‘I do not think one can love any film deeply if one does not deeply love the films of Howard Hawks.’ This dogma—to be found in a review of The Big Sky in Cahiers du Cinema 29 (1953)—has rightly infuriated many film-viewers. Their fury, in turn, has provoked the Cahiers critics into reiterating their adulation of Hawks time and time again. Despite the reasoned and corrective interventions of Andre Bazin (Cahiers 44 and 70), an attitude to Hawks—and to Hitchcock—has become a touchstone of critical commitment. In England, the new magazine Movie polemically flew Hawks and Hitchcock at its masthead; in America, Hitchcocko-Hawksianism has been endorsed by the authority of Andrew Sarris in Film Culture. These beach-heads of ‘Parisian’ criticism have undoubtedly invigorated local discussion of cinema. Always, Hawks has been at the centre of controversy.
Why Hawks? Rather than, say, Borzage or Vidor? One obvious reason is that Hawks is such a convincing demonstration of the ‘politique des auteurs’: the theory, which underlies all Cahiers criticism, that the director of a film is its author, that he gives it any distinctive quality it has and that his personal themes and style can be traced throughout his career, so that the corpus of his work can be discussed as a whole. This is, of course, a quite normal critical procedure when applied to the other arts. Its acceptance for cinema—or rather for American cinema—has been delayed so long mainly because of the conviction of most critics that the industrial conditions of work in Hollywood have necessarily imposed an undifferentiated anonymity on every American director. This has not been the case. Most people are now aware how Hitchcock has consistently made films which, while recognizably ‘Hollywood’, are equally recognizably ‘Hitchcock’. Hawks, during his long career (his first film, The Road to Glory, was made in 1926) has directed Westerns, gangsters, war-films, farces, musical comedies, science fiction, even a film about ancient Egypt. Yet all of them are recognizably made by Hawks; they exhibit the same preoccupations, the same recurring situations, the same visual style and tempo. It is possible to extract from Hawks’s films a whole Hawksian ideology.
Hawks is, first and foremost, a director of adventure films. He subordinates the Western, for instance, to the adventure film at large. In this he is unlike, say, John Ford, for whom the Western as such is paramount, because it expresses his fervent interest in pioneer American history. Hawks has little historical sense. His ideology is primitive and anachronistic. For Hawks the highest human emotion is the camaraderie of the exclusive, self-sufficient, all-male group. Hawks’s heroes are cattlemen, marlin-fishermen, racing-drivers, pilots, big-game hunters, etc., habituated to danger and living apart from society, actually cut off from it physically by dense forest, sea, snow or desert. Their aerodromes are fog-bound; the radio has cracked up; the next mail-coach or packet-boat doesn’t leave for a week. The elite group strictly preserves its exclusivity. It is necessary to pass a test of ability and courage to win admittance. The group’s only internal tensions come when one member lets the others down (the drunk deputy in Rio Bravo, the panicky pilot in Only Angels Have Wings) and must redeem himself by some act of exceptional bravery, or occasionally when too much ‘individualism’ threatens to disrupt the close-knit circle. The group’s security is the first commandment: ‘You get a stunt team in acrobatics in the air—if one of them is no good, then they’re all in trouble. If someone loses his nerve catching animals, then the whole bunch can be in trouble.’ The group members are bound together by rituals (in Hatari blood is exchanged by transfusion) and express themselves univocally in communal sing-songs. In Dawn Patrol the camaraderie of the pilots stretches even across the enemy lines: a captured German ace is immediately drafted into the group and joins in the sing-song.
Hawks’s heroes pride themselves on their professionalism. They ask: ‘How good is he? He’d better be good.’ They expect no praise for doing their job well. Indeed, none is given except: ‘The boys did all right.’ When they die, they leave behind them only the most meagre personal belongings: often a handful of medals. Hawks himself has summed up their utterly barren view of life: ‘It’s just a calm acceptance of a fact. In Only Angel, Have Wings, after Joe dies, Cary Grant says: “He just wasn’t good enough.” Well, that’s the only thing that keeps people going. They just have to say: “Joe wasn’t good enough, and I’m better than Joe, so I go ahead and do it.” And they find out they’re not any better than Joe, but then it’s too late, you see.’ The only relieving features of lift are ‘danger’ (Hatari) and ‘fun’. Danger gives existence pungency: ‘Every time you get real action, then you have danger. And the question, “Are you living or not living?” is probably the biggest drama we have.’ This nihilism, in which ‘living’ means no more than being in danger of losing your life—a danger entered into quite gratuitously—is augmented by the Hawksian concept of having ‘fun’. The word ‘fun’ crops up constantly in Hawks’s interviews and scripts. It masks his despair.
When one of Hawks’s elite is asked, usually by a woman, why he risks his life, he replies: ‘No reason I can think of makes any sense. I guess we’re just crazy.’ Or Feathers, sardonically, to Colorado in Rio Bravo: ‘You haven’t even the excuse I have. We’re all fools.’ But when Hawks has his dramatic heroes describe themselves as crazy, he is being ironic. In fact, as his ‘crazy’ comedies make clear, it is the normal—for most people, rational—world which he thinks of, and portrays, as
Outsiders, other people in general, are an undifferentiated crowd. Their rôle is to gape at the deeds of their heroes, whom, at the same time, they hate. The crowd assembles to watch the showdown in Rio Bravo, to see the cars spin off the track in The Crowd Roars. Most dehumanized of all is the crowd in Land of the Pharaohs, employed in building the pyramids. Originally this film was to have been about Chinese labourers buiding a ‘magnificient airfield’ for the American army, but the victory of the Chinese revolution forced Hawks to change his plans (‘Then I thought of the building of the pyramids; I thought it was the same kind of story.’) and substitute the Pharaohs for the us army. But the presence of the masses poses no threat to the security of the Hawksian elite or the order of the Hawksian universe. They are, after all, ‘not living’.
There is only one force that threatens: woman. Man is woman’s ‘prey’. Women are admitted to the male group only after much disquiet and a long ritual ‘courtship’, phased around the offering, lighting and exchange of cigarettes, during which they prove themselves worthy of entry. Even then though they are never really full members. A typical dialogue sums up their position: