E.M. Forster said that, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” — a remark often associated with the contemporaneous British spies Burgess, McLean and Philby. It was also symptomatic of the fact that, in the second third of the last century, what had previously been the most unquestioned of human loyalties after the family was becoming the most questioned. Patriotism’s decline coincided with the greatest period of the American movie industry, so it is not coincidental that many prominent Hollywood figures put other loyalties ahead of loyalty to country in their own lives or that many classic films have as their theme the same conflict of loyalties. In this seven-week course, we will look at seven films on this theme while reading around the subject in the literature of the McCarthy, “Red Scare” period as a way of charting the advance of the now widely-held view in the culture at large of patriotism as contingent on some higher standard of moral or politically “progressive” rectitude.
The course will begin with Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps of 1935 for context. Although the movie takes for granted the pre-war attitude to patriotic duties and the evils of disloyalty to one’s country, Buchan’s First World War-era earnestness about these subjects is leavened by a light-hearted, almost post-modern refusal to take subversion and treachery as seriously as they deserve to be taken. Carol Reed’s The Third Man of 1949 personalizes the question of conflict of loyalties and adds to it a portrait of corruption of government and military authority that was to become characteristic of Hollywood after its brief period, illustrated in films like Pickup on South Street (1953) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), of comparative patriotism. The fashion for “moral equivalence” illustrated by The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965) is succeeded by a straightforward assumption that the real enemy within is our own security apparatus, especially the CIA in Three Days of the Condor of 1975 and the many similar films that came out around the same time. Some hopeful signs of a return to the older, patriotic point of view are evident in Breach of 2007, but the habit of cynicism about American government and the exercise of power is hard to break.