The cold war of Leo McCarey

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

In 1944, Leo McCarey directed Going My Way, concerning Father Chuck O’Malley. A film showing the positive influence of religion on american life. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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. [1]

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.[2]  By contrasting religious films with Soviet propaganda, it is clear that McCarey, like many others, saw religion as an effective antidote to communism. [3]  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.

Despite the honour roll of talent, the film is a rather dull lecture. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

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.

The advertising for Satan Never Sleeps, gives it a message of unresolved sexual tension between the two leads., which is simply not present in the film. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] New York Times 12 December 1948. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition, p. 259.

Tenet and MAD superpower conflict in the 1960s: the end of moral superiority

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The recent film Tenet looked at the possibility of worldwide destruction, where civilsation is eliminated.
Image courtesy of eMovie Poster.

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.[1] 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.[2] No one was going to win the nuclear war.

The Manchurian Candidate was a black political satire which said the political extremes had joined forces against the United States. (Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.)

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.[3] 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.

The United States President, played by Henry Fonda, must release a nucelar weapon over New York, after US fail safes are broken and Moscow is destroyed. (Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.)

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.

Dr Strangelove, played with impeccable comic style by Peter Sellers, depicted the moral morass that the United States found itself in deploying nuclear weapons.
(Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.)

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.[4]

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. [5] 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.


[1] The Ten Commandments was released on 5 October 1956.

[2] 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.

[3] Travis M. Andrews, “Some call Trump a ‘Manchurian Candidate.’ Here’s where the phrase originated,” Washington Post, 13 January 2017.

[4] Nickola Davis, “Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize, The Guardian, ,” 27 October 2017.

[5] Eric Schlosser, “Almost Everyhting in “Dr. Strangelove” was True,” 17 January 2014.

The sad predictions of The Last Hurrah (1958)

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Skeffington begins his last campaign in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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. [1]

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.

The days of the FBI hunting criminals such as Dillinger are clearly over in The Comey Rule.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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.[2]

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.” [3] 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.[4] 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.

Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction in Young Mr Lincoln, who commands through simple persuasion, logic and force of personality – and the occasional use of his fists.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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.


[1] Rick Porter, ‘The Comey Rule’ Draws Solid Initial Ratings for Showtime,’ Hollywood Reporter, 30 September 2020.

[2] The clip from The Last Hurrah (1958) can be seen at:

https://www.tcm.com/video/480786/last-hurrah-the-1958-spectator-sport

[3] Bosley Crowther, “Spencer Tracy in “The Last Hurrah;” Portrays Skeffington, John Ford directs,” The New York Times, 24 October 1958, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/1958/10/24/archives/spencer-tracy-in-the-last-hurrah-portrays-skeffington-john-ford.html on 12 November 2020.

[4] Jill Lepore,  If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, London: John Murray, 2020 has an excellent discussion of the election and the links between advertising and politics.

Horatio Alger and The Queen’s Gambit

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The Netflix’s series The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis novel. which is part of a long tradition of Horatio Alger characters.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

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.[1] 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.[2] 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. 

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A distant ancestor of Beth Harmon is Harold Lloyd, who triumphs against adversity. While Harmon had to conquer a Russian giant in chess, Lloyd had to conquer a building in Safety Last. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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.

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Horatio Alger in boxing: Rocky Balboa triumphed in boxing against the USSR in Rocky IV. Beth Harmon’s triumph is far more dignified. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Legacies of Buster Keaton: Jackie Chan and Malcolm (1986)

Keaton wrestles and overcomes massive objects in his films. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton,

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.[1] While Keaton’s career descended from the 1920s great matinée idol to cameos on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950shis 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.

Colin Friels plays a character who is obsessed with trams and other vehicles in Malcolm (1986).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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.[2] 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 Keaton, Chan does not use a stuntman and he makes sure that audiences know it.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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.”[3] 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.


[1] Figures based on https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=buster+keaton&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&case_insensitive=true

[2] 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.

