Saturday, July 4, 2009

George Bailey didn't sit on the draft board

I've been thinking about the classic film, It's a Wonderful Life. You will recall that the movie was about an honest man, George Bailey, who gave up his dreams of world travel and wealth and fame to run his late father's honest "Bailey's Building and Loans" business and to save that business from the clutches of the richest man in that small town, Mr. Potter.

The movie chronicles George's life, from his youth in the 1920s, to his marriage and his takeover of the building and loans business during the Great Depression, and through World War II. During World War II, George does good, helping, if memory serves, to ensure proper preservation of materials important for the war effort. (It's been a while since I've seen the movie, so I stand to be corrected on the specifics.)

Meanwhile, the evil Mr. Potter is head of the town's draft board. Of course he is. He's a bad man, and making people go to war involuntarily is an unsavory thing to do.

My question, though, is, isn't this a bit too convenient? It doesn't seem to me that George Bailey's character objects to the idea of drafting people, and the film's audience, probably, does not so object either, or is not expected to object. Yet, drafting people is unsavory, something that smells bad even if it's necessary, and why not let bad people do it?

Capra was obviously making use of a common literary trope--bad people do the necessary but unsavory things while good people do the necessary and savory things.

We see this a lot. For example, in the movie Bonnie and Clyde, with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, there is a scene where the protagonist--glamorous bank robbers who scrupulously attack only bankers and avoid stealing from honest, hardworking farmers--take a man (played by Gene Wilder) out drinking and carousing. They eventually find out that his occupation is that of an undertaker, and when they do, they abandon him on the road, far from his home. The moral, as I take it, is that the man who profits off other people's deaths is to be loathed. (Still, his services are necessary.)

I suppose such tropes are okay when it comes to entertainment. Maybe they're are even necessary. But is there not some room to acknowledge moral ambiguity?

1 comment:

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Well, there needs to be, and that actually is somewhat thought-provoking.

If you put too much off onto people who are willing to do the unpleasant stuff, and let them take care of it so you don't have to deal with it, then the argument can be made that you don't have a leg to stand on if you want to complain about the scope of what they take on or how they go about it. "You can't handle the truth" and so forth. So it's probably best if we don't stigmatize things like embalming bodies too much; or even drafting, if we should ever reach consensus that we need to start doing that again.