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Existentialism in the cinema.

 

It exercised a major influence on French cinema of the 1930s and 40s ("Le jour se lève", "La Grande Illusion", "Les Misérables", "Les Enfants du Paradis"), and on Hollywood "films noirs" of the 1940s ("The Big Sleep", "The Maltese Falcon", "Casablanca", "Double Indemnity", "The Postman Always Rings Twice"). Existentialism continued to exercise a considerable influence on the cinema of the second half of the twentieth century, and indeed continues to this day.

The following thoughts and ideas are merely my own reflections on the influence of this extraordinary philosophical movement which had its roots in the Enlightenment Movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The films mentioned are not intended to be an exhaustive or comprehensive list of "existential" films, but rather examples of the type of film which could be said to incorporate existential concepts.

 

 

Existential in reverse

A number of different types of film with existential elements can be discerned. The first type I have called "existential in reverse", because the central character(s) may have wandered into amorality or disillusionment, having lost, or never having found faith or principle, and as the result of a series of events they question their lives and values, and find a purpose or set of values they can adhere to. The usual pattern, of course, is for a "hero" to become disillusioned and lose his way in life. Here, the hero has already gone through this process and we see him as he "recovers" his humanity or sense of values.

The hero who has dabbled in dubious moral affairs, or who claims to be amoral, working for a fee rather than out of principle, is a figure who lends himself well to the Western genre. This is a genre in which law and order are traditionally difficult to enforce and where, in the absence of said order and social morality, men did "what they had to do". This setting provides an ideal context for action and also some philosophising on morality, the nature of society, and freedom.

Films such as "The Magnificent Seven" (and, of course, the Japanese original "Seven Samurai"), contain a surprising number of passages in which the protagonists reflect upon the value of their lives, even comparing themselves (unfavourably) to the farmers they have been hired to protect. In the end they regain some self-respect by making a stand for principle against the very type they might, at one time, have been accused of being themselves. They have gone from being hired guns to defenders of the poor, and in so doing have found their own "salvation".

Vaguely similar is the vastly underrated "The Professionals", written for the screen (though based on "A Mule for the Marquesa") and directed by Richard Brooks. This is the story of a group of mercenaries hired to find and return the kidnapped wife of an ageing oil baron. The film manages to combine exciting action and reflections on life, death, and fighting for a cause - and all in a positive and entertaining package! For further thoughts on this film, please click here .

A similar theme was pursued in "The Dirty Dozen" in which convicted criminals are given the opportunity to "redeem" themselves in a suicidal mission. Granted, they are seduced by the prospect of freedom, but that payoff in exchange for their services may be considered a fair exchange in a society driven not by principle, but by the need to win - at whatever cost. Here the implication is that morality and decency are all very well in a society where everyone agrees to abide by such standards, but should one side adopt more brutal and determined methods, similar methods may be used to counter them and defeat the "enemy".

Returning to the Western genre, an excellent study in greed overcoming moral scruples is contained in the underrated "High Plains Drifter". Clint Eastwood is the avenging spirit of an honest Sheriff brutally murdered by the townspeople because of greed. Having turned their backs on honesty and decency, Eastwood returns to teach them the meaning of depending on sheer force and brutality rather than law and order. Using their own methods against them, he builds their dependence upon him before leaving them to fend for themselves and ultimately returning to wreak his brutal revenge on those who murdered him. He treats others as they would treat him, and thus calls into doubt the townspeople's moral fibre.

Eastwood returned to this theme a few years later with the more polished, but ultimately less interesting "Pale Rider".

On a similar theme of revenge and retribution is "Point Blank" in which Lee Marvin plays Walker, a wronged thief who seeks revenge on those who wronged him. Please click on the link above for further thoughts on this film.

Another film in which the hero questions his principles when faced with a dilemma is Bogart's penultimate film, "The Left Hand of God". This is an interesting, if somewhat "stodgy", look at the influence of the individual on the community, and indeed that of the community on the individual. Here, the interest is in the fact that Bogart plays a sort of vaguely unprincipled mercenary in league with a Chinese Warlord who escapes and adopts the identity of a priest primarily in order to avoid capture, but this results in mutual benefit for himself and the community he "serves". There is, of course, the added dimension of God perhaps working in mysterious ways. The film even contains a fairly lengthy philosophical conversation between Bogart and the Warlord towards the end of the film.

Bogart appears to have had quite a penchant for playing a "low-life" who rises to the occasion, given the right company and circumstances. Once again, he famously rose to the occasion in "The African Queen", playing Charlie Allnut, who displays great heroism as a result of love and the discovery of purpose and principle. And once again there may be some suggestion of Divine influence as his love is none other than a missionary. Director John Huston virtually remade the film just a few years later as "Heaven knows, Mr. Allison", with Robert Mitchum.

More recently we had "Three Kings" in which a group of war-weary but opportunist G.I.s attempt to steal a fortune in previously stolen gold. In the end they cannot turn their backs on the needy and actually do good through their misadventures.

