Category Archives: Film

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

“Way to Go Paula”

The Shiite mob that stormed the United States Embassy in Iraq chanting “Death to America” the day before New Years Eve left me feeling no strong emotions one way or the other. It’s not going to change anything. While the Taliban and all of Shiite and Sunni militias in Iraq are strong enough to mount attacks on United States troops, they are not strong enough to expel the United States from Iraq or Afghanistan. While the United States is not strong enough to create a pro-Israel “democracy” in either country, it is strong enough to maintain bases in both countries for the foreseeable future. Those bases, near Iran and Russian, aren’t the means to a end. They are the end. Short of a militant anti-war movement in the United States capable, not only of mounting protests, but of disrupting American society — which at this point looks unlikely — the American ruling class is perfectly content with the current stalemate.

Pro-Iranian militias storming United States Embassies did, however, leave me feeling a bit nostalgic for my long lost youth. I’m a member of what I like to call the Boomer X Generation, people born between 1960 and 1968. We’re not Boomers. We’re not true Gen Xers. We’re somewhere in between. We have two foundational political memories, one conscious, one subconscious. The first you’ve probably guessed already. On November 4, 1979, a Shiite mob stormed the headquarters of the CIA in Tehran, otherwise known as the United States Embassy, holding 52 American “diplomats” hostage for 444 days, guaranteeing the election of Ronald Reagan, who opened up a back channel to the Iranian government in order to persuade them not to release the hostages until after his inauguration. The second is the bitter recession deliberately provoked by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who jacked up interest rates in order to discipline the American working class, which had grown increasingly militant and powerful in the 1970s. By 1982, when An Officer and a Gentleman was released, both the anti-Vietnam-War movement and the Labor movement had been decisively defeated. The age of neoliberalism had begun.

The most interesting thing about Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman isn’t the fine performance by Louis Gossett Jr., the tough Marine Corps drill sergeant who makes a man out of the loner and “rebel” Zach Mayo, played by the 33-year-old Richard Gere, a bit too old to be a naval flight school recruit, but still quite viral and handsome, or the ridiculously beautiful Deborah Winger, but the fact that the most puritanical, sex-negative movie you can possibly imagine was successfully marketed as a romance. Like the earlier Saturday Night Fever, which was sold as a fun movie about dancing, but which was in reality a dark film about rape culture among working class Italian men in 1970s Brooklyn, An Officer and a Gentleman effectively masks its true political agenda. Even though it features some local hoodlums spitting on clean cut Naval recruits and calling them “warmongers,” it’s primary message is not even about patriotism or militarism. On the contrary, An Officer and a Gentleman sidesteps both in favor of something much more subtle, the idea of the military, and by extension the military industrial complex, not only as a way to get out of the working class, but as the only way.

While Gere’s Zack Mayo repeatedly declaims that “I want to fly jets,” An Officer and a Gentleman is not, like Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, or Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, about the romance of being a pilot. There are in fact, in spite of the way it was filmed in and around Seattle, the home of Boeing, no planes at all in an Officer and a Gentleman. An establishing scene early in the film shot across the Puget Sound near the naval base at Bremerton shows, not an aircraft carrier or a Northrop T-38 Talon training jet, but a pair of Iowa class battleships. While Mayo owns a Triumph motorcycle, we never see him riding fast, or looking up at an aircraft flying overhead, or anything that would express a desire for speed and elevation. Just about the only time we hear any discussion at all about aviation is one brief scene in an aerodynamics class, and in the famous scene where Mayo and his fellow recruits are made to ride brutal crash simulator that teaches them how to recover in the event they have to ditch their planes over water.

What Zack Mayo really wants is a father. Brought up near the huge American naval base of Subic Bay in the Philippines by an abusive father, an enlisted man in the United States Navy, Zach is a casualty of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Brian Mayo, a sneering womanizer played by Robert Loggia, not only abandoned Zach’s mother, and let his son know he wasn’t wanted, but regularly brought home prostitutes. When the film opens, Zach is now a young adult, a recent college graduate, but his father has shown no signs of changing his ways. He’s still interested in only two things, getting drunk and banging whores. The elder Mayo has no interest in his son’s plans to join the Navy and become a naval aviator. In fact, he openly sneers at the idea. Brian Mayo may wear the uniform of a Chief Petty Officer, but he’s the 1960s counterculture personified, a cynical hedonist concerned only about himself. The American working class, the film is saying, is corrupt and amoral.

Zack Mayo finds his real father in Gunnery Sergeant Axel Foley, a tough as nails Marine Corps drill instructor with a heart of gold who is eventually revealed to everything Brian Mayo is not. “Where have you been all your lives,” he says when he first meets Zach and his fellow recruits, “at an orgy? Listening to Mick Jagger music and bad-mouthing your country.” Foley also warns Zach and his fellow recruits to stay away from “Puget Sound Debs,” as he derisively refers to the working class women from not yet gentrified Seattle metropolitan area. In Saturday Night Fever, young, working class Italian American men who are rapists and sexual predators. In An Officer and a Gentleman, young, working-class women are hard, cynical, and have a purely transactional view of romance, sex in exchange for a chance at getting into the middle-class. They’ll put out, not because they enjoy it, but for a chance at trapping a naval aviator into marriage.

While Zach Mayo is savvy and sophisticated, Sid Worley, his middle-class friend, played by a young David Keith, is trusting and naive. When they hook up with two local women, however, Mayo gets the virgin, Paula Pokrifki, played by Winger, and Worley gets the whore, Lynette Pomeroy, played by the late Lisa Blount. Both young women work at a local paper mill. Both want to escape. Paula is sophisticated and worldly wise — like Mayo she’s from a broken family — yet charming and innocent. Lynette is hard, vulgar, and like Mayo’s father, in spite of all the sex she seems to get, joyless and cynical. If Paula is attracted to Zach’s wit and intelligence, then Lynette picks Worley because she sees him as an easy mark. Both women actually have a right to be calculating and manipulative. Zach and Sid see them as being little more than easy fucks to be abandoned the day the finish their basic training and move onto flight school. Paul and especially Lynette may have a predatory view of sex and romance, but what other options do the two young women have? Paula’s father almost makes Zach’s father look like a fun guy in comparison. Lynette lives in a shack.

Zack Mayo and Sid Worley while more superficially “privileged” then Paula and Lynette — they’re both college graduates at least — also face a stark choice. Either they get through flight school and make it into a upwardly mobile elite with access to cutting edge technology, or they go back down into the overly sexed, drug and booze addled proletariat. Axel Foley knows it and plays it for all its worth. He’s the gate keeper to the meritocracy, to the only chance many young men in 1982 had for a meaningful career, and while he’s not a sadist who enjoys the power he has over his young recruits for its own sake, he is responsible for making sure that anybody who gets behind the controls of a state of the art jet fighter is willing to do what it takes to make himself valuable to the American empire, up to and including war crimes.

“I know why most of you are here. We weren’t born yesterday. Before you get to join United Airlines and sell them what we teach, you gotta give the Navy six years of your life! Lots of things can happen in six years, including another war. And if any of you are too peace-loving to dump napalm on an enemy village where there MIGHT be women and children, that’s what I’m here to discover…! I expect to lose at least half of you before I’m finished. I will use every means necessary, fair and unfair, to trip you up – that is, to expose your weaknesses… both as a potential aviator, and as a human being. The prize at the other end is a flight education worth $1 million! But first, you gotta get past ME.”

In other words, the film is telling us, the 1960s are over. When Paul Volcker slammed the breaks on the American economy in the late 1970s, it effectively killed the possibility that any American can just drop in and out of the middle-class at will. It’s 1982 and you’ve got one chance at upward mobility, and if you blow it, it’s a dead end job at the paper mill. If Zack Mayo makes it and Sid Worley doesn’t, it’s because Mayo knows the stakes and Worley does not. While Zack is presented, in typical 1980s fashion, as a “rebel,” he’s actually a calculating, upwardly mobile striver, keeping a supply of spare gear in a hidden space over his bunk that he’s willing to sell to his fellow trainees for a profit. Foley is determined to break Mayo down, not to erase him as an individual, but to teach him loyalty to the class he wants to enter. At times, Foley’s treatment of Zack Mayo feels a little bit like a fraternity hazing, but like a fraternity hazing, it has a purpose, to implant in Mayo’s brain the difference between an in group, his fellow naval aviators, including the lone woman, and an out group, the morally corrupt world of the Puget Sound Debs and their families. Important is the idea that outside of the in group, life is meaningless. “I’ve got nowhere else to go,” Mayo pleads, finally gaining Foley’s approval. “I got nothing else.”

Sid Worley, on the other hand, is destroyed precisely because he does in fact think he has somewhere else to go, because he doesn’t understand that outside of the United States military there is only economic and social death. While Sid is the son of a United States naval officer and the younger brother of another United States naval officer killed in Vietnam, he foolishly decides to give it all up for what he believes is true love. After Lynette lies and tells him she’s pregnant, he initially tells her he’ll pay for an abortion, but eventually decides to give up the opportunity to be a naval aviator and propose marriage. “I’ll get my old job at JC Penny,” he says. “It might be a little tough at first and we might have to live with my folks but we’ll make it. In a few years, I’ll be an assistant manager.” After he announces his plans, Lynette looks at him like he’s retarded. She doesn’t want to marry a man from the working class. She’s incapable of romance. She wants to be the wife of a high flying baby killer in the United States Navy, not some idiot flower child who wants to give it all up for love. To be honest, it’s hard to blame her. While she may only be 19 or 20 years old — Paula tells Zack that her mother is 39 — she already knows what Sid doesn’t. Being stuck in the working class means death. Sid has already committed suicide, even before he checks into a hotel and strings himself up with his belt.

