Mann of the Hour

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Do you think old movies can't speak to today's concerns? See some of Anthony Mann's films and think again. They spoke for their time; they speak to ours.

Jihads. The 1961 El Cid is set in 11th-century Spain, where Christians live in something like peace with the Islamic minority. That doesn't please a fiery-eyed Muslim emir, who issues this warning: "The Prophet has commanded us to rule the world. Where in all your land of Spain is the glory of Allah? When men speak of you, they speak of poets, musicmakers, doctors, scientists. Where are your warriors? You dare call yourselves sons of the Prophet? You have become women! Burn your books. Make warriors of your poets. Let your doctors invent new poisons for our arrows. Let your scientists invent new war machines. And then kill! Burn! Infidels live on your frontiers. Encourage them to kill each other. And when they are weak and torn, I will sweep up from Africa. And thus the empire of the one God, the true God Allah, will spread. First across Spain. Then across Europe. Then — the whole world!"

Foreign wars. The 1957 Men in War, set in Korea, shows a U.S. infantry platoon fighting an indigenous, mostly invisible enemy in a faraway country whose people show no appreciation for the American presence. As Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan) and his exhausted platoon make their risky way through a territory pocked with snipers and land mines, some of the GIs assume that anyone of darker skin is the enemy. Tough Sgt. Montana (Aldo Ray) acts on this premise, gunning down three strangers from a distance and explaining, "If you're not sure, you shoot first or you'll die first." Benson is horrified by this logic. "You couldn't see their faces," he says, and Montana replies, "I could smell 'em." He certainly can smell them at the end: the platoon uses a flamethrower to burn Korean soldiers alive. For the infantry members, killing by any means necessary is implicit in their job description.

Oil. In the 1953 Thunder Bay, James Stewart plays an oil rigger planning to drill for "black gold" in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast. When the local fishermen protest, Stewart revs up the oratory: "The important thing is that there's oil under this gulf. And we need it. Everybody needs it. You need it. Without oil this country of ours would stop, and start to die. You'd die. You can't stop progress. Nobody can." Take that, Friends of the Earth.

Imperial hubris. The villain of Mann's 1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire is the Emperor Commodus (Christopher Plummer), a weak man with a drunken past who says he was divinely chosen to make war against the Middle Eastern tribes. His one sensible adviser, Timonides (James Mason), warns that "Their hatred will live for centuries to come. Rivers of Roman blood will pay for this. You will make nations of them, killers of them." But Commodus is deaf to pleas of reason: "You will tell Egypt, Syria, the entire eastern half of the Empire, that if there is the slightest resistance to my orders, I will destroy them." He is also bent on redressing what he sees as the military flabbiness of an earlier President — sorry, Emperor: "You must also let them know they must forget the weakness of my father."

Illegal Mexican immigrants. Mann's 1949 Border Incident begins with a narrator explaining the migration of braceros (Mexican workers) to the vast farms of California and Texas. Most of these braceros obey the laws of both countries... But there are other braceros who come and go illegally, who jump the fences. These illegal entrants work in the United States for a while, and upon returning to Mexico are often robbed of their savings by bandits who infest both sides of the border."

Note that the movie sympathizes with the illegals and directs its outrage at their exploiters: "human vultures who prey on unsuspecting victims." Even the spokesman for the U.S. Immigration Service sees the danger on his side of the border, not theirs. "Some of my people pay them [the illegals] half-wages, conceal them from arrest, make them live in fear and send them back to the desert to be robbed and killed." At the end of the film, the narrator puffs with pride to note that the workers are "now safe and secure, living under the protection of two great republics — and the bounty of God Almighty."

Isn't it nice to know that the immigrant question was solved back in 1949?

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