STUDIES IN COMMAND ON FILM (A Handy Ten)

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.

Zulu (1964)
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.

Gettysburg (1993)
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.

FORD AND HAWKS, HAWKS AND FORD…AT WAR (And Then There Was Hollywood: Eighth Rumination)

Air Force (1943)
D. Howard Hawks

and…

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Ford and Hawks. Hawks and Ford.

No two directors have ever been paired so frequently. Hence, they’re stuck with each other–not that either man would mind.

They might be bemused, though, given all that separated them.

As for what united them, at least in the critical narrative….

Part of it was timing. They were close in age (Ford was born in 1894, Hawks in 1896), and subsequently comparable in experience and stature, not to mention close friends, especially later in life.

Part of it was taste. They both used John Wayne a lot (Ford could rightly take credit for making Wayne a star, Hawks for his maturation, Ford again for making the most of that maturation). They both liked stories about men in groups (though Hawks generally preferred ad hoc associations, Ford more formal and permanent ones).

Part of it was longevity. Once you sort out the wunderkinds (Welles, Ray, Coppola), they stand apart as the great American (and most American) filmmakers of the Golden Age or any other.

But mostly it’s the old yin and yang.

Give them the same subject matter, and they’d find approaches that both complemented and repelled each other–like two planets orbiting in opposite directions around the same sun.

That essential paradox was never more clearly displayed than in their approaches to their respective (somewhat obligatory) films about fighting men in WWII.

By obligatory, I don’t mean they took them less than seriously–these are two of the best war films ever made and likely the very best about men in small combat units. But it’s likely each man (both notoriously hard to read and completely unreliable as authors of their own narratives) approached his project more compelled by duty than enthusiasm. “A job of work” as Ford was fond of saying.

The dates on the films are a bit deceptive. Hawks filmed in the summer of 1942 and Air Force was released in February, 1943. Ford filmed in the summer of 1945 and They Were Expendable was released in December, 1945. The three years that separated the respective film-shoots were a lifetime.

In 1942, the outcome of the early war in the Pacific (the setting for both films) was still very much in doubt. It no longer seemed likely the Japanese would be overrunning the Pacific coast. But that they would hold onto, perhaps expand, their empire, seemed as likely as not.

In the tense, skittish atmosphere of ’42, Hawks, the man who loved flying and the sky, made a film about the crew of a single plane responding to Pearl Harbor and the impending loss of the Philippines by island hopping until they are able to lead a squadron that takes out an entire Japanese fleet and basically win the war by Christmas.

In the triumphant atmosphere of ’45, Ford, the man who loved sailing and the sea, made a film about a PT boat squadron being driven relentlessly toward defeat.

Air Force is notable among Hawks’ films in that death has a real presence and even a sting–a deep one on-screen and a deeper one off. In that sense, it’s the most Fordian film made by a director who, when asked by Peter Bogdonavich if he thought about Ford when he made westerns, said: “Well, it’s hard not to think about Jack Ford when you’re making a western…or any film really.”

Still, the tell-tale differences are there: there’s a “lucky” animal in both pictures, each played for laughs–a feisty little dog in Air Force gets some big scenes and plenty of attention, even an arc; a black cat in Expendable has no arc but simply skitters from boat to boat, reinforcing the random nature of “luck” in war time.

The men in both pictures go to extraordinary lengths to protect and preserve their “ships”–ships that are, in each case, considered of little use by high command until their crews prove them otherwise in the heat of conflict. Hawks’ plane–the Mary-Ann, rides out the film in glory. Ford’s boats–known by their numbers–go down in flames, one by one, until the last one is hauled off to run messages for the battered rump Army unit that remains on Corregidor. The men of Hawks’ Mary-Ann gather in the last scene, all smiles, on their way to bomb Tokyo. The men of Ford’s PT boats are scattered to the winds: some dead or lost at sea; others reassigned to the army, where (like the nurses exemplified by Donna Reed’s WAC) they’ll be killed or taken prisoner in the oncoming attack; a tiny few evacuated (in one of Ford’s most effective and moving final scenes, which is saying something) to be reassigned to teach the men who will “come back.”

Speaking of women–there’s no room for Hawks’ ideal One-of-the-Boys Dames in Air Force, so they don’t function as anything but someone for the heroes to say goodbye to (albeit they don’t yet know they’ll be heroes because they leave San Francisco on Dec. 6, 1941). The closest thing to a significant female character is a young woman, seriously injured in the Pearl attack, who is the sister of the Mary-Ann‘s co-pilot and the fiancee of its bombardier. She has a bedside scene that’s actually echoed in Expendable, only there, the patient is a wounded soldier pretending he doesn’t know he’s going to be left to die when his crew comes for a last visit.

In Ford, death always stings, never more so than here, where it is a constant presence, weighing more and more heavily as the film progresses–every visit registering in their commander’s face (Robert Montgomery, in a performance that transcends any notion of awarding it, though I doubt that’s why it was ignored).

Expendable, on the other hand, does have one significant female part–Reed’s Sandy Davyys. It’s a small but telling (and career-making) part. She’s no dame, but any man with sense would marry her a hundred times over any other man’s glorious fantasy. (Evidently a lot of men who actually fought in WWII felt the same. After Reed’s death, her daughter spoke of her mother receiving hundreds of letters from servicemen, which she mentioned to no one, and kept to the end of her life, a life that included fierce and public opposition to the American war in Viet Nam.)

Which leads us to the issue of verisimilitude.

To be fair to Hawks, Air Force comes from an era when war films were all but required to be infused with propaganda. Ford, directing at the end of the war, and having seen much of that war up close and personal–including Midway, where, in the initial fighting, men every bit as devoted to their planes as the crew of Air Force, were destroyed en masse by more technologically advanced Japanese fighters*–had a freer hand, not to mention a set of experiences that jaundiced a world view already prone to melancholy. In addition, Ford had the advantage of working with a number of cast and crew who, like him, had seen action. It’s possible that They Were Expendable is as close as any group of men have ever come to portraying war as they had just witnessed it so close to the fact.

And, oddly, it’s Expendable‘s downbeat tone–reflected in a title that, perhaps unconsciously, doubles as homage to its heroes and a dire prediction of the subsequent costs of empire which are with us still–that lends gravity to Hawks’ irrepressible can-do optimism. It’s a spirit that’s fundamental to all of Hawks’ best work, just as the spirit of elegy and remembrance is fundamental to Ford’s, but here is gains by the presence of a counterweight, brought to his own film by Ford’s original great silent-era collaborator, Harry Carey, Sr. and the hindsight we can enjoy from a distance where both films are secure in their reputations, as necessary to their own times as they are unfathomable to these.

I didn’t have a chance to see either film until after I was forty. The distance between them–the way they both reinforce and parry each other, until Expendable finally rises above–was more evident then because I’d undergone my own transformation. At twenty-nine I was a Hawks man all the way–the same way I preferred the Beatles to the Stones, Audrey Hepburn to Vivien Leigh, Raymond Chandler to Ross MacDonald.

Time reversed all those judgments.

Not because I lost any affection for the former–not even one degree.

Just because older, for me as for most people, has meant sadder and wiser.

Defeat may not be permanent. But it’s the greater part of life’s arc. As someone said at the end of another great war film: All glory is fleeting.**

For nations, as well as men.

Hawks may have suspected.

Ford knew.

*Ford, having taken film of the men with their planes the day before, later arranged the films to be sent to each man’s family at his own expense.

**Patton, for those wondering. Pretty safe bet that Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote the screenplay, knew his Ford as well as Patton knew his Latin.