[3] Strauss, Neil. “Faster than a Speeding Bullet, but also Humanly Fallible: [Biography].” New York Times, Jan 30, 1995, Late Edition (East Coast). http://ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/docview/429993898?accountid=12001.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946): The Post War Good Place

THE GOOD PLACE — The TV show is part of a long tradition of after-worlds that link back to the Second World War.
Colleen Hayes/NBC | 2019 NBCUniversal Media, LLC.

Kevin Brianton

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.[1] 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 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. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

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.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) was released before the United States entered the Second World War. It reflected the growing fear that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

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.[2] 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.

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. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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 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. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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.

Another example of a benign post war afterworld is The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, which shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death revitalises her soul and people continue on. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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. [3]


[1] 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.[3]

[2] Some ideas are contained in Jim McDonald, Maybe angels: glimpses of spirituality in popular culture, 199 – 209. In G Mazza, J Srampickal, et al. Cross Connections: Interdisciplinary Communications Studies At The Gregorian University 2006.

[3] 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.

Chariots of Fire (1981) and Thatcher

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. [1]

Chariots of Fire was a commercial hit across the world. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

With such a biblical reference for the title, you may think the film Chariots of Fire was a religious film. The film’s title was inspired by the line, “Bring me my Chariot of fire!” from the William Blake  poem, which derived from the above biblical quote from the second book of kings (above). This poem was also adapted into the British hymn Jerusalem which is heard at the end of the film, when people walk away from the funeral. 

Bring me my bow of burning gold;

Bring me my arrows of desire;

Bring me my spear; O clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire I will not cease from mental fight;

 Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand;

 Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.

William Blake

The film certainly does mention religion, but that is not its central focus. Chariots of Fire (1981) has come to represent the Thatcher era for many commentators.[2] One critic placed in a set of films that defined the Thatcher era. Andrew Pulver of The Guardian believed: “All the optimism of the early years of Thatcher’s premiership can be found in this unashamedly patriotic, and undeniably stirring, epic. By connecting the experiences of Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams and Scottish flier Eric Liddell, Chariots rather brilliantly manages to position itself as an outsider-against-the-establishment story – the real villain here is the complacent Prince of Wales (Edward VIII to be): the film’s anti-aristocrat sentiment was right up Thatcher’s street.” [3] The film would be used as a fundraiser by conservatives.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. It is not a particularly accurate account of the two men’s participation in the games. The errors are for all to see. To name a few: Harold Abrahams did not court the singer court Sybil Evers until well after the Olympics, and he did not win the college dash, it was Lord Burghley. Abrahams was also known for his long jumping, and this is not mentioned. Liddell also introduced Abrahams to the professional sports coach Sam Mussabini.[4] The list of errors is quite extensive, but it simply does not matter. Like all good historical fiction, the underlying events are only a platform for an engaging story. The two characters are quite sympathetic. Both are outsiders. Liddell is the son of missionaries in China, as well as being a Scot, and Abrahams is a Jew whose father is an immigrant from Lithuania. Abrahams is trying to break into the establishment by doing brilliantly in the Olympics. Liddell runs for God’s pleasure and as a vehicle to deliver sermons to people. Abrahams is intense and driven, but he has a gift for friendship, as well as enjoying Gilbert and Sullivan. In contrast, Liddell likes people’s company and has a modest nature.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The message of competition between these fine athletes was one that resonated with the times. Thatcher was elected in 1979, with a strong commitment to private enterprise. Chariots of Fire, like many other films about sport, extolled competition as bringing out the best in people. Losing was a shattering event, but it made all who participate stronger. The messages of the benefits of the competition were certainly topical at the time. The first term of the Thatcher Government was not a pleasant one, and her government was deeply unpopular. The privatisation, deregulation of the commercial sector and austerity measures had caused the economy to stall. The success of the Falklands invasion in 1982 pulled the government out of a slump, and it rode an economic recovery to become one of the most successful in the United Kingdom’s history. In doing so, Thatcher reversed reforms that dated back to the Attlee Government in 1948. It caused massive upheaval and disruption as the public sector was wound back.

