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Commentary : Imperiled Masculiniy And Screen Warriors


It came like a divination and just as suddenly fled. Some years ago, playwright-poet Charles Gordone was standing uncertainly in the middle of a Hollywood hotel room, high on the flush of "No Place to Be Somebody's" explosive success, and on more distilled spirits as well. Suddenly, he said, apropos of nothing, "Vietnam is America's war against its women."

"What do you mean by that?" I asked.

"I don't know."

I didn't know either, but the line has hung in mind all these years like the mere hem of a truth, but not a whole truth. It came back when I saw Emily Mann's play, "Still Life," which deals with a returning Vietnam vet and the misery he inflicts on his wife and mistress, and how their attempt to understand him is perversely tortuous to him. And it came back when I recently saw a number of the macho movies that are the subject of Pat H. Broeske's adjoining article.

What struck me is the change over the past couple of years in which the fantasy of brute masculine force has grown out of all proportion to human dimension. Broeske discusses the attrition of the capacity of these heroes to love women (forget about other men, even though psychological theory holds that the severely militaristic mind harbors a homosexual wish). I see these movies as an attrition of the capacity to feel anything beyond a fierce devotion to the buddy system (the political and judicial system having ostensibly failed us) and a pathological lust for revenge for revenge's own sake--its causes having reached beyond satisfaction.

More deeply, the sheer explosive violence of these films, where a single man can wipe out an entire army (remember when Gary Cooper had his hands full with just four guys in "High Noon"?) reveals a masculinity more imperiled than ever before. That is to say, it's the heightened sense of impotence that calls up the most exorbitant fantasies.

No doubt the national tone cued by an Administration that likes to see America stand tall and challenge a tin-pot dictator to "Make my day" (and where did we first hear that ?) gives our heroes added license to blow away the bad guys and not give them a second thought.

It's not hard to see the political causes of our heroes' ethical unrest. The Vietnam War--for which these films offer the solace of emotional revision--was a bitter pill to swallow. In addition, the domestic disgrace of the Nixon Administration was harder to live down because, as Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone imply in their play "Secret Honor," without the confession of guilt, we're denied the ritual of forgiveness and expiation, of spiritual cleansing. Too, the MIA issue still hangs over us, unfinished business. And the 1983 massacre of American Marines in Beirut pointed once again to confusion of purpose in high places, for which American soldiers paid with their lives.

The masculine principle is at heart a warrior's principle, which isn't to say that the man who fights for his convictions with everything he has can't love a woman and share himself with her, or that he can't be tender and compassionate. One of the most pivotal films of the post-Vietnam Era was "Coming Home," where, if you put aside Jon Voight's character's holier-than-thou presence, he won the Jane Fonda character because he knew how to deal with her better than did her husband, the professional officer (Bruce Dern).

Dern drowned his wounds of war in the sea. But that's not a solution, and, in fact, the kind of character that Dern exemplified has been hauled out of the surf and sent back into the jungle to fight on, even if the jungle is the city. It's the Voight character who has been washed away now.

I suspect the women's movement intimidated and confused a lot of men through its own size and complexity, its mounting suddenness and through the pettiness and spiteful tone of some of its own elements. And it didn't help a lot of the men who took a chance on "sharing their feelings" and "getting in touch with their feminine side," to see themselves by the late '70s and early '80s dismissed as wimps--by women.

American sexual antagonism reaches even deeper than that; it's rooted in the Puritan ethic, whose abstemious censure of the flesh has a byproduct in the censure of physical intimacy, of the vocabulary of tenderness, that doesn't always have to be sexual.

The hunter, the warrior, the soldier, the fighter, were American literary prototypes long before movies were invented. They had their apotheosis in "The Deerslayer," the figure who stood outside civilization, and continued right on through Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

The movies followed suit with any number of lone silent heroes moving west in the spirit of the American continental drift. In virtually all of them, the idealistic spirit of the explorer and conqueror seemed either displaced or in some way corrupted by civilization and its discontents, by culture, by the female invitation to settle down.

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