Thursday, June 18, 2020

Redrawing the Cultural Cityscape: The Destiny of Colonial Monuments in Ireland

"Symbols are what unite and divide people. Symbols give us our identity, our self-image,our way of explaining ourselves to others. Symbols in turn determine the kinds of stories we tell; and the stories we tell determine the kind of history we make and remake."
Mary Robinson, Inauguration speech as President of Ireland, December 3, 1990

"Dublin is connected with Irish patriotism only by the scaffold and the gallows. Statue and column do indeed rise there, but not to honour the sons of the soil. The public idols are foreign potentates and foreign heroes [...] the Irish people are doomed to see in every place the monument of their subjugation; before the senate house, the statue of their conqueror, within the walls tapestries with the defeats of their fathers. No public statue of an illustrious Irishman has ever graced the Irish Capital. No monument exists to which the gaze of the young Irish children can be directed, while their fathers tell them, 'This was to the glory of your countrymen'."
Dublin University Magazine (1856)

"Grey brick upon brick,
Declamatory bronze
On sombre pedestals –
O’Connell, Grattan, Moore –
And the brewery tugs and the swans
On the balustraded stream
And the bare bones of a fanlight
Over a hungry door
And the air soft on the cheek
And porter running from the taps
With a head of yellow cream
And Nelson on his pillar
Watching his world collapse."

Dublin by Louis MacNeice

On the night of the 8 March 1966 a massive explosion was heard in the centre of Dublin and Nelson's Pillar came crashing to the ground in hundreds of tons of rubble. No one  was hurt and a stump was all that could be seen of the 157 year old monument. It was not the first time that monuments had been attacked in Ireland and certainly not the last, at least figuratively, with a series of later monuments accruing many derogatory nicknames from the Dublin people.

The recent spate of attacks on monuments in the US and the Uk has opened up the debate on the cultural issues they provoke, ranging from those who can't believe the attacks hadn't happened sooner to those who see their destruction as mob vandalism.

Here, as everywhere, the public sphere is a highly contested one and not just culturally. For example, when the Irish Republic unilaterally declared independence in 1919, the Dáil Courts (Republican Courts) were set up, creating for the time being, a parallel (and popular) judicial system that frustrated the colonial power by undermining British rule in Ireland, and continued until independence.

Similarly the imposition of British cultural history in Ireland, through its monuments, was resented and these monuments became the focal point for the beginnings of a new public cultural space after independence. By wiping the slate clean, presumably it was thought, it would be possible to create a new progressive space based on Irish revolutionary figures. However, it did not quite work out like that. As in the political sphere, the public sphere remained a highly contested arena with successive conservative governments using different tactics to defer, reject or hinder progressive sculpture in Dublin.

I will look at the fate of some of these British historical monuments and the possibilities for future monuments that would more accurately reflect Irish peoples' historical struggles for freedom and independence.

'Removing' colonial history

‘Attempt to blow up the Albert Statue, Dublin’ (Illustrated Police News, June 1872)

Prince Albert statue
This early attempt on a Dublin statue followed controversy which saw the statue's location being changed from a central position at College Green, according to Donal Fallon, to finding "itself ultimately in the grounds of the Royal Dublin Society. It may surprise some of you to hear the statue is still in Dublin, though now it is inside the grounds of Leinster House."

The William statue was smeared with tar several times

William of Orange (1928)

In 1928 the statue of William of Orange (1701–1928) at College Green (in front of Trinity College) was damaged after an explosion on the anniversary of Armistice Day in 1928 and subsequently removed.

Donal Fallon quotes from the brief commentary on the statue that comes from a book, ‘Ireland In Pictures’, dating from 1898: "This equestrian statue of William II stands in College Green, and has stood there, more or less, since A.D 1701. We say “more or less” because no statue in the world, perhaps, has been subject to so many vicissitudes. It has been insulted, mutilated and blown up so many times, that the original figure, never particularly graceful, is now a battered wreck, pieced and patched together, like an old, worn out garment."

Final demolition of William statue (Irish Press 14 September 1945)

As historian Fin Dwyer writes: "If there was one statue that was not going to survive Irish independence this was it. William of Orange defeated James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 and ever since William and his victory has been twisted to suit political circumstances of the day. His victory had been celebrated by Unionists in the provactive 12th of July Parades in Ireland through the 19th century and he became a despised figure for Irish catholics and nationalists who saw William as a symbol of repression and discrimination. In 1929, the inevitable happened and the statue was blown up. Needless to say it wasn’t rebuilt."

Fitzgibbon Memorial

FitzGibbon Memorial (1930)
The memorial to Viscount FitzGibbon at Sarsfield Bridge, Limerick was constructed in 1857. According to the Limerick Post:

"Viscount Fitzgibbon, of Mount Shannon estate near Castleconnell, was reported missing presumed dead during the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘The Man Who Was’ is said to be inspired by him. His statue was blown up in 1930 and a monument to The Easter Rising now stands in its place."

Victoria statue

'Young' Queen Victoria (1934)
According to Professor John A Murphy, UCC: "In August 1849, Queen Victoria witnessed her statue being hoisted on the highest gable of the new Queen’s College, now University College Cork. There it remained until 1934 when it was taken down and replaced by Finbarr, Cork’s patron saint. The Victoria statue was put in storage for some years and then bizarrely buried in what was admittedly UCC’s classiest location, the President’s Garden."

King George II equestrian monument

King George II (1937)
This equestrian monument of King George II in St Stephen's Green (1758–1937) was blown up on 13 May 1937, the day after the coronation of George VI.

