Exploring Masculine Aggression and Religion
The 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film Cape Fear by Martin Scorsese provided a perfect forum for the examination of two recurring subjects that have brought Scorsese significant acclaim in the film industry: masculine aggression and religion. Beyond examining these themes, though, the film gave Scorsese a chance to incorporate Friedrich Nietzsche‘s criticism of contemporary morality into the storyline. The basic struggle between a law-abiding citizen and a violent criminal was employed in this integration to clarify the fundamental contradiction between the liberal principles denounced by Nietzsche and the more primordial ‘noble values’ that the philosopher championed.
In the first film, a traditional Hollywood story is told about a classic fight between Max Cady, who is shown as an unredeemable evil predator, and Sam Bowden, who is shown as the embodiment of moral rectitude. Bowden is portrayed by Gregory Peck as a small-town lawyer and loving family man who witnesses Cady’s vicious attack on a woman. Peck is the perfect example of virtue. Cady is imprisoned for eight years in large part due to Bowden’s testimony contribution. On the other hand, Scorsese’s adaptation goes above Hollywood storytelling conventions to create a plot that unapologetically applies Nietzschean analysis to the entire structure of contemporary Western values.
The film’s 1991 opening sequence opens with a close-up of Danielle Bowden’s face as she remembers her early years, filled with perfect trips to the family’s houseboat on the Cape Fear River. She recalls “I thought the only thing to fear on those enchanted summer nights was that the magic would end, and real life would come crashing in.” The action then shifts to Max Cady’s prison, where the spectator is presented with the image arrangement that covers the walls of his cell. Of particular note are the sword-wielding Nietzsche, the picture of the saint surviving an arrow wound, and the portrait of Joseph Stalin. When the camera pans down, Nietzschean philosophical texts like The Will to Power and Thus Spoke Zarathustra are seen side by side with volumes on criminal law. After that, Cady himself is introduced in the visual story, seen working out with his toned back. Notable is the prominent tattoo that covers his entire dorsal region. It features justice scales shaped like a cross, with the words “justice” and “truth” written on each scale. Above these emblems are depictions of a drawn sword and a Bible, which stand for power and morality.
Nietzsche, in his explanation of noble principles, notes the historical model provided by the Greek nobility, whom he much respected and who called themselves the ‘We true ones’. The nobility’s understanding that they were arbiters of worth rather than merely passive recipients of it was essential to their integrity. The good person thinks of themselves as the creator of something valuable, aware of their part in inspiring fear or awe in the face of phenomena. Nietzsche goes on to describe the beginnings of these great civilizations, arguing that they were founded by people who could only be described as “barbarians” in the strongest possible sense—people with a relentless will to dominate and predatory tendencies. These forebears of more advanced cultures subjugated more submissive, agrarian societies that were on the verge of collapse by forcefully demonstrating their will and prowess. According to Nietzsche, these inferior cultures were dying, their waning vitality counterbalanced by brief bursts of intelligence and extravagance, like a spectacular but short-lived fireworks display.
In Cape Fear, Scorsese deliberately uses the metaphorical imagery of fireworks to represent the contemporary ideals espoused by the French and American revolutions. The portrayal of the story’s beginning on the eve of Independence Day makes this meaning evident. The figure of Cady stands on the border wall separating the Bowden property, silhouetted against a background of exploding fireworks, against the patriotic setting of this celebration. The following day, the Bowden family is immersed in the celebrations of an Independence Day parade, with an air of innocence and group unity. But when the harsh reality of life gets in the way, this perfect façade becomes destroyed. A crucial scene is when we see Cady from Sam Bowden’s point of view, standing across the street with his eyes focused on Leigh, Sam’s wife, rather than the procession. A fight then breaks out as Sam, driven by a wave of anger, tries to hit Cady. However, he is stopped by the stunned onlookers, who step in to break up the battle. At this point, Cady openly mocks the effectiveness of the judicial system and threatens Sam with legal retaliation, while the gathered crowd silently nods, implicitly supporting Cady’s ridicule of the law.
