Hollywood and Isolationism
R. Cort Kirkwood
When Tojo flattened Pearl Harbor, he didnít just sink the USS Arizona
and awaken a sleeping giant. He sent isolationism to the bottom
of the bay and woke up the film industry.
Hollywood not only zealously propagandized for the Great Crusade
of its own accord, but also gleefully manufactured government propaganda.
In 1941, Hollywood went to war with America, and it has stayed on
the front ever since. John Wayne, the best friend conservatives
ever had in Hollywood, greased more "Krauts" and "Nips"
than the 101st Airborne and Jimmy Doolittleís bombers combined.
But two of Hollywoodís finest pro-war cinematic achievements never
showed Americans smiting the Axis in battle. The heroes fired their
salvos not at the enemy abroad, but at the enemy at home: the isolationists,
also known as America Firsters after the America First Committee,
which disbanded four days after Pearl Harbor was left a smoldering
One was "Casablanca,"
and the other, "The
Best Years Of Our Lives."
who loves movies knows the first. It may boast as many memorable
lines as a Shakespeare play, and was, of course, a bald piece of
get-in-the-war propaganda. Thatís odd, given that it debuted in
1942 after the United States entered the war, so maybe it was ex-post-facto
justification. Whatever, the film contains a few subtle and not-so-subtle
is the story of Rick Blaineís (Humphrey Bogart) fateful reunion
with a former paramour, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who has come
to the French colony with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid).
Laszlo, who escaped a concentration camp, hopes to procure official
Vichy exit visas to slip by the Nazis and rejoin the resistance.
An oily midget named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) murdered two German "couriers"
and stole two exit visas from them. He gives them to Rick for safekeeping,
Rickís Cafe Americain being neutral territory unmolested by the
Vichy French. Thus, Rick has the two exit visas Laszlo and his wife
The first slap at isolationism is direct, occurring when Senor Ferrari
(Sidney Greenstreet) offers to buy Rickís cafe. Rick brusquely refuses
Ferrariís offer for the cafe and another for Sam, his pianist.
Suppose you run your business and let me run mine.
Suppose we ask Sam. Maybe heíd like to make a change?
Suppose we do.
My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world, today,
isolationism is no longer a practical policy?
Later on, when Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) informs Rick he will
arrest the suspected murderer of the couriers at the cafe-gambling
house, Rick reassures the French Quisling of his own Golden Rule:
"I stick my neck out for nobody," he says famously. Renault
calls that a "wise foreign policy," and later, Rick reiterates
this wisdom when Renaultís goons collar Ugarte.
Rick, hide me," Ugarte memorably pleads in Lorreís unmistakable
unctuous voice, "do something, you must help me, Rick!"
stick my neck out for nobody," Rick says.
The scene, and Ugarteís eventual murder, make Rickís pitiless indifference
look all the crueler.
It is precisely this appearance of cruelty that todayís interventionists
exploit when they propose another foreign war for democracy. Thereís
always another Ugarte for America to hide or to save. America must
always "do something."
Anyhow, another exchange with a visiting Nazi, Maj. Strasser and
his deputy, Heinze, reveals Rickís churlish neutrality:
What is your nationality?
Iím a drunkard.
And that makes Rick a citizen of the world.
I was born in New York City if that'll help you any.
I understand that you came here from Paris at the time of
Well, there seems to be no secret about that.
Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in
their beloved Paris?
Not particularly my beloved Paris.
Can you imagine us in London?
When you get there, ask me.
Well, how about New York?
Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldnít
advise you to try to invade.
Uh, huh. Who do you think will win the war?
I havenít the slightest idea.
Rick is completely neutral about everything.
Throughout the film, Ilsa works on Rickís conscience, stirring dim
memories of romantic derring-do for the Commies during the Spanish
Civil War. This, their rekindled but ultimately inutile romance,
and her anti-Nazi speech converts Rick. He gives Ilsa and Laszlo
the exit papers. In telling her she must go with Laszlo, Rick says,
"Iíve got a job to do too. Where Iím going, you canít follow.
