Along with its ability to entertain, cinema, like literature, is a great repository of ethical insights and wisdom. The Godfather trilogy alone teems with so many maxims and powerful lessons in human behavior that it has given rise to a veritable school of philosophy of its own. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” could just as easily have come from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but as fans and scholars alike know, Michael Corleone tenders that pearl to Frank Pentangeli in The Godfather Part II.
In the postwar masterpiece, The Third Man, Orson Welles portrays Harry Lime, a silver-tongued rogue who sells penicillin for profit on Vienna’s black market. In the movie’s best-known scene, Harry chides his chum, Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten) over his concern for strangers. High atop a Ferris wheel, Harry asks Holly if he really cares whether one of those “dots” down there stopped moving forever: “Nobody thinks in terms of ‘human beings.’ Governments don’t, why should we? They talk about ‘the people’ and ‘the proletariat,’ I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing.”
Ah, Persuasion 101: everyone else does it, why shouldn’t we? But Welles is just warming up. In his one contribution to Graham Greene’s already brilliant script, Orson Welles added the movie’s most famous lines:
In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
That these lines conjure a ruthless worldview is no coincidence: the Borgias’ reign of terror also produced Niccolò Machiavelli, the diplomat and political philosopher whose name, though not altogether rightly, is synonymous with “the end justifies the means.”
In philosophy, such thinking is called consequentialism. It’s an old rhetorical strategy, but one that continues to see creative application, from the tragic buffoonery of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his search for communist bogeymen to the nefarious arms-for-hostages arbitrage of the Iran-Contra scandal; from the hollow justifications of a pre-emptive war in Iraq to the NSA’s unbridled electronic eavesdropping on every American (and every American ally, so it would seem.) Somewhere in all of these spurious arguments you always hear the phrase “for your protection.” That’s just when you need to watch your back.
Or your wallet. When the Harry Limes of the world aren’t on a crusade to root out imaginary spies in Hollywood or nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they deploy “the end justifies the means” in pursuit of a buck.
In one of his finest performances, Paul Newman plays one such scoundrel in the title role of the 1963 film Hud. Hud Bannon is a Texas cattle rancher who chafes at having to work for his father, Homer, played by Melvyn Douglas (a role for which he earned the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.) The film’s action turns on the discovery of a cow that has mysteriously died. When Hud suggests that they move quickly to sell off the herd before the state veterinarian returns with his findings, it ignites one of the memorable clashes between father and son:
Homer: “Would that be your way of gettin’ out of a tight?
Hud: “I can ship the whole herd out before they begin the test.”
Homer: “You mean try and pass bad stuff off on my neighbors who wouldn’t even know what they was gettin’?”
Hud: “Aw, you don’t know it’s bad stuff. I’ll ship ‘em out of state, I’ll load ‘em up north before the news gets out.”
Homer: “And take a chance on starting an epidemic in the entire country?”
Hud: “Why this whole country is run on epidemics, where you been? Epidemics of big business price fixin’, crooked TV shows, income tax finaglin’, souped up expense accounts. How many honest men you know? You take the sinners away from the saints, you’re lucky to end up with Abraham Lincoln! So I say let’s us put our bread in some of that gravy while it is still hot!”
Hud’s is the kind of ruthless mentality which so endears Wall Street to the rest of America. Of course, Hud has never heard the term “consequentialism” nor does he need to; with him it’s pathological.
If the movie has one flaw it’s that Newman’s visage and magnetic charisma nearly eclipse his villainy; it’s hard not to like him, which makes it easy to lose sight of the heroic titan in the background, his father. Homer Bannon is not just a good man, he is a paragon. Throughout the course of the film, he will exhibit every virtue: responsibility, love of family, concern for subordinates, good manners, wisdom.
Homer cares for the land and the people and animals who live on it right down to the birds. When Hud arrives to examine the dead cow, he’s angered to see buzzards hovering in a nearby tree, so he grabs a Winchester from his pick-up’s gun rack and fires a salvo at them. The birds barely stir, but Homer quietly upbraids his son: “I wish you wouldn’t do that, Hud, they keep the country clean. Besides, there’s a law against killin’ buzzards.”
The reprimand prompts one of Newman’s most memorable lines, a witty summa of unscrupulousness: “Well, I always say the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner and that’s what I do–sometimes I lean to one side of it and sometimes I lean to the other.”
