Those old enough to remember have probably forgotten—and those too young could probably never imagine—the criticisms that Ronald Reagan endured when he first ran for political office. During his campaign for governor of California in 1966, the incumbent, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, relentlessly attacked Reagan’s career as a movie star. One Brown television spot showed clips form Reagan’s pictures while a voice-over announcer said: “Ronald Reagan has played many roles. This year he wants to play Governor. Can you afford the price of admission?” In an appearance before elementary school students (also filmed for a commercial), Governor Brown told two black girls, “You know I’m running against an actor. Remember this: You know who shot Abraham Lincoln, don’t you?” The students began to laugh. “An actor shot Lincoln,” Brown said.

Reagan’s victory and subsequent reelection proved that the public didn’t mind particularly that he and John Wilkes Booth had once been actors. So critics soon switched their argument and said it was Reagan’s pictures themselves that were déclassé, asserting his performances were limited to B-grade films with absurd plots. Political opponents and commentators weren’t the only ones voicing such views. There is the famous scene from the 1980 comedy Airplane, in which Leslie Nielsen, playing a doctor, attends to an ill passenger at 30,000 feet who tells him, “I haven’t felt this sick since we saw that Ronald Reagan movie.”

Once Reagan became president, another line of attack came into vogue. Far from being only an average actor, he was a master showman—the “Acting President,” as CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer titled his book about the Reagan presidency. Reagan was a leader full of theatrics, the “Great Communicator” who applied the skills he’d honed on Hollywood soundstages to dupe the public into supporting his political agenda. The critics wanted to have it both ways, but Reagan was either a successful movie star, or he wasn’t.

In a final postmodern twist, Regan’s critics charged that he couldn’t distinguish fantasy from reality. The President had disappeared into the Actor playing the President. Had he been a liberal, Reagan would have been celebrated as the Chief Deconstructionist; but since he was a conservative, the critics implied instead that he was daft.

The $1 Million ‘Failure’

Few politicians, especially presidents, have lived as much of their lives in the public eye as Reagan has. Almost three decades of Reagan’s life before he became a candidate for public office are recorded on film. As his presidency recedes deeper into the past, and Reagan himself becomes part of history, it is now finally possible for his career as an actor and an industry labor leader—he served seven terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, starting in 1947—to be seriously examined.

Not only have historians and biographers missed the full significance of Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood life, they have largely ignored the importance of the roles he played, and the themes and storylines of his films. On closer examination, many of the themes that resonate in the majority of Ronald Reagan’s movies—patriotism, liberty, justice, sacrifice, loyalty, and idealism—are in keeping with the principles by which he lived his life, and the ones he used to shape the public policy of his presidency.

In all, Reagan made 54 films, portraying characters who were mostly heroes. True, some pictures just don’t fit Reagan. In Santa Fe Trail and The Last Outpost he played Confederate soldiers, even though as president he was fond of quoting Lincoln. In The Killers, a 1964 film based on the Ernest Hemingway short story, Regan played an underworld boss. The film is notable mostly because it is the only time he was ever a villain—in one scene he famously slaps another president’s real-life girlfriend, Angie Dickinson—and because it was his last picture. He regretted that he went out on such a note.

It’s difficult to call a failure the first MCA actor to win a contract (negotiated in 1941 by Lew Wasserman) worth more than $1 million. But that is one of the hackneyed accusations leveled repeatedly against Reagan. He was then getting roles that had been offered initially to the likes of William Holden, John Wayne, and Robert Young. In 1941, Jack Warner personally ranked Reagan ahead of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart as a studio commodity. Even years later, when Reagan turned to television as the host of General Electric Theatre on CBS, he was generating higher ratings than Arthur Godfrey, Red Skelton, Perry Como, Jack Benny, and even the powerhouse Gunsmoke series. These were not the accomplishments of a professional mediocrity.

Reagan’s best-known films are Knute Rockne All American (1940), and Kings Row (1942). In the former, he plays Notre Dame football star George Gipp. The lines from his deathbed scene—”Someday when the team’s up against it, the breaks are beating against the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got, win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, but I’ll know about it. I’ll be happy”—are almost as well-known as “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

And in Kings Row Reagan is playboy Drake McHugh, the only apparently normal character in a small town awash in dark, macabre secrets such as suicide, illegitimacy, and insanity. Even an operation that handicaps Drake for life (“Where’s the rest of me?!?”) doesn’t kill his spirit.

“The greatest movie I was ever in was Kings Row, and I think it was the finest part I ever had,” Reagan said in a 1980 interview about his Hollywood years. “I get a kind of naughty pleasure out of the fact that when it first came out, the critics panned it unmercifully, and today it is very often included as one of the ten best pictures of all time.”

