Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Italian radicals produced a whole clutch of great movies--to choose one I'd go for Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion. The system can't find the chief of police guilty even though the facts are staring them in the face. Queimada tells the story of a slave and maroon revolt in the Caribbean and has Brando as Governor Eyre explaining the workings of imperialism in one amazing speech. Pelle the Conqueror is a brilliant Swedish film about migrant labour and the weird ways of the rural bourgeoisie. I'm a sucker for comedy so I have to choose here between Keaton, Jacques Tati, Fernandel, Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Woody Allen. I'll take Woody Allen's Zelig not because it is particularly funny but because it shows how some personalities can become all things to all people. Rather like Tony Blair in fact.
One great film--not at all a classic--comes to my mind at once. It's called El Norte (The North) and it tells the story of a young brother and sister from Guatemala emigrating to Los Angeles. It is a film about exploitation, 'We are just the arms and legs for the rulers', says the young man. It's a grim lesson for all those in comfort who seek only to 'protect' that comfort from immigrant workers. The barbarism against the exploited couple is the film's main theme--but its real glory is in the way they persevere and resist. In the end it seems obvious that the real hope and laughter in the world can only come from the dispossessed and those who fight for them.
Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves is set around the tiny drama of an Italian worker. Desperate for a job, he finds work as a bill poster only to have the bicycle he needs stolen. The search for the bike opens up whole sections of society. It features many nonprofessional actors, stunning city scenery and has a real feel of how working class people live--genuinely tough on the causes of crime.
Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate is one of the great stories of class conflict and personal commitment. It's better known as the film that broke an entire studio.
But its reputation as a financial disaster has obscured a marvellous work of art. The full (205 minute) version is a panorama of the struggle between the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association and immigrant settlers, based on the real Johnson County Wars Of the 1890s.
An epilogue shows the hero, James Averill, in 1900, a broken figure, unable to stay with the poor settlers, unable to look on his own class with anything but disgust The critic David Thomson was right to say that 'anyone should be able to see the scheme of immigrant and individual against the capitalist system'. One of the film's stars, Isabelle Huppert was also right to say that the film was a victim of 'a miscarriage of justice' which 'posterity will one day redress'.
La Regle du Jeu was made by Jean Renoir during the brief interlude between the Munich settlement and the outbreak of the Second World War. It depicts a weekend party in a country house, managing to expose with unmatched elegance, wit, and humanity the corruption and conflicts of French society. On its release the film was a flop--not surprisingly since it predicted the Vichy regime that was to take power a few months later.
John Ford's The Searchers tells an apparently simple story of obsession, revenge and reconciliation which focuses on the price of winning the west and the victims and losers it left behind.
Orson Welles made many great films. My personal favourite is Touch of Evil, set in a seedy Mexican border town. From the famous opening tracking shot, which ends with a car and its passengers being blown apart, we're on a rollercoaster to hell.
Au Revoir les Enfants is based on the real life experiences of the film's director, Louis Malle. Set in wartime occupied France in a boys' boarding school, it tells the fate of Malle's young Jewish friend who is ultimately betrayed.
The Leopard is a stunning film in every way. The decline and fall of the aristocracy in 19th century Sicily is shown through one family against the background of Italy's unification and the rise of a powerful middle class. Burt Lancaster's prince understands that 'everything must change in order for everything to remain the same' but is trapped as part of the old order.
One of the best political thrillers is set in modern Italy. Illustrious Corpses shows the intrigue and corruption at the very heart of the state machine. Another fine film is Akira Kurosawa's Ran--the story of King Lear translated to Japanese warlords is a visual treat.
My choices are by no means classics, but they don't half make you feel good. Thelma and Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes and 9 to 5 are all about women from the bottom of society fighting back--and having enormous fun doing it. All are brilliantly acted, have great music and show that it is possible to make films with a strong and positive political message.
It's impossible to tire of The Godfather. Both parts one and two flow together. The final scene when Al Pacino is left alone to contemplate just what he's become speaks volumes.
