Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Muscles, Fire, Guns, the New Frontier and Inner City Savages! - the Right Wing Mythology of Eighties' Action Films

By Jimi Thaule
"We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes because it's obscene!"
Colonel Walter E. Kurtz - Apocalypse Now

The eighties was the last decade of the Cold War, a decade dominated by the presidency of Ronald Reagan and his second term vice president George Bush – elected as Reagan's successor in 1988. Another significant feature of the decade was the American action film, which had its golden age in the eighties and nearly died out once the Cold War ended. As the nineties and the Clinton years progressed action films were reduced to action comedies, and only recently have we seen a resurgence of the type of action films we saw in the eighties – in particular with Stallones' tribute film the Expendables and its anticipated sequel.

There have been rumors that Expendables 2 would be rated PG13 to ensure Chuck Norris' involvement. Chuck Norris of course is known for his right wing conservative christian politics as well as his involvement in several classic action films – notably the Missing in Action series. While wholesale slaughter seems to be fine with conservatives, blasphemy is not.

Before turning to politics Reagan was an actor, and while he mostly starred in b-comedies it seems fitting that the decade dominated by his policies would also see a great number of films espousing conservative ideals and myths. Some of them far to the right of even the most conservative Republican.

Let's take a look at the action films of the eighties, to which Expendables plays loving tribute. While the action film is as old as the Tinsel Town itself eighties action was unique in its portrayal of steroid enhanced muscle men fighting small wars single handedly, and espousing conservative values. We're talking Sylvester Stallone, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris of course -as well as Jean Claude VanDamme, Dolph Lundgren and many others. In order to understand the action film of the eighties we have to start about a decade earlier, with Clint Eastwood and his lauded interpretation of the role "Dirty" Harry Callahan in 1971 - a movie that spawned a handful of sequels and changed the face of action films forever.

Dirty Harry was set in the inner city in the dying throes of the hippie era, post Manson and towards the end of the Vietnam War. Social upheaval, the early clashes of the culture wars and drug culture had a severe impact on American culture, and the result of course was fear. Fear breeds fantasies of escaping fear, and Dirty Harry showed us that one of the most potent images was the head strong, authoritarian white cop who could look past politics and turmoil and create order with his .44 magnum revolver. The revolver is of course a unique symbol of the American frontier, and in Callahan's hands it transforms modern America into a new frontier where savages fear its powers. While Callahan's gun wasn't a Colt peacemaker, it may as well have been one. Dirty Harry postulates a potent urban myth wherein politicians are weak and corrupt and the law itself gets in the way of justice and order. (Incidentally: Dirty Harry's script was co-written by a certain John Milius – who also contributed to some of the sequels. Hang on to that name for now, we'll return to him later.)

Let's stop for a while to look at the frontier myth, before we go on. Already in 1893 in his essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" the historian Frederick Jackson Turner proposed the idea that the unique character of the American culture was a result of the western frontier, and that values such as democracy, individualism and liberty were inherent to the American nation as a result of the frontier experience. Turner was probably more than a little optimistic in his assessment, but one thing certainly holds true: the frontier is a piece of American mythology that resonates deeply within American culture. While the idea of the frontier exists in several cultures Americans seem to be more collectively fascinated by it than many others – as evidenced by the number of westerns and other films to invoke the frontier, and in music. To roam free and wild is perhaps an even more potent American dream than going from rags to riches as it resonates with such disparate minds as John Milius and Grateful Dead.

Several years later the Dirty Harry's central pattern and myth would be invoked again in several vigilante themed films, but two of the most noteworthy are Death Wish (1974) and Cobra (1986) starring Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone respectively. The two films take different approaches to the myth however, and both are interesting:

Death Wish presents us with the common man turned spirit of vengeance, who takes the law into his own hands because the lawmen are too civilized to exert authority. He becomes judge, jury and executioner, to use a cliché, and turns his revolver on street punks and modern savages. Chaos and turmoil surrounds the common man, but with the right tools he can turn the frontier back into a home for good men. Perhaps even more telling is Death Wish 2 (1982), produced by the infamous duo of Yoran Globus and Menahem Golan. The ruthless vigilante politics become even more evident in this film, and Golan/Globus certainly didn't shy away from even more overt right wing myths in films like Amerika 3000, Invasion USA, American Ninja, Cyborg or the Delta Force, the 1990 version of Captain America or the aforementioned Missing in Action. While production values in Golan/Globus films are quite modest and most of the films are cheap knock offs or b-grade sci fi they weave a rich tapestry of apocalyptic visions, pro-americanism and violence as a problem solver.

