In the late 1950s, French film theorists argued that the director was the most important influence on a movie. Adopting these ideas, Andrew Sarris introduced the “auteur” theory to the United States in his seminal book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions in 1968, wherein Sarris respectfully placed the film director Cecil B. DeMille at the second-highest rank. What the French theorists and Sarris did not mention was that the central idea of the director as the driving force of the film was one that DeMille had developed consciously about himself fifty years earlier – well before the term “auteur” became a more common term.
In some dreary and anonymous urban bar, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is way too intoxicated to know what is happening around her. She seems hopelessly drunk at a bar. A male customer offers to take her home to ensure she is safe. The man then changes tracks and invites her to her apartment first. He then makes sexual advances to her comatose form. At that point, he realises that not only is she not drunk, and he is a potential sexual offender – and not the nice guy he imagines himself to be.
Director and writer Emerald Fennell’s ambitious first film Promising Young Woman is a fascinating take on the rape-revenge film. The central character Cassie was a ‘promising young woman’ when her friend was raped, which caused her friend’s and also her own breakdown. Cassie leaves her high level medical career to work in a coffe shop, while living at home. She remains highly embittered by the attack and vows revenge on the killers – and men who take advantage of drunk women.
The film is well made and astonishingly tense depiction of a troubled young woman. It also has elements that stretch back to the depression era films. The Production Code of the 1930s was issued to help the film industry avoid a raft of state and federal censorship. It was a type of industry self-censorship to forestall government intervention. Although these guidelines were technically voluntary, in practice, the major Hollywood studios used the code to deal with the pressure from religious lobby groups. The code developed real teeth later in the 1930s, and films could not get a release if it violated its rules. Rape and depiction of rape were highly sensitive topics of the period. Some have argued that the Production Code meant that directors and writers were far more careful and clever in the way they depicted
While no code is in place now, as it fell apart several decades ago, Fennel employs an impressive array of techniques to depict the impact of violence, without showing it. She shows that an intelligent director does not have to be explicit.
Alexander Heller-Nicholas’s survey of rape-revenge films mentions a whole stratum of these types of films, arguing that Thirteen Women was an early example of rape-revenge film. It is certainly a distant ancestor of a Promising Young Woman. The 1932 thriller film directed by George Archainbaud did not explicitly depict rape, but the film provides clear evidence that the attack or attacks occurred. The film also even repeats the “We were young,” defence that the witnesses and the rapists employ in a Promising Young Woman.
Of course, the Me-too Movement’s politics in 2021 is a world away from the Production Code of 1930, and some aspects have altered markedly. The rape is the now central incident in the film – there is no veiled references. What is remarkable about the film is that while the topic is odious, the depiction of sexual violence is kept to a minimum. Fennell prefers to allow the audience to project their fears rather than depict the incidents. Aside from one scene, the film is an exercise in restraint.
The writers of the production code may not have liked the nudity or the violence – very subdued by today’s standards – but they would have understood the ending and it could have got the code’s stamp of approval. Each of the people who allowed the rape to occur unpunished receives some form of retribution. One of the basic tents of the code was that overt act against the law would be punished.
Unfortunately, under the code, anyone who commits a crime must also pay the price, and Cassie is guilty of a host of offences in her pursuit of revenge for her friend. The framers of the production code would understand her penalty as a suitable corrective to anyone who considers breaking the law.
The code is still hanging in there, even in 2021.
 Motion Picture Association of America, A Code Governing the Making of Motion Pictures: The reason supporting it and the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. 1930- 1935,
 Alexander Heller-Nicholas, Rape Revenge Film: A Critical Study, London: MacFarland, 2011.
Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University
The year 2020 saw the release of The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, which is a re-editing of The Godfather Part III, originally released in 1990. The third part of the Godfather trilogy was always the most maligned of the Godfather set of films. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) are well entrenched in the cinematic canon, but the third suffered in comparison. Director Ford Coppola has re-edited the film with a new beginning and end. Critics have said it is a modest improvement on the previous version. Its release almost certainly denotes the final chapter of the most influential and important film series of the 20th Century.
With less fanfare, the year also saw the end of the Italian TV series Suburra: Blood on Rome (2017-2020), which concluded its run with a climactic shoot-out. While radically different visions of organized crime, both Suburra and The Godfather upended a long-held tradition in Hollywood films, where criminals tended to be brought to justice in the last reel. Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) were remotely based on figures such as Al Capone of the Prohibition era. Acting under the production code, all of them suffered the consequences of their law-breaking. However, audiences in the Depression still identified with their willingness to go outside the traditional system’s bounds to make a living.  The films of this era saw the gangsters and the law in direct opposition.
In the 1970s, with the release of the Valachi papers, and the realization of the Mafia’s workings, this formula underwent a radical shift, with the gangster now a respected member of society. Indeed, the way the gangster image has evolved reflects how we have moved as a society. In The Godfather, the Don’s immediate successor Santino Corleone is violent on occasion. Santino nearly beats his brother-in-law to death for striking his sister. He is much closer to the cinematic psychopaths of the 1930s, and he is passed his use-by date.
