Phil Kaveny

The Works of Philip Kaveny

Film Review of Bad Day at Black Rock by Philip Kaveny

Philip Kaveny Philosophy 328

(Philosophy of Film)

Final Paper Dr. Meyer

Twenty Fours Hours Could be a Lifetime in Black Rock Arizona[i]




The film Bad Day at Black Rock is set in a tiny town in the Arizona desert. The year is 1945, just after the end of World War II.  it is based  upon the 1947 short story Bad day at Hondo,  which is  about the process of discovery of the hate-crime  murder  of  a Japanese  farmer named Tomako  shortly  after  the Japanese  attack  on Pearl  Harbor on Dec, 7th  1941, nearly four years Ipso facto.  In the short story and the film the narrative centers on a number of white American members of the small community, led by rancher Reno Smith, who are complicit before or after the fact of the crime.  All of them either work for or are stooges for Reno Smith, who is played by the actor Robert Ryan.

The crime which took place nearly four years before  time frame  of the story  and the film  Bad Day  at  Black is unintentionally, yet forensically unearthed, with almost a mystical assistance of the landscape of Adobe Flat, the site of Tomako’s  burned out  farm and unmarked grave.  Yet  the landscape marks his  grave  with wild flowers, which Captain John J. Macreedy, played  by Spencer  Tracy,  correctly reads  as signifying  the murdered Tomako’s  unmarked grave site. Captain John J. Macreedy is not exactly a typical Western hero; he is only in the process of doing one last duty before resigning from the human race. That duty is to present Tomako with the posthumous award his son Joe Tomako earned in the process of saving the life of one Captain John J. Macreedy, his own life, that is.

Bad Day at Black Rock was released as a major Hollywood motion picture, in Technicolor and Cinemascope, in 1955. For purposes of this paper that fact the Bad Day at Black Rock was branded, marketed, and promoted as a major Hollywood motion picture is both complex and significant, however, for this paper I will only mention the American   national and international geo-political climate in which Bad Day at Black Rock first appeared, with its A list of major actors [ii].

Bad Day at Black Rock appeared at the end of the McCarthy era as his anticommunist witch hunt was ending. This was a time American national and international geopolitical events transpired which have now fallen off the event horizon for even the now aging baby boomer generation, let along subsequent generations of American. This timeframe was during the Cold War and  the era marked by the appearance of the Hollywood ten in front of the House Un-American Committee, and at  time when writers,  actors and producers were blacklisted , never to work again, for “Un-American Activities . Their ‘dangerous’ activities might have been as insignificant as attending a student rally against Fascism, or writing a college newspaper editorial, or perhaps joining the International Anti-Fascist League.

Since this film picked at the scab of apathy that covered of some very unfortunate events in American History, particularly the internment of Japanese Americans citizens to relocation centers (concentration camps), and the appropriation of their real and personal property for which they and their descendants were only partially compensated half a century later [iii] it was a risk to produce such a film for those involved.[iv]

The film, originally released in 1955,  has been re-released as part of a Classic Turner package in 2005 and has receive significant industry recognition and media attention, as noted in May, 10, 2005 Village Voice[v].  It has received very little critical academic attention within the fields of Philosophy, Philosophy in of Film, or Religious Studies. Perhaps that is because its publicity upon release and re-release assigns the film to the inappropriate genre. It is described as Film Noir even though most of it takes place outside and in the broad daylight with none of Noir stylistic and lighting conventions. Spencer Tracy is describe as playing a one-armed avenging angel even though he has both arms but has lost the use of one.  And he is described as a hardboiled detective, when in fact he plays a disabled, demobilized, US Army Captain.  I strongly believe all this really misdirects critical attention away from the broad range of political, and ecological, questions the film addresses. Further though the film is laden with tension and menace and though a murder is discovered and perpetrators are brought to justice, one of them dying in flames as he tries to murder those who have evidence of the hate crime murder, there is relatively little violence in the film.  There are strong differences in kind between it and the classic American Western. Bad Day at Black Rock is not about violence and vengeance. Bad Day at Black Rock is about community and healing, and the growth of character and virtue and community, a kind ironic cosmic justice.

One of my major contentions is this paper is that drawing upon The Carl Plantinga reading from Wartenberg  our class text is simply this. They give us warrant for not dismissing Bad Day at Black Rock for ideological reasons. By this statement I mean that we need to consider the economic and social relationships embodied in its existence as a mass-produced cultural product for a mass market. Nor should it be excluded because it engages, and perhaps even directs, spectator emotions as part of realizing its rather complex objective. Thus it must not be excluded because it violates some of Neo-Brecht formulations which look askance at engaging spectator emotion, according to Carl Plantinga article.[vi] That same article suggests that we need not be constrained by examining the film through a psychoanalytical framework which is less interested in the propositional content of the film, that is to say what actually transpires artistically and cinematically, than how the film might play out within the structures of the viewer’s conscious and subconscious mind.

