FF2 Chats with Victor Davis Hanson

FF2 Chats with Victor Davis Hanson

(First Posted in 2003)

Photograph courtesy of David Hofeling

“As a student of classical literature, I was deeply influenced by the epics of Homer, the plays of Sophocles, Thucydides’ history, & the dialogues of Plato, which all seem to offer time-honored alternatives to modern behaviorism, Freudianism, Marxism, & social construction. In the Hellenic view, the wrong questions to ask in this present conflict are “Why is there war?” “Why do they hate us?” or “What did we do to them?” The Greeks would instead answer that war is terrible but innate to civilization – & not always unjust or amoral if it is waged for good causes to destroy evil & save the innocent. By the same token, we must return to the idea that terrorists & their sponsoring states are not simply economically driven to conflict, rationally seeking redress from real exploitation, poverty or inequality. Rather, bellicose, theocratic & autocratic nations can be like people – immature, rash & mercurial – & so rush to battle out of classical motives like Thucydidean fear, envy, & self-interest that in turn are fueled by a desire for power, fame, & respect. Although war is often fought rationally, the causes for its outbreak are seldom rational.” (Excerpted from the Introduction to ‘An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 & The War on Terrorism’ by Victor Davis Hanson)

Rich: Which movies do you think best illustrate the themes you write about in your books? 

Victor: There’s an irony or a tragedy to war. In a perfect world you wouldn’t need war. People should air their differences & let talk adjudicate, but the fact is that when you have war, it means that one party hasn’t lived up to that expectation. So that tragic theme goes back to the Greeks, whether it’s in the ILIAD or Sophocles.

In PATTON, we have a man with an apparent oversized ego. He loves combat & the histrionics of war. When the war is going on, we need people like that. But when the war’s over, he dies in an accident & our more refined sensibilities are glad to get rid of him. Patton’s death is a very Greek moment; we have this figure who is supposed to go out & fight & kill & get on the level of the bad guys. But when he’s done, the society doesn’t have room for him anymore. And he seems to have recognized, & accepted that.

Rich: That’s certainly the theme of a lot of Westerns.

Victor: It is & that’s no accident. I’ve noticed that commentators have evoked HIGH NOON in our conflict with Iraq, but I think an even better example is SHANE. In SHANE (& also the take off in PALE RIDER which uses miners to emulate SHANE), the people are farmers. They’re not rugged cowboys. They’re not used to that type of violence. So they have to welcome into their community somebody who is going to do what it takes, & then that person is going to be the object of ridicule because he understands the mind of the outlaw. 

This is what the United States is starting to understand. Everyone wanted Saddam Hussein out. The Europeans all recognized that he was trouble, but they wanted us to do it in secret, & then they wanted us to go away, or least accept the role of the pariah. And that seems to be germane to the Western movie genre, as well as to the post-modern Western view of war. Heroes in our war movies tend to be ordinary people who don’t like what they’re doing, but they’re forced to do it. And then they’re scarred; they’re not able to return to society. 

Rich: Which movies do you think are just bad movies?

Victor: There are certain types of war movies that I don’t enjoy – the high tech rapid action RAMBO type movies, for example, or older THE DIRTY DOZEN type movies. They may have a gripping plot for awhile, but there’s a lack of realism & the dialogue is too one-sided. 

Although the repartee between the soldiers is wonderful, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN lacks larger seriousness. In THE LONGEST DAY, even if it doesn’t show D-Day as realistically as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN does, we know what the whole thing is for. We know that the soldiers are trying to get one foot closer to Germany in order to end the war.

But SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is almost like Spielberg’s JAWS. We get so caught up in the carnage that we never really know why these people are being dismembered. Nobody ever makes a speech that suggests that this horrific sacrifice might mean that fewer people are going to be killed later. There is too little transcendence. 

If it in fact means nothing, then the film should tell us that – tell us that it’s all ridiculous, like in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. That movie not only has the realism, the misery of the POW camp, but it also shows the contradiction of building the bridge. It takes everybody’s effort, which is good & has purpose, but the purpose turns out foul – the British soldiers are perpetuating Japanese militarism. So, watching the movie, we understand that tragedy… 

I think that’s what a good war movie has to do. It has to have combat reality as the sine qua non. It’s got to have that, but then it also has to show you what its larger message is. There really was a vast difference between Nazi soldiers & GIs; the death of the former meant life for millions of innocents. I sometimes failed to see that in PRIVATE RYAN.

Two of my favorite war movies are DAS BOOT & BREAKER MORANT. DAS BOOT shows the misery of war, of living in that submarine. You want to root for the German sailors, but then ultimately even they realize that the cause for which they are trying to kill people is terrible. 