Paula and Zack, by contrast, get to have it both ways. There is no conflict, the film is telling us, between true love and bombing villages with women and children. In the final, iconic scene, Zack strides into Paula’s factory dressed in his dress uniform, an angel in white who’s arrived to lift her out of the working class back “up where they belong.” Even Lynette approves. Her best friend has made it. “Way to go Paula,” she says, as all of their coworkers applaud. I suppose that after Zach did his 6 years in the Navy, which would have been a fairly easy six years since he would have been out before the first Gulf War, he was probably a bit too smart to end up as a pilot for United Airlines. After all, neoliberalism eventually proletarianized airline pilots as surely as Ronald Reagan proletarianized the air traffic controllers. I doubt Zack Mayo ended up pulling double shifts in a 737 for a middle class salary. Maybe he founded a software company and wound up as a multimillionaire or became a high price consultant on MSNBC telling us all about how Russia stole the election. Lynette, by contrast, is probably still working at the paper mill, if indeed she got lucky and it didn’t close down.

Now back to the US Embassy and your local Shiite mob.

Day of Wrath (1943)

If looks could kill
You’d be lying on the floor
You’d be begging me, please, please
Baby don’t hurt me no more

In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that without the capability to love, a believer, even one martyred for the faith, cannot be a real Christian. “If I give away all I have,” he wrote, “and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” In his 1943 film Day of Wrath, which was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Carl Theodore Dreyer dramatizes Paul’s arguments, demonstrates what happens to Christians who have given up on the idea of love for the idea of control.

Set in the early 17th Century, Day of Wrath is divided into two parts. In the first half, an old woman named Herlof’s Marte is accused of witchcraft, tortured into a confession, and found guilty by a tribunal led by an elderly Pastor named Absalon Pederssøn. In a last ditch effort to save her life, Marte threatens to denounce Pederssøn’s much younger wife Anna, a woman in her 20s played by Lisbeth Movin. Several years before, Pederssøn had intervened in the trial of Anna’s mother, who had also been accused of witchcraft, because he wanted to possess her beautiful young daughter.

Pederssøn, who lives with Anna and Merete, his domineering mother, is probably in his 40s or his 50s, but he appears much older. Indeed, Thorkild Roose, who plays Pederssøn, and Sigrid Neiiendam, who plays Merete, are both in their 70s. His marriage to Anna, which was founded on coercion, not love, has always been barren. They have no children. Anna is timid, glum, takes no joy in her young life. Pederssøn, a well-respected senior clergyman, lacks self-awareness, seems to enjoy nothing more than the power he has, not only over his wife, but their fanatically religious small town. Herlof’s Marte knows he could save her if he wants. He chooses not to.

On the day Herlof’s Marte is burned alive, Pederssøn’s son from an earlier marriage, a handsome young man in his 20s named Martin, returns home to his estranged father. For Anna, who has apparently been immune to all of the other young men in the village, it’s love at first sight. Martin, in a sense, completes his father, rolls back the clock to the days when the old Pastor had the kind of youth and vitality that could have given Anna a happy marriage. In a long monologue Anna speculates about what could have been, a dream of a happy ending that conjures up the image of her as Mary, Martin as Joseph, and the child her elderly husband has been unable to give her.

Dreyer has always denied that Day of Wrath is a political allegory about the persecution of the Jews, but it’s impossible not to see Anna as the kind of person who’s dangerous to a totalitarian government. Anna loves Martin so completely and so passionately that she would have probably become the center of attention at Woodstock, or in San Francisco during The Summer of Love, let alone in the stark, black and white world of Protestant Scandinavia in the 1620s. Yet Dreyer, who was not a religious man himself, takes religion seriously. Anna is not so much a heroine as she a heretic, a young woman who reduces the idea of “love” to the idea of “sex.”

Before she died, Herlof’s Marte had remarked that Anna’s mother had the ability to call up Satan at will and kill a man by wishing him dead. Denying any consolation of religion — she lost her faith and any belief in the afterlife years ago — she reminds Pederssøn that, since Anna has inherited the same ability, he will die a painful death, not at the hands, but at the thoughts of his young wife. She will wish him dead, and he will die, painfully. On the night of a violent storm, while Pederssøn is out administering the last rights to a dying man, Anna begs Martin to swear that if she’s ever accused of witchcraft, he will stand by her side and deny it. Marete, well aware that the two young people have fallen madly in love, hovers over them like the Gestapo, hoping to catch them in an unguarded moment. While Day of Wrath may not be a political oligarchy, it is certainly a powerful dramatization of what it’s like to live in a police state, a social order that transforms youthful sexuality into a death sentence.

Authoritarian governments rarely fall when they’re young and vital, able to stomp out any sign of dissent quickly and efficiently. Like Polish communism in 1980, or Portuguese clerical fascism in the 1970s, they tend to give up the ghost when they grow old and soft, whey they allow the people space to protest and express themselves, when they admit mistakes. When Absolon Pederssøn returns home to his young wife, he is still shaken, not only from having administered the last rights to a dying man before walking home in a violent storm, but because he senses his wife’s hatred, feels his imminent demise. So he apologizes, confesses that he’s never loved her and that he took her youth, not out of any dirty old man’s lust, but out of a desire to repress and control.

For anyone who’s ever felt the kind of uncontrollable rage you feel when your oppressor finally apologizes far too late to make any difference in your life, Anna’s violent reaction will seem all too familiar. The beautiful young Lisbeth Tovin turns into Satan himself, if in fact you could imagine Satan before he rebelled, when he was Lucifer, the bringer of light, the most beautiful angel in heaven. Her answer to her elderly husband, who asks her if she had ever wished him dead, becomes a blasphemous prayer, a rhetorically perfect incantation of hatred pulled out of a dark, Satanic hymnal. Yes, she says, I’ve wished you dead, hundreds of times. I’ve wished you dead when you were away. I’ve wished you dead because you couldn’t even give me a child to hold in my arms. I’ve wished you dead when you were at my side. But never have I wished you dead more than when I realized you denied me the life I could have had with your son. I wish you dead now.

Absalon Pederssøn, who had expected the confession of a guilty woman, not a passionate call to rebellion by an avenging angel, promptly does exactly what she wants, takes one step upstairs to go to bed and tumbles back down, dead of shock. Anna, who knows perfectly well that Merete will denounce her as a witch and that she is going to be burned at the stake, doesn’t care. As long as Martin stands by her side, she will go to a martyr’s death, perishing in the flames as happily as the early Christians, who sang as the Roman lions tore them limb from limb. Alas poor Anna. While she understands bitter, sexless old men, she does not understand young, vital, handsome, but mentally and spiritually weak young men. Martin, not surprisingly, denounces her at her trial. For Anna, her execution will be no different from Herlof’s Marte. She will go to her death only after she’s lost her faith in God, the Love so eloquently evoked by St. Paul in his epistles, but which in her narrow minded point of view, she had heretically reduced to the promise of a good fuck.

I’m not exactly sure how Scandinavians, the most secular people on earth, manage to explore the religious impulse so well in their art, but Day of Wrath is a masterpiece on the level of The Seventh Seal.

Black Legion (1937)

The United States is a country of 315 million people, people composed of every race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation in the world. Yet these days all Americans seem to be afraid of a foreign other. Every time Democrats lose an election, or a debate on social media, liberals blame Russia. Conservatives want a militarized border with Mexico. The reason is pretty easy to figure out. Upward mobility in the United States is largely a thing of the past. We’re all competing for a few crumbs the one percent leaves on the plate after they’ve eaten most of the pie.

In the 1930s Hollywood actually was liberal. During Franklin Roosevelt’s second Term, major studios like Warner Brothers released a steady stream of movies that for lack of a better term might be called “propaganda for the New Deal.” Sometimes, like John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, they rose to the level of high art. More often, they were competent, workmanlike productions designed to educate the public about the important social issues of the day. Black Legion, which was inspired by the 1935 murder of a 22-year-old WPA (Works Progress Administration) organizer named Charles Poole, is both.

Fascists are not monsters. They’re not even irrelevant “deplorables” who will simply fade away as America, which is “already great,” becomes inevitably more diverse and socially progressive. They’re people just like you and me. In Black Legion, Frank Taylor, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart in his first starring role, is not only a sympathetic every man. He’s actually likeable. A hard working, machinist in his 30s who has finally landed a steady job after years of unemployment, he’s mature, responsible, and devoted to his beautiful wife and his 10-year-old son. He’s well-liked at the factory. When a position as foreman opens up, all of his coworkers assume that the position is his for the asking, but he’s passed over for a younger man, a bookish twentysomething named Joe Dombrowski, the son of a Polish immigrant.

