Proof Of Evolving Ethics Enlightenment: Bert The Cop Would Have Shot Walter Scott In The Back Too

For those who think that our ethical sensitivities don’t evolve for the better over time, I prescribe a careful viewing of that family classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

At the film’s climax, George Bailey, the self-sacrificing hero who has been granted his inadvertent wish to see what the world would be like if he had never been born, finds the love of his life and (in the life he has given up for this dystopian hell) the mother of his children now unmarried, alone and working as a librarian despite the fact that she looks like Donna Reed. He embraces her, and since she’s never met him in this alternate reality, she screams, believing she is being sexually assaulted by a madman. Kind, jovial police officer Bert is summoned to quell the ruckus, and George, who is a bit upset, punches him in the face to avoid arrest, and runs away. Bert then takes out his pistol and fires it at George repeatedly.

He’s a lousy shot.

In 1946, when audiences first saw this film, nobody thought there was anything unusual about Bert’s professional conduct. Many, many films right through the 1960s show police officers, “good guys,” even ones not trapped in a strangely mean alternate reality like Ward Bond’s Bert, shooting at fleeing suspects or criminals. That was considered appropriate police procedure then, and the public, society and U.S. culture saw nothing amiss. You were expected, as a good citizen, to submit to a police officer’s lawful authority. If you resisted arrest and ran, then it was fair and reasonable for the officer to shoot you, ideally after a “Stop or I’ll shoot!” warning. Indeed, many people were shot, and killed, this way. If it was news, it wasn’t on the front page, and it wasn’t considered any kind of an outrage.

Now consider the public and media reaction to Michael T. Slager’s shooting of Walter Scott. We now know that Scott was resisting arrest: he had a bench warrant out on him for non-payment of over $18,000 in child support, and Slager was trying to bring him into custody. Instead of doing as the officer demanded, Scott resisted and ran. Burt would have shot at his back too; the difference is that Slager is a better shot, and George was faster. Slager, however, is completely reviled across the country; even his own lawyer found him so repugnant that he refused to represent him.

That represents a massive shift in cultural values in a little over half a century.

What changed us? The Sixties, mostly. The civil rights movement exposed police departments as often brutal and corrupt. The treatment of anti-war protesters, some too young to shave, showed police violence at its worst. The ugly scene broadcast live outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention made the automatic presumption that the police are the “good guys” difficult to maintain. Then a series of Supreme Court decisions like Miranda (1966) exposed the injustice of long-standing police practices, like “sweating” confessions out of suspects, or just beating them into submission. A whole generation that came of age in the era of free love, drugs and protests distrusted police, and the other generations began seeing some justification in their sentiments.

Hollywood, as usual, also played a part in the cultural shift. In the Sixties, the ones shooting fleeing, unarmed people in the back were almost always the bad guys, and usually Nazis or Communists. “He vas shot vile trying to escape,” in movies like “The Great Escape” (1963) was a German euphemism for murder. Eventually laws were passed in every state forbidding law enforcement officers to shoot at fleeing suspects.

I’m surprised this shift took so long. Shooting someone in the back was a long-standing taboo before police embraced it. The Code of the West inveighed against shooting an unarmed man; Gene Autry’s version included as the #1 prohibition, the cowboy’s prime directive,

1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

The most iconic portrayer of cowboy heroes and Western virtue of them all, John Wayne, never shot a villain in the back in any of his 250+ movies, and refused to do so in his final movie when the script called for it. In the original screenplay for “The Shootist,” (1976) Wayne, playing an old gunfighter dying of cancer, celebrates his birthday by arranging a mass showdown in a saloon with three men pledged to kill him. He kills them all in a fair fight, but is shot in the back by the saloon-keeper, who tries to run out of the bar.  The fatally wounded gunfighter kills him with one shot. As related by Don Siegel, the film’s director, Wayne refused to do it, and insisted that the scene be re-written.