King George II unhorsed in 1937

It was unveiled in 1758 and depicted George II in Roman attire. It was placed on a tall pedestal but still 'the victim of many attacks'.

Statue of Queen Victoria

'Old' Queen Victoria (1948)
The statue of Queen Victoria at Leinster House, Kildare Street (1904–1948) was removed in 1948 as part of moves by the Irish State towards declaring a Republic, and eventually shipped to Sydney, Australia in 1987 where it is now on display on the corner of Druitt and George Street in front of the Queen Victoria Building.

The anger towards British colonialism in Ireland could be seen in newspaper reports of the time, for example:

"In 1895, The Nation newspaper noted that Irish migrants in New York had celebrated Victoria’s Jubilee with “the most appropriate celebration”, staging demonstrations and distributing political literature to highlight their view that: "some of the benefits conferred upon Ireland during Victoria’s murderous reign: Died of famine 1,500,000; evicted 3,668,000; expatriated 4,200,000; emigrants who died of ship fever, 57,000; imprisoned under the Coercion Acts, over 3,000; butchered in suppressed public meetings, 300; Coercion Acts, 53; executed for resisting tyranny, 95; died in English dungeons, 270; newspapers suppressed, 12."

Carlisle statue

George Howard (1956)
The statue of George Howard (Earl of Carlisle) in the Phoenix Park (1870–1956) was blown off its plinth in an explosion in 1956 and moved to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. The pedestal remains in place as a memorial. George Howard (1802–1864), the 7th Earl of Carlisle, served under Lord Melbourne as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1835 and 1841.

British War Memorial

British War Memorial (1957)
The War Memorial was erected in Pery Square, Limerick in 1929. In an article in the Limerick Post it was stated that:

"President of the British Legion in the Irish Free State Major-General Sir William Hickie, who had commanded the 16th Irish Division in France during the First World War and was therefore well known to and respected by the general body of the Ex-Servicemen present, unveiled the Cross which had been covered with a purple drape, symbolising the sacrifice of the men that the memorial commemorated."

During the early hours of  August 7, 1957 it was destroyed by an explosion.

Gough Monument

Gough Monument (1957)
The Gough Monument in the Phoenix Park (1880–1957) was blown up in 1957, it was later restored and re-erected in the grounds of Chillingham Castle, England, in 1990. Field Marshal Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough (1779–1869) was a British Army officer born at Woodstown, Annacotty, Ireland. Gough's colonial credentials are impeccable, serving British forces in China, India and South Africa where he "commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot during the Peninsular War. After serving as commander-in-chief of the British forces in China during the First Opium War, he became Commander-in-Chief, India and led the British forces in action against the Marathas defeating them decisively at the conclusion of the Gwalior Campaign and then commanded the troops that defeated the Sikhs during both the First Anglo-Sikh War and the Second Anglo-Sikh War."

The attack on the Gough Monument demonstrated that being Irish-born was no guarantee of immunity from denunciation and execration. Indeed, the assaults on colonial monuments also became a subject for Irish writers over subsequent decades too. The well-known Irish writer, Myles na gCopaleen, commented on a previous attack on the Gough monument when it was beheaded on Christmas Eve 1944. Writing in his column, Cruiskeen Lawn in The Irish Times in January 1945, he commented:

"Few people will sympathise with this activity; some think it is simply wrong, others do not understand how anybody could think of getting up in the middle of a frosty night in order to saw the head of a metal statue. [...] The Gough statue in question was a monstrosity, famous only for the disproportion of the horse’s legs, its present headlessness gives it a grim humour and even if the head is recovered, I urge strongly that no attempt should be made to solder it on."

Gough statue head found (Irish Press April 11, 1945)

The head was eventually found in the River Liffey, the main river running through the centre of Dublin. The fate of the Gough statue is also known because of a poem believed to have been written by another Irish writer, Brendan Behan (though some attribute it to poet Vincent Caprani):

"Neath the horse’s prick, a dynamite stick
Some Gallant hero did place
For the cause of our land, with a light in his hand
Bravely the foe he did face.
Then without showing fear, he kept himself clear
Excepting to blow up the pair
But he nearly went crackers, all he got was the knackers
And made the poor stallion a mare."

Nelson's Pillar

Nelson's Pillar (1966)
Nelson's Pillar O'Connell Street (1809–1966) was blown up in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The head of Nelson's statue was rescued, and is currently on display in the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) was a British flag officer in the Royal Navy. His naval victories around Europe, Egypt and the Canaries brought him much fame in Britain and an early death at the age of 47. The remaining stump was blown up by the Irish army to the delight of gathered Dubliners who according to the press "raised a resounding cheer".

The destruction of the pillar soon became the subject of two songs which both went into the Irish charts. The first called "Nelson's Farewell" was the first single by The Dubliners and was released in 1966 on the label Transatlantic Records. The gist of the song was that because of the explosion, Nelson, atop the pillar, had been launched into space:

"Oh the Russians and the Yanks, with lunar probes they play
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
And I hear the French are trying hard to make up lost headway
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
But now the Irish join the race, we have an astronaut in space
Ireland, boys, is now a world power too"

The other song was called "Up Went Nelson", "set to the tune of "John Brown's Body" and performed by a group of Belfast schoolteachers, which remained at the top of the Irish charts for eight weeks":

"One early mornin' in the year of '66
A band of Irish laddies were knockin' up some tricks
They though Horatio Nelson had overstayed a mite
So they helped him on his way with some sticks of gelignite"


Despite the regularly re-engineered cityscape of Dublin, the way was not cleared for a spate of representations of Irish national heroes. What  was erected tended to be mythologisations of Irish history (the Children of Lir in the Garden of Remembrance, Cú Chulainn in the GPO: see my 1916 article) as if Irish elites feared the posthumous visages of its bravest and the effect their presence might have on the Dublin populace. What revolutionary figures that do exist in statue form (Tone, Emmett, Connolly etc) tend to be tucked away in parks or on side streets while the main bourgeois nationalist heroes stand on large plinths on Dublin's main streets (O'Connell, Parnell etc).

