Movies, Morality, and Men: Gifts From Hollywood

From heroes to villains, fathers to loners, film characters can show us different models of manhood
April 27, 2021 Updated: April 29, 2021

Grab a bowl of popcorn and your favorite beverage, hit the sofa, dim the lights, and flick on the television screen.

We’re off to the movies. Specifically, movies about men.

Over the past century, Hollywood has produced thousands of cinematic portraits of men and manhood. They’ve stepped onto the big screen as good guys and bad, rich and poor, heroes and villains. For every famous star like Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Russell Crowe, and Matt Damon, directors and writers have brought us a hundred other lesser-known actors whose characters provide models of manhood.

“Casablanca,” for example, gives us Rick, the heart-broken cynic; his loyal friend and musician, Sam; the idealistic freedom fighter, Victor; the corrupt but affable policeman Louis; and other men who run the gamut from hero to bum.

And that’s just one movie.

Given that my task is to examine some ways in which Hollywood depicts men and manhood, and given there are several hundred movies from which I might choose, I feel like a man assigned to whittle a fork from an oak tree with a pocket knife. After some thought, I’ve opted to select movies featuring opposites: loners versus fathers and zeros versus heroes.

casablanca
Rick (Humphrey Bogart, L) and Sam (Dooley Wilson), in “Casablanca.” (Warner Bros.)

Loners

Many of us—including me—relish movies that pit one man against a mob of opponents. In “Rambo,” for example, Sylvester Stallone plays a former Special Forces soldier who battles a town’s police department. “Cool Hand Luke” brings us Paul Newman as a convict who refuses to buckle to the guards and the warden of a southern prison. The “Dirty Harry” movies feature Clint Eastwood as an outlier cop, sickened by the pussyfooting of the law and prepared to enforce his own brand of justice on the bad guys.

One of my favorites in this genre is 1962’s “Lonely Are the Brave.” Kirk Douglas plays drifter and modern-day cowboy Jack Burns, who gets himself arrested to help a friend break out of a local jail. When the friend refuses his offer of assistance, Burns escapes and spends the rest of the movie with his horse, Whiskey, on the run from the law.

Burns represents not only one of the last of the Western cowboys, but also an individual fighting the machine of modern society. The lawmen use cars, a helicopter, and radios to track this renegade cowboy, while Burns combats them with his knowledge of the terrain and his fierce desire to evade capture and return to his solitary life.

While we might not want to entertain a Dirty Harry or a Rambo at our backyard barbecue—Burns might make the grade—we admire characters such as these for their grit and their courage in tackling tough tasks on their own.

clint eastwood and don siegel
Actor-directors Clint Eastwood (L) and Don Siegel talking on the set of “Dirty Harry,” circa 1971. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fathers

Opposite the loners are the men who love their wives and children, and who engage with their relatives and friends. Jimmy Stewart as a husband and father in the movies “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Shenandoah,” Liam Neeson in “Taken,” and James Earl Jones as the voice of Mufasa in “The Lion King” are only a few examples of fathers loving and protecting their families.

In “Cinderella Man” Russell Crowe plays James J. Braddock, a Depression-era heavyweight boxer who battles his way to the title of champion. This film shows Braddock not only training and defeating various opponents in the ring, but also as a father who loves his wife and children so much that he is literally fighting for them and to better their impoverished circumstances.

“Cinderella Man” teaches several lessons in fatherhood. When asked by a reporter why he is fighting, Braddock replies, “Milk,” meaning sustenance for his kids. When one of his adolescent sons steals a salami from a butcher out of fear the family won’t have enough to eat, Braddock makes him return the stolen meat; tells him, “We don’t steal;” and then comforts him when he understands the boy’s terror at being farmed out to relatives. At one point, circumstances force Braddock to beg for money from sports reporters and officials to have the electricity turned on in his apartment in order to have his children return home again.

Braddock puts his family above his own pride, makes sacrifices on their behalf, and serves his children as an example of what it means to be a man.