Siegel was furious, and suggested that the Duke’s objection made no sense; after all, the man had just shot him in the back. ( This is the unethical rationalization “Tit-for tat”! ) Wayne, who like his character was dying of cancer (but may not have known it), replied that he had spent his entire four decade career creating an American archetype who represented certain core values, and would not violate them in what might be his last movie role. He told Siegel that if he wanted “J.B. Books” to shoot a man in the back, he would have to find another actor to play his part.

They changed the script. Later, Siegel wrote that he realized that Wayne’s stand was a perfect example of professional and personal integrity.

So it seems that eventually the American culture came around to an ethical consensus that had always been there.

It’s a more wonderful life when you live in a country where the police don’t shoot people in the back.

12 thoughts on “Proof Of Evolving Ethics Enlightenment: Bert The Cop Would Have Shot Walter Scott In The Back Too

  1. “In 1946, when audiences first saw this film, nobody thought there was anything unusual about Bert’s professional conduct.”

    Technically, the 1946 audience WOULD have been at least somewhat sensitive to the wrongness of Bert’s behavior, though. They had to have been aware that they were watching a heaven-abandoned version of Bedford Falls, a part of the movie deliberately scripted to show the bad, mad or miserable persona of everyone in that town-turned-down.

    • Except that Bert wasn’t doing anything unusual. The absence of George doesn’t magically turn everyone evil, like in the alternate reality Buffy episode. How would George’s absence have changed police procedures in Pottersville? There’s no indication that God has left Bedford Falls, just George Bailey.

      • It does change the people George knew, the ones he gives up on – less happy, more greedy, even the town goes dark. And Bert was pretty much as you said “kindly, jovial” – in fact, the perfect Officer Friendly before. George’s absence doesn’t have to affect police procedures in general, just the removal of his good intentions toward Bert.

        Ooookay. I’m leaving that first part. And backpedalling furiously. Remembering an incident of signature significance which would have happened just post-war, ’45 or ’46, when policemen came around to the school and announced that those of us who had dogs would have to make them wear a Hague collar-button or they would take the dogs to the dreaded Pound and shoot them. There was no reason to disbelieve them since we knew that if your dog was lost and you couldn’t pay the fine (50 cents, I think), chances are you wouldn’t see it again.

        That incident and someone’s dad telling a story about the cops using clubs and blackjacks to keep certain voters away from the polls so that Hague cronies could be elected were what I remember from then, but looking at Hague’s history from this point in time is fantastical. This is what I find:

        Easily rivaling Chicago’s Daley in corruption, Frank “Boss” Hague, mayor of Jersey city from 1917 to 1947, kingpin of Hudson County, controller of North Jersey, governor-maker, emperor of patronage, master of voter fraud, state Democratic-party leader (hand-in-glove with Republican deal-doers) was the ultimate user of “law enforcement.” To shut down criticism, Hague put through two ordinances: one required people making political speeches to obtain clearance from the chief of police, and the other gave the public safety commissioner—Hague himself—the power to turn down permits for meetings to prevent “riots, disturbances or disorderly assemblage.” The second was struck down as unconstitutional by the SCOTUS but continued for several years willy-nilly. The police were also allowed to stop and search anyone without probable cause or a warrant after 9 pm. Hague had an inner cadre of officers known as the Zeppelin Squad or “zepps” who were personally loyal to him alone.The “zepps” would spy on, and report back to Hague about other members of the department, political rivals and their families, or any untapped source of revenue (cash only; nothing was done without bribe or kickback). The Hague machine used its police force and thousands of local residents in another part of the state to mount Roosevelt’s successful initial campaign. He used police for strike breakers throughout the Depression, not unlike police were used in most other states, but culminating in a broken deal with the man who controlled North Jersey construction projects which resulted in open warfare. Officers were recruited (deputized on the spot?) from among the most brutal to be found – from Hague’s childhood neighborhood – opposed the CIO and a most determined organizer to stop the building of the Pulaski Skyway, a much needed bridge across the Hackensack River.