The other Dons: Vito and Michael, kill for business or honour, as do their opponents. Santino is not seen as “a good Don” because he fights with a violent passion. He needed a practical approach as declared by their enemy Sollozo, the Turk. Sollozo told the Corleone family lawyer Tom Hagen: “I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman; blood is a big expense”. Neither of the other Corleone dons is likely to lash out for no reason at all or to even respond to a simple provocation. Murders are simply cold and calculated efforts to achieve practical goals. Michael shoots the Turk and his police captain bodyguard to protect the family and to save his father. From that point on, Michael certainly uses his newly attained power to murder opponents or traitors, but always for “business” reasons.
Director Martin Scorsese took some elements of The Godfather and made it his own. His gangster world is lower-middle-class, and it has a violent edge. However, being a gangster is also fun. Brian Phillips has argued that Goodfellas (1990) is the bridge between The Godfather and the crime families that emerged in the TV series Sopranos. “Goodfellas is far more than a transitional film, but it does link the past and the future in some important ways. If it’s true that every great work of art ends one genre and founds another, then Goodfellas could be seen as the culmination of the tradition represented by The Godfather and as the vital link between the New Hollywood cinema of the ’70s and what we now think of as the golden age of TV.” 
Building on the world created by the Goodfellas, the TV series The Sopranos (1999 to 2007) focused on a more middle-class setting in New Jersey. While Michael Corleone strived for upper-class respectability, Tony Soprano has no such pretensions. As a physically imposing man, Tony Soprano used his stature and threats of violence to run a criminal enterprise. At best, Tony Soprano barely manages to keep his modest middle-class facade intact – needing some psychological support to do so. The Sopranos has no intersection with the political world, other than some links to the union movement. Unlike the Corleones who appear untroubled by the police or government, Tony Soprano and his group appeared doomed to either death or imprisonment. The Sopranos stripped away any sophistication or style from the image of gangsters.
With the end of the Sopranos in 2007, there seemed to be no likely successor to the organized crime family. However, the arrival of internationally based streaming services in the 2010s created an incinerator-like demand for high-quality TV shows. Countries outside the United States have started to fill the void. The clear successor to the Sopranos was Suburra: Blood on Rome – and to a lesser extent Gomorrah. Previously, shows such as Suburra: Blood on Rome would have played in Italy and a few foreign language television stations. With streaming services and the strong demand for content, the show is now shown in 190 countries. While the United States’ dominance in world culture is still strong, it is certainly being eroded by the new technologies that give access to programs worldwide – and we are starting to see and hear new voices.
In the world of Suburra: Blood on Rome, all are corrupt, from the Vatican, through all government levels to the streets – no one is safe, and no one is clean. Suburra: Blood on Rome began life as a 2013 novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo. The book was based on a 2015 Italian neo-noir crime film directed by Stefano Sollima, which the TV series then reworked. Despite its Italian origins, Suburra: Blood on Rome owes a great deal to The Sopranos in taking a similar path of sending the gangster genre down market. The lead character in Suburra: Blood on Rome is Aureliano Adami, from a gang from Ostia – a port near Rome. Son of the chief, Adami is a gang member who appears to have no interest in upper class or even middle-class respectability. He will kill on impulse and exacts savage revenge on anyone who crosses him. In one scene, Adami beats a man to a pulp and then shoots him – he makes Santino Corleone look restrained.
Even so, Adami is a charismatic leader, and, with his allies, they challenge the gangster hierarchy of Rome. In 2020, our gangster figures have moved far away from Michael Corleone, whose murders were “strictly business,” to figures who murder for revenge – or simply because they are just in the way. Other changes are evident in the projection of power in the key actors. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a man whose rage is tightly controlled, and he acts after thinking things through. Tony Soprano is an intelligent thug who rules with cunning and violence – he is no planner. Aureliano Adami is just a scary human being with a possible death wish.
As the gangster genre continues to move along, it has become more violent and continues to set out in different directions.In the 1970s, The Godfather was seen as a commentary on the Nixon administration with its conservative façade and criminal underpinnings. When the Watergate scandal derailed Nixon, it also led to a toxic loss of confidence in the government’s honesty and integrity. As time has progressed, the cultural myths about gangsters have become more violent, and the government appears to be ineffectual in helping people. In the Trump era, that loss of confidence has ebbed further. In Suburra: Blood on Rome, the government is now in alliance with the gangsters, and it is hard to see where one begins and one ends. In The Godfather, there are references to political connections, where Vito Corleone has a strong influence. When a Senator threatens the Corleones, Michael looks blankly and says: “Senator, we are all part of the same hypocrisy.” Suburra takes that idea to another level. Close to 50 years down the track, we can barely say who is worse: the gangster or the government. Yet with all the evolution of style, the end is a shoot out is straight out of the 1930s. Despite Aureliano Adami’s clear psychotic behaviour in Suburra: Blood on Rome, he has some sense of honor, but the central politician is a repulsive character. The politician gets away with it.
 Andrew Bergman, We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. Chicago: Elephant, 1992, 3 – 17.
When George Orwell died in 1950, he requested that no biography be written. It was request that stood for a few decades until scholars began to research one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. Now many Orwell biographies have been written, and it is certain more books are on the horizon. While Orwell’s request was followed for a long time, a major public figure would see little point in making the request. Today, we face the trend of the instant biographies of people living and working. More importantly, depictions on TV and in the movies are coming thick and fast. Indeed, the half-life between an event happening and its depiction on the screen used to be decades. The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events on TV screens surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.