In spite what the film’s leftist screenwriters want us to believe, it’s not immediately obvious that Dombrowski, who’s a bit of an asskisser with no real connection to his fellow machinists, is the better choice for a management position than Joe Taylor. In fact, by choosing the young, Polish American bookworm over the older, WASP everyman, the upper-level management at the factory makes a socially destructive choice. Does a factory foreman really have to be a college graduate and a future mechanical engineer rather than just a a veteran worker with relevant on the job experience? Indeed, if the factory where Taylor and Dombrowski worked had been unionized, Taylor would have had more seniority, more respect, and would have probably not even wanted the position as foreman. What’s more, while the screenplay tells us that we have to like Dombrowski, who’s played by the 6 foot five inch, ridiculously handsome German American actor Henry Brandon, later to be cast as Scar in John Ford’s classic The Searchers, it’s not entirely clear that he has any natural leadership ability. Taylor has a legitimate grievance. Our sympathies are with the plain, ordinary looking Humphrey Bogart, who was not yet even a leading man, let alone “Bogie,” not the tall, dark, handsome Greek god who reads engineering manuals on his lunch hour.

Soon, however, Frank Taylor snaps, not right away, but slowly, steadily, inevitably. It’s a testament to Bogart’s acting ability that Taylor’s transformation from all American dad to fascist murderer is nothing like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Rather, we just start to notice a dark, angry quality we had always been aware of but didn’t think especially important. When Taylor begins to listen to right-wing radio shows — Father Coughlin was one of many Rush Limbaughs of his time — he doesn’t immediately go from nice guy to maniacal, racist monster. He doesn’t jump up and shout “that’s it. The Jews and immigrants are the enemy. Long live 100% Anglo Saxon American patriotism.” Rather, and Bogart expresses this so well it makes it obvious what a huge star he would eventually become, we see a man, frustrated by life, who’s been forced to confront why he’s stuck in a dead end job with little or no chance at promotion, suddenly find an excuse. I won’t say that he suddenly “finds a reason” because Bogart is such an intelligent actor he’s able to express how Taylor really doesn’t hate foreigners. Xenophobia, like a shot of whiskey or a few tablets of Oxycontin, is just the nearest thing available to dull the pain. So Taylor just nods as he sinks further into himself.

After he’s recruited into the Black Legion, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan that was highly active in the Midwest of the 1930s, but which has been largely forgotten by history, Taylor’s inevitable decline from likeable everyman to fascist murderer becomes far more precipitous. We see him at home, playing around with the 38 caliber revolver, which he was required to buy along with the full set of sheets, a man with a new purpose in life, to protect his family from dirty immigrants, the deep connection between anti-immigrant, white supremacist organizations like the KKK and the gun cult obvious in a way that’s since been obscured by NRA propaganda. That night, Taylor, Cliff Moore, the coworker who recruited him into the Black Legion, and a band of black and white-sheeted fascist goons show up at the small farm owned by Dombrowski’s father, burn down their house, kill their chickens, burn their crops, and run the two Polish American immigrants out of town.

Bogart is such a sympathetic actor that in the next scene, when we notice that Taylor has gone on a shopping spree, buying a new car and a vacuum cleaner for his wife, we’re still on his side. Even when we find out that Dombrowski’s death — it’s strongly hinted that he was later murdered — has allowed Taylor to jump into the foreman’s job and get a pay raise, we mainly just breath a sigh of relief that he can now afford the car. Then the film pulls its master stroke. We cut to a group of upper-class man discussing The Black Legion over a few drinks. More specifically, they’re discussing how much money the Black Legion is making. The founders oft the Black Legion, it turns out, aren’t even racists. They’re just grifters. What’s more, the Black Legion, like Amway, is also a pyramid scheme. In order to keep making money, they need to recruit more and more members. So they proclaim a new rule requiring every current Black Legion member to recruit two more. One Hundred Percent Anglo Saxon Americans, it turns out, are not only xenophobic racist assholes. They’re dupes. Soon, Taylor starts to spend so much time at work recruiting new members for the Black Legion that he neglects his job, damages machinery, and gets demoted back down to simple machinist before he’s finally let go.

Joe Taylor’s best friend at the machine shop is a tall, strapping Irish American named Ed Jackson, a newly engaged man who, under the influence of his fiancee, has managed to kick his alcoholism and his taste for loose, slutty woman. Jackson’s life is on an upward trajectory, even was Taylor’s is falling apart. One of the things Black Legion gets right is the relationship of Irish Americans to later immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as older, Anglo Saxon Americans. By the 1930s, Irish Americans had largely been accepted by the WASP majority, and, thus, Jackson and Taylor can still be friends. But Jackson has an innate sense of decency. After his roommate, a first generation Irish American who was given Taylor’s job as foreman after Taylor got fired, is kidnapped and taken out into the woods by the Black Legion for a thinly veiled lynching, Jackson begins to put two and two together, eventually figuring out that his friend had been out all night on the day of Dombrowski’s.

Jackson’s confrontation with the Black Legion is both exhilarating and terrifying. Jackson has little or no fear of the racist thugs, even though they outnumber him ten to one. It’s not that he’s stupid. It’s just that he’s played by Dick Foran, a popular leading man of the day who probably had it in his contract that he’d only play a fearless badass. “What’s the matter,” he says, “afraid to take off your sheets. I guess you’re not the Black Legion but the Yellow Legion.” When he looks at one of the black-sheeted Klansman and says “too bad you can’t put a sheet on your voice Cliff,” we want to stand up and cheer. But Jackson, of course, is doomed, kidnapped and taken into the woods for another thinly veiled lynching. He fights back, runs away, but is gunned down by Taylor, who panics and squeezes off four shots from the 38-caliber revolver we had seen him playing with earlier in the movie. The Chekhov gun, in other words, is fired. Joe Taylor has killed his best friend.

The most astonishing thing about the ending of Black Legion is not that it seems improbable — Taylor takes responsibility for his crimes and brings down the entire organization — but that it’s not fiction. Charles Poole’s murderers eventually did “name names” and bring down the leadership of the Black Legion. Taylor’s decision to defy legal advice, as well as the threats the Black Legion has made against his wife and child, is stagy and over the top — the aesthetics of the film finally can’t keep pace with its message — but it did actually happen in real life. Bogart also manages to redeem whatever credibility to the final scenes lack by his screen presence, delivering his lines with so much passion and authority that in that moment he’s transformed from a miserable racist murderer into an avenging angel of truth. What a great actor he was. Indeed, while Black Legion lacks the romanticism of Casablanca, and while it may have flopped at the box office, sending Bogart back down to supporting roles, it’s by far the better anti-fascist movie. It deserves to be remembered.

Anna Karina: 1940-2019

Anna Karina (real name Hanne Karin Bayer), Jean-Luc Godard’s muse and ex-wife, has died at the age of 79. Her iconic dance number from the movie Bande à part was filmed the year before I was born. I sometimes get the feeling that in a past life I lived in a better world than the one I live in now. But in a way I did. I was a small child in the middle and late 1960s, when American and European culture was cool and innovative. In her later life, Karina became a novelist (like so many French actresses seem to do). Quentin Tarantino was so impressed by the dance scene in Bande à part he not only named his film company “Band of Outsiders” he tried to recreate the dance in his film Pulp Fiction. But somehow Uma Thurman and John Travolta don’t quite match up to Anna Karina and two obscure French guys.

Lifeboat (1944)

Shall we kill our Fuhrer?

Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, like most American and British films released between 1939 and 1945, end on an optimistic note. Democracy will defeat fascism. One big exception is the 1944 movie Lifeboat. Based on a short story by John Steinbeck and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat asks a provocative question. What if the citizens of a democracy are incapable of governing themselves? What kind of dictator will they choose? What kind of dictator will choose them?

The great French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who would later become a Nazi, once wrote that an unorganized life is a death wish, the passivity of a man who does nothing with himself but wait for the grave. Lifeboat gives Céline’s idea a concrete physical reality, 8 American and British citizens, one of them severely wounded, who find themselves in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in a small, damaged lifeboat with a limited supply of food and water. If they don’t organize themselves quickly, they’re all doing to die.

The problem is that none of them is a trained navel officer. There’s C.J. Rittenhouse, a multimillionaire capitalist well into middle-age, who out of a sense of entitlement, briefly takes control, but who is just as quickly replaced by John Kovac. Kovac is masculine and belligerent, but he’s also pretty much useless, lacking any real skills in navigation or survival. Kovac’s friend Gus Smith, a German American who changed his name from Schmidt out of shame over the Nazi regime, is no more useful than Kovac. Even worse, he has a deep gash in one of his legs, which has already given way to gangrene. Alice MacKenzie, a nurse, has some skill in first aid, but has either the training nor the confidence to perform an amputation. Joe Spencer, a black crewman, is a passive religious man who does manage to save a young Englishwomen and her baby from drowning but is powerless to prevent her from committing suicide after she realizes her newborn has died. Stanley Garrett, an English crew member, is competent and dependable, but only as a follower not a leader.

