I rarely watch movies anymore. Although there is no question that film quality, special effects, and so on have improved decade by decade, it seems to me that films nowadays have lost something important compared to their predecessors. Or maybe I just care less for movies than I used to.
Nonetheless, my mind recently reminded me of a scene from The Professionals, a classic 1966 western (1). The film contains a fast-paced storyline and many harrowing shootouts; however, the reason I went back to it was for one particularly memorable scene involving a philosophical exchange between two adversaries, played by Jack Palance and Burt Lancaster, during a pause in the midst of a savage gunfight in the Mexican desert.
To provide some background (stop here if you want to watch the film first), the story takes place in the latter years of the Mexican Revolution. A wealthy rancher named Joe Grant has hired a four-man team, including explosives expert Bill Dolworth (Lancaster), to locate and return his wife Maria after her kidnapping by a revolutionary-turned-bandit named Jesus Raza (Palance). Upon reclaiming Maria from Raza's camp, the team finds out her father married her to Grant solely for reasons of prestige. Her true love was Raza, and her "abduction" was actually a rescue. As the team is pursued by Raza and his men through the desert, Dolworth stays behind to buy time for his companions to escape. He kills most of Raza's escort before getting locked into a gunfight with Raza himself, during which the two men converse with each other across a narrow canyon.
As Raza bandages a wound on his leg, he states, "You know, of course, one of us must die."
Dolworth quickly replies, "Maybe both of us."
Raza counters, saying, "To die for money is foolish."
Dolworth flatly responds, "To die for a woman is more foolish. Any woman, even her."
Raza ponders this response before asking, "How long you think to hold us here?"
Dolworth elaborates, "Oh, a couple of hours. Then what happens here won't matter. She'll be Mrs. Joe Grant again."
Initially, the two adversaries are merely trying to figure out the motives of the other. Raza appears to fight for his love of Maria, whereas Dolworth fights more for the money that Grant will pay him when the job is done.
Raza turns around, shakes his head, and says, "But that will change nothing. She is my woman. Before. Now. Always."
Dolworth states, "Nothing is for always. Except death. Ask Fierro. Ask Francisco. Ask those in the cemetery of nameless men."
Looking away, Raza vacantly replies, "They died for what they believed."
Mockingly, Dolworth counters, "The revolution? When the shooting stops and the dead buried, and the politicians take over, it all adds up to one thing...a lost cause."
And now, Raza realizes why Dolworth fights for the money - he has utterly lost any belief he may have had in a cause.
Cause Versus Reality
At this point in the exchange, Raza has figured out Dolworth. However, the reverse is not true; Dolworth still does not understand why Raza insists on reclaiming Maria, at the likely cost of his life. Yet Raza now begins to enlighten him.
Discovering Dolworth's nature, Raza laughs, stating,
Raza tells Dolworth that the expectations attached to his beliefs were too pure, that as time passed and he saw the reality of the cause he was fighting for more clearly, the reality failed to live up to his vision. Rather than hold onto his belief in a flawed cause, Dolworth chose to discard his belief in any cause. By contrast, Raza maintains his belief in causes, such as the revolution, and his love for Maria, despite the flaws embedded in the reality of those causes.
The essential difference between the two is this - Raza is willing to compromise reality to maintain his belief in a cause, whereas Dolworth will not compromise the reality to any envisioned cause.
Delusion, Or Disillusion?
Towards the end of the exchange, Raza has forced Dolworth to think hard about his perspective. Finally, he delivers what appears to be a knockout punch.
Raza turns around, looks Dolworth in the eye, and enlightens him again, saying,
"We stay because we believe.
We leave because we are disillusioned.
We come back because we are lost.
We die because we are committed."
By this statement, Raza explains that his beliefs lets him stay devoted to a cause, but accepts he may die as a result of that commitment, an outcome he deems acceptable. Raza also implies that by discarding his belief in any cause, Dolworth has become disillusioned and is now lost.
Something had always gnawed away at me about the meaning of this exchange; it seemed accurate, yet at the same time, I felt I was missing something. Was it better to keep believing in a cause regardless of contrary facts obtained from reality, even to die for it? Or better to acknowledge the reality, discard one's faulty illusions of a cause and remain without a cause, lost in a nihilistic view of reality?
Was it better to be Raza? Or better to be Dolworth?
And after some time, I decided that rather than look to the isolated argument of either man, the answer was to be found in the exchange itself. I think it is good to maintain one's belief in a cause, like Raza, but one should not prioritize that belief over the reality of the cause like he does, as this leads to delusion. Likewise, although Dolworth is right to prioritize reality over any cause, he is wrong to utterly cast away all belief in a cause that fails to meet his vision of it, as this leads to disillusion.
I think the best approach is to maintain belief in a cause, but to also be willing to modify the nature of the cause in accordance with feedback from reality. In this way, belief holds us to the cause envisioned by our mind, but our interactions with reality constantly forge the cause, forcing it to become sharper, clearer, and more defined with each successive iteration, and as this process repeats itself, the cause becomes worthier. Perhaps this way, one can use their cause to actually discover more about reality itself, and make their beliefs more accurate reflections of reality. Perhaps this way, one can avoid excessive delusion and disillusion, both.