A Good Man Is Hard to Find
But certainly the best example of a movie obsessed with courage - and a great movie it is, too - is David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, set in occupied Burma in 1943, which observes courage in all its manifestations and tracks the relationship between it and its natural coefficient, duty, to infinite detail
Where have all the heroes gone?
Certainly they're not hiding in the movies, where touchy-feely-squealy stylings, political correctness, and computer-generated special effects have combined with a youth-oriented production culture to create a popular art form deficient in portraits of people doing hard duty in hard places for something besides their own benefit. In short, courage, in film, has largely gone the way of the dodo. Like its corollary, the "great man" theory of politics, silver-screen courage has been retired in favor of more amenable bromides.
But in a medium so seemingly rich in heroics, courage does have a spotty history. For the longest time it was an assumption, not a virtue, and it had more to do with the symmetries of a face than the strength of a character. In other words, courage, in movies, was once associated with beauty.
In the moral landscape of the American studio movie, it was easy to pick up on the underlying clues of placement in the behavioral spectrum. The most heroic men were always the most handsome - think Errol Flynn, for example, and before him Douglas Fairbanks - and as the actor slid down the scale toward ugliness, he tended toward evil, of which cowardice was often a concomitant part (though occasionally, as a kind of baseline-tweaking lark, a beauty such as the young Jimmy Cagney in his breakthrough picture Public Enem¥ could play a villain). A Basil Rathbone could never have been an action hero; his face was too strong, with that aristocrat's prow of a nose, broad forehead, and stalwart, lengthy jaw. His was a face for skewering in the last reel.
The good guy was brave because he was the best looking, just as the good gal was the best looking; one of the dramas of the film was watching the mating ordeal within the ostensible plot (the war, the cattle drive, the caper, the investigation) by which the good guy qualified himself for the good gal. It's as if the secret subtext were eugenics, as the movies matched quality face to quality face to create progeny of beauty and virtue.
Courage itself, then, had little intrinsic meaning. It simply propelled a story forward, and that story was usually about a man displaying it offhandedly in prodigious amounts, racing through gunfire or swordfights or fisticuffs, winning at all of them and never thinking much about it. He was courageous because he was handsome; no motive was explained or was even necessary to explain his aggression in the face of death. He had no fears and no regrets - if his courage involved, as it frequently did, killing, he had no moment of reflection on the lives he had ended; they were the Other and could be disposed of with impunity. That old chestnut "They don't make 'em like they used to" is wrong; the killings in B-movie fodder of the 1930s are the same weightless annihilation that inhabits (and, one might argue, infects) our CGI fantasies of today.
Still, there once was a time when movies occasionally dealt with the issue of courage and its corollaries (fear, regret, doubt, anger) in an adult fashion. This was particularly the province of the war movie, where heroism was an issue and the country needed courage in copious quantities, exhorting even males with receding chins and hairlines to show a little of the stuff. These war movies established a taxonomy of courage: there was first of all the courage of the moment, which concentrated on the individual battle or firefight, in which one man performed admirably. Then there was the courage of the organization, focused on a leader who dominated in the face of continual adversity, cajoling morale out of his troops, going to the head of the charge, racing up the hill, giving each man a sense of individual worth and motivation. Finally, particularly toward the end of the war, when fatigue was chronic on all fronts, there was the courage of the long-term ordeal, by which the ever-grinding weight of war came to crush the soldiers, dirty and exhausted. Yet still, emboldened by courage, they persevered.
One of the first movies to associate heroism with inner, rather than outer, grace was Howard Hawks's Sergeant York of 1941, with Gary Cooper as the Tennessee mountain man who earned the Medal of Honor by capturing a German machine gun position and more than two hundred German soldiers in the First World War. Cooper's specialty was lanky, down-home earnestness, so he was perfectly suited to play York, even if he never mastered the hill-country dialect that must have characterized the real York. As the screenplay by two writing teams and an uncredited rewriter has it, York's dilemma is killing, for he knows that war will indeed involve the taking of life, and as a lifelong hunter, he has no illusions about what high-speed bullets do to flesh. Counseled by wise old Walter Brennan (then forty-seven), York comes to realize that God will forgive him if he kills in defense of his country, which of course is represented as a stylized, idealized mountain landscape giving him the freedom to roam and hunt as he pleases.
The big battle scene at the movie's end plays this card well; it emphasizes York's natural aristocracy and plays with the idea that his guile in battle is a direct result of his mountain man upbringing, as he uses various turkey-hunting techniques to bring down his opponents - who are never characterized, of course. As the movie calculates it, York is naturally brave but saddled by remorse based on spiritual values; once he is allowed to reconcile those values to the needs of the state, his courage, liberated, flows and elevates him in the crucible of battle. This, then, roots courage in spirituality.
That's a common theme, as it shows an issue in democratic armies that couldn't have been addressed in totalitarian ones. Take, for example, Phil Karlson's vastly underrated Hell to Eternity (1960), the combat story of the Oakland Chicano Guy Gabaldon, who was informally raised by a Japanese family in the '30s, and who picked up enough Japanese language skills to talk hundreds of Japanese into surrendering in the terrifying battle of Saipan. Again, a kind of spiritual breakthrough enables Gabaldon (superbly played by another underrated actor, Jeffrey Hunter) to function in the war situation. The breakthrough is a conversation with his Japanese foster mother that liberates him to go to war against the Japanese, and his empathy with Japanese civilians (who remind him of his parents) transforms him (read: redeems him) from robot killer to humanitarian. Though not spiritual in the formal sense, the movie - without cynicism, I believe - celebrates humanism, even in war, as a value and judges he who demonstrates it a higher evolution than the killer.