The film 1900 takes us through the life of agricultural labourers in Italy. This is a story of rebellion, war, fascism and near revolution. The cast is fantastic, with Burt Lancaster as the patrician landlord, Robert de Niro as his son, Gerard Depardieu as the village's revolutionary and Donald Sutherland as the local fascist psychopath. If you ignore the very last scene, it explains why in 1945, when Northern Italy was in the control of armed workers flying red flags, the revolution miscarried.
Finally, I have to admit to a liking for westerns. The full length version of Heaven's Gate offers a different view of how the west was won.
One of the most powerful portrayals of a liberation struggle in cinema must be Battle of Algiers. The solidarity of the whole Algerian community as they protect the 'terrorists', even at the risk of their own lives, shows better than any theoretical account why people turn to violence to fight imperialism. The scenes of the Arab women slipping through the French checkpoint making up and dressing in Western clothes while packing their baskets with bombs destined for cafes in the French quarter, are unforgettable, while the drumming soundtrack builds up the tension. This battle is brutally defeated but the optimism of the closing shots of demonstrations and the haunting wails of the women from all over the Kasbah show that the mass struggles to come would ultimately be victorious.
In Mr Smith goes to Washington, James Stewart plays the lead role of Jefferson Smith, a naive young politician filling a seat in the senate whilst a corrupt political machine works all around him. Full of idealism, he develops a project to create a camp for 'boys of all nationalities...to educate them in American ideals'. But other senators have plans to use the land for a dam construction in which they'll profit. Smith attempts to win mass support for his project, but the film ends with his attempted suicide, brought on by his continual disillusionment in, and betrayal by, the 'American system'.
The best reason for watching this film comes from the senator who told the press at the time that the film would 'tell the people that 95 out of 96 senators are corrupt that the federal, state and municipal governments are corrupt; that one corrupt boss can control the press'. They don't make them like they used to.
Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, is perhaps my most cherished film. The story is of an android, known as a Replicant, that seeks out his maker to discover how long he will live. It reflects humanity's greatest struggle--against time itself. Since seeing The Cook, The Thief His Wife and Her Lover in 1990 I've developed a passion for the films of Peter Greenaway, all of which I would class as favourites. The Cook, The Thief.. is the most politically explicit, being a powerful denunciation of Thatcherism, and the philistines we know as 'yuppies'. Every aspect of this film is a feast from costume and set to Nyman's magnificent music.
As a kid I loved watching cowboy films. In those days there were good guys and bad guys and you always knew who was going to end up in the cemetery. Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai transfers this formula to feudal Japan. A group of mercenaries come to the aid of a peasant village terrorised by bandits. If the story sounds familiar it's because The Magnificent Seven was its poor American imitator.
Next up is Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets: a film as sharp as De Niro's and Keitel's shirt collars. A film about smalltime Italian gangsters in New York, it is the model that all other films in this genre have followed.
Finally, Lawrence of Arabia is on my shortlist--an epic which is beautifully shot and has a classic music score. it is a million miles from the truth but that is, after all, the magic of cinema.
I saw Costa Gavras's Missing when living in the US and it had a big impact on me. It is about a man searching for his son after the 1973 coup in Chile and exposes the idea that the coup was for democracy as a brutal lie, making clear the CIA were up to their necks in it.
A favourite that is intensely satisfying every time is John Huston's The Maltese Falcon. It's a classic--dark, dramatic and packed with great actors.
The more recent Cyrano de Bergerac, with wonderful subtitles by Anthony Burgess, is a beautiful film that stands any number of viewings.
Alain Corneau's Tous les Matins du Monde and Derek Jarman's Caravaggio are two sumptuously shot films about the link between art and politics.
In both we see the corruption and decay of the established orders as they cynically attempt to assimilate the great art of their times. Corneau's film is the story of a Protestant musician's defiance of the French aristocracy.
Jarman's is a tale of the Vatican's hypocrisy as the higher echelons take the young gay artist Michelangelo Caravaggio into their service.
Both these movies show that, rather than belonging to our rulers, great art is truly revolutionary.
The 1989 civil war film Glory is my favourite film of all time. It is an emotionally riveting account of the key role played by black soldiers, many of them escaped slaves, in winning the American Civil War--and the impact fighting in the war had upon them.
The Godfather parts one and two is a brilliant look at an Italian-American family through three generations, as they become one of the most powerful mafia organisations in the US.