According to Plantinga these for structures are assumed to be, at least to some degree, uniform in an inters-subjective sense, and on psychoanalytical level, by those who adhere to the psychoanalytic school of the philosophy of film.  Further to use my favorite of Carl Plantinga’s formulations and applying it to Bad Day at Black Rock,  I argue  that, adopting  his concept of the knowing subject and using  a rational analytical  frame,  one  may address some of the cinematic propositional content of  the film.  I also argue that because of the film’s propositional content, and because it works with certain brutal cinematic mastery, (all within in the time frame of eighty-three minutes running time), it should be included among iconic works we study in the philosophy of film, along with It Happened One Night, Citizen Kane, Fight Club, Mystic River, Blade Runner and of course The Lord of The Rings Film Trilogy, even if does not have a French director. In the his case the actual time frame of the historical film production of Bad Day at Black Rock certainly bear a family resemblance, in the sense Wittgenstein uses that phrase, to the events depicted in the film.[vii]

Turning to film itself, Bad Day at Black Rock, through the technological wizardry of my Amazon Kindle Fire Video on Demand and armed with my impression from my earlier viewings starting with a fifty-seven-year-old memory of the film as I saw it with my late brother John R. Kaveny as a theatrical release in 1955, my first current impression was shock. I was shocked because I remembered the film as being shot in black and white, For now I will table the question of subjective memory and current perception as the they relate to multiple film viewing of the same film across time with viewers like myself and reserve the question of whether or not Bad Day at Black Rock was colorized, for another time.

I wish to note that my first impression was surprise upon my most recent re-viewing of the film as saw the streamline passenger train shoot like a comet, pointing it’s finger at   Black Rock as it stops for less than a minute, for the first time in four years, to let John J. Macreedy off the train.  It is a scene of explosive tension, yet it is also one of double consciousness in that some critics and publicists classify Tracy’s depiction   of Captain John J. Macreedy, a disabled Army officer, as a Film Noir Detective, or even an avenging angel, because he moves with the grace of a caged leopard.  Even the truly demonic characters recognize him as big, substantial and seemingly immune to provocation.

Captain John J. Macreedy   has totally lost the use of his left arm which he must keep in his suit coat pocket at all times.  Macreedy served in Italy where he commanded a company composed entirely of some of the thirty-three-thousand Japanese Americans who served with distinction in the United States military. This was during the same time period when, “On February 12, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt caved in to the pressure and signed Executive Order 9066 that condemned over 120,000 of his fellow Japanese American citizens to detention camps for the rest of the war”. [viii]

Though not the major thrust of this paper there is a significant difference between the market representation of Bad Day at Black Rock and its actual content, and film suffers because it is better than it is represented. For example in much of the publicity for the re-release 2005 CD release of the film Spencer Tracy is characterized as a one armed avenging  angel. Yet when he gets off the train at Black Rock, Arizona his only mission is to spend a day finding the father of a Japanese American Soldier so that he can present that father with the posthumous medal his son earned saving Captain John J. Macreedy’s life. Later in the film Macreedy/Tracy tells Sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), that since he is not a whole man, this duty he is discharging to present the medal is the last thing he will do before he “resigns from the human race.” [ix]

In the process of doing this, he uncovers the hate-crime murder of his comrade’s father, four years before, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The murder as signified by burned  and abandoned farm house, the telltale flowers  on the grave site,  and the various degrees of complicity of the less than  dozen townspeople, ranging  from the murder himself, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), to the his accomplices, to those complicit by their silence after the fact are the films propositional content. The film speaks to the wholesale mistreatment of Japanese Americans as well as to the avarice and hate-crime violence enacted on many individual Japanese Americans, even those who served the country, and their loved ones.


As we move from the descriptive, historical social aspects of Bad  Day  at Black Rock  to  some of the more theoretical and philosophical relevant aspects of  the film  we again  turn  number some of Carl Platingas’s concepts as summarized on D2l and  our classroom discussion perhaps we  could think this activity as a kind of nascent  speculative philosophy , which is also bears family resemblance  to the scientific thought experiment  [x] We have historical warrant to do this since philosophical problems  are often  made accessible through the process of fictionalization. In ethics we have “The Live Boat Problem, or the Kantian Maxims, and of course though we use the example of the Race between Achilles and the Tortoise, or the vulnerability, of the mighty warrior who because he  held by his heals  by his mother  was probably fictionalized  creation. So in a certain sense even though in an empirical sense fiction is a lie because  in an empirical l sense  we can find no town of Black Rock , no hate crime murder  and  streamliner crashing  across the desert, in a philosophical, spiritual, religious sense, it is a lie that tells a truth. Something a way of thinking that kicked in for me as a result of Dr. Burns RELS 241 New Testament course. Of course for purposes of this discussion we assume and given reason to assume that the fictionalized Black Rock exists in a fictionalized moral universe were acts have consequence, and the leap across the chasm between what is and what out to be becomes manifest and finally , and though  the universe is speculative, within its parameters its moral properties are real, and  give signs as in the wild flowers marking the hate crime murdered Tomako.

We agree that the film is an artistic representation of something but since it deals with the humanity and landscape, and most important the representation of good and evil, concepts which formally and consistently  philosophers have found about easy to nail down as blob of mercury. I the fictionalized cinematic universe of Black Rock we suspend this discussion and our own disbelief and grant that there exist a moral universe where the “right thing is knowable and doable.  along with action ranging, from evil to complicity to indifference, action,  finally to justice and healing, this is dealing with  the world of practical reasons. That is to say what is depicted has a referent in the real world. Further though agree that directorial or auteur intent is subject to contention even by the auteur we can suggest, perhaps what we see explicitly and perhaps even implicitly. But still we should we the contemporary viewers care about events that took place seventy one years ago depicted in a film made fifty seven years ago. Because it depicts moral universe where   Martin Luther King’s Maxim “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.[xi]

Is that maxim a true justified belief or is a question which gets us lost in in the Wittgenstein bewitchment of language[xii].  Well since we are looking at the film Bad Day at Black Rock as fiction, we can assume that at least in its own artistic terms it does. Let us return to the screen play and look at the steel streamliner screeching across the   painted desert, with the high mountains as back ground the camera switches angles, now the train screams , toward us now, the shoot angle changes. Every day for the last four years since Tomako’s hate crime murder the train has barreled through Black Rock with a population of twelve  and two cross streets less than a third the length of the train. Fear cuts through the towns people and they are agitated. The train stops a late middle aged, almost old man, who moves with a menacing grace gets, which really a mast  to hide his low estimation of himself. As he gets off of the train talks to the conductor says as my title indicates twenty fours could be a lifetime in Black Rock. The cinematic representation US retired   Captain John J. Macreedy, appears an unlikely candidate heal re-ntegrate the town of Black Rock which has succeeded its hate crime murder from the moral universe. But first he must heal something he cannot do himself. Needs answered from the town people, and then he needs to care enough life to ask for help once his questions are answered.




Platinga—Ideological Film Criticism and Spectator Emotion

[i] BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK Screenplay by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman Based on the story “Bad Day At Hondo” Screen Play by Howard Breslin SHOOTING DRAFT (p.5)


[ii] Director: John Sturges Writers: Millard Kaufman (screen play), Don McGuire (adaptation), Production Companies Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (controlled by Loew’s Incorporated)(presents) (as M-G-M also) (A CinemaScope Production) (made in Hollywood, U.S.A. by)Loew’s (as Loew’s Incorporated)


Spencer Tracy… John J. Macreedy Robert Ryan… Reno Smith, Anne Francis… Liz Wirth Dean Jagger… Tim Horn Walter Brennan…  Doc Velie John Ericson… Pete Wirth Ernest Borgnine… Coley TrimbleLee Marvin… Hector David Russell Collins… Mr. Hastings, Walter Sande… Sam



[iv] Hollywood Ten

In October 1947, 10 members of the Hollywood film industry publicly denounced the tactics employed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an investigative committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, during its probe of alleged communist influence in the American motion picture business. These prominent screenwriters and directors, who became known as the Hollywood Ten, received jail sentences and were banned from working for the major Hollywood studios. Their defiant stands also placed them at center stage in a national debate over the controversial anti-communist crackdown that swept through the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Besides the Hollywood Ten, other members of the film industry with alleged communist ties were later banned from working for the big movie studios. The Hollywood blacklist came to an end in the 1960s.

The Hollywood 10 Placed on Blacklist

Hollywood Ten. (2012). The History Channel website. Retrieved 1:11, December 18, 2012, from


[v] Beauty: Spencer Suspenser Tops ‘Controversial’ Box


[vi] Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism.  Carl Plantinga 167-182




[viii] This information was sourced from The United Sates Government World War II Memorial Website.


[ix] Bad day at Black Rock  weekly Shooting Script page 78


[x] scientific thought experiment Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. Thought experimenting often takes place when the method of variation is employed in entertaining imaginative suppositions.

[xi] Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963 US black civil rights leader & clergyman (1929 – 1968



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This entry was posted on January 26, 2016 by in Academic Paper, Film, Kaveny, Philosophy and tagged , , , .
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