Foreshadowing a Presidency

Some of Regan’s forgotten movies, whose final cut, shall we say, didn’t live up to the script’s promise, also happen to be some of his most interesting work. In Murder in the Air (1940), Reagan is Secret Service agent Bass Bancroft. The plot turns on a highly-classified device called the “Inertia Projector,” A special ray-beam that can shot down aircraft from four miles away. Journalist Frances Fitzgerald claims in Way Out There in the Blue, her book-length attack on Reagan’s prosecution of the Cold War, that the idea for missile defense was inspired by this film. (Reagan and Bancroft were alike in at least one respect: both were lieutenants in the Army Air Corps.)

Years later, Reagan described his general film type as one who would “rush into a room, grab a phone, and yell, ‘Get me the city desk! I’ve got a story that will crack this town wide open!'” And decades before Hollywood made Bob Woodward a screen hero, Reagan was showing that journalism could be even more exciting, playing a fictional reporter named Matt Sawyer in Nine Lives Are Not Enough (1941). Sawyer’s reputation for accuracy is questioned after he writes an expose about an alleged gangster called Moxie Karper (played by Ben Welden). Sawyer’s boss takes him off his regular beat as punishment, but the reporter is determined to prove himself. With the help of police officers he meets in the course of reporting his story, he eventually does just that, going so far as to connect Karper with an even more elaborate crime web.

International Squadron (1941) has one of the most moving storylines of any Reagan picture, and if pitched to studio executives today it would have the makings of a “Pearl Harbor”-style epic. In it, Reagan plays Jimmy Grant, a devil-may-care American stunt pilot who witnesses a Nazi air attack on London that kills a child, an incident that shakes him to his core. Grant’s sense of principle and morality is awakened, driving him to volunteer for the Royal Air Force. Ultimately, he insists on going into battle in the place of another allied pilot to atone for his initial complacency—a decision that costs Regan’s character his life.

Some pictures now appear tailor-made for him. In Storm Warning, the first of two movies released in 1952 that Reagan made with Doris Day (whom he also dated after his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, divorced him) Reagan is a principled Southern district attorney, Burt Rainey, who wages war against the Ku Klux Klan and wins. And later the same year, in The Winning Team, he delivers a command performance as Grover Cleveland Alexander, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher. Watching that film today, one cannot help being reminded of the tragic circumstances of the last few years of Regan’s life, given that the story revolves around Cleveland’s failing health. The pitcher was an epileptic, a condition Cleveland tired to conceal out of fear that the public would pity him. He went to extremes to mask his illness, and started drinking heavily, causing fans to turn against him. Eventually, with the help of his wife (Day), Cleveland overcomes almost insurmountable odds to help beat the Yankees in the 1926 World Series, securing his place in the pantheon of baseball greats. Regan loved that triumphal end, and the picture is one of his personal favorites.

Reagan wanted Prisoner of War (1954) to be more than just entertainment. The idea was to show the American POW experience in Korea in all its stark brutality, sparing nothing in depicting the extremes of communist brainwashing and torture. (The film’s technical advisor had himself been a POW in North Korea, and had interviewed GIs to help authenticate the script.) In it, Regan is an army officer named Web Sloane who parachutes into North Korea to infiltrate a POW camp. “The picture should have done better,” Reagan said in a 1980 interview. “Every torture scene and incident was based on actual happenings documented in official army records. Unfortunately, production and release were both rushed, with the idea the picture would come out while the headlines were hot.”

Role of a Lifetime

Reagan loved movies, and his work in Hollywood was as critical to shaping his presidency as practicing law was to Lincoln, or commanding the PT-109 was to JFK. Brass Bancroft, The Gipper, Drake McHugh, Grover Cleveland Alexander—all of them are critical parts of Reagan’s life’s work.

But the films that seemed to influence Ronald Reagan most profoundly were made about as far away from Hollywood as one can get. During World War II, Reagan was an administrator of the Army Air Force’s Signal Corps, and he helped supervise the making of military training and promotional films. That put him in a position to be one of the first to view the color footage of Nazi death camps filmed by government combat camera units and processed in Culver City before being sent to the War Department in Washington.

Forty years later, he still had vivid memories of the scenes. He recalled them to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the Oval Office. “It was unbelievable to sit there and see that film of not only the dead but the condition of the living,” Reagan said. “I remember one shot—I can never forget. There was a building that looked like a warehouse. The floor was entirely carpeted with bodies. While we were looking out in the middle of all those bodies, suddenly, slowly, one body moved and raised up, a man on his elbow, and he tried to gesture with his other hand. He was alone, alive with the dead.”

The films gave Reagan a visual image of evil in the world, and when the war ended, Regan secretly took a duplicate of one in the event that the day would come when the true horrors of the Holocaust were questioned. “Jews who had tried to make an escape just got mowed down,” he said. “The camera just panned along the fence, showing their hands still clutching at the wire.”

Reagan never won an Oscar. But even liberal historians now concede that he did win the Cold War, or at least played a decisive role in ending it. Jesse Jackson, of all people, recently admitted: “Henry Kissinger types bitterly argued that it was absurd to expect [that] a guy like Reagan could do anything with Gorbachev…and yet, Reagan made history that all those little wannabe Kissingers in the future will spend their working lives analyzing.”

By any measure, that is a performance worthy of a Lifetime Achievement Award.