George Roy Hill

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Edward Shores

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Hill's films can be seen as a continuing critique of the ideas which have shaped and still support the American culture. He questions such traditional concepts as the nobility of individual heroism, the role and nature of the family, and the American obsession with success. These concepts are a small part of a core of ideas that can be termed "conventional morality," wisdom that, whatever its origins, comes to be accepted as given by the members of a culture. The configuration of this morality is ambiguous, but a suggestive and subjective outline can be drawn. The conventional wisdom with which Hill's films deal holds that the forces of good invariably triumph over the forces of evil; that righteousness is rewarded while wrongdoing is punished; that the universe is providentially and benevolently ruled; that the family is a strong force for good; that violence, if channeled in socially approved directions, is acceptable; that union with society is a person's most important goal; that the development of the individual spirit is a person's most important goal; that acts of heroism are meaningful and add to a person's stature; that marriage is the ideal relationship between two people; that success marks the individual; and that material success is secondary to emotional happiness. The list could be extended, but this at least suggests what is meant by conventional morality. (pp. 8-9)

[Hill] challenges these still prevailing concepts of conventional morality. His films tell us that these trusted ideas are antiquated; the simple truths they espouse are inconsistent with the more complex modern world. Identification with and acceptance of the concepts does not bring happiness, for an orderly and comprehensible world does not exist. For Hill, these concepts are lenses that distort perception and lead the individual into limiting, enervating, and occasionally self-destructive actions. In contrast, Hill presents a world where ambiguity, not clarity, is quintessential and where happiness is not inevitable. He disavows or dispassionately examines the cultural conventions, asking that we understand as well as accept them, and, if necessary, reject them. He calls, in essence, for a new independence, a personal determination of one's attitudes, aims, and understanding. His films, like those of most critically acclaimed new directors, stand as a challenge to the old ways of seeing and defining self.

Hill's films contravert conventional thought through irony. He weaves variations on the stereotypical characters and plots in with the conventional action to give his stories more substance and depth. The contrast between the familiar genre story and the variations creates an ambiguity that prevents the easy identification common to most genre films. Hill emotionally distances the audience from the characters, and makes possible a critical evaluation of them and their actions. (pp. 9-10)

All Hill's works belong to the category of commercial movies, films which, despite their variety, have remarkably similar characters, structures, and morality. In these films, representative characters resolve problems or achieve happiness by voluntarily accepting and practicing the tenets of conventional morality. The characters may begin outside society …, and then move to a reconciliation with society, or remain outside society but essentially endorse its values. Or the character may begin as a member of society and then reaffirm its power by using its values and resources to defeat an enemy. Whatever the case, the characters usually move through a series of trials, eventually finding happiness through acceptance of conventional morality. The films thus become implicit or explicit advocates of the American culture; entertainments, but nonetheless assertions of the fundamental validity of certain values.

Although Hill's films seem produced from this mold, they are more accurately variations...

(This entire section contains 2431 words.)

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of it. Ideally …, the central characters, no matter what their limitations, ultimately embody a number of virtues with which the audience can identify and toward which it can feel sympathetic. Loyalty, courage, integrity, friendship, moral character are emphasized or, more often, emerge as the character undergoes a series of trials: town drunks reform, failures succeed, refugees from love become romantic, uncommitted figures turn patriotic, cowards gain courage, and sinners repent. The protagonists draw us into the world of the film, allowing us to experience vicariously the emotions around which the film is structured, and tacitly teaching us the moral lessons of our culture. Hill's characters, like all genre figures, have attractive qualities which draw us to them, and their problems—conflict with an increasingly bureaucratic or technological world, or a dispirited or materialistic one—engage our sympathy. But complicating the familiar frame are flaws that prevent total identification. Eventually the protagonists demonstrate some weakness, insensitivity, or failing that negates their hold on our feelings, drawing instead our wonder or disapprobation. We begin to question the characters, and in that questioning move away from the unthinking stock response. In addition, these flaws, unlike those of traditional characters, are never truly overcome; they stay with the characters throughout and, by virtue of their presence, contribute to our sense of ambiguity. The weaknesses are sometimes well-hidden, as inThe Sting, or obvious, as in Waldo Pepper, but are always an integral part of the film.

