The idea of the pious lie or the noble lie was first enunciated in Plato’s Republic. It is a lie that is told for the good of society, for the benefit of those that believe it. Such lies may be found in the writings of historians, in the speeches of politicians, and in the sermons of priests. As for the movies, there is no doubt that the Motion Picture Production Code promoted such lies in requiring, among other things, that the movies show that crime does not pay. That way, those that watched these movies would be deterred from committing crimes themselves, having been indoctrinated with idea that they would be punished if they did break the law.
One of the problems with the pious lie is that it is condescending. Those that tell such lies regard themselves as superior to the rest of mankind. Not needing such lies themselves, they tell them to others for their own good. Once people realize they have been lied to, however, they are not grateful for the supposed good the lies did for them. Instead, they resent it. In A Few Good Men (1992), Jack Nicholson may have been responsible for the death of a marine, but he sealed his fate when he yells at Tom Cruise, who says he wants the truth, “The truth! You can’t handle the truth.” That’s when we really detest him.
In that movie, we in the audience identify with Cruise and others in the movie that have been lied to. Because we do not identify with Nicholson, we do not approve of his pious lie, which is based on his puffed-up idea of how important he is on “that wall.” But what about a movie that allows us to identify with those that tell such lies? In that case, the movie flatters us that we are among the superior few that can handle the truth, while allowing us to look down on those being lied to.
One such movie is Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). In that movie, James Cagney plays Rocky, a gangster. When he realizes the jig is up, he wants to go out in a blaze of glory, dying in a hail of bullets by the police as he takes a few coppers with him. But he runs out of bullets and is captured. Having been sentenced to die in the electric chair, he opts for the next best thing, remaining fearless right to the end, saying he is going to spit in the eye of his executioners.
Pat O’Brien plays Jerry, Rocky’s childhood friend. They committed crimes together when they were just kids, but during one attempted theft, the police show up. Jerry gets away while Rocky is sent to reform school. Jerry ended up becoming a priest, while Rocky continued to pursue a life of crime.
But now Jerry is worried. He knows that Rocky is admired by teenagers in the neighborhood, the Dead End kids. If Rocky fearlessly goes to his death, these kids will want to emulate him and enter a life of crime themselves. Nowadays, he wouldn’t have had to worry. By the time all the appeals had been exhausted, another fifteen years would have passed before Rocky finally sat in the hot seat, and by that time, the kids in the neighborhood would all be married and holding down jobs. But things moved quicker back then.
Jerry asks Rocky for a favor. He wants him to turn yellow, screaming for mercy, while the guards drag him to the chair:
This is a different kind of courage, Rocky. The kind that’s well, that’s born in Heaven. Well, not the courage of heroics or bravado. The kind that you and I and God know about. I want you to let them down. You see, you’ve been a hero to these kids, and hundreds of others, all through your life, and now you’re gonna be a glorified hero in death, and I want to prevent that, Rocky. They’ve got to despise your memory. They’ve got to be ashamed of you.
Rocky hates the idea.
You asking me to pull an act, turn yellow, so those kids will think I’m no good. You ask me to throw away the only thing I’ve got left. You ask me to crawl on my belly, the last thing I do in life. Nothing doing. You’re asking too much. You want to help those kids, you got to think about some other way.
But then, at the last minute, just as he enters the room where he is to be electrocuted, Rocky starts screaming and begging for mercy. The newspapers report this final act of cowardice on Rocky’s part, and Jerry assures the kids that every word of it is true. Then they all go into the church to pray for Rocky’s soul.
Admittedly, Rocky’s act of cowardice is ambiguous. There are four possible interpretations:
- Rocky really turned yellow.
- Rocky decided to pretend to turn yellow as a favor to Jerry.
- God filled Rocky’s heart with fear so that he would act scared.
- God inspired Rocky to do the right thing.
With or without divine intervention, we can’t be sure what happened. But actually, we can. This is James Cagney we’re talking about. We know his screen persona. He never turned yellow in a movie in his life. Therefore, while the kids in the movie may have bought the pious lie that Jerry told them, we in the audience know that Rocky not only had the courage to face death, he was so noble that he feigned cowardice to help out a pal.
And therein lies the paradox. There were teenagers sitting in the audience when this movie was made, just as there probably were teenagers watching this movie on television years later. They saw how the kids in the movie were being duped. So, while the Dead End kids may be inspired to go to church and lead good lives, the teenagers watching this movie were being taught not to fall for such malarkey. In this way, the audience is allowed to identify with those like Jerry, who tell pious lies, while feeling superior to those like the Dead End kids, that buy into such lies.