That gap has been narrowing and it has become a matter of months before a prominent figure is depicted. At the time of writing Donald Trump – who is still president – has had a raft of books written about him. (Few seem to be interested in the new president Joe Biden.) Donald Trump has had two biographies written about his presidency by the iconic Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, but Woodward’s impact is nothing compared to the impact of TV shows. The Comey Rule is a recently released American political drama television miniseries, based on the book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by the former FBI director James Comey. The miniseries has Jeff Daniels playing Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. The remarkable aspect of this series is that it depicted a sitting President in recent events. For Comey’s book, the gap was barely two years.
The impact of these shows is profound. The author of the highly regarded dual biography of Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz, The Brothers Mankiewicz, Sydney Ladensohn Stern noted when watching the newly released film about Herman Mankiewicz: “Movies are so much more evocative than books that I knew no matter how accurate my research, how convincing my writing, and even how widely my book might be read, Mank’s Herman was going to be the Herman Mankiewicz for the ages.”
The same process can be seen in other political figures. For example, the rumour of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover being in a closeted homosexual relationship with his assistant Clyde Tolson and engaging in cross dressing is widespread. Rumours about Hoover’s homosexuality had circulated for many years as he had lived and worked closely with Clyde Tolson and neither were married. Based on a verbal account, one biographer argued that Hoover was a cross dresser. The account was almost immediately attacked by investigative journalist and Hoover critic Peter Maas soon after the biography was published. He re-interviewed the sources and demonstrated that every piece of evidence to support the case was flawed.Maas believed the stories were nothing more than hearsay.Maas’s conclusions were backed by FBI historian Athan Theoharis, who is also a strident critic of Hoover, and has demonstrated the evidence is particularly weak and it seems unlikely that Hoover was in a homosexual relationship with Tolson. Another Hoover biographer Ronald Kessler has concluded the FBI director simply could not have engaged in homosexual activity at the Plaza with a number of witnesses present, without having it leak out. “The cross-dressing allegations were as credible as McCarthy’s claim that there were 205 known Communists in the State Department, yet the press widely circulated the claim without further investigation. That Hoover was a cross-dresser is now largely presumed to be fact even by sophisticated people”.
So, you would assume that the rumour would be dismissed. However, films trounce books in setting agendas. When J. Edgar Hoover was represented in the 2001 Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar, wearing a dress, historians of the period rolled their eyes. Hoover’s cross dressing and supposed homosexuality had hit the silver screen, and no amount of detailed academic research was going to erase a discredited claim. The image had been set in stone by a film.
The impact of movies and TV shows on reputations can have wide ranging consequences. The Crown is a retelling of the rule of British monarch Queen Elizabeth II and it is now colouring the perception of the royal family. Camilla and Prince Charles have spent many decades slowly building their reputation, since their divorces and eventual remarriage. The pair have worked hard to gain public trust. The most recent season of the TV series follows the relationship of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, outlining their failing marriage. The creators of the show have declared that the show is historical fiction. This statement may be their intention, but the show is seen as a historical record. Prince Charles is often depicted as being uncaring in the face of Diana’s suffering. The show has created endless debate on the fairness of the depiction, but it is now the version of history against which all must negotiate. More than any other source, a TV series is now shaping Charles’s reputation, who will be King, assuming he lives longer than his mother: Queen Elizabeth II. King Charles III – as he will possibly be called – and Trump’s eventual reputation may not be decided by the political historians and journalists, it may well be decided by the audience response to TV shows such as The Comey Rule and The Crown along with the other series that are sure to follow.
During the Second World War, religious films were in vogue. The Song of Bernadette (1943) was a popular film, based on the bestselling novel of 1941. In 1944, Leo McCarey directed Going My Way, concerning Father Chuck O’Malley, who guided young people an it proved to be one of the most successful films of the year. This benign vision of religion reverberated with the American public, who probably needed reassurance of religious guidance. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), was its follow up and was also successful.
Leo McCarey was a devout Catholic and his Catholicism helped spawn a strong anti-Communism. McCarey testified before HUAC in 1947 and in 1948, Leo McCarey, wrote an article for The New York Times on the need for films with religious themes. McCarey wrote that the film industry had a tremendous opportunity for ‘education, enlightenment, and influence’. He claimed there was a growing plea for motion pictures with a religious influence. McCarey called for religious pictures that entertained.
Religion and its principles can be absorbingly and tellingly presented within the basic screen itself. After all, the cinema would soon lose its influence, if it lost the primary function of entertainment. As an example, the unentertaining, heavy handed pounding of a theme is one of the mistakes which the Communists repeatedly make in the filming of their Soviet propaganda. Pictures which are so colossally dull that their points, if any, are already lost.
McCarey argued for the tactful and tasteful use of religious stories to show the ‘goodness of good as against the banality and wastefulness of those living without beliefs. By contrasting religious films with Soviet propaganda, it is clear that McCarey, like many others, saw religion as an effective antidote to communism.  McCarey wanted religious films to be more effective propaganda than the Soviet efforts and he wanted Hollywood to contribute to ensuring a deeper belief in religion throughout the world. He looked forward to the production of The Robe to demonstrate the strength of his arguments.