The two most colorful of Lifeboat’s characters are the first and last to enter the lifeboat. Constance “Connie” Porter, a journalist, is there from the beginning. How she managed to make it into the lifeboat, and then the water, with a full suitcase is never explained, but she’s clearly a stand in for Hitchcock himself, filming their doomed ship as it slips beneath the waves, and taking notes about her fellow survivors as if the whole disaster had been staged for her benefit. She also speaks fluent German, which comes in handy when Willy, the captain of the U-boat that torpedoed their ship and machine gunned all the passengers in the other lifeboats before being blown out of the water by an American air attack, hoists himself over the side.

Kovac, a Czech American with vaguely socialist politics, initially wants to throw Willy over the side, but Connie and Rittenhouse, who represent the capitalist and media elite, get in the way. Rittenhouse believes in “rules,” especially rules against war crimes. Connie on the other hand, who doesn’t quite believe Willy when he protests he wasn’t an officer, but only a crew member, decides that the German may come in handy. Later, after Willy admits that he was not only an office but the captain of the U-boat, she’s proven right. Willy is the enemy, but he’s also a forceful, competent man who who seems to know what he’s doing. After he reveals that he’s not only a naval officer, but a trained surgeon, that decides it. Alice won’t attempt the amputation without Willy’s help. Throwing the German overboard means that Gus will die. In a feat of incredible skill, Willy amputates Gus’s leg without anesthesia during a raging storm, saving his life.

By this point, the 8, now 7 British and American survivors, have decided that Willy is not only their savior, but a veritable superman. Dying of hunger and thirst, they are in awe of the way Willy manages to keep up his strength and row towards what they think is Bermuda and British territory, but which is actually a German supply ship. But Willy is no Aryan superman. He’s not even a hard core German nationalist. As horrifying as it may sound, Willy is probably worse than a Nazi. He’s an amoral sociopath who has secretly horded food and water for himself and who possesses a secret compass he hides from the other survivors, thus allowing him to maintain the illusion that he alone is competent to navigate the boat. Indeed, he seems to enjoy tormenting the German American Gus more than the Slav Kovac or the African American Joe, both of whom would have been considered subhuman under Nazis ideology, but neither of whom seem to interest him personally. When Gus, who’s grown delirious from drinking salt water, discovers Willy’s secret horde of fresh water and attempts to tell Stanley Garrett, nobody believes him, but Willy decides to murder him anyway.

“Just don’t forget that your name is Schmidt and not Smith,” he taunts the simple-minded German American prole before pushing him over the side while the others are asleep.

If Willy is a sociopath who enjoys playing with his fellow passengers as though they were so many insects under a glass, hes also an arrogant and self-destructive sociopath who brings about his own doom. Up until the point he murders Gus, Willy’s plan has gone pretty much according to schedule. He’s successfully piloted the small craft to the meeting place that the U-Boat had arranged with its supply ship. All he really has to do is hold on for a few more hours, and he’d be on his way back to Germany. But he underestimates his victims, especially Alice and Stanley, who manage to figure out that the German has a secret compass and that he’s turned the boat in the wrong direction. After Alice accuses him of pushing Gus over the side, Willy not only admits it. He brags about it. Then brags about how easily he’s managed to gain control of all of them, to make himself dictator of a dysfunctional, multicultural democracy. He hasn’t done it for Germany. He’s done it to manifest his own superiority.

Willy’s boasting is too much for Alice, up until then the kindest, most gentle of the 7 remaining survivors, who goes berserk and leads a mob attack against the German, who winds up getting getting tossed over the side after getting his face bashed in by Stanley and Rittenhouse. It’s not a happy ending. Without their German dictator the English and American survivors are back where they started, an incompetent mob with no clue how to survive. Indeed, they all seem resigned to perishing at sea, with only Connie the artist and intellectual having any fight left. “I’ll carve this on your tombstone,” she says to Rittenhouse. “Ritt. He quit.” She then offers her expensive diamond bracelet up as bait, and the survivors manage to catch a fish, a source of food and moisture that might keep them alive for a day or two more. They still have Willy’s compass, but there’s no guarantee they’ll ever make it to Bermuda.

“When we killed the German,” Connie says, “we killed our motor.”

Just then Hitchcock executes a dazzling, double Deus Ex Machina. As they attempt to pull the fish on board, they spot the German supply ship steaming in their direction. “Oh well, Connie says, at least they’ll have food. Some of my best friends are in concentration camps,” she adds, admitting that Willy was probably right, that the confused citizens of decadent British and American capitalist democracy need German leadership in order to survive. As a launch full of German crewman row in their direction, however, an American warship appears over the horizon and blows the German supply ship out of the water.

The survivors, in other words, are saved, but by an outside intervention, the United States Navy, not through any effort of their own. Indeed, as they wait for the American warship to pick them up, they almost immediately revert back to the identities they had back home. Connie needs to put on lipstick. Novak shakes Rittenhouse down for money. Stanley and Alice, who have fallen in love during the ordeal, make plans to get married. The war against fascism, Hitchcock seems to be saying, did not make the American or British people any better at governing themselves. It just froze things in place while the superior brute force of the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire crushed the German upstarts. The American and British people remain passive and incompetent, ripe for another dictator.

Let’s hope Trump and Boris Johnson prove to be more benevolent than Willy.

49th Parallel (1941)

When the Nazis Invaded Canada

Little known outside of Canada, the Battle of St. Lawrence took place between May of 1942 and November of 1944. For over two years, the Kriegsmarine waged a major operation against Canadian and British shipping. When the last German U-boat finally surrendered in 1945, the Canadians had lost 23 merchant ships and 4 warships.

It’s not like the British filmmaker Michael Powell didn’t warn them.

In some ways, 49th Parallel is straight up propaganda designed to galvanize the North American public into the supporting war against Germany. Featuring performances by Lawrence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, and Eric Portman, it’s also an effective film in its own right that holds up today. Foreshadowing the later Battle of St. Lawrence, 49th Parallel begins with a German U-boat sinking a Canadian oil tanker at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, then slipping into Hudson Bay to evade an attack by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Shortly after they surface near Churchill in Northern Manitoba, and a reconnaissance party sets off in a launch to search for food and supplies, another Canadian air attack destroys the submarine and leaves the captain, and eight other crewman stranded in Canada, their only chance at escape the 49th Parallel, the demilitarized border with the then neutral United States.

Unlike Captain Langsdorff in Powell’s later film The Battle of the River Plate, a straight, bourgeois navel officer who obeys the rules of war, Captain Hirth and his crew are hard core Nazis, stone cold true believers in the fascist cause. Being stranded in Canada, which they see as a a soft, decadent, multicultural democracy ripe for the picking, is an opportunity. It’s 8 Aryan superman against 11 million multicultural democrats. They will steal what they need at gunpoint, shoot anybody who resists, and pick up as many converts to the cause of National Socialism as they can find. When they get back to Germany, Hitler will pin the Iron Cross on Hirth, and they will all receive a hero’s welcome.

For Michael Powell, Captain Hirth and his crew’s trek across Canada is a test. How will citizens of a democracy act when their comfortable lives are interrupted by actual Nazis staring down at them from the barrel of a gun? Not surprisingly they all come through test fairly well. The last thing a British filmmaker was going to do in 1941 was insult Canadians or Americans. So we are treated to a series of vignettes where democracy successfully resists fascism. The devil, nevertheless, is in the details. If 49th Parallel were only a rousing call to arms against Hitler, it might no longer be relevant. But it’s something much more, a complex, nuanced affirmation of a democracy that we, perhaps, no longer have. In some ways, 49th Parallel is a message in the bottle to a future North America, a North America that might not resist fascism quite as well as it did in 1941.

The first Canadians Hirth and his crew run into are Johnny, a French Canadian trapper played by Lawrence Olivier, Nick, his Inuit sidekick, and a storekeeper played by the Scottish actor Finlay Currie. In other words, it’s a pretty good ethnic cross section of old Canada. The segment was also heavily censored when 49th Parallel was released in the United States in order to avoid alienating Southern Democrats. After Nick leaps to Johnny’s defense and is rewarded by having his skull split open by Nazi rifle butts, Captain Hirth explains to his remaining white, French and Scottish, hostages that Eskimos are an inferior race, “one step below Jews and only one step about Negroes.” Apparently the United States was ready for an anti-fascist, but not an anti-racist movie. Hirsch then tries to recruit Johnny, showing him a copy of Mein Kampf and explaining to him how Germany was ready to liberate French Canadians from their Anglo Saxon oppressors. Help the Germans invade Canada and French Canada will once again be able to have their own culture, their own schools, their own religion.

Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal of a French Canadian frontiersman has been criticized for being silly and over the top, but that’s ridiculous. As someone who’s spent time in a remote Alaskan fishing town, I find Johnny a very familiar type. Everything about Olivier’s performance, his expansive, insolent body language, his expressive yet ungrammatical way of speaking, his uneducated, yet quick, intuitive way of speaking gets at the heart of what a genuinely free man is like. Having spent the past year in the woods trapping animals and collecting firs, not having seen a newspaper for months, Johnny has no idea Canada is at war with Germany. When he reads about German war crimes in Poland, he doesn’t believe it. He wouldn’t do anything like that, so why would people in Germany? Besides, he tells the store owner, all governments are pretty much alike anyway, corrupt institutions best avoided. The war doesn’t doesn’t concern him. “Why should Canada go to war for a bunch of Poles.”