The outlaw heroes of Butch Cassidy are lovable, charming, attractive figures whose stereotypical strengths are counter-pointed by their seemingly limitless capacity for bad judgment. As the film progresses, their inability to see the hopelessness of their situation becomes a mark of their limitation, not their charm. Any sympathetic judgment is qualified by recognition that their independence is as much stumbled into as chosen; they do not understand the consequences of their actions. (pp. 11-13)

Billy Pilgrim [of Slaughterhouse-Five] is an engaging, but impotent naif who accepts prisons, such as life in Ilium, with a perseverance that borders on masochism. He lacks the ability or initiative to solve his problems, and accordingly his "triumph" on Tralfamadore is more accidental and fantastic than earned. Despite our sympathy for him, he never becomes competent or strong enough to draw our identification. Hooker and Gondorff [of The Sting] are roguishly charming con men, but no charm can hide the fact that "the sting" is performed as much for self-gratification as for revenge. At the end of the film, they deny that justice, the motive that has sanctioned their actions and made them more sympathetic than Lonnegan, is attainable or even worthwhile. This last minute reversal mutes some of our strong feelings for them and negates an unthinking emotional response to them.

While Waldo Pepper emerges victorious over Kessler, his road to that victory seems accidental, not earned. In addition, his lie about the fight with Kessler, his inability to learn from the experiences of his friends, and his failure in the attempted rescue of Mary Beth are qualities inconsistent with those usually associated with heroes. Once again the complete identification customary in commercial film is lacking. Reggie Dunlop of Slapshot demonstrates few of the virtues we expect to find in a conventional protagonist. There is no sensitivity or understanding hidden beneath his rough exterior; the crudity is the man. The championship cannot disguise the fact that Dunlop has manipulated the emotions of his players, ruined his own marriage, and almost destroyed the neurotic Lily Braden.

Daniel and Lauren, the teenage protagonists of A Little Romance, are among Hill's most engaging characters. They have a sensitivity and an ingenuous love that sharply contrasts to their parents' world. Yet they are also dominated by cultural ideas about romance, particularly Daniel, who attempts to fulfill the ideal of manhood that he sees set forth in films. By paying such close attention to that concept, he comes close to losing Lauren.

The variations in character, which suggest an additional dimension to the films, are adumbrated and buttressed by the variations in structure. In conventional films, the character moves from a state of tension or estrangement to one of harmony and order through acquiescence to the conventional morality. Whatever problems the characters encounter are eventually resolved by an appeal to the precepts of traditional wisdom. They (and we) learn the "proper" way to act and think, and the world becomes clearer and less threatening. (pp. 13-14)

In Hill's films, this basic structure is reversed. The characters have problems because they accept the dictates of conventional wisdom, not because they have cut themselves off from it. They begin as firm adherents to some quintessentially American belief and untypically move to a state of estrangement or tension because of their adherence to that belief. Such a basic reversal of structure alters the thematic thrust of Hill's films. Conventional morality hinders, not aids the comprehension of the world, and consequently, its validity is undercut.

In Butch Cassidy, for example, the outlaws are prime examples of American individuality. They reject the closed technological society and insist on their right to lead their own lives. Ordinarily such an attitude would be supported or shown as a source of strength, but Hill shows their blind adherence as a weakness leading to death. Their inability to see that the concept of unfettered individualism is no longer valid destroys them. Waldo Pepper and Reggie Dunlop are typically American in their pursuit of excellence and success. Identification with them is easy because their desire has been bred into most Americans through schools and social institutions. But, unlike the traditional heroes, their desire for success leads to troublesome dilemmas, and their "triumphs" are of such an ambiguous nature that we question, rather than applaud, their achievements. Billy Pilgrim starts with an unshakable belief in the sanctity of the American family, an institution long dear to social and religious leaders. But Billy finds only unhappiness with his families; the strength that should theoretically support him is inadequate or nonexistent. Even his rescue by Tralfamadore, because fantastic, underscores his failures with his earth families. The characters in The Sting begin with the traditional belief that there should be equal justice for all, even those who are seemingly beyond the law. But that attitude causes serious problems, and the two con men end up rejecting the validity of the traditional notion to assert that self-gratification is equally important. Lauren and Daniel first embrace certain established concepts of romance. Lauren is captured by the ideas of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and places her hopes for happiness in an old "legend" associated with the poetess; Daniel faithfully imitates the attitudes of his favorite film heroes, aping them to the point that his personality is submerged. Dedicated to their own particular ideals, the adolescents pursue separate goals until it is almost too late to save their relationship.