Cobra's take is different. In Cobra the law is no longer just flaccid or corrupt, it is irrelevant and the civlized world is falling. Gangs have taken over the inner city and are enforcing their own rule, with no respect for the laws or the police. They have zero qualms about open war with the police. Into this situation Marion Cobretti is injected as a self proclaimed cure. The fact that the character shares first name with Marion Robert Morrison, more widely known as John Wayne is either a lucky coincidence or a tribute to the hero of so many frontier themed action films – and anti-communist Republican activist. His revolver is replaced with a modern 9mm gun, and the frontier is gone. This is the normal state of our decadent civilization. Cobretti is seen as a necessary evil and the only way to take on the worst of the lawless elements. He succedes, but the viewer is warned not to follow his path - unlike the path of Paul Kersey in Death Wish. Kersey was a common man turned vigilante, Cobretti is "nietzschean" superhuman bred for war - a true child of the Vietnam War. He is not civilized and stands apart from the rest of society, and is thereby able to perform actions that the usual representatives of the law are not:

- The court is civilized, isn't it pig?
- But I'm not. This is where the law stops and I start - sucker!
Cobretti explains the difference between lawful and righteous to the leader of a criminal gang.

Stallone of course is probably best know for his portrayal of another child of the Vietnam War, and a film that spawned a whole genre of its own. I am of course talking about Rambo and the film First Blood from 1982. First Blood is also the first film that taps into the rich tapestry of the war that was lost because the civilized liberals back home didn't believe in the war goals - and even more potently that the troops were betrayed by the society for which they fought and sometimes died. (There is of course some truth to this, but I'm concerned with myth, so I'm not gonna debate that issue.) John Rambo is a veteran on his way home, out of work after the war ended and more or less a bum - despite being a highly decorated and well trained special forces combat soldier. Walking along the road he is arrested by the local sheriff, and after being subjected to ridicule and torturous treatment he flips. A small war ensues in which Rambo uses his experience from Vietnam to outwit the cops. After a climactic battle with the local constabulary he is arrested by his former C.O. Colonel Trautman. The gist of the story is that the civilized postwar society has no need of its combat damaged troops, and would easily turn its back on the people who fought in the war. First Blood is probably one of the best action films of the eighties, and deserves a much better reputation that it has. Where Apocalypse Now (another John Milius effort) was a film about the war and how it burns away humanity First Blood showed how society is unable and unwilling to face the consequences of sending people to war. First Blood isn't Taxi Driver, even though they share a few themes. Where Taxi Driver portrays the veteran as a dangerously paranoid and antisocial individual, and possibly even mentally retarded, Rambo is in possession of his faculties. Society in the other hand is cruel and has turned its back on its warriors.

First Blood spawned three sequels, out of which the first one (from 1985) is most memorable as it continued to tap into the mythic background of the Vietnam War. This time complete with corrupt politicians and CIA operatives willing to sell out the vets in favor of appeasement. Where First Blood was ambiguous the sequel is a homage to the veterans and their sacrifice and the fiery crucible of war. Rambo is no longer a mentally damaged veteran, but a soldier in the name of justice and political irredentism. The Reagan era came of age with this film, and its muscular hero was suddenly a role model for others: Schwarzenegger's Commando (1985) and Raw Deal (1987), as well as the Missing in Action films with Chuck Norris were basically Rambo knock offs, with the same theme and the same type of action - and the same message: brutality is sometimes necessary to uphold justice and righteousness - and civilized society is unable to defend its citizens in the face of corruption and rising crime. We need a new man, a strong man, to lead us in these new times. Interestingly however the first Missing in Action film touched on the subject of POWs and MIAs before First Blood II, while First Blood II is certainly the one that is most remembered of the two.