BREAKER MORANT also shows you good men. They’re disciplined, they’re fighting for each other, but they’re assassinating people in a dirty war. If you have warriors posing as civilians & using civilians to perpetuate guerrilla warfare, then somebody I suppose has to take them out. But you’re not supposed to shoot civilians, so these same soldiers – of course Australians rather than British troops – have to be put up as sacrificial lambs. Very good movie. Wonderful acting. In the last 20 years, these are the 2 movies that have made the most impression on me: DAS BOOT & BREAKER MORANT — both have foreign directors & that perhaps says something about the current state in a Hollywood that has no John Ford or George Stevens.

An older movie, THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI, is very good too. William Holden is a pilot, a reservist called back to the Korean War, & he brings a level of humility & contradictory emotion to it. Fredrik March plays the commander of his aircraft carrier. I know that Reagan used some of March’s dialogue in the speech he gave at Normandy, something like: “Where do we get such men that can come out & land on a carrier?” Reagan, I think adopted that. It’s a very gripping movie. 

The key in all of these war movies is that there has to be some fine balance, some nuance, some tragedy. You don’t want a RAMBO that is just black & white, easy & without thought. You don’t want it to be 100 percent good on one side, but you might want 55/45 rather than just 50/50. For example, with Civil War movies, there tends to be a lot of romance about the South which I think is wonderful in some ways because I like & respect Southern culture. But ultimately that’s what the tragedy is – that Confederate bravery was used for a cause [preserving slavery] that was not as good as the cause embraced by the North.

Rich: Let’s talk about Vietnam movies. One of the chapters in your book CULTURE & CARNAGE is on the Battle at Hue, which is the subject of the second half of Kubrick’s film FULL METAL JACKET.

Victor: The first criterion of a moviemaker is to capture historical reality, to be truthful. You don’t go away from FULL METAL JACKET with the impression that the US Marine Corp went in, fought, & eliminated nearly 10,000 front-long Communist troops in an impossible, municipal, urban environment. The Battle of Hue was actually militarily efficacious & very well conducted. It proved to be a real tactical victory under surreal conditions. The US lost less than 1,000 Marines. The Communists were pretty horrible people. When they took over Hue, they lined up 3,000 civilians, mostly those who knew English or had eye glasses on, & executed them. It was a precursor to what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia. 

The film captured a lot of things pretty well, whether it was drug usage or politics or race or training or the absurdity of tactical operations. But that being said, as I studied the Vietnam War (& I know people who fought in it), in retrospect if you decide to intervene you have to kill the enemy that is trying to do some pretty nasty things to millions of people. The alternative was far worse, whether it was the vision of the Khmer Rouge, or the 1 million boat people who left after the armistice, or the half million people who were killed after 1975. More Vietnamese died after 1975 & before 1965 than were killed by the Americans. That is lost in this movie.

Jan: I know a lot of women who say: “I don’t want to see anything violent. If the film is violent, then I don’t want to go.” Are there things you want to say specifically to women?

Victor: Yes. I won’t be popular, but I’ll say it. The world that most women would like to see & the world that they would like to inhabit, as nurturers & child-rearers, that world hasn’t come yet in our present state of human evolution. I’m not sure that it will ever come. So far, it remains a Utopian dream. 

I think it’s very important to see that in the case of BLACK HAWK DOWN, for example, awful men were trying to starve & kill & brutalize innocent civilians. And while the mission of Americans to stop such hooligans & criminals was a failure, there were soldiers (mostly American men) who were willing to go over there & die to save people. For me they were all heroes, to leave such a comfortable existence & risk dying in a wretched place for the idea of feeding children.

In our post-modern, post-heroic society, there are fewer avenues for the expression of muscularity & self sacrifice, because we have so many elements in our society that preclude that. Modern life is very hard for the male especially, but it’s also hard for women to find situations where their own bodily strength or their innate courage or their spirituality gets the job done, rather than just rhetoric or talk or the facile appearance of caring alone. I think a lot of Americans now have that yearning. That’s why Westerns are still so popular, especially Westerns of the last generation. I have the greatest respect for strong women of action unafraid to express strong opinions about the need for consequences & strong action.

My children, 2 of whom who are in their 20s, will tell me that they admire such apparently out of date values when we watch old movies together. Our society is looking for people who don’t calculate their behavior simply on salary or job security, who talk only as if they want to be gender neutral or at all costs they don’t want to be offensive to anyone. And that’s why we like these tragic heroes of clear views in the classic Westerns, because they’re getting increasingly rare in our own society. 

If you look at THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, THE WILD BUNCH, HIGH NOON, SHANE, the heroes in these movies are still with us because they represent certain archetypes of human experience. It’s a problem for young people today – there’s no avenue for them to express courage.

