Ronald Reagan will forever be remembered as the 40th president of the United States, yet his movie career is all but forgotten. The Left’s film and cultural intelligentsia either ignore or mock his acting accomplishments. Political conservatives, often lacking in such cultural curiosity or acumen, tend either not to focus on his acting career or willfully defer to those who minimize it. These approaches to Reagan’s acting career are both wrong and inadequate.
If Reagan had been a Communist, or at least remained a Democrat, the Left would still be heaping praise on his performances and they would be described as “legendary.” But the cultural Left’s rejection of Reagan’s films stems more from the fact that he fought Communists in Hollywood than that he was a Republican politician.
Time and again, I encounter the minimization of Reagan’s talent, yet as I move through his film catalog, the evidence is that of not only a mature actor but a superb one—an actor who commands the screen. The idea that his one and only memorable role was in 1942’s “King’s Row” is preposterous, and one wonders who creates and perpetuates such narratives about our culture.
More importantly, why do so many on the Right blindly accept them?
In Vincent Sherman’s 1949 film, “The Hasty Heart,” Reagan plays “Yank,” an American soldier during World War II. The war has ended, and Yank and a few other fellow soldiers from various countries have found themselves in Burma, in a make-shift British hospital. They are all recovering from wounds of some sort, and are patiently waiting to be discharged and go home. They’ve formed a sense of community and camaraderie only a war can bring. A young nurse, Sister Parker (Patricia Neal) is a welcome addition to the hospital as she tries to keep the soldiers’ spirits alive.
Things start to change with the arrival of a new soldier, a Scot called Lachlan “Lachie” MacLachlan (Richard Todd). The hospital’s main doctor performs major surgery on Lachie, and although he is able to save one kidney, the damage is already done. Lachie has two or three weeks left to live, yet the doctor chooses not to disclose that information to Lachie. The doctor and Sister Parker enlist the help of Yank and his fellow soldiers to make Lachie’s stay as comfortable and welcoming as possible.
The trouble is Lachie is a stubborn, rude, and angry man. You can’t expect anything more or less from a Scot, Yank is convinced, as he reminisces about his disliked Scottish grandfather. The more Yank and the others try to get close to Lachie and welcome him into the fold, the more resistance they encounter. He has spent his entire life rejecting love and friendship from others, and it’s clear that he intends to do the same in the hospital.
Because of their hasty hearts, Yank and his fellow soldiers are ready to give up on Lachie. But then Sister Parker has an idea about how they might cheer him up. She points out that it is his birthday and that they should have a party for him. They give him an entire kilt uniform, which Lachie has always desired but could not afford. The party softens Lachie, and he appears to be touched by the kindness of Sister Parker and his fellow soldiers. Patricia Neal brings such warmth and strength to the film, and the chemistry between her and Reagan is undeniable.
Lachie is not sure why he can’t be discharged and sent home. The doctor finally tells him the truth. Naturally, and predictably, this makes Lachie quite angry. He is convinced that everyone simply pitied him because he’s dying. He reverts back to his rejection of friendship and gets ready to go back to Scotland, where he can die in peace and alone.
Yank is the one who finally breaks the silence. He admits to Lachie that pity indeed is what motivated them initially, but as the days went on, true friendship blossomed. Yank is also the one who serves as a guide for others. He is impatient with nonsense and idiocy, and he was hasty with Lachie initially, but he exercises prudence in the end. After consideration, he does not act on the basis of “the hasty heart” (the film’s title comes from “sorrow is born in the hasty heart,” a phrase often repeated in the film that may be of Scottish origins and inspired by Proverbs) but of measured thought.
Yet Reagan’s Yank is not a moralist. He’s funny, secure in his own disposition, and clearly not swayed by others. This sounds very much like Ronald Reagan himself. He creates a powerful presence on screen with his attractive looks but more importantly, with a kind of dignity borne out of humility and mirth.
“The Hasty Heart” was not an easy film for Reagan to make. In his 1965 book, Where’s the Rest of Me?, Reagan reflects on the difficulties of filming in England. “Our wardrobe,” writes Reagan,
for the entire picture was either pajamas or shorts, and we froze most of the time on those long working days. English picture-making is a strange combination of tremendously talented, creative people and incredible inefficiency that makes everything take longer than it should. Our set was a marvel of design and perspective, our cameraman without a peer, but we could spend half a day getting a simple dolly shot because no one could eliminate a floor squeak on the most important line in the scene.
Reagan’s personality and focus on what is important are constantly revealed throughout his film career, be it through his roles or his own reactions to life’s events. This is not to say that he was not affected by anything. After “The Hasty Heart” premiered, Richard Todd, who played Lachie, received more attention than Reagan. According to Edmund Morris’ Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, it didn’t help that right before the preview of the film, Reagan was injured in a “charity baseball game” and thus forced not to attend. Apparently, Reagan’s “career was on the skids.”
That may have been true, yet Reagan went on to appear in many more movies, with his last appearance being in Don Siegel’s 1964 “The Killers.” It is not correct or wise to accept a leftist-generated and perpetuated narrative that Reagan was nothing more than a B-movie actor, or that his career fizzled out. (A similarly ridiculous assumption prevails that Orson Welles didn’t make any films after “Citizen Kane” and that his career ended with that film.)
Several questions arise from these facts. Who decides which films and actors should be in a cinematic canon? Why is there such a thing to begin with? Does this indicate a certain kind of elitism on the intelligentsia’s and critics’ part? Why should movies only be viewed through the lens of a critic? True, audiences often reject good films for silly reasons or miss the deeper meaning of some films. But a good critic is hard to find. Normal people can discuss films intelligently, without ideology, and with the ability to let go of ideology and recognize people’s freedom to decide. No one would have understood this better than Ronald Reagan.