Scorsese purposefully chose to have this mockery of rights take place in the middle of a busy scene. This calculated move is consistent with the way Nietzsche envisioned society in his philosophical writings. Supporters of a “free society” are described by Nietzsche as groupings similar to “herd animals,” united by a common mistrust of any kind of justice based on coercion and by a communal dislike of anything unique or privileged. The idea of a collective ethos based on a widespread feeling of empathy and compassion, marked by a dislike of seeing or allowing pain, is fundamental to Nietzsche’s portrayal. The ‘herd’ forms an egalitarian structure based on the idea of equal rights within this framework. Nietzsche poses a rhetorical question on the usefulness and significance of such concepts in a homogenized society by questioning the necessity of “rights” in a social order based on equality for all.
The Noble Person
Nietzsche believed that the noble person possessed an intense sensitivity to their baser desires, such as their natural will to dominate. According to Nietzsche, the underlying motivation of this ambition to power is hidden beneath the surface of traditional social decorum that is upheld by institutions of law and religion. He makes the argument that, despite their appearance of providing some degree of freedom, traditional moral rules are a kind of tyranny imposed on human nature. He does this by contrasting them with the idea of “natural” freedom. According to Nietzsche, these moral precepts serve as a constant form of coercion that stifles people’s natural displays of uniqueness and energy. Nietzsche, on the other hand, supports an interpretation of freedom that allows for the possibility of autocratic laws and hence allows for the existence of natural hierarchies in which stronger people establish their superiority over lesser ones. He argues that the application of such limitations leads to the emergence of true values and the evolutionary process of the human species. According to Nietzsche, the brutality, arbitrariness, and harshness that appear to be present in the world are necessary stimulants that help the European spirit develop resilience and fortitude. According to his theory, the repression and enslavement of life forces and spirits are essential conditions before a strong and resilient cultural ethos can emerge.
Nietzsche goes on to describe the traits of the noble person as someone who respects the innate strength within them, finds comfort in the strict discipline of self-control, and values austerity and severity. Nietzsche is credited with creating the proverb “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” This proverb finds application in the last scene of Cape Fear, when an unaffected Cady watches hot wax from a flare trickle down his arm, signifying his resistance to suffering and misfortune and giving him a perceived advantage over his relatively inexperienced opponent. Cady tells Leigh about his transformational experience during his fourteen-year captivity, wherein his drive to transcend his humanity was created via the endurance of severe conditions, as the wax starts to drop. In “Human, All Too Human,” Nietzsche suggests that education should aim to strengthen a person’s will to such an extent that they become unaffected by straying from their chosen course. He argues that this strengthening frequently requires wounds to be inflicted—either by the teacher or by the vagaries of fate—which operate as conduits for the injection of nobility into the person’s character. Nietzsche elaborates on the idea of self-overcoming, explaining that real strength is conquering one’s limitations and shortcomings in addition to merely dominating others. Moreover, Nietzsche argues that true knowledge originates from a passionate “will to truth,” which takes the form of an intense desire to extract lessons from the trials of life. To pursue truth, one must be prepared to let go of the consoling illusions that traditional values perpetuate and face the hard facts of life. Cady’s statement that “every man carries a circle of hail around his head like a halo” therefore emphasizes Nietzsche’s claim that overcoming hardship is a necessary step on the path to enlightenment and fulfillment.
Scorsese’s portrayal of Cady is a conduit for Nietzschean philosophical ideas in many ways, allowing for a thorough reexamination of the seemingly simple moral beliefs ingrained in the all-American Bowden family. In the Bowden family, Cady is seen as a representation of savage animality. Cady even embraces this image of himself, as seen by his self-deprecating claim to be “one hell of an animal.” But in Scorsese’s hands, the traditional wisdom that an animal is a lower form of life than humans is completely rewritten to include Nietzsche’s claim that our animalistic, primitive essence is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. According to Scorsese’s understanding, the Nietzschean viewpoint maintains that suppressing our primal animal inclinations threatens the integrity of our humanity. Consequently, the distinction between humans and animals is reinterpreted as a mutually beneficial partnership, in which recognition and assimilation of our instinctual nature are considered necessary for achieving complete human growth.
