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THE MOVIES : A REEL EDUCATOR : Morals, Love, History: We’ve Learned Much of What We Know in the Movie Theater

Most of us who finished grammar school have at least a little knowledge of history. We know about when the Revolutionary War was fought, between what sides, and what for; and we’ve learned about when the Civil War was fought, between what sides, and what for.

But most of us got our history from the movies. Perhaps we got some solid facts from history books, but our sense of history--the images, how we feel about it--came from what in my childhood was still called “the silver screen.”

The opening of the American West is one of the great episodes in history. We know almost nothing about it except what we learned at the movies. In 1923, “The Covered Wagon” told the story through the adventures of settlers crossing the prairies in their wagons. It was one of the first Western epics that created the legend of the big sky and the endless land. It was the kind of movie in which, sooner or later, the hero would stand on a knoll above a pristine valley with his leading lady and say, “Someday, Melinda, there’s going to be a city out there.”

Almost everything we know about the Indian wars, alas, comes from the movies. John Wayne and Errol Flynn decimated the Apaches and the Sioux to make the West safe for womenfolk; a dozen times we have seen Custer and his cavalry die at Little Big Horn, to the last man, massacred by the Sioux.

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Few of us know much about the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, except that he was 6 feet, 3 inches tall (as played by John Wayne), and when he captured Susan Hayward as a prize of conquest, he said things like “Yore beautiful in yore wrath.”

World War I was much fresher in our minds when I was a child than World War II is in the minds of today’s schoolchildren. My early attitudes toward war and men’s honor was shaped by “The Big Parade"(1925), with John Gilbert as an American soldier in France. I remember how impatient I was with the French girl, Renee Adoree, when she clung to him, weeping, as he marched off down a French road with his company to meet the Boche. John Gilbert was wounded and lost a leg, but to me that was simply the price one paid for being a brave American male.

I will never forget “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930). Its poignant portrayal of a young German soldier (Lew Ayres) changed my attitude toward war altogether. I saw that it was stupid and tragic. I really believed that “All Quiet” would eliminate war forever. Then, a few years later, I was marching off myself, though not nearly as bravely as John Gilbert.

The movies also taught us all we needed to know about love and sex. Actually, I went through adolescence during the days of the Hays Office code, so I didn’t necessarily realize that there was any connection between the two. Even husband and wife couldn’t be shown in bed unless they were fully clothed and the beds were twins. Open-mouth kissing was taboo. But when Cary Grant gave Rosalind Russell one of the discreet kisses allowed in those days, she reeled and gasped for air, her eyes crossed and she staggered back and collapsed in a chair. I suppose that we might have suspected something from that.

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All we know about the kings and queens of Europe we got from the movies. Catherine the Great, Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, Rasputin and the Empress, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah, Moses, Jesus and even God. How vivid they all seem in memory from their faces on the screen. (I don’t remember that we ever actually saw the face of God, but we sensed his presence in such phenomena as thunder, miracles and the sudden looks of awe that came into mortal heroes’ eyes.)

Our manners and morals came not from our teachers and parents but from the movies. Paul Henreid taught us how to light two cigarettes on a match. Bette Davis taught us how to smoke. I mean, really smoke! Clark Gable taught us how to be masterful. David Niven taught us how to be witty and fey. Errol Flynn taught us how to be debonair, Cary Grant how to be suave. Styles among young women changed with the stars: Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, June Allyson, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe. The movies taught us how to dress, how to drink, how to talk.

The movies taught us our political and moral attitudes. We believed in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and we believed that even such superstars as Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert could fall in love on a cross-country jaunt in cheap motels without once engaging in premarital sex.

Ah, those walls of Jericho!


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