In films, the personal trumps the political

With ‘Lincoln’ and an election looming, we’re most inspired by the words of common men

Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell in “The Grapes of Wrath,” a political manifesto based on John Steinbeck’s novel.
20th Century Fox
Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell in “The Grapes of Wrath,” a political manifesto based on John Steinbeck’s novel.

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. And when the people are eating the stuff they raise, living in the houses they build, I’ll be there too.”

Henry Fonda’s big speech at the end of John Ford’s luminous 1940 adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” is a political manifesto. John Steinbeck, who wrote the book, was outraged by the fate of migrant workers in the Oklahoma dust bowl, and set out to depict the abandonment and alienation of millions of poverty-stricken Americans during the Great Depression.

Now a staple of Academy Award montages of great movie moments, Fonda’s speech remains a touchstone for many liberals, “my earliest sense of what a soul means,” in the words of his daughter Jane.

But those same highlight reels also include a young Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront,” sitting in the back seat of a car and declaring, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum. Which is what I am, let’s face it.”


Brando’s Terry was forced to throw a boxing match under the orders of the murderous union boss who ruled the New York and New Jersey dockyards. It cost him a chance at fame, and freedom. Corruption hangs over this waterfront like the fog; the only light of humanity comes from the rooftop aviary where Terry feeds pigeons.

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“On the Waterfront,” from 1954, doesn’t hide its conservative politics, imbued with a looming sense of the communist threat to the United States by director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg; in the movie, Brando’s soul is crushed not by poverty but by the very people who purport to help him overcome it.

It’s too simple to say that “The Grapes of Wrath” and “On the Waterfront” are political bookends. Like all good works of art, they defy easy categorization. But they show how political outrage can ignite a story and arouse an audience — an especially worthy reminder this week, given Tuesday’s presidential election and the debut of Steven Spielberg’s much-hyped “Lincoln” opening at Kendall Square on Friday. Surely, more Americans have been motivated to take political stances because of “Grapes” and “Waterfront” than by the hundreds of titles in Hollywood’s fatigued “political” genre, represented most recently by last year’s torpid “Ides of March,” directed by George Clooney, and this year’s by-the-numbers Will Ferrell comedy “The Campaign.”

Like all movies that pretend to peel back the curtain on American politics, “Ides” and “The Campaign” were replete with conniving aides and cigar-chomping bosses. Such films attempt to draw on viewers’ shock at the idea that backroom machinations, rather than virtue and idealism, guide electoral politics. But that revelation, and the gallery of stock characters that populate such movies, were already cliches back in 1939, when Frank Capra parodied them in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It endures as a classic less because of its cynicism about Washington than because of its reverence for the scoutmaster played by James Stewart.

That’s not to say that there are no good movies purely about politics: Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate,” with an enigmatic performance by Robert Redford, is one; John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate” is an amusingly out-there thriller; and the movie version of “The Last Hurrah,” with Spencer Tracy playing the character based on Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, is a useful history lesson. But anyone expecting real passion and inspiration from Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, should be forewarned: The track record for such movies is unimpressive.


Rather, the films that are most likely to resonate in the minds of voters carry no political warnings at all; what’s on screen shapes political values and attitudes in much the same way as it might shape fashion or musical tastes. The messages seep in, as if by osmosis. Politics is the chaser, not the brew.

Thus, many more people are likely to find themselves drawn to the cause of civil rights after coming upon it somewhat incidentally in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a film best loved for its depiction of the relationship between the widower father and his tomboy daughter, than from “Lincoln,” whose title character is well known to have freed the slaves.

Gregory Peck, who played the father in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is of a breed with Fonda and Tracy: He specialized in conveying such core liberal values as intelligence and decency. (Indeed, both Fonda and Peck actually played Abraham Lincoln at varying points in their careers.) As Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer in Jim Crow-era Alabama, Peck is formal and strait-laced, an authority figure to his two children and a respectful neighbor. But when he takes on the case of a black man who is unfairly accused of raping a white woman, he embodies the principle of legal equality in an obviously biased courtroom. He also illustrates the alarming personal risks taken by those who stand by their values rather than go along with their neighbors.

On a hot, hazy evening, Peck calmly seats himself in front of the door to the lock-up where his client is being held, willing to stand alone against a coming lynch mob. Later, after a disappointing ending to the trial, the entire black community, restricted to the balcony, rises in a show of respect as Peck makes his way out of the courtroom. Unbeknownst to him, his two children and their somewhat odd playmate (a character based on Truman Capote, the real-life childhood friend of author Harper Lee) have snuck into the court and are sitting in the balcony.

