I avoided titling this piece, “Top Ten Conservative Movies,” as I am not sure what a “conservative” movie is. Such a title has a whiff of the propagandistic, as if the films in question were intended merely as didactic pieces, meant to convey some cheap political viewpoint.
The movies listed below are not of this variety, but are rather humane works which all people, without regard to philosophical leanings, ought to see. They do, however, illustrate certain truths about the nature of man, the nature of the relationship between man and man, and the nature of man’s relationship with God that one must acknowledge if one can be called a conservative.
1. The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Allie Fox (Harrison Ford in one of his best performances) is an eccentric inventor who is disgusted by the crassness of American consumer culture and alarmed by increasing crime and the looming threat of nuclear war. “How did America get this way?” he muses to his oldest son, Charlie (River Phoenix), as they drive in their pickup truck down a main street. “Land of promise, land of opportunity. Give us the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Have a coke. Watch TV. Go on welfare. Get free money. Turn to crime. Crime pays in this country. . . . Buy junk. Sell junk. Eat junk.” As the camera shows a town cluttered with fast-food restaurants, strip malls, gas stations, and advertising signs, Fox says to his son: “Look around you, Charlie. This place is a toilet.”
Fox’s diagnosis of what ails America reflects a strange blend of anti-capitalist and nativist thought. “I don’t want my hard-earned dollars being converted into Yen,” he tells a hardware store clerk who offers him a Japanese-made piece of rubber. “The whole damn country is turning into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger zone of rabid scavengers . . . criminal millionaires and moral sneaks.”
Fox decides to move his wife (Helen Mirren) and three children to the remote Mosquito Coast of Central America. He idolizes the jungle as a pristine, primitive state where man can live uncorrupted and society made anew. “I’m the last man,” Fox tells Charlie. The Foxes are accompanied on their voyage to Central America by a slick, Bible-quoting Christian preacher (Andre Gregory) whose fundamentalist brand of religion disgusts Fox. The preacher plans to set up a branch of his church on the Mosquito Coast.
Once he has arrived in the jungle, Fox and his vision are slowly corrupted and he becomes a cult leader, like the preacher he despises. The black migrant workers who follow him to Mosquitia even address Fox as “father.” Though Fox idealizes the jungle as a paradise, he sees one flaw with primitive life: a lack of air conditioning. He thus brings with him a design for a giant ice-making machine, which he rigs to provide cool air to the huts in the town he has established. “Ice is civilization,” Fox pronounces.” He labels the contraption “Fat Boy,” a conflation of the nicknames for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and like those fearsome creations, the machine becomes first a child to its maker, then a god, and eventually an agent of death.
As his new Eden crumbles around him, Fox descends from eccentricity into madness, turning on everyone who dares to challenge his vision. The story ends in tragedy. At its core, The Mosquito Coast is a powerful commentary on original sin and the dangers of utopianism.
“How did America get this way?”
2. Amadeus (1984)
Amadeus gives voice to that great conservative truth: that all men are created unequal. Shakespearian in its portrayal of the dark side of the human heart, the film tells the story of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), court composer to Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). Salieri thanks God for his musical abilities until he meets Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), whose compositional talents so obviously exceed his own. Salieri is quickly consumed by jealousy, renouncing God and determining to destroy his great creation, Mozart. The film is told in flashback, an aged Salieri relating to a priest his scheme to silence forever “the voice of God” that Mozart’s music seems to be. “All men are equal in God’s eyes,” the priest tells the forgotten Italian composer, in an effort to elicit a sacramental confession from the troubled old man. “Are they?” replies Salieri, and the film proceeds to show that they are certainly not, at least not in terms of innate talent, which God seems to bestow—much to Salieri’s chagrin—on even the morally obtuse. God playing favorites when it comes to humanity? And not being fair as to whom he favors? How illiberal of Him!
“Mediocrities everywhere: I absolve you.”
3. Cry the Beloved Country (1995)
Based on Alan Paton’s 1948 novel and set in the South Africa of that time, this film tells the story of two very different men whose lives are brought together by tragedy. Stephen Kumalo (James Earl Jones) is a poor African country pastor who goes in search of his prodigal son, Absalom (Eric Miyeni), gone missing in Johannesburg. James Jarvis (Richard Harris) is a wealthy, white landowner in the area who has no love for, and no understanding of, native Africans. He certainly does not understand his own son, Arthur, a liberal in his views on race, who has founded a sports club for African boys in the city. Kumalo soon learns that Absalom has joined a gang in Johannesburg and has killed a young white man during a burglary. The murdered man, it is revealed, is Arthur Jarvis, son of Kumalo’s neighbor, whom the minister knows only by sight, as the two inhabit separate worlds under apartheid.
