Twelve Essential Films for the Moral Formation of Boys

Twelve Essential Films for the Moral Formation of Boys
Father and son scratch out a living farming in Florida in The Yearling

During my formative years, I was unwittingly swept up in the great social experiment to improve the male of the species by feminizing him. Those marching towards their grand goal of a unisex society repudiated masculinity as inherently cruel, violent, stupid and greedy. Then they informed us that women were every bit our equals.

The idea that a utopian world would result if boys and men were shamed out of acting according to their nature was flawed from the beginning. What resulted was not better men, but a generation disproportionately populated with slackers, punks, Peter Pans and metrosexual narcissists. Of course, the cruelest irony is that the daughters of the women who perpetrated this fraud on America now complain they can’t find a decent man.

Why no men? Basically because the boys went on strike. They decided (albeit subconsciously) that if they couldn’t grow up to be real men, they would not grow up at all. Think about it. If men were everything that was wrong with society, who would want to become one? Still, males are hard-wired to be men. We have it in our genes that we must, among other things, provide for and defend. If those roles are denied to us, they can mutate into something ugly. Instead of providing for women, men will exploit them; instead of defending them, we will abuse them. That’s not masculinity, it’s the perversion of it.

Though the cardinal virtues are not gender specific, (a woman can be just as courageous as a man), there are specific virtues which are male in nature. For a boy to be fully formed as a man, these virtues must be cultivated. For example, male virtues include:

  • Stoicism in the face of adversity (What feminists call being “out of touch with your feelings”)
  • Decisiveness in the face of complexity (Being “dictatorial”)
  • Resolve in the face of disappointment (“Pig-headed”)
  • Sternness in response to frailty (“Cruel”)
  • A willingness to take risks and shoulder consequences (“Reckless”)
  • A willingness to undertake hardship, including meting out violence, so that there can be justice and the innocent may live in comfort. (“Violent”)

While it is certainly possible for women to embody these virtues, they are not essential to a woman’s nature. She might be equally happy emoting at adversity, finding consensus in complexity, compromising with disappointment, empathizing with frailty, avoiding risks and soothing those suffering hardships. All good things depending upon the circumstances. The point is that there is complementarity between the sexes. For instance, it’s been said, mothers protect their children from the world; fathers prepare their children for the world. Neither is best. Neither is complete. But together, weighed one against the other, the best virtue for the occasion can arise. However, that best result can only happen if men are allowed to be men.

What follows is a list of twelve films which I think are essential to helping boys understand the masculine virtues. They offer strong role models, which boys need to prod them along the road to manhood. All blurbs contain spoilers, so beware.

James Cagney and Pat O'Brien: Two boys, same neighborhood, two very different outcomes.

Angels With Dirty Faces, 1938 Boyhood friends from the streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Pat OBrien and James Cagney, took different paths. The former became a priest and the latter a gangster. O’Brien works with at-risk kids who look up to Cagney for his tough guy swagger and natty threads. Each is a great example of a male archetype: the moral, disciplined priest and the ruthless, bragadocious punk. Which model is true masculinity is revealed in the closing minutes, as Cagney faces death in the electric chair and O’Brien asks him to go out like a coward to steer the boys away from his example.

[vsw id=”Nld4DcRHME0″ source=”youtube” width=”425″ height=”344″ autoplay=”no”]

Casablanca, 1942 Tough guy Humphrey Bogart has been nursing a broken heart since hot chick Ingrid Bergman stood him up at the train station. He’s become cruel, cynical and selfish. Still, as we see in his exchange with a Bulgarian refugee, he’s still a class guy underneath. Eventually Bogey gets over himself, realizing that “the problems of three small people don’t amount to a hill of beans.” He’s getting off the sidelines and back into the fight, and what he’s got to do, Ilsa can’t be any part of. Bogart’s Rick demonstrates the unmanliness of passivity in the face of evil brought on by an indulgence of wounded narcissism. Later his virtues come forth: resolve, decisiveness, risk-taking and the willingness to take on hardships, taking out a nasty Nazi along the way.

The Cowboys, 1972 For some reason, rancher John Wayne has no hands to drive his cattle to market, so he hires a bunch of boys to do men’s work. They encounter rustlers who take advantage of the callow crew and, after shooting The Duke in the back (the only way to kill John Wayne in a John Wayne movie), make off with the herd. Boys become men as they track the bad guys, reclaim the herd and finish the job.