The 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a hilarious, yet tragic, look at life in a state mental hospital--and the patients who rebel against it.
Charlie Chaplin's rarely seen Monsieur Verdoux is full of brilliant gags but packs an anti-war punch. 'Kill one,' sighs the wife-murderer, 'and you're a villain; kill millions and you're a hero.' Of Jean Renoir's films, inspired by the Popular Front upheaval in France, La Grande Illusion, set in a First World War prison camp, combines sharp class observation with a plea for national reconciliation.
In Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus who can fail to be moved by the slaves' solidarity when the Roman general tries to get them to betray their leader and one after the other they shout, 'I am Spartacus'?
In The Third Man (director Carol Reed) individuals struggle for love and human decency amid the ruins and corruption of postwar Vienna. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles) is a graphic depiction of the destructiveness of individual ambition and striving as expressed in the American Dream. October and Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein) are visually brilliant portrayals of the masses taking control of their own history in the naval rebellion of 1905 and the Bolshevik Revolution. One Two Three (Billy Wilder), set in Berlin, is a hilarious satire on East German Stalinism and Western capitalism. Viridiana (Luis Bunuel) exposes the useless sentimentality of religious and liberal dogoodism. A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood) is a gloriously anarchic send up of snobbery and pretentiousness.
The Third Man, scripted by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, is set in occupied Vienna at the end of the Second World War. Displaced persons, the homeless and penniless are trying to survive, caught between the various military authorities who harass them. It is a bleak film, which shows how quickly the Allies abandoned their high moral stance once the Axis powers were beaten.
Another classic from Carol Reed is Odd Man Out which tells the story of an Irish Republican, Johnny. The power of the film is to show the essential decency of people in spite of their tough existence in a working class community dominated by a sectarian ruling class.
Finally there is Wadja's Canal--set in Poland during and immediately after the war. It is the story of the aftermath of the Warsaw uprising--when the defeated resistance was forced into the city's sewers. It is the most harrowing film I've seen. There is no escape. Nonetheless people still stick together, loyalties remain intact and the will to survive remains.
In The Front Page the height of comic genius (Jack Lemmon as supremo hack and Walter Matthau as slimeball editor) is deployed to show the depths to which newspapers will sink to land a scoop. A Soviet made allegory (by a Georgian director), Repentance, about Georgian mayor Varlam (read Stalin), is a must if only for one haunting scene that sums up the nightmare that was Stalinism--a bleak landscape where a poet's young wife and small daughter hunt in vain among hundreds of logs sent from the labour camps for some carved message from her disappeared husband.
Finally, slave revolt epic Spartacus tells of the courage, dignity and collective power of the seemingly powerless--and best of all it really happened.
Peter Weir's anti-war film Gallipoli is one of my favourites. Set during the First World War it follows the lives of two young men, played by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, who are caught up in the pro-war propaganda that swept Australia. For the thousands who enlist it seems as nothing more than a great adventure, although--as Gibson explains while trekking through the desert from Perth to enlist in the army--'If we don't stop the Germans now, they'll come over here!' What gives the film its edge is how effectively it shows the futility of sending young conscripts over the trenches to a certain death, as the incompetent British officers sit idly by.
In the marvellous anti-imperialist film Queimada Pontecorvo (who made Battle of Algiers) directs Brando at his best. The Calcutta director Satyajit Ray is required viewing: my favourite is Distant Thunder, set in the horrific man made famine which hit British ruled Bengal in 1942. Andrzej Wajda's Canal is about a group of partisans in the Warsaw rising of 1944. Finally, two lesser films--Kirk Douglas's post-Watergate western, Posse, and Dennis Hopper's homage to the fighting spirit of the late 1960s, Flashback.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese) follows the struggle of a working class mother to rebuild her life after her husband dies in an accident. It is not a comedy or a tragedy and because it's a road movie, what happens along the way is more important than a resolution at the end. Nothing is black or white. Alice loved her husband, even though he was sometimes violent, but his death is a scary kind of liberation. Her kid is a companion but also a burden. Alice is not a hero, nor just a victim. She does her best in difficult circumstances. She does it all with the kind of exasperated sense of humour that just keeps so many people the right side of despair.