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Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Karolyn Grimes in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Public domain)

Zeroes

Those of us who enjoy movies can all think of male characters we hope to avoid imitating. Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” or Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather” films immediately come to my mind as examples here. Gollum murders a relative for the ring and finds himself a slave to its magical powers. Fredo, a womanizer and a weak man, joins a plot to have his brother Michael assassinated—none of us wants to go that route.

In “Saving Private Ryan,” we meet Corporal Upham, a clerk and a translator ordered to join a combat patrol to go behind the Nazi German lines and retrieve a certain Private Ryan, whose three brothers have either just died during the Normandy invasion or while fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. Upham goes on the patrol because he is fluent in German, and though an idealist as a soldier, his lack of experience in combat and his cowardice result in the death of two American soldiers. Near the end of the movie, he kills a German soldier in cold blood—a soldier whose release from execution Upham had earlier sought. Weirdly, he then lets some other Germans go free.

Upham is the antithesis of manhood, a soldier who mouths slogans about heroism but is unwilling or unable to make the necessary sacrifices required by combat.

Heroes

When we think of heroes in the movies—men who rise above dire circumstances or face terrible odds—we may find ourselves remembering films about war. Certainly, many of those movies bring clear examples of heroism to the screen. In “Braveheart,” for example, Mel Gibson plays William Wallace, who leads the Scots into battle against the English and defends the cause of his native land on and off the battlefield. Gibson also starred in “The Patriot,” playing Benjamin Martin, a South Carolinian who wreaks havoc on British forces in South Carolina during the American Revolution.

We may also admire men who stand alone on the side of right. Emblematic of these brave souls is Marshall Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, in the Western film “High Noon.” The newly married Kane, who is on the verge of retirement from his office as sheriff, must first face an outlaw gang who intend to kill him. The townspeople refuse to help him, leaving Kane to fight alone. With the help of his wife, he kills the outlaws, contemptuously throws his badge into the street, boards a train, and leaves town.

One such movie that touches on our age of cancel culture is “A Man for All Seasons.” England’s King Henry VIII, played by Robert Shaw, has broken with Rome over his marriage to Anne Boleyn and will soon launch his own version of cancel culture—declaring himself the head of the Church of England, destroying religious art, disbanding monasteries and selling off their lands, and changing the liturgy.

Opposing this break with the pope is Henry’s former Lord Chancellor, the writer and intellectual Sir Thomas More, portrayed by Paul Scofield. Though many of his friends go along with the king—seeking either advancement at court or fearing for their lives—More refuses to accept the legitimacy of Henry’s marriage to Anne. Eventually, More is imprisoned in the Tower of London, tried for treason, and executed. Later, the Catholic Church would declare him a martyr and a saint.

“A Man for All Seasons” reminds us of the importance of standing for principle and truth when faced by corruption and deceit.

Big Screen Lessons

If we pay attention, then, movies can teach us how to grow in manly virtue. What is “Groundhog Day” if not an exhortation to do the best we can in the life given us? What is the romantic comedy “Kate and Leopold” if not a primer on how a gentleman should treat a lady?

And actors playing certain parts serve as role models for the young. My 4-year-old grandson, for example, is at present a big fan of John Wayne. His family watches a good number of old movies, and the little guy has seen “The Duke” in several westerns, such as “The Alamo” and “The Longest Day.” Just as he did when he was alive, Wayne brings a presence to the screen that captures his audience, even the youngest among us.

Will the characters portrayed by Wayne always be heroes to my grandson? Perhaps not. But here’s a kid exposed at an early age to some of the virtues Wayne embodied—defending the weak, fighting for justice, and pursuing the right path in spite of the cost.

Because of our modern technology, we have a treasure trove of such films available to us. When we watch these movies—the good ones—we are not only teaching virtue to our young people, but we are also reinforcing our own sense of rectitude and integrity.

The films are there. All we have to do is watch them and learn.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” as well as two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.