The movie starts with two officers in the US Air Force fighting in the ring. The major outboxes the captain even as he gives him pointers. There is a contradiction here: fighting to win means doing harm to your enemy. Teaching him means doing him good. What if he learns? The first impulse is the essence of competition. But men want not merely victory but a victory that means something. That means fighting great adversaries, other men.
The major refuses therefore to take the money he won. – It goes without saying, each men bet on himself. – The captain wants to pay up, because he gave his word, but the major refuses, because his adversary did not fight in earnest. The captain offers to solve the paradox: sparring. This resembles the fighting, but does not involve death. It is unserious, like the captain, who says the money really belongs to the major, not because he won it, but because he stole it.
Victory requires complete seriousness because it requires the fighter to believe that whatever he wins is worth risking, & therefore losing, his life. Otherwise, why fight? Therefore, the victorious man claims his prize, or if he is denied his ambition, then he is no longer himself. Thus the major knows the military & the country committed injustice against him.
This is the story of great ambition. There are men who cannot be satisfied with the way people live their lives. These men are rewarded for their great services with great honors, for they greatly desire the love of their countrymen. But if they cannot serve their country, they will fight it. They may be fought back, but not spurned or ignored.
The major is such a man. He teaches war to show his knowledge. He wants influence commensurate to the power of flying nuclear weapons. But the military dislikes arrogance as much as the civilians dislike war. He bitterly proposes to live for the money, as men do in a commercial republic, & to buy shares in the most secure cars in the world, for Americans love comfort & safety. Thus, he wants to teach America an uncomfortable lesson: money can also be made by lawlessness & treason.
America is defended by the captain, who loves flying more than war, like the hunter who loves the chase but thirsts not for men’s blood. Being American, he is suitably modest. He stands up for himself knowing he is not the best. He cheats occasionally & worships neither rules nor praise. To win, he needs a woman’s help, who guards the land. She is the poetic image of America: spirited & self-reliant. Though unused to war, unwilling to be enslaved.
The first American movie John Woo made. Find it. See it.