If ranching doesn’t work out for Hud, he clearly has a future in Texas politics. And like a smarmy politician, Hud uses the clever rejoinder to deflect his father’s simply stated truth. But Homer’s truth defies sarcasm. In the following exchange, Homer outlines why he doesn’t want oil wells on his ranch, but what he’s really doing is propounding a philosophy:
Hud: “My daddy thinks oil is something you stick in your salad dressing.”
Homer: “If there’s oil down there, you can get it sucked up after I’m under there with it. But I don’t like it. There’ll be no holes punched in this land while I’m here. They ain’t gonna come in and grade no roads so the wind can blow me away. What’s oil to me? What can I do with a bunch of oil wells? I can’t ride out every day and prowl amongst ‘em like I can my cattle. I can’t breed ‘em or tend ‘em or rope ‘em or chase ‘em or nothing. I can’t feel a smidgen of pride in ‘em ‘cause they ain’t none of my doing.”
Hud: ”There’s money in it.”
Homer: “I don’t want that kind of money. I want mine to come from something that keeps a man doing for himself.”
When Homer notices that his grandson, Lon (Brandon deWilde), seems to look up to Hud, he doesn’t rebuke the young man or spoon-feed him a moral lesson. Instead, he calmly tells him: “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.... You’re just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what’s right and wrong.”
Ain’t that the truth.
In Hud, the roles are clear-cut with Melvyn Douglas as ethical exemplar and Paul Newman as antithesis. But in his 1969 epic Western, The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah shows us that even outlaws live by a code and some of them are capable of keen insights.
William Holden plays Pike, the leader of a band of aging desperadoes, gunslingers with six-shooters in a world that has just made the move to automatics. Pike’s rock-steady second-in-command is Dutch, memorably portrayed by Ernest Borgnine.
When Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), one of Pike’s underlings, wants to do away with old Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), Pike dresses him down posthaste with the code: “We’re not gettin’ rid of anybody. We’re gonna stick together just like it used to be. When you side with a man you stay with him and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal! You’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!”
To match the plot’s poetry, the film’s shape is equally exquisite: a massive opening caper that devolves into carnage, a daring train heist in the middle that goes smooth as silk, and then the loyalty-driven finale when the boys go back for their comrade despite overwhelming odds. (Michael Mann used the same architecture for his modern cops-and-robbers epic, Heat. Not surprisingly, Mann lists The Wild Bunch among his top 10 favorite films.)
Relentlessly dogging their every move is Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan. Deke, a central member of their gang, was captured by the law. To quote The Godfather, the railroad men whom Deke and the others ripped off make him an offer he can’t refuse: either lead the manhunt or spend life in prison.
For all of Peckinpah’s legendary depictions of violence, The Wild Bunch abounds with nuance and poetic insights, like this exchange between Dutch and Pike:
Dutch: “Damn that Deke Thornton to Hell!”
Pike: “What would you do in his place? He gave his word.”
Dutch: “Gave his word to a railroad.”
Pike: “It’s his word!”
Dutch: “THAT AIN’T WHAT COUNTS! IT’S WHO YOU GIVE IT TO!”
My use of all-caps is no exaggeration. With veins bulging in his rough-hewn face and neck, Borgnine explicates a fairly subtle piece of their code of conduct. Pike just steps back and preserves silence, a tacit acknowledgment that Dutch has got him on that one.
Dutch might have been placated if he could have seen Deke Thornton’s quiet tribute to his former friends. Not long after an orgy of gunfire in which the four remaining members of the wild bunch annihilate a small army (with help from a new invention called the belt-fed machine gun) before getting killed themselves, Deke enters the walled village. The carnage astounds even this leather-tough gunfighter (it will become a commonplace a few years later in Belgium and France.) Robert Ryan conjures touching solemnity as he walks over to Pike–his dead hand still squeezing the machine gun’s trigger–and takes Pike’s old six-gun from its hip holster. Far from looting a trophy, Deke is transferring custodianship of a relic; that gun and his memories are all that remain of the wild bunch. And old Freddie Sykes. Ah, ethics and poetry!
Yes, you can learn a lot from the movies. It’s a school I happily go back to again and again.