The Academy Awards are next weekend, and undoubtedly a dwindling audience will watch, if declining movie profits are any indication. Old Hollywood, though liberal, once celebrated America’s virtues. Now new Hollywood obsesses over and celebrates its vices. Old Hollywood was patriotic. New Hollywood sees America as villainous. Old Hollywood celebrated family life. New Hollywood primarily honors autonomous individuals. Old Hollywood, though not itself religious, respected faith. Its iconic representative was perhaps director Cecil B. DeMille, renowned for its biblical epics, who did not attend worship services but liked to sit quietly in church buildings. Old Hollywood portrayed struggles between good and evil, often with nuance, in which Providence gave victory to the former. New Hollywood often likens life to a casino. Old Hollywood privately misbehaved but publicly was glamorous and classy. New Hollywood is proudly trashy.
Hollywood became cynical and trashy partly thanks to the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Fortunately, my father took me to several movies over 40 years ago, when I was only age 5 or 6 or so, that reflected the nobility of old Hollywood and that were deeply impressionable to me. The most celebrated of those movies we saw was Patton, starring George C. Scott as the flamboyant World War II commander. Scott himself won an academy award, though eccentrically declined to accept it. It was Scott’s greatest role, though he was actually much younger than the general he portrayed, and his voice was much deeper. Patton’s grandson recalled in his family memoir that his father, himself a general who served in Vietnam, quietly taking the family to a theater to see the portrayal of his father. The son quietly whispered to the grandson that his own father’s voice was much higher pitched than Scott’s. But the son also wept during the movie’s portrayal of the Battle of the Bulge, one of Patton’s supreme moments. Appropriately, Scott dominates the film. His chief military aide is a slightly prissy actor who later appeared in television soap operas. Patton’s superior, Eisenhower, is felt but never shown on screen. His favorite enemy, German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, is barely shown. Karl Malden’s General Omar Bradley is accurately stolid and bland. The not well-known British actor portraying British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery comes close to challenging Scott’s dramatic dominance, which is true to life. Montgomery was Patton’s chief nemesis. He is portrayed as prickly and arrogant, partly thanks to the real life Omar Bradley, who shared Patton’s disdain for their ally, and who served as a film advisor.
Many years later, Scott would again portray the general in a television movie The Last Days of Patton, showing Patton’s agonies as he lay dying after a car accident. Mercifully, Patton omits that final chapter, instead stirringly ending with Patton, at the height of his fame, walking his bull terrier towards an Austrian mountain, as he recalled the ancient Roman warning that all glory is fleeting. President Richard Nixon famously relished the movie, supposedly watching it repeatedly, especially during the Cambodian incursion. Rod Steiger reputedly always regretted declining to portray Patton. But it’s nearly impossible to picture anyone other than George C. Scott, in full battle regalia, gruffly addressing his troops before a giant American flag in Patton‘s iconic opening scene.
Rod Steiger did gloweringly portray Napoleon is another film to which my father took me, Waterloo, also superbly featuring Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington. More magnificently, but too briefly, a sardonically corpulent Orson Welles is King Louis XVIII, who ambles to his escape after a terrified courtier warns the “monster” has returned from his exile on Elba. Marshal Ney has promised the king he would bring Napoleon back to Paris in an “iron cage.” But when a defiant Napoleon asks Ney’s troops who will be first among them to fire on their emperor, they rally to him, with Ney once again in the service to his old commander. The battle scenes are wonderfully staged, with aerial scenes of British and French troops arrayed into “battle squares” to receive attacks. Plummer, as Wellington, remains composed when a subordinate at his side loses a limb to a cannon ball. The climax is when aging Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher arrives with his Prussian army, ensuring Napoleon’s doom. “Kill, my children, kill!” he shouts as they galloped into the field. It’s a very rare moment in any film for British or American audiences when German troops are rescuers. The actor playing Blücher was a Soviet Georgian. Over 15,000 Soviet army troops were extras, a rare opportunity for the Red Army during the Cold War to be constructively useful. And the film was partially filmed in the Soviet Union. The film itself was an Italian-Soviet collaboration.
In Waterloo‘s final scene, a victorious Christopher Plummer as Wellington surveys the thousands of corpses, exclaiming “next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.” I recall leaving the movie theater, at age 5 or 6, with the mistaken impression that only Wellington survived the battle. In fact, Rod Steiger, as Napoleon, is shown being hustled off the battlefield by his marshals, his Old Guard having chosen death before surrender. The film does not glorify war, but neither does it darkly claim it is useless. Wellington is sad but not regretful. Napoleon’s final defeat ushered in nearly 100 years of relative European peace.
