W. Joseph Campbell

Catching up: Great movie misquotations

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking on February 8, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Heavy snows that have shut down much of metropolitan Washington, D.C., including American University today, have allowed the opportunity to work away at a stack of back issues of newspapers.

So only belatedly have I caught up with the “movie misquotations” item published January 15 in the “On Language” column of the Sunday New York Times magazine.

The column's headline

It’s an entertaining and revealing column that notes that “many of the most frequently cited motion-picture lines turn out to be misquotations.”

One well-known line, usually attributed to the Clint Eastwood character in Dirty Harry, is: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

What the Eastwood character said was:

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

The column points out that another frequent misquotation is Robert Duvall’s napalm line in Apocalypse Now, which often is cited as:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory.”

The Duvall character’s remark was much more detailed and complex:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ . . . body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like victory.”

The column’s author, Fred R. Shapiro editor of Yale Book of Quotations, identifies several factors for the emergence of movie misquotations, including:

  • a tendency toward compression, as the Apocalypse Now example suggests.
  • a impulse to improve upon the original passage “by offering a better rhythm or cadence.”
  • an inclination for greater euphony. The famous Mae West line–“Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?”–really was: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” In another movie, she said: “Why don’t you come up sometime?”
  • an effort “to keep up with colloquial speech.” The line commonly recalled as “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!,” was uttered in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as: “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”

Shapiro’s column is evocative of the phenomenon of “version variability,” which I note in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths.

“Version variability” is the the imprecision that alters or distorts an anecdote in its retelling, leading to differing versions of what was said or done. It can be a marker of media-driven myths.

The so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite went on air to say the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate,” offers a striking example of “version variability.”

President Lyndon Johnson supposedly was at the White House and watched the Cronkite report that night. Upon hearing the anchorman’s dire assessment, Johnson turned to an aide or aides and said:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Another version quotes Johnson as saying: “I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Yet another version has it this way: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

And: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

And: “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

Version variability of  such magnitude is a strong signal of implausibility.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House when the Cronkite program on Vietnam aired. The president was in Austin, Texas, at a party marking the 51st birthday of his longtime political ally, John Connally.


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