Hollywood Then and Now
Our Founding redefined nationhood along social-contract lines that Europeans can still only theorize about. Our love of nation at its best was ethical, not ethnic. Our patriotism was loyalty not to race, or even to tradition, but to ideals of individual liberty and republican self-governance.
The films of World War II often reflect just that sort of patriotism. Yes, there’s plenty of pure jingo, not to mention racial slurs so nonchalant that they’re now hilarious: the enemies are always krauts or dagos or—my personal favorite from Fighting Seabees—“Tojo and his bug-eyed monkeys.” But many World War II films emphasize what America stands for. The ceaseless Hollywood roll calls of Spinellis, O’Haras, Dombrowskis, and Steins highlight the e pluribus unum of it all: an ethnically diverse nation unified by democratic ideals. Those ideals were embodied by the characters themselves—by their rough, easygoing demeanor, their friendly interaction over ethnic and class lines, and their suspicion of fascist strongmen. Mussolini “kinda thinks he’s God, don’t he?” says a cynical Humphrey Bogart in Sahara. “Someday that guy’s gonna blow up and bust.”
Most people love their homeland, but these movies understood that, for Americans, the democratic ethos constituted the substance of that land. It was that substance that was worth fighting and dying for, even when the battle was lost. As a doomed soldier remarks in Bataan, “It don’t matter much where a man dies, as long as he dies for freedom.” Hold your breath and wait for a modern filmmaker to say that about Vietnam or Iraq.