The Fighting 69th, 1940 Cagney again, this time starting out as a bragadocious coward and ultimately sacrificing his life for his comrades in the trenches. The contrast between the despoliation and waste of cowardice and the fruits of bravery is especially poignant.

The Incredibles, 2004 One of the best conservative films of the new millennium, this Pixar masterpiece celebrates the exceptional and skewers the inflated sense of entitlement that came in with the self-esteem movement. The villain is a vain, petulant child who demands status he hasn’t earned and doesn’t have the talent to achieve. When he can’t have what he wants immediately, he throws a tantrum and nurses a grudge, ultimately devising a plan to destroy everything in sight to perpetrate a fraud of heroism. The glee we experience from Dash as he’s finally unleashed to run at blazing speed should inform every parent about the importance of encouraging boys to be boys.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939 Junior Senator James Stewart faces down corruption in Washington, showing resolve in the face of character assassination and threats of criminal prosecution. Early scenes, where Stewart runs around Washington punching salacious reporters in the nose, play a little harsh in our no-fisticuffs-allowed society, but considering it’s the mainstream media getting what’s coming to ‘em, no harm, no foul.

Karl Malden's courageous priest was based on Fr. "Pete" Corridan, SJ, a "saint of the docks."

On the Waterfront, 1954 This gritty look at the corrupt union domination of the New York docks presents a crusading priest and a contrite hoodlum, each struggling to be a man in his own way. Karl Malden’s speech about “Jesus in the shape-up” is a great call for an assertive, masculine Christian witness. Marlon Brando’s Terry Molloy trades in his one-way ticket to Palookaville and applies a judicious measure of violence upside Lee J. Cobb’s head, thereby freeing himself and others from the tentacles of the mob. Bloody and battered, Brando claims what he wanted all along: the right to go to work, to be a provider, to stand upright like a man.

[vsw id=”eDH3wvlC9pY” source=”youtube” width=”425″ height=”344″ autoplay=”no”]

Red Dawn, 1984 Russian Commie-rat-bastards invade Colorado (don’t think too hard about it), forcing a group of high school students up into the mountains where they form an army of resistance, tagging their exploits with images of their school mascot. Though one by one, the Wolverines fall in combat, they’re ultimately successful in repulsing the invading army, and become legends in the reconstituted United States. Though the film makes a questionable attempt to evoke sympathy for the invading general, (what can I say, Hollywood likes Communists) it’s overall a positive tale of heroism encapsulating all the virtues listed above.

Patrick Swayze leads a band of patriotic Wolverines in the mountains of Colorado, resisting a Communist invasion in Red Dawn.

Rudy, 1993 A great tale of resolve as an under-sized, under-talented college football player fights to hang on with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. No boy can watch this film and then complain that he’s too tired to do his push-ups, too slow to finish his homework, or too small to stand up for himself.

The Searchers, 1956 If George Orwell really did say, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf,” he might have had Ethan Edwards in mind. As played by John Wayne, Edwards is bitter and simmering with hatred for the race who killed his brother and kidnapped his niece.  As he pursues the Comanche band for years, his obsession seems ready to boil over, setting the audience to wonder whether he’ll rescue his assimilated niece, or kill her. But as Ethan finally accomplishes his mission, he lifts his niece in his arms and joyfully welcomes her home. The pursuit of justice can be lonely and arduous, and this film from John Ford, perhaps the greatest Western ever made, has a great deal to say about the positive attributes of masculinity (and its limits) that make the pursuit of justice possible.

Atticus Finch puts down a mad dog threatening his children. Rabies was a metaphor for racism infecting the Old South.

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 Speaking of the pursuit of justice, who ever did it better than Atticus Finch, voted theNumber 1 Movie Hero of All-Time by the American Film Institute?Gregory Peck, in his Oscar-winning role, shows us a lawyer for the underdog, a gentleman, a crack shot with a rifle, but most of all, a father determined not to let his children be tainted by the pervasive racism of Maycomb County. Atticus is not only willing to take on the social opprobrium of representing a Negro defendant accused of rape, he’s willing to sit outside the jail and face down the lynch mob. The scene after the trial, when the court empties and Atticus gathers his papers, with the Black town folk still standing in the upper gallery, is among the most moving in Hollywood history. As the reverend whispers to Scout, “Stand up, your father’s passing,” we feel the pride of a young girl marveling about what she’s witnessing: public acknowledgement that her father is a great man.

