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Arts Cinema Home Life Life Magazine May 2020

What can we learn about coronavirus from classic cinema?

My Sam Peckinpah lockdown bender

April 29, 2020

4:06 PM

29 April 2020

4:06 PM

Batavia, New York

With the first blizzard of every winter I take John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound off the bookshelf, and though I never quite make it through to the end, when the snow is ‘melted in the genial glow’, I feel as if I have hunkered down for the week with the ‘Barefoot Boy’ poet’s besieged shut-ins.

So when the Kung Flu — excuse me; I forgot for a moment that mild humor is now as verboten as sweaty raves and square dances — kicked its way into our lives, but before the local library shut down, I, like everyone else — well, like a tiny sliver of the populace — reached for Camus’s…Camus’s…oh, the hell with it: The Plague by Albert Camus. Stepping into the danse macabre, I then violated calendrical integrity by reading an October chestnut, Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’, in March.

I chased away the funereal forebodings with Inside the Nixon Administration: The Secret Diaries of Arthur Burns, which is a lot less frightening than the movie 28 Weeks Later, believe me. While rolling my eyes at the Henny Pennys of the internet, I’ve not been imprudent. I do worry about loved ones, young and old, so while I still drop by the post office and grocery store and pharmacy, and order takeout from lockdown-crippled restaurants, I’m not licking doorknobs or flying off to a ski vacation in Vail. (Not that I’d ever do the latter anyway.)


Surely, I thought, the movies would edify and instruct? So we sat through Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), about an outbreak of the pneumonic plague in New Orleans. If you can buy Richard Widmark as a public health doctor — we couldn’t — perhaps you’ll like it. My wife Lucine was not amused that Patient Zero was an Armenian sailor. Actually, he was identified in the film as Armenian or Czech, samples of which are seldom mistaken for one another. The dead tar’s friend has the map of Mount Ararat on his face, yet the film would have it that the vincible vector’s surname was the most un-Armenian ‘Kochak’. He was, admittedly, a night stalker.

But Hollywood is also the bearer of good news. From the more recent contagion and infectious-disease movies I have learned that the vaccine for COVID-19 isn’t going to be developed by some geek-grind working ’round the clock in a cramped laboratory, but rather by a ravishingly beautiful model — though she may wear glasses when thinking scientific thoughts. She’ll probably be a Woman of Color who is impeded at every turn by oafish white men. Nevertheless, she persisted.

I confess to having grabbed DVDs of The Love Boat off the library shelf, valuing the disease-fighting properties of insipidity. And oh, those guest stars: whose spirits are not immediately raised by the sight of Norman Fell, Toni Tennille, and Bert Convy? Come aboard, we’re expecting you!

Lifelong learners may be interested to know that the actors impersonating the dullard crew of the Pacific Princess attended high-rent schools. Fred Grandy (Gopher, and later, less impressively, a member of Congress), was a Harvardian. Bernie Kopell (Doc) studied at NYU. Gavin MacLeod (Captain Stubing) earned his stripes high above Cayuga’s waters at Ithaca College. MacLeod is part Chippewa Indian, or should I say, mindful of the senator from Massachusetts, that he has claimed such heritage.

Ted Lange (Isaac the bartender) attended the rather less prestigious City College of San Francisco, but then so did the elusive O.J. Simpson. Nothing to report on the educational attainments of Lauren Tewes (Julie the perky cruise director), except that she was tossed off the show for being a misbehaving cokehead.

Tiring of this soporific detour, I reverted to form and went on a Sam Peckinpah bender, revisiting everything from Junior Bonner to The Ballad of Cable Hogue. I played over and over the scene in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in which Slim Pickens dies as Katy Jurado weeps to the sepulchral notes of Bob Dylan’s incomparable dirge ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. Now that is filmmaking of a high order.

Sam, too, was a coke fiend, but you’d never find him getting kicked off The Love Boat. He’d have just blown the damned thing up.

This article is in The Spectator’s May 2020 US edition.


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