These were harder to choose than I thought. I could easily have come up with another ten and covered several new angles. But I wanted a mix of good commanders and bad, intimate situations and world-shaping ones–or sometimes both. If you watch these ten, you can get a good sense of just how difficult it is to lead under pressure…and perhaps intuit why we are no longer good at it. It might even be a decent guide to answering whether we ever will be good at it again.
Me, I dunno. When we no longer have actors who can even imagine how to play these parts in a movie, I would say the signs aren’t good…but history exists to surprise us. I left aside such magnificent portraits as Herbert Lom’s definitive Napoleon in King Vidor’s War and Peace and George C. Scott’s Patton to focus on small unit command: the ship’s crew, the wagon train, the cavalry patrol, the lonely outpost. Mastery of such things is the root of Western Civilization’s military success and relentless civilizational advance for three thousand years. Any other sort of progress, real or imagined, that has been made the meanwhile is because people like these won the space for it when they succeeded and were punished by God and the courts of law when they failed.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
D. Frank Lloyd
Like most of the films here Bounty‘s story was based on a real incident. Pure fictions involving small unit command are usually adventure stories like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, wonderful films that alas, can do no more than reflect the qualities that shape the real world. The Nordhoff-Hall novel upon which this and the several remakes are based was already famous. But if we ponder the miracle of its two iconic characters–the able but sadistic sea captain William Bligh and the reluctant leader of his crew’s resistance, Fletcher Christian–being so definitively portrayed in the same movie, it becomes a little less miraculous when we consider that, at least outside Great Britain, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable helped make them iconic. The Bligh/Christian template–a vicious leader driving his men to the brink of mutiny by insisting on the letter of the law transcending its spirit to appease his own cramped soul–has found its way into a lot more than Bounty remakes…as we shall see. In any case, this is the exemplar in how not to lead free men. The refusal of the British Admiralty’s judges to shake Bligh’s hand after they, too, have followed the letter of the law and upheld his conduct, is a great lesson in the power of unspoken honor codes to rule men’s thoughts, irrespective of what the law demands of their actions.
Northwest Passage (1940)
D: King Vidor
A fictionalized account of Rogers’ Rangers, the famous militia who performed miracles on the frontier during the French and Indian War. Robert Rogers had a checkered career afterwards, descending into alcoholism, fighting for England in the American Revolution he had done as much as any man to make possible if not inevitable, and being exiled for his troubles. But, as portrayed by Spencer Tracy during the Rangers’ glory days, this is a finely etched character study of the kind of man needed to both drive and inspire men to the very limits of their capacities and perhaps a bit beyond. By the end, you can understand why such a man comes to need conflict and why, so often, only his kind can ensure victory. Always assuming they don’t turn into Captain Bligh. Vidor was one of the great, under-sung period directors who, especially with the aid of glorious Technicolor, can make you feel the sheer physical effort and sacrifice required of anyone who served under a man like Rogers and why those who survived took exceptional pride in being one of his men. It wouldn’t surprise me if George C. Scott, or George Patton himself, learned a thing or two by studying Rogers or Tracy or both.
Wing and a Prayer (1944)
D. Henry Hathaway
Of course, World War II brought many studies in command to the screen. Few were better than this relatively forgotten film which loosely re-creates the Bounty triad on an aircraft carrier preparing for Midway, with Charles Bickford’s captain serving as a stand-in for English sea law, Don Ameche’s second-in-command serving as Bligh and Dana Andrews serving as Christian. Except Ameche, in the performance of his career, is a better man than Bligh, able to play the hard-ass who stands between order and chaos, make the brutally hard decisions about life and death that are required for the mission to succeed, and take the slings and arrows that come with it, without losing himself. His satisfying but lonely walk in the rain at film’s end speaks quiet volumes about the emotional cost of middle command. (A good companion piece is 1948’s Twelve O’Clock High, with Gregory Peck playing a similar role to perfection.)
They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford
Of course John Ford made a career of studying small group command. His films could make up the whole Handy Ten and then some. But I’ll confine myself to this one and the next as they represent the extremes of effective and ineffective leadership. The quality of the times brought out a new level of seriousness in actors usually associated with lighter fare. Like Don Ameche in Wing and a Prayer, Robert Montgomery, who had served as a naval officer, gave the performance of a lifetime in Ford’s even greater film, perhaps the finest ever made on the subject and certainly the best-titled. He’s bolstered by an excellent John Wayne, bringing unusual depth to the standard role of the hot-headed second, and Ford’s usual superb stock company, some playing men who are forced into command themselves as Montgomery’s PT unit is whittled down, down and further down under the withering Japanese assault on the Philippines in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this film is that it captures the demands of leadership in war–most of which are boring and mundane and as likely to be made in the service of managing defeat as of procuring victory–as opposed to combat, where heroes are made.
Fort Apache (1948)
D. John Ford
And on the flip side, there’s Henry Fonda as the disgruntled, glory-seeking colonel of an outpost contending with renegade Apaches in the desolate southwest of the late nineteenth century. His unwillingness to learn from more experienced, but lower-ranking (and, as he sees it, ethnically inferior) men, ultimately dooms himself and his command. It might be Fonda’s very best performance as a man who is thoroughly professional, a loving father (to a luminous, teenage Shirley Temple), brave to a fault…and completely unlikeable. The ending is still controversial. Has John Wayne, again playing a strong second, except this time he’s the level-headed one, accepted Fonda’s example…or only seemed to? I’ll tackle all that some day when I write about the film in the depth it deserves, but as a study in how to destroy your command despite doing everything “by the book” this could hardy be bettered.