Nietzsche argues that the noble ideal exemplified by Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the valiant Sam Bowden is only a continuation of Christian “slave values,” which are defined by a corrupt ethos of enslavement and submission. But Scorsese’s vision of Sam Bowden departs from this great portrait. In Scorsese’s adaptation, Bowden becomes a morally nuanced character that is tinged with moral uncertainty and human imperfection. Interestingly, Bowden represents Cady in his aggravated rape trial but purposefully omits important evidence that would have lessened Cady’s guilt or resulted in his acquittal. Though Bowden’s efforts go against his professional duty as a public defender, they are motivated by a conscience-driven refusal to let the legal system defend a man he fervently feels is guilty of a horrific crime. In addition, Scorsese’s depiction of Bowden deviates from the conventional wisdom of the ideal husband and father figure. Given his reputation for having extramarital affairs and his unstable and contentious marriage to Leigh, Bowden’s marital fidelity is questioned. When their daughter looks to her father for protection, she sees only the depressing spectacle of constant conflict between her parents and doubts about her father’s faithfulness. It is in this already precarious family structure that Cady appears, causing disarray and disturbance and testing the family’s forbearance and flexibility without the legal protections that Bowden usually depends on.
The Embodiment of Modern Morality
Sam Bowden, as a public defender, represents the idealized core of modern morality and is entrusted with representing and defending moral standards under the confines of a modern liberal democracy, which Nietzsche saw as having lost its inherent vitality. Although Bowden has a strong professional devotion to the principles of the legal system, he has serious doubts about the intrinsic justice of the legal system. To defeat Cady’s Nietzschean anti-hero in their existential battle for survival, Bowden eventually escapes the safety of civilization and faces his opponent in the primordial world of nature, reiterating Nietzsche’s idea of a place where instincts run wild. The storyline traces Bowden’s slow transformation from a refined but lustful lawyer to a crude but saved figure.
Bowden is first shown as a small-town lawyer from North Carolina who is slender and glasses-wearing. He seems to be a man of legalistic rectitude, but he is also willing to break the law sometimes to please friends. But Bowden’s loyalty to the law is steadily undermined by Cady’s cunning schemes and psychological blackmail, forcing him to step outside the legal system to protect his family from Cady’s predatory actions. To fight Cady’s threats, Bowden first tries to use legal tactics, using his ties in law enforcement to have Cady monitored and searched. But Cady’s legal knowledge makes such strategies ineffective, so Bowden reluctantly hires a private investigator named Kersek. Bowden initially clings to the possibility of containing Cady’s threat within the confines of legal propriety, despite Kersek’s temptation to use illegal measures. However, Bowden loses faith in the effectiveness of judicial recourse due to Cady’s bold offenses, such as poisoning the family dog and viciously attacking a colleague.
Before becoming completely a blond beast, Sam tries to stay away from violence, following Kersek’s advice and recruiting people to physically confront Cady. But Cady proves his shrewdness once more, defeating his attackers and using a taped threat that Sam had made before the fight to file a lawsuit against him. Scorsese pays homage to the original film by casting Gregory Peck as eminent civil rights lawyer Lee Heller, who helps Cady get a restraining order against Sam. In the trial that follows, the presiding Judge explains high moral standards and declares that he is granting the restraining order to promote Christian concord rather than to support the parties’ animosity. The mocking reply from Heller/Peck is, “Even King Solomon could not have adjudicated more wisely.” These sentences clarify the connection between the moral principles that Nietzsche disapproved of and their fundamental Judeo-Christian roots, parodying both by emphasizing how the legal system is inherently flawed and dependent on the people who wield it.
