The Johnson Years
Films of the era reflect shattered idealism, escalating violence
by Ellen Moorhouse
William Holden leads a band of grizzled outlaws in Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 masterpiece The Wild Bunch, a film about the changing values of the American West.
1968. What a year in American politics exactly four decades ago. It makes the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama dustup look like small potatoes compared to the upheavals in the last year of Lyndon Johnson’s tenure as U.S. president.
Yet, there are many contemporary connections to those times. Critic, author and lecturer Kevin Courrier will put these issues in perspective, using the prism of film, in his second of an eight-lecture series called Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.
On Saturday, May 31 (2008), at 10:30 a.m., Courrier will look at the Johnson years and the films that were made during those turbulent times, including Bullitt (1968), and The Wild Bunch (1969), which will be screened at The Revue, Wednesday and Thursday, June 4 and 5.
“One of the things I want to look at in this particular lecture is how the American hero in the Johnson era starts to appear as a loner, an idealist who is lost,” says Courrier, who last month discussed Kennedy’s New Frontier.
Ironically, even Johnson, the liberal Texas Democrat who probably did more for civil rights than any other president since Abraham Lincoln, became a creature in the haunted house of his own failed ideals.
The Vietnam War destroyed his presidency. “He became the lightning rod for everything that people felt was tearing the country apart, not realizing that what was tearing the country apart was tearing him apart, too,” says Courrier. “It’s not surprising he decided not to run at
all for his second term.”
Consider those times. Eugene McCarthy in late 1967 is given the go-ahead to contest the Democratic presidential nomination. In January, 1968, the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese challenges American illusions of possible victory. In March, 1968, Bobby Kennedy, still tormented by his brother Jack’s death five years earlier, announces he is entering the Democratic primaries to oppose the war, derailing McCarthy’s candidacy.
In the 82 days following Bobby’s announcement, Johnson opts out of seeking a second term, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are assassinated, and American cities erupt in the worst violence on American soil since the Civil War, according to an article in the June Vanity Fair on Kennedy’s decision to contest the presidential nomination.
The growing culture of violence that’s portrayed in films is another issue Courrier will discuss. Cinematic violence today, with the power of special effects, is entertainment. In contrast, directors of Johnson-era fi lms bring ambivalence to the violence they portray.
In the film Bullitt, the renegade detective, played by Steve McQueen, fears that the constant violence he encounters is turning him into a zombie. “The crisis of the movie is the fact that he’s getting to the point that he doesn’t feel anything for what he’s doing any more,” says Courrier. “For me, it’s related to the Johnson era when people were starting to become concerned that they were becoming inured to the violence they saw on TV.”
In his lecture series, Courrier will look at eight U.S. presidencies, and fi lms that reflect the ethos of each period. He will present one lecture a month, ending with George W. Bush in November.
His look at the Kennedy era last month included news clips of the assassination in Dallas, and offered a riveting retrospective, both cinematic and political, of those times. As Toronto Star film critic Philip Marchand observed after seeing Courrier’s presentation: “Given the increasingly surreal race between Clinton and Obama, these talks have never been more relevant.”
For more information about the series, visit revuecinema.ca. Regular Revue pricing will apply to the lecture series.