        This is how screwy it got:
        “We hear about constitutional rights, free speech and the free press. Every time I hear those words I say to myself, ‘That man is a Red, that man is a Communist.’ You never heard a real American talk in that manner.” – Mayor Hague’s speech to the Jersey City Chamber of Commerce, January 12, 1938

        Now I know where at least a fraction of my cynicism about party politics comes from. Thanks, Jack. It may not be a wonderful life, but it’s a hell of a lot better now than it was then.

        • I think you’re right, Penn. As the alternate Bedford Falls sank into decline and depravity, the attitudes of the citizens hardened as well with the adversity it presented. Bert the Cop (Ward Bond) was no longer the happy policeman of a near idyllic small town. His town had become and deadly and degraded environment over which he had little control. Then he’s faced with the spectre of some unknown tramp trying to assault the lonely, harmless little librarian. The guy hits him, breaks free and flees rapidly on foot where he can get lost in a crowd. In those days, attempted rape was still a major crime! I’ll bet a lot of cops back then would have taken a shot under those circumstances.

          In the Military Police, one of the five authorized uses of deadly force is, “In the apprehension of a known, dangerous felon”. That, of course, doesn’t mean that you MUST shoot in affecting an apprehension or that you must shoot to kill if you do. But Bert saw what anyone else would have considered to be an attack on a female- with only one possible motive. If they try it once, they’ll try it again. A lot of people- police included- would have been sorely tempted to take that shot, even when they knew that they’d likely suffer for it legally.

          Note: Ironically, Bert’s character was shown as one of the M.P.’s who stormed across the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen during World War II!

  2. Jack: Really appreciate your occasional (too occasional) lessons on US history, evolving cultural norms, and (sometimes) the ways in which the movie business has reflected same. (You should have printed all of Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code, by the way.) I know you’re getting really tired of me calling us a nation of morons, but since my own son developed an interest in history and basically taught himself about as much as I know (from the Founders through the Holocaust through the Cold War — my avocation became his on his own), I know he is in the probably 1% of the population who cares about it, thinks about it, and develops informed opinions about it. One only needs to look at our elected representatives to figure this one out…

    At some point, we need to “clean up” some police behavior. That is a given. But with the drug trade, illegal immigration, poverty that leads to illegal behavior and that the police can do nothing about, and idiotic changing mores regarding both, what are the police to do? (From the French & Indian Wars — Sachem says “What are the Hurons to do?” They, of course, were killed off.) Murders occur in the underground of our society all the time; regardless of the immorality of the deceased, the police and DAs are bound by law to try and find the killers and bring them to justice. Some may think we should leave well enough alone: as in “The Godfather,” let them kill each other off; we may be better off if we let them.

    As I’ve said before, no one knows (except in my 450-year-old historic district) what the police face every day, and how stress affects their judgment. I am NOT supporting the police who use fatal force when it’s not needed. After all, the cop had the guy’s car, his driver’s license — and by the way, an outstanding warrant for child support when he was driving a Mercedes — so the “perp” could have been easily found later. But what did that same cop face that same day, or the day before, or the day before? We talk and talk about the military and post-traumatic stress syndrome (yesterday I learned that SEVEN vets commit suicide every day): do we talk about the police in the same way? Nope. Or not that I’ve heard about.

    One idea (not original): In primarily black communities — which have evolved that way over time — there needs to be a concerted, pro-active move to get some black cops in there… A primarily black community policed by whites is an ongoing tragedy waiting to happen — and it has.

    So sorry about the rant. But then I guess you’re used to it.

  3. That was an inspired linkage on your part; very interesting, and thought-provoking.

    Though, if only to play devil’s advocate about the clear line towards enlightenment that you have drawn here, let me pose the case of Clint Eastwood vs. John Wayne.

    In a fascinating interview by James Lipton
    ( )
    Eastwood tells the tale of the filming of The Shootist (1976).