The lack of a major monument on a major street in Dublin commemorating, for example, the Great Hunger or the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation shows that, despite the decades of resistance to an imposed history, we are still not allowed to commemorate our own.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Snowpiercer (2013): The Fate of Capitalism as a Globalist Runaway Train (Eco-Nihilism, Supra-Nationalism, and Societal Collapse)

Director: Bong Joon-ho

"Western countries see the rest of the world as their playing field fit only for exploitation."
Pramoedya Ananta Toer in conversation with Andre Vltchek, in Jakarta, 2004

"The “global playing field” is “level” only from the perspective of the west."
Robert H Wade

Spoiler alert


The success of Bong Joon-ho's film Parasite (2019) has drawn attention to his back catalogue, in particular his first mainly English-language film, Snowpiercer (2013).

Snowpiercer is a fast-paced movie about a train on a global circular train track, set in the future after a climate change engineering experiment goes wrong. Ice cold temperatures freeze the world into a new ice age. The train is designed and run by the magnate Wilford to circumnavigate the planet perpetually. The passengers, the earth's only survivors, are segregated: the elites in the luxurious forward cars and the poorest in the grimy tail compartments.  The tail-enders, led by Curtis, decide to revolt and make a plan to get through the fortified doors of each carriage to take over and control the train. However, after battles with the train guards take a heavy toll on the insurgents, a select few are brought to the front of the train to meet Wilford.

The film encapsulates the class system very cleverly with different classes enjoying very different levels of comfort on the train. The tail-enders revolt was only the latest in a series of failed revolutions on the train. This latest revolutionary failure under Curtis' leadership heralds a change in the tone of the film from violent battle scenes to increasingly decadent and bizarre scenes as he moves through the elite carriages. The disappointing failure of the insurrection seems to have led some film critics to see the film as a depressing metaphor for class struggle. The journey of the survivors through the train to the cockpit seems surreal and pointless after the initial exciting revolutionary exuberance.


Metaphorically speaking
However, a different way of looking at the film might throw some light on the dramatic changes that take place throughout the narrative of the film. And that would be to look at the film, not as a metaphor of class, but as a metaphor of time.

There are many key symbols throughout the film that suggest the train and its carriages are a metaphor for the passage of time, not least that the train itself represents the arrow of time, but also the progress of capitalism through the twentieth century.

That is, a metaphor for the progress and profound changes of the twentieth century that led to climate change, and the attempts to rectify it in the twenty-first century experimental disaster that followed.

Seeing the train as a metaphor of time also clarifies why the narrative changes from a people's uprising to elite decadence. It is a view of the twentieth century which looks at class but does not have a class analysis. What it has instead is a nihilistic ecological analysis which prefers to see the destruction of society itself (and all those who both benefit from it and all those who are exploited by it) rather than face up to global issues of exploitation and injustice. If there is any hope it is rather vaguely put into a reverse biblical Adam and Eve symbolism whereby the survivors return to the earthly Garden of Paradise much chastened by their catastrophic expulsion.

Carriages and Time: Depicting the Twentieth Century

1910s and 1920s: Slum
The film starts with the failed climate engineering 'chemtrails' and moves swiftly to the carriage where the tail-enders, led by Curtis and his second-in-command Edgar, are being overseen by armed militia. The atmosphere is Dickensian as the living quarters resemble slums from the Industrial Revolution. The dirty grey clothes, drawn faces and squalor are straight out of the documentary photography of the early twentieth century and resemble descriptions from Upton Sinclair's extraordinary novel The Jungle (1906) of the meat-packing industry in Chicago. The first three train cars we see depict a ghetto slum, a prison and mortuary, and a factory respectively. In the prison car they release Namgoong, a captive security specialist, and his clairvoyant daughter Yona to open the doors. They enter the factory car that makes their black protein bars ('nutrient gel') and discover the large hoppers are full of cockroaches. This scene could be straight out of The Jungle as Sinclair describes the sausage-making process:

"There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white - it would be doused with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then the rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together."

1930s and 1940s: Fascism
After the shock of seeing the contents of their diet the insurgents move on to the next carriage door. As the doors open they face a large group of burly masked men dressed in black and carrying hatchets. They launch into a bloody battle. This scene is reminiscent of the street battles between workers and fascists in England, Germany and Spain in the 1930s. As if to make the point clearer the hatchets resemble the axe of the fasces, a bound bundle of wooden rods, including an axe with its blade emerging carried by the Roman lictors. (The lictor's main task was to attend as bodyguards to magistrates who held imperium. The axes symbolized the power to carry out capital punishment and became a symbol of the Italian fascists). And the group's leader is called Franco the Elder.

Things get worse as the train goes into a long tunnel while the 'lictors' put on night vision goggles. The complete overpowering of the tail-enders in the dark reminds one of the total war of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Eventually, lit torches are brought up from the back of the train and the rebels overcome the men in black. Despite this victory, the group of insurgents is much weakened and at this point it is decided that Curtis, Namgoong, Yona, skilled fighter Grey, and Tanya and Andrew will go it alone to the top of the train. The revolution is effectively over and a select few are brought forward to meet the elite.

