Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Shaken and stirred

A full month after the September 11 atrocities, the movie comparisons continue unabated.

The most recent and elaborate one that I have seen so far was this past weekend in The Sunday Times of London. (How I happened to be reading The Sunday Times in London is a story in itself. The Missus, our little munchkin and I had only returned to the US from Ireland three days before September 11 and were naturally relieved that we had no travel plans for the foreseeable future. Seventeen days after September 11 we suddenly found ourselves on a flight back to Europe to attend a family funeral. To my surprise, the flights and airports seemed just as crowded as always, even if the security checks on the US side seemed more daunting than ever before.)

Anyway, the article in The Sunday Times basically pointed out how eerily prescient author Ian Fleming and movie producer Cubby Broccoli were in plotting the novels and films about the exploits of legendary secret agent James Bond. The villain was invariably a maniacal madman with plenty of resources, typified by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, variously played in the movies by Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas, Charles Gray and Max von Sydow. Even as we lost ourselves in the escapist entertainment of the films, we chuckled at the notion of a reclusive billionaire hiding out in his underground bunker with his own private army, dispatching henchmen around the world to cause mayhem and destabilize the world order. No more.

Is there some real-life impeccably dressed, martini-swigging British secret agent, accompanied by a comely female companion that he acquires along the way, out there who will single-handedly and secretly save the world from Osama bin Laden? If there is, we will probably never know it.

Of course, the one movie that was most universally evoked in the destruction of the World Trade Center was Roland Emmerich’s computer-effects-laden spectacular Independence Day. Nobody could watch the footage of people fleeing in terror from the collapsing buildings and the billowing dust clouds and not be reminded of that movie. And, while the White House and the Capitol building escaped damage or destruction on that day, the film had provided vivid images of what could have happened. ID4 was also on the mark in foreseeing the emotional shock of an external attack and how the mood of the United States could turn on a dime and suddenly make patriotism cool again.

An older movie that also imagined an attack on the US homeland was John Milius’s odd 1984 adventure Red Dawn. Its actual premise hasn’t exactly aged well, since it dealt with a successful Soviet-Cuban invasion of the North American heartland. The movie is rather funny to watch now since the idea of an unstoppable Soviet and Cuban military didn’t even ring true at the time, let alone now. But it also foretold a turnaround in American attitudes. A generation of Midwestern youths, pampered by seemingly endless peacetime (and played by the likes of Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell), suddenly found the gumption to take to the mountains and wage a guerrilla war against their oppressors. Fortunately, it hasn’t come to that yet in the current crisis, but if nothing else the film was correct in predicting that Americans would be better able to stomach the sacrifices of war (i.e. military casualties) after an attack.

The most uncanny of movies on the general topic, however, has to be Edward Zwick’s 1998 thriller The Siege. It actually portrayed a terrorist attack on New York City by Arab terrorists, but in tragic hindsight the damage depicted in the film (compared to what actually happened) seems very minor and unimaginative. The liberal Zwick’s story is the total opposite of right-winger Milius’s. Whereas Milius was interested in how people would fight back, The Siege was really about the dangers of an American over-reaction. Rather than ponder how the government might track down the perpetrators and prevent future attacks, it shows the terrorist essentially winning as martial law is declared in New York and Americans turn on themselves.

At the time of its release, The Siege was controversial on two counts. Even though its aim was to show that blaming Arab-Americans in such a situation was wrong, some Arabs and Arab-Americans still howled at the mere portrayal of such prejudice. The other controversy is particularly ironic since it involved the use of film footage of then-President Bill Clinton involuntarily playing himself as the leader who appoints a gung-ho general to be New York’s military governor. It is truly a strange twist that, instead of an unexpectedly inspiring Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the fictional New York finds itself under the heel of hard-ass Bruce Willis.

-S.L., 11 October 2001

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