Imagine a woman in the mid 1800s crossing North America by wagon train. Now imagine her amazement if she was to travel a similar distance today by jet. Multiple blessings of gratitude would spill from her lips. I tried to keep this in mind recently when I was cramped into a small seat, grazing shoulders with my neighbor, not quite sure where to place my legs and basically confined to that place for six hours.
Still, the trip was long. I was not disciplined enough to focus on work or even to concentrate on the current book I am enjoying reading. American Airlines, aware that a benumbed clientele makes for a successful flight, provided each passenger with a personal entertainment device that had more movies available than I have ever seen on an international flight let alone a domestic one.
My flight was long enough for me to watch a personally constructed double feature. My first choice was a relatively recent movie that a friend had recommended, The Intern, starring Robert de Niro and Anne Hathaway. After that, when there were still a few hours left to the trip, I pulled up the classic from 1942, Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. My interest in Casablanca, which I last saw many years ago, was sparked by references to it in a wonderful book I just read, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. The book highlighted certain details from the movie. (I include this completely irrelevant information only because I know many of you are voracious readers and I do recommend this book.)
Seeing the two movies one after the other inevitably led to comparison. I particularly want to focus on the male leading men. I don’t know how old Rick, Humphrey Bogart’s character is supposed to be, but my guess is that if you showed the movie to college students today, most of them would guess that he is older than the audience thought him to be in 1942. His face is mature; his bearing solid.
The Intern reiterates that Robert de Niro is playing a seventy-year-old character. His face, too, is mature and his bearing solid. To the amazement of his younger male colleagues, he not only wears a suit and tie to work, but—prepare to be shocked—he shaves each and every day including on weekends.
The contrast to the younger men in the movie could not be greater. They are soft and cuddly looking. Not only are most of them not clean-shaven but their hair is not even groomed. They probably don’t know how to fasten a tie and might not even own one. While not the main point of the movie during the course of events, as they grow to respect and admire Mr. de Niro’s character, some of them begin to model his physical appearance. Nevertheless, before that happens, they represent the desired look for their generation. With the exception of military men, the rugged, strong, manly look is not common. Neither, is the rugged, strong, dependable man. The popular phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ in and of itself suggests that being manly is problematic.
Casablanca was made at a time when the Allies’ success in World War II was uncertain. At its conclusion, Humphrey Bogart says, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Stopping the Nazi threat to civilization took priority over personal ambition, love and emotion.
There are young men today, many in the military, who do live for noble ideals greater than their personal feelings and fulfillment. They are not the young men popularized today on Youtube, Netflix or in movies. Humphrey Bogart portrayed a flawed character, not a saint. In that way he honestly represented a generation of young men from the 1940s, warts and all, to whom we owe a great debt. The culture may not present that type of man as a role model, but as even one of today’s movie shows, that doesn’t mean that young men (and women) today don’t crave exactly those examples.