chapter  11
14 Pages

• George Stevens: The American Character—Desire and Conscience

To understand his importance, we must examine Stevens’ director’s idea. George Stevens was interested in what I will call the American character, but he was not engaged with the poetic iconography of John Ford or the romanticized populist view of Frank Capra. Instead, Stevens seemed to be interested in a more complex view of the American character. Two opposing qualities stand out in Stevens’ work: the characteristic of desire and at the other extreme the characteristic of conscience. Desire and conscience might be embedded in different characters in a Stevens film, or they might be embedded in the same character. However he presented them, Stevens was able to look at the many aspects of the American character in all its contradictions-idealism versus self-interest, class versus classlessness, generosity versus greed. The result is considerable complexity and emotional credibility. Whatever genre Stevens worked in he was able to create a character arc and a dramatic arc that had an emotional synchronicity. The result was a series of films unique in American film for their mix of artistic and commercial ambition and success. The spirit of those impulses has been kept alive by Stevens’ son, George Stevens, Jr., who in 1968 established the American Film Institute. George Stevens, Jr., also made a fine documentary about his father’s work, “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey” (1985). A recent compilation of interviews with George Stevens is an invitation to revisit his work (see P. Cronin, Ed., George Stevens Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2004). In this chapter, we will focus on five excerpts from Stevens’ work that illustrate his director’s idea.