It is undoubtedly a sign of the times that we have not one but two films currently playing - "Apt Pupil" and "American History X" - that take as their theme the insidious seductiveness of hate. The timeliness of these films can hardly be denied in view of the recent brutal and cowardly murder of Matthew Shepard, whose mortal offense was that his preference in sexual partners differed from that of his assailants. It is easy to condemn that kind of hate crime, but difficult to deny how easily people who regard themselves as decent can fall into the kind of mindset that permits such heinous actions. The people who commit hate crimes don't have horns and a tail, after all. They look just like the quiet, unassuming kid who bags your groceries or parks your car. Also, don't forget, they weren't born hating. We're talking here about learned behavior.
Well, then, how is it learned? Like the rest of us, movie makers have been asking themselves that question for years. While drama may not be the best forum in which to come up with an answer, it is exceptionally well suited to helping us more fully understand the importance of the question. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have dealt with this issue, look for these titles on home video.
"The Master Race" (1944). Near the end of World War II, in a small Belgian town newly liberated from Nazi occupation, all appears to be well. And yet the fact that Nazi soldiers have been driven out doesn't mean that the poisonous influence of Nazism has been uprooted altogether. A German officer, operating undercover under the guise of an anti-fascist, quietly sets about sowing the seeds of discontent. Playing on the fears and prejudices of the townspeople, he stirs up resentment against the Allies as merely another hostile occupying force bent on exploiting the town.
"Crossfire" (1947). Robert Ryan gives a memorably chilling performance as a virulently anti-Semitic soldier who beats a Jewish man to death in a drunken rage without provocation. This film was based on a novel by Richard Brooks called "The Brick Foxhole." In the novel the victim was homosexual, but in the forties that topic was still too hot for Hollywood to handle. In fact, it took a certain amount of courage for studio head Dore Schary even to approve such a frank look at the problem of anti-Semitism.
"The Searchers" (1956). One of John Wayne's most memorable characters was Ethan Edwards, the tortured protagonist of this classic John Ford Western. When Ethan's brother's farm is raided by Comanche warriors, the adults are killed and the two daughters abducted. Riding out in pursuit, Ethan soon discovers the body of the older girl. The younger daughter, Debbie, is presumed to still be with the Comanches. Consumed by hatred, Ethan doggedly follows her trail. For seven long years he grimly pursues the tribe that took Debbie. As his hatred grows, however, his purpose changes. No longer seeking to free Debbie, it becomes clear that he instead means to kill her, because in his mind she can no longer be regarded as his beloved niece. In view of the fact that she has lived among the Comanches for so long, Ethan can only regard her as a "squaw." Wayne paints a memorable portrait of a man seduced by race hatred. By the end of the film, Ethan has become so thoroughly possessed by this hatred that he cannot exist apart from it.
"The Intruder" (1961). This remarkable little drama represented something of a departure for producer-director Roger Corman, who normally specialized in lightweight exploitation fare. Here he adapts Charles Beaumont's novel about racial unrest in a small Southern town. William Shatner plays the title role, a member of a reactionary group called The Patrick Henry Society. With Machiavellian ease this outsider is able to appeal to the baser instincts of the townspeople, inciting them to oppose the integration of their schools by whipping up race hatred.
Each of these films effectively dramatizes the seductiveness of hatred. Their ultimate message is that hate crimes will always be with us, no matter how strict the laws or how stern the penalties. In the end perhaps our last, best hope is that there will always be storytellers such as these to hold up an unflinching mirror to this unfortunate aspect of the human condition.