As a historical novelist and historian, I believe the past is key to understanding the present. As a movie buff, I believe films are a time capsule of the era in which they are made.
The Peter Pan theme of never growing up would be an example from recent cinema, in which man-child 30-somethings with a habit of slobbery and instant gratification resist adult responsibilities. They postpone parenthood and mortgages in favor of party-on in ways both immature and enviable.
I’m thinking of actors like Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, and Hugh Grant, and movies such as Wayne’s World, About a Boy, The Hangover trilogy, The 40-year-old Virgin, and Failure to Launch, to mention just a few. Often funny, sometime exasperating, their scripts reflect the difficulty some young people have of getting started in our era of tumultuous economies, uncertain role models, and student debt.
It was a contrast, then, to catch 1949’s World War II bomber classic, “Twelve-O’clock High,” on TCM. Gregory Peck plays Army Air Force General Frank Savage as the Eighth Air Force begins its daylight bombing campaign against Germany in 1942.
This was a bare bones black and white production, with a Florida airfield filling in for wartime England and the sparse fighting footage taken from actual German and American aerial film. The movie is instead filled with words, and the key conflict is on the ground.
Taking over a bomber group from a well-liked colonel who is losing too many planes, Savage is such a grim disciplinarian that all his pilots apply for transfer. Airmen he doesn’t like are assigned to a bomber he labels Leper Colony. Not only is a pilot who hangs back to protect the damaged plane of his roommate not praised, he is mercilessly criticized for breaking formation and endangering all the other aircraft.
This ruthless discipline reduces losses, the pilots change their mind on transferring, Peck slowly softens up, and eventually even he cracks from the tension and carnage. But before his brief bout of PTSD, Savage demands that his troops man-up, stop focusing on themselves, and even consider themselves already dead. This is war, he lectures. The point is defending the anthill, not the ant.
Some of these scenes are so powerful – and arguable – that they were shown in the military academies as teaching tools.
Every action brings a reaction. Some 16 million Americans served in World War II and brought back military discipline that informed the world I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Work hard, follow the rules, and expect reward.
It worked. But many baby-boomers rejected the organization-man materialism of the Greatest Generation. Amid the tension of Vietnam and the arms race, they experimented with counter-culture alternatives briefly idealized in 1967’s Summer of Love in San Francisco and 1969’s Woodstock music festival.
Surfing movies and motorcycle flicks were one reflection of this youth celebration and rebellion. Which brings us to “Easy Rider.” Written and filmed in 1968 and released the year I graduated from high school, it was 1969’s third highest-grossing movie, after “Butch Cassidy” and “Midnight Cowboy.”
I just watched it a second time, right after my tour of duty with General Savage. Yep, it seemed just as incoherent as it had in 1969, and its brief visit to a hippie commune seemed ambivalent, at best. The ambition of its “heroes” is to motorcycle from a drug deal to a whorehouse visit during Mardi Gras, and then on to retirement in Florida. General Savage would gag.
But Easy Rider was about pictures and music, not words, and its mood both celebrates freedom (“Born to be Wild” is its signature song) and criticizes its aimlessness. “We blew it,” Peter Hopper enigmatically tells Dennis Weaver just before the movie’s nihilistic ending.
These films – or rather, the era they represent – are like echoes of the Big Bang, the primordial origins of modern angst in which we still struggle between discipline and self-realization, security and freedom. Today’s economy ain’t that bad, but the culture wars oscillate on and on.
I think of Ted Cruz and company longing for Savage-like certainty (but with none of Peck’s charisma), Bernie Sanders a fossil of 60s idealism before Peter Fonda mumbled over its dark side, Donald Trump seizing self-aggrandizement out of the blame game, and Hillary Clinton seeking to govern from a dispirited muddle of an aging middle.
I suspect none will be able to serve very effectively unless there’s some new crisis to pull us together. Too many Americans can’t get no satisfaction. We have a winner-take-all culture, an endless war on terror that nags like the Cold War or a cold sore, and existential dread about a climate-cursed future.
So what is today’s iconic movie? I would suggest turning to television, where much of the best writing is today. And my nominee is, “Game of Thrones.” Amoral warlords in a world with no ethics combat ceaselessly for a hideously uncomfortable iron throne. And one by one they expire, just like the campaigns of dwarf-like presidential candidates.
Meanwhile, winter is coming, just as unbearable summers are forecast for the decades ahead.
I’d rather pick something more uplifting, like a Tom Hanks movie. But his everyman nobility is often set in the past.
Got a better idea? What film, show, or book perfectly captures 2016?
And I hope it’s not “The Walking Dead.”