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So, Master and Commander is the top "conservative" movie of the past decade. Why's that, Nile?
"Peter Weir’s unashamedly old-fashioned and visually stunning adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s novel is one of the greatest odes to leadership ever committed to celluloid....Set in 1805, it is an epic tale of heroism and love for country in the face of incredible odds, and a glowing tribute to the grit and determination that forged the British Empire."

Ok, that may be, but it's still puzzling how this manages to rank as the top conservative film for the decade. The only reason I can imagine is that the opponent is the French, whom conservatives have decided to rank just above Al-Qaeda on their hate list. Aside from my concerns that military leadership seems to be the paradigmatic for our understanding of the virtue of leadership (whereas, for Christians, it is the leadership of the saint or martyr, usually the opposite of a military leadership, that embodies the virtue of leadership), it is hard to see how this is a distinctively conservative virtue. Surely liberals believe in leadership too? We may not like their leaders, but they have leaders. The latter sentence is equally troubling, on three grounds already expressed--love of country is not obviously a virtue, nonmilitary heroism ought to be our highest ideal of heroism, and liberals, so far as I know, are fans of grit and determination as well; conservatives have no monopoly on these ideals. Of course, perhaps what Gardiner means (this becomes clear with later movies) is that it endorses a kind of individualist grit and determination, which is perhaps a modern conservative value, but which should make alarm bells go off for Christians. Also, needless to say, imperialism is scarcely a Christian or a traditionally conservative ideal.

Now, for #2, "Black Hawk Down." This seems an odd pick, in light of the first, since it seems to present a much more cynical view of the kind of overseas imperialism that Master and Commander could be interpreted as endorsing. Gardiner does have to acknowledge this--"Many critics enthusiastically dubbed Black Hawk Down an anti-war film, and it is in some respects a cautionary tale about the perils of nation-building." But then he hastily adds,

"But I regard it above all as an extraordinarily powerful and deeply patriotic tribute to the heroism and bravery of the US military, faced with overwhelming odds in a hostile city dominated by brutal Somali warlords. It is essentially a story of incredible sacrifice and camaraderie in the heat of battle, and ranks alongside Zulu, Saving Private Ryan and A Bridge Too Far as one of the greatest war films of all time."

This is just too what if it's a sharp and tragic criticism of the kind of meddling in foreign affairs and militaristic nation-building that conservatives have endorsed all through the Bush years, so what if it makes the war there look foolish and pointless; it must be a "conservative" film because it pays respect to the bravery of the soldiers. Come on, give me a break! As if conservatives had a monopoly on respecting the heroism, sacrifice, and camaraderie of the soldiers! You can be against a war and still have respect for the acts of bravery by the soldiers involved. Of course, even here, Christians ought to be very restrained, given that the military arena is not, for our faith, the place where we primarily find bravery, camaraderie, and sacrifice exemplified, but even we can still appreciate these virtues when we see them in battle. Don't keep patting yourself on your conservative back as if only you have any respect for these sacrifices. And don't pretend the movie is "patriotic" just because it respects those sacrifices--it is clearly critical of the US policies involved, which is "unpatriotic" in a good sense. Plus, let's not hear anymore of this "incredible sacrifice" faced by "overwhelming odds"--forgetting that we had tanks and helicopters against handguns and grenades, and inflicted, if I remember right, 100 times as many casualties as we suffered.

Now, what about the Lord of the Rings? Now, I'm a big fan of these stories too, particularly as told in the books. But this is because they are deeply Christian, not because they are particularly "conservative" in Gardiner's sense. In fact, the books promote at least two "liberal" messages, both of which still come through in the movies, though in a somewhat attenuated way: 1. a deep concern for the environment, and a suspicion of the industrial capitalism that has exploited it in the past couple centuries; it is notable that both major "bad guys" in the story are pictured as anti-environment, and one (Saruman) is clearly a modern capitalist figure. 2. a pacificistic tendency in its awareness that war, that superior force, is not the solution. True victory comes not through force of arms, no matter how resolutely it opposes evil, but only through acts of absurd faith and self-sacrifice. I admit that the latter message is deeply compromised in the films, which have a tendency not only to depict much more violence than the books describe, but to put confidence in it, where the books always throw doubt upon its value. I should add that, according to Tolkien critic Tom Shippey, two of the main "bad guys" in the story are clearly political conservatives, one of the capitalist variety (Saruman), and one of the traditionalist variety (Denethor).

But, let's let Gardiner speak for himself. Why are these "conservative" films?
"[Tolkien's] vision of a mighty battle between good and evil in the realms of Middle Earth was brilliantly transferred to the screen by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, perfectly fitting a post 9/11 world where the forces of freedom found themselves pitted against a barbaric enemy."

There it is again! Just because there's a battle between good and evil means that this must be "conservative," since supposedly no one else believes in an opposition between good and evil. Ridiculous. No, Christians like Tolkien believe in a battle between good and evil, but it is one in which the lines are not black and white ("forces of freedom" vs. "barbaric enemy") but are grey and deceptive, often cutting right through our own midst, and it is one in which the victory is not, as I already mentioned, through force of arms, but by self-sacrifice. Another problem with drawing an analogy between the good West vs. evil East in Middle-Earth and in the "post-9/11 world" is that in the former, the West is a tiny, withered, besieged enclave; in the latter, is a mighty global power such as Sauron could only dream of.

The next post will deal with Gladiator, The Pursuit of Happyness, and The Dark Knight.


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