Apart from First Blood II the film that showcased this ideology more than anything is probably Predator (1987). A team of elite soldiers on a clandestine mission in South America is tricked by CIA, and encounters an invisible enemy who picks them off one by one. In the end it is only by casting off all the traits of the modern civilized world that Schwarzenegger's character is able to defeat the technology enhanced monster. He takes a jungian dive into a lake of mud to cover his body heat, discards the modern weaponry and encounters the monster naked and armed with wood and fire. He prevails not because of his advanced weaponry and training, but in spite of it. A more obvious anti modernist tribute to raw masculine destructive force is hard to imagine. Predator is of course a brilliant film, and worth watching not just for its story but because two of its actors wound up as active politicians: Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger - serving as governors of Minnesota for the right wing Reform Party of America and California for the Republicans respectively. Worth mentioning is of course that Clint Eastwood has served as mayor for the Republican party, and that Bruce Willis is also an ardent Republican, along with Chuck Norris. There's a lot to be said here, and not enough time.

I mentioned John Milius a couple of times earlier, and his contribution to eighties action is probably the most well formulated of all, while not as potent as Rambo or Predator in its mythic content. Red Dawn (1984) is another Reagan era film full of anti communism, tributes to war and strength and paranoid anti-politician messages. It concerns a band of teenagers who fight back against a joint Cuban-Soviet invasion and consequent occupation of the American Midwest (The Heartland itself). The film shows them as they progress from survivalism, through partisan sabotage and guerrilla warfare to heroes. It seamlessly blends frontier revivalism with anticommunist paranoia and criticism of politicians who didn't see the coming storm. Red Dawn is an impressive piece of conscious propaganda on Milius' behalf, both in terms of realistic portrayal and overt political message. (Where most communists in American films used Chinese copies of the iconic AK-47 this is one of the very few films where the Soviet troops actually use Soviet weapons. The level of detail in this film is amazing.) John Milius is of course a self declared fascist and "zenarchist" with a fascination for militarism, weapons and ancient roman values as well as bushido. Milius more than anyone sums up the traits of the great American action film: anti civilization, pro military, anti modernism, anti socialism, pro guns and pro might. If in doubt see his other films: Apocalypse Now, Farewell to the King, or Conan the Barbarian. I think this quote from Farewell to the King sums up his ideology quite well:

- What do you want.
- Freedom, to be like we are.
- Anything else?
- Guns. So they can't take the freedom away.

Robert Paxton writes in his book "The Anatomy of Fascism" that he had expected a form of American fascism to rise in the years following the Vietnam War. All the conditions that had been present in Italy and Germany after World War I was present in the US after Vietnam. Scores of unemployed and disgruntled veterans, social need and deeply rooted conflict in values. Still, fascism didn't take hold for some reason.

It's tempting to slap the label fascism on the ideas these films contain, and though it's not entirely true there is some merit to such a label. The idea of the New Man is inherent in all the totalitarian ideologies, and coupled with anti liberalism and anti socialism as well as animosity towards corrupt politicians and modernism fascism is a term that certainly springs to mind. However, there are some deeply seated values in these films that are not compatible with fascism as such: individualism, scepticism towards authority and personal freedom. If Dirty Harry or Cobra were fascist films Callahan and Cobretti would wear uniforms and the rest of the police would cheer them on rather than hold them back. Even Milius' band of partisans fight for freedom, not a New Order. Pseudo-fascism is a more proper term. There are enough similiarities to justify such a term, but not enough for fully fledged fascism.

In the post Vietnam War decades that led to the end of the Cold War American saw the rise of this unique form of pseudo-fascism. This pseudo-fascism was unique in the sense that it had almost no political significance but worked instead to form the myths of the once so liberal nation through films. A potent mix of vigilante justice, anti government sentiments, pro death penalty and anti civilization messages became common for these block busters, and the films that copied them. The question is of course: how much of current American culture can we say results from this myth complex?

It's a question that's difficult to answer in the format of this article, but it's a question worth pondering. American culture is obsessed with movies and movie stars and while the pseudo-fascism of right wing action films never crystalized into a political movement, and certainly never challenged the status quo it is hard to imagine how these films could hold such a firm grasp on American culture without influencing American ideology and politics. Perhaps it's no wonder that Jesse Venture and Arnold Schwarzenegger turned to politics, or that Chuck Norris endorses Newt Gingrich in the ongoing election, and even more to point, Ventura and Schwarzenegger were quite easily accepted as politicians and elected.

Jimi Thaule is a liaison librarian for the faculty of education at the University Oslo and Akershus University College. He holds a master's degree in contemporary history from the University of Oslo, where he studied the use of rituals and symbols in the Norwegian fascist movement.

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1 comment:

  1. Without gushing too much, this was a great read. Thank you Jimi for doing what you are doing.



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