even the simplest of questions. There were many moments when the script could have had Lincoln deliver a presentist pontification about how race is nothing more than skin color, or something, but in which he dodges the issue with a facile, folksy tale instead. This can easily be misunderstood as homespun wisdom, but it is not hard to point out that Lincoln is simply talking about of both sides of his mouth, which is annoying once it is noticed. In one scene, for example, a freedwoman who is friends with Lincoln’s wife, states, “White people don’t want us here” (to which Lincoln replies “many don’t”), and then asks him, “What about you?” Lincoln replies, “I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you. But what you are to the nation, what’ll become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.” That is another way of saying, “No, I don’t want you here, either. I’m one of those white people to whom you just referred. But I can’t just come out and tell you that.” In another scene, Lincoln lectures his Cabinet on presidential war powers, using lawyerly sophistry to deconstruct the Constitution. Afterwards, his own Secretary of the Interior comments, “You’re describing precisely the sort of dictator the Democrats have been howling about,” and asks the rest of the Cabinet, “What reins him in?” Last of all, in a fine example of Lincoln’s rhetoric, he invokes Euclidean geometry in support of his fundamentalist “all men are created equal” interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. “Euclid’s first common notion is this: ‘Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other’…That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works; has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is ‘self-evident.’ D’you see? There it is, even in that two-thousand year-old book of mechanical law: it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That’s the origin, isn’t it? That’s balance, that’s fairness, that’s justice.” So if A and B are both equal to C, then, logically, A is equal to and B is equal to A…therefore, “all men are created equal”?
To the movie’s credit, the primary antagonists (the opponents of the amendment, represented by George H. Pendleton and Fernando Wood) and secondary antagonists (the Confederate envoys Alexander Stephens, R.M.T. Hunter, and John Campbell) are not characterized as intellectually, physically, and spiritually defective, as if it were a medieval morality play, and are allowed to speak for themselves in key moments. The movie’s secondary protagonists (Republicans like William Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, and Francis Preston Blair, Sr.) are hardly lionized, either, but are characterized realistically, as a querulous politician, a fanatical ideologue, and a reluctant conservative, respectively. Daniel Day-Lewis, famously selective about his roles as well as renowned for his intense “method-acting,” transforms himself into character and delivers a definitive Lincoln performance – not supreme, stentorian, and statuesque, but sensitive, soft-spoken, and stooped (not to mention slippery). For John Williams, however, the score is surprisingly unmemorable, though this is not a movie that really needs much of a score. All things considered, “Lincoln” is a historically accurate movie about a historically important event, whether or not we are happy with the way that everything happened.
The Witch, 2015. A New-England family, banished from their colony and living on the outskirts of civilization, is terrorized by a witch lurking in the woods.
Directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, and Kate Dickie.
Written by Robert Eggers.
Composed by Mark Korven.
“The Witch” is an “atmospheric horror” movie that is as much about the psychological as it is the supernatural. The eponymous character does not merely prey on the family’s livestock and children, but on their fears as well, turning them against each other one by one.
The director and writer, Robert Eggers, grew up in New England. “Witches were a part of all my earliest nightmares,” he explains. “The 17th-century witch, the Puritan witch – she’s a lot more primal and a lot scarier than we ever would have imagined.” In order to make the audience really believe in the witch the way that the characters would believe in her, Eggers demanded absolute realism. The dialogue is written in an archaic style of English and spoken with heavy English accents. (Some of the actual lines are adapted from 17th-century documents, including passages from the writings of Cotton Mather and John Winthrop.) For authenticity, costumes, props, and sets were hand-constructed with period-appropriate tools. (For reference, museums were visited, archaeologists were consulted, and some of the more detailed work was outsourced to master craftsmen.) The movie was filmed out in the woods, not in a studio, and on a location so remote that cell-phone service was dead. The characters are not disdainfully “pathologized” à la Arthur Miller, either: they are not portrayed as dumb bumpkins or creepy fanatics, as religious folk are usually portrayed in entertainment media, but as the common folk of their time and place. The result was an immersive experience for the crew, the actors, and of course, for the audience.
What makes “The Witch” so frightening is not cheap jump-scares or gore-porn (there is, fortunately, neither in the movie), but the atmosphere of gloom and doom, which only grows more ominous as the story unfolds. The family lives in fear of the dark woods which surround their homestead, in fear of an evil devil preying on their weaknesses, in fear of a lawful god punishing them for their sins, and in fear of one another for betraying them. “Fear itself” is not the only thing that this family has to fear, however. “The Witch” is, as Eve Tushnet comments at The American Conservative, “a powerful brew of family tragedy, religious drama, and horror show.”
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James Rutledge Roesch lives in Florida. He is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, as well as the author of From Founding Fathers to Fire-Eaters: The Constitutional Doctrine of States' Rights in the Old South.