1950s: Self-Sufficiency
The small group are now brought through the fifth car showing a woman knitting in a conservatory listening to classical music. All is quiet as peaceful workers tend to the vegetable plants. The sixth car is an aquarium with a sushi bar. They sit down and have real food for the first time since they got on the train.

The symbolism of Japan at this point in the chronology is interesting as:

"Post-World War II Japan of the 1950s and ’60s saw many changes. It experienced record economic growth and advances in manufacturing and design that resulted in a wealth of goods that fascinated people across the world."

Japan also has significance as an Asian country with a development curve similar to the West. The seventh car is depicted as a fully stocked refrigerated meat section. These cars of fruit, vegetables, and meat could easily represent the post world war nationalist ideology of self-sufficiency, that partly arose out of the war economy, but was soon affected by supranational free trade areas and international free trade agreements. For example:

"In the 19th century, Britain did completely embrace free trade. It was enormously to our advantage to do so, as the workshop of the world, and we imported most of our food by the end of the 19th century. The result was that we nearly starved in two world wars. After the Second World War, we did not make the same mistake; even with the enormous change in tastes and increase in food imports in recent decades, we still produce more than half of what we eat."

The eight car is a classroom where the teacher, a middle class lady dressed in 1950s style clothing, tells the children about the greatness of Wilford and the "sacred engine". The children are taught negative views of the 'Old Worlders' and the 'Tail Sectioners', for example:

"YLFA (8) a sweet little girl with blond pigtails waves her hand at Teacher.  She jumps up without being acknowledged...
YLFA: I heard all Tail Sectioners were lazy dogs who slept all day in their own shit. [...]
YLFA: Old World people were frigging morons who got turned into popsicles!"

Boiled eggs are handed out to the children and the workers. However guns are concealed underneath and the teacher pulls out a machine gun and starts firing at the rebels and is killed. This is a shocking moment revealing the fanaticism and violence of Wilford's supporters.

Curtis' declining group continues through the ninth and tenth car which resemble luxury carriages from the Orient Express. In car 10 they pass by an academic, a dentist and a tailor all busy at work in their compartments.

1960s: Equilibrium
In the eleventh car there is a very plush bar where the elites inhabit their own world in their own older fashion sense.  A staircase leads up to a row of women sitting under typical 1960s hair salon hair-drying chairs. The next car has swimming pools straight out of a 1960s James Bond movie where another gun battle takes place. The 13th car has two rows of individual sauna cubicles. These carriages (from the 5th to the 13th) have a mood of equilibrium and peace where the elites can live undisturbed and the middle classes can enjoy the good life.

1970s and 1980s: Decadence
However, now the rebel group (Curtis, Namgoong, and Yona) enter a disco in the 14th car where we see the middle class youth for the first time dancing and taking drugs. They are kept constantly high and drunk. After the disco they pass through a nightclub VIP room where the drugged out 'zombies' loll about in animal skins oblivious to the drama taking over the train.

1990s and 2000s: Computer Age
This leads them into a carriage lined with banks of computers and large engine cogs turning the wheels of the train. The last carriage for Curtis is the section where Wilford himself resides behind massive metal doors. Here the system is digitised and runs on a perpetual power source. Despite its technological sophistication it still needs children (Tim) from the tail-end of the train to sit in the works as living components of its power generation. The 'perpetual' or 'sacred' engine feeds off the poorest and  youngest to keep going indefinitely, symbolising capitalist dependence on children in the factories and mines of the nineteenth century, and the child labour scandals in the modern factories of today.

Thus the whole train seems to move through time as well as space. From slums to fascism, expansionism to decadence and finally technology and the 1%, the elites on the train promote a hierarchical system and ideology which they believe is 'correct' and 'natural'. As Wilford says to Curtis:

"WILFORD: Curtis, everyone has their own pre-ordained position.
this way and that...and everyone is in it.  Except you.
CURTIS: That’s what people in the best place say to the people in the worst place.
There’s not a soul on this train who wouldn’t trade places with you."

This 'correct' attitude can still be seen among the aristocracy today, as Chris Bryant writes:

"Historically, the British aristocracy’s defining feature was not a noble aspiration to serve the common weal but a desperate desire for self-advancement. They stole land under the pretence of piety in the early middle ages, they seized it by conquest, they expropriated it from the monasteries and they enclosed it for their private use under the pretence of efficiency. They grasped wealth, corruptly carved out their niche at the pinnacle of society and held on to it with a vice-like grip. They endlessly reinforced their own status and enforced deference on others through ostentatiously exorbitant expenditure on palaces, clothing and jewellery. They laid down a strict set of rules for the rest of society, but lived by a different standard. Such was their sense of entitlement that they believed – and persuaded others to believe – that a hierarchical society with them placed firmly and unassailably at the top was the natural order of things. Even to suggest otherwise, they implied, was to shake the foundations of morality."

In Snowpiercer, the train hierarchy is a patriarchal system of which Wilford is the highest priest of the 'sacred' engine and father of all. The whole system is self-reproducing as the children of the middle class and elites are indoctrinated into it from an early age.

Throughout his journey through the cars Namgoong has been collecting the drug Kronole made from hallucinogenic industrial waste which is also highly flammable. He pushes the small blocks together to make a plastic explosive bomb which he uses to blow open a train door. However, the explosive shock waves cause the train to be hit by successively stronger avalanches and is eventually derailed and crashes. Everybody is killed except for Yona and Tim, (as far as we know).

