It's always interesting---and in many ways reassuring---that as we travel through our film archives each Friday to realize that our contemporary social issues are not unique to our times. We are not alone in the great scheme of human history. We often find in these representations of popular American culture of the past parallels to our own situations.
Our recommendation for this weekend's viewing is the story of a group of 'lost boys' who find redemption in a cause greater than themselves. The film is a very underrated Western from 1972 titled A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die. The heroes are played by James Coburn and Bud Spencer.
The story is set during another politically-divided time: specifically the US Civil War. Colonel Pembroke (played by James Coburn) a Union officer has built an impregnable fortress in the American Southwest. At the beginning of the film we learn that Pembroke surrendered the fort to the Confederate Major Ward and is court-martialed. Pembroke escapes from prison with his friend Eli Samson (played by Bud Spencer). Captured, he offers a plan to recapture the fort and clear his name; along with five other soldiers sentenced to death on the gallows and Samson.
The men form an uneasy alliance from a variety of motives as the plan to take out the fort unfolds. We learn that Major Ward and the Confederates are planning to carve out a personal territory of their own once the Union has collapsed. And we learn the reason why Pembroke surrendered the fort.
We say that this is an underrated film because it is a much deeper, thinking-man's than critics seem to realize. The storyline of condemned men on a suicide mission is nothing novel; but the character development and the sense of redemption for a greater purpose, is. In the aftermath of the 1860 Election, there was a literal rebellion against the government. The Confederacy was composed of an Oligarchy which kept half of the South in slavery and the other half in poverty and economic dependence. They were the Cultural Elites of their day: defenders of an unsustainable status quo that had paralyzed the country for decades---simply to uphold their power and privilege. Ironically too the Confederate leaders were all Democrats. They had been using their positions to undermine the government for years previous to Lincoln.
And like the Conservatives of recent years, the generation just prior to the Civil War had grown complacent. We see this in Pembroke's character when we learn the reason for his surrender of the fort: he put a personal issue above his duty to the country. Ward's treachery brought Pembroke back to reality. He realized that the injustice he suffered would be multiplied to infinity if the Union collapsed and men like Ward were to take over. His mistake was a human mistake, but a costly one.
In this aspect, A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die is not simply a revenge-themed Western nor is it a matter of a disgraced soldier reclaiming his honor. Pembroke's goal is to wipe out the wrong he did to society at large by undoing his mistake at whatever cost. This is why he selected other condemned men---most of whom seem to realize this as the story progresses. There is some foreshadowing of this when he debates with a religious zealot over the verse "Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord."
The idea of redemption through atonement is one that is lost on the enemies of Freedom, but it is a vital one for understanding the character of the men who made America great, like Colonel Pembroke. The godless Left and the Neo-Pagan Right both agree that mankind is flawed---but neither believe that Man is redeemable. That perspective is the basis of their Authoritarianism; logically if there is no redemption or possibility of atonement, Mankind can only be controlled and never given freedom of choice.
There is definitely more substance to this film than what's on the surface. It tells us a lot about human nature, both for good and evil. A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die is available on Youtube as of this writing; and also on DVD. Besides its considerable action and entertainment value, it certainly gives pause for reflection.