[vsw id=”q7CX_5D6y6E” source=”youtube” width=”425″ height=”344″ autoplay=”no”]

The Yearling, 1946 Gregory Peck again, this time requiring his tender-hearted son to destroy the beloved fawn he’s been raising as a pet, because it keeps eating the seedlings from the family farm. Sternly, but not without compassion, he tells the boy, “In this world, it’s kill or starve.” It’s a tough lesson, and our hearts break for Jodi as he takes his father’s rifle and sets out to put Flag out of his misery. But it’s undeniable that part of becoming a man is putting childhood to death, thereby making the transition from dependent to provider. Those of us who cannot put away childish things can never make our way in the adult world.

So there they are, my 12 essentials. Share them with your sons. I’ve got a few honorable mentions, but I’d like to know yours.

Share This Post

11 Responses to "Twelve Essential Films for the Moral Formation of Boys"

  1. Great list and well thought out (even though I thought the Russkies invaded the US in RED DAWN; the Chinese were due to invade in the remake that was filmed never got released; and in THE COWBOYS, all the men got “gold fever” and left Wayne’s ranch to prospect).

    I would definately need to add CAPTAIN’S COURAGEOUS (the real one with Spencer Tracy teaching brat Freddie Bartholomew how to be a man), and at least one Errol Flynn film (probably ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD). And, I’d throw in John Wayne’s THE ALAMO to show the meaning of sacrifice and honor.

      1. You’re welcome! And I’m putting your link on my Facebook Page PATRIOTS OF BUNKER HILL. I run that Page as a reference for folks to visit to remember historical events as well as current happenings and cultural milestones (yesterday we noted the anniversary of the premiere of THE OUTER LIMITS on TV in 1963). Take a look and let me know what you think (also visit my website and check out my docudrama THE BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL which I produced to give kids a better understanding of our Nation’s history).

        Again, great article!


  2. Great article Kevin. Your choices were well thought out. I can think of at least a dozen other films to go hand in hand with your choices. It’s a shame most of them are from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. I think today’s film makers need to remember their history a little better and reflect that sense of honor and self sacrifice that permeated the films of those eras in their productions. Ira

  3. It is time to reintroduce them. Our sons deserve the same opportunity as we had. Boys, as well as the girls. There is also a list that girls can glean good character from. Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Loves Comes Softly Series, for a few to mention. I also enjoyed The Buttercream Gang, Where The Red Fern Grows, and Iron Will, for a few more. And there are more to list. I am sure others can add to the list.

  4. What an excellent article. In the same way that a man only feels his best when he is living all the above virtues, a woman only feels truly satisfied if she is taking care of her family, putting her husband and children before career. My husband and I are in TV and books, and while most of our characters are cutsie-type characters, we have one very masculine line we’re very excited about–” The Jumbo Shrimp of Dire Straits.” The gnarly sea captain and crew embody the virtues above, and with my husband’s comic style illustrating for this story, is a fun departure for us. We’re currently working on the video, which is based on our book:

    So, we value deeply traditional families, strong male role models, and women who respect the head of the house. And our son is the happiest, well-adjusted teen we know–proof that a strong man who’s willing to sacrifice for his family, and a woman who respects him as the head of the house, is the best formula for raising happy, successful children of good character.

  5. Great list! As a mom of three boys, I was very interested in what you had to say about manhood. One other element I’d add is the willingness to get messy. With boys it’s a love to get messy, but as men that comes in so handy when the dad had to take care of plumbing problems, animal situations, etc.

    One other movie I’d add to your list is Old Yeller, where the oldest son is left as the man of the house while the father is away and learns ways not to do it (in his interactions with his little brother), and then has to face doing one of the hardest things he has ever had to do in having to kill his beloved dog due to rabies (hydrophobia in that day.)

  6. Great Article Kevin and very thoughtful comments as well. I was left with a sense of loss for our childrens childrens though. While we most probably were exposed to high quality movies that intended to inspire and espouse vituous characters,most 30 somethings on down could not say the same. Todays movies makers who came of age in the 6o’s do not possess the character in themselves to have the ability to even rechonize what character is. Thus most of todays movies show mostly self indulgent drug addled people who you would never want to know much less be inspired by. Guess the movies of the 20’s30’sand 40’s will have to sustain the ypouth of the future. What a shame indeed.


Post Comment