Of all things the New Testament says we are supposed to do, the injunction of pacifism found in Matthew 5:38-39 is the most troublesome: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” A lot of people are not sure what to make of that. This ambivalence is reflected in the movies.
Pacifism in the Modern City
If a movie is set in the twentieth century, and the characters in the movie live in a large city, pacifism will be given short shrift. For example, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), passengers on a train are being fired on by some enemy spies and soldiers. One of the passengers, a politician, says he doesn’t believe in fighting and wants to surrender. Another passenger replies, “Pacifist? Won’t work. Christians tried it and got thrown to the lions.” The pacifist steps outside the train waving a white handkerchief, trying to surrender, but he is shot. He dies, mumbling that he doesn’t understand. To keep us from supposing that he will pass through the pearly gates and be rewarded for adhering to the words of Jesus, those who wrote the screenplay made him an adulterer, and a cad at that, one that betrays the woman who thought they were going to be married. Moreover, we also get the impression that he is a coward, that his pacifism is not based on religious principle, but on fear. A couple of years later, Hitchcock made Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which the head of a pacifist organization turns out to be a Nazi spy.
In some cases, the pacifist is a man of good moral character, but shown to be naïve. For example, in The War of the Worlds (1953), a pastor decides that he just needs to offer the Martians peace. He starts walking toward the flying saucers, reading the Twenty-Third Psalm, and just as he gets to the last line, the part about the goodness and mercy of the LORD following him all the days of his life, that life is brought to an abrupt end as one of the flying saucers zaps him with a death ray.
In general, pacifists in a modern city are portrayed as either knaves or fools.
Pacifism in the Old West and in Rural Communities
More sympathy can be shown for pacifism in Westerns. In a couple of such Westerns, the pacifism of the protagonist seems to have nothing to do with religion at all. For example, there is Destry Rides Again (1939), in which James Stewart, as the title character, becomes a deputy sheriff, even though he forswears violence and eschews guns. There is no indication that his aversion to killing has anything to do with religion. But when his friend, the sheriff, is murdered, Destry finally has to strap on his gun and kill the bad guy. In Shane (1952), Alan Ladd, as the title character, also wants to hang up his gun, but not on account of any religious beliefs. Rather, he feels guilty about his past as a gunfighter. But at the end of the movie, when he learns that the another gunslinger has been hired to get rid of the homesteaders, he realizes that he must put on his gun once more. It is easier for the hero to reluctantly give up his pacifism if, as in these cases, it was not based on religious belief to begin with.
When religion is involved, the man who is a pacifist usually is so on account of a woman. There is nothing shameful about a woman being a pacifist, so if a man becomes a pacifist because of his love for her, we make allowances. In High Noon (1952), Gary Cooper, who admits that he hasn’t been a “churchgoing man,” marries Grace Kelly, who is a Quaker. He has promised her that he will give up being the town marshal and become a storekeeper. But then he finds that there is one last job he must do, which involves killing other men. As a result, she decides to leave him. But in the end, she gets a gun and kills one of the men herself. In Friendly Persuasion (1956), there is an entire family of Quakers. This time, Gary Cooper is married to Dorothy McGuire, who is very religious. We have to wonder if Cooper would even be a Quaker were it not for his wife. In any event, the results are mixed. There is some resistance to evil, but it is kept to a minimum, and the central characters seem to survive mostly by luck, with their ideals mostly intact.