Five minutes later he’s face to face with an actual Nazi.

Johnny’s ability to see through Hirth’s propaganda is a great example of how an intelligent, apolitical man comes to terms with a political reality he can no longer avoid. He finds Hirth’s proposal laughable. Why should he join the Nazis? The Anglo Canadians may be the dominant ethnicity in Canada, but French Canadians already get to keep their own schools, their own church, their own way of life. Why do they need a bunch of Germans to give them what they already have? And how about the Poles, he asks, do they get to run their own country? When Hirsch explains that “well that’s different. It’s the new German world order,” Johnny just laughs. “Maybe your Mister Hitler isn’t too smart,” he says. All the while, of course, Johnny, who is seething with rage over the way the Germans murdered Nick — “you call Eskimos animals but I never treat my huskies the way you treated Nick so maybe you the animals” — is looking for an opportunity to strike back. But it’s useless. It’s Johnny and one old man versus eight heavily armed German invaders. He ends up lying on the bed, shot through the head, and denied his rosary or the last rights by a German guard who sneers at Christianity. So much for the French in Canada being allowed to keep their religion.

One of the Germans, however, a crewman named Vogel, crosses himself and gives Johnny the rosary just before Johnny dies. He becomes the focus of the next segment of 49th Parallel. Can a man who’s lived under a fascist government for 8 years be redeemed? Can a nation fallen under the spell of Hitler be saved? Vogel is a deeply conflicted man. Just before the 8 men continue south on their journey to the American border, and after Vogel gives Johnny his rosary, he furiously scratches swastikas all over the walls of the remote outpost, almost as if he wants to apologize to the Fuhrer for his brief relapse into the decadent Christian religion and the decadent concept of mercy.

Nevertheless, when the 8 Germans, now six after an Inuit sniper picks off one of the Aryan supermen and a second dies when they crash a stolen float plane, come upon a colony of German “Hutterite” immigrants, a radical Christian sect similar to the Mennonites, Vogel realizes how much he hates living under the Nazi government. At first, Vogel quite literally can’t understand democratic government. “Who’s your leader?” he asks He’s astonished when that leader, a man named Peter played by the Austrian actor Anton Walbrook, has no power to order people around, that he’s simply an elder, a spiritual guide for people who, in the end, are free to do whatever they choose, to follow whatever profession they like, to come and go as they please. When Peter is called on to speak, however, he proves that he is indeed a “leader,” denouncing fascism and militarism as a plague, and defending freedom and multiculturalism. He also offers Vogel a way out. Surrender to the Canadian authorities, spend a few years in a prisoner of war camp, and then return to the commune as their baker, a profession he followed before the Nazis came to power and to which he desires to return. Sadly Vogel, who gladly accepts their offer, is murder by Hirth, who brands him a deserter and carries out a summary execution.

Vogel’s death is the climax of 49th Parallel, which never again quite reaches the dramatic heights of Peter’s fiery speech against tyranny. There’s a rather silly episode with Leslie Howard as a pompous intellectual, who finds himself able to resist only after the Nazis callously destroy his paintings and his books, and another equally silly episode with Raymond Massey as a Canadian soldier gone AWOL who challenges Hirth to a fist fight after he learns who he is. “Put em up” the Canadian says to the Nazi, who, like any slave, can’t imagine an honest fight man to man and raises his hands as if he’s under arrest. Nevertheless, even though it falls apart dramatic after Vogel’s death, 49th Parallel remains an astonishing travelogue, showcasing the sublimely beautiful landscapes around Banff. So that’s what Canada looked like in 1941? Surely it was something worth fighting for.

Pimpernel Smith (1941)

In 1905, a Hungarian-born, British novelist named Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála “Emmuska” Orczy de Orci, usually shortened to Emma Orczy, invented the “superhero.” Half a century before Batman, Sir Percy Blakeney, by day a wealthy English fop, assumed the “secret identity” of the Scarlett Pimpernel, a dashing swordsman and master of disguise who rescued French aristocrats from the guillotine. Emma Orczy made no secret of her reactionary politics. She hated democracy, and was a firm believer in British imperialism. During the First World War, she formed a society of upper-class British women dedicated to shame young Englishmen into dying in the trenches. She was also a rabid anticommunist and antisemite.

It made perfect sense, therefore, for Emma Orczy to cast Robespierre and the Jacobins as the villains of her novel, the Scarlet Pimpernel. “Scientific” racism, radical antisemitism, and fascism all have their source, ultimately, in the right-wing reaction against the French Revolution. With the idea of a feudal hierarchy no longer viable, it was replaced by the idea of a racial hierarchy. Instead of lords and ladies ruling over ignorant peasants, we now had the British and French ruling over people Rudyard Kipling called “new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child.” Instead of Louis XIV or Charles I ruling as “Gods anointed” we had blond, blue-eyed Aryans taking up the “white man’s burden” as history’s anointed.

It also makes sense that in the Hollywood of the 2010s the superhero replaced the gangster and the cowboy. John Wayne may have represented the American empire at its height and Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano the American empire in its post-Vietnam decline, but cowboys and gangsters are working-class figures, ordinary men capable of extraordinary violence out of moral necessity or moral depravity. The superhero, on the other hand, is an aristocrat. Whether a superhuman alien like Superman or a supercharged mutant like Spider-Man, he rises as far above his fellow Americans as Kipling’s Anglo Saxon elite rose above the dark, sullen masses of Egypt and India. Batman, the most reactionary, openly fascist super-hero, is just some dude with more money, the perfect symbol of an America that had replaced any pretense of democracy with the rule of an oligarchy chosen by Wall Street.

In the 1930s, after the United States elected an elegant Harvard graduate as its first social democratic President, and then reelected him three times, and France came close to democratic socialism under Léon Blum’s Popular Front, French and American cinema began to feature a type of leading man who reflected the ideals of the New Deal, a sensitive, romantic hero from an upper-class background ready to fight for the people. Ronald Coleman, who played Sidney Carton in Jack Conway’s classic 1935 dramatization of Tale of Two Cities, Pierre Fresnay, who starred in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion as a French aristocrat who was not only willing to admit democracy was inevitable, but to die in order to help a Jewish and a working class comrade escape a German prisoner of war camp, and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, were all decisive men of action, but they had no love of violence for the sake of violence. They were gentlemen with the emphasis on “gentle,” heroes who did what they had to do to save their loved ones from the bad guys, but who would have much rather been engaging in witty repartee with some eligible lady in a Jane Austen novel.

Leslie Howard, who was so disappointing as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, largely because he had nothing to do, was the ideal romantic hero, and, therefore, the ideal Scarlett Pimpernel. Blond, blue-eyed, slim, graceful, and with a voice that almost seemed designed by God to read Keats and Shakespeare out loud, he was exactly the kind of Englishman American girls dreamed about whenever the boy next door seemed just a little too coarse and ordinary.

If Harold Young’s 1934 production of The Scarlett Pimpernel still holds up today, it suffers from the way the screenplay had to work around Baroness Orczy’s reactionary politics and not so subtle antisemitism. You could make an entertaining film by portraying Robespierre and the Jacobins as proto-Nazis and the court of King George III as an enlightened, liberal refuge from the chaos of the French Revolution, but there were just too many historical inaccuracies and dramatic contradictions for the film to rise above mildly entertaining escapism. In 1792, would one of the richest men in England really have married a former French actress and prostitute? Jane Austen forbid. He would have simply kept her as his mistress. Would the French ambassador in England have risked his diplomatic status in order to lure more aristocrats, who are all portrayed as wonderful, sympathetic people, back to Paris to have their heads chopped off? That’s not the way it worked. The red terror of 1792 and 1793 did at times get out of hand, but it was hardly an international conspiracy dedicated to wiping every lady and gentleman in London who knew how to chose a good bottle of wine and a finely tailored suit out of existence. As much as the English and American cultural elite would like us to believe, the French Revolutionary Terror was not fascism. The Jacobins were not Nazis and Robespierre was not Hitler.

Has there ever been a positive portrayal of the French Revolution in the English speaking world? I can’t think of one. Mark Twain says a few nice things about the guillotine in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but I can’t thin of a singe Hollywood movie that portrays the heroic French working class of 1789 as the progressive revolutionary force they were. Conway’s 1935 Tale of Two Cities does at times come close but in the end, the only people we see go to the guillotine are sympathetic, wonderful people who would have been all for democracy, if only it hadn’t gone so crazy and if only it hadn’t had so many scary working class feminists like Madame DeFarge.

In 1940 at the darkest moment of the Second World War, Leslie Howard starred in and directed Pimpernel Smith, an anti-fascist reboot of the Scarlett Pimpernel set in 1939 on the eve of the German invasion of Poland. Howard, the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, was putting his life in danger. With its scathing depiction of a fat, boorish Gestapo General obviously meant to be fictionalized Herman Goering, and a hilariously stupid minister of propaganda, just as obviously intended to mock Joseph Goebbels, a successful German invasion of England or a coup by a pro-Nazi faction of the British ruling class surely would have shipped Howard right off to a concentration camp. To be honest, Howard is such a fervent English patriot, I don’t think he would have admitted the possibility. A fascist England? Never.