This metaphor for the complete collapse of the whole system (and a catastrophe triggered by an unforeseen event) is typical of modern ecological ideologies that blame the 'greed' of the human race for climate chaos, and not the global class system which exploits natural resources relentlessly, and under which the vast majority of people have to struggle to survive. Thus, ideologically, the working class not only fails to take control of the train (and thereby the system) but is itself destroyed in the train crash.


On a broader level the survival of Yona and Tim has some interesting parallels with Mao's Three Worlds Theory. In the Snowpiercer narrative, the First World [e.g.the US] and Second World [e.g. Europe and Japan] are destroyed while the Third World [e.g. Asia (Yona) and Africa (Tim)] survives to repopulate the world presumably with a more nature-friendly ideology. Thus the survivors become a metaphor for the supra-national entities of Asia and Africa, who, after centuries of colonialism and imperialism (by the First and Second Worlds) cannot be blamed for not investigating the destruction behind them as they walk away.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 

Changing Depictions of America in Cinema: Signs of 'Self-Awareness', 'Resistance' or a 'Multipolar World'?

Contains spoilers for Knives Out (2019), Bacurau (2019), and The Wandering Earth (2019)

"How can I confound myself with those who today already find a hearing? — Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously."
Friedrich Nietzsche - The Antichrist

2019 was a very interesting year in cinema, in particular for the South Korean film Parasite which became the first film in a language other than English to win Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards. The success of Parasite shows the changing attitude of Americans towards foreign cinema. 2019 also showed three major new films (national and international) with varying depictions of America's relations with the rest of the world: Knives Out (2019), Bacurau (2019) and The Wandering Earth (2019). All three films present a hardening attitude towards taken-for-granted positive roles and image of the United States. This is unusual for mainstream cinema. In Knives out, an American film, a wealthy American family is depicted as a greedy, grasping lot in contrast to the South American caregiver of their father. Like Parasite, we see class and inequality playing itself out horrendously for the wealthy family as the tables turn against them in this modern whodunit.

In the Brazilian film Bacurau, a group of American adventurists bent on hunting human prey also end up badly as the village unites and fights back. In the Chinese science fiction film, The Wandering Earth, America is more conspicuous by its absence in a story of a world government saving the planet by shifting it off to revolve around another star. It is a film that doesn't exclude the United States completely, but like its country's diplomatic attitude of trying not to provoke a head-on confrontation with America, The Wandering Earth shows the Chinese getting on with things on their own initiative.

In all three films there is no negotiation, no crossover, no resolution, no happy ending whereby typically the United States resolves problems resulting in a negotiated, face-saving outcome that makes everyone happy. This is all a far cry from the outcome of an older film, The Day After Tomorrow from 2004, that also depicts the United States' relationship with a Latin American country, Mexico. The Northern Hemisphere is freezing over and the immigration situation is reversed as thousands of Americans flood across the border into Mexico. While the Mexicans are not particularly happy about this (considering the American attitude to Mexican immigrants and the US border fences) they turn the situation to their advantage and negotiate a debt forgiveness deal. Which begs the question: what would the Mexicans have done if they had not owed the United States a lot of money? Would the Mexicans have kept them out? or would they generously have helped them anyway despite the way they were treated historically? All this shows why it is important to stay on good terms with one's neighbours. But that was 2004.

In 2019 we see changing attitudes. In Knives Out, Bacurau, and The Wandering Earth we are shown something symbolically different by three different directors: how America sees itself, how Brazil sees the United States and how China perceives America. I will look at each of these three films in turn briefly to examine this changing attitude.

Theatrical poster

Knives Out
In Knives Out, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey is a self-made who's novels have made him rich. His family all depend on, feed off, or siphon off funds from him. However, Harlan has decided he has had enough of keeping his extended family financially afloat. Marta is his low paid caregiver who treats all the family with great respect. She is a south/central American but nobody really knows or cares:

"RANSOM to HARLAN:  To your Brazilian nurse are you goddamn insane."
"RICHARD: No, Marta your family came from Uruguay but you did it right, she did it legally, I'm saying."
"LINDA: Uh. There was Fran, the housekeeper.  Marta, Harlan's caregiver, good girl, hard worker. Family's from Ecuador."
"RICHARD: Good kid, been a good friend to Harlan. Her family's from Paraguay. Linda really likes her work ethic."

After Harlan's death, Marta inherits all his property and money. The family use coercion, persuasion, threats and blackmail to try and get the property back. Harlan's grandson Ransom coerces Marta into confessing to him and offers to help her in exchange for a share of the inheritance. The other Thrombeys try to persuade Marta to renounce the inheritance; Walt threatens to expose her mother as an undocumented immigrant:

"WALT: Marta if your mom came here illegally, criminally, if you come into this inheritance with the scrutiny that entails I'd be afraid that could come to light. That's what we're all trying to avoid here. We can protect you from that happening, or if it happens.
MARTA: You're saying even if it came to light, with the family's resources you could help me fix it.
WALT: Yes. The right lawyers, none of those local guys but New York lawyers, DC lawyers, enough resources put towards it, yes.  But there's no need it should ever even come up. But yes.
MARTA: Ok. Good.
MARTA: Cause Harlan gave me all your resources. So that means with my resources I'll be able to fix it. So I guess I'm going to go find the right lawyers."

