Powers that be

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


This category includes some surprises because politics means more than the electoral contests, power struggles, and ideological stances of American politicians. It also represents the struggle of individuals against tyranny, which is manifest in places far from traditional political arenas. Here are the great movies with political themes.

"All the King's Men" (1949), directed by Robert Rossen from Robert Penn Warren's novel, uses the Huey Long story to trace a certain mythic trajectory in American politics. From reformer to populist to boss to martyr--it's all here.

"The Salt of the Earth" (1953), directed by Herbert Biberman, is an example of the kind of little mouse that had America holding up its skirts and shrieking in terror during the McCarthy era. It's a modest story of a miners' strike, but all the paranoid right's bugaboos are here: leftists, minorities, labor and women.

"The Last Hurrah" (1958), directed by John Ford, is a hearty handshake and a cigar from your local ward heeler in this tale taken from the Edwin O'Connor novel about a canny big city mayor and his boisterous entourage. It's a hat tip to the all-American political machine.

"Spartacus" (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick, is unsubtle in its use of a slave revolt in ancient Rome as a metaphor for anti-fascism. In proudly wearing the names of leftist writers Dalton Trumbo and Howard Fast, this movie signals Hollywood's abandonment of McCarthyism and embrace of the Kennedy Camelot.

"Mutiny on the Bounty" (1962), directed by Lewis Milestone, is the finest adaptation of the classic book because Marlon Brando captures a truth that eluded Clark Gable--Fletcher Christian is from a higher social class than Captain Bligh and the refined ideals he holds are what provoke his contempt for Bligh and trigger the mutiny. Even more tellingly, those ideals are what prove his undoing as an English gentleman.

"The Battle of Algiers" (1965), directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, is the paradigm for the anti-colonial "people's struggles" that swept the Third World during this era, culminating in the Vietnam War. In this case, it's the Algerians tossing off French rule in the 1950s.

"A Man for All Seasons" (1966), directed by Fred Zinneman, is the great parable of ideals broken on the rocks of expediency. The story of Sir Thomas More's war of wills with England's Henry VIII manages to be high-minded without getting sappy.

"Z" (1969), directed by Costa-Gavras, is the greatest of all anti-totalitarian movies in a somewhat fictionalized account of how the generals seized power in Greece. Its power to provoke outrage in an audience is awesome.

"Burn!" (1969), directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, is on one level an adventure movie about a slave revolt in a Portugese colony in the Caribbean and on another level an account of how market capitalism altered the needs of European imperialism. It's intriguing that Marlon Brando's character, the provocateur, is paid "an overall sum" and not a commission.

"The Candidate" (1972), directed by Michael Ritchie, is an insider's look at what's involved in becoming a U.S. senator. Robert Redford's character suffers the slings and arrows and ends up elected but with ideals in tatters.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), directed by Milos Forman, became an instant hit in the Soviet Union as a bootlegged videocassette because the Russians intuitively grasped the political meaning in Ken Kesey's novel. For Americans, the inmates' World Series vote is particularly instructive.

"Danton" (1982), directed by Andrzej Wajda, is clearly a cautionary tale for the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe in its recounting of the story of the French Revolutionary leader who died in the reign of terror he helped launch. It's notable that Danton is portrayed by the European everyman, Gerard Depardieu.

"The Official Story" (1985), directed by Luis Puenzo, is the compelling account of a sheltered upper class Argentine woman who begins to grasp that the new baby she has just adopted is the offspring of a political prisoner who was "disappeared" by the military government of Argentina. Her inquiries lift the lid on some of her government's dark secrets.


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