Guts and Glory: Director Martin Scorsese’s Film Heroes

New Yorker Films-Courtesy Everett Collection

The Best Years of Our Lives

This is a picture about the heroism of coming home from the war, facing your loved ones and your job and a world that knows nothing of what you’ve endured. It was directed by William Wyler, who himself had served. The homecomings; Dana Andrews’s flier being soothed after a nightmare by Teresa Wright; Harold Russell (a real vet with prosthetic hands) calling on his father to help him into bed—these are among the most moving passages in American cinema.

Bicycle Thieves

At the end of this Italian neorealist classic by Vittorio De Sica, a young boy (Enzo Staiola) sees his father (Lamberto Maggiorani) scorned, humiliated, almost sent to jail, and then takes his hand and walks proudly by his side. In one beautiful moment, the son realizes that their roles must reverse and that, at least for the moment, he needs to look out for his father.

La Promesse

From the Dardenne brothers in Belgium, another story of a young boy (Jérémie Renier) who must grow up quickly. His loyalties are divided between his father (Olivier Gourmet) and the wife (Assita Ouedraogo) of a man who has been killed at their makeshift “hotel” for illegal immigrants. This is the story of a boy’s moral awakening, a spiritual suspense film in which a young soul denies what he’s familiar with and stands up for humanity—the dead man’s and his own.

Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line

Two very different pictures about the heroism of battle that came out in the same year, the first from Steven Spielberg and the second from Terrence Malick. Both films look at the question of heroism in war from a variety of angles (like the moment in the Malick picture where Elias Koteas’s captain bravely refuses an order from his commanding officer, played by Nick Nolte), and both feature harrowing assaults on an enemy stronghold in which each soldier knows that he must keep moving forward andthat he could be blown to bits at any moment. Two great modern war epics.

The Searchers

Near the end of John Ford’s now-canonical Western epic of time and space, John Wayne picks up Natalie Wood, his niece, for whom he’s spent the last 10 years searching. Along the way, she has lived her life among the Indians and become an object of hatred in his eyes. He lifts her by the arms, looks into her eyes, his hatred drains away, and he cradles her in his arms like the child she was when he last saw her. It’s one of the most stunning reversals in cinema.

The Counterfeit Traitor

I’ve always loved this picture, made by George Seaton with his producing partner William Perlberg, based on a true story about a Swedish-American oilman (William Holden) recruited by the British to spy on the Germans. In order to make himself credible, he must make a show of disowning his best friend, who is Jewish—the scene is almost as painful as the hair-raising moment where his German contact and lover (Lilli Palmer) is executed before his eyes.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri

Another William Holden picture from Seaton and Perlberg (directed by Mark Robson), this time about coming to terms with the terrors of battle and the realization of mortality. There’s a moment when Holden’s flier walks to the end of an aircraft carrier deck and gazes off into the ocean—the framing, the music, the monumental aura of the scene, and above all Holden’s anguish and loneliness tell you that this is a man who knows that he’s on his way to certain death, and that he has to simply accept it.

Rio Bravo

Howard Hawks’s Western is a tense standoff between John Wayne’s sheriff and the gang trying to spring murderer Claude Akins from his jail, but it’s also a wonderful film about friendship and redemption. Dean Martin gives an extremely soulful performance as Wayne’s drunken deputy, and there’s a great moment when he almost gives in to the pressure of the situation and the physical discomfort of alcohol withdrawal before he empties the whiskey he’s poured back into the bottle.

Diary of a Country Priest

Robert Bresson’s adaptation of Georges Bernanos’s novel about a sickly young priest (Claude Laydu) who has just taken on a small rural parish is a study in spiritual fortitude: in scene after scene, the priest has to endure the brutal taunting of his parishioners, break through their defenses and fears, and speak directly to their spiritual condition. In essence, he’s a priest trying to do his job.

The Leopard

This magnificent historical epic, Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s historical novel about a Sicilian prince at the time of Italian unification, or Risorgimento, represents a different kind of heroism. In the last section of the picture, Burt Lancaster’s prince realizes that his aristocratic way of life and everything that goes with it—the customs, the languor, the sensuality, the expansive sense of time—must make way for the future, a new world with different priorities. This is the story of a man who steps aside for history.