Geoff Pevere: The Issue of Loyalty

The Godfather opened forty years ago this month. On the week that it did, I skipped school and bluffed my way into the restricted movie under age. That’s because my loyalty to movies was infinitely deeper than my loyalty to school.

Coursing through its epic depths, of course, is the very issue of loyalty; is Michael Corleone’s loyalty to his country – he’s a WWII vet – stronger than his loyalty to his family? Or to his fiancé? Later, when he acquires power, the question only becomes more complicated and acute; is his loyalty to preserving power greater than his loyalty to family? Is blood really thicker than power?

I got to thinking about this when CBC Radio – a former employer of mine which once upon a time showed me the door because my loyalties were in question – asked me to do a syndicated commentary on the legacy of Francis Ford Coppola’s impregnably great masterpiece. And it occurred to me that no small part of Michael Corleone’s tragic transformation from spit-and-polish little all-American G.I. to sleek killer-shark head of the Corleone crime family is tied up with the evolution of his sense of loyalty; he defers his love of country to his duty to his father, then transfers his affinity to his father to the preservation of the family interests, then allows family itself to slide to the more abstract – and ultimately deadly – concept of business. While family interests and business interests might seem synonymous, over the course of the first two Godfather movies we watch how in fact they are not. When Michael opts to have his brother Fredo killed, it’s not only because the pathetic Freddy has betrayed the family, it’s because when family is subsumed by business, not even family members are exempt from elimination where business is concerned. By the time he gives the order to have his brother popped, Michael has morphed from good soldier to good son to loyal heir to family man to C.E.O.

One of the most persistent themes in American pop culture is the issue of loyalty: to what larger cause does one defer one’s personal interests, and what does one do when those things contradict? The question is simply a handy one for the creation of powerful drama, which it is, but perhaps inevitable in a culture that has its boots planted so firmly in two constantly competing ideas. To be an American is to accept an idea of a nation so powerful and right that transcends everything – including history – but it also means there ain’t nothing more sacred than individualism. You don’t get paradoxes much richer or more persistent than that – how to be equally loyal to oneself and to one’s country – and it’s been one of the defining jobs of popular culture in American to find ways of reconciling the interests of the lone gunman with the community he serves. It can’t be reconciled, of course, but that’s why the attempt never ends. And why American movies are unimaginable without the challenge. You might even call it their mythic mission: to resolve the unresolvable.

At any rate, as soon as I started thinking this I began seeing the struggle played out in just about everything I watched. In a superb old western called Devil’s Doorway, directed in 1950 by Anthony Mann, Robert Taylor plays a Native veteran of the Civil War, a Congressional Medal honouree, who returns to his ranch only to find that it’s being taken from him by the government to make way for settlers. His struggle thus becomes a crisis of affinities: how can he remain loyal to his country when his country is so fundamentally disloyal to him? When it’s forcing him to fight back – as an Indian – and declare another form of Civil War altogether?

The documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream, made in 2007, is a superbly executed four-hour documentary on the history of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (directed by Peter Bogdanovich), and one of the reasons it’s so long is its interest in the very question of just how a band, any band, can stay together as long as Petty’s – especially in a business where loyalty is so constantly compromised and individualism to persistently promoted. And its answer is this: Petty has put the unity of his band above everything else, and in so doing has developed affinities with certain members – guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench primarily – to whom the band is an idea greater than any of its individual components. While the truth of the Heartbreakers might be more complicated, the message of the movie is powerfully convincing.

I saw The Spy Who Came in From the Cold again recently, and was struck by how it too is a lesson in the sinister machinations of manipulated loyalties. In that movie, as well as John le Carrés career-making 1963 novel, a burned-out alcoholic agent (played indelibly in the film by Richard Burton) agrees to go undercover as a defector to East Germany because his superiors think he’ll be sufficiently convincing as someone who’s lost their sense of loyalty. And he is, but what initially appears to simply be astute strategizing on the part of the agent’s superiors ultimately turns out to be the utmost in morally bankrupt cynicism: they’re exploiting their agent’s apparent lack of loyalty as a way of protecting their own interests, and they’ll betray anyone – including those willing to die for their cause – to protect them.

Not all all finally, I suspect, I watched Viggo Mortensen ride off into the sunset at the end of Ed Harris’s 2008 western Appaloosa the other day. Like all cowboy heroes worth their saddle sores, he had to: he’d done his job as a man with a gun serving the interests of civilisation, and like all such men he’s got to retreat back into the horizon from whence he came when the time comes.

While this is the basic fate of most western heroes – they must leave what they’ve helped protect – it has an added poignancy in Mortensen’s case in Appaloosa because the sacrifice he’s made: breaking the law to kill the man who stands to ruin the civilizing prospects of his old gunfighter friend (played by Harris himself), Mortensen’s gunman has recognized that his loyalty is greater than law, greater than the town he served, and even greater than the friendship he’s apparently enjoyed for so many years. He’s sacrificing himself to an idea of the future, and that future doesn’t include him. And it can’t, not if it’s going to evolve peacefully.

It’s a question that’s asked everywhere, which may not be surprising this election year in the U.S. but which would be asked anyway because it can’t not be asked. Look how prominently it figures in other contemporary movies too, like Margin Call or The Ides of March 0r Rampart or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. At the heart of these movies beats the question of loyalty: who do you serve and why?  What do you do when you no longer believe? And especially when your gut is telling you something your head doesn’t want to hear?

Don’t expect this issue to go away any time soon. As long as a contradiction this fundamental exists in society itself, popular culture has a duty to try and make it seem functional.

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Geoff Pevere‘s column appears every Friday.

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

2 Responses to “Geoff Pevere: The Issue of Loyalty”

  1. It’s a conundrum, for sure, and one which confronted myself and others in the States during the too-long run of the Vietnamese War. Most gave in and slogged their way through (and most made it out, as damaged as they were). Some didn’t give in at all and suffered either exile (mostly to Canada), jail, or what they would call these days “community service”. Some followed the line but refused to buckle, holding on to ideals as a flag of honor.

    There is a part of the Department of Defense form we had to fill out and sign before being inducted into the military which stated (or states): Has there ever been a time when loyalty to your country has been held in question? (paraphrased, of course) I raised my hand and asked, does that include instances which include family and friends and the enlisted man who headed the session said it means whatever you want it to mean. So I said yes, that when it came to family and friends, they rated far above country. For that I was sentenced to one year and nine months of scrutiny— being followed by G-2 (military intelligence, something I used to laugh at as prime example of an oxymoron), being held up for promotion, having constant background checks instituted, etc.

    I never considered myself a part of a movie, but I could well have been. I am always amazed at how closely the seemingly absurd in movies can parallel real life. Blacklist, anyone?

  2. My father had the experience of being told that his department was going to be outsourced to Boeing some monthes down the road, but not to tell his staff about it. He would still have a job and the company didn’t want the others to leave for new jobs before they were done with them. Dad agonized over this because these people were his friends, as well as, team. They went to the mat for each other. They also did things outside of work together. He would jeopardize his own job if he told them. He also had 5 kids at home to feed.
    So what did he do?
    He told them.
    It took me awhile to understand the lesson learned, but when I did I carried it with me. I was never prouder of my dad. I knew these people too.

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