McCarey would also be a key ally for DeMille when conservatives moved against Mankiewicz in 1950, but his anti-communist activity did not end there. In 1950, he made a film You Can Change the World was a short film for the Christopher movement who were members of Catholic church aiming to reinvigorate the United States with strong religious values. It features Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Irene Dunne, Rochester, William Holden, Loretta Young, and Ann Blyth. The film hoped to energise people to do more good work in the community, as antidote for those who were taking control – read communists. Despite the clear talent, it is like a poor lecture on the Declaration of Independence and the need for religion or religious values. The participants, aside from Benny, Rochester, and Hope, are lifeless. The film gives the distinct impression of being an exercise to prove anti-communist credentials, and the actors appear to be disinterested in the whole lecture – which includes slabs of the Declaration of Independence. It is not a Catholic film as the participants covered a wide range of religious views. Ann Blyth was a devout Catholic and Jack Benny was Jewish.
Despite its noble grandstanding, the film has a barely concealed racism. Rochester, as an African-American, is not invited to hear the father speak, even though he is just as famous as the rest of the guests. He was a valet, and his rejection is either based on class or race or both. Race is also mentioned when the priest tells the story of a young man who may lose his job at a service station because he is African-American. After a community boycott, one person finds the service station 25 new customers and he is allowed to keep his job. The film does not question the right of the customers to discriminate or the service station owner’s ability to sack his employee, because of his customer’s reaction to race. The implicit assumption in the film, “You Can Change the World,” is that the “you” is limited to white people. They can help African Americans, but it is one-way street.
McCarey would again tackle communism in his feature films. In My Son John (1952), his message was clear: communism was a cancer in American society which had to be ripped out. The film was a strange mixture of political intolerance, homosexual repression and anti-intellectualism. The film was not well received, and it is now regarded as one of the more feverish of the anti-communist films. (See: https://cinemahistoryonline.com/2019/08/23/my-son-john-1952/ for a fuller discussion.) A decade later, he would try again with Satan Never Sleeps and it was also a dismal failure. The actors appeared to be going through the motions, and the Chinese Communists were moronic thugs. If My Son John is feverish, Satan Never Sleeps is just dreary. Leo McCarey and fellow writer Claude Binyon were accomplished comedic writers and drama appeared to elude them. It represented a sad end for McCarey, who was one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, but simply did not know his limitations. McCarey had made some highly effective and notable religious films during the Second World war, but something seemed to be missing when he made religious or political films in the immediate period following the cold war.
Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
The recent film Tenet (2020) looked at the possibility of worldwide destruction, where everything is destroyed, in order to satisfy the crazed needs of a suitably deranged villian. The film is the latest of a long line of films, where the world faces destruction through nuclear annnihilation that stretches back to the 1960s, when fears about nuclear weapons began to be discussed more openly. In the 1950s, science fiction films, often had themes of nuclear armageddon, but this was usually disguised as aliens or monsters being unleashed in Them or Earth versus Flying Sources. Direct discussion of this issue was clearly too painful during this decade, because it simply did not happen.
While nuclear fears were discussed in these films in allegorical terms, the biblical epics of the 1950s created a cultural mythology that assured the eventual destruction of the communist empires. As communists gained power in China and Russia became a nuclear power, the American people needed reassurance that this rising threat of a Sino-Soviet bloc with more soldiers and nuclear weapons would inevitably fail. At the time, communism appeared to be on the march, with the Korean war beginning and McCarthy’s allegations of communist conspiracy within the United States Government. The biblical epics provided another depiction which showed the communists empires vulnerable to resistance based on spiritual values. The rhetoric of historian Arnold Toynbee, evangelist Billy Graham and State Department head John Foster Dulles linked religious conviction with national strength. It was this message which was eagerly taken up by the American people.
Cold war messages were contained in all these films, but they received their most reverent and inspired treatment in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The biblical epics created the cultural myth for Americans that society needed a firm moral basis to succeed and flourish. Communism lacked this moral basis and may flourish for a while, but they would wither in time because of this absence. The image of doomed or damned communism was highly reassuring to audiences. The domestic and international political strengths contained within the United States would eventually lead to the destruction of communism and the re-birth of freedom. The Ten Commandments (1956) painted a picture of the irresistible conflict between the superpowers. The spiritual strength was the only permanent bulwark against the rise of the Soviet Union.
Almost exactly one year to the day after the release of The Ten Commandments, the satellite Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957, destroying American certainties of technological superiority. Previously, the Communsit powers had gained advances by duplcity. Now, the Soviet Union was a step ahead. These fears would crystallise in 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis led to the two superpowers coming perilously close to nuclear conflict. As the real impact of a possible conflict between the superpowers began to sink in, these ideas of moral superiority began to lose their hold, and with the change, cinema began to shift directions. Superpower conflict was not going to be an event with moral strength prevailing – everyone was going to die and civilisation was going to end. The term ‘mutually assured destruction’ had its origins in this period, and it began to be seared into the American political consciousness. No one was going to win the nuclear war.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) was the first film to cast doubt on the idea of a Manichean conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. The book and film feature a McCarthyite figure in the United States who is an unwitting dupe of the communists. The film had a short run, and some have suggested it was removed from public view considering sensitivities regarding the Kennedy Assassination in 1963. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had spent some time in the USSR, and one theory argued that he was brainwashed there to shoot the president. Whatever the reasons for its short run, the film had a massive impact, and the film’s title entered popular language. It was remade in 2004, with a different political setting in the Iraq war. Most recently, President Donald Trump has been called: “A Manchurian Candidate,” for his foreign policy positions – particularly with Russia. The film is notable in that it began to blur the lines between the super patriots and the communist threats – both were dangerous to the political system.
