Rough Men Stand Ready

They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in hard condition.  They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water.  The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind.

~ Raymond Chandler describing policemen in The Little Sister


There are any number of books out there devoted to famous lines from famous movies.  Even the casual moviegoer will recognize “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” or “Here’s looking at you, kid” (Gone with the Wind, Jaws, and Casablanca, respectively).  All of those movies have become entrenched in popular culture, but countless others have come and gone without attaining such lofty stature.  That doesn’t mean they are lacking in memorable dialogue.  Every now and then a line from a relatively obscure movie lodges in the mind and refuses to go away.

As evidence, I offer a 1974 British thriller called The Black Windmill.  The film stars Michael Caine as Major John Tarrant, an Army veteran who is now an intelligence officer with MI6, the British counterpart of the CIA.  When his son David is kidnapped and held for ransom by terrorists, his colleagues fail him.  In fact, they even suspect he has staged the kidnapping himself, seeing as he is so calm and collected throughout the ordeal.

Tarrant is separated from his wife Alex, who complains that his work has made him distant, cold and unfeeling.  Since she is so distraught by the kidnapping, she cannot comprehend her estranged husband’s ability to maintain his composure.  He explains to her, “If there are things about me that you hate, Alex, be grateful for them now.  They could be our last chance of seeing David alive again.”  Classic British stiff upperlipness!

I don’t know why that particular line in a good but not great thriller stuck in my mind over the last half-century, but having looked at the film again recently, I think I know why.

The Black Windmill was directed by Don Siegel three years after he did Dirty Harry.  Now there was a famous film with a memorable line of dialogue: “Do you feel lucky?  Well, do you, punk?” was more than cool, it was downright cold-blooded.  And it caught on, as did “Go ahead, make my day,” in Sudden Impact, a 1983 sequel.

When Dirty Harry came out, professional hand-wringers responded predictably.  Perhaps it was because the film asked a question they could not answer.  What better way to thwart a psychopath than to assign a psychopath-adjacent police officer to take him down?

Perhaps because of space limitations, advertising taglines for movies are often spot on when it comes to letting people know what a film is all about.  In this case, one was “Dirty Harry and the homicidal maniac.  Harry’s the one with the badge.”  Another was “You don’t assign him to murder cases, you just turn him loose.”

When Dirty Harry and The Black Windmill hit the screens in the early 1970s, we were in the throes of second-wave feminism.  Anti-male rumblings and grumblings were bandied about but the term “toxic masculinity” was yet to be coined.  In the subsequent half-century, the anti-male propaganda slowly morphed till it became anti-masculine, which is not quite the same thing.  Active masculinity (shooting, fighting, competing) is bad, but passive masculine traits such as stoicism and self-control are just as bad.  Men are often described as lacking in emotional intelligence – which is the same thing as saying they are emotional retards!  Men, tsk tsk, just aren’t in touch with their feelings the way women are.

Then at some point, the ante was upped to the point that masculinity and modern society could not be reconciled.  Eating meat…hanging out at gun ranges…ogling good-looking women…passing gas audibly – you know who you are!  Such behavior was, in a word, inappropriate, not just in certain situations but in all situations.  Surely, there is no place for such behavior in our world…or is there?  Consider the following quotation:

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

There is some dispute as to the exact wording of the saying (e.g., We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”) but the meaning remains clear.  There is also a dispute as to its origin.  Winston Churchill was sometimes credited as a source, and it doesn’t sound out of character, but as it turns out, George Orwell was the author.  Yet it seems that Orwell was riffing on a theme inspired by Rudyard Kipling.

About as popular as any author in the English-speaking world in his heyday, Kipling has fallen out of favor, not because his stories and poetry are lacking in merit but because he was an apologist for colonialism, and we all know that will never do.  His poem “The White Man’s Burden” is probably sufficient to prohibit him from ever again appearing in a university English literature course, and I’d be surprised if any of his works still grace the pages of literary anthologies aimed at high school students.  Even so, The Jungle Book and Just So Stories have delighted generations of children.  It is surprising that the woke folks at Disney have not disavowed their Jungle Book franchise and sent it the way of Song of the South.

Kipling, however, was much more than a colonialist.  His poem “If –” reads like a manosphere manifesto.  Another famous poem, “Tommy,” is particularly pertinent to this essay, as it is supposedly the work that inspired Orwell’s quotation.

“Tommy” is British slang for a soldier in the service of the crown.  In the narrative poem, a soldier tries to gain entrance to a bar only to find out that his kind just aren’t welcome.  During peacetime the civilians are “Makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep.”  But the “uniforms” are welcome indeed when British soldiers or redcoats [the “thin red line of ‘eroes”] are needed.  If that phrase sounds familiar, that’s because The Thin Red Line was the name of a 1962 James Jones war novel as well as movie adaptations in 1964 and 1998.  An offshoot of that phrase is the thin blue line, a reference to the police as the borderline separating order from disorder.

So that was why the line from The Black Windmill stuck in my head.  Is there no place in society for men, albeit sorely lacking in diplomacy, who are willing to risk their lives to keep the peace?  Even the Beatitudes tell us that “Blessed are the peacemakers!”  Granted, Christ didn’t have the likes of Clint Eastwood or Michael Caine in mind when he said that.  Nevertheless, as the ranks of law enforcement have dwindled has society become more peaceful?  During the George Floyd riots the rough men were standing by but were ordered to stand down.  The cry went out to defund the police even as they were being neutered.  The thin blue line was barely a filament.

The word “rough” is a masculine adjective.  Rough riders, rough around the edges, sleeping rough, rough and ready, roughshod, rough and tumble, roughneck, rough-hewn…all have a masculine connotation.  Smooth is preferable to rough but smoothness can’t be wished into existence.  When deployed properly, rough men, like sandpaper, can smooth things out.  There have always been virtuous people who will do right even when no one is looking.  Unfortunately, other people are held in check only by fear of punishment.  If so, inflicted by whom?  In the absence of rough men, uniformed or civilian, what is there to fear?

I don’t think I need to issue a spoiler alert by saying that Michael Caine prevails in The Black Windmill.  He goes rogue and tracks the kidnappers to the eponymous windmill where his son is being held hostage.  Then he visits violence on those who would do harm to him and his flesh and blood.

You’ve probably seen plenty of movies with violent resolutions.  Revenge plotlines are as common as boy meets girl.  While rough men remain suspect in modern society, where would movies be without them?  In fact, I’ve long had a pet theory that a leading man in motion pictures must appear capable of killing another human being.  He need not do that in every movie, and many scripts may not call upon him to do so, but he must be able to act as though he’s capable of it.

Rough men are a vital implement in society’s tool kit.  Send them into exile and you are signing a death warrant for your society.

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