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August 20, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 34
Film in Focus
By Andrew Sarris
President Richard M. Nixon may not be quite the cinephile his recent press notices would seem to suggest. Or so we are led to believe by a recent Variety follow-up to the news stories in which Mr. Nixon reportedly plunged straight from the screening room into the practice of statecraft. First there was the Cambodian caper supposedly inspired by a viewing of “Patton,” and then the analogy between good old frontier justice in a John Wayne western like “Chisum” and the kookier kind represented in the trial of Charles Manson, a man the President, without due process, branded as a murderer.
Even at the time of the two news stories it struck me that the President was going far afield in current movies to find justifications for his actions and attitudes. And now Variety has confirmed my worst suspicions with this list of films screened for Mr. Nixon since he assumed the Presidency: “Sound of Music,” “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” “River Kwai,” “Flower Drum Song,” “Marooned,” “Odd Couple,” “Quo Vadis,” “War and Peace,” “Sunrise at Campobello,” “West Side Story,” “Cat Ballou,” and “Dr. Zhivago.” Hardly a list of films resounding with relevance. Furthermore, Daughter Tricia is apparently in charge of booking, although the systematic exclusion of all x-rated product may reflect the all too visibly inhibiting presence of Billy Graham. Hence, unless the President sneaks off by himself to catch such conversation pieces as “Easy Rider,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “M*A*S*H,” “Catch-22,” and “Oh What a Lovely War,” he is effectively insulated from what a great many of his countrymen are looking at these days. Not that even “Patton” and “Chisum” are as ill-conceived as the Presidential decisions they are supposed to have influenced. Once more and this time on the highest level of power, we are confronted with the problem of the viewer seeing in a movie precisely what he wants to see in it, no more, no less.
Normally the cinematic preferences of political leaders are more piquant than profound. Thinking back, I can recall that some kind words about Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion,” but I have a feeling FDR’s rhetoric was influenced more by the propriety of Peace as a subject than by the pleasure he found in the movie. I remember also his enthusiasm for “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on the radio, and his weariness with “Home on the Range” as his “favorite song.” Mrs. Roosevelt provided a more honest reaction, as always, by reacting instinctively against a harrowingly clinical documentary on child-birth with the observation (recorded by John Grierson) to the effect that childbirth should have more joy associated with it.
Winston Churchill’s favorite movie was “That Hamilton Woman” and/or “Destry Rides Again.” Of the latter movie, Lord Beaverbrook is said to have remarked: “The image of Marlene Dietrich standing in her black stockings on a bar singing ‘See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have’ ranks with the Venus De Milo.” Marshall Tito’s favorite film is “The Petrified Forest,” and no one seems to know why exactly. Josef Stalin loved not the revolutionary montage classics of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovjenko, but rather a simple-hearted Russian musical called “Volga Volga.” Ike liked westerns, especially “Shane,” and he was a prodigious reader of pulp westerns as well, a predilection that separated him from the more cultivated admirers of the movie genre. I never remember Jack Kennedy being associated with moviegoing in any conspicuous way. He seemed always to be on too much of a reality kick to require the mediation of the silver screen, and rumor has it that he preferred to date the movie goddesses in person.
Even Hitler’s tastes did not always seem to run true to form. His favorite opera was “Die Meistersinger,” the least morbid of Wagner’s work, the least obsessed with blood, death, immolation, and revenge, all presumably Hitlerian motifs. One of his favorite novels was C.S. Forester’s “The General,” a very ironic account of the career of a British general on the western front during the First World War. This general butchered his troops by the tens of thousands in a stupidly conceived offensive, and then, as the Germans were successfully counter-attacking, he mounted his horse, and in a burst of prescience, realized that if he sensibly retreated he would be regarded ever after as one of the defeated ones and he would be whispered about and mistrusted because the stench of failure would follow him everywhere, and so he spurred his horse forward, and led his men back to more dismemberment and death, and he himself was blown off his horse, and his leg was shattered, but his foolishly heroic charge did earn him the honor of rank and respect in a Bath chair till the end of his days. And that was all Hitler took away from “The General”: the heroism and the honor, not the stupidity and the horror. But that is the way with obsessive personalities as they bore in on multi-layered works with laser beams of neurotic concentration. From the very top to the very bottom of of any social structure, ti is what people bring to movies that determine what they get out of them. Hence, the fruitlessness of all censorship and sociological speculation on audience impact.
It must be added that George C. Scott’s Patton and John Wayne’s Chisum are more complex and ambivalent than the dubious politics they have been invoked to justify. And even at their worst, movies have not yet become as barbarously polarized as our politics. There are now at least Two Americas whereas there is still only one Cinema. Still, as long as the Two Americas do not break out into violently uncivil warfare, the situation could be worse. If I said in Russia about Brezhnev half of what I’ve said in America about Nixon, I would be clamped into an insane asylum for “tests” before I could say “Ivan Ivanovich.” Which is to say that America is still America even though we are stuck with a leader who prefers to treat the Presidency more as an ordeal than as an opportunity, and who whines more than all the current crop of movie anti-heroes put together, anti-heroes incidentally he seems destined never to see on the screen if Tricia has her way.
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