John Wayne

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

9 FRENCH FRIES AND YELLOW RIBBONS

 

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Vince Gilligan has admitted that his pitch to studio executives for cash for Breaking Bad was, ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface.’  Today finding someone who believes that Goodbye Mr Chips qualifies as a literary masterpiece and who regards James Hilton as a writer of exceptional merit is not easy.  The search is as difficult as locating Shangri La, the nirvana that the author imagined for The Lost Horizon, his other huge seller.   Goodbye Mr Chips is a class ridden and sentimental tale.  The book romanticises life in an English public school and overlooks an education system that disenfranchises the majority of the population.   Hilton wrote in a chatty style designed to offer emotional comfort to readers.   Although the overall themes of Goodbye Mr Chips have weight, the frequent observations and asides from Hilton are smug, albeit sometimes perceptive.  Goodbye Mr Chips describes the full working life of an adult, and despite the extra words the tale on paper is more slight than it should be.

Both Goodbye Mr Chips and The Lost Horizon require a transcendental love affair as a catalyst for the hero.  In Goodbye Mr Chips the marriage of his schoolteacher hero is described as ‘a triumphant success’.  This unequivocal intrusion into the imagination of the reader confirms the weakness of Hilton.   Modern readers may be sniffy about literary style but Goodbye Mr Chips and The Lost Horizon are remembered for a reason.  These two books, but none of the others written by Hilton, were iconic.  To utilise another favoured phrase of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, James Hilton twice found the ‘lightning in the bottle’, something that made his stories resonate.

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To be able to speculate on what justifies not a life but an existence Breaking Bad needs Walt to have a dual identity or alternatives.   There are three Mr Chips, the shy man who exists before his marriage, the happy and confident chap who is married and the amiable and empathetic schoolteacher that exists after the death of his wife and new born child.  Rather than have gangsters on the prowl Hilton in Goodbye Mr Chips maintains English reserve and merely lets his schoolteacher fall in love and have a brief marriage.  Kathleen is an interesting character but after she dies the only steam that is left in the book is that which comes out of the kettle that boils the water for the afternoon teas that Chips takes with his pupils.  Somehow, though, the damned thing stays inside the head.

Ernest Raymond is not regarded as a literary giant  but he not only managed a great title and something special with We The Accused but also created Mr Olim a schoolteacher and volatile bully that terrorises his pupils.  Mr Olim is a superior book to Goodbye Mr Chips.  Before the book has ended the reader understands that Olim had no need to be popular.  Instead he was dedicated to education and was willing to use whatever means necessary to keep his pupils alert.

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A weakness of Goodbye Mr Chips is that it assumes that the popularity Chips achieves after his transformational marriage must confirm that he is now a superior human being.  It denies his previous valid existence.  Yet the book has poignant moments.  No one can read Goodbye Mr Chips without wondering about how to lead a life and what awaits at death.  This, of course, is where Vince Gilligan came in with his existential fancies.

Once Walt cooks some crystal meth his lower middle class humility and fatalism soon encounter Walt Whitman and ambitious transcendentalism.  The murderous monster comes later.  A major surprise for English viewers is the stoicism of husband and father Walt in the opening episodes of Breaking Bad.  Walt has what Goodbye Mr Chips presents as a British characteristic, reserve and self-effacement.  For the British the Americans were the people who arrived in Britain during the second world war.  They had chocolates, cigarettes, cash and nylons, and more persuasive words for English women.  It takes effort for the British to imagine Americans making sacrifices and being shy, quiet or lonely.  In establishing himself as a kingpin drug dealer Walt becomes vicious and nasty.  He is, though, always paying a price even if the cost amounts to nothing more than being anxious or stressed.  In Breaking Bad even bad alter ego Heisenberg, makes sacrifices.

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The movie Since You Went Away drips with sentiment but is accomplished.  It has to be  seen for the dance hall scene alone.  The black and white photography of Stanley Cortez has never been equalled.  In that movie the burdened hero is a woman whose husband is away at war.  She is obliged to hold her family together.  It did not need a world war, though, for the Americans to create stiff upper lips.   John Ford directed a trilogy of movies that is recognised as ‘the cavalry pictures’. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was the second of the three.   John Wayne plays ageing hero Captain Nathan Brittles.  No one in the film is a schoolteacher but Brittles is an obvious mentor to the men and women around him.  They will  be his legacy.  Captain Nathan Brittles is approaching retirement, and although at the end of the film he helps to prevent a war with the Native Americans his final days are marked by two failures that are beyond his control.  Captain Brittles, like Mr Chips, has led an anonymous and lonely life.  He has been loyal to a bureaucracy obliged to neglect him.  If Brittles is not without self-respect, there will be little consolation for his final days.

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She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is an elegiac essay about ageing, the fading of personal powers and how acquired knowledge and skills ultimately become redundant wisdom.   When Walt takes that final bullet for Jesse and grins, he may be smiling at his lucky escape from what lays ahead for the rest of us.   Not everyone will be convinced that She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was influenced by Goodbye Mr Chips but something from the Hilton novel or the MGM movie lodged in the mind of John Ford.  Six years after he completed She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Ford directed the much inferior The Long Gray Line.  This movie had Tyrone Power play an athletic instructor who spent thirty years at West Point.  The film is not an accomplished effort.  The poetry of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is replaced by sentimentality.  For Vince Gilligan and John Ford the themes of Goodbye Mr Chips resonate more when some distance is maintained between their own ambitions and the intentions of James Hilton.

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Both Ford and Hilton used their work to capture what they thought were national virtues.  For Ford there was American self-reliance and strength.  The characters of Hilton are stoical, tolerant and have impeccable manners.  Both men may have romanticised their homelands but Ford needed his fantasised alternative Ireland to keep his demons at bay, and Hilton left for America to make money.  Hilton became an American citizen in 1948.  He was born in Leigh in Lancashire.  The ground of the local Rugby League team is called Hilton Park but that is a coincidence.

In Breaking Bad, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Goodbye Mr Chips violence is important to all three stories.  The least violence is in the Western.  Captain Nathan Brittles has to prevent a war, and whilst the liberal attitude should be applauded there is still action that holds the movie together.  The writers on Breaking Bad are unabashed about adding corpses.  We lose count.  In Goodbye Mr Chips the only action occurs on a mountain when Chips attempts a rescue attempt.  In the movie Greer Garson does not need to be rescued.  In the book Chips breaks his ankle and Kathleen rescues her rescuer.  The main violence in Goodbye Mr Chips is elsewhere.  The boys take their knowledge of Greek and Latin to the first world war, and the story is punctuated by news of ex-pupils that have been lost in battle.   Chips may have English reserve.  Its military have no such inhibitions.  The clash between Chips and an Army officer is momentary but it hints that Hilton understood some of the weaknesses of British society.  Ford agonises about the hypocrisy of authority.  Gilligan and his writing team dig into the flaws of all their characters.  In that sense those in power are offered a form of excuse.  They are no worse nor better than the rest of us.

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The life of Mr Chips has been described as mediocre but this is incorrect.  There are occasions when his self-esteem suffers but Chips is an educated man working with the educated.  He meets an attractive woman half his age who loves him, and his career finishes well.  If his life is sad, it is because he forgets to chase the promise that might be in the sky.  There is an early scene where an anxious Chips fails to notice the giant air balloon that has excited the schoolboys.   That other existential hero Mary Poppins insisted that the kite in the sky had to be followed.  The lady could be relied on but, of course, she was unaware of what would happen to Walter White.

Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK AND AMERICAN FASCISM

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‘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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.