While The Manchurian Candidate was a black political satire, other films delved into the impact of the Cold War. The first cinematic response to the possibility of mutually assured destruction was Fail Safe (1964), directed by Sidney Lumet, was based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The film was released in early 1964 and it portrayed an accident leading to nuclear war, with destruction for Moscow and New York. While the film enjoyed critical success, it was not popular at the box office. It is an overwelmingly bleak assessment of the chances of nuclear war.
The bleak vision of nuclear conflict was followed by Dr. Strangelove’s black satire, directed by Stanley Kubrick, which was also released in 1962. With the comedic genius Peter Sellars playing three roles, including the crazed scientist Dr. Strangelove, the film argued that the whole system was a mess, and a madman could release the nuclear holocaust. Based on the Democrat presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, Peter Sellers also played a US President fighting being the greatest mass murderer in world history. He also played the unforgettable Dr Strangelove, a clearly insane scientist, who has taken the world to a nuclear abyss. In most films, a James Bond hero manages to meet all the challenges, but the worse does happen in this film, and the world is destroyed. Even satire provided no escape from nuclear terrors.
A further film, The Bedford Incident (1965), showed a clash between a US destroyer and a Soviet submarine that leads to the destruction of both in an exchange of nuclear weapons. The depicted clash that occurred before or during the Cuban Missile Crisis – accounts differ. In October 1962, a Soviet submarine was pursued by the US Navy. When the nuclear-armed Soviet vessel failed to surface, the destroyers began dropping training non-lethal depth charges. The officers on the submarine argued over deploying the weapon, believing that World War Three had begun. Senior officer Vasili Arkhipov prevented any escalation by refusing to launch the weapon.After an argument, it was agreed that the submarine would surface and await orders from Moscow.
This small group of films was criticised for being alarmist about the possibility of an accident or a madman leading to a nuclear war. In time, it would be demonstrated that the film’s writers and the directors were close to the truth. The United States and the Soviet Union could have easily gone to war, as the security around nuclear weapons were poor, and systems were haphazard. Both The Bedford Incident and Fail-Safe had an underlying message that nuclear weapons were too dangerous and would inevitably lead to destruction. The safeguards were not in place. In sharp contrast, The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove depicted the whole government apparatus as insane. The political certainties of the Eisenhower period were being eroded.  Its political system looked rickety, its religious shield was ineffectual, and its technological lead looked shaky. The moral certainity of the Ten Commandments (1956) had all but disappeared.
The Ten Commandments was released on 5 October 1956.
 The term “mutual assured destruction” was coined by Donald Brennan, a strategist working in Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute in 1962. Daniel Deudney, Whole Earth Security: A Geopolitics of Peace, Washington: Worldwatch Institute, July 1983, 32-33, accessed at https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED233950 on 18 November 2020.
Travis M. Andrews, “Some call Trump a ‘Manchurian Candidate.’ Here’s where the phrase originated,” Washington Post, 13 January 2017.
 Nickola Davis, “Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize, The Guardian, ,” 27 October 2017.
 Eric Schlosser, “Almost Everyhting in “Dr. Strangelove” was True,” 17 January 2014.
Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
The recent United States election has certainly been a memorable one. Asthe dust settles, it is an absolute certainty that films and TV shows will be produced on the Presidency of Donald Trump – if they are not already in production. Whatever people think of Trump, it is undeniable that he generates interest in whatever he does – and will continue to do so for many years. The TV network Showtime has already shown The Comey Rule depicting the relationship between Trump and FBI director Comey. Based on Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, it focusses on their relationship, leading to his sacking by Trump. The political drama stars Jeff Daniels as Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. Trump has such an over the top persona that actors will undoubtedly be queuing to do their intrepretation of him. Brendan Gleeson has had the first serious crack, but the mini-series highlighted that political drama done well could be engaging and popular. 
In the TV series, the FBI is depicted as an organisation that has to constantly balance out political pressure, while investigating crimes. Founding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover would barely recongise what his successors at the FBI were even doing. Hoover highlighted the Bureau’s role in catching gangsters, or identifying communists. The focus was on crime and treason. In the social media age, the FBI director’s working life seems consumed with emails from politician’s computers, along with the antics of Russian social media trolls. As well as dealing with tweets from the President, the media dominates all communication and Comey is even advised that he had been sacked by television.
While not predicting the future of media and politics, one film that certainly made some prescient observations about American politics was The Last Hurrah (1958). The film was adapted from the 1956 novel of the same name by Edwin O’Connor. The prestigious director John Ford and the actor Spencer Tracy joined forces to depict a long term Irish-American mayor preparing for a final election campaign. Mayor Frank Skeffington and his campaign are followed by his nephew and journalist, Adam Caulfield, who covers American politics at close range.
Skeffington – a mayor of a New England city which appears to be Boston – delivers one of the novel’s finest political speeches when talking to his nephew about politics, saying it is the greatest spectator sport in the United States. Everyone knows ‘who is up and who is down’, according to Skeffington. He wants to run one more campaign the old fashioned way, knowing his time is up, as Skeffington realises that radio and television were becoming the dominant force, reducing politics to a televised sport.