Napoleon’s war-ravaged reign over France was the last, terrible blast of the murderous French Revolution, which had beheaded the French monarch and thousands more. More than a century before, the English Puritans had beheaded their own King Charles I, whom Alec Guinness perfectly portrayed in Cromwell. Richard Harris has the title role as the Puritan general who becomes England’s Lord Protector. As a little boy in the movie theater, I thrilled to Cromwell’s military exploits and impatience with the dignified but feckless king. The battle scenes from the English civil war are effective, though lacking thousands of Soviet military extras. Timothy Dalton is Prince Rupert, and Robert Morley is the smugly fat Earl of Manchester. Largely accurate to history in the big story if not the details, Cromwell outmaneuvers them all. Alec Guinness, as the king, nobly accepts his execution, announcing from the scaffold: “I go now from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown.”
In true old Hollywood form, King Charles is shown at prayer and genuinely devout, though appalled by the more populist demands of the Puritan parliament. Cromwell is equally ardent in his faith, often citing Jehovah to justify his war against royalism. And the film’s music score features an English cathedral choir singing “Rejoice in the Lord.” Richard Harris, as the Puritan commander, advocates “democracy” to sneering royalists, obviously an historical exaggeration. But the Puritan defeat of royal power prefigured the more peaceful Glorious Revolution of 1688 and eventually the British and American democracies. The film concludes with a shot of Cromwell’s sarcophagus (the real one was actually destroyed during the royal restoration), which proclaims: “Christ, not Man, is King.” Thirty years later, another film To Kill a King, with Rupert Everett playing a much snottier King Charles than Alec Guinness, links the Puritan revolt with the French Revolution. The comparison is unfair, as the Puritans at least tried to create a Christian commonwealth that protected property and some liberty of conscience. The French Revolution quickly degenerated into a mindless bloodbath, led by atheists, and ultimately inspiring the vicious, utopian ideologies of the 20th century.
The final film that remains in my memory from that era is Zulu, Michael Caine’s first major movie role, and which portrays the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879. About 150 British and colonial troops defend a South African mission station from 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors after a much larger Zulu army had already wiped out about 1,300 British soldiers at the Battle of Isandlwana. Richard Burton is perfect as narrator of the film, which was first released in 1964 but reappeared in U.S. theaters in the early 1970s. It was filmed amid stunning scenery in South Africa. And a young, real life Chief Buthelezi, who is still alive, vividly plays the part of his ancestor Zulu king.
Nearly all of the characters in Zulu are flawed but ultimately admirable. Caine is a young inexperienced lieutenant who organizes the defense with a fellow officer also lacking any combat history. The mission’s Swedish pacifist missionary and his daughter, pleading for the British command to flee rather than fight, are themselves chased off. The watching Zulus respectfully permit the Swedes to depart in peace while preparing their own brilliantly choreographed attack on the small British command. Cynical and once besotted British soldiers, malingering in the infirmary, rise to the occasion as they are surrounded by thousands of assaulting spears men. After the carnage, which the few British barely survive, the Zulu warriors pay homage to their valor with a tribal dance and song. Expecting another, final assault, the British robustly sing a soaring Welsh martial melody, “Men of Harlech.” These tributes are fictional additions to the history, of course, but marvelous for the film. Nearly a dozen men received Victoria Crosses for their heroism at the battle, as Richard Burton recalls at the film’s close.
Zulu neither glorifies nor denigrates war or the British Empire. It celebrates duty and valor. A 1979 film with Peter O’Toole and Burt Lancaster portrays the Zulu decimation of the British at Isandlwana, shown as tragic and almost deserved, in true new Hollywood style. The Victorian British in South Africa were just like the feckless Americans in Vietnam, of course.
None of these historical biopics from old Hollywood were perfect history, of course. No film ever is. But they un-cynically and magisterially interpreted heroic events that new Hollywood would never understand and likely would despoil. The historical biopics before this year’s Academy Awards like J. Edgar and Iron Lady feature outstanding performances but speculatively obsess over personal psychodrama. Ironically, their title characters in real life were uninterested in their own inner emotional lives, preferring to think of themselves as historically momentous actors on a national stage.
These films of 40 years ago from that I saw when very young were some of the last from old Hollywood. They spared us postmodern psychobabble and spotlighted great men as agents of great events. They were tremendously entertaining, and inspiring, to a child and still are to an adult.