Of all things the Bible says we are supposed to do, the injunction of pacifism found in Matthew 5:38-39 is the most troublesome for Christians: “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.” It hardly needs to be said that most people who call themselves Christians do not follow Jesus in this regard. Typically, they say it wouldn’t be practical.
For example, in The Lady Vanishes (1938), passengers on a train are being fired on by some enemy spies and soldiers. One of the passengers 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 dead. He dies, mumbling that he doesn’t understand. The point of the scene is to show that people who are pacifists just don’t understand the world, so their attempts at pacifism fail.
But by that reasoning, when Jesus tried being a pacifist, he also failed because they nailed him to the cross. After all, it was not this world that Jesus cared about, but the world to come. The Christians that got thrown to the lions ascended to Heaven for their eternal reward, while those in the coliseum, cheering at the spectacle, would soon find themselves burning in the fires of Hell. To put it differently, given that Jesus was the son of God, and that there is a Heaven and a Hell, what could be more practical than turning the other cheek with an eye to gaining access to Heaven, rather than a shortsighted resistance to evil, which will condemn one to an eternity of torment for which resistance will be in vain? To reject the teachings of Jesus on the grounds that they are impractical is as much to admit that one does not believe all that stuff.
To keep us from supposing that the pacifist in The Lady Vanishes will pass through the pearly gates and be rewarded, 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. Pacifism is not only impractical in this movie, but also associated with sin. Most of the time, however, the movies do not associate pacifism with sin. If a pacifist in a movie, set in contemporary times, dies for what he believes, he is usually just portrayed as a fool. For example, in The War of the Worlds (1953), the pastor who decides that he just needs to offer the Martians peace is presumably a good man, but he is promptly dispatched by the alien invaders.
In a lot of movies, a major character tries to be a pacifist, but gives it up in the end and fights back. 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. But when his friend, the sheriff, is murdered, Destry finally has to strap on his gun and kill the bad guy. There was no religious basis for Destry’s pacifism, but often there is. 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. Eventually, however, he decides that killing for one’s country is just rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, so that makes it all right. In High Noon (1952), Grace Kelly is a Quaker. She marries Gary Cooper with the understanding 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. She decides to leave him. But in the end, she gets a gun and kills one of the men herself. In Shane (1952), Alan Ladd 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 he ends up having to kill the bad guys. In Friendly Persuasion (1956), results are mixed. There is some resistance to evil, but it is kept to a minimum, and the central characters (the Birdwell family) seem to survive mostly by luck, with their ideals mostly intact.
While the formula of someone finally renouncing his pacifism and fighting back is a satisfying one, a more problematic situation is one in which there is a community of pacifists, and someone else does the fighting for them. An example of this is Angel and the Badman (1947). 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 bad man 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. A couple of 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 its attitude toward atheists. 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 reason 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.
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 manage survive in a violent world, because someone else was willing to do the killing for them.
Another such movie is Wagon Master (1950). Now, whereas we all know that Quakers are pacifists, John Ford made the bizarre decision to make 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 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 Mormons knocked on my mother’s door and started telling her about their religion. 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, but the 1925 version of Riders of the Purple Sage 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.
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 obligatory references seem almost incidental.
In 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 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 and thereby forcing others to protect them, end up causing killing in the very act of forswearing it.
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 in which someone who had previously been willing to defend himself against those that would do him harm, but who now embraces pacifism, 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. It is in the same way that we smile at the words of Jesus when he tells those in the multitude to resist not evil, for we find his naïve notions adorable as well, even though we immediately dismiss them as impractical.