What Iíve got to do, you canít be any part of."
You know what that means: The newly magnamimous convert, formerly
a bitter, sad isolationist, has joined the Crusade. What wonders
a little love from a sultry Swede can do!
The Best Years
"Casablanca," "The Best Years Of Our Lives"
is not a thrilling romance, but a sober, touching portrait of three
returning veterans who meet on the plane back to fictive Boone City.
In some way, all the men are tragically wounded, but only one bears
the external scars of war: Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), whose
hands burned off aboard a besieged Navy ship that eventually sunk.
Made in 1946, the film honors the men who, with their families,
sacrificed so dearly. Some sacrificed their lives, others their
physical health, still others their sanity. Another of the three
men, Army Air Corps Capt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), suffers battle
fatigue and nightmares.
Whatever the costs, expressing doubt about the Crusade is forbidden,
something we learn in Homerís exchange with a disgruntled America
Firster. Sitting at the lunch counter in a drug store where Derry
has reluctantly resumed his old job as a clerk, the America Firster
(Ray Teal) asks the Homer what happened to his hands.
I know what it is. How did I get these hooks and how do they work?
That's what everybody says when they start off with 'Do you mind
if I ask you a personal question?' Well, Iíll tell ya. I got sick
and tired of that old pair of hands I had. You know, an awful
lot of trouble washing them and manicuring my nails. So I traded
them in for a pair of these latest models. They work by radar.
Look. Pretty cute, eh?
Firster: You got plenty of guts. Itís terrible when you see
a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself and for what?
And for what? I donít getcha Mister?
Firster: We let ourselves get sold down the river. We were
pushed into war.
Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis so we had...
Firster: No, the Germans and the Japs had nothing against
us. They just wanted to fight the Limies and the Reds. And they
would have whipped íem too if we didn't get deceived into it by
a bunch of radicals in Washington.
What are you talkiní about?
Firster: We fought the wrong people, thatís all. Just read
the facts, my friend [The America Firster points to his newspaper,
which bears the headline: "Senator Warns Of New War"].
Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands. And then
go out and do something about it.
Overhearing the callous insult, Fred Derry interrupts and tells
the isolationist to pay his check and shove off. Homer follows the
man to the cash register to continue the argument.
Look here, Mister, what are you selliní anyway?
Firster: Iím not selling anything but plain, old-fashioned
Some Americanism. So weíre a bunch of suckers, eh? So we shoulda
been on the side of the Japs and Nazis, eh?
Firster: Again, I say, just look at the facts.
Iíve seen a couple of facts. Iíve seen a ship go down and over
400 of my shipmates go with it. Were those guys suckers?
Firster: Thatís the unpleasant truth.
At the cash register, an enraged Homer rips an American flag lapel
pin off the isolationistís suit coat and a struggle ensues. Derry
heroically intervenes to save his pal. Strong, young and handsome,
a bombardier with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Derry roughs up
the aging, skeptical isolationist. Poignantly, and adroitly using
his hook, Homer picks up the lapel flag off the floor and drops
it in his breast pocket. Itís the symbolic death of isolationism.
The scene rightly leaves the viewer rooting for the scarred vet
over the "unpatriotic" man, who obviously didn't serve
in the war and seemingly sides with the Axis. You canít side with
an insensitive dope who would tell a boy barely out of adolescence
he lost his hands for nothing.
Having been fired and walking outside the drug store with Homer,
Derry puts the final touch on the ugly episode: "You read about
guys like that, but you donít often see íem." No you didnít
often see "guys like that" after 1941. Or should one say
you didnít often hear from them? My father, who served in the Army
during World War II, was one of them, although he expressed his
view of it to me only once.
By 1946, when "Best Years" was made, isolationism was
dead. And today, principled opposition to any war, or any discussion
of World War II that does not follow the Hollywood script, can be
the occasion for exactly the reaction to the American Firster in
Recall the Smear Bundís reaction to Pat Buchananís offering in 1999,
A Republic Not An Empire. Buchanan really "wanted
Hitler to win," the bund lied.