 

Existentialism through experience

While the hero who rediscovers faith and principle may be relatively uplifting and popular, a truer and perhaps more faithful interpretation may be found in those films which dare to question morality and the structure of society. An ideal context for this focus is the war film.

"The Sand Pebbles" is an excellent and thought-provoking film concerned not just with the horrors of war, but with politics, patriotism, and nationalism - all played out against the background of the Chinese rebellion (around 1926), and told through the lives of a group of American sailors used to protect American interests in China at that time.

The most successful and reflective war films are those which recount epic events through the lives of individuals touched by these events. Such films will tend to focus on disintegration, and may offer no solution, but the questions they pose remain nonetheless valid and indeed essential.

Other notable films in this genre include "The Bridge at Remagen", with an excellent George Segal as a war-weary, but principled G.I. forced to lead his men into battle largely to help his commanding officer gain promotion. This, in contrast with his friend played by Ben Gazarra who is willing to take full advantage of the death of the enemy. Interestingly, the German officer (Robert Vaughn) left to take responsibility for Nazi defeat is played as equally principled - two "nice guys" struggling to maintain faith and belief in the wake of the horrors of war and selfish amorality which surround them.

"Apocalypse Now" is generally regarded as a masterpiece concerned with disintegration both of the individual and of moral codes. A trained killer is dispatched to kill a "renegade" American officer who has been most effective by ignoring any and all codes of ethics. The irony is that in achieving his mission, Willard (Martin Sheen) has become the very thing he was sent to eliminate, and becomes leader of Colonel Kurtz's group, or tribe. Director Francis Coppola deals with any number of absurdities, but overall the suggestion appears to be that away from "civilisation", man is capable of virtually anything, and others will follow him because he creates order by exercising his will.

Sam Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron" is also worthy of a distinguished mention as James Coburn struggles to make his superiors see the effect of the horrors of war on his men, rather than their global and dehumanised view of the German army.

This category of film need not, of course, be restricted to war films. I was tempted to include "Blade Runner" in this category, as hero Deckard tracks "replicants", before falling in love with one, and ultimately discovering he is one. To my mind it would have been considerably more successful to have Deckard remain "human". This would have called into doubt codes of ethics, morality, and nature far more effectively than to have Deckard simply follow his programming.

 

Social existentialism

Other films look at the structure of society and may question the place of the individual in that society, or may simply look into the nature of life, love, and responsibility, to name but a few relevant themes. They may involve crime, but the real source of interest is the characters and how they relate within society.

The French cinema has always been strong in this field. Their films tend to be far more character-driven rather than plot-driven. They are something of an acquired taste, but they are most rewarding if you can get into them. There are many classics of French cinema, but I would draw attention to some of the earlier films of Luc Besson as excellent examples of a cross between French and American cinema, joining action with strong characters and interesting views on the place of the individual in society.

Jack Nicholson classics "Chinatown" and "Five Easy Pieces" are well worth viewing as they investigate relationships, responsibility, truth, and to some extent the very structure of society.

My personal favourite, which covers just about all the above elements, is "Les Misérables". This timeless classic looks into society, faith, responsibility, duty, and amorality.

 

Nihilism?

Another strain of existential (bordering on nihilistic) movies presents an even bleaker picture of society as two equally corrupt and immoral sides battle it out to gain supremacy.

Films such as The Godfather Trilogy present a bleak (but perhaps nonetheless realistic?) view of wheelings and dealings as the Corleone family extends its influence over a number of generations. It is interesting to note that in the final episode the Church itself is involved in shady and sordid business affairs - no one is free from the influence of greed and corruption - so that the Corleone involvement appears almost principled by comparison!

"Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal" present yet another modern take on existentialism as Hannibal Lecter applies his own rules and he becomes almost heroic as he takes the lives of those who conspire against him, (and others), by fair means or foul.

Many other films have had brutal main characters use brutal methods against equally brutal opponents - "Get Carter", "Point Blank", (remade as "Payback"). In a lighter vein we even recently had "Ocean's Eleven". In these and other films we may disapprove of the characters' actions, but as they face similar or potentially more brutal characters, they may even become admirable!

This world in which principle and morality do not exist, and where the upper hand is gained by use of power and determination represents a particularly dark and bleak outlook on the human condition. One may admire, or at least envy, the single-minded determination and strength of purpose of the main characters, but when one considers the impact of such conduct on society as a whole, the consequences would be disastrous.

An interesting example of a purer investigation into existence, the effect we have on one another's lives, and the crucial part played by timing, can be seen in "Run, Lola, Run".

Here the director takes the same situation and recounts three ways in which the situation could develop, dependent on timing and choices made. This fascinating little film really brings home how fragile our destiny is, and how a moment's hesitation or another choice of action can lead to different encounters and outcomes in our lives.

The film doesn't set out to develop character or plot to any great degree, though urgency is essential to plot development. Rather it is an investigation into the way our lives are interwoven, and how we all can influence others' lives simply by virtue of being at a certain place at a certain time.

 

I hope you have found these thoughts of some interest, and perhaps even useful. Further information on all the films mentioned above can be obtained here.

I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss this topic further. I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

My thanks for taking the time to read this page.

Stuart Fernie

 

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