In Sergeant York (1941), Gary Cooper is Alvin York, who doesn’t want to fight in World War I because killing is forbidden by the Bible. This is an exception to the rule that if a man is a pacifist for religious reasons, he has fallen under the influence of a woman. There is a woman he wants to marry, for which reason he decides to settle down and give up his wild ways. But his conversion to Christianity is the not the result of her, but of a bolt of lightning that almost kills him just as he was on his way to get some revenge. Interestingly, his pacifism is not based on the injunction by Jesus quoted above, telling us to turn the other cheek. Rather, it is based on the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” This compensates for the fact that he does not have a woman as an excuse for his refusal to fight in the war. Pacifism is more manly if based on the Ten Commandments than on the words of Jesus. Ironically, it is the words of Jesus that free him from his pacifism: he decides that killing for one’s country is just rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, so that makes it all right. Although this is not a Western, it is set in the backwoods of Tennessee. Pacifism is more acceptable in a rural community, where the characters lack big-city sophistication. A city slicker may be a draft dodger, but never a pacifist. In any event, Gary Cooper certainly has had his share of pacifist roles.
Billy Jack (1971) is set contemporaneously in a small Arizona town near an Indian reservation, the title character (Tom Laughlin) himself being half Indian. He tries, with limited success, to restrain his lethal, martial-arts skills under the influence of a woman that runs a hippie, counter-culture school, preaching love and peace. It is with great sorrow that Billy Jack has to kick so much redneck butt.
Reversing the Formula
In Westerns and in movies set in rural communities, the pacifist is typically allowed to redeem himself when he realizes he must resist evil and fight back. That is a satisfying formula. Somewhat disconcerting, however, is the reverse of that formula: the man decides to become a pacifist at the end of the movie, giving up his gun forever.
Angel and the Badman (1947). An example of this is Angel and the Badman. The “badman” in this movie is Quirt Evans. Since he is played by John Wayne, we wonder, “Just how bad can he be?” I mean, has John Wayne ever played a villain in the movies? It turns out, much as we suspected, that for all the talk about his being a bad man, it seems to be just that, talk. Apparently, he once worked as a lawman for Wyatt Earp. Then he became a cattleman for a while. But one day, Wall Ennis, the man who raised Quirt like a father, was shot down by Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot) while another man grabbed his hand as he was going for his gun. That’s when Quirt sold his herd and began plaguing Laredo, hoping to goad him into a gunfight in front of witnesses. It is this that gets him on the wrong side of the law.
For example, when Laredo and his gang rustle some cattle, killing all the cowboys who were herding them, Quirt and his boys bonk Laredo’s gang over their heads, knocking them off their horses. Then Quirt’s gang takes off with the cattle and presumably sells them. I guess the idea is that the cattle were already stolen, so what Quirt did was not really so bad.
Before that, however, at the beginning of the movie, Quirt beats Laredo to some land he wanted. Laredo’s gang chases him until he collapses from a gunshot wound. Some Quakers help him get to a telegraph station to make the claim and then take him in so that he can convalesce. One Quaker in particular, Penny (Gail Russell), is the “angel” in this movie.
Dr. Mangram (Tom Powers) comes over to take the bullet out. He makes a snide remark about the way the wicked always seem to be able to survive gunshot wounds, while the godly succumb to infection. Penny’s father chastises him, saying, “You so-called atheists. You always feel so compelled to stretch your godlessness.” With this brief exchange, the movie expresses a common attitude toward atheists when this movie was made. First, the atheist is rude and churlish, entering the house of a family he knows to be devout and mocking their religion. For a long time in the movies, atheists were never allowed to be congenial and easygoing. Movie atheists had to let everyone know just how much they despised religion. Second, this movie was made at a time when a lot of people believed that there really was no such thing as an atheist, that their denial of God’s existence was a self-deluding pretense. Hence the use of the term “so-called” to modify the word “atheist.”
Another feature of the stereotypical movie atheist is the emphasis on science and logic, at the expense of sentiment and feeling. Dr. Mangram says to Penny’s mother, “You can carry this head-in-sand attitude just so far in the world of reality.” She replies, “We assure you that you will finally realize that realism untempered by sentiments of humanity is really just a mean, hard, cold outlook on life.” She is right, of course. But that is precisely the sort of thing David Hume might have said.
