A Tale of Two Films

23 January 2009


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Film as a Guide to the Twentieth Century

Film is the quintessential medium of story telling for our time, and, I think, for some time to come. And now almost a decade into the twenty-first century, film already has a history of at least a century behind it. Film already provides a complete (in its own way) archive of the twentieth century, and there is much to learn from twentieth century film that was never intended as a lesson.

Two films in particular not only say something relevant about Western culture in the twentieth century, but also illustrate changes in our culture, and these changes in turn underline important sociological patterns. The two films I have in mind are Red Dust and Mogambo.

In both films there is a strong element of “eye candy,” as should be evident from the stars involved in production and the exotic settings for the films. There is also an element of what Edward Said famously called “Orientalism” in both films. We have on the one hand the exoticism of Indochina and on the other hand the exoticism of Africa. No doubt many critics have called attention to this theme, and we will implicitly refer to it further below. There is another form of exoticism, however, that is somewhat more subtle, and that is the sexual exoticism of the films. In both, the male lead is placed in proximity to two females leads, one of them more openly sexual, the other exhibiting the repressed attractiveness of the “sexy librarian” stereotype. Here, the exoticism of the non-Western landscape is simply an Orientalist backdrop to something else that is the gender role equivalent to Orientalism.

Red Dust

red-dust

In Red Dust (1932) Clark Gable plays the owner of a rubber plantation in Indochina. Jean Harlow and Mary Aster are the female love interests for Gable’s character. It has been remarked that Red Dust “pushes the envelope” of social acceptability in the days before Hollywood had the Production Code to systematically limit its moral experimentation. (The Hays Code was adopted in 1930 but was only systematically enforced beginning in 1934, so Red Dust was produced not long before it came into practical effect.)

The film opens with an explicit prostitution scene that quite took me aback as unexpected for anything in the early 1930s. It is gratifyingly frank, however, this frankness also includes the frank racism, which is further discussed below.

Mogambo

mogambo

In Mogambo (1953), directed by John Ford, Clark Gable reprises the same role he had in Red Dust (1932) twenty-one years earlier. Mogambo is a re-make of Red Dust, and is as interesting for what it changes as for what it retains from Red Dust. The story of Mogambo closely follows the story of Red Dust, though there are significant changes that have to be made to accommodate the re-setting of the story in Africa instead of Asia. The story changes, however, are much less interesting that the change in tone and emphasis.

Red Dust is an openly racist film. The characters deliver racist epithets without flinching. Now, there are certainly respects in which Mogambo is also a racist film, but in so far as it is racist, it is racism of a noticeably different variety. Set in Africa, with the central cast members being whites visiting Africa for big game hunting and science, the elements of implicit colonialism are all present, but the open racial slurs of Red Dust are entirely absent. Indeed, it could be argued that the Africans in Mogambo are presented as noble savages, and the social arrangements implied could be called a beneficent form of apartheid. The Africans are shown as porters and safari hands. They sing and remain entirely separate from the white protagonists.

The absence of open racism in Mogambo contrasts to its open sexism: Mogambo is as openly sexist as Red Dust is openly racist. In the same way that Mogambo is implicitly racist, Red Dust is implicitly sexist, but the sexism of Red Dust, again, is sexism of a noticeably distinct variety. In Red Dust, gender roles are not contested. Since they are not under attack, there is no reason to defend them. What freedom and autonomy the characters demonstrate, they construct within the limits of their gender roles. This is typical of a repressed society, but in some senses it is less repressive than a reactionary society attempting to defend and enforce certain social arrangements. In Red Dust, we see the social consequences of such a reactionary society attempting to defend and enforce the social arrangements of open racism. Similarly it can be said that in Mogambo, race is not being contested, and what autonomy the characters possess they again construct within the limits of accepted racial stereotypes.

The sexism of Mogambo is so obvious and so vulgar that today it simply appears silly. It is easy to imagine someone watching the film strictly for its camp value. At the time, however, it was deadly serious. The fact that such things can be taken seriously is a lesson in historical relativity.

Political Implications

I found myself thinking about the portrayal of race and gender in Red Dust and Mogambo because of my recent reflections on the inauguration. This might be a little difficult to fathom. Allow me to explain. In my Inaugural Special Edition I cited Kennedy’s “sea” speech as an instance of a US president implicitly invoking evolution, and I noted that this would not happen today. Why is this?

Firstly, some background. Many sociologists have pointed to what they consider to be a growing and dangerous disconnect between the military and the remainder of society. And it is true that military culture is growing apart from mainstream culture, and we are in danger of constructing a bifurcated society in which those who defend it have no stake in cultural life, while those create and enjoy its cultural life do not know how to defend that culture and largely do not care. The sotto voce implication in this critique of contemporary society is that we are more and more coming to resemble decadent Romans who gave themselves over to pleasures while hiring barbarians to defend the frontier.

While I would not, in the present context, wish to argue about the disconnect between the military and civilian society, it seems to me that there is a much older and more profound disconnect between the scientific community and society at large. Numerous polls bear out the fact that, with important exceptions, the scientific community does not share the naive religious beliefs of the American populace on the whole (I strongly suspect that this is equally true, probably more true, throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa).

This disconnect is not new, though it has become more pronounced over time. Since this disconnect has persisted already for generations, society has found ways of accommodating the situation. Members of the scientific community largely avoid being honest in public about their views, and members of this community are given an implicit “pass” for participation in the usual social rituals of religious conformity.

Kennedy’s “sea” speech was delivered in a world in which the value and veracity of religion was not contested in any serious way, just as gender roles were not contested in Red Dust and race relations were not contested in Mogambo. Because social arrangements in regard to religion were essentially stable, and religion was not perceived as being under attack, there was no reason to defend it. And someone like the president, who is presumed to be a member of another class of society than the general populace, can get a “pass” for referring to evolution in a speech. Today, however, the role of religion is considered by many to be contested, and, precisely because it is contested, a reactionary movement is attempting to defend and enforce the role of religion in society.

We can hope that, at some point in the future, the vulgar and heavy-handed defense of religion in society will appear as silly as Clark Gable’s role vis-à-vis Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. It won’t happen any time soon, but if we do not destroy ourselves, there is every reason to be hopeful that it will happen eventually.

An afterthought

The flourishing of film as an art form in our time is not to be slighted. Other ages have excelled in music or sculpture or painting. We all know the state of art music in our time, and the visual arts are nearly in as much crisis. But film continues to grow and develop, and, as importantly, it continues to have a massive popular following, as the plays of Shakespeare had in Shakespeare’s day. For all our achievements in technology and industry, the most enduring legacy of a civilization is often its cultural contribution. We may well be remembered to history as the Age of Meryl Streep. It is at least as likely as some other alternatives that come to mind.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “A Tale of Two Films”

  1. Nick,

    I did not understand how the “sexism” of Red Dust is related with evolution, and evolution with inauguration. The switch from “Red Dust” to the military community and then to the scientific community is unexpected. I did not even understand why the movie is sexist. I did not watch the movie, and based on what you said it is not worth watching anyway. I think some links are missing here.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Marina,

      Thanks for your comment. My main point is that people attempt to defend institutions that are perceived as being endangered or under attack, so that prior to developments that appear to threaten an institutions, people can “get away” with much more that they cannot get away with later. I could explain this in much more detail, but I fear that I would lose the attention of my reader. If this still doesn’t make sense, it would probably be better for me to attempt to explain it over the phone rather than type it all out.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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