When Hollywood Wages War: The Myth of Peace-Loving American Innocents Triumphing over Evildoers Has Long Been a Staple of Hollywood Movies. but in the Current War, Patrick McCormick Warns, Such Simplistic Movie Plots Provide False Comfort and Lead Us Astray. (Culture in Context)
McCormick, Patrick, U.S. Catholic
IN THE MINUTES AND HOURS AFTER U.S. AIRLINERS cannoned into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, reporters and politicians looked for words to describe these horrors and give some comfort to their stunned audiences. Almost instinctively many of them reached for Pearl Harbor as an analogy, and by dinnertime nearly every anchor and pundit on the airwaves had made the connection.
The comparison to Pearl Harbor worked on a number of levels. Like December 7, this surprise attack on American soil came out of the sky in the early hours of the morning, caught our government and military defenses completely off guard, resulted in the slaughter of thousands, and embedded unforgettable images of carnage in our national psyche.
But the deeper appeal of Pearl Harbor is that we remember Japan's 1941 assault on Hawaii as the opening act of America's favorite and most successful war, that "good war" that transformed a second-class world power wracked by the Depression into a military and economic juggernaut. Talk about a second Pearl Harbor and a "new war on terrorism" casts Americans not as stunned and grieving victims of a massive terrorist attack but enraged innocents, awakened from our isolationist slumber and preparing for a holy and victorious crusade against international terror.
Indeed, the mention of Pearl Harbor and a new war tap into larger cultural myths about Americans as a peace-loving but heroic people, tough to provoke but impossible to defeat. In dozens of Hollywood thrillers the hero is a well-meaning innocent, an amateur who stumbles into the middle of some foreign intrigue.
This American bumbler usually lacks the cunning or polish of his opponents and makes some nearly fatal mistakes in the film's opening sequences. But by the movie's end our enraged innocent is always victorious, and the vanquished gang of foreign agents or terrorists rues the day they awoke this sleeping giant. As Captain Renault tells Major Strasser in Casablanca, "We mustn't underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918."
Hitchcock, the master of this formula, sketched out its rough draft in The 39 Steps (1935)--where the hero was a Canadian--and honed it to perfection in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959). Here Bob Cummings and Cary Grant play American innocents foiling Nazi and communist plots to undermine our way of life, and when Hitchcock tosses the movies' villains from the top of the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, he is sounding a battle cry against all the enemies of his adopted nation and promising audiences everywhere that the United States will always prevail over her foes.
Half a century after these Hitchcock thrillers, Hollywood still likes plots about naive innocents fighting off foreign intrigues, though today's cinematic amateurs create much more pyrotechnical mayhem than Cummings or Grant. In the three Die Hard movies Bruce Willis is an off-duty cop with an uncanny knack for stumbling into nests of foreign terrorists and an even more predictable penchant for blasting them to smithereens. In Patriot Games (1992) and Air Force One (1997), Harrison Ford plays a CIA analyst and a president who take up arms against foreign terrorists and successfully defend the American homeland and way of life. And, of course, in Pearl Harbor Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett play a pair of gee-whiz farm boys who grow up to be mighty warriors repelling the Japanese invasion of America.
In the movies, the myth of Americans as enraged innocents and an attack on our homeland (and its landmarks) always generates a call to arms. So the real-life assault on New York and Washington first evoked comparisons to Pearl Harbor and then triggered the media and the president's seemingly inevitable call for a war--indeed a crusade--against international terrorism. As Neal Gabler noted in a September 16 New York Times column, American audiences, long schooled in Hollywood films, know what follows such an attack: swift and deadly retribution. …