The election contains a scathing vision of American politics with a dolt of a candidate opposing Skeffington. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times , would call him “a farcical nitwit.”  Backed by the town’s moneyed interests, the only advantage he seems to have over Skeffington is the use of new technology, which in 1958 was television. The book was written after Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson’s disastrous drive to solicit votes through speeches, where the more media savvy President Dwight Eisenhower used advertising and television to promote his political profile. Eisenhower slaughtered Stevenson in both the 1952 and 1956 campaigns. The Democrats would take note of the lessons of campaigning against Eisenhower, and use them to full effect when they worked for the future President John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election campaign.
While a supporter of Kennedy, John Ford was not a fan of television politics at which JFK would prove to be a superb practitioner. Ford was concerned with the rise of media politicians, and he could see that the days of Skeffington were numbered with their low-level corruption, but with a focus on distributing goods to their lower income neighborhoods. The new politicians had a commitment to nothing. The film highlights the impact that television would make on American politics for the next 60 years. In more recent times, television has been supplanted largely by social media, of which US President Donald Trump has shown some mastery. In the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson could still attempt to campaign with beautifully written speeches. Ford would never have imagined that a reality TV star could use the medium for a political base. It is inconceivable that Ford could not even envisage reality TV, but he understood that image was now as important as substance in the 1950s.
Ford’s film is lament for a political past where politicians were elected on character and policies. The warnings from 1958 in O’Connor’s novel and Ford’s film are clear for all to see. Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction of his political campaigns in Young Mr Lincoln (1939). Lincoln commands through use of language, logic and force of personality. In Lincoln’s time, two hour speeches were recorded in full in newspapers and people rode or walked miles to hear them. Lincoln would later develop the precursor to the grab with the Gettyburg address, which was a ridiculously short speech by the standards of the time. Today, neither side would even bother with a speech of any length in the age of twitter. Our society has election campaigns with all image and no substance, having reached the bottom of the slippery slide identified by O’Connor in 1956.
The film also has one remote link back to Trump. At the end of the film and the book, Skeffington lies dying, having lost the campaign, and one of his detractors says if he were alive, he would regret what he did in his political life. The comatose figure comes back to life and says: “Like hell, I would.” I cannot imagine Donald Trump saying anything else much different in similar circumstances. Despite the massive impact of television and social media, over the preceeding seven decades, it seems politicians do not change all that much.
 Rick Porter, ‘The Comey Rule’ Draws Solid Initial Ratings for Showtime,’ Hollywood Reporter, 30 September 2020.
 The clip from The Last Hurrah (1958) can be seen at:
The Queen’s Gambit released by Netflix looks to be an ultra-modern series with state of the art set design and touching on a whole set of current issues – such as drug addiction and feminism. Yet the story is a particularly old fashioned Horatio Alger style tale, which is almost the quintessential American myth. Alger was a Nineteenth-Century writer whose central characters rise through meticulousness and industry to become a respected society member. In many ways, the central character Beth Harmon, played with style by Anya Taylor-Joy, represents the traditional Alger protagonist. A creature of the 19th century, Horatio Alger’s characters were invariably young men. Despite the difference in gender, Harmon resembles one of his characters perfectly. Beth comes from the humblest of origins. Harmon worked hard at her craft – which in this case is chess. She succeeds through a combination of hard work and the astonishing mental gifts bestowed on her. Her gender is a barrier, and she still has to break into the chess world, but the doors were open to her through the vastly superior American system.
Alger’s central characters are usually young, white men living in big cities with low-paying jobs. Published in 1868, Alger’s first major work Ragged Dick followed the story of a young boy working as a shoeshine on New York streets. Dick befriends a customer who gives him five dollars for a service. The protagonist then uses that small sum to create a small fortune through being frugal and mostly through hard work. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth is also given five dollars to play in a state chess tournament by a kindly janitor who taught her how to play chess. She wins the tournament and moves onto becoming US champion, before taking on the world.
In contrast, the Soviet system is no place for genius, but it allows a player such as her rival Bogrov to succeed. He is a machine, who shows no flashes of brilliance, but can crush any opponent in the end game. In the Soviet system, players with ability are hand picked by the Soviet bureaucracy, and drilled to play at their best. The state provides every assistance, and the players are a team who help each other, planning how to beat their foreign opponents.
The show depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other, which is a departure from the Alger myth. Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, an United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972. The show does not mention that the Soviet Union dominated chess from 1948 until Fischer loosened their grip in 1972. While one of the greatest players in chess history, Fischer was only a blip to Soviet domination. It is rarely mentioned that the Soviets retook and retained command of the sport until 1990 when the Soviet Union fell apart. Russia retained its grip for a while, and it still has two players in the top ten.
Fischer and Harmon have similar traits, such as learning Russian, and both are outsiders who are obsessed with chess. In the 21st century version of the Alger myth, the protagonist must fight both external forces and internal demons. Beth Harmon must deal with her parent’s separation, her mother’s death, being an unwanted orphan in a dreadful school, a remote stepfather, a loving but crushed stepmother coupled with a drug and alcohol problem. Beth is also compared to Paul Morphy of the 19th century, one of the finest players of the era, who dazzled the world with his brilliant attacking play, then went mad after being compelled to stop.
Horatio Alger provided the basis for many cinematic heroes. In the silent period, Harold Lloyd was the personification of the Horatio Alger myth. With his get up and go, the Lloyd character conquered massive obstacles to his ambition, of which the climb up the side of the multi-storey building in Safety Last was the most famous. Despite his glasses, his tenacity would win over the biggest obstacle and strongest opponent.
