Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Gregory Peck dies

Gregory Peck died yesterday. This is a pretty standard obit from what I’ve seen. Here is a pretty good fan website describing Peck’s career.

I am not a Peck expert by any stretch, though I would heartily recommend To Kill a Mockingbird and The Guns of Navarone to anyone who has not seen them. But I will add to the obits I’ve read to say this. In many of his roles, Peck played roles that struck me as the character type that modern liberal political theory would praise as "heroic." Peter and Thomas Engeman and others are fond of analyzing traditional American heroic ideals, especially the ideals celebrated in westerns. If I were forced to single out some movies to show twentieth-century liberalism’s rendition of heroism, I might well pick a few Peck movies.

The two that come to mind are his portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and of James McKay in The Big Country. Both characters are intelligent and considerate men. Both have a tendency to judge the morality of what they do by their own intentions and standards -- not the consequences of their actions on others, and definitely not what the mob of people think. Both can fight, but both are very self-controlled and value the ability to think over the ability to fight, almost to the point of disdain. Both resort to reasoned argument in explosive political situations when most people would reach for a gun, and manage to use reason to defuse or resolve those situations.

I’m not saying I think this ideal of heroism is nobler, better, and more just than the ideal celebrated in the traditional Westerns. I think it would be really interesting to compare the lessons, e.g., of Liberty Valance and The Big Country, but that’s not a debate to start on the day after Peck died. But I do think Peck’s best characters highlight a distinct understanding of heroism, different from the best Westerns, appreciated by a large segment of Americans, and worth serious consideration. And Peck acted those roles excellently. May he rest in peace.

Discussions - 9 Comments

JY Smith of the Washington Post sums up Peck’s career like this: "His most memorable performances were in films in which he embodied American ideals of courage, decency and fair play in ways that seemed to reassure viewers that those values, far from being lost, would always triumph over evil in the end."

Coincidentally, Peck’s Atticus Finch just recently beat out Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones as AFI’s top film hero of all time.

I think what Eric says is sensible. There is something heroic about Atticus Finch. And it probably has to do with intentions; yet I vaguely recollect Finch appealing to the standard of equality pretty explicitly. I also remember having the feeling that, regardless of how thoughtful and self-controlled he was, you expected the worst to happen. There was a sense of the tragic from beginning to end. Also, I vaguely recollect that Finch should have been angry a number of times and he wasn’t. That jarred me. I’ll think about this and see the movie again which I haven’t seen in many years.

If you are going to re-watch the film, I cannot recommend enough the collector’s edition on DVD. Most notable of its features are a documentary containing an interview with Peck, and a commentary version of the film with the director, Robert Mulligan.

Peter -- Mockingbird is definitely the better movie, but if you really want to see the contrast I’m talking about, watch The Big Country and then watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In both, an intelligent easterner moves out west, into a nasty political conflict, and gets beat up as soon as he gets to town. That’s where the similarities end. In The Big Country, the easterner is so much smarter than the westerners about their problems that he can solve them all without having to fire a shot himself. In Liberty Valance, Shinbone gets democratic self-government only when the westerner’s force backs up the easterner’s education and law. The contrasts are really striking.

Of course, Tom Robinson, though innocent, dies in To Kill a Mockingbird and the children seemingly come close to being killed, with the son in particular saved only by the intervention of Boo Radley. This would seem to call into question Atticus Finch’s methodology.

I read the book but never heard of the movie... how could it ever beat Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones? From the book alone I could see how Atticus Finch could be a Millian hero... I will have to rent the movie...

John, it’s not so much the movie as the character. The film is definitely worth checking out, though.

Here’s a link that lists the top 50, and also gives some background info. behind the decision-making process.

I posted the link incorrectly. Here it is again:

http://www.afi.com/tv/handv.asp

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