Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Red scare

Belated Happy May Day everybody!

Yes, yes, I know. This commentary is being posted a couple of days late. But there is a good reason, which I will go into next time. In the meantime…

In honor of the recently passed International Workers Day, I thought I would discuss the red menace in Hollywood. Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly aware that there was a red menace in Hollywood until I came across an opinion piece on The Wall Street Journal web site by Los Angeles Daily News columnist/blogger Bridget Johnson. Titled “Red Dusk” and subtitled “It’s time Hollywood gave up its love affair with communism,” the piece proclaims that “Hollywood sure has embraced communism with open arms.”

I was looking forward to a cataloguing of movies over the years that have overtly or covertly promoted Marxism and Leninism. But Johnson mainly concentrated on a single movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, which she may or may not have seen. (She doesn’t say, but I’m guessing she did.) The Motorcycle Diaries, about the early days of legendary revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, picked up the Academy Award for Best Song. She was also upset about two other movies, which I’m presuming she hasn’t seen because they’re not finished yet. Both are called Che. One is directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve) and stars Benicio del Toro in the title role. The other is directed by Josh Evans (Ali McGraw’s son) and features Sonia Braga, apparently as Che’s mother. That’s it. (She neglects to mention Alan Parker’s movie version of Evita, which features Che as a singing narrator.)

Johnson undercuts her argument a bit by mentioning that Roland Joffe’s 1984 film The Killing Fields showed the other side of communism, although she claims it is virtually the only movie that does. She goes on to suggest that a movie or movies should be made of a book by Stephane Courtois et al called The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (presumably with a title change, since that’s a lot of words for most cinema marquees, and probably not the easiest marketing sell). In other words, it’s not that Johnson thinks that Hollywood should not be spewing propaganda. It’s that she thinks it should be spewing another sort of propaganda. Fair enough.

Strangely, she forgets to mention the movie (also a 1984 release) that possibly inspired her commentary’s title: John Milius’s Red Dawn, in which the very young Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and others take to the mountains of America’s heartland to fight a guerrilla war against invading Soviets and Cubans.

She could have bolstered her argument by bringing up other movies that have had sympathetic portrayals of communists, although there really aren’t as many as you might think. There’s Karl Francis’s 2000 movie One of the Hollywood Ten about Herbert Biberman, as well as Biberman’s own film about striking miners, Salt of the Earth. Then there’s Warren Beatty’s 1953 film Reds, about John Reed. And I suppose Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were, in which Barbra Streisand plays a member of a communist student organizaiton, qualifies as well. But it’s hard to think of many other bona fide Hollywood movies that can reasonably be said to glorify communism or communists or to even treat them sympathetically. For that, it’s easier to turn to Europe, where you find films like Michael Radford’s Il Postino and Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom.

Communists as movie heroes aside, I think there is something unique about Che. I think what we are seeing in these new films is a by-product of the fact that Che has been dead long enough (and that communism as a viable political/economic system has pretty much gone by the wayside) that filmmakers feel safe to make him a leading man. After all, among revolutionaries, Che has a romantic image that is nearly unique. Even when he was still alive, many of the teenagers and young adults who sported his image on posters and tee-shirts didn’t really know all that much about him or what he stood for. A lot of it was that he was just sexy. And dying relatively young only burnished his image. Let’s face it, Che has been co-opted. His place in popular culture bears about as much resemblance to the real man as the Disney versions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty do to the original Grimms’ fairy tales.

What Johnson may really be getting at is the sense that conservatives have that Hollywood movies are full of themes and messages that promote a leftist agenda. Frankly, I don’t think she needs to worry. After all, Hollywood filmmakers have a long history of making movies that promote messages that no one in Hollywood actually believes or agrees with. Here is a partial list of values regularly promoted in popular Hollywood movies that no studio muckymuck believes for one instant:

  • Making money and becoming rich just corrupts you, and you are better following your heart and staying poor.

  • It is better to marry the good-hearted person at your side than to get involved with someone sexy, good-looking and dangerous.

  • If you just believe in your dream strongly enough, it will come true.

  • There is one person that you are fated to meet and become soul mates with and spend your whole life with, and when you meet that person, your life will be complete bliss from that moment on.

  • Friends always come through for you in the end.

  • The most popular guy in school will eventually realize that the gorgeous cheerleader is not a very nice person and that he really cares about the plain, quiet girl.

  • A really great, emotional closing argument by your lawyer will completely sway the jury, even though all the evidence has gone against you throughout the entire rest of the trial.

  • If you keep your virginity while everyone else around you is sleeping around, the serial murderer won’t kill you.

    If Hollywood wants to make a few movies about Che Guevara, then there’s no need to fear that anyone at the studios believes he is really a hero any more than they believe anything else they ostensibly promote in their films. Or, for that matter, that the audience believes it either.

    -S.L., 5 May 2005


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