The second theme in the film was patriotism or less kindly, nationalism. The film is filled with English flags, and it is literally – and metaphorically – a flag-waver. Yet it is not competition or nationalism at its heart, but ambivalence about British history and class system. The film is set in the run-up to the 1924 Olympics, the shadow of the First World War looms over this film. A scene in the University where the lecturer looks at the names on the wall, and laments that they all had promise. A generation had been lost, and now the United Kingdom had to stagger into the future. The slaughter caused by nationalism is in the background of this film – it is not exalted. It does praise a benign form of patriotism exemplified by supporting your team at the Olympics by – well – waving flags.

Abrahams works with a profession coach to win, putting hi mat odds with the amateur ideal of the upper classes. Image courtesy of EMoviePoster.

When the director Lindsay Anderson was asked about his role in the film, he said it was fine to bask in the past, provided it was sentimental. Lindsay’s film about the London class system was the fire breathing If (1968).  Lindsay would later say that he enjoyed the sentimentalism of Chariots of Fire. While Anderson’s actors in his cinema want to break down the class system, in Chariots of Fire, one man, Norman Abrahams, wants to break into the establishment and feels hampered by his Jewish background – although he remains proud of it. The other, a Scottish missionary, has no interest in the establishment or its rules, and only wishes to serve God. He runs to feel God’s pleasure.

Directly or indirectly, the film represented some of the Thatcher era’s values, with its themes of careers open to talent, individual effort, and strong competition. Abrahams uses sport to break into British society, by excelling at running. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In this new class system, talent will provide entry to the upper echelons.While not as flexible as American or Australian society, the British establishment was not rigid.  The British could always absorb talent into its hierarchy, regardless of origins. Benjamin Disraeli, who became a Prime Minister twice, was from a Jewish family. The current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a tobacconist, and a woman and the system absorbed her talent, and she rose to the top. Such flexibility has always been an aspect of the British system. When it is announced at the end of the film that Abrahams became the elder statesman of British athletics, it should have come as no surprise.

Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period where the message is– there is no such thing as society. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But the figure of Liddell is a counterweight against these Thatcherite messages. Liddell feels “God’s pleasure” when he runs. He does not run for some “tin cups” and gains more joy from distributing prices at a charity race to children. Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period – with its message of “there is no such thing as society.” Most of the film’s political critics focus on Abrahams, but a counter message is there. This film is also about a man who will stare down the British establishment to address his moral concerns. By only examining one part of the film, critics have overlooked some strong messages about working for the community and less fortunate. Chariots of Fire is a complex and multifaceted film. Just looking at it with a political lens limits the appreciation of it.

[1] 2 Kings 2:11 King James Edition.

[2] Ellis Cashmore (2008) Chariots of Fire: bigotry, manhood and moral certitude in an age of individualism, Sport in Society, 11:2-3, 159-173, DOI: 10.1080/17430430701823406. Other views are contained in Claire Monk. “The British ‘heritage Film’ and Its Critics.” Critical Survey 7, no. 2 (1995): 116-24. Accessed October 2, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41555905.

[3] Andrew Pulver, “The films that defined the Thatcher era,” The Guardian, 9 April 2013, accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/apr/08/margaret-thatcher-films-defined-era on 2 October 2020.

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/sportscotland/asportingnation/article/0019/

 


Ngram charting the rise and fall of directors

The Ngram shows references to DeMille. His reputation dives after his death and suffers a fall in the 1980s, before beginning a steady increase

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Charting how a reputation rises and falls is always a challenge. It is a difficult research project to shift through the various sources. However, a recent Google tool may provide some answers.

In 2010, Google released some searchable data derived from its book scanning. The book scanning project has now encompassed 25 million books. While the project has been controversial because of copyright issues, and other legal matters, it has one useful tool that could assist researchers in reputation.