In this movie, the purpose of the pious lie was to keep others from admiring a man who was as brave as he was tough, to keep them others from thinking of him as a hero because he was a criminal. There are a couple of other movies in which the purpose of the lie is to encourage others to admire someone as a hero even though he was unworthy of such esteem.
One such movie is Fort Apache (1948). As the movie opens, we see that Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda) is an insufferable snob. He is contemptuous of the fact that he is being sent to the title fort to be its commanding officer by a war department that not only is ungrateful for all that he had done during the Civil War, but also fails to appreciate that he was clearly meant for better things. He even prefers Europe to this new assignment.
He is irked to discover that Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke (John Agar) is the son of Sergeant Major O’Rourke (Ward Bond) at Fort Apache, and rudely interrogates the sergeant, trying to understand how such a thing could happen. He believes in a sharp class distinction between officers and enlisted men, and the idea that the son of a sergeant could be admitted to West Point just seems wrong. The sergeant informs him that it happened by presidential appointment, which Thursday notes is usually reserved for sons of officers. The sergeant further informs him that he was given a battlefield commission of major during the war. Thursday perseveres, saying, “Still, it’s been my impression that presidential appointments were restricted to sons of holders of the Medal of Honor,” to which the sergeant snidely replies, “That is my impression too, sir.”
Thursday seethes with frustration knowing that Sergeant O’Rourke has received the glory that Thursday so desperately wants and thinks he deserves. And when he discovers that his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) has been socializing with Lieutenant O’Rourke and his family, he is aghast. When she accepts the lieutenant’s proposal of marriage, Thursday refuses to give his consent, saying that she will be sent back East.
Thursday is utterly mirthless, barely concealing his displeasure at having to perform certain social functions at the noncommissioned officers’ dance, especially when he is informed that it is the custom at Fort Apache that in the opening dance, the Grand March, the commanding officer lead out the wife of the sergeant major, Mrs. O’Rourke. Adding to that indignity, Sergeant O’Rourke will lead out the colonel’s lady, in this case, Philadelphia. When that ordeal is finally over, Thursday looks about for his escape, but finds that Mrs. O’Rourke expects him to dance with her in the polka that follows.
Earlier in the movie, we see that he refuses to shake hands with Captain Collingwood (George O’Brien), with whom he is already acquainted, because Thursday believes that Collingwood disgraced his uniform in some way during the war, though we gather that whatever happened was really not Collingwood’s fault, but just the result of some unfortunate circumstance over which he had no control.
He likes to flaunt his knowledge of military history, dropping names like Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte, while refusing to appreciate the tactical cunning of Cochise, because he is just an illiterate savage. He repeatedly rejects the advice of Captain York (John Wayne), a seasoned veteran with extensive knowledge of the Apaches, because Thursday is a colonel and York is just a captain.
It is at this point that his snobbery makes him not just an extremely unpleasant human being, but an incompetent commanding officer as well. After Captain York gives his word to Cochise that a meeting will take place to discuss peace, Thursday announces that he will not honor York’s promise, but will attack the Apaches while they are not expecting it, now that they have been lured back from Mexico onto American soil. He justifies this treachery on the grounds that Cochise is just a “breechclouted savage,” so there is no question of honor between him and an American officer. As further proof that Thursday is not a man of honor, when York says that an order just given by Thursday would be suicide, he relieves him of his command and calls him a coward. York throws down his gauntlet, demanding satisfaction, but Thursday hedges, saying he is not a duelist. The result is that the order York objected to is carried out, and Thursday ends up getting half the regiment slaughtered during a battle with the Apaches.
In the final scene, which takes place years later, Colonel York talks to reporters, who gush about what a great man Thursday was, a hero to every schoolboy, memorialized in the magnificent painting, “Thursday’s Charge,” and York encourages them in their delusion. The movie seems to imply that this is for the best, that schoolboys need their heroes, that people need to believe that Thursday was a great man. And yet, the movie itself subverts the legend, undermining the whole notion of heroes and great men, by showing us how unworthy Thursday was of all the adulation he now receives postumously. Since Thursday is loosely based on the legend of General George Armstrong Custer, the movie is essentially besmirching the legend surrounding this real-life figure.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return to the small western town of Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). A local reporter and the owner and editor of the local newspaper want to know why an important politician like Senator Stoddard would come to the funeral of someone they had never even heard of. Stoddard decides to tell them who Doniphon was.