The difference between 1946 and 1999 is this: You can understand
the fictive Homerís gut reaction; his hands were destroyed. And
you would understand a real Homerís reaction, not from reason but
from emotion. If anyone ever deserved say, one of Pugnacious Patís
patented sucker punches, it was the America Firster in "Best
But Buchananís book came out a half-century later, and the reaction
was quite the same. Outrageously, much of the most defamatory flak
came from neocon eggheads who pound the drums for wars in which
neither they nor their kin will shed a drop of blood.
Where "Casablanca" represents the proximate shift in American
opinion toward joining the Crusade in Europe, with Rick representing
the United States joining the war after years of isolationism, "Best
Years," with the defeat of the America Firster, demonstrates
the ultimate shift toward entering foreign wars generally. Before
World War II, most Americans wanted to steer clear of another European
war, and Franklin Roosevelt was elected partly because of his disingenuous
promises to stay out of it.
After that, government got all the public support for wars it needed,
and Hollywood was only too happy to cash in. Hollywood produced
one war film after another and go ahead and admit it
even some of us killjoy America Firsters treasure them. Maybe they
our are our pornography. We oppose intervention, but we take jubilant
pride in the valor of American fighting men portrayed in film. You
canít help but love it when John Wayne, playing the 82nd Airborneís
Col. Benjamin Vandervoort in "The
Longest Day," exhorts his paratroopers: "Send íem
to hell." Any red-blooded Americanís eyes mist over when the
Dukeís Sgt. Stryker takes a fatal sniperís bullet in the final scene
Sands of Iwo Jima," and the Marine Corps hymn softly begins.
The left conquered Hollywood in the 1960s, and it eventually began
producing anti-war movies such as "Coming
Home" and "The
Deer Hunter," as well as offerings like Oliver Stone's
trilogy about Vietnam. The problem with many of the anti-war films,
however, wasnít that they were anti-war, but that they were hatefully
anti-American, particularly Stoneís silly, paranoid and mendacious
was so politically correct, liberal scribe Michael Kinsley noted
at the time, the good sergeant smoked pot and the bad one drank
Today, Hollywood has come full circle. The generation that trashed
their "establishment" parents and burned flags in the
1960s produces pro-war films. In 1998, Steven Spielberg released
Private Ryan," an earnest if fanciful hymn to the men who
helped bring down the Third Reich. After that, he and Tom Hanks,
who starred in "Ryan," produced the gripping, inspiring
In 2001, "Behind
Enemy Lines" told the story of a Naval aviator skeptical
about the service and the American peacekeeping mission in a nation
resembling Bosnia. He is shot down, and while escaping a detachment
of thinly-disguised Serbian militiamen, he has his epiphany hiding
face down in what appears to mud. Instead, it is a shallow, open
pit of human offal, a mass grave. When American forces show up for
the rescue, he risks his life to recover the photographic evidence
of the crime from the wreckage of his jet.
As for a sympathetic cinematic rendition of old-right, anti-war
isolationism, one example comes to mind, 1965's "Shenandoah."
Ironically featuring World War II hero Jimmy Stewart, who held the
Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, it tells
the story of a farmer in Virginiaís Shenandoah Valley who wants
no part of The War of Northern Aggression. And you wonít likely
see any more. The left-wing kooks who control Hollywood arenít sophisticated
enough to produce a film featuring sympathetic anti-war roles of
the right. If they tried, the anti-war characters likely would be
anti-Semites, or cursed with some other obnoxious ideological flaw.
But all is not lost. Also in 2001, Director Ridley Scott offered
Hawk Down," the story of Americaís ill-considered, ill-fated
mission in Somalia. The film demonstrates the fabled valor of the
American fighting man, and the folly of sending him into combat
for no reason, with no defined objective, and sinfully, without
the support to win.
It expresses no isolationist sentiment, but is anti-war in its raw
depiction of urban combat. It is anti-war, but pro-American.
They should all be that way.
columnist R. Cort Kirkwood [send
him mail] is managing editor of the Daily News-Record
in Harrisonburg, Va.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com