[Note: I watched the worthless 2009 remake so you won’t have to, and to see if there were any script changes of interest. About the only one worth mentioning occurs when the father refers to the doctor as a “nonbeliever” instead of a “so-called atheist.” That atheists exist is today undeniable, making the qualifier “so-called” untenable. But in that case, just to refer to the doctor as an atheist would be too harsh, whereas “nonbeliever” seems less confrontational. And it seems to go with the doctor in the remake, whose character is softened up somewhat.]
Anyway, Quirt and Penny fall in love. She is willing to follow him anywhere, but he is not sure he wants to be tied down. So, this struggle goes on throughout the movie, while she acquaints him with the views of the Society of Friends, such as that a person can harm only himself, even if he appears to harm someone else. One day, she gets him to leave his gun behind while they go for a ride. As this is shortly after the cattle-rustling incident, Laredo and his boys show up and give chase until the wagon goes over a cliff and into the water. Penny almost drowns. Quirt gets her back to the house and Dr. Mangram is sent for. When it looks as though Penny is likely to die, Quirt decides to kill Laredo.
Right after he rides off, Penny comes to. She seems to be completely well. Mangram is stunned. “I can’t understand it,” he says. “I can’t understand it at all. There must be some logical, scientific explanation. I am too old to start believing in miracles.” And thus does the movie refute the atheist.
As noted above, a common feature of the Western is the gunslinger with a guilty past. He wants to hang up his guns, but there is one last thing he must do. Another recurring feature involves revenge. The hero relentlessly pursues his goal of getting his revenge against a man who killed someone he loved. But when the moment arrives, he renounces his revenge. However, the man he was pursuing somehow gets what is coming to him anyway.
And so it is with Angel and the Badman. Quirt rides into town and calls out Laredo, who is in the saloon with the sidekick who helped him gun down Wall Ennis. Suddenly, Penny’s parents ride into town in a wagon with Penny in the back. She gets Quirt to hand her his gun. Just then, Laredo and his companion step out into the street. Quirt turns around unarmed. And then Marshall McClintock (Harry Carey), who has been threatening to hang Quirt and Laredo throughout the movie, shoots Laredo and his friend, killing them both. Quirt tells McClintock that from now on he is a farmer.
It is worth noting that, although Penny and her family would have been disappointed with Quirt if he had killed Laredo, they are just fine with the way McClintock killed Laredo instead. And so, these pacifists are parasites, who manage survive in a violent world because someone else is willing to do the killing for them.
Wagon Master (1950). Another such movie is Wagon Master. Now, whereas we all know that Quakers are pacifists, John Ford made the bizarre decision to have the pacifists in this movie be Mormons, something Mormons are not known for. And not only were Mormons willing to use guns to defend themselves, but for a long time, they were also associated with evil. In Roughing It (published in 1872), Mark Twain tells of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where Mormons are said to have slaughtered a bunch of people they didn’t like. In both A Study in Scarlet (published in 1887) and Riders of the Purple Sage (published in 1912), Mormons threaten physical violence to force women into polygamous marriages.
One day some Mormon missionaries knocked on my mother’s door and started telling her about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In all innocence, and without the slightest trace of irony, my mother said, “Oh, you mean like in Sherlock Holmes?” They must get that a lot.
Some early films depicted Mormons in those negative ways. In A Victim of the Mormons (1911), for example, a Mormon seduces a woman in Denmark, persuading her to come to America with him. She changes her mind, but he drugs her, locks her up, determined to force her to become one of his wives. In the 1918 version of Riders of the Purple Sage, Mormons are referred to explicitly, but the 1925 version of this novel avoided referring to the bad guys as Mormons, and every adaptation since has done likewise. There has never been an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet that includes the part about Mormons referred to as such.
