Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Looting kings and Dixie Chicks

Fate has conspired again to remind me of another of my numerous omissions.

Four weeks ago, I offered up my personal list of recommended war movies and followed up a fortnight later with a list of war-as-absurdity movies. Reality has conspired to remind me of another movie that probably should have been on one or the other of these lists. In 1999 David O. Russell made an entertaining and thought-provoking war movie for the MTV generation called Three Kings. Upon its release, one eminent and respected critic wrote, “Three Kings starts out with the hallucinatory war-is-insanity feel of Apocalypse Now, develops a plot reminiscent of the 1970 comedy Kelly’s Heroes, turns into a wallow in guilt over the victims of war à la Welcome to Sarajevo and then winds up as a rescue-the-villagers-from-madmen-in-the-desert action epic not completely unlike The Road Warrior.” (Okay, I was the one who wrote that.)

Three Kings is worth another look if for no other reason than the fact that it deals with the first Gulf War, with a plot involving the looting of Saddam Hussein’s treasures, making it extremely timely for these days. Imagine my surprise, however, when I recently came across a report by Britain’s Independent News Service, published in The Irish Independent, telling of the attempted theft of hundreds of thousands of Saddam’s dollars by five American soldiers. The article was accompanied by a photo of George Clooney, which prompted me to exclaim, “Oh my God! George Clooney has gone to Iraq and tried to steal Saddam’s money!” But a careful reading of the article revealed that Clooney actually had nothing to do with the incident—aside from the fact that his famous face got people like me to read the article. The justification for including Clooney’s mug was the article’s comparison between the aborted theft and the plot of Three Kings, in which Clooney starred with Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube. But the real-life incident, concluded the INS, was “not so much a re-run of ‘Three Kings’… as a Baghdad remake of Woody Allen’s ‘Take The Money And Run’” because of the incompetence of the real-life thieves. Which just goes to show that you really can’t read a newspaper anymore unless you have working knowledge of the cinema.

This involuntary association between Clooney and the Iraqi war serves to take us back (in an admittedly roundabout way) to the burning issue of celebrities voicing opinions on the war. (Most of the actual burning on this issue seems to involve Dixie Chicks albums.) As I mentioned three weeks ago, the punditry backlash by the American right wing against people who had opposed the war began nearly before the first Saddam statue had hit the ground. The strongest vitriol seems to be directed at “celebrities,” which usually means movie and TV stars and, occasionally, country western trios who misjudge their audience (the audience back home anyway; Natalie Maines’s jibe at Bush went over pretty well in Europe, where she uttered it).

Actor Tim Robbins, who is consistently one of the more thoughtful and principled voices on the left, is one who continues to speak his mind, while many others (e.g. Sean Penn, Martin Sheen) have gone quiet in the face of the American military victory. Still, Robbins may be going a bit paranoid. “Liberals fear,” says a recent Reuters article, “Hollywood’s left-wing stars are being muzzled and their careers placed in jeopardy from what actor Tim Robbins, called in a recent speech a ‘climate of fear.'” Presumably, Robbins’s fears stem from a dis-invitation for himself and Susan Sarandon to a Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony, which was meant to honor their film Bull Durham. His “climate of fear” remark is clearly meant to invoke the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, a period that politically defined generations of Hollywood stars, in a manner somewhat analogous to the way the Holocaust psychologically defined the state of Israel.

But, Tim, things are very different today from the McCarthy era. The balance of economic power is now with movie stars of your stature as much as with the studios, which virtually owned their actors in those days. These days a few controversial political utterances don’t necessarily end a career but can actually save or enhance it. Actor Janeane Garofalo, who became a de facto spokesperson for the Hollywood anti-war movement, has a sitcom coming up on ABC. She told The Washington Post that her anti-war stance had been a “positive” experience and had actually helped her career. “Before this I was a moderately well-known character actress,” she said. “Now, I’m almost famous.” Even the Dixie Chicks’ record is back at the top of the chart, proving that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Whether you agree with celebrities’ political influence or not, there are certainly reasons not to equate fame with infallibility. Case in point: Charles Lindbergh. (For movie addicts who can’t place the name: go rent The Spirit of St. Louis.) Lindbergh became a wildly popular American hero in 1927, when he collected a $25,000 prize that had been offered by a hotel owner to the first aviator who could fly nonstop from New York to Paris. After his son was kidnapped and murdered in 1932 (one of the most sensational media stories of all time), Lindbergh and his family moved to Europe, where he accepted a German medal of honor from Herman Goering in 1938. The Lindberghs moved back to America in 1939, where he joined the America First Committee, which opposed US entry into World War II. He was a vocal critic of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and charged that British, Jewish and pro-Roosevelt groups were leading America into war.

After Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh fell into line. He became a technical adviser and test pilot for the American war industry. In 1944 he went to the Pacific war area, where he flew about 50 combat missions, even though he was a civilian. After the war, he withdrew from public life, keeping his silence until the last years of his life, when he spoke out for the conservation movement in the 1960s. Despite his early public adulation and his place in the history books, his reputation was forever tarnished by his association with Nazi Germany and his early opposition to the war against fascism.

Even heroes can get it wrong.

-S.L., 1 May 2003

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