Command Decision, based on a stage play by William Wister Haines, is a prime example of the "courage of leadership" genre (as was that other wartime aviation classic 12 O'Clock High). In it, Clark Gable plays a commander ordered by headquarters to destroy a German target; he pushes his pilots and crew close to and perhaps even over the breaking point to do it, at the cost of unit morale (and even inspiring deep hatred among his men). But he pushes them ever onward, and ultimately the target is revealed: an industrial complex that manufactures the new German jets which will make mincemeat out of the Americans' lumbering Flying Fortresses. Thus his absolutism, far from being the narcissism of ambition, is necessary not just to the war effort but to the coming cohort of bomber pilots.
In those days, of course, the thrust of most pictures was toward moral rectitude of command and by inference the state. The idea of a corrupt command or a corrupt state didn't arrive until the mid-1950s, when Robert Aldrich's Attack turned on a cowardly commander and a corrupt structure that attempted to keep his cowardice covered up, even if it cost the lives of many GIs.
But certainly the best example of a movie obsessed with courage - and a great movie it is, too - is David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, set in occupied Burma in 1943, which observes courage in all its manifestations and tracks the relationship between it and its natural coefficient, duty, to infinite detail. The movie is a kind of compendium of courageousness; it displays heroism in all its hues. Most obvious is the courage of the commander, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who insists that the Japanese treat his captured men by the rules of the Geneva Convention and is himself willing to absorb all their abuse in order to force them to such an end. Guinness is opposed by the Japanese POW camp leader, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who is himself a man of iron commitment to duty (his is called bushido, and it is even more daunting than Nicholson's, demanding suicide as a penalty for failure). Nicholson's fortitude is amazing, particularly as it's sustained over long days of the cruelest punishment until finally, with a supreme act of will, he is able to break the Japanese will and force them to concessions. But his heroism has its consequences; freed to be led by their officers, the British prisoners proceed to build a better bridge than they would have otherwise and thus it becomes a military necessity to destroy it.
A commando team is dispatched to destroy the bridge, its most reluctant member an American named Shears (played by notable screen scalawag William Holden), who sees through all the professional military bushwah and wants only survival. His contribution to the mission (as an escaped prisoner, he knows the way back to the bridge) soon becomes moot and to him the whole thing becomes a monstrous folly aimed primarily at extinguishing him. Shears's anger is a precursor to the anger at the monstrosity of it all that gripped the West during the Vietnam War, when courage and duty came to be regarded as foolishness. Of course, in the climactic sequence, Shears exhibits the courage of the moment and sacrifices his life in an attempt to complete the mission. Nicholson, sustained by pride and illusion, sees in Shears's death a necessary reminder of the true nature of his duty, and falls, hitting the detonator to destroy the bridge. Did he do it as a last act of contrition, or was it the random nature of war that put the explosive device beneath him on his death fall? Lean doesn't answer, leaving us to ponder.
As I've said, Vietnam changed the cinematic portrayal of courage, though late Korean War pictures such as Lewis Milestone's Pork Chop Hill (1959) began to toy with it. Gregory Peck, commanding a platoon of soldiers who definitely don't want to be the last men to die in the war, holds a hill against North Korean regulars even as peace talks are ongoing. Mike Nichols's Catch-22 is the first war film to celebrate a shirker rather than an aggressor. Drawn from Joseph Heller's novel, it tells the story of Yossarian, a World War II bombardier who takes the war personally and sees his own command structure as hopelessly corrupted by ambition and vanity; to die for it, he concludes, would be totally foolish, and so the film documents his increasingly more frenetic attempts to stay alive.
Opposition to command became a norm in pictures made during the war in Vietnam, even if they weren't about Vietnam. The Bridge at Remagen, for example, features doubting, ironic GIs attempting to hold a bridge against German counterattacks even as they question the wisdom of their commanders in declaring such a mission important. It's certainly doubtful that the real GIs at the Remagen Bridge felt the same; they may have been scared to death, but they almost certainly trusted their commanders and did their duty to the utmost.
Where is courage in the movies now? It seems to have devolved stoutly into the 1930s' model: largely affiliated with attractive people and largely taken for granted. The soldiers in Black Hawk Down, especially the Delta commandos in bike helmets, were particularly brave and particularly handsome. No issue of fear was broached in that movie except regarding one soldier, whose weakness was used to counterpoint the almost unanimous bravery of the others. Just as a portrayal of a brave man, however, I particularly like Tom Sizemore as the Ranger commanding officer on the ground, who never pretended to be anything other than a human being with a lot of responsibility on his shoulders while people were shooting at him. As a professional combat soldier, he assumed his courage as a job requisite, and neither he nor anyone else saw any reason to remark on it. But the issue of physical courage is rarely broached in movies these days.
As for other forms of courage - moral, political, social - they almost always come wrapped in some reformer's zeal, usually along the lines of someone showing "the courage to speak truth to power." I'm guessing the makers of John Q. considered Denzel Washington's John Quincy Archibald "courageous" when he used a gun to take over a hospital to get a heart transplant for his son. So frequently this is bogus because the truth being spoken is so in accord with the conventional wisdom of the press and the entertainment industry that it lacks zing. I'd like to see a movie about a courageous journalist who refuses to acknowledge the "narrative" of conventional wisdom - the inevitability of global warming, the godhood of Barack Obama, the wisdom of the Clintons, the evil of the corporations, the holiness of spreading wealth - and loses his job. I doubt I will. Instead I'll watch heroic journalists speak truth to straw men and superheroes who cannot die killing others without a doubt in the world.