In more recent times, the boxer depicted in Rocky is a prime example. A loser Rocky Balboa is given one chance to fight the world champion. He trains hard and then comes close to beating Apollo Creed. In later sequels, like The Queen’s Gambit, it developed a cold war edge with Rocky going up against an inhuman Soviet Goliath and triumphing. In contrast, Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but also courteous and dignified. This a post-Cold War series and we are allowed to see the Russians as human. While Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph.
At the time of writing, The Queen’s Gambit, is the most popular TV show on Netflix. The success of TV series shows how underlying Horatio Alger myths retain a stranglehold on the American imagination. The story may shift from a young man to a woman. It may shift from commerce to boxing to chess, but the myth remains in firmly in place.
 For a discussion on Horatio Alger see Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success : From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. New York: Basic Books, 1969.
 Edmonds, David & John Eidinow. Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time provides an excellent account of the 1972 world championship.
Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
In almost every Buster Keaton film, there is a scene where the audience gasps at the actor’s astonishing athleticism. It can be when Keaton wrestles with huge pieces of wood on his steam engine, The General or when a building collapses on him.In an era, well before CGI, Keaton does make that leap or have a house fall on him. Keaton’s career peaked in the 1920s but then declined with the introduction of sound. Interest in the comic actor rose from the 1940s but then declined from about 2000. While Keaton’s career descended from the 1920s great matinée idol to cameos on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s, his legacy has lived on. His films are now considered some of the greatest in the period, and many would argue that they are the greatest of all.
The legacy of Keaton’s great directorial skills can be seen in two unrelated from different countries producing two vastly diverse films. Malcolm (1986) was an Australian comedy, written by the husband-and-wife team of David Parker and Nadia Tass, who directed the film. The film stars Colin Friels as Malcolm, a tram enthusiast who becomes involved with a pair of would-be bank robbers. The film has a lot of nods to silent cinema. But if there is one clear predecessor to Malcolm’s character, it is Buster Keaton in The General (1926). In this film, Keaton plays a Southern railway engineer, just before the civil war breaks out, who loves his locomotive called The General and a young woman. It is easy to speculate that the train probably comes first. Keaton’s character is devoted to the railway engine, just as Malcolm surrounds himself with trams and is devoted to their upkeep.
Like Keaton, who directed The General, Tass does use the overacted double-take employed by many other silent comedians. Keaton played it with his “stone face,” while Colin Friels employs a boyish smile in response to whatever is happening. It is a similar space to Keaton, who shows little or no emotion. While he is ostracised by the Confederate Army, Keaton employs all sorts of inventiveness to defeat the Union forces who stole his train. Like Keaton, Malcolm is an outsider who triumphs. While the Keaton character loved trains, Malcolm is entranced with Melbourne’s trams. Through his ingenuity, he triumphs.
Consciously or unconsciously, the film also echoed some other characters of silent cinema. Despite their modern uniforms, the police are almost direct descendants of the Keystone Cops. This group of highly incompetent officers made shorts for Mark Sennett. Their only purpose was to chase the central characters, with their batons waving in their air, only to lose the chase, with various pratfalls and explosions. The police depicted in Malcolm hark back to the silent period of cinema.
Like Tass, the police officers in Chan’s films are nothing more than Keystone cops, who wave around guns, and are just useless. The martial arts actor Jackie Chan comes from a different cinematic tradition than Tass. He has been in many films, but one film clearly shows his relationship to Keaton. Rumble in the Bronx (1995) was directed by Stanley Tong, with the stunts developed by Chan and Tong. Released in Hong Kong in 1995, Rumble in the Bronx had a successful worldwide run, and the film announced Jackie Chan’s arrival to United States audiences. As a result of this film and many others, Chan is now one of the most successful actors on the world stage.
Like Keaton, Chan does his own stunts, including a leap from one building to another. It is the type of stunt that Keaton did routinely. Chan did it without wires, and it is astonishing viewing. THe film has a strong link back to The General, with a climax involving a preposterous use of a hovercraft. Chan does a series of stunts around the hovercraft that are more than a nod to Keaton’s theatrics with a railway engine. Chan injured his foot so badly in this film; he required a moon boot for the rest of the film. Chan continued to work, even engaging in water-skiing without skis. Keaton’s similarities to Chan are obvious: he once broke his neck in a film and continued working. Chan is worthy successor to Buster Keaton.
This is a common observation. Many critics have often equated Jackie Chan to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, who was Keaton’s central rival in the action-comedy – of course, Charlie Chaplin overshadowed both. Jackie Chan has even stated: “I wanted to be like a Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but all the martial arts directors I worked with wanted me to copy Bruce Lee,” he said. “So after I got famous, I started to change a lot of things. When I was filming ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow’ in the late 1970s, I sat down with the director and watched a Bruce Lee film. I decided, when Bruce Lee kicked high, I’d kick low. When Bruce Lee yowled, I’d punch doing a funny face like it hurt. Whatever Bruce Lee did, I’d do the opposite.” Like Tass, the police officers are nothing more than Keystone cops, who wave around guns, and are just useless.
The conscious or unconscious tributes in Malcolm and Jackie Chan show that one of the cinema’s original masters still influences a new generation of directors. When we see Tom Cruise jump out of a building or any other action-adventure figures, we are looking at one of the descendants of Keaton and Lloyd, who opened the door for a whole branch of cinema.
A pebble dropped in a pond will create waves that ripple out forever. Keaton’s influence is still very much with us.
