by Stephen Klugewicz
I avoided titling this piece, “Top Eight 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. The films are listed in alphabetical order.
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. [SPOILER ALERT] 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! King David and St. Peter, call your offices!
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. [SPOILER ALERT] 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.
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. [SPOILER ALERT] 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.
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. [SPOILER ALERT] 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 on TIC.
We are told that all racism is the same and that all racists are equally evil. But clannishness is ingrained in human nature and is not inconsistent with God’s injunction to love all men as brothers. Even when clannishness descends into racism, there is hope, as Gran Torino shows us. Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a retired auto worker whose working-class Detroit neighborhood, once exclusively white, is now being populated by Asian immigrants, particularly the Hmong. The Polish Kowalski resents the ethnic transformation of his world and focuses much of his anger on the extended Hmong family that lives next door. They become the frequent targets of his racial slurs. But Kowalski is shown to be unbiased in the expression of his racism, as he interacts with everyone in his life, including his Irish buddy and his Italian barber, through the prism of race. He insults his friends with stereotypical ethnic jokes even more freely than he does his Asian neighbors.
Kowalski soon comes to see in the clannishness and closeness of his Hmong neighbors the same values that he holds dear and which his own children, who treat the aging Kowalski as an irrelevant burden, have lost. “I got more in common with these gooks than I do with my own spoiled-rotten family,” Kowalski finally realizes. [SPOILER ALERT] Befriending the son and daughter of the family, Korean War veteran Kowalski defends the family against a violent Hmong gang and ultimately gives his life to protect his new friends, whom he has come to recognize, despite superficial ethnic differences, as his brother and sister in Christ.
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.
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. [SPOILER ALERT] 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.
William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a reformed gunman and a struggling widower in the Old West who tries to eke out a living as a pig farmer. With that venture failing, he teams up with an old friend, Ned (Morgan Freeman), to earn a $1,000 bounty offered by a group of prostitutes, who are determined to exact revenge on a cowboy who disfigured one of them in a bout of rage. In hunting the cowboy Munny runs up against the corrupt sheriff of Big Whiskey, Little Bill (Gene Hackman) and another mercenary seeking the bounty, English Bob (Richard Harris). The movie illustrates the corrupting and de-humanizing effects of money and the great truth that though there is black and white in the world, all people, as sinners, are some shade of gray. “I guess he had it coming,” a young cowboy who has joined up with Munny muses as justification for their killing of a man. “We’ve all got it coming, kid,” Munny responds.
Dr. Stephen Klugewicz is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and president of Franklin’s Opus, which educates teachers across the country about history and the principles of the American republic. Previously, Dr. Klugewicz served as headmaster of Regina Luminis Academy, as director of education at the National Constitution Center and at the Bill of Rights Institute, and as executive director of the Collegiate Network, the Robert and Marie Hansen Foundation, and Generation Life. He is also the co-editor of History, on Proper Principles: Essays in Honor of Forrest McDonald, and a frequent contributor to various online journals.