Kumalo and Jarvis are forced to deal with the intertwined fates of their sons, “the heaviest things” of both their lives. What happens next is depicted powerfully and believably, and without resort to stereotypes. Though the evils of apartheid are clearly conveyed, there are minor white characters who act nobly and charitably, specifically a white lawyer who takes Absalom’s case “pro Deo,” without cost to his minister-father. There are several scenes in the film that depict the very essence of charity, of love, and of forgiveness, and none more than the climactic final encounter on a mountainside between the grieving fathers Kumalo and Jarvis. This film will pierce your soul.
4. Pale Rider (1985)
A mysterious Preacher (Clint Eastwood) rides into a small community of independent miners who are trying to eke out a livelihood on the rough plains of the late-nineteenth-century American West. The miners’ livelihood is being threatened by the incursion of a large-scale mining operation run by the businessman Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), who cares nothing for the land itself—his strip-mining techniques, he says, are characterized by his enemies as “raping the land”—and who sees the “tin pans” as troublesome obstacles to his profit-making enterprise.
When the Preacher arrives, the miners’ spirits have been nearly broken by their hard life, by their little success in finding gold, and by LaHood’s intimidation tactics. Their putative leader is Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarity), who is courting a widow in the community (Carrie Snodgress) and playing father to her comely, teenage daughter (Sydney Penny). He is no match for LaHood’s thugs, however, and when Barrett rides into town for supplies, LaHood’s men seize the opportunity to give him a thrashing. It is then that the preacher appears, rescuing Barrett and single-handedly vanquishing his attackers with an axe handle. “There’s nothing like a nice piece of hickory,” the Preacher pronounces as LaHood’s beaten men writhe in pain.
The Preacher’s boldness and seeming invincibility rally the community of miners. The befuddled LaHood first tries to intimidate the stranger and then to bribe him. “Those squatters, Reverend, are standing in the way of progress,” LaHood thunders. “Theirs or yours?” is the Preacher’s reply. “What’s your business with those tin pans, Reverend?” LaHood then asks in exasperation, an indication that he sees all human relationships as based on raw assessments of self-interest. “Nothing, they’re just friends” answers the Preacher. When these methods fail, LaHood ups the ante, hiring a gang of professional killers, “Stockburn and his deputies,” to finish off the meddlesome preacher. Of course, the Preacher cleverly shoots each of the deputies dead as they scour the town for him. There is then a final confrontation between the Preacher and Stockburn (John Russell) and between LaHood and Barrett.
Pale Rider is a tale of the conflict between a pre-industrialized America that held out opportunity for the individual to make his fortune on the frontier and the new industrialized nation that favored large-scale business, efficiency, and profiteering at the expense of the land and its people. The film’s localist message and its championing of the hardy, independent settler ought to warm the hearts of Jeffersonian conservatives.
“There’s nothing like a nice piece of hickory”
5. Extreme Measures (1996)
A young doctor (Hugh Grant) discovers that a respected older colleague (Gene Hackman) is secretly harvesting the stem cells of homeless men whom he kidnaps from city streets in an effort to cure paralysis and disease in his patients. Though it strains credulity at times—particularly in a scene involving an underground homeless society—the film has several gripping moments, culminating in the confrontation between Grant’s and Hackman’s characters. When Hackman attempts to convince Grant to join him in his diabolical work, Grant responds with one of the most powerful defenses of the sanctity of human life ever recorded by Hollywood on film:
Those men upstairs, maybe there isn’t much point to their lives. Maybe they are doing a great thing for the world. Maybe they are heroes. But they didn’t choose to be. You chose for them. You didn’t choose your wife or your granddaughter. You didn’t ask for volunteers. You chose for them. And you can’t do that. Because you’re a doctor, and you took an oath. And you’re not God. So I don’t care if you can do what you say you can. I don’t care if you can cure every disease on the planet. You tortured and murdered those men upstairs. And that makes you a disgrace to your profession. And I hope you go to jail for the rest of your life.
6. Good (2008)
The Devil seeks to unleash great evil on God’s creatures and creation by luring his human victims along, step by step, into committing first several small acts of evil. He finds openings wherever he can, tempting them with worldly things to make little moral compromises. Often it is too late when the victim realizes what hell he hath wrought. This is the story of Good, a film set in 1930s Nazi Germany. John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) is a professor of literature whose novel romanticizing euthanasia brings him favorable attention from Hitler himself. In the course of the movie, Halder abandons his needy wife and deserts his desperate Jewish friend (Jason Isaacs) in an effort to curry favor with the Nazi regime and thus advantage for himself. “I never thought it would come to this,” Halder cries when he finds himself an SS officer in a concentration camp at the film’s end. The Devil’s own rarely think so in the beginning, Professor Halder.
