BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK AND AMERICAN FASCISM
‘I know one thing. The rule of law has left, and the gorillas have taken over.’
In this way Spencer Tracy describes life in the isolated town of Black Rock. The local head gorilla is played by the great Robert Ryan and called Reno. The name implies that this gorilla is a bigger phenomenon than Black Rock. The 1955 script is clear. The country contained too many small hidden towns where the rule of law could be ignored. In Bad Day At Black Rock Reno has killed a Japanese American who had thought it would be a good idea to settle in the American West. Other men in the town have helped Reno. The film has three violent confrontations but the memorable scene is a conversation between John J McCready, the character played by Spencer Tracy, and Reno. This takes place at a garage and next to the petrol pumps. The movie has pictorial widescreen elegance throughout, and the scene by the petrol pumps is in a setting that evokes the Edward Hopper painting Gas. Obliged to lead routine lives and surrounded by claimed but unconquered landscape these settlers are baffled by the world and their own lives.
‘Japanese American,’ says Reno. ‘That’s a laugh. There’s a law in this country about shooting dogs but when I see a mad dog I don’t wait for it to bite me. To me this is our West, and I wish they would leave us alone.’
‘To do what?’ says John J McCready.
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
For the xenophobic person, hatred is more important than having plans for the future. The word fascist is never mentioned in Bad Day At Black Rock. But John J McCready has fought in the Second World War, and it is because of the military expertise he acquired in fighting fascism that he is able to defeat Reno. If democracy and the rule of law are to survive, his fight and struggle will have to continue in his homeland. Their uniforms, social theories and economic ambitions may change between countries and the ages but fascists do not go away. More than a few appeared last weekend in Charlottesville.
The sheriff in Bad Day At Black Rock is feeble and drunk. Lone sheriffs are important representatives of the rule of law in Hollywood Westerns. Rio Bravo has been described as a right wing riposte to High Noon but both movies share a respect for the rule of law and democracy. There is a paradox. In left wing High Noon Gary Cooper stands tall against criminal roughnecks. In Rio Bravo John Wayne and three able but ordinary men are obliged to resist the power of a local rich ranch owner and his hired militia. The films may have opposing views about the American spirit but neither gives fascists approval. No matter whether American history is interpreted critically or positively there is nothing in either sheriff to suggest anything other than ordinary decency.
In Key Largo and Casablanca Humphrey Bogart played heroes who had been chastened by the experience of war and Europe. The bullies in Key Largo are gangsters, symbols of capitalist greed and excess. Major Frank McCloud in Key Largo is not self-destructive but he is wary. He is an unusual man and the only hope against relentless bullies. His heroism does not provide optimism. In Casablanca Bogart, as Rick Blaine, has to confront German Nazis. Before Blaine joined the struggle against fascism he was wasting away under alcohol and self-pity.
McCready is even more extreme than Rick Blaine. He not only seeks exile but isolation from the human race. He tries to escape Black Rock and avoid confrontation. The engine in the hearse that he uses for his escape fails to start. McCready has been fortunate. He will fight the fascists of Black Rock and avoid the spiritual death that Rick flirted with in Casablanca before Ingrid Bergman made her never forgotten entrance. The fight against fascists may not save the world but whatever the eventual result the struggle is important. The American journalist Chris Hedges has written ‘I fight the fascists not because I will win. I fight the fascists because they are fascists.’ Because human nature is so damned complicated the fascists will often win. And they may even prevail. But if we cannot save the world, we can at least save our souls. And that is what happens to McCready in Bad Day At Black Rock.
The likelihood is that Donald Trump, like most Americans, has seen all three movies. The man is rumoured to have a short attention span. If he did watch those films, he missed the point. Otherwise he would not have snapped about there being blame on both sides at Charlottesville. Not everyone will accept that what happened in Charlottesville was a clash between fascists and honourable resistance. Some will have registered the events as a confrontation between white patriots and liberal subversives. There are people who have sympathy for Reno and his desire to be left alone even if he has no idea what he will do in his racially pure paradise. And not every liberal or African-American who encounters a group of fascists will be thinking about preserving the rule of law in those moments. But last weekend there were a lot of men carrying weapons and wearing military uniforms. The symbols of oppression and violence were where anyone with any sense would have expected them to be, gripped tight in the hands of the fascists.
This, of course, assumes that the word fascist is understood. George Orwell struggled to define fascism. Unlike communism it is not explained by Marxist theory or an economic system. Indeed the mixed economy, the great symbol of a progressive liberal democracy, is a feature of formal fascist political theory. Fascist societies have variations, and the word fascist is used as a term of abuse by almost everyone against, when the abuses are aggregated, almost anyone. We know some fascists took part in the march in Charlottesville. The Mein Kampf quotes on the t-shirts and the swastika tattoos on bare chests are sufficient evidence. Yet not everyone who participated in the march was a Nazi. Some prefer the term white nationalists. Many Americans believe in the unfettered American Dream, so we can assume that a good percentage of American white nationalists would be hostile to the economic theories of Mussolini, the man who said, ‘John Maynard Keynes is a useful introduction to fascist economics.’
Orwell admitted defeat in defining fascism but justified the use of the word in certain circumstances. Fascism to Orwell meant ‘something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working class.’ Orwell fought fascists, so his comments deserve respect but we are entitled to have doubts about the definition. His comments describe the far right of the British Conservative Party rather than fascists. That makes sense because Orwell once said that there were no conservatives in the Conservative Party; they were either liberals or fascists. But fascism is not just about the British. Look at the Orwell list again, and what we see are the sins and follies of mankind, the reasons why almost every generation of humans has created genocide somewhere on the planet.
My own view of fascism is less sophisticated. Most of us accept the need for utilitarian pragmatism but we vary in how we sympathise with the casualties. We argue about who those victims should be and how they should be treated. There is a dark side to utilitarianism. Some have no sympathy for the casualties and have an aggressive desire to make them suffer. They feel entitled to not just ignore the suffering of victims and the unfairness to the excluded but also relish it as a victory. Once that line is crossed we have fascism. It exists on the left and right and even in the so-called centre. Moderates are often people who are passionate about preserving the status quo. They will bully and ridicule those who argue for change. And not all fascists are victors. Denied victory some victims believe a campaign to vanquish the different is their only hope for salvation.
And that leads us back to the notion that fascists never go away. Damaged or thwarted humans can seek fascist power in two ways, either as exceptional powerful individuals or as members of a predatory herd. In Bad Day At Black Rock John J McCready meets both a powerful individual, the troubled, strong and violent Reno, and his dopey amoral mates, the embryo of a predatory herd. That flaw in our nature is permanent, which is why McCready has two Christian names and both begin with the letter J. There is no victory, and the resistance continues because it cannot end. ‘I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.’ Donald Trump is like Reno. Economic success has meant that the flaw in his nature has been soothed with personal power. And now he has found his predatory herd.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.