Already Marta sees the advantages of having lots of money in a materialistic world. The family hope to have Marta convicted of Harlan's death so that slayer law will invalidate the will. However, this does not happen as the whodunit story structure plays itself out. In the last scene the family are all looking up at Marta on the balcony holding a mug bearing the legend: "My house, my rules". This time there will be no negotiation.

The family have no one to blame but themselves as all their aggressive tactics fail one by one. They lose everything in the process but most of all they lose respect and sympathy. Marta is an immigrant, a symbolic representative of Latin America, of the Third World. The First World is in a serious economic crisis with mounting debts. Is Knives Out a morality tale about the First World and the wider world? After decades of geopolitical manipulation and military action around the world combined with massive national debts, how would the First World be perceived if it all suddenly fell apart? So much of our economy is based on cheap production in Third World countries. If real wealth is rooted in production (and not digitally created fiat currencies) then could we also see a wealth switch some day?

Theatrical poster

Bacurau is a fictional Brazilian town that becomes the focus for a group of American gamers who want to use real people in a trophy hunting game. The town is cut off, first it disappears from maps and then their WiFi signal disappears. The group uses a drone to spy on the village. Michael, their leader is older and of German origin. When two Brazilian helpers of the gamer group kill locals they are shot for interfering in the 'white people's' game. Their identity cards show that they work for the Brazil state. At first the towns people are confused about the random shootings of their neighbours. However, as they learn what is going on the villagers fall back on their own natural (and historical) survival skills as they remove their old guns from their village museum.

The gamers head to the village but are then abandoned by the leader, Michael (an ageing German played by Udo Kier), who goes to high ground to a sniper position. Without leadership, the first two gamers are outsmarted and killed by a Brazilian old couple who have guns. Michael shoots everything that moves in the village including the gamers (like the Nazi Amon Göth shooting random Jews from his balcony overlooking a concentration camp).

The rest of the gamers are killed by the hiding villagers. All are beheaded and their heads are displayed in front of church, but with no triumphalism. This act reflects the Brazilian folk hero Lampião and his cangaceiros (Cangaço - "social banditry" against the government) who had their heads publicly exhibited in a square.

Michael is captured and buried alive in the street cellar. The gamers have the latest weaponry but are killed by villagers using guerilla tactics and their ancient guns. They operate in self defense and their violence is not glorified. No mercy is shown to their mayor who collaborated with the Americans and he is tied naked to a donkey and sent off to die in the desert.

The clashing contrasts of high tech urbanism and Brazilian semi-desert give the feel of a 1960s science fiction film yet there is always a down-to-earth reason. The flying saucer turns out to be a drone and the two strangely dressed murderous motor bikers turn out to be Brazilians and not so alien after all.

As a metaphor for external influence in Brazil the film shows the resilience of the local people against attack from outside forces, and their merciless revenge on the Brazilians who sold them out for their own profit. Is Michael a metaphor for the Nazis who were sheltered in South America after the Second World War? If so his permanent incarceration in the street cellar has the look of an evil influence being sent down to Hell and covered over to prevent its escape back into society ever again.

Theatrical poster

The Wandering Earth
In The Wandering Earth the sun is dying and people all around the world build giant planet thrusters to move Earth out of its orbit and bring Earth to revolve around the star Alpha Centauri. However as they pass Jupiter, Earth has a tremor and many of the earth engines stop working. The Earth is pulled in by Jupiter's gravity and looks to be doomed to fail. However, "a contingency plan exists called Project Helios that involves preserving the crew of the Space Station, 300,000 frozen embryos, 100,000 seeds of basic crops, and digital libraries of all civilizations, should a disaster befall the Wandering Earth."

The Chinese protagonists and devise a plan to prevent the planetary collision but his means sacrificing the Helios project. The plan works and the Earth continues on its long journey to Alpha Centauri.

On a computer monitor we see that the plans were designed by the 'United Earth Government' where underneath we see a vertical row of flags with the United States flag on top, then Russia, China, United Kingdom and France. However, the first time the flags are shown on a monitor the flags are horizontal and in the same order but the Chinese flag is now in the centre but on the same level as the other countries' flags. Also, an actual American flag is shown in the large cockpit of a transport truck just as the failure of the Wandering Planet project is announced. At first it looks like the flag is draped over a coffin but as the camera pulls back we see the flag is actually just sitting on top of a couple of computer monitors.

The names of the two projects here are also interesting. The Wandering Earth reflects the medieval geocentric view of the earth at the centre of the universe with the sun and the other planets going around the earth. The paths of the planets seemed to make no sense so they were called in ancient Greek ἀστήρ πλανήτης (astēr planētēs), meaning ‘wandering star’.

The heliocentric view cleared up that problem. When it was realised that the planets all revolved around the sun everything fell into place. In the film the Earth has broken out of the gravitational pull of the sun and has become a wanderer again in its long slow journey to another star. Does Project Helios represent the importance of science (frozen embryos, seeds of basic crops, and digital libraries) in the same way that heliocentricism does? Does that mean that science itself is represented as an elitist project which can be sacrificed? It is very common in the Romanticist tradition to denigrate science while at the same time taking advantage of the benefits of science e.g. the Romantics of the 19th century loved the raw wild nature of the Alps which they traveled to see by the new train systems. It is also contradictory in a genre called 'science fiction'.

The Wandering Earth is a Chinese film but emphasizes internationalism and does this without nationalism or jingoism. It is a low-key subtle approach to international relations giving everyone their due. As the science fiction writer Roberto Quaglia states:

"The Chinese are now also interested in non-English mother-tongue authors. Which means: They want a wide range of views. And above all they cultivate their new generations of Chinese science fiction authors and work to make them known around the world. In other words, the Chinese are introducing a marked multipolar orientation to a cultural sphere with a strong impact on reality, an area that until recently had always been a hostage to a unipolar status quo."

