In her interview with President Reagan just before the Academy Awards ceremonies Monday night, Barbara Walters asked him a couple of interesting questions pertaining to motion pictures: What movies would he recommend to the Soviets to help them understand what the United States is about? And did he think his acting career was good preparation for his political career?
Unfortunately, Reagan slipped both questions as easily as Joe Louis used to slip the punches of some of the palookas he mauled in between his serious fights. His answers, however, could have revealed a lot.
In a sense, the questions are related because the movies have been powerful influences in shaping our view of ourselves -- and Reagan's -- and, at the same time, reflecting that view. Partl this is because the movie industry to a great extent was created by first- generation immigrants who were assiduous students of their new land. Reagan once described the screen as "the great purveyor of information about the American way of life."
What movies would you choose in a serious effort to help people in another society truly understand this country? The first step, obviously, is to define the major elements of our history. The second is to choose those that reveal our warts as well as our virtues so that it isn't an exercise in sheer propaganda.
The historic high points include: the settling by the colonists, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the problem of slavery and racism, the settling and exploitation of the continent, industrialization and urbanization, immigration, the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War.
A quick survey of a list of about 2,000 movies indicates that the further distant in history, the slimmer the pickings. Starting with the post-Civil War era, however, the pace picks up, primarily because of the great number of westerns.
A lot of titles about the American Revolution don't immediately spring to mind. It might seem a little frivolous to begin with a musical, but "1776," which was adapted from the Broadway musical, probably sets out the hopes, fears and arguments of the Founding Fathers as well as any movie I can think of. The exposition, in fact, is superior to the music.
The Civil War isn't all that easy, either.
"Gone With the Wind" is a natural association and is a ton of fun, but it's light on the slavery issue and on Lincoln's desperate determination to save the union. It's also easy to lose the big picture wondering why it is that Vivien Leigh prefers that wimp Leslie Howard to Clark Gable.
A better one would be "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," which is a memorable biography of our greatest president, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Robert Sherwood and played by Raymond Massey. Also, "Seven Angry Men," also starring Massey, which traces John Brown and his sons and their anti- slavery zeal and violence from Kansas to Harper's Ferry.
Good movies about the settling of the continent, as portrayed in the great bulk of westerns, aren't as easy to find as it might seem because of their generally distorted view of the treatment of Indians. But "Cheyenne Autumn," a John Ford epic starring Richard Widmark and Karl Malden, is a compassionate and profound movie based on a true story of Northern Cheyennes duped by the white man, and "Broken Arrow," with Jimmy Stewart and Jeff Chandler, isn't far behind.
It's impossible not to include John Wayne, whose best western was "Red River." It gets a little hokey, but it tells how Anglos in Texas wrested the land away from Mexicans (who of course had taken it from Indians) and then opened up the great post-Civil War cattle trails to the Kansas railheads at Abilene and Dodge City.
Industrialization and modernization?
How about the two Thomas Edison movies starring Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy? And "Inherit the Wind," the marvelous drama of the Scopes "monkey trial" in Tennessee where William Jennings Bryan (Frederic March) and fundamentalist Creationists collide with Clarence Darrow (Tracy) and modern secularism.
You can't exclude Frank Capra either. How did that revolutionary democratic experiment of the Founding Fathers turn out? In "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Jimmy Stewart enacts the ideal of the citizen politician, an uncorrupted idealist, an idea that has been honored more in the breach than the observance.
Then comes the Great Depression, and that's easy -- "The Grapes of Wrath."
World War II? Show the Soviets "The Longest Day," the story of D-Day, because it deals with one of the great issues of the alliance, the opening of the second front in Europe. And also include "Sands of Iwo Jima" just to remind them that Americans fought a very bloody war in the Pacific as well.
Racial and ethnic prejudice? "Birth of a Nation" for a harsh look at racism in our history, and "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Defiant Ones" to show the efforts to overcome it. "Gentleman's Agreement" was at the time a bold and controversial look at anti-Semitism in this country.
I'd also include "Twelve Angry Men" as one dramatization of how the justice system works, and "Marty" as a look at how ordinary people look for love and fulfillment.
Finally, there's one that is as gripping now as when it came out more than 20 years ago -- "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," the insane farce about the insanity of nuclear war. There's no such thing as watching that too often, particularly for Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.