Most of the story the reporters already know. Stoddard came out West with nothing but his law books, and he was immediately made aware that the law counts for nothing in the territory when his stage is held up, and he is beaten with a silver-handled whip by a vicious bandit named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He would have beaten Stoddard to death had Reese (Lee Van Cleef) not stopped him. Later in the movie, Valance does the same thing to a newspaper man, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brian), and again Reese has to stop him before he kills him. Now, when a bandit played by Lee Van Cleef is the one who has to restrain the leader of a gang from being excessively brutal, you know that man must really be evil.
After Stoddard is brought to town in a wagon, he is nursed back to health by Hallie and her parents, who run a restaurant. As he recovers, he helps out by washing dishes. One night he even starts to serve Doniphon his steak when Valance and his gang are there. Valance laughs at Stoddard, who is wearing an apron, making him look weak and effeminate. He trips Stoddard as he walks by, which angers Doniphon, but only because that was his steak. There is a confrontation, but Valance and backs down and leaves.
The town marshal, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is afraid Valance, so he is worthless. Doniphon is a match for Valance, but he basically just minds his own business. All he cares about is Hallie, whom he hopes to marry. The tension between Valance and Stoddard finally reaches the breaking point. Valance comes to Shinbone to kill Stoddard. Doniphon arranges for his servant Pompey (Woody Strode) to have the buckboard waiting behind the restaurant so that Stoddard can get out of town safely. Hallie and her parents plead with him to leave.
Instead, Stoddard picks up a gun he barely knows how to shoot and decides to meet Valance out on the street. But he doesn’t even bother to take off that apron! As long as you are going to die like a man, you should at least look like one. Things appear pretty one-sided, but amazingly enough, Stoddard shoots Valance and kills him.
Stoddard was shot in his arm in the gunfight, and Hallie starts dressing his wound. As she does so, she begins to look at him with admiration. She always like Stoddard, but now that he has killed Valance, she has fallen in love with him. She confesses that she did not want him to run away from Valance, even though she was afraid he would be killed. But now that she knows he’s a real man, she gives him her heart. They end up getting married.
Stoddard becomes known as the man who shot Liberty Valance, propelling him into his political career. Doniphon, who came into the kitchen just as Hallie was holding Stoddard’s head to her breast and kissing him on his forehead, angrily goes home and burns up the house he was building for him and Hallie.
But then Stoddard tells the reporters something they did not know. It turns out that it was Doniphon who killed Valance with a rifle from the other side of the street. In fact, we see that when Stoddard fired his pistol, he shot way too high. The thing that made Stoddard famous, then, is basically a fraud. The owner of the newspaper wads up his notes and throws them in the furnace. “When the legend becomes fact,” he says, “print the legend.”
We even have to wonder if his marriage to Hallie was based on this fraud as well. She is not in the room when Stoddard tells his story about what really happened. And later, on the train, when a man refers to him as the one who shot Liberty Valance, Stoddard’s face falls at being reminded of the lie his prominence is based on, while Hallie’s face remains expressionless, looking straight ahead, as if the remark is unproblematic for her.
This ending is reminiscent of Fort Apache (1948). However, in this earlier film, we get the sense the people, especially children, need heroes, and so that is why the legend is made to prevail over the truth. In this movie, however, we get the sense that the legend simply makes better copy. But if that were true, we would not care for the movie as much. That is, if Stoddard had been the one who killed Liberty Valance, the movie would have been just one more Western in which good triumphs over evil, and the hero gets the girl. But just as this movie is far more interesting for having a twist ending, so too would the readers of the newspaper have found the truth to be more fascinating than the story they had previously been led to believe. The local paper would have become nationally known as the one that broke the story about what really happened. So, once again, the real reason the reporter is going to suppress the truth is that people need to believe in the heroic senator of legend.
These three movies are flattering us. The first one, Angels with Dirty Faces, says that it is important that villains not be thought of as heroes. The second two, Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, say that it is important that certain men be thought of as heroes even though they are unworthy. Other people, the movies are saying, need their illusions, but we know better. Let the masses have their heroes, because they would just fall apart if they did not have something to believe in, but we are too sophisticated to fall for such nonsense.
Of course, those same masses, who supposedly need to be told pious lies, are the ones who are sitting in the audience along with us, so this may seem like a contradiction. But it is a contradiction with a purpose. The point is to flatter each of us into thinking we are superior to others, who in turn have been flattered into thinking they are superior to us. So, we all get to feel superior to one another, and that makes us like these movies.