The amazing thing about Pimpernel Smith is that while it jettisons Emma Orczy’s antisemitism, and while it gets at the heart of what makes fascism fascism as well as any movie I’ve ever seen, Howard retains the Scarlet Pimpernel’s elitism and sympathy for aristocratic rule. Pimpernel Smith is a great anti-fascist movie, but it is not a leftist, democratic, or even a liberal movie. For Lesie Howard, who plays Horatio Smith, an absent minded professor of archeology in England, and an anti-Nazi superhero in Germany, the real cause of fascism isn’t political or economic. It’s spiritual. Germany has fallen under the rule of thugs who don’t deserve to govern, violent coarse, humorless men who love violence for the sake of violence, power for the sake of power.

Indeed, while nobody in 1941 quite knew just how bad the Nazi concentration camps were — the American and Soviet armies only discovered the death camps in 1945 — there is a terrific scene early in the film set in one of Hitler’s camps for liberal and leftist political prisoners. As the prisoners, cultivated, intellectuals and artists, talk about their chances of ever seeing the outside, one of the guards, a brutal thug with a coarse, working-class accent, picks up a rifle and points it in their direction. You can see the evil gleam in his eyes as he realizes how much power he has over the men under his control, the almost sexual joy of an inferior man when he realizes he can terrify his betters.

As Leslie Howard quite prophetically depicted, however, low-class thugs like this are “doomed,” not only because they have no hope of understanding British culture, Shakespeare, P.G. Wodehouse, Louis Carroll and Rupert Brooke, but because they have no sense of humor. Humorless, joyless men who live only for a sense of power and domination are addicts who will never get enough. If Howard fails to predict that it would ultimately be the Russian working class who would beat Hitler he really doesn’t have to. He knew deep in his bones that that Nazis would eventually do something as stupid as hoping for a quick victory over Stalin or declaring war on the United States the day after Pearl Harbor. The beefy Gestapo agent dumb enough to fall for the willowy Englishman trolling him with conspiracy theories about the Earl of Oxford writing Shakespeare’s plays may have state power, guns, the ability to kill without consequences, but in the end he’s basically just a heroin addict looking for his next fix, easily manipulated by a superior intellect.

Pimpernel Smith in fact holds up so well that it’s tempting to apply Leslie Howard’s lessons to the American ruling class today. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton are addicted to money, not violence for its own sake, but they are addicted nonetheless. Are they doomed? The American ruling class in the 1930s was smart enough to allow themselves to be led by Franklin Roosevelt, to kick back some of their wealth to a working class suffering under the Great Depression. Today’s ruling class, on the other hand doesn’t seemed inclined to give an inch. Bernie Sanders, like Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s, is giving them the way out, a chance to save capitalism. They can easily buy us off with Medicare for All, free college, and a few minor reforms, but they seem determined, not only to hold the line against social democratic reforms, but to extract even more money from the miserable, opiate addicted, unemployed proletariat. They want it all.

Perhaps they are doomed.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

While in London, the heroes of Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film about the French Resistance, take time to see Gone With the Wind.

Before venturing on a discussion about Gone with the Wind, it’s important to remember a few things. Classic Hollywood was great cinema, but terrible history. Michael Curtiz in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Cecil B. DeMille in The Crusades had as much concern for historical accuracy as Quentin Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Until the 1960s, American cinema was tightly censored, the Production Code implemented in 1933 having given the Catholic Church the final decision over which films got released, and which ones didn’t. And yes you read that right. By 1939, not only had the Confederate “Lost Cause” won the propaganda war, most liberals and leftists, especially East European Jewish immigrants in Hollywood, wanted to help Franklin Roosevelt keep the Southern Democratic vote, especially as it became more and more inevitable that the United States would go to war with Germany. Finally, the United States had just come out of the Great Depression, which remains, along with the Civil War, the single most traumatic event in American history.

Almost no actual Southerners were involved in making Gone With the Wind. David O. Selznick, its producer and driving force, was the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants from Pittsburgh. The screenwriter Sidney Howard was from Oakland, California. The director Victor Fleming was from Los Angeles. Max Steiner, an Austrian Jew, wrote the score. The cinematographer Ernest Haller was a German American from Southern California. The cast was equally of “Yankee” or European stock. Vivian Leigh was British. Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, Japan, the daughter of British and French expatriates. Thomas Mitchell, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s father, was an Irish American from my own hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. While a few of the black actors were from southern border states like Arkansas and Texas, Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress, was from Witchita, Kansas. Clark Gable, who played the most famous southern romantic hero in all of American cinema, didn’t even try to affect a southern accent. He was from Cadiz, Ohio, also the hometown of Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s fiercely abolitionist Secretary of War. In fact, just about the only real southerner in the cast of Gone With the Wind is Alicia Rhett, who played India Wilkes, and had originally auditioned for the part of Scarlett O’Hara. After Gone With the Wind, she never acted in another film.

So why did all of these Yankees, East European Jewish and English immigrants, and yes, African Americans, come together to make a film romanticizing slavery?

I suppose for Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, the answer is easy. There were few, if any, roles for African American women. The viciously racist Birth of a Nation 20 years earlier had not only portrayed African Americans as rapists obsessed with white women, it had no African American actors in the cast. Almost every good actor will take a badly written part in a movie with horrible politics, the idea being that you can inject enough of your own humanity into the character to override the intentions of the screenwriter. What’s more, none of the black characters in Gone with the Wind present any threat to white, southern women. Big Sam, played by Everett Brown, actually saves Scarlett O’Hara from being raped by a gang of white ruffians. Clark Gable, who was good friends with Hattie McDaniel demanded that the sets on Gone with the Wind be desegregated, refusing to act in the film if the toilets were marked “white” and “colored.” Sadly, and it says more about the United States than it does about Gone with the Wind, the studio that made Gone with the Wind was relatively enlightened for its time.

If Margaret Mitchell’s novel, published in 1936, had been a massive best seller, it hadn’t necessarily been nostalgia for the “Lost Cause.” Unlike the film, which had to pass the Catholic Church’s board of censors put into power by the Production Code, the novel is frank about sexuality. Katie Scarlett O’Hara is a feminist heroine, the kind of liberated women who came to prominence in the 1920s. While far more viciously racist than the movie, the novel is also one of the few best selling accounts of Americans living under a military occupation, told from the point of view of a young woman trying to come to terms with her own sexuality as civilization is crashing down around her. Scarlett O’Hara not only comes through the Civil War and the destruction of the old planter class, she becomes immensely wealthy, far richer than her father ever was, even at the height of slavery. Women, who buy novels, especially romance novels, at a greater rate than men, and who had just come through the Great Depression, which, once again, is along with the Civil War, by far the most traumatic event in American history, surely found her an appealing, even revolutionary character.

Neither the novel nor the film Gone With the Wind is sympathetic to the “Lost Cause.” Man for man, the Army of Northern Virginia was as tough, and brave, as any army that’s ever taken the field. For over 4 years, they fought one of the word’s great industrial powers to a draw, a draw that was only broken when Lincoln decided to let Phillip Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman wage total, economic warfare on the southern people. Yet early in Gone With the Wind, when Rhett Butler explains to a gathering of aristocratic planters at Twelve Oakes, the estate owned by Ashley Wilkes and his family, that the south has no chance of winning the war, young, aristocratic southern men are portrayed, not only as foolish hotheads, but as outright babies. Rand Brooks, who plays Melanie Wilkes younger brother Charles, and who foolishly challenges Rhett Butler to a duel, has soft, dough like features. It’s clear that had Butler actually accepted his challenge, it would have been murder, not a contest of honor between gentlemen. Hamilton enlists in the Confederate Army, but he’s not cut down by Yankee gunfire while leading a charge at Gettysburg. He dies of the measles. During the siege of Atlanta, Confederate soldiers are not the formidable warriors who terrorized Yankee troops with the rebel yell. They’re little boys who cry out in pain for their mommies or broken down old men who can barely limp along the road in retreat from Sherman’s juggernaut.

Women in Gone with the Wind are another story. From Scarlett herself, to Melanie Wilkes, who hides a will of iron beneath her angelic exterior, to Belle Watling, the sex worker more honorable and devoted to the southern cause than any of the film’s “respectable” women, to Mammy, the only person with the ability to stand up to Scarlett, a black woman essential to keeping a white, slave-owning family from going to pieces during Reconstruction, the women of Gone with the Wind are better soldiers than the men. Indeed, the only time we see any southerner in Gone With the Wind kill a Yankee is when Scarlett O’Hara shoots a would be rapist in the face. With the exception of Rhett Butler, men in Gone With the Wind are soft, romantic, and incompetent. Ashley Wilkes would be far more believable as an English professor teaching Shakespeare at a women’s college in New England than he is as a man who came through the ghastly Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and a Yankee prisoner of war camp. Scarlett, in turn, is more believable pining over Ashley early in the film than she is as a fully mature adult after she eats a uncooked radish from the ground and declares “as God as my witness I’ll never be hungry again.” At that point, her unrequited love for the sad Mr. Wilkes just seems baffling and self-destructive, which is, of course, exactly the point. Katie Scarlett O’Hara is now a successful lady capitalist profiting far more by using convict (slave) labor than her father ever profited using chattel (slave) laborer. We want her to forget about Ashley and live happily ever after with Rhett Butler, her soulmate.