According to Wikipedia, “In the fields of computational linguistics and probability, an n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sample of text or speech. The items can be phonemessyllablesletterswords or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text.” Basically, what the ngram viewer does is show how many times a certain expression is repeated across the books surveyed.

Now it is always going to be a rough and ready tool, but looking at an individual, we can start to see the shape of their reputation. Taking the director and producer Cecil. B DeMille as an example, the data shows considerable shifts in his reputation over time.[1]

The references begin in 1915, which is when Cecil B. DeMille would have come to attention, when he directed The Squaw Man with Oscar C. Apfel, and starring Dustin Farnum. It was DeMille’s first film and it was also the first feature film in Hollywood. DeMille’s reputation shows a steady increase until about 1923, when it flattens for a decade. DeMille was a highly prominent film director at this time.

Around 1930, the charts takes another jump forward and rises sharply. This coincides with DeMille’s return to Paramount in the early 1930s, and then a strong success story through the sound period. This trend continues up to 1956, when DeMille directed The Ten Commandments.

The number of mentions dips after his death, and reaches a low point in 1964. In the early 1960s, Andrew Sarris placed DeMille in the second rank of directorial hierarchy, and interest appeared to rise until 1974.

DeMille directing The Ten Commandments. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

During the late 1970s, when Joseph Mankiewcz started being interviewed about the Screen Directors Meeting in 1950, mentions of DeMille began to fall. [2] However, in 1980, his reputation turned a corner and he began a steady and unspectacular rise. This continued until 2005, when his mentions started to decline.

DeMille’s decline from 2007 is reflected in basically all other directors from the same period. It simply could be that interest in shifting from the era as a whole. The Ngram open up some interesting lines of inquiry for reputational inquiry.

Notes

[1] https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?corpus=26&smoothing=3&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=Cecil+B.+DeMille&direct_url=t1%3B%2CCecil%20B.%20DeMille%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2CCecil%20B.%20DeMille%3B%2Cc0

[2] Brianton, Kevin. Hollywood Divided : The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. Screen Classics. 2017.

Interiors and exteriors in the Leopard

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

According to the highly influential critic Roger Ebert, ‘“The Leopard” was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.’ Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Taking an iconic novel and putting it on the screen is always a dangerous step. Many great novels have made mediocre or even poor films. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby may be one of the highpoints of American literature, which seems to be a novel that defies translation onto the screen. Gatsby has had four film adaptations, with two especially big-budget, well-known movies: the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and the 2013 film with Leonardo DiCaprio. A silent film was made in 1926, but only a short trailer can be accessed. Despite the large budgets for the Redford and DiCaprio versions, the best of the three adaptations, to my mind, appears to be the low budget version in 1949, directed by Elliott Nugent, with Alan Ladd in the title role – but the internet review site rotten tomatoes gives it 41 per cent: the Redford version came in at 27 percent: and the DiCaprio version is the most popular at 67 per cent. Based on contemporary reviews, the 1926 version gained 44 per cent. [1]  None can be deemed a great film, even though the novel is an American classic.[2]

The surprising choice of Burt Lancaster for the role of the Prince seems to be perfect now. Yet, he was chosen after Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, and Nikolay Cherkasov were not available. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The standards for such a translation from a piece of literature to the screen are high, much higher than an original script. So it is a brave director who takes on a classic, as few can rival the impact of the novel. Yet some have done so. Described as one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, The Leopard tells the story of the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution. The Prince of Salina, Fabrizio, still ruled over a vast estate in Sicily in 1860. The symbol for his family is the Leopard – hence the title. When Garibaldi’s troops land, he must decide between the growing new forces of republicanism and the old regime. The director, Luchino Visconti, may have been attracted to the book because he also came from an aristocratic family, and he almost certainly felt some connection to the title character.