The vertical orientation of the flags on the monitor is an interesting metaphor for a hierarchical and hegemonic Hollywood cinema industry which is in contrast with the other horizontal, 'multipolar' array, with China in a prominent but not dominating position.

As we move firmly into the 21st century with all its geopolitical changes and challenges, we can see some of this reflected in the arts. Whether ideas in cinema symbolise projected possible futures or are reflective of changing current realities, our attention is drawn to them and shaped by their bold visualisations. Whatever their meanings, these are three very confident movies: Knives Out for slick storytelling, Bacurau for cinematic intelligence and The Wandering Earth for extraordinary design and craft.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

You Can’t lick the People: Individual and Collective Struggles in the Films of Frank Capra

A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.
— Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) The Prince, 1513
In 1939 the American director Frank Capra released Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film that was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning for Best Original Story and turned James Stewart into a major star. Stewart plays Junior Senator Jefferson Smith in Washington who launches into a a filibuster talking non-stop for 25 hours and reaffirms American ideals of freedom. Capra’s depiction of manipulating elites is carried out in fine detail as Smith quickly learns the ropes on the Senate floor. This representation of the upper echelons of society is the common link between all of Capra’s major films of the 1930s and 1940s.

Capra exposes the negative behaviour and manipulations of society elites and tries to educate people into ways of dealing with these problems through solidarity and political means. Although Capra’s own politics may have been more conservative I will argue that Capra was in a very difficult position that meant he had to resort to an almost Machiavellian approach of appearing to do one thing but actually doing another. This made Capra’s films very progressive for their time and few directors have managed to do the same since, except, for example, the English director Ken Loach. Through the use of various different types of plot lines Capra turned cinema into a progressive socio-political vehicle for encouraging societal and community unity. I will look at some of Capra’s main films to explore how he achieved this while at the same time struggling to maintain his career against conservative political forces who were not happy with his popularity. I will also look at Capra’s films in the broader historical context of progressive Enlightenment ideas and aims.

Frank Capra circa 1930s

Enlightenment traditions

In this series of articles I have been examining the effect of Enlightenment and Romanticist ideas on modern culture. The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that emerged in Europe during the 17th to 19th centuries arising out of a European intellectual movement known as Renaissance humanism. Enlightenment ideas centered on reason and science as the basis of knowledge and promoted ideals of progress and liberty.

How did Enlightenment artists and philosophers do this? They tended to focus on the psyche and conditions of everyday life, including poverty, oppression, injustice, and desperation, for example, the writers Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Voltaire (1694-1778) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797).

These traditions continued on to the nineteenth century with Auguste Comte (1798–1857) in France and John Stuart Mill (1806–73) in England, and by liberal (Mill) and radical Karl Marx (1818–83) social theories. Enlightenment ideas of progressive change crossed all the arts and could be seen in literature, music, art, poetry, architecture and theatre where they would have definite effects on form and content. The new art of cinema in the twentieth century was no different. Directors like Capra used cinema to highlight poverty and injustice, but also the positive social effects of individual acts of courage.

Capra used some of the techniques later developed in the Italian Neorealist cinema of the 1940s and 1950s such as a definite social context, a sense of historical actuality and immediacy and a documentary style of cinematography.

Capra’s main films Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), American Madness (1932), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Platinum Blonde (1931), State of the Union (1948), Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), all show a commitment to progress and social change. Capra depicts two separate social worlds which rarely come together except to show how different their values and moral systems are. Their relations are depicted two main ways:

(1) Failed attempts to corrupt a good man [Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Platinum Blonde (1931), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Meet John Doe (1941), State of the Union (1948)]

(2) Working class solidarity or victory [American Madness (1932), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Capra’s themes – (1) Failed attempts to corrupt a good man
Capra liked to show individuals who are human and have their own problems yet are courageous and morally upstanding. These individuals are bullied, offered well-paid jobs or the chance to retire wealthy but refuse to sell out their friends, class and/or family.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
There are many scenes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where Capra shows how corruption and collaboration with the media push through the agenda of corrupt elites on the make. Capra uses an almost documentary style of having characters explaining in detail how they operate while at the same time giving out lots of information on how progressive-minded individuals can resist.