If Rhett Butler is the only genuinely masculine male character in Gone with the Wind, it’s largely because he’s a self-interested capitalist and not a romantic aristocrat pining over the “Lost Cause.” Supposedly he’s from Charleston, but his accent is pure Mid-Atlantic bourgeois by way of California the Midwest. He does in fact do more for the Southern cause than poor little Charles Hamilton, spending most of the war as a blockade runner, then enlisting in the Confederate Army after the Battle of Atlanta, but in both cases it’s purely out of self-interest. Blockade running is profitable. A brief tour with Joseph E. Johnston’s Army against the hated Sherman and the rank of Captain were handy status symbols after the restoration of White Supremacy and the Southern Democrats in 1876. If Ashley and Melanie Wilkes represent the romantic “Lost Cause” than Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara represent the new capitalist south that emerged in the late 19th Century, the old south with a new and improved economy but with its old racial and class hierarchies largely intact. As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said in The Leopard, his famous novel about the unification of Italy, “if everything is to stay the same, than everything has to change.” Rhett and Scarlett are the ideal conservatives, wealthy, upper-class aristocrats who can change with the times and subvert any attempts of the working class to rise to power. This also opened the door for the successful children of Jewish immigrants like Selznick. Gone with the Wind romanticized an aristocracy, but not, it must be stressed, the “old” aristocracy. Indeed, old aristocratic WASP Americans like Ashley Wilkes would give way to a new, better, brighter, stronger elite, men like David O. Selznick, or women like Katie Scarlett O’Hara, also a first generation American.

Gone with the Wind, therefore, while not “Lost Cause” propaganda, is poisonously reactionary propaganda. Released in 1939, after capitalism came close to utter collapse during the Great Depression, and was saved by the aristocratic Franklin Roosevelt, the film says “there is a natural hierarchy. Whether under slavery or free market capitalism, aristocrats like Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Franklin Roosevelt deserve to rule. Keep your place and it will all work out for the best.” In contrast to the noble and sympathetic black characters of Gone with the Wind, the Big Sams and Mammys, who remain passive, upwardly mobile “white trash” like the O’Hara’s old overseer Jonas Wilkerson and his wife Emmy Slattery, are invariably vicious and spiteful. Gone With the Wind is a racist film, if only because it centers the sufferings of the white planter aristocracy and not the epic struggle of the African American freemen to resist the violence of slavery and the Klan, but the screenplay reserves most of its true hate for low class whites who take advantage of the collapse of the old order, either to elevate themselves, or to elevate the ex-slaves. One ludicrous scene of a carpet bagger promising ex slaves “40 Acres and a Mule” consciously distorts history. It wasn’t the carpet baggers who proposed giving the ex-slaves 40 Acres and a Mule. It was William Tecumseh Sherman and the Union Army, a promise the federal government ultimately reneged on.

What’s more, Gone with the Wind is an antiwar film at exactly the time an antiwar film was most dangerous. The United States in 1939 had a powerful “America First” movement led by the openly fascist Charles Lindbergh that prevented Roosevelt from declaring war on either Germany or Japan until the Japanese actually bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on us. A film in which both romantic leading men hate the idea of war for different reasons, Ashley Wilkes because it would destroy the old South and Rhett Butler because it would destroy wealth, and which vividly depicted Southern “boys,” boys not men, crying for their mommies as their legs were sawed off without anesthesia, was rank “America First” propaganda. David O. Selznick, while Jewish, was strongly suggesting that a war against Hitler might just not be worth it. Let those Europeans take care of their own problems. We’ve already had our apocalyptic battles at Gettysburg and Atlanta. Why get American boys killed to save Poles, Frenchmen, Russians and East European Jews? Why upset a capitalist social order that had just been saved by a honey voiced Democratic Party aristocrat?

Hitler and the Nazis, of course, loved Gone with the Wind. How could they not love a film so firmly on the side of an aristocratic racial hierarchy? Ironically, while we never see Vivian Leigh and Leslie Howard kiss in Gone with the Wind –Ashley has Scarlett solidly in the “friend zone,” stringing her along for his own ego — it would have meant the death penalty in Nazi Germany. Leslie Howard, born Leslie Howard Steiner, was a Hungarian Jew from London, and sexual, or even platonic, romantic relations between Jews and Aryans had been outlawed in 1935 by the Nuremberg Laws. Perhaps that’s why Hitler’s air force found Howard’s DC-3 flying in 1943 flying over the Bay of Biscay and shot it down. It wasn’t the Yankees who killed Ashley Wilkes. It was the Nazis.

News of the air disaster rocked Britain, and delighted the Nazi propaganda minister, Dr Goebbels. Leslie Howard, while at the pinnacle of Hollywood success as the star of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind, had sacrificed his royalties, bought himself out of his contract, and returned to Britain in 1939, to work for the war effort. He made propaganda films for the Ministry of Information, and on his own initiative directed and starred in two films that had irritated Goebbels: Pimpernel Smith, about freeing young Jewish refugees from the Nazis, and The First Of The Few, about the designer of the Spitfire, which bolstered morale during the Battle of Britain. He broadcast letters to America designed to bring neutral USA onside, and had visited Ireland on a bridge-building mission to the anti-British premier Eamon de Valera.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)


Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 film The Marriage of Maria Braun has a plot that, if not exactly a cliche, has long been part of the vocabulary of American and European film and literature. A hot young piece of ass, think Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind or Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily Powers in the Pre-Code Baby Face, uses her sex appeal to climb out of poverty to great wealth and power. To call her a “prostitute” or a “sex-worker,” however, would be a mistake. She is more like a “sex capitalist,” or a “sex entrepreneur,” a hard-headed businessman who just happens to be a beautiful woman. In many ways, it is the ideal of the liberated woman under capitalism. Sell yourself, but don’t sell yourself cheap.

What makes Fassbinder’s film still worth watching is not only the brilliant camerawork, or the performance of Hanna Schygulla, a tougher, more vital actress than Vivien Leigh and fully the equal of the young Barbara Stanwyck, but the way Fassbinder locates the story in the historically particular setting of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the 1930s, the part of Maria would have been perfect for Marlene Dietrich, the Teutonic Stanwyck, but in 1978 Germany no longer existed. In the east, the Stalinist German Democratic Republic operated under a cloak of secrecy, both western and communist. In the west was the very peculiar Federal Republic of Germany, a far-right wing state set up by Wall Street and the CIA that, boosted by debt forgiveness and Marshall Plan Aid in the days when the American ruling class was far more generous and far more intelligent, was well on the way to becoming one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

The film opens with the marriage of Maria Braun. Maria and Hermann, Klaus Löwitsch, are attempting to tie the knot outside, in the middle of an American bombing. After a bomb hits, and the smoke clears, we see them both, immobile, lying on the ground. Are they dead? We cut to Maria, a few years later, very much alive, living in a bombed out building with her mother. The American occupiers are more obtuse than oppressive, but the times are still desperate. When an American soldier throws a cigarette butt on the ground, a dozen men scramble to pick it up, getting into a brawl for one drag of that precious nicotine. Later, after a group of American soldiers catcall Maria, and she fearlessly walks up to them and declares “you may have the power to say what you just said but you don’t have the right to say it,” one of them apologizes by giving her a package of cigarettes. Now possessing cigarettes, suddenly popular, a light bulb goes off over Maria’s head. Men, and by extension, society as a whole, can easily be conquered by a show of force combined with the right kind sex appeal.

Believing her husband dead, Maria then gets hired at a cafe where German women entertain American soldiers. That German men aren’t allowed inside, and that the great majority of the American soldiers are black, is a testament to Fassbinder’s genius. The club is the mirror image of places back in the United States like The Cotton Club, segregated venues where black musicians entertained white guests, and blacks weren’t permitted as paying customers. Maria begins an affair with Billy, a rather likeable African American soldier more infatuated with Maria than she is with him, but possessing one valuable commodity. He’s willing to teach her English. Eventually Maria becomes both fluent in English and pregnant. The sex scenes are so open and matter of fact, the interracial angle so daring, that I doubt an American director, even in 2019, would be able to film anything like it without a massive backlash, both from the racist far right and the politically correct far left. It would never pass the focus group testing at a Hollywood studio. The far right, of course, would object, not only to the idea that a blond, blue-eyed Aryan would casually sleep with an African American, but that the majority of American soldiers in occupied West Germany seem to be black. The far left would object to what comes next. After Maria’s husband Hermann returns from a Russian prisoner of war camp, unexpectedly showing up right in the middle of their lovemaking, she hits him over the head with a bottle and accidentally kills him. Shortly afterwards, she loses their child in a miscarriage and gets over perhaps a bit too easily. The interracial child would be a bit too inconvenient in the racist Federal Republic of Germany. Was it actually an abortion?