Claudia Cardinale spoke Italian – or more likely in a Sicilian dialect or French when she worked with Alain Delon. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

According to the highly influential critic Roger Ebert, ‘“The Leopard” was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.’[3] Yet the casting was, in many ways, a happy accident. The surprising choice of Burt Lancaster for the role of the Prince seems to be perfect now. Yet, he was chosen after Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, and Nikolay Cherkasov were not available.[4] It was very much an international production designed to appeal to audiences across the world; hence it also stars Alain Delon from France and Claudia Cardinale, nominally from Italy – she was Italian Tunisian. Even though Lancaster comes from a Northern Ireland origin, he passes well as an Italian. It was filmed without sound. Lancaster spoke his lines in English, Cardinale spoke Italian – or more likely in a Sicilian dialect or French when she worked with Delon. Only later was the film dubbed into Italian.

The film falls in one key area, which is the interior monologues of the Leopard. It is not something that can easily translate from the interior to the exterior. In theatre, you can directly address the audience, talking the character out of time and space. In the film, this technique is far more difficult. A director might show a shot of the actor staring into space, and then run a voice-over showing the countryside that they are looking at in the distance. In The Leopard, who strives for naturalism, cannot do that. We cannot look inside a character’s head and read their thoughts, just as we cannot do it in real life.

In some scenes such as the arrival of Claudia Cardinale, the battle of Palermo, and the final ball, Visconti seems to reach a different level in film making. Images courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Yet the internal monologues of the Prince as he ruminates on death and the changing situation of the times, are the brilliant backbone of a great novel. It is where the novel takes off, and the film flounders. Occasionally, Visconti allows the Prince to state these thoughts, but he never delivers the full weight of them. This approach probably says more about the limits of cinema as an art form.

While the film flounders with the internal dialogues, the book does not convey the beauty of the palaces or the visual splendour of Sicily. It is a film of exteriors. In some scenes such as the arrival of Claudia Cardinale, the battle of Palermo, and the final ball, Visconti seems to reach a different level in film making. While some find Visconti slow, I find the detail of each scene so interesting that I want more time.

In short,  The Leopard (1963) is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and it is to Criterion’s credit that they have given it a treatment that it deserves. The Criterion disc set is the best way to watch the film outside of a cinema. It has the full 185-minute version – the first release was shortened by 25 minutes – but in either the directorial version, the film is a swirl of brilliant performances and directorial finesse. To my mind, the extended version does not add a great deal to the overall impact of the film, but it interesting to see it. The set has an outstanding commentary by film historian Peter Cowie who completes an excellent presentation of the film. The attached documentary is of little interest. Overall, a beautiful set in homage to one of the finest films ever made – certainly Visconti’s masterpiece.


[1] The Great Gatsby (1926) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_great_gatsby; The Great Gatsby (1949) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1102658-great_gatsby; The Great Gatsby (1972) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1102658-great_gatsby; The Great Gatsby (2016) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_great_gatsby_2013 on 18 September 2020.

[2]  Dr. Anna Wulick, ‘Every Great Gatsby Movie, Compared: 2013, 1974, 1949,’ 4 November 2018 accessed at https://blog.prepscholar.com/the-great-gatsby-movies on 18 September 2020.

[3] Roger Ebert, The Leopard, Chicago Sun-Times 1 October 2003, accessed at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-leopard-196 on 18 September 2020.

[4] Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2000.

The Godfather in the time of Trump

The opening sequence has a middle aged Italian man talking to the Godfather Vito Corleone, seeking the murder of two men who attempted to rape his daughter. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

The Godfather was released on 24 March 1972, and it has become one of the iconic films of the twentieth century. It is often voted in the top ten films of all time. Expressions such as “Make him an offer he cannot refuse,” are common place. Even the adlibbed line such as “don’t forget the cannoli” is now on T-shirts. The fascination with the series shows no sign of diminishing, with even the weakest of the sequels, Godfather part III, to be re-edited with new ending.[1]

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, which was never more than an enjoyable read, director Frances Ford Coppola managed to create one of the great family sagas of all time. It combined the gangster film with distinct resonances of the power struggles of the Borgias – who even get a mention in Godfather Part III. At times, Coppola also looks at reworking Shakespeare’s King Lear. Overall, he is remodelling some of the great family dynasty epics. Can it be that one of the most successful TV shows in British Television History was I, Claudius, where the naked ambition of the Julio-Claudian family, is laid bare. The show was released in the wake of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Its slogan was: “All Rome thought him a fool, but his genius was survival.”