Once we recognize that Hill's films are not crass imitations of traditional works, we can perceive the outline of the world present in his films. In his universe the individual has become burdened with cultural misconceptions. The culture has shaped his attitudes in such a way that he or she can conceive of discovering meaning and attaining happiness only through the attainment of certain preordained goals. For the character, prescribed rituals, such as the performance of a heroic action, lead to the prescribed results of respect and reward. The cultural concepts are so dominating that the individual cannot conceive of alternatives, and thus the concepts occasionally become more valuable than life itself. Further, Hill argues, the concepts are antiquated, describing fixed relationships that no longer apply to a fluid, changing world, and, at their worst, they absorb the individual. (pp. 15-16)

Characters so dominated by a concept lose their individuality; they play the role society expects and repress natural feelings in order to maintain a particular image. The outlaws become courteous, chivalrous, and gallant despite the incongruity of their profession with such virtues, and maintain this facade even in times of danger. (pp. 19-20)

Once the difference in character and motivation are seen, the dynamics of Hill's counter story become clearer. As noted earlier, the characters begin as adherents of conventional American beliefs and move, because of their fidelity to those beliefs, to ambiguous resolutions of their problems. Such a filmic structure suggests the inadequacy of conventional views, for they cannot account for the changed, occasionally insensitive, sometimes threatening world the characters encounter. The conventional morality, accepted unthinkingly, is shown to be spiritually bankrupt; the roles it prescribes for individuals are now irrelevant, and it has no reserve resources to sustain its adherents.

Hill's films, then, juxtapose two understandings of the world. On the one hand there are the familiar genre narratives with their conventional metaphysics. The extraordinary success of his films indicates that the genre conventions have maintained their potency. The audience still finds American vitality, ingenuity, and skill attractive, and sees the qualities as tools that enable one to deal with the world. The characters seem familiar heroes, models whom we can safely emulate. But the films also show a world where conventional morality is false and inaccurate, hindering rather than helping the individual deal with the world. Characters who accept the fraudulent conventions dissipate their strengths in pursuit of illusory goals. Integrity, loyalty, skill, and courage are wasted in service to outworn ideals, and the individual, trapped by a system of unrealistic beliefs, is doomed to slow disintegration.

The two narratives, seen together, yield more than the naive optimism of the genre story or the cynicism of the genre variations. The second narrative reveals an ugly side of the first, forcing us to question conventional assumptions often taken for granted. We are asked to see that the frame of reference, the genre conventions, is no longer valid, and that a more complex understanding of the world must be arrived at.

Thus the films usually end on a negative note (A Little Romance is an exception), showing the disparity between the ideal (conventional assumptions) and the depressing reality in which individualism is impossible and characters are doomed by antiquated cultural beliefs. The films can be seen solely as a negative criticism of the culture for they do not suggest an alternative to the traditional understanding of the world. The majority of characters fail to come to terms with their problems or discover any potential solutions. But it is also possible to see the films as implicitly asserting the need for a new independence. The shock of recognition, the realization that Hill's criticisms are correct, may motivate some viewers to action. Instead of blindly accepting the dictates of others, the individual, in order to avoid the fate of Hill's characters, must learn to see with his own eyes, rely on his own judgments, and be willing to change. (pp. 21-2)

Edward Shores, in his George Roy Hill (copyright © 1983 by Twayne Publishers; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1983, 163 p.


John Simon