Let the Sleepers Wake: A Brief History of Politics and Film
|By: Dr. Tom Snyder; ©2000|
|Dr. Tom Snyder, Managing Editor for Movie-Guide Magazine, looks at the treatment of politics by film makers in the 20th century.|
LET THE SLEEPERS WAKE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF POLITICS AND FILM
Politics and movies have nearly always been linked together by someone, but the start of that linkage may have gained the most attention with D.W. Griffith’s controversial Civil War movie Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. It created an understandable firestorm of protests over its blatant negative stereotypes of people with black skin. Griffith’s movie has remained so controversial that the Directors Guild of America recently changed the name of its lifetime achievement award named after Griffith.
The political nature of film art reached another zenith in the late 1920s when Sergei Eisenstein’s pro-Communist movie, The Battleship Potemkin, first reached America. A groundbreaking work, Potemkin made many American critics sit up and take notice, especially left-wing critics like Dwight Macdonald. It wasn’t until Adolph Hitler’s National Socialists came to power in Germany in the 1930s that political cinema, or propaganda, had as great an influence, if not more, than Eisenstein’s Potemkin or Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
Ironically, of course, Eisenstein used Griffith’s 1919 epic, Intolerance, as a blueprint for his own movie. Also ironically, one of Eisenstein’s contemporary Soviet filmmakers, Dziga Vertov, in one of his crazy documentaries, used an image of jazz musicians with black skin to portray the alleged decadence of capitalism, thus echoing the offensive images in Birth of a Nation! In his movies, Vertov used avant-garde techniques designed to distance the audience from the content and people in his movies, so that viewers would be more inclined to think critically about what they saw. He hoped this would help the average viewer to deconstruct the power structures of modern society, thereby increasing the likelihood of the long hoped-for proletariat revolution.
Interestingly, Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht used similar techniques in the theater at nearly the same time. Later, in the second half of the last century, the Communist government in East Germany, controlled from Moscow, would finance Brecht’s little theatrical experiments. In doing so, they attracted much interest from artistic leaders in the West. These leaders became the legitimate (or illegitimate?) heirs of the Communists whom Hollywood expelled from its midst in the late 1940s and 1950s.
That’s pretty much the way things remained for a few years until the French film industry was re-invigorated in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a group of filmmakers with Marxist leanings. The media called them “the French New Wave.” They would have a significant influence on world cinema, an influence that continues today in such movies as Cradle Will Rock, Any Given Sunday, South Park, and Being John Malkovich. In Any Given Sunday, for example, director Oliver Stone uses scenes from the chariot race in Ben-Hur to reflect upon the debate between an independent-minded young man, played by Jamie Foxx, and Al Pacino’s Coach Tony, who is trying to tell Foxx’s character that he must sublimate his own ego for the good of the team.
The most radical of the new French filmmakers, and the most influential when you consider the three movies mentioned above, was probably Jean-luc Godard, a devout Marxist who helped train America’s own Jane Fonda in the ways of Cinemarxism. Godard actually began to adopt many of the techniques of Eisenstein, Vertov and especially Brecht. Happily, however, his more overt, and expressionistic, Marxism alienated the popular audience. Even so, other filmmakers have used Godard’s Brechtian techniques to create their own, usually more accessible movies. Such movies proved easier for the mass audience to digest, especially if, like Robert Altman’s MASH, they had a better sense of fun in them.
In 1968, Godard was at the forefront of the Marxist student protests in Paris, France. Those protests led to a renewed interest in Marxism around the world, including an interest in Marxist political analysis of popular movies. In fact, Marxist analysis of movies is now the only kind of political analysis of movies on college campuses throughout America, France and England. In doing such criticism for the past 25 years, film scholars have combined Marxism with the Identity Politics of Feminism and Homosexualism, as well as a Marxist view of the issues of race and class. Few, if any, of these scholars use a conservative, libertarian or Christian approach to movies. If they did, they would probably lose their jobs because they would never be able to get the good student evaluations that a tenured position on our politically correct college campuses now requires.
One of the main tenets of these Cultural Marxists is the idea that human beings are basically good. They believe that enlightened people can use government to bring out this inner goodness in most people. This idea, of course, has religious connotations. As the late conservative historian Russell Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind, “Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” The idea that human beings are basically good, and hence perfectible in this life, also contradicts God in Genesis 8:21, where God told Noah, “The intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Thus, Cultural Marxism is not only anti-God, it’s also anti-Jewish and anti-Christian. Jews and Christians must, therefore, oppose the policies of Cultural Marxism. They also should use these two ideas from Mr. Kirk and from God to develop a valid political philosophy that disputes the dominant Marxist ideology of our times and in our mass media.