Touched by Maria’s earnest confession of love, Hermann frames himself for the killing and goes to jail for manslaughter. Maria, like Scarlett O’Hara still pining for the chivalrous Ashleigh Wilkes, but possessing the hard headed instincts of a successful capitalist, then finds her own Rhett Butler, an older French businessman named Karl Oswald who’s returned to Germany to reopen the factories he lost when the Nazis rose to power. The scene where they meet is remarkable. Stuck inside a third class railway car, crowded by the frantic, unruly proletariat, Maria bulls her way into first class, bribes the conductor, and introduces herself to Oswald who, while wealthy, is no Rhett Butler, no domineering lady’s man, but an easily manipulated chump who falls in love with the beautiful Teutonic Scarlett O’Hara at first sight. Maria’s idealistic love for Hermann allows her to be especially ruthless. The more money she can make, the more comfortable she can make his life after he gets out of jail. It’s hard to express just how matter of fact, yet how inspired Fassbinder’s staging of their meeting is. From third class to first class, from being one of a desperate, impoverished mob to being an individual with space, with room to breath and converse, it’s an almost magical expression of just how completely our life changes under capitalism when we get money.

But does it really change. Fassbinder is a master of expressing not only the influence of race and class on our lives under capitalism, but just how much capitalism makes us wait. Maria’s rise to wealth and power is effortless. She’s not selling herself to Oswald. She’s merely using him for sex every once in awhile when she gets the urge. As Marlene Dietrich once remarked, “sex for Americans is an obsession. For Germans it’s just a fact of life.” Fassbinder is incapable of imaging the kind of tabloid melodrama puritanical Americans would attach to the idea of a younger woman sleeping her way to the top. Oh that poor innocent victim! That monster is exploiting her! No. She’s exploiting him. Indeed, in gaining the world, Maria loses her soul. The longer she waits for Hermann to get out of jail, the harsher, and more domineering she becomes. She no longer seems to be able to relate to other people as humans, to get out of the role of “girl boss” she’s so meticulously constructed. By the end of the film, when she finally gets paroled, she almost seems like a Nazi. In some ways, since I don’t speak German, I never quite feel like I’m getting as much out of Fassbinder’s films as I think I should be getting. Fassbinder is a highly verbal filmmaker. Subtitles are never quite enough. But there’s no mistaking the transformation of Maria’s speech from the subtle, flirtatiousness of the early scenes to the harsh way she barks orders in the later scenes, and the German language seems particularly appropriate. Girl Boss has become Girl Fuhrer.

Is the film’s narrative arc sexist? Perhaps. But it’s undeniably historical. In the film’s bitterly ironic final line “Germany wins it all,” Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died in the early 1980s at the age of 37, predicts the future. Where Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler failed, a united Germany under Angela Merkel succeeded. Germany now has the third largest economy in the world after China and the United States. With their junior partners the French, they completely dominates the European Union. But will they ever produce another Goethe, another Mozart, or even another Fassbinder? As rich as they get, my guess is “no.”

The Molly Maguires (1970)


If you want to know how the world would look if libertarians got their way you don’t have to go very far. Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1860s and 1870s put few restrictions on the “liberty” of the millionaires who owned the anthracite coal mines. There was no Federal Reserve. Each big mine had its own company script, legal tender only at the company store. There were no city police departments. Every “job creator” has his own private army of security guards,  private detectives, and company spies. There was no social security, no unemployment insurance, no medicare or medicaid. There were no labor laws or safety standards, and no environmental regulations. Each mine was its own little feudal kingdom governed by its own ruling class, the CEO and Board of Directors, managed by a labor aristocracy, the English, Welsh, and German Americans who worked as foremen and engineers, and worked by unskilled Irish Catholic immigrants who were, for all practical purposes, slaves.

In the early 1870s, the mine owners in what are now Lackawanna, Luzerne, Columbia, Schuylkill, Carbon, and Northumberland counties broke a series of strikes organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish fraternal order that had become the nucleus of an emerging labor movement. After the longest strike, which last over 6 months, finally petered out, the owners did what capitalists always when they suddenly find themselves in total control. They turned up the repression up to 11. Wages were cut in half. Prices at the company stores doubled. They fired adult workers and hired children, some as young as 12. More importantly, Franklin B. Gowen, the owner of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, and at the time “the wealthiest anthracite coal mine owner in the world,” began to take steps that will be all too familiar to anybody who lived through 9/11, George W. Bush, and the “war on terror.”

Whether or not the Irish immigrant labor movement in Northeastern Pennsylvania went “underground” in the 1870s is still a matter of dispute among historians. Clearly, in the wake of the famine of 1847 and the mass emigration of Irish Catholic peasants to the United States, a tradition of secret societies and violent resistance emigrated with them. At the same time, violence poverty and repression go together. Not every bar fight that ended with someone getting shot or getting his skull cracked was political. The local newspapers, however, all of which were firmly under the control of the mine owners, didn’t let the opportunity go to waste, blaming every violent crime on a secret society of Irish labor organizers popularly known as the “Molly Maguires.” A climate of fear and hysteria resulted, especially among the English, German and Welsh Americans who held petty positions of authority over the Irish Catholic underclass. Franklin B. Gowan, who, in addition to being President of the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company, had also served as the District Attorney for Schuylkill County decided to crush the Irish immigrant labor movement once and for all.

Martin Ritt’s 1970 film The Molly Maguires is a dramatization of what follows. James McParland, a private detective played by Richard Harris, arrives in Eckley Pennsylvania, hired by Franklin McGowan to identify the leadership of “The Molly Maguires,” who McGowan believes are responsible for a series of mine explosions. Initially creating suspicion — he’s new and his hands are far too soft for him to have had much experience as a miner — McParland eventually manages to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, led by Jack Kehoe, a historical Irish American labor leader played by Sean Connery. As the film unfolds, McParland collects enough information to implicate ten men in the murder of two mine owners. Although the evidence was far from conclusive, all of the men are hanged in Mauch Chuck and Pottsville Pennsylvania, in what is now widely considered to be a travesty of justice. Kehoe would be hanged a year later on obviously trumped up charges. As Carbon County Judge John P. Lavelle would later observe, it was the “libertarian” ideal come to life, a government which had effectively surrendered its authority to a private corporation.

“The Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows.”

Marin Ritt’s film has one undeniably great scene. After McParland completes his first week on the job, he goes to collect his paycheck. The detective hates working in the coal mines but still, as an able-bodied, relatively young man — Richard Harris was 40 in 1970 — he’s managed to haul a lot of coal out of the ground. Nevertheless, the mine owners not only charge the miners for their equipment, they have ratcheted up the repression in the wake of the failed strikes. After all is said and done, McParland takes home a grand total of 23 cents. We keep watching. Surely, we think, the more experienced miners, who already own their equipment and who are better at hauling coal, will do better. They do worse. The more coal a miner can haul, the more equipment he needs, and the more he is charged. The man in line after McParland hauls out twice as much coal and makes only half as much money. The next man hauls out even more coal and winds up in debt for the week. He owes the mine owners money. In other words, the Irish immigrant coal miners are effectively slaves. For a moment McParland, who’s being paid by the mine owners to bust up the labor movement and who has plenty of money, hesitates, almost in disbelief at what the workers at the mine have to put up with. McParland is also an Irishman himself. Has he sold out his own soul? Is he Judas?

Nothing else in the Molly Macguires has the power of this one incredible scene. We never really learn if McParland’s hesitation was a genuine moment of regret, or if he had simply been disoriented by having, for once in his life, to do hard labor. Sean Connery is far too good-looking and far too well-built to be convincing as a coal miner. The real John Kehoe was an influential labor leader but he would still have spent many 12 hour days underground. The way Connery looks, I half expected him to check his Rolex, order a dry martini, shaken not stirred, then go upstairs to the presidential suite to fuck another Bond girl. Sean Connery in 1970, especially with his neatly trimmed mustache, would have made a great young Ernest Hemingway, but he’s no more believable as an Irish immigrant coal miner than Peter Dinklage would be as an NBA power forward.

The other miners are similarly miscast. McParland’s love interest, played by Samantha Egger, is even better looking than Connery. In the end, the only character in the film even remotely believable as working class is Police Captain Davies, a Welshman played by Frank Finlay. It has an unintentional consequence. After he explains how he had been willing to do anything to stay above ground in the light, to get out of working in the mines, we come away understanding the motivations, not of the militant labor leaders who dynamite the mine shafts, but of the private detectives who sell them out, a result the film’s screenwriter, a former communist blacklisted by the McCarthyite witch hunts in the 1950s, surely didn’t intend.  Worst of all is Richard Harris.  Normally a good actor, he seems to sleepwalk through his starring role. Although he has more screen time and dialog than anybody else in the film we never get a clue about his motivations, or even about why he’s so intent on sleeping with Mary Raines, Egger. She’s an unpleasant social climber. He’s a rat carrying out private cointelpro for a capitalist pig mine owner, and nothing registers. Well, I guess it was 1970 and everybody hated rats. If Connery hadn’t been almost as bad and almost as inexpressive, I might be tempted to say that Harris was resentful over not being the hero.

In any event, The Molly Maguires is no Matewan, John Sayles’s classic 1980s film about a similar incident in West Virginia. Indeed, it’s baffling how Martin Ritt could have made such a dull film about such a compelling historical event. Watch a documentary about the real Molly Maguires instead. But never forget, what happened on December 8, 1878 is what libertarians want, the “liberty” of the ruling class to turn the working class into actual slaves, and to do anything the hell they want to any of us without the fear of “government.”