Monday, July 2, 2012

8 Great Reluctant Patriots on Film

The movies -- at least the good ones -- aren't usually able to do outright, rah-rah patriotism all too well. Maybe it's the fact that movies require conflict, or that they need to have characters who grow, but rarely do great film heroes start off as eager beavers looking to sign up for a cause. Thus we come to the archetype of the reluctant patriot: The guy who really doesn't want to fight on either side, who's just looking out for Number One, and yet finds himself having to fight -- or at least to pick sides -- just the same. And this, it turns out, is a type American cinema, particularly Hollywood, does really well. In honor of Independence Day, here are eight of cinema's most notable reluctant patriots.

Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca and Across the Pacific
As a screen persona, Bogart was the ur-reluctant patriot, as evidenced in these two wartime classics. In both cases, he’s a guy who doesn’t feel any real loyalty except to himself. In Casablanca he’s a supposedly neutral expatriate in Morocco whose cafĂ© hosts any and all warring sides, and in Across the Pacific, he’s a disgraced Navy man who’s trying to rent his services out to the highest bidder. As you might expect, he soon finds that the world is a far more complicated place. And we find out that he’s a far more complicated person.

Joel McCrea, Foreign Correspondent
Though he made plenty of films set during WWII and during the Cold War, Alfred Hitchcock rarely indulged in the archetype of the reluctant patriot: His characters are usually acting either out of self-interest or professional duty. In Joel McCrea’s crime reporter-cum-foreign-correspondent Johnny Jones, however, Hitch found a perfect surrogate for America on the eve of WWII: A no-nonsense pro who goes from tough skeptic to genuine idealist over the course of two sweeping, suspenseful hours.

Richard Widmark, Pickup on South Street
In Samuel Fuller’s noir classic, Richard Widmark plays a pickpocket who winds up unwittingly  involved in Cold War intrigue. His initial resistance isn’t the cynicism of a tough guy or an existential revolt, however – rather, he can’t even conceive of a world where he might be asked to do something patriotic. “You waving the flag at me?” he insolently asks the suits approaching him – and you half expect him to cackle right afterwards.

Al Pacino, Revolution
No! Hear me out. Hugh Hudson’s much-maligned 1985 epic of the Revolutionary War isn’t nearly as bad as everyone says it is. True, it’s got a ghastly romance between Al Pacino and Nastassja Kinski, and an atrocious ending. But somewhere in there is a touching story – namely, that of a fur trapper and father from New York who, despite all attempts to steer clear of the hostilities raging around him winds up involved alongside his son in America’s fight for freedom. And Pacino ain’t half-bad in it either.

William Holden, Bridge on the River Kwai
Holden was an old hand at playing out-for-himself tough guys (witness his turn in Billy Wilder’s classic Stalag 17), and in David Lean’s epic POW masterpiece, he’s the American loner cast among a group of British prisoners in a Japanese war camp. Managing to get away, he expects to wash his hands of this war – especially since it turns out he’s actually been living under an assumed identity. Needless to say, fate has something different in mind for him.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Last of the Mohicans
The posters for Michael Mann’s 1992 epic announced Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye as “The first American hero,” and, in a way, they were right, even though Hawkeye is technically fighting for and alongside the British. And his true loyalty is probably to his adopted Mohican family rather than any European or colonial pseudo-nation. But here again is the example of a man who, despite all efforts to remain beyond the reach of warring sides in a conflict, finds himself smack dab in the middle of it.

Richard Harris, Major Dundee
In this troubled but still-pretty amazing Sam Peckinpah Western epic, Harris plays Captain Tyreen, the well-mannered but furious Confederate prisoner  who has sworn to avenge himself of his old pal Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston), even as he journeys under Dundee’s command into Mexico in pursuit of a renegade Apache leader. Maybe “patriot” is the wrong word here (the film is anything but flag-waving), but Tyreen discovers a new kind of loyalty as he and the obsessive Dundee have to battle both Apaches and French soldiers.

Harrison Ford, Star Wars
Wait, what? What does Han Solo, who exists in a galaxy where there is not only no America but there aren’t even nations, have to do with patriotism? True, this is a guy who probably wouldn’t even know what a flag is, but he’s also pretty much the most perfect example the movies have given us of a reluctant patriot: A total mercenary who couldn’t care less about the Empire or the Rebels, but who shows up to join the fight, just in time for the final standoff at the Death Star. Even though it means that he’ll probably wind up with gangsters on his tail. Really, the whole “country” thing is just a formality.

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