I, Claudius, where the naked ambition of the Julio-Claudian family, is laid bare. The show was released in the wake of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Its slogan was: “All Rome thought him a fool, but his genius was survival.” Poster in author’s collection

The opening sequence has a middle aged Italian man talking to the Godfather Vito Corleone, seeking the murder of two men who attempted to rape his daughter. He says: I believe in America. America has made my fortune, and I raised my daughter in the American fashion.” Right from the start, there is a clear distinction between traditional values and the Corleone family. The legal system – the tool of the moneyed white classes – had failed the Italian community, “for justice, you need to go to Don Corleone. We never see what happens to the young men, but we can safely assume it is not pleasant. (In the book, they are beaten with professional restraint – they are not murdered.)

Filmed in glorious rich colors by Vittorio Storaro, the film takes its time to introduce its cast through a favors session with Don Corleone and then an extensive wedding scene. The camera shows little sections of each of the major characters, giving an idea of each character. The wedding is a formal Italian family wedding, but the undertones are there from the beginning. The wedding gives way to full scale intimidation of a Hollywood producer who will not yield to a small Corleone request. The film switches gear and we realise that these ‘salt of the earth’ Italians can and will flick any violent switch to get what they want.

Marlon Brando revived a stagnant film career with his performance as Don Corleone. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The Godfather was produced when the Pentagon papers were being released, and massive protests against the Vietnam War were being held across the United States. The period reflected the breaking of trust between the US Government and the American people. The Pentagon Papers detailed the history of the United States’ political and military involvement in IndoChina from 1945 to 1967. The papers had demonstrated, among other things, that the various administrations is represented the situation in Vietnam to the American people.

The initial context of the film has been lost over the passage of time. The original Godfather was released at the time of the Nixon administration, particularly when the Watergate scandal was about to reach its conclusion. From 1972 to 1974, the United States had been preoccupied with the Watergate scandal, which led to the impeachment process of President Nixon, eventually forcing his resignation. In many ways, the Nixon administration reflected the world of the Corleone’s.  On the surface, it spoke of traditional virtues such as family, honor and tradition, while underneath, it was unlawful. Whatever trust remained, was lost when the Watergate scandal broke, and it has never been recovered.

The successful leader is a gangster. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

For a new generation, the Trump administration has provided some renewed interest in the film. One academic has even managed to draw some weak links between the Trump Administration and The Godfather. [2]  Certainly cartoonists. T-shirt designers  and political commentators have not shied away from the analogy.[3]

Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote: “for the Corleones, the land of opportunity is America the Ugly, in which almost everyone who is not Sicilian or, more narrowly, not a Corleone, is a potential enemy. Mr. Coppola captures this feeling of remoteness through the physical look of place and period, and through the narrative’s point of view. “The Godfather” seems to take place entirely inside a huge smoky plastic dome, through which the Corleone’s see our real world only dimly.”

The Trump administration certainly does contain a lot of relatives. The Republican National Congress demonstrated their the family connections. The Trumps do convey a them against the world attitude.

Trump also rode a wave of disquiet at elites to get to the White House. The disquiet may have begun with the left, but it has spread to the right. Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp” of American politics, resonated with a disaffected electorate. His election represented a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and the American presidency. The disquiet which The Godfather reflected in 1972 is now the political mainstream.


[1] https://sanduskyregister.com/news/276239/godfather-part-iii-gets-new-ending/

[2] https://theconversation.com/whos-who-in-the-godfather-version-of-trumps-white-house-81051.  

[3] https://www.ibtimes.com/trump-godfather-cnns-cooper-compares-ukraine-phone-call-mafia-movie-2833573.