Ron Briley: Review of Peter Rollins's "America Reflected: Language, Satire, Film, and the National Mind" (Washington, D.C.: New Academia Publishing, 2010)
Ron Briley is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he has taught for thirty years.
What in the world do Orestes Brownson, Benjamin Whorf, Will Rogers, and Hollywood have in common? The answer is that this eclectic array of intellectual and cultural subjects are essential to the work of scholar Peter C. Rollins, Emeritus Regents Professor of English at Oklahoma State University and a pioneering figure in the academic investigation of American popular culture. America Reflected is an overview of Rollins’s scholarship, and in his introduction the author argues that Brownson, Whorf, Rogers, and Hollywood “show an actual consciousness of American values, reflecting them in creative ways that can deepen our awareness of their times” (1).
During his undergraduate days at Harvard University, Rollins was drawn to the nineteenth-century intellectual and spiritual odyssey of Brownson, whose life and work Rollins credits with teaching him that cultural historians must be attentive to politics, myth, and philosophy. Rollins found a similar intellectual and spiritual seeking in the work of linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose research and writing attempted to bridge the gap between Western scientific knowledge and Native American spiritual intuition.
Despite the influence of Brownson and Whorf upon Rollins, America Reflected devotes considerable more space to the extensive Rollins scholarship on humorist, political commentator, film star, and native Oklahoman Will Rogers. In his six chapters on Rogers, Rollins argues that as an actor Rogers reflected the positive values of the American Midwest, and as a descendant of the Cherokee nation, his characters often worked with minority figures to undermine the nativism inherent in many film texts of the 1920s and 1930s. Rollins also asserts that in his newspaper columns, pieces for the Saturday Evening Post, and “open letters” to President Calvin Coolidge, Rogers helped ease the transition of many small town Americans to the more urbanized and industrialized values of twentieth-century America. His writing on Rogers also led Rollins to explore documentary filmmaking, resulting in the well-received Will Rogers’ 1920s: A Cowboy Guide to the Times (1976).
The bulk of America Reflected is devoted to the Rollins scholarship on film—and predominantly the depiction of war on the silver screen. For example, in his examination of how Hollywood portrayed World War I, Rollins observes that film historians tend to emphasize the antiwar sentiments of films such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), while ignoring more heroic and patriotic pictures such as The Big Parade (1925). Rollins also argues that the Frank Capra series Why We Fight (1942-1945) reaffirmed belief in the American Dream while educating an isolationist nation to its international responsibilities. Essays in America Reflected also consider such topics as the memory of D-Day on film, the twenty-six episodes of NBC’s Victory at Sea, and the 1950s anticommunist documentary Nightmare in Red. Rollins is critical of compilation documentaries such as Nightmare in Red for using staged footage without attribution. Rollins writes, “Then and now, the temptation to use whatever ‘works’ visually is always present in the editing room, leading network documentarians in the direction of drama for drama’s sake rather than toward ... the inner meaning of history” (371).
For some readers the most controversial part of America Reflected will be the chapters on the Vietnam War. Rollins served with the Marines in Vietnam (1963-1966) before returning to Harvard and pursuit of a doctorate degree. While critical of politicians regarding American policies in Southeast Asia, Rollins remains supportive of the American decision to aid South Vietnam. Rollins is also critical of how the military and service personnel have been depicted by the media. Accordingly, while acknowledging that Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) has a certain realistic gritty quality to it that places it above such productions as John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968); Rollins condemns Stone for portraying American soldiers as either mindless killers or helpless victims. More critical of the media than antiwar protestors, Rollins denounces such television programs and films as the CBS production The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception (1982) with its focus upon General William Westmoreland; HBO’s A Bright Shining Lie (1998), an adaptation of journalist’s Neil Sheehan’s book on Paul Vann; HBO’s Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1987); and the Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) as distorted images of reality in Vietnam. In 1985, Rollins produced Television’s Vietnam: The Real Story as a rebuttal to the PBS production Vietnam: A Television History (1983), although Rollins was less critical of the Stanley Karnow book on which the series was based. Summing up his take on the presentation of Vietnam on the nation’s television and theater screens, Rollins insists, “No credibility gap could be higher than the abyss between the Hollywood version and the experience and memories of American service men and women who served. For twenty years, I tried to uphold their perspective and memory, an effort not without difficulty in Academe” (18). These conclusions are still like to stir controversy in some quarters.
The final section of America Reflected includes essays on selected figures and films. For example, two pieces are devoted to intellectuals from the Rollins hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts—transcendentalist Henry Hedge and poet Amy Lowell. It is fitting that the final piece in America Reflected focuses upon Rollins’s adopted home of Oklahoma with an analysis of the 1949 film Tulsa featuring Susan Hayward.
While one may disagree with some of Rollins’s conclusions regarding the Vietnam War and other topics, there is no doubt that Peter Rollins is an exceptional scholar who has labored to establish academic acceptance for the fields of popular culture and film history. America Reflected is a fitting retrospective of Rollins’s expansive scholarship and intellectual contributions. It is a life and career well worth celebrating.
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