Sunday, 16 January 2011

Old Movies

JG got a set of old war movies as a Christmas gift and last night we watched one of them - Twelve O’Clock High. To refresh your memory - this is a story about the first group of American daylight bombers (1942) to attack Europe. Starring Gregory Peck, it tells of his efforts to turn around a squadron of these bombers plagued by 'bad luck' and shows how they became an effective unit. Peck's character challenges the air crews to 'do their duty' to 'become adult and take responsibility', and in so doing he leads them until he is overcome by the weight of his responsibility and cannot function. He becomes catatonic but when the squadron comes back successfully from the mission he could not lead, conducted instead by the worst of the 'slackers', he recovers.

It got me thinking, this portrayal of dedication and duty. For one thing, we don't see a lot of this type of film any more. The Vietnam war produced a genre about how the men in uniform were broken (Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter) and how they healed (I've forgotten the title of the film I want to cite here - it had Jane Fonda as a soldier's wife who encounters a maimed vet in an army hospital). Later we had 'operations' films from places like Afghanistan that are mainly concerned with the futility of heroic belief and action. The closest modern film to this 'dedicated hero' type that I can remember is not a war film but rather The Lord of the Rings trilogy that was, in the main, written during WWII.

This line of thought intersected another one, the product of several articles this weekend about a Yale professor's take on mothering - she describes her attempts to make her daughters excel in all they undertake. One response to her book has been a heartfelt howl from the proponents of nurturing (Western style?) parenting. The 'Dragon mother' has been accused of child abuse by several voices.

At close to seventy I obviously belong to the 'duty and rigour' side of the argument. I am not even a baby boomer, born as I was in 1942 while my father bobbed around in the North Atlantic in a corvette fighting submarines. I was brought up to believe that you keep your promises regardless of the cost to yourself, you do your duty no matter how unpalatable, you put the welfare of your community ahead of your own. I do not see much evidence that public figures  follow these values much of the time these days. Sarah Palin, for example, lost all credibility for me when she quit as Governor of Alaska part way through her term. The parenting style of the aptly christened 'helicopter parents' is practically incomprehensible from my cobweb draped seat in the bleachers.

Some remnants of the 'duty' morality, mind you, also strike me as weird. A politician in the USA can be and is pounded into jelly for personal infidelity but can get away with huge amounts of patronage. Serial monogamy is not even questioned - Liz Taylor's seven (I think) marriages are regarded with indulgence. A person whose first question is 'what's in it for me?' is given a straight-forward answer. I have no patience, either, for people who squawk about having to pay taxes to provide community services and aids for disadvantaged kids.

I should be stuffed and placed with the other dinosaurs, perhaps.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that in the world I see now the hand has moved from the rigid morals of Twelve O’Clock High to the deep-sixing, by the 'Me' generation and those following, of many values and customs that make our society liveable. Courtesy. Courage. Responsibility for our own actions. Principles. And a little bit of putting the other guy first.


  1. I dont remember if I saw that movie: I love Gregory Peck, but never have liked war movies. Where would you place Saving Private Ryan? (also set during WWII, but made more recently.) I think the Jane Fonda film you're referring to was Coming Home with Jon Voight.

    I'll have to look up this Yale prof when I have time now that you've piqued my interest. My husband and I are fairly strict with our children about their responsibilities and community spirit, if we do spoil them a bit materially.

  2. OK, I read it online at the WSJ, but I didn't read any comments. While I don't agree that it's necessary to disparage children or give up your own life in order to hound them, I think the high expectations are good for kids. Based on what she described, my children are utterly lazy bums!

    I have a friend who adopted two Korean children. I can't remember specifically where she took them, but she makes an effort to involve them with the Korean community here, so it was something like that. She told me that the Korean parents looked at her like she had two (or maybe three heads) when she said that she let the children choose their extra curricular activities. That said, her son (age 11) is a model of the Asian stereo-type: extremely self-motivated, the top of his academic classes, and an excellent musician. Her daughter, 8, is average, on par with the other children in her classes.

  3. That's an interesting point you made about LOTR. A tip of the hat to you.

    I have also been reading about the Asian mother. While I don't disagree with the point you are making, I see that gal as being way over the top.

  4. this is a great post. i read that article, and both agree and disagree. I feel like MQ is not self motivated, and I wonder what I can do to have that grow. I also think you have to really believe in that parenting style to make it work. someone who reads about it but doesn't really buy into it whole hog will not be able to make it work, because they will look at the structure but not the love behind it.

    there is way too much me, me, me in our generation. MQ interviewed her grandfather today about his life (for a school project), and I was struck by how few happy memories he has, and how he began working outside the home at the age of SEVEN. He did not have a childhood. He is a man who knows a lot about duty and honor but, frankly, very little about love and joy and affection. What is the balance, I wonder, and how do I help my family achieve it?