Film: When the Moral Stakes Are Too Low

The cultural elite holds happy endings in contempt. Christians know better, but they also know that not every story ends happily and that the road to such endings may be frighteningly bumpy. They know, too, that not all happy endings are self- evident. To a mortal eye, grace can look very much like agony and sin like virtue. It is not for us to strike the final balance, tempting though it may be. Hell could be empty (though I wouldn’t bet on it). For these reasons, the “seriousness” of a movie, be it aesthetic or moral—and I’m not so sure there’s a difference between the two— is not a function of whether the good guys win or lose.

Contrary to highbrow belief, genre films often draw this distinction with considerable care. Westerns, for example, tend to be written off as simplistic portrayals of good versus evil, but this criticism tends to be made by cynics who don’t believe in either one. In fact, most of the best Westerns posit a world in which the choice between moral extremes is as painful as it is clear-cut.

Randolph Scott isn’t very well- remembered nowadays, but he used to be as big a star as John Wayne, for much the same reasons. Though he started out playing a variety of roles (among other things, he appeared in two Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers movies), he concentrated exclusively on Westerns after 1945. “Westerns always make money,” he explained dryly, but he also appreciated their moral clarity. His films reflected that appreciation so strongly that he eventually became stereotyped as the ultimate goody-good guy.

When I was in high school, the Statler Brothers actually recorded a country song called “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?,” whose clever lyrics denounced the moral equivocation of modern movies: “You gotta take your analyst along to see if it’s fit to see / Whatever happened to Randolph Scott has happened to the industry.”

The Statler Brothers had a point, but I suspect they never got around to seeing the half-dozen films Scott made with Budd Boetticher in the director’s chair. Not many people have, sad to say. Decision at Sundown, The Tall T, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station are rarely shown on television (Comanche Station is the only one currently available on video), while Seven Men From Now went unseen anywhere for four decades until a pristine new print was struck from the original negative and screened during the summer of 2000 at the UCLA Film and Television Archive Festival of Preservation.

Yet critics, scholars, and film buffs rank these films among the finest Westerns ever made—fully comparable to the best work of John Ford or Howard Hawks, though they were made on shoestring budgets—and having seen them all last October at the New York Film Festival and the American Museum of the Moving Image, I now understand why. Scott is a gritty icon of hard-faced stoicism, while Boetticher’s direction is breathtakingly lean and laconic. Still, the impact of these terse films mainly arises from their unswerving, unsparing focus on the moral choices Scott’s character is forced to make, which are always clear but rarely easy.

Scott usually plays the part of a solitary, vengeful drifter searching for the man (or men) who did him wrong, more often than not by murdering his wife. In the course of his travels, he meets an unhappily married woman to whom he is powerfully attracted and a villain who is charming and courageous—a hero gone bad, in other words. What Scott should do is never in doubt, but it is no less clear that doing it will not make him “happy” in any obvious sense of the word: He must do the right thing for its own sake, not in the hope of any temporal reward. Sometimes the villain kills the woman’s weak husband, thus freeing her to fall in love with Scott, but in Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, the last (and best) films of the series, Scott does his stern duty and rides off into the sunset, alone and likely to remain so.

Though the Scott-Boetticher films contain no religious symbolism, it is virtually impossible to explain Scott’s determination to preserve his integrity at all costs without supposing that he believes in something beyond his own iron will. Why else would he do the right thing at the apparent cost of his happiness? This implicit message rings truer still as we look back at a century that might have been designed specifically to bear out the truth of Dostoyevsky’s terrible warning: “If there is no God, then anything is permitted, even cannibalism?’

I doubt that Scott ever got around to reading The Brothers Karamazov, but he and Boetticher knew that in a world without laws or lawmen, every man must choose between the moral integrity of the old-fashioned hero and the moral cannibalism of the self-willed villain. Such stark choices are the essence of the classic Western, which is why the genre continues to retain its near-mythic hold on the imaginations of American moviegoers.

Postmodern movies also revolve around moral choices, but the context is radically different. In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s cloyingly nostalgic portrayal of the Silver Age of rock ‘n’ roll, we are invited to marvel at the implausible adventures of William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year-old prodigy who somehow contrives to be assigned by Rolling Stone to write a cover story about Stillwater, a second-rate rock band. Young William soon finds himself faced with a tough call: Should he suppress the not-so-pretty truth about Stillwater’s backstage hijinks, thus forcing the editors to reject his story, or should he betray the members of the band, who have befriended and confided in him?

Something like this actually happened to Crowe, who went on to make such popular movies as Say Anything and Jerry Maguire, in time persuading himself that his own youthful experiences could serve as the basis for yet another popular movie. A lot of smart people agreed with him. I saw Almost Famous in the company of a well- known film critic of taste and intelligence, and as we left the theater, she assured me that it would be a huge hit. I suspected otherwise—movies about the ethical qualms of allegedly high- minded journalists rarely go over big with the public—but it wasn’t until I saw Seven Men From Now that I fully understood why Almost Famous, despite exceptionally favorable reviews, fell flat at the box office. The problem was simple: The moral stakes were too low. When Scott made a tough call, he backed it up by putting his life on the line and was usually forced to take somebody else’s life as a result. Compared with such existential dilemmas, who cares whether a second-rate rock band makes it onto the cover of Rolling Stone and sells two million records instead of one million?

The difference between Seven Men From Now and Almost Famous is the difference between Hollywood then and Hollywood now, and it explains why so many of today’s most interesting movies are being made elsewhere. It’s true that big-budget films of high artistic quality do get produced from time to time, as M. Night Shymalan recently proved with Unbreakable. But The Tao of Steve and Croupier, which also figure prominently on my short- list of the best movies of 2000, were both small-scale productions made far from Hollywood.

At first glance, the two movies appear to have nothing else in common. Jenniphr Goodman’s The Tao of Steve, an indie flick shot on location in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a romantic comedy about Dex (Donal Logue), a paunchy intellectual manqué who has an uncanny knack for seducing unsuspecting women. Mike Hodges’s Croupier is a pitch-black parable from Great Britain about Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), a nihilistic novelist turned crooked casino dealer. But both films center on the difficulty of doing the right thing (Dex does it; Jack doesn’t), and the stakes (love and death) are high enough to make us sit up and take notice. My guess is that Scott wouldn’t have liked either one—he didn’t care for nudity or rough language—but he would have understood what Goodman and Hodges were up to and respected it. So will you.

Terry Teachout

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Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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