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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Terror in the cinema I

Obsessive readers last week were wondering if it was deliberate or careless that I did not follow up on my threat two weeks ago to explore the topic of terrorism in the movies. Well, your obsessiveness is now being rewarded. Let’s see what the movies have to teach us about the phenomenon of terrorism.

First, however, we need to know what we mean by the term “terrorism.” Given that the term is a negative one, people tend to want to apply it to groups or causes that they don’t like, reserving the terms like “freedom fighters” or “the resistance” for those that they do like. Personally, I think the best dissection of the term “terrorist” in a movie was in Richard Lester’s Superman II. Early on in that movie, a group of villains take hostages high up in Paris’s Eiffel Tower, threatening to blow up the entire city of Paris with a hydrogen bomb. When editor Perry White explains the situation to reporter Clark Kent, Kent (played by the late Christopher Reeve) exclaims, “Mr. White, that’s terrible!” White (played by Jackie Cooper) replies, in his best mentor/didactic manner, “That’s why they call them terrorists, Kent!”

In turns out that terrorists are a fairly regular feature in all kinds of movies—and have been for ages. If you do a search for the words “terrorist” and/or “terrorism” on plot summaries of all known movies, you get a whole slew of results. Indeed, the terrorist has long been a fixture of mainstream popular entertainments. It’s almost hard to find a big-budget action thriller that doesn’t include terrorists as the villains. The James Bond movies foresaw the Osama bin Laden concept of the independently wealthy mastermind with a small private army doing his bidding. Any movie based on a Tom Clancy novel is liable to include terrorists (in The Sum of All Fears, the bad guys detonate a nuclear bomb on American soil), as well as any movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal. Other notable terrorist portrayals for the benefit of popcorn entertainment include John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, in which Palestinians (led, oddly, by the Swiss actor Marthe Keller) plot to attack the Super Bowl, the Die Hard movies and Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One, in which the titular presidential plane gets hijacked.

When terrorists aren’t being employed to give action stars a chance to flex muscles on screen, they are sometimes used to show what is wrong with the mass media. A notable example is Sideny Lumet’s 1976 movie Network (penned by Paddy Chayefsky), in which network executives Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall kill two birds with one stone by collaborating with a domestic terrorist group to assassinate, on air, an anchorman, whose ratings haven fallen, thereby creating a ratings sensation while getting rid of broadcasting deadwood. Six years year later, provocative writer/director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood) did a similar turn on network news in Wrong Is Right, with Sean Connery as a star newsman. That film was particularly memorable for Connery pulling off his toupee live on air at the end of the movie. The 1995 Jeffrey Levy film S.F.W. had Stephen Dorff becoming an obnoxious media star when he became the most popular hostage after mysterious terrorists seized a convenience store, under the watchful eye of live 24/7 coverage—thereby foreseeing the reality TV craze.

Terry Gilliam used terrorism as an element in the paranoid chaos of his imagined repressive 20th-century world in the 1985 movie Brazil. Sort of a variation on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the denizens of Gilliam’s nightmare had to contend with not only with relentless intrusions of the autocratic state but also with intermittent, random terrorist bombings. Early on, the screenplay alerts the viewer that the action is taking place “somewhere on the Los Angeles-Belfast border.” The Belfast reference is fairly obvious; the Los Angeles reference may have something to do with Gilliam’s battle with Universal to get the film released, in a form close to his original vision.

A couple of American thrillers have treated the terrorism theme more seriously. In 1986 (six years before a Steven Seagal movie of the same name came out), Roger Young made a movie called Under Siege, about the imagined first domestic terrorist attack. In a sequence that seems nearly prescient in hindsight, the dome of the Capitol in Washington D.C. is blown off. Bob Woodward of Watergate fame contributed to the screenplay. In 1998 Edward Zwick’s movie The Siege was also nearly prophetic in portraying a major attack by Middle Eastern terrorists on New York City. Zwick’s main interest was in fretting about how the government might overreact to such an event. Martial law is declared and hard-ass military guy Bruce Willis wields his authority with an iron hand. In Zwick’s view, the government unwittingly hands the terrorists a victory by brushing aside civil liberties. This movie makes a good litmus test for where you are on the political spectrum. If you see it today and think it’s a documentary, you are probably left of center. If your reaction, on the other hand, is “Hey, yeah, that’s what we should have done, declare martial law!” then you are probably right of center.

Some movies dealing with terrorism are Based on Actual Events. Paul Schrader’s 1988 movie Patty Hearst featured Natasha Richardson in the title role. The film was more interested in psychology than politics, focusing on Heart’s personal experience of being kidnapped by the once-infamous Symbionese Liberation Army. Ving Rhames played the SLA leader Cinque. There were at least three movies, all released in 1977, made about the 1976 Israeli rescue of hijacked hostages at Entebbe in Uganda. The sheer drama of the real-life episode virtually guaranteed that it would become at least one big screen suspense thriller. The versions included Operation Thunderbolt (the best one, an Israeli production, with a cast that included Klaus Kinski), Raid on Entebbe (with Charles Bronson and Peter Finch) and Victory at Entebbe (with an Airport-like all-celebrity cast, led Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor). In 1989 and 1990 two movie versions of the 1985 takeover of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists in the Mediterranean, in which an American was murdered. Hijacking of the Achille Lauro starred Karl Malden and Lee Grant. Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair featured Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint.

As you might imagine, European films that deal with the theme of terrorism have a different look and feel than American ones. This is due to the fact that Europeans and Americans see the world quite a bit differently. And the kind of movies they make, at least historically, have been quite different. Also crucial is the fact that terrorism has been a reality in some European countries much longer than it has been in America.

Next time let’s look at how European films have handled the theme of terrorism. (If I don’t get distracted in the meantime.)

-S.L., 25 August 2005

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