By telling the story through the eyes of the little girl Scout, the movie amplifies its moral message: Peck isn’t just standing up for civil rights — he’s teaching children about right and wrong. In a child’s eyes, the town’s prejudices simply make no sense; they’re at odds with what’s plainly visible, yet most whites don’t see it. But Peck does. His portrait of a father, lawyer, and moral man marked a high point of cinematic liberalism.


Perhaps for some of the same reasons, movies for and about children almost always convey powerful liberal messages; it’s as though the more conservative values of thrift and self-reliance attach at a later age.

“Mary Poppins,” arguably the most cinematically engaging of all Walt Disney movies, makes a forceful case for charity and understanding within the class system of Edwardian England. The magical nanny’s mission is to reconnect the two Banks children with their father, whose instincts have been clouded by a sense of entitlement and ambition, largely stemming from his position at a storied British bank. It’s the father, not the kids, who needs to be reeducated. Innocent of their father’s prejudices, the children cavort with chimney sweepers and giggle along with the local eccentrics; at night, Mary sings them to sleep with “Feed the Birds,” a story-song about the old woman who sits on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral while serving corn to the pigeons.

This old woman isn’t presented as an unfortunate beggar, but rather an embodiment of kindness and concern for all creatures. In a bit of trivia, she happens to be played by an elderly Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar nearly a quarter-century earlier as Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Darwell never speaks, but her bright eyes convey both wisdom and vulnerability, and she’s the linchpin of the story.

When Mr. Banks decides to take his children to work, so he can teach them fiscal responsibility by having them place their allowances in the bank, 6-year-old Michael rebels, insisting on donating his tuppence to the bird lady instead. Mr. Banks’s stuffy bosses are so embarrassed that they fire him, and only then does he come to understand how shallow their values are, and vows to show more compassion and understanding. It helps him to reconnect with his suffragist wife, and brings the whole family together. Her work complete, Mary Poppins flies off in search of another British home to cleanse of chauvinistic values.

While cinematic liberalism tends to find its home in the courtrooms and counting houses of cities and towns, cinematic conservatism stretches its limbs in the vast expanses of the West. There, the battles tend to be between law and order, on the one hand, and various forms of anarchy or confusion. Often, the institutions most prized and defended by liberals, such as courts and local governments, are cowardly or corrupt — or simply too bogged down by procedures to meet the challenges of a dangerous world.

The sense of rugged individualism embodied by so many heroes of movie westerns, starting in the late 1930s, became more refined over time. It was, in some cases, a value in itself — a perfect state of freedom, in which people can be all that they want to be — and in others merely a means to an end: bringing order to a lawless patch of earth. Either way, it was both a heroic and patriotic stance — an allegory for the entire American story.

This attitude reached its zenith with Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” in 1952, in which the marshal played by Gary Cooper must single-handedly defeat an outlaw gang. Cooper’s heroism is set against the cowardice of the others in the town who refuse to fight, and their pitiful self-delusions. They include pacifists with their foolish idealism, businesspeople with their “practical” compromises, politicians with their desire to do only what’s popular. No one but Cooper sees things clearly.

Like many movies of the 1950s, “High Noon” could be read on multiple levels: Did the outlaw gang represent the communist threat, or the bullying “red scare” of extreme anti-communism? (Carl Foreman, who originated the project, was blacklisted for past communist sympathies.) Whatever its intentions, the movie presented powerful arguments for armed resistance, unilateral action when necessary, and the courage to see beyond peaceful delusions — all staples of post-World War II conservatism.

And in Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane, “High Noon” gave conservatives a western hero who was untarnished by prejudice or excessive violence. The more flamboyant John Wayne, who was famously conservative in real life, was often seen on screen expressing contempt for Mexicans or Native Americans, and sometimes tussling with women. (Skepticism about the larger-than-life Wayne persona shouldn’t deter viewers from classics like “The Quiet Man,” “Red River,” and especially the original “Stagecoach,” with a much younger, more purely charismatic Wayne.)

In “High Noon,” Cooper’s willingness to take on the villains single-handedly isn’t a sign of an overly gung-ho attitude — it’s a moral commitment to his law-enforcement responsibilities. His sagging features betray his disappointment at the weakness of those around him; only his Quaker wife, who finally picks up a gun to help him, redeems herself in the end. After the battle, they head off into the sunset in a prim little wagon, hoping to find a place where they can live in peace.

“High Noon” makes clear that Kane’s preference is for peace, not war; he simply understands that aggression must be answered in kind. It’s a grim, unsought duty, but one which he assumes for the betterment of others — much as conservatives often view America’s mission in the world.

Almost 40 years after it was made, “High Noon” became an inspiration for the Polish Solidarity movement, an international symbol of the Western embrace of freedom. As such, it proved the power of political allegories in movies — and literally helped to bring down the Berlin Wall.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at