I wrote more about Good here.
7. The Browning Version (1994)
Andrew Crocker-Harris (Albert Finney) is an aging teacher of classics at an English boarding school for boys. His life is falling part, as he is being forced into retirement while at the same time dealing with the knowledge that his wife (Greta Scacchi) is having an affair with a young American teacher (Matthew Modine) at the school. A stern, humorless instructor, Crocker-Harris is unpopular with the boys, who nickname him the “Hitler of the Lower Fifth.” The one exception is a boy named Taplow (Ben Silverstone), who surprises Crocker-Harris with a gift—the Robert Browning translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which Crocker-Harris has been teaching his class. Taplow has inscribed the book with a quotation from the play: “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.”
This act of kindness by the boy is an emotional watershed for Crocker-Harris, who decides that he has failed in his vocation as a teacher. In the dramatic conclusion, Crocker-Harris makes a public confession to the entire student body and faculty of the school: “I am sorry because I have failed to give you what it is your right to demand of me as a teacher: sympathy, encouragement, humanity. I have degraded the noblest calling that a man can follow: the care and molding of the young.”
Whether Crocker-Harris is too hard on himself is for the viewer to decide. Conservative viewers will relish his character’s commitment to teach classical literature and languages to his charges in the face of the headmaster’s desire to “modernize” the school’s curriculum in favor of more “relevant” modern languages.
“It’s for you, sir.”
8. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Despite the best efforts of progressives, human nature just never changes. It is always and everywhere liable to corruption. Politics seems to be the field that is best at accomplishing this work of the Evil One, as it offers up the siren song of power, privilege and prestige, a trio of temptations that even the strongest men find hard to resist. Inspired by Senator Rand Paul’s recent principled filibuster in the United States Senate, I recommend the classic 1939 Frank Capra flick, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as a reminder that God occasionally strengthens a good man to resist such corporate evil. In the film’s climactic scene, accidental freshman Senator Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) confronts the corrupted Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who was once a friend of his father. Smith is the voice of the prophet and good servant crying in the wilderness:
I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them; because of just one plain simple rule: ‘Love thy neighbor.’ And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any other. Yes, you even die for them.
9. The Spitfire Grill (1996)
This film deals with the brokenness of human beings and their need to be healed through sacrificial love and God’s grace. A young girl named Percy Talbot (Alison Elliott), who has a chip on her shoulder and who hides a dark secret, is released from prison and gets a job at a diner in rural Maine. Her boss is the diner’s owner, Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn), a no-nonsense older woman, who is dealing with a deep emotional wound of her own. As an ex-con, Percy is distrusted at first by nearly everyone in the town, and especially by Hannah’s nephew. Percy cannot find the inner peace she desperately needs, but her deep need to love heals the emotional wounds of those around her, and she makes the ultimate sacrifice in trying to save Hannah’s long-lost son, a Vietnam veteran traumatized by his war experience and living the life of a hermit in the forest.
10. Field of Dreams (1989)
Though often categorized as “a baseball movie,” Field of Dreams is actually the story of the bond between father and son, a bond that transcends even death. Thirty-eight-year-old Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is a former hippie who is trying to make a life as an Iowa farmer when he one day hears “the voice,” which tells him, “if you build it, he will come.” Kinsella eventually interprets this to mean that he is supposed to build a baseball field on his farm, a decision that threatens his family’s livelihood. When his father’s favorite player, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), appears one night on the field, Kinsella believes that he has accomplished the mission assigned him by the mysterious voice. His father had died soon after he had quarreled with the rebellious, teenaged Ray, and Kinsella now regrets that he never had the chance to tell his father that he loved him. He believes that if he cannot bring his father back, the mysterious voice has at least allowed him to bring back his father’s hero.
In the film’s climactic scene, Ray’s father, John (Dwier Brown), a former minor league player, appears on the field in his catcher’s gear, and Ray is given the chance to speak with his father and have a long-delayed game of catch with him. The beauty of the scene is enhanced by the fact that John is noticeably younger than Ray, who is given the chance to see his father as a young, robust man for the first time. “I only saw him later, when he was worn down by life,” Ray tells his wife (Amy Madigan). Field of Dreams offers us a beautiful preview of the Heavenly Banquet when we will meet again the ones we love as perfected by God.
“It’s my father!”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.