EVEN IN A cinematic culture where the studio that Sam Goldwyn co-founded thought a no-laugh-track version of Hogan's Heroes (Hart's War, with Bruce Willis in the Bob Crane role) was worth an $80 million investment, the triumphant return of the message movie stands out as a particularly puzzling development.
Throughout the 1990S, while high-minded critics carped about mindless action films, a potent counterforce was brewing, with the result that we suffered a raft of socially conscious pictures arguing against corporate polluters (Erin Brockovich), police misconduct (The Hurricane), the war on drugs (Traffic), the power of big tobacco (The Insider), the indiscriminate rounding up of Arabs (The Siege), and more. The trend may have reached its apotheosis this February, when John 2, a sermon on national health care whose very tide announces its dedication to the common man, took in a healthy $40 million in its first two weeks.
Although Hollywood has always believed the best way to address any social ill is to make an all-star movie about it, the message movie has had a rough ride through most of film history. The oft-quoted Goldwynism, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union," should have been the last word on the matter, but that hasn't stopped producers from trying.
The modern message movie may be traced to 1947, when Ella Kazan (who would go on to direct such issue films as Pinky, A Face in the Crowd, Wild River, and On the Waterfront) came out with Gentlemen's a lecture on the dangers of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Edward Dmytryk directed his own anti-and-Semitism movie, Crossfire. This convergence of two films on the same theme was propitious, and it ushered in a brave new era of didactic pictures such as Home of the Brave (racism in the armed services) and Boomerang! (rush to judgment).
Despite Sam Goldwyn's warning, the message movie flourished after World War II. The once highly regarded producer/director Stanley Kramer served up more homilies than Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, including The Defiant Ones (moral: we're all brothers under the skin), On the Beach (nuclear war is wrong), Inherit the Wind (creationism is silly), and Home of the Brave (we're all brothers, but you can cure a black man of paralysis with racial slurs). Richard Brooks treated the "juvenile delinquency" crisis of the '50s in The Blackboard Jungle and is credited by boyish critic Leonard Maltin with forcing Hollywood to "grow up." Nicholas Ray not only blew the...