Red flickers
Socialist Worker

December, 2005

Summer is a time for catching up - with friends, the pile of unread books and favourite movies. Word of mouth can still be more effective than the $50m promotional budgets behind Hollywood blockbusters. So, here follows a ramble through political films I should like to see again, partly to decide whether my memory has played me false.

Cinema was the art of the twentieth century, one more strand in the revolution that continues to upend every aspect of living. All culture has some political effect, but political films will be confined here to those dealing with public power. Hence, I shall say nothing about such delights as the recently restored The Sentimental Bloke (1919), Harold and Maude (1971), Dream of Passion (1972) or Belle Epoque (1992) which carry us into the heart of human relationships. All three are highly recommended.

Nor am I laying down a list of the greatest, which would begin with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1927) and include Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965). Neither am I offering my small-scale favourites from the proto-Vichy La Kermesse Heroique (1935) to the Popular Front’s Casablanca (1942).

No, the following reminiscence concerns features I wish I could watch again. Were we talking about documentaries, I would begin with Harlan County, USA (1976) about the struggle between the mine workers and the coal companies in West Virginia.

At last, we reach the top of my catalogue of desires with The Simple-Minded Murderer, a Swedish film from 1982. The story is set in the countryside during the 1930s depression. The village idiot becomes attached to the lame daughter of a tenant farmer. The landlord drives the family off and, I seem to recall, rapes the girl. The youth is inspired by the drawings of avenging angels in his religious texts. The title gives you some idea of the ending. 

From the local, I look forward to Sunday, Too Far Away (1977) set in the shearers’ strike of 1955. Jack Thompson was the gun shearer who throws the first punch after the barmaid utters the fighting words: “We don’t serve scabs here”.

The French triumphed yet again with their 1995 rewrite of Les Miserables, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as the illiterate who gains a political education as he pieces together Victor Hugo’s version of crime and punishment in a society ruled by the rights of property. Here, post-Modernism is a creative force, not a sterile seminar or formulaic counter-narrative. Inter-textuality rules!

In similar vein but on a smaller budget was a surprise at the 2004 Melbourne Film Festival was the South African gay movie, Proteus. Evocative of the recent struggles, it is set in the early days of Dutch rule. Its imaginative deployment of limited resources matches the spirit of survival of its inter-racial leading characters. 

Watermelon Man (1970) was a comedy, a genre that wears less well than tragedy. A male chauvinist white racist from middle American goes through his daily routines at home and work. Next morning, he wakes to find that he has turned black. The tone of the story from there on is captured in an exchange with his wife as he tries to shed his blackness.. “Don’t be so militant”, she snaps. To which he replies: “I’m not militant, I’m white”. It has the kind of ending that Socialist Worker readers would have written.

Land and Freedom (1995) has engrossing passages, notably when the peasants discuss how to divide up the land. Like much Left romancing about the Spanish Civil War, Ken Loach avoids the discipline of a war of position. The image of women going out with rifles to hold back the fascists appeals to audiences who have never heard a shot fired in anger. The Spaniards have a keener understanding of the fate of women fighting the fascists. So the movie I ache to revisit is Las Libertarias (1996).

Lots of films have explored revolution from the point of view of the powerful. Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) shows the Prince learning that his feudal world has to change so that he can retain power. Allonsanfan (1973) follows some Italian Liberals as they try to restart the revolution immediately after Napoleon’s defeat. Pontecorvo’s Burn (1968) gives a rebel a chance to speak but the lessons in Marxism 101 come from the British agent of sugar imperialism, played by Marlon Brando. Even Bertolucci’s 1900 presented the rise and fall of fascism through the life of the landowner rather than his peasant friend.

One of the few features about a revolution to take a foot soldier as its protagonist is the 1972 Duck you Sucker (aka A Fistful of Dynamite) with Rod Stieger as the barefoot bandit who gets swept up the Mexican revolutions when what he wants to do is rob banks. This funny, stylish and tense study in betrayal and brutality comes with a haunting Morriconi score and the warning that a “revolution is not a dinner party”.

Pontecorvo laid out that fact of struggle in Battle of Algiers that, unless you are prepared to blow up the infant who is eating the ice-cream in the cafe, you have no right even to fantasise about other people’s armed struggle.