In honor of America’s birthday last week, I have cobbled together a mini-tribute of three film classics that I believe say something about the nature of American Exceptionalism. Not much in vogue these days, the concept of the United States as a “city on a hill,” driven by very different impulse than its European brethren was first suggested by John Winthrop as he and his pilgrims bobbed off the coast of what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The phrase itself would come later from Alexis de Tocqueville, who described the United States as "exceptional" in 1831. As I have already suggested, it is not terribly politic to talk in such terms anymore, but the idea itself, and indeed the smaller, component ideas that makeup the larger concept, are alive and well in classic film ... if you know where to look.
High Noon (1952)
The quintessential “new sheriff in town” film, only Gary Cooper is the regular sheriff (not the new one), and in this case, his refusal to kowtow to a gang of bandits and leave town is what drives home the film’s larger points about what good men do – or at least should do – when they encounter evil. The metaphor here is not hard to find, and in retrospect, it can be stretched in a number of ways it probably was not intended, but which in my opinion only make the film greater and a more powerful presentation of American values. When threatened with the return of an infamous gang Cooper once locked up, the townspeople refuse to form a posse with him and face down the brutes. Instead, they want Cooper to leave town, thinking that with him gone, they can make a separate peace with the bullies through talk and concessions. Cooper knows otherwise and says as much, but nobody listens. So he decides to stay and take on the gang himself. The essence of the “strong, silent type” that is in much less supply these days, he faces the gang for the sake of honor, but more than that, he does it for the sake of order, realizing that laws do not mean anything if they are enforced only when it is easy and convenient. What is that? A Cold War parable you say? You bet. Cooper is America, standing up to the Soviet Union and all the tin pot dictators of the world, while the rest of the community of nations prevaricate and argue for understanding, deal-cutting and anything other than confrontation (hey, it is safer, right?). The scene where Cooper confronts the townspeople in Church and they blame him for the fact that bad people want to do terrible things is particular poignant and has obvious real world corollaries. In the end, America (Cooper) stands on its own, doing the ugly duty that must be done, because no one else has the stomach for it.
Davy Crockett (1955)
A film impossible for red-blooded youngsters to dislike, this beloved Disney classic might present a surface-level view of history, but its enduring personification of America’s frontier spirit more than matches this undertaking's deliberate shortcomings. Fess Parker became a boyhood legend, thanks to this movie and its accompanying television program, and 1950s America briefly went coon-skin cap crazy, as boys everywhere took to the woods with wooden rifles to domesticate their own stretch of wilderness in suburban America. At its heart an adventure film, Parker nonetheless manages to embody the boldness that drove America west. At the same time, Parker’s Crockett moves from a scout who helped Andrew Jackson hunt down rogue Indians to a Congressman who passionately defends Indian rights and excoriates the increasingly ridiculous treaties his former commander foists upon the defeated tribes. The more cynical might call this revisionism, but the real Crockett did indeed break with Jackson and he essentially moved to Texas in response to his disgust with American policy. He famously died at the Alamo, defending the defenseless in spite of incredibly long odds. Accordingly, Crockett embodies the individual at war with federalism, and as such, is something of a Jeffersonian idealist-come-folk hero.
The Right Stuff (1983)
One of my favorite films of all-time, this part-Western, part fictionalized documentary captures not only the essence of American can-do entrepreneurship, but also something profound about the very nature of what it means to be human and to seek achievement for achievement’s sake. Ego plays a great role in both, and there is plenty in this film, in terms of America’s Mercury Astronauts, six of whom eventually blasted into space during the early 1960s in the now-defunct but once much remarked upon space race against the Soviets. Each of the astronauts is a competitive, egoist but each also serves something greater. The reasons American went to space are complex, but the results are not. Leaving the planet and exploring the near solar-system is a historic achievement not just for the nation but for all mankind, a point this film captures in between its depiction of patriotism and shared-sacrifice. However, at an even deeper, more primal level, we have the story of Chuck Yeager, the man who was not an astronaut. Yeager's incredible spirit, his unquenchable desire to go faster or higher is the brutal embodiment of the basic impulse that drives all human endeavors, and I cannot think of another film that captures this quite so well. Meanwhile, as a nation, America achieves as a whole in this film because it believes it is great and that it should achieve. If that's not exceptionalism, I don't know what is...