Friday, January 26, 2018

Trooper Hook (1957) and Jungle Fever (1991)

** spoilers below, especially for Trooper Hook **

Some time ago I was in a store and flipped through 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, by David Gelernter.  His distinction between now and then (pre-1960?) stays with me: then, Americans respected authority, not just the power to punish but the words of those in authority.  And we looked forward with hope, rather than backward with regret.

Snipes and Sciorra defying friends, Hollywood, the IRS
Trooper Hook (1957) is a minor-key cavalry Western, from a story by Jack Schaefer (author of the novels Shane and Monte Walsh), and directed by Charles Marquis Warren, the Western specialist who drove Gunsmoke, Rawhide and The Virginian.  Joel McCrea plays a good man at a dirty job, defending the frontier against the Apache, who respectfully call him "Face of Stone."  McCrea's character has been hardened, too, by the Civil War.  The character's name (Clovis Hook) playfully evokes the devil.

In this journey-Western, Hook escorts Cora Sutliff (Barbara Stanwyck) to her husband, after her captivity as squaw of Apache chief Nanchez.  Hook defends Cora against bigotry, intensified by the presence of her mixed son.  The film is politically correct for the day; likable Earl Holliman plays a cowboy in love with a half-Latina.  Of course, the film assumes Cora wants to return to her husband (John Dehner).

Fred Sutliff is built into a villain for rejecting the would-be stepson, leading to deus ex machina, with both he and Nanchez falling to gunplay, leaving Hook to marry Cora.  Fred's feelings are actually understandable, given he's only just learned of the boy's existence.  By pretending otherwise, the movie winks at audiences: the parable of tolerance is half-sincere.  Despite such flaws, the film glows with the optimism and faith of postwar Americans.

We have reason to exaggerate our differences from those of mid-century.  Consider supporting character Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews): eager to protect newfound wealth, he goes to pieces as Nanchez and braves bear down on the party.  After failing to bribe Cora into trading the son for peace, Travers tries to defect, hurting his chances by promising Nanchez "all the whiskey you can drink" (the Indian shoots him).  Travers is comparable to many white people today, so eager to make their way accusing each other of racism.

Until recently, films of interracial romance tended to be like Trooper Hook, comfortably displaced into the past (The Searchers, Far From Heaven) or the future (Supernova, The Time Machine).  A noted exception: Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991).  Though tougher-minded than Trooper Hook, it's become vaguely innocent.

The film is set in a hyper-ethnic New York City: Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra play, respectively, characters from Harlem and Bensonhurst.  Compare 2018, where blended couples are relatively common -- not only in cosmopolitan cities -- even as we criminalize the phrase "jungle fever."  Humans need tribal identities and the contingent territory, but in an integrating society, words, fashion and other customs serve as territory, therefore disputed.

The simple morality of Trooper Hook is long replaced by turf battles and relativism.  Spike Lee plays a teacher, an implicit capitulation.  Lee's films defy the American assumption of a better future: in Do the Right Thing he wears the jersey of a team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, that ceased to exist the year Trooper Hook was released.

The 1950s weren't as sanitized as sometimes assumed, and Trooper Hook includes a modest version of Quint's shark monologue in Jaws.  Hook tells Cora about surviving for weeks in Andersonville prison, pretending to be a dog so a canine-loving (and mad) prisoner would share food.  The analogue in Jungle Fever isn't a recounting, it's the apocalyptic set piece at the so-called Taj Mahal.  Stevie Wonder is ironic soundtrack as we tour a rambling crack den, where the Snipes character looks for his addict brother (Samuel L. Jackson).  In Trooper Hook, hell is endured for a good cause, on the way to eventual reward; in Jungle Fever, the good cause is perpetually half-in-ruins, and hell a lifestyle, with plummeting returns.

in memory of Jon Bellis, LCSW (1952-2015), 
who lived with optimism and faith, and inspired the same. 

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