The question arises, however, are there any major movies today, in the past year for instance, which have, at least a little bit, managed to undermine the Marxist juggernaut that’s been raging for the last 70 years?
In an issue last year, I argued that one conservative-leaning movie might be Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. There’s an anti-tax, anti-big government subtext in that movie which stems from the fact that evil, the so-called “dark side of the Force,” is a temptation which characters must resist if they are to survive. In such a menacing world, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Although not specifically Christian or even Jewish, The Phantom Menace suggests that people must properly get in touch with a spiritual world in order to avoid the evil within their own natures.
Another movie which seems to have anti-Marxist tendencies is The Matrix. In that somewhat violent movie, the heroes battle an evil, mechanized world of machines, which has turned all of humanity into an energy source which the machines drain for power. The subtext here is that Big Government, which tends to suck up all power, eventually will destroy anyone who tries to be autonomous. The heroes wake up from their totalitarian dreams when they begin to challenge the reality, or the paradigm, that the machines feed them. This is exactly what happens whenever a Marxist, or a neo-Marxist, such as political philosopher David Horowitz, author of Radical Son, begins to find facts that dispute the carefully designed fantasies of Marx.
We have to peer all the way back into Hollywood’s Golden Age, however, to find examples of political cinema that fit better into a biblical worldview. For example, in Frank Capra’s vastly underrated 1940 masterpiece, Meet John Doe, we find a particularly American, and somewhat populist approach to politics. In that movie, Capra shows how a devious, National Socialist tycoon can pervert the power of the press to spread lies that will attract the following of the “Common Man.” In a scene worthy of Shakespeare, the tycoon realizes the power he holds when he spies his servants mesmerized by a radio broadcast of a populist speech given by Gary Cooper, who plays a hobo who unwittingly gets mixed up in the tycoon’s affairs. The speech Cooper reads is a heartfelt series of emotional pleas patched together by a woman reporter from her beloved father’s homespun aphorisms. The biblical mandate of “love thy neighbor” becomes the battle cry of Cooper’s speech. The Americana portrayed by Cooper and Capra in this sequence is absolutely wonderful.
Meet John Doe also has deep, complex messages about the impact of Big Government, Big Business and Big Media. These universal messages have reverberated throughout the 1990s, especially in the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Bill Clinton. In the end of his movie, Capra’s sentiments are decidedly in favor of the “Common Man” and the populist tradition of liberty in America. There are even more religious undertones at the end, when the woman reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck in one of the greatest performances ever by a movie actress, makes a reference to Jesus Christ’s vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind. Her impassioned speech makes a powerful case for not letting political defeat weaken one’s spirit to support the Cause of God’s Kingdom on earth.
The great American film director, John Ford, also combines religion and politics in his 1939 color classic starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, Drums Along the Mohawk. In this story about the American Revolution, the local Christian pastor and his church plays an important role in the lives of the white settlers in the Mohawk Valley in New York. The pastor even participates in defending the community with a rifle when the settlers hide in the local fort from the British and their cohorts, the local American Indians. At the end of the movie, the new American flag makes an appearance. All the characters pay homage to it as it is placed on top of the fort while church bells ring out joyously.
While Drums Along the Mohawk doesn’t have quite the political savvy of Meet John Doe, both movies use religious symbols and references to illuminate strong political sentiments. Perhaps, it is because of these spiritual connotations that their use of politics seems more refined and enduring than that of something like Potemkin, Being John Malkovich, Cradle Will Rock, or Godard’s movies. Like and The Phantom Menace, they are also more accessible to the average movie-going audience, even though Meet John Doe’s complexity was widely misunderstood at the time of its original release.
Still, despite the success of these movies, the combination of politics and religion remains a virtually unexplored area. Part of the reason for that is the secular mindset of the current Marxist artists who control the creative reins of large portions of the entertainment industry, if not its purse strings. Another reason is the simple fact that the movie medium just seems better able to propagandize than to enlighten spiritually or politically. For that, studying written texts and history will always be better.
Yet, Christians and Jews cannot simply abandon the medium of film to Marxists and other tyrants. They’ve already been doing that for too long. The result of that has been more movies like Cradle Will Rock, South Park and Fight Club and fewer movies like Meet John Doe and Drums Along the Mohawk. The question is, do we want to saddle the next generation with the same level of mediocrity?
No, the people of God must wake up from their slumbers. They must work hard to light more candles in the darkening political landscape. To quote Tim Allen’s character in the witty Galaxy Quest, “Never give up! Never surrender!” Unlike that movie, however, God’s people would do well to know what they’re talking, writing and recording about when it comes to politics. That takes diligent study, not only of Scripture but also of history, philosophy and art. If they fail to do the proper study, they will just be offering up more easy targets for jaded intellectuals to shoot.