 The film was dedicated to John Tassopoulos, Nadia Tass’s younger brother who died after being struck by a car. When interviewed by from The New York Times, Nadia Tass said the central character reflected her brother a great deal. “Basically, he was very similar to Malcolm, who was withdrawn, and socially inept. He had a very difficult time being accepted in society because of his inability to communicate verbally. However, he was a very clever person.” Lawrence Van Gelder, “At The Movies,” New York Times, 18 July 1986.
Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
Aside from some deplorable Australian accents, the TV series The Good Place has been a highly inventive and entertaining show on the afterlife. It features four pretty ordinary and flawed people who die and are sent to the Good place – a type of heaven. They know they do not deserve the good place, and the place becomes a type of hell for them – a bad place. The Good Place has developed its theological setting with no real mention of a Christian or any other religion. The after-world contains an overarching bureaucracy that processes people with points for good deeds and negative results for bad deeds.
A management vision of the afterlife is nothing new. The 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the United States) also featured an after-world where a heaven-based management system was depicted. After a Second World war bombing raid, Squadron Leader Peter Carter, played by David Niven, falls from a burning aircraft, but it is not picked up by the angels sent to catch him and escapes death – or at least heaven for a time. His unplanned release back to earth becomes more complex when he falls in love with Kim Hunter. The theological, medical, legalistic and managerial worlds collide to decide the fate of the couple.
The context for A Matter of Life and Death was the Second World War when death was a constant partner in people’s lives. It contained a reassuring images of healthy soldiers going to heaven. Of course, it is only Allied soldiers who can make the journey as the picture certainly aimed to console British and American audiences. German and Japanese soldiers are notably absent as the post-war audience would have bristled at the suggestion that enemy soldiers would have gone to heaven as well.
Those fears had eased a little when A Matter of Life and Death was released shortly after the war’s close, but the emotions concerning many people’s deaths were still raw. The idea of a bungled celestial bureaucracy almost certainly has its roots in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941),directed by Alexander Hall, where an angel rescues a boxer before he dies in a plane crash. The records show that he still had 50 years to live, and he was retrieved by accident. Here Comes Mr. Jordan was released before the United States entered the Second World War, but it reflected the growing sense that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time was due. In a different way, Heaven Can Wait (1943) reassured on a different level showing a man who thought he was bad, knocking on the door of hell demanding entry – to find out he should really be in heaven. Some ideas were also contained in A Guy Named Joe (1943), where a pilot who returns to earth after dying to set things right. Both films had a reassuring message about death that would have been gratefully received in those troubled times.
The story about the pilot In A Matter of Life and Death was not the main message developed by directors Powell and Pressburger, who wanted to strengthen post-Second World War relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. The political message that drove the film’s production is now redundant – particularly after 70 years of the special relationship – the afterlife’s central message is now the film’s underlying strength.
The most recognised film which looked into the afterlife was It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, facing ruin and humiliation in his small hometown of Bedford Falls, feels his existence is meaningless and contemplates suicide. Again an angel is involved; Clarence, played by Henry Travers, comes down to demonstrate to a suicidal Bailey the profound difference he made to the town and people of Bedford Falls throughout his life. Again it is benign after-world, looking after the interests of an individual in distress. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and Down to Earth (1947) also have similar benign after-worlds. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death is a releases and it revitalises her and people continue on.
The after worlds of The Good Place and A Matter of Life and Death have some similarities – even a judge. In A Matter of Life and Death, it is a serious British judge, while in the American TV show, it is a goofball American woman who binge-watches TV. God is not seen or even hinted at. Indeed, all these after-worlds contain ideas from various religions, but none suggests that any formal religion is correct. Each of these after-worlds is a relatively benign place, as the films were created to ease tensions in wartime audiences.
Made 70 years later and for a vastly different medium, The Good Place has a darker edge, saying that bad people will be brutally punished for eternity – not a comfortable thought. The Second World War was not place for such thoughts. The Good Place had four seasons, and its final show was on 20 January 2020, just before the COVID-19 virus devastated the United States and has killed more than 200,000 people over eight months. The impact of COVID is more than comparable to the Second World War’s death rates when the United States suffered 416,000 casualties over five years. It is entirely likely that deaths from the disease will surpass those of the Second World War. While the program was well-received on its release, it will be interesting to see how The Good Place is considered in the COVID period and after, when the prospect of death is far more immediate. It may be that future programs of its kind are more like A Matter of Life and Death, with reassuring messages, similar to the films from the Second World War. 
 Actors from the United States struggle with the Australia accent. For Australian viewers, their attempts are just painful. When Ted Danson’s character announces he nailed the accent, I wanted to throw a brick at him. His accent is so poor, I can only assume the line was a joke. Danson is by no means the worst offender in cinematic history- but he is now on the honour roll. As bad as Danson projects his Australian accent, Kirby Howell-Baptiste in the same program is just abysmal. It is possible that the accents are just jokes, but that does not let the actors off the hook. Many Australian actors work in the United States and the United Kingdom and manage to cope with American accents. See https://www.eonline.com/au/news/983011/the-good-place-creator-michael-schur-debunks-all-those-australian-accent-theories.
 For a broader discussion see Christie, Ian, and British Film Institute. A Matter of Life and Death. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI Pub., 2000, . Brian McFarlane reviews the book well “Ian Christie A Matter of Life and Death.” Metro Magazine, no. 139 (2004): 194.