    The director, Don Siegel, originally wanted Wayne to shoot the bad guy who had just fatally shot him. Only problem was, as Eastwood tells it:
    “Wayne said, ‘You mean, you want me to shoot him in the back?’ Siegel said yes, after all the guy just shot you. Wayne said no way would a John Wayne character ever shoot a guy in the back.

    ‘Then Siegel made a fatal mistake. He said, ‘Clint Eastwood would’ve shot the guy in the back.’ And Wayne turned blue, and said if you want a back-shooter you can get a new star for your movie.'”

    Eastwood invented the anti-hero; and of course, he was the generation after Wayne, not before. So in theory, there’s a counter-example to the clear line of moral evolution.

    I think the resolution is that Eastwood’s characters generally appeal to a “higher law” than the usual corrupt suspects (e.g. the entire ‘civilized society’ in High Plains Drifter). You get the sense that Dirty Harry, or the Man with No Name, may have played fast and loose with the letter of the law, but they were always on the right side of the Higher Law. (Not unlike Huck Finn, now that I come to think of it).

    Would Eastwood condemn the shooting in the back of a man for unpaid alimony? I like to think there’s no doubt that he and Wayne would both be on the same side on this one.

      • I understand that John Wayne was more comfortable in a suit rather than cowboy gear (He regularly vacationed and played chess with Marlene Dietrich, e.g., not her lover but a great friend.) I am absolutely certain that, having read the script, Wayne would not have taken the role as Dirty Harry — even though Eastwood is and has been a hero for me as both an actor and director — really on the side of the angels. Wayne had his own integrity, and even if “Harry” might have sufficed for part of this integrity, the “only” part that took Wayne out was the 10% of Wayne’s integrity that didn’t fit.

    • It’s even more complicated:

      Clint got the part because he had just starred in the subversive Italian Westerns, which represented a warped Western culture and which bordered on satire (the Western was in the process of petering out). Those movies intentionally rejected the values of the Old West, which the Duke’s career celebrated. Meanwhile, Harry was part of the beleaguered Right’s angry backlash against Miranda and the Warren Court—he tortures a mad dog serial killer to get a confession (well, the location of a girl buried alaive, the equivilent of the “hidden atom bomb” “24” scenario), and to him, the end justifies the means. It’s not a new ethic, it’s just an unamerican one with links to Barry Goldwater, Al Capp, and Curtis LeMay. Oddly, Wayne, who was then the ugly face of tradition and the establishment to student protesters, still stood for the old sense of the good guys never playing by the bad guys rules, unlike, say, Dick Cheney.Wayne was the last standing Western movie star who didn’t accept the use of the Western as a post-modern indictment of the US, as in Peckinpaugh’s “The Wild Bunch,” which systematically had it’s anti-heroes demolish the Code of the West tenet for tenet, ending with shooting a woman, a literal Western taboo. (Duke was mighty rough with women though–as in “McClintock!” and “The Quiet Man.”

      And, as usual, even Duke had his exceptions: the Ethics Incompleteness Principle. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” he kills uber-bad guy Lee Marvin sniper-style from the shadows to save inept good guy lawyer Jimmy Stewart’s life, and also to save him for the women Duke loves, who will marry Wayne if Liberty kills Jimmy. That would seem as bad as shooting a man in the back, but it’s an exception—the greater evil would be to let evil prevail. It is unselfish…the greatest sacrifice of all, perhaps, giving up one’s principles for a greater good…essentially “sin-eating.” For the killing does more than kill the villain–it ruins the Wayne character’s life, as he is crushed by the guilt and by losing his love; it also shadows and taints the success of Stewart’s lawyer, who wins the girl and becomes rich, famous and powerful knowing that he is being rewarded for what another man did. If he reveals his fraud, the Duke’s sacrifice—he dies a broken pauper—is in vain, so he cannot tell the truth.

      John Wayne broke the Cowboy Code in that film to show the price you pay when you do.

      Your soul.

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