Little Big Horn (1951)
D. Charles Marquis Warren
This one features Lloyd Bridges and John Ireland leading, and competing for the heart of, a small squadron assigned to ride through Indian Country and warn George Armstrong Custer that he is about to be ambushed at the Little Big Horn. Of course you know going in their mission will fail–but just how it fails is compelling from beginning to end and holds up on repeated viewings. Bridges and Ireland were outstanding second-line stars who rarely got the chance to shine as they do here, playing tough men who are learning on the job while carrying out what they don’t know is a doomed mission. The film’s claim to historical accuracy may be dubious but as a study in not just command–but the competition the desire for command is bound to engender (especially when the ghost of Marie Windsor is lurking in the shadows)–this is one of a kind.
Westward the Women (1951)
D. William Wellman
A unique film on every level. This one isn’t based on any specific event but on a plausible summary of an aspect of frontier experience dreamed up by Frank Capra. When Capra himself, post-war, was deemed insufficiently credible or commercially viable to be entrusted with directing it, he passed it to his good friend, Wild Bill Wellman, who toughened the script and made a masterpiece. As a wagon train movie it might be matched by John Ford’s Wagon Master or Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River. But as a study in the vicissitudes of running a wagon train it has no equals. That it involves Robert Taylor reluctantly accepting the job of leading a hundred and fifty mail order brides through the toughest part of the American frontier, and then seeing it through, is an unusual twist that puts the icing on the cake. Not recommended for anyone who accepts the modern idea that men and women don’t really need or want each other. For everyone else, a great film waiting to be rediscovered.
D. Cy Endfield
Less than three years after George Custer’s cavalry command was wiped out at Little Big Horn in the American west, a couple of green lieutenants were faced with similar odds at a mission post they had little choice but to defend in South Africa at a place called Rorke’s Drift. They were leading about a hundred and fifty men, nearly a third of them sick or wounded, against four thousand Zulus who had broken off from an even larger force which had annihilated 1,300 British troops at Islawanda earlier in the day. While it’s superb on every level, with some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, Zulu rises highest when viewed as a study in improvisation of the sort that western armies have excelled at for several millennia. As a heroic military feat, the stand at Rorke’s Drift is on a par with the Spartans’ delaying action against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., a tactical defeat that may have nonetheless prevented Western Civilization from being snuffed in the cradle. And if you think the Brits losing the land they fought for to the Boers a few decades later, and the Boers losing it back to the natives within a century, makes the historical importance of Rorke’s Drift less monumental, you might be right. Then again, if you accept that the spirit of Rorke’s Drift had more than a little to do with the spirit of the Battle of Britain, fought sixty years hence and without which the history of everything would probably look very different today, you might be righter. In any case Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (in his star-making role) give unbeatable performances as men who don’t particularly like each other showing grace under pressure over a twenty-four-hour period in 1879 when nearly one man of every ten they commanded earned a Victoria Cross, the British equivalent of the Medal of Honor.
D. Ron Maxwell
I’ve sung the praises of Ron Maxwell’s film about the most important battle ever fought on American soil several times here. But, in addition to being one of the great war films, and, in my opinion, the greatest battle film ever made, it’s also a detailed portrait of several levels of command: watch it for Martin Sheen’s Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger’s James Longstreet, Stephen Lang’s George Pickett, Richard Jordan’s Lo Armisted, Andrew Prine’s stinging, poignant cameo as Dick Garnett, Sam Elliot’s John Buford (who may have saved the war on the battle’s first day) and, especially, Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain (who almost certainly saved the Union army on the second day). There may have been a few better films on small unit command and a very few better films on command at Robert E. Lee’s level. But there has never been a film to equal it as a study in command at all levels during an existential battle in an existential war. Please don’t call yourself informed about American history if you haven’t seen this one.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
D. Kelly Reichardt
Not strictly speaking a film about command but a great look at how force of personality can trump all previous presumptions about who is fit to lead when everyone’s life is at stake. Michelle Williams gives another of her eerily natural performances as Emily Tetherow, a woman travelling with Stephen Meek’s half of a wagon train that has split in two along the Oregon Trail in 1845, who gradually takes on the role of leader and decision maker as the group loses confidence in Meek himself. Calling this film nuanced is an understatement. It moves at a glacial pace and Reichardt takes “realism” to such extremes it is often hard to follow the muffled talk or read the characters’ expressions in night scenes lit only by the tiny flames of candlelight available to pioneers of the period. And the film reaches no conclusions on the wisdom (or lack thereof) in transferring allegiance from Meek to Tetherow. But it makes you understand why the switch takes place–and why you might have cast aside your own assumptions in their place. The underlying message is that humans gravitate towards natural leaders and if the circumstances are desperate enough, all other presumptions grounded in nature will be cast aside. You make enough right decisions and people will follow you anywhere. Whether in war, commerce or adventure, it’s the first lesson of command: The strongest lead. Whether to success or disaster depends on what else they bring.