Sam finally decides, under Kersek’s persuasive influence, to follow Cady’s example of manipulating the law, using it as a cunning tool of his own will to power instead of abiding by it as an inflexible rule. Sam and Kersek come up with a plan to trick Cady into going to the Bowden home, where it would be acceptable to use lethal force to repel the intruder. But to effectively trap Cady, Sam has to make it appear as though he is not in the house, which means he has to hide in a squat to avoid being seen through the windows. This image, which Scorsese created, is a symbolic portrayal of Sam’s Nietzschean ‘evolution’ into a more primordial state—a move from defending the law’s inherent sanctity to using it as a tactical instrument to achieve his goals. His physical regression from an upright bipedal stance to a more primitive posture is shown concurrently with this metamorphosis, signifying his regression to a more instinctive condition. Repelled by the scheme to trap Cady, Danielle sarcastically mocks her father’s involvement, reminding him of his weakness—an implication of cowardice.
Fleeing to Sanctuary
When the carefully planned scheme to capture Cady backfires, forcing the Bowden family to flee their home and take sanctuary on their houseboat, Sam contacts the authorities to report the emergency, citing the doctrine of force majeure and declaring that “legally speaking, it means all bets are off.” Sam and his family are at this point without any outside assistance or resources, so they must rely entirely on their creativity and resourcefulness. Sam gives up his commitment to traditional moral rectitude and fights a primitive battle for life to ultimately defeat his opponent and save his threatened marriage. In the film’s final scene, Sam adopts an ape-like stance, lets out primordial grunts, and engages in a fierce battle for supremacy with just a crude stone—a striking representation of his descent into a basic state of existence.
Sam ultimately triumphs over Cady by going back to and embracing his basic instincts. Fear is the most primal of these innate desires, and Scorsese skillfully addresses it from a Nietzschean angle in Cape Fear. Cady makes use of several occasions to clarify the meaning of fear, portraying it as a powerful tool that people can use to their advantage and integrate into their development. In their conversation at the theater, Cady lists all of Danielle’s concerns and urges her to use them as a springboard for strength and awareness. Later on in the scene, Sam is apprehensive about killing another man and says he’s waiting nervously for Cady to break into his house so he may legally confront him with Kersek. But Kersek comforts Sam, telling him that his fear is real and that he should accept it wholeheartedly. According to Kersek, fear is an inherent aspect of Southern culture. The region has historically flourished in an environment where fear prevails, including dread of the Indigenous population, fear of enslavement, and fear of external enemies like the Union. Scorsese clarifies the Nietzschean idea that fear is a fundamental element that supports human existence and acts as a stimulant for resilience and personal development through these interactions.
According to Nietzsche, the ‘bad’ person is someone who inspires terror, and slave morality, as a representation of the collective herd, describes such an individual. Earlier periods saw communal organizations facing external challenges, and instinctive traits like rapacity and a drive for power—which terrified opponents—were praised as beneficial to the group’s well-being. These same primitive inclinations were later demonized as communities gained protection from outside threats and their perceived threat shifted from outside enemies to other members of the community. As a result, a neighborly loving morality that was based on understanding one’s neighbor arose. As a result, the society upholds a moral code that values equality and modesty, labeling as “evil” any characteristics that elevate a person above the group. Nietzsche asserts that fear was the primary motivator for Europeans to acquire this idea of “good,” establishing fear as the origin of morality.
In Beyond Good and Evil, the violent adversary Cady claims that Sam the lawyer is not morally superior to him. After defeating three hired attackers, Cady pursues Sam relentlessly, claiming his intellectual and philosophical superiority. He asserts his ability to overcome Sam in learning, reading, reasoning, and philosophical understanding, and perseveres in physical hardship. Cady rejects the idea that proving Sam’s dominance would require a physical fight, stating he will resist and outlive any attempts to bring him down. Nietzsche’s concept of spiritual power as a system of limitations and self-actualization is evident in the narrative, where Cady wins through pure willpower and perseverance, while Sam uses his inner power to overcome hardship. This narrative coherence aligns with Nietzsche’s understanding of spiritual power as a system of limitations and self-actualization.
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