Smith is working on a bill to authorize a federal government loan to buy some land in his home state for a national boys’ camp but the proposed campsite is already part of a dam-building graft scheme included in an appropriations bill framed by Taylor and supported by Senator Paine. Paine is concerned about Smith’s reaction to all this and suggests they drop the bill. Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), responds:
We can’t drop it now, Joe. We bought the land around this Dam and we’re holding it in dummy names. If we drop it or delay it–we are going to bring about investigations, and investigations will show that we own that land and are trying to sell it to the State under phoney names. No, Joe, in my judgment the only thing to do is push this Dam through–and get it over with.
In the meantime, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), who was the aide to Smith’s predecessor and had been around Washington and politics for years explains in detail to Smith how the system in the Senate operates:
Yes. House. More amendments–more changes–and the Bill goes back to the Senate–and *waits its turn on the calendar again*. The Senate doesn’t like what the house did to the Bill. They make more changes. The House doesn’t like those* changes. Stymie. So they appoint men from each house to go into a huddle called a conference and battle it out. Besides that, all the lobbyists interested give cocktail parties for and against–government departments get in their two cents’ worth–cabinet members–budget bureaus–embassies. Finally, if the Bill is alive after all this vivisection, it comes to a vote. Yes, sir–the big day finally arrives. And–nine times out of ten, they vote it down. (Taking a deep breath) Are you catching on, Senator?
Capra even goes so far as to have Smith (on the directions of Saunders) give direct quotes from the Senate Manual itself:
Uh–Mr. President–you and I are about to be alone in here, sir. I’m not complaining for social reasons, but it’d be a pity if the gentlemen missed any of this.(Then, referring to his manual–in a business-like tone) Mr. President–I call the chair’s attention to Rule Five of the Standing Rules of the Senate Section Three. “If it shall be found that a quorum is not present, a majority of the Senators present–,” and that begins to look like me–“may direct the Sergeant-at-arms to request, and if necessary *compel* the attendance of the absent Senators.”(Then-stoutly) Mr. President–*I so direct*.
As the filibuster starts to attract the reporters attention Taylor ups the ante and grabs the phone:
Hendricks! Line up all the papers in the State! Don’t print a word of what Smith says–not a word of any news story coming out of Washington! Understand? Defend the machine. *Hit* this guy! A criminal–convicted by Senate–blocking relief bill–starving the people. Start protests coming. Wires. Buy up every minute you can on every two-watt radio station in the State. Keep ’em spouting against Smith! McGann’s flying out–be there in five hours. Stop your presses–yank out the stories you got in ’em now–and get going–*get that whole State moving*–!

Senator Jefferson Smith pursues his filibuster before inattentive Senators

Meanwhile, in another documentary-style verbatim moment Smith reads out the United States Declaration of Independence:
–certain Unalienable Rights–that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness–” (Finishing with a flourish and putting the book down) Now, that’s pretty swell, isn’t it? I always get a great kick outa those parts of the Declaration–especially when I can read ’em out loud to somebody.
Of course, The United States Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and the irony of his namesake reading it out loud in the Senate was not lost on the audiences of the time. Thus, in a few short scenes, Capra shows how the Senate is manipulated, the power of the media and how filibusters work.

Platinum Blonde (1931)
Capra’s film Platinum Blonde shows an ordinary person thrown into a rich millieu as a vehicle to show the lives and attitudes of society elites. Stewart “Stew” Smith (Robert Williams) an ace reporter for the Post meets Anne (Jean Harlow) the sister of a rich playboy Michael Schuyler (Donald Dillaway) he is sent to report on. Stew falls for Anne and they get married. However, while Anne tries to turn him into a ‘gentleman’, his workmates make fun of him:

“Conroy: (singing) ‘For he’s only a bird in a gilded cage, a beautiful sight to see—'(he waves his hand) Tweet, tweet – ha, ha—”

Eventually Stew has enough of his new valet and being pressurised into behaving according to the social norms of the upper class. He refuses to conform and gives it straight to Anne:
“Stew:  Yes, I’ll tell you – for the same  reason I’ve never wanted to go out with those social parasites, those sweet-smelling fashion plates. I don’t like them. They bore me. They give me the jitters.
Anne’s Voice:  Do you know you’re talking about my friends?
Stew:  Yes, I’m talking about your friends, and they still give me the jitters.”
He eventually decides to leave Anne and refuses to take money (she offers him alimony) which depicts his incorruptible nature and his working class allegiances.

Theatrical release poster

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), the co-owner of a tallow works and part-time greeting card poet inherits 20 million dollars from his late uncle, Martin Semple during the Great Depression. Semple’s scheming attorney, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille) tries to get Deeds’ power of attorney in order to keep his own financial misdeeds secret. However, Deeds is not easily manipulated and fends off all greedy opportunists. His sincerity also charms minder Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) and star reporter Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) who writes popular articles about him with the nickname “Cinderella Man”. When Deeds meets a dispossessed farmer (John Wray) who comes at him with a gun, he calms him down and decides to give fully equipped 10-acre (4-hectare) farms free to thousands of homeless families. He is taken to court but wins over the people and the judge in the end.

Meet John Doe (1941)
In Meet John Doe Ann Mitchell, a newspaper reporter, prints a letter from a fictional unemployed “John Doe” threatening suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of society’s ills. The letter gets much attention and Ann is rehired to exploit the fictional John Doe. She gets John Willoughby, a former baseball player, hired to play the role of John Doe. Ann then writes a series of letters exposing society’s disregard for people in need inspiring ordinary people to start “John Doe clubs” with the slogan “Be a better neighbor”. This philosophy develops into a movement. Willoughby himself becomes inspired by the movement which the newspaper’s publisher, D. B. Norton decides to manipulate to have himself endorsed as a presidential candidate. After Norton exposes the letter fraud John decides to kill himself as the original letter had stated (by jumping from the roof of the City Hall) but the people change his mind when they tell him that they planned to restart the John Doe clubs anyway. As John leaves, the editor Henry Connell turns to Norton and says, “There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!”

Walter Brennan, Gary Cooper, Irving Bacon, Barbara Stanwyck, and James Gleason in Meet John Doe

State of the Union

In State of the Union Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), Republican newspaper magnate, plans to make her lover, aircraft tycoon Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), president, a power which she can then manipulate. Matthews’s wife Mary agrees to support him in public because of his idealism and honesty. Matthews is a powerful speaker and appeals to ordinary people and their trade unions (“audience was full of cheering union men”) He is a progressive:
I’m going to tell them that the wealthiest nation in the world is a failure unless it’s also the healthiest nation in the world. That means the highest medical care for the lowest income groups. And that goes for housing, too. […] And I’m going to tell them that the