At this point I must make a parenthetical comment. These early movies depicting Mormons in a terrible light are not unique. Films of that period did likewise with other groups of people. The 1920 version of The Last of the Mohicans portrays Indians as being especially vicious. During a massacre, white women are raped and children brutally tomahawked. One Indian, upon finding a woman he wants to rape, snatches a baby out of her arms and tosses it high in the air, just for the fun of it. The Birth of a Nation (1915) expresses a dread of Negro lust for white women, along with many other degrading stereotypes. Martyrs of the Alamo (1915) portrays Mexicans as vicious dope fiends, bayonetting children and raping white women.
And then something happened. Perhaps it was censorship, or perhaps it was public outrage, but as with the 1925 version of Riders of the Purple Sage, the movies began pulling back from these loathsome stereotypes. There was still plenty of prejudice in the movies after that. Native Americans were still portrayed as savages. African Americans were mostly reduced to playing coons. Mexicans were seen to be lazy and lawless. But all this was mild compared to those early films.
In 1940, 20th Century Fox produced Brigham Young. Instead of avoiding the subject of Mormonism altogether, this movie attempts to rehabilitate it, showing it in a positive light. There is, of course, the embarrassing doctrine of polygamy that must be dealt with, for to ignore it would only make things worse. But the subject is handled in a lighthearted way, and with no sense that women were being forced into such marriages.
Returning now to Wagon Master, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) pooh-poohs the whole thing without quite denying it. When asked if he is a Mormon, he says:
That’s right, son. That’s why I keep my hat on all the time. So my horns won’t show. Why, I got more wives than Solomon himself. At least, that’s what folks around here say. And if they don’t say it, they think it.
And thus we in the audience are indirectly chastised for thinking he and other men in his party have more than one wife.
In any event, the transition to Mormons-as-pacifists in Wagon Master would seem to take this effort at rehabilitation too far. John Ford, who directed this film, would have been better off just making up a pacifist religion instead. Unlike the Quakers in movies, who enunciate some principle of pacifism, as did Penny in Angel and the Badman, we hear no such explicit pacifist doctrines espoused in Wagon Master. Instead, their pacifism is mostly implied. None of the Mormons have guns, not even the rifles and shotguns you would expect them to have for shooting game. There is a little boy who turns up with a pistol that had belonged to someone’s grandfather “before he got religion,” but that is the exception that proves the rule.
Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.), who are not Mormons, and who wear guns, are hired by the Mormons to be wagon master and guide. Along the way, they run into some Indians, who do have guns. It turns out that they are friendly, however, just like the Native Americans that have replaced the Indians in movies over the last several decades. And that was a lucky break, because had they been anything like the Indians we saw in other John Ford Westerns, you could bet that an unarmed wagon train traveling through Indian territory would likely get the men scalped and the women raped.
These Mormons are not so fortunate, however, when it comes to some bandits they encounter. The bandits kill one of the Mormons and threaten to steal their seed grain, without which, we are told, the Mormons in this group and those yet to come would all starve. But Travis and Sandy use their guns to kill the whole lot of them. After Travis and Sandy have killed all the bandits, Travis throws his gun away, as if he knows he will never need it again and can now be a pacifist just like the Mormons.
Paradoxically, neither Travis nor Sandy had ever killed anyone before they encountered the Mormons. So, not only do the Mormons survive because others do their killing for them, but there would have been no need for any killing at all had they been armed. The five bandits would have been no match for dozens of armed Mormons, and so the bandits would have just moved on without trying anything. If we didn’t know better, we might think that the moral of this movie is that pacifists, by refusing to defend themselves, not only depend on others to protect them, but they also end up being the cause of the very killing they have forsworn.
Movies in which someone overcomes his reluctance to kill, when he realizes it is necessary to do so, are quite enjoyable, which explains why so many movies are based on that formula. But movies that reverse that formula, movies in which someone who had previously been willing to defend himself against those that would do him harm, but who embraces pacifism in the final reel, are not so popular, which is why they are few in number. If we enjoy these movies at all, it is only because we are touched by these adorable cultures, so sweet in the purity of their beliefs, even though we would never want to belong to such a community ourselves.