Jan: So you watch these films with your children?

Victor: I try to. I have a 22 year old & a 20 year old & a 16 year old – 2 girls & a boy. And I try to discuss these movies with them. It’s a never ending process. I want to go back to SHANE… I like it because I think there is something very adult about that Western, because every single moment is full of ambiguity & richness. Jean Arthur [as the wife], she has this tension that could be so destructive. She probably loves Shane more than she loves her husband. And Shane is aware of this. You almost get the impression that not only does he have to leave at the end because he is a pariah (by bringing blood into the valley), but he wants to get away from this woman before disaster happens. 

The awful cattle barons, in one great speech they talk about how they created their valley out of nothing. And you get the impression that there IS something to what they say. They came first & fought the Indians & made it possible for the settlers — but now they have less of a role to play. That’s what’s so good about SHANE. George Stevens was trying to show that the world is complex.

John Ford also made some great movies. He is one of my favorite directors. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE & THESEARCHERS, these are both classics. John Wayne is so powerful in THE SEARCHERS. Ethan Edwards isn’t a good person. He has a very dark side to him. And THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE reminds me a lot of our present situation. This guy [Saddam Hussein] was just foul, & somebody had to get rid of him, but the person who bells the cat isn’t going to be rewarded or receive anything. That was the role John Wayne had in LIBERTY VALANCE.

We make fun of Ariel Sharon & George Bush, but there wasn’t a lot of suicide bombing during the Iraqi invasion & its prelude. Before the Americans invaded Iraq, I heard one of the Hamas leaders say something like this: “One of the reasons that we’re being quiet is because we’re afraid the United States is going to go into Iraq & then turn their attention toward us…” You don’t want that logic to be true, but then you start to listen to these terrorists & you do realize that they work on a very basic level of violence & hate. They respect power & those more civilized who will use it. As cowards of sorts they’re afraid of military power. And somebody like a Sharon or a Bush understands that better than supposedly more humane, supposedly more sophisticated people.

In LIBERTY VALANCE, Hallie [Vera Miles] knows that Rance [Jimmy Stewart] is the future & Tom [John Wayne] is the past. Civilization cannot be built around a John Wayne character for long. It needs him at certain times, but ultimately his contribution is negative for tranquility & peace. Somebody like Sharon, you’re not going to found a modern, tolerant, humane society in Israel on him in perpetuity given his past. But there are people in the world who want to kill all the Israelis, & somebody like Sharon, who is & is not of that world, understands that the best. He knows how to deal with it & so, in an odd way, he becomes the most humane of all of us – in not tolerating the work of killers. He is without pretense.

It’s the same sort of thing with President Bush. Many Americans are uneasy with his Southern accent, his Bible-thumping, perhaps even his choice of “smoke him out, hunt him down” pre-modern vocabulary. But he seems to understand why these terrorists kill, & so he wants to get rid of them to ensure safety for the very ones who caricature him. So for the moment, for the majority of Americans, he serves a good purpose – articulating & doing what they know needs to be done, but otherwise would not do. In fact he may lose the next election precisely because he is eliminating the very risk factors he set out to remove. And that’s what I think is so good about LIBERTY VALANCE… It’s a theme in all of John Ford’s movies. John Wayne is the actor who embodies that tragic role — the last scene of him walking out of the shadows of the cabin, surely that is one of the best in movie history.


“East/West Conflicts” “Intramural Western Wars”


Victor Davis Hanson was born & raised in California’s Central Valley where members of his family have owned the same farm for almost 150 years. Most years, Professor Hanson divides his time between the farm & the CSU-Fresno campus (where he teaches in the Classics & History Departments). This year, however, finds him at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he is currently serving as the Shifrin Professor of Military History.

In addition to AN AUTUMN OF WAR, Professor Hanson’s books include:

Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power

From Ancient Times to the Present Day,
How Three Great Liberators [Epaminondas, Sherman & Patton] Vanquished Tyranny

Infantry Battle in Classical Greece

The Demise of Classical Education & the Recovery of Greek Wisdom

Professor Hanson is widely published in national magazines & appears frequently on public radio, public television & cable news shows.

We are extremely grateful to Professor Hanson for taking the time to speak with us, & for offering all of us a new way to think about classic films in the light of current events.

We are also grateful to Betsy Judge, Public Relations Manager at the U.S. Naval Institute, for permission to use David Hofeling’s wonderful picture.

For a related article on FF2, click here for our answer to the FAQ “Which Westerns are your favorites?” in which we discuss the John Ford/John Wayne collaboration (including our own thoughts on THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE & THE SEARCHERS).

© Jan Lisa Huttner & Richard Bayard Miller (4/30/03) – Special for Films for Two. Reposted with permission. 

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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