Right on the Money

Films with conservative themes are more common than their makers might care to admit

Peter Whittle

What makes a “conservative” film? Every so often commentators on the Right have a go at listing movies which they suggest should bring a smile to the faces of those who otherwise feel themselves drowning in a sea of Hollywood liberalism. Would they be films that celebrate the selflessness and bravery of the ordinary fighting man, such as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan? Or that are made on the basis of a not wholly critical approach to the British Empire, such as Zulu? Or which highlight the horrors of life in the Soviet-dominated Eastern bloc, such as The Lives of Others? Or perhaps films which simply underline the importance of a tightknit, stable family unit, such as the recent The Kids are All Right?

OK, that last title was a trick: the family depicted was that of a lesbian couple, played brilliantly by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. But its message was the same as if it had been about Mom, Dad, and a white picket fence. The fact is that values which tend to be considered conservative can come in all sorts of disguises, and from film-makers who would run a million miles from being labelled “conservative” themselves. Spielberg, after all, is one of Hollywood’s totem liberals. Similarly, the British director Stephen Frears would probably class himself as being leftish, yet in The Queen he made a film which not only gave a decent, sympathetic account of the monarch’s behaviour during the dark Diana years, but also helped turn around the fortunes of the institution itself. The same went for The King’s Speech, which, in charting the attempts of George VI to master his speech defect, never once suggested that his hereditary role was anything other than a worthwhile one.

Enoch Powell, I was once told, liked the films of that archetypal Manhattan liberal Woody Allen simply because his movies took theological issues seriously, even when laughing about them. Similarly, the outrage provoked by a particularly shocking or permissive film can obscure a message which would otherwise find favour with a conservative audience. The Exorcist, William Friedkin’s 1973 depiction of the demonic possession of a young girl, caused more controversy than any other horror film before or since, filled as it was with profanity, vomit and spinning heads. It might rightly be considered a classic now, but at the time some (no doubt right-ish) voices proclaimed it yet another marker on the inexorable slide downwards of our civilisation. But not all: many Catholics saw it for what it was, a re-affirmation of the existence of God during an era when such belief was everywhere being undermined by the counterculture. The girl is failed by doctors and psychiatrists who prove hopeless and powerless in their various treatments; the men of God drive the demon out. The proof of the existence of evil as an external force by implication proved the existence also of the ultimate good. The exorcists are the heroes; no wonder the Vatican loved it.      

Certainly, there are some sorts of films which stand out as “right-wing”, if only because the social and moral assumptions which characterise so many others are broadly the same. You can tell an overtly right-wing film simply by the way in which critics fall on it like a pack of dogs; the popular vigilante picture is the perfect example. The late Michael Winner’s Death Wish movies might have been low-grade stuff cinematically, but it was their popularity with justice-starved audiences which made them so dangerous to the bien pensants. Similar reactions greeted Michael Caine’s one-man-fights-back turn in the dank and desperate Harry Brown, as well as one I reviewed in these pages, Law Abiding Citizen. A movie which strikes a strong enough chord with a large enough public-and these films certainly did — will be accused of fascistic manipulation, if that chord is not of the culturally approved sort.  

Harsher jail sentences, patriotism, the importance of family — these are certainly traditionally (but not exclusively) conservative preoccupations. Where it becomes more interesting, perhaps, is in trying to detect in movies the existence of what you might call a more fundamental conservative sensibility. An example of it can be found in the 1995 thriller Se7en (available, as is The Exorcist, on DVD), a film which has grown in stature and is now considered something of a masterpiece. On the face of it, this is pure, almost clichéd genre material: two cops, the jaded detective Somerset and the young and eager Mills, attempt to find a serial killer who is working his way through the seven deadly sins. Directed by David Fincher, the movie is clever and unusual for our time in that it manages not to show any of the murders, only the aftermaths. Set in an unnamed modern metropolis, it is stylistically somewhere between film noir and hell on earth. It is relentlessly, grindingly grim, and despite the absence of gratuitous violence, a strong stomach is needed for some scenes. It is a hugely accomplished film.

But what makes it special is that at its centre there is a conflict: Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has a knowledge and belief in the classics — Dante’s Purgatory, Chaucer, Thomas Aquinas — which equips him with the ability to understand and get to grips with the killer and his crimes, whereas the arrogant and childlike dismissal of such knowledge by Mills (Brad Pitt) leads to a terrible fate for at least two of the main characters. Somerset is stillness itself; Mills is full of that random, uncomprehending “energy” which resents all restraint and priority. One is the old way, the other the new; but having lost its moorings, the new has nowhere to go other than towards its own destruction.  

There are other factors in Se7en which make it interesting for a conservative, not least the fact that, despite having an admittedly warped sense of religiosity, the killer is not explained away in terms of anything as banal as his childhood or background. He sees sin all around him but so, too, does the pessimistic yet still methodical Somerset. “Ernest Hemingway once said ‘the world is a fine place, and worth fighting for’,” he intones wearily in voiceover at the end of the film. “I agree with the second part.” There is many a conservative, I imagine, who would second that.

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