James Stewart — born May 20, 1908 — made many films over his long acting career. Included among these are seven films of interest to libertarians, likely the record to date for any individual actor, and a record not just in quantity but in depth of libertarian content: two of his films are ranked among the Top 25 Libertarian Films ever made. His films touch upon multiple libertarian themes, from government corruption, to social tolerance, to the importance of a free press, to gun rights, to opposition to the draft.
Stewart’s first libertarian film was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a now-classic from Hollywood’s Golden Age about an ordinary American appointed to the Senate who is nearly destroyed by a corrupt political machine. Think all hope for liberty is lost? Need some inspiration? This is the film to watch. This hero’s quixotic battle of one against the ill-informed many is an image with which many libertarians will identify. It’s a powerful film, which at its first opening was the subject of considerable controversy. When the Washington Press Club sponsored the film’s debut, inviting four thousand politicians, politicos, and other guests, the premiere backfired. Some of the guests were offended by the film’s criticism of Washington, arguing that it would hurt the country’s morale. Columbia Pictures was subsequently offered several million dollars to shelve the film but released it anyway.
A year later, in 1940, Stewart starred in The Mortal Storm, which follows the rise of National Socialism in prewar Germany as it divides family and friends, each choosing sides according to personal convictions. This is one of the first films to portray Nazism critically; up to this point, Hollywood had taken a neutral position or even a sometimes sympathetic attitude toward fascism. What makes The Mortal Storm particularly noteworthy is its dramatization of the social domino effect that takes place once authoritarian rule reaches a certain critical mass, as ordinary people align themselves with even the most malignant power for fear of incurring its wrath. In such an environment, tolerance and the truth are the first casualties. When this film was released in 1940, Hitler was so offended by it that he banned it in all territories occupied by Germany, rather a lot of territory at the time.
In 1948, James Stewart starred in Call Northside 777, based on a true story about a heroic reporter who cleared an erroneously convicted man. It’s a heartwarming tribute to a free press and a reminder of its importance as a check on government, as the reporter must lock horns with the justice system to free the man the courts unjustly put behind bars. Call Northside 777 is something of a film noir. Direction is at times inspired, particularly with regard to its use of cinematography that makes the most of its early docudrama style.
This was followed in 1950 with Harvey, about an eccentric man who believes he is constantly accompanied by a giant rabbit, which of course no one else can see. So his sister attempts to have him institutionalized. The theme here is social tolerance, and it’s expressed through one of the most charming comedies of confusion ever filmed. James Stewart plays his leading role to the hilt and is supported by many wonderful performances in smaller roles, including that of Josephine Hull, who spends the entire film in near hysterics to great comic effect. This is a well written story full of good will and humor that implicitly defends the freedom of eccentrics to be eccentric.
James Stewart had a lifelong interest in aircraft, and volunteered for the Air Force in WWII, serving heroically, taking great risks in missions over heavily-defended Axis territory. In No Highway in the Sky, he played an eccentric engineer who reveals a fatal flaw in the design of a commercial airliner. Unlike today’s shallow and unlikely portrayals of evil businessmen forever in conflict with creative genius, in this film all involved in the manufacturing process are of good will, but with conflicting perspectives derived from their different areas of knowledge. This is a good example of the creator-as-hero theme. It’s also a very enjoyable film, a drama with a light comedic touch and a positive view of the human character.
In 1952, Stewart played the lead in Carbine Williams, a biopic about Marsh “Carbine” Williams, the ingenious self-made inventor who ultimately earned seventy patents for weapons design, including one for the M-1 Carbine. This light, short-barreled rifle, adopted by the U.S. in World War II for troops previously armed with pistols, saved the lives of countless GIs. Marsh was also a strong-willed man who believed deeply in his own freedom, so much so that he openly defied Prohibition and its enforcers and was incarcerated as a result. It was while in prison that he developed some of his most important inventions. Stewart is ideal in his portrayal of Williams, projecting a character of great determination and toughness through subtleties of expression, speech, and even posture. It’s a satisfying film that Second Amendment fans in particular will not want to miss.
In 1965, in the middle of the Vietnam War, James Stewart made an anti-draft film, Shenandoah, about a Virginia farmer who defies both the Confederate and Union armies to steer a neutral course for his family through the American Civil War. The anti-draft and antiwar elements are prominent, very satisfying, and must have struck a chord with many when the film was released. The story is alternately humorous and moving, with a first-rate performance by James Stewart, who steals the show as the cantankerous but caring father, a tough man with a deep love for his wife and children. It was the runner up for “Best Libertarian Picture” at the 1994 First International Libertarian Film Festival.
Stewart was a staunch Republican, with sometimes libertarian instincts. Per Wikipedia, he once had a political argument with arch-leftist Henry Fonda, ending in a fistfight, and he campaigned for libertarianish presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and for Ronald Reagan. His choice in film roles says much about him — no other actor to date has contributed so much to libertarian film. He died in 1997. President Bill Clinton commented at the time that the country had lost a “national treasure … a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot.” He got that right.