19 March 2012


United States – 1980
Director – Jerrold Freedman
Avid Home Entertainment, 1995, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 44 minutes

In the early 1980’s a whole little cluster of border films came out within a few short years. It seemed that suddenly, illegal immigration was contentious again. In Border Cop (1980) Telly Savalas, and The Border (’82) Jack Nicholson each played a jaded Border Patrol agent who threw up his hands in cynical and frustrated sympathy. He may have felt deeply for the plight of the illegals, may have even been good friends with some of them (or even fallen in love), but he still had a job to do. Borderline, which came out just a few months after the Savalas picture was a gap in my Bronson collection that I had long needed to fill, but I was worried that it might be a difficult experience.

You see, I get totally confused when we white people make movies about non-white people. I start to feel like my emotions are being intentionally manipulated, especially when white actors play sympathetic non-white characters. Steven Segal, Burt Reynolds, Marlon Brando, Telly Savalas; the list goes on and on. Even my creasy Polish-American hero Charles Bronson played Mexicans and Native Americans on occasion. Bronson’s may have been the most believable brownface portrayal, but it still felt somehow disingenuous. These characters are repeatedly robbed, abused and even killed with much handwringing, but my feelings of empathy were all too often haunted by an inkling of insincerity which I couldn’t quite place. I don’t like having to think too deeply about what’s going on on-screen, it really ruins my suspension of disbelief.

It turns out I needn’t have been so concerned. Bronson, though he may have been typecast, or facecast as it were, always manages to deliver yet another compelling performance. In Borderline he plays Jeb, a Border Patrol agent much like his cinematic contemporaries; physically and emotionally overwhelmed with the contradictions of the very system which cuts his paychecks. It is such a difficult and thankless job being the responsible, caring zookeeper. But after watching as crowds of immigrants were herded about like frightened cattle in a prison yard for the first few minutes of Borderline, I was once again feeling the early stages of nagging guilt. But moments later, when Jeb’s best friend and fellow agent Scooter (Wilford Brimley) was brutally murdered, I suddenly had a revelation.

Scooter’s killer is Hotchkiss, “The Marine” (Ed Harris), a cold-blooded, uzi-weilding Nam Vet working for a local California businessman in a grand conspiracy to rake in the cash by drowning the U.S. labor market in a sea of malleable brown servants. Now even though the complications and tensions of illegal immigration policy are central to the rivalry between the Jeb and Hotchkiss, Borderline is not about illegal immigration at all. In fact it’s never even discussed. That’s because everything troublesome about immigration is embodied in one unscrupulous and evil individual, Hotchkiss whose elimination “solves” everything. Jeb’s clear-cut moral victory relieved me of any responsibility for the active contemplation of systemic social issues that often makes watching dramatic movies so unpleasant. Pitting these two men against each-other was brilliant. Not only do they play their roles with gusto, but it utterly mystifies one of the most contentious issues in modern U.S. politics. I must say though, if I have to cheer on the retrenchment of the status quo, Bronson’s the guy who’ll get me to do it every time. It’s so much easier when complex moral issues are boiled down into charismatic and easy to digest character tropes. If it had been anyone but him I would probably still be feeling guilty.

Wait, who's the headliner here, the Subject or the Objects?

French, Italian and United States' posters from Movie Poster Shop.
The French one is my absolute favorite, maybe one of the best posters of all time. It perfectly exemplifies the misguided self-deluding quality of white-people making movies about brown-people.

German poster-thing from Movie Poster Database
Why does (almost) every poster have a giant United States' flag on it?


RetBorderCop said...

Borderline is the only film which was approved of by the Border Patrol. At the time they were doing it they hired actual Agents as extras. I was working then and remember the flyers on the bulletin board. We Agents felt it was a realistic portrayal of the job,although of course it was 'Hollywoodized'.

The Goodkind said...

Yeah, they used real uniforms and all. I thought it was great that Bronson's character Jeb passed himself off as a Mexican and had himself smuggled across the border just so he could catch the bad guy. That's commitment.