CRAZY IRISH-AMERICAN CATHOLICS:
From Al Smith’s failed bid to be the first Catholic to run for President to Mel Gibson, well, being Mel Gibson… the Irish-American Catholic man has always occupied a special place in the American psyche which is shorthand for social anxiety, angst, violence and instability. Holding a unique place within the American political landscape which is treated with equal levels of wariness from the political left and right, it is no wonder that author Philip Jenkins of Baylor University has referred to anti-Catholicism as “the last acceptable prejudice“.
*Before reading on, spoiler alert for War for the Planet of the Apes*
As with any group seen of as alien and foreign though, American Catholics can often view their religion in both high and pop-culture through an exotisized, fetishized and romanticized lens which oscillates between the noble savage and the exotic other. Jesuit James Martin has written of this phenomena being for two reasons:
First, more than any other Christian denomination, the Catholic Church is supremely visual, and therefore attractive to producers and directors concerned with the visual image. Vestments, monstrances, statues, crucifixes-to say nothing of the symbols of the sacraments-are all things that more “word oriented” Christian denominations have foregone. The Catholic Church, therefore, lends itself perfectly to the visual media of film and television. You can be sure that any movie about the Second Coming or Satan or demonic possession or, for that matter, any sort of irruption of the transcendent into everyday life, will choose the Catholic Church as its venue. (See, for example, “End of Days,” “Dogma” or “Stigmata.”)
Second, the Catholic Church is still seen as profoundly “other” in modern culture and is therefore an object of continuing fascination. As already noted, it is ancient in a culture that celebrates the new, professes truths in a postmodern culture that looks skeptically on any claim to truth and speaks of mystery in a rational, post Enlightenment world. It is therefore the perfect context for scriptwriters searching for the “conflict” required in any story.
The War for the Planet of the Apes, in its presentation of antagonist Colonel McCullough played by Woody Harrelson, captures both the exotic and the terrifying with Catholic imagery somehow still tainted with Irish ethnic undertones.
First, before I go on, I’d like to say I’m a huge fan of this reboot, and also was very impressed with something the movie got right. As a combat veteran (which, as we all know makes me a qualified critic of every historical, political and cultural debate in contemporary society) I watched the previous film, thinking, “Oh, they vaguely referred to a military base ‘up North’… if this film is set in San Francisco, that’s obviously Fort Lewis, not that any of those Hollywood phonies would bother doing research for that!”. But, lo and behold, the soldiers throughout the film were wearing unit insignia for 2nd Infantry Division and 17th FIRES Brigade, as well as 1st Special Forces Group, all based in Washington State’s Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM). So… good job Hollywood, you got something right.
Now, moving on, the most obvious allegory that I could draw in comparing the treatment of the apes to historical racist depictions of the Irish as people with simian features, or as this gem from Punch magazine below did, full blown damn dirty apes:
The above cartoon was written in the context of dismissing the notion of Irish Home Rule or independence (because it would have been silly to assume that the ‘lower races’ were capable of self-governance). It shows with their pithy pun of Mr. G. O’Rilla, one of the easiest things for Anglo-Saxons to poke fun at Irish people about were their strange names, with funny prefixes. While this British cartoon used the “O” prefix, a far more common observation in America was the “Mac” or “Mc” prefix, leading to “Mick” becoming a shorthand slur for an Irish or Irish-American. This was why Woody Harrelson’s character, whose name is not mentioned in the film once, but whose nametape says “McCullough” was so significant.
But the scientific racism of the 19th & early 20th century, largely a result of rapid colonization, in many ways only modified the source of existing prejudices held by those with power. As Luke Gibbons has pointed out in his wonderful novel Gaelic Gothic, as the British explored further and further continents and encountered cultures more and more different from their own, they did not begin to think of the Irish as more similar to them. Rather, it heightened their awareness of their continued differences. And so, with the advent of modern, biologically-based racism, there was finally a scientific answer to one of the most jarring and anxiety-inducing aspects of Irish culture to the British and Anglo-Americans… It was inferior biology which had made them cling to the superstitious and unreformed Catholicism. Alas! Their drunkeness, their superstitious rituals and treatment of the dead, their Tamany Hall-style graft, and political violence, it had nothing to do with the Pope, and everything to do with progeny! But just as scientific racism merely built on old prejudices with new understandings, many of our contemporary prejudices have been handed down from old ones. This cartoon from America demonstrates the social fears widely held in America that Anglo-Protestants associated with Irish-Catholics.
While it would be easy to dismiss Colonel McCullough as a once off oddity, he represents a long and continuing tradition of American popular culture portraying Irish-Americans with what Diane Negra calls a, “broad consensus in the US that Irishness is available to speak a precariously classed, highly unstable whiteness”. From Denis Leary to Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, (and I would add Mel Gibson, born in New York to an Irish mother) Negra has written extensively on the perception of Irish masculinity in American culture.
In many way Colonel McCullough was an extension of this. By normalizing the notion of post-traumatic stress, violence and callousness so often used to depict the Irish-American man in film, his Irishness was reinforced. And from the crucifix he wore around his neck shirtless, to the name of his unit, Alpha-Omega, with its Greek symbols branded onto his minions, to his making the sign of the cross over those same minions with his straight razor mid-head-shave, the film constantly uses Catholic imagery to simultaneously portray his masculinity and terrifying exoticism.
But then, as Woody Harrelson himself has said before….
I’m happy that Hollywood got the unit insignia right on the soldiers from JBLM in Washington State. I also really liked the homage paid to Apocalypse Now, from the Colonel’s monologue on sacrificing one’s humanity, to his rogue status having to be exterminated by his former superiors with extreme prejudice. But in a time when veterans across America are battling against constant Hollywood portrayals as two-dimensional psychopathic poster children for post-traumatic stress and walking, talking stereotypes with Southern accents, I wasn’t thrilled to see the portrayal of soldiers as mindless killing machines. And having been raised with my Aunt Margaret’s oil lamp and rosary beads she brought through Ellis Island on the hutch…a constant reminder my parents would point to of how easy I had had it as a third generation Irish-American, I wasn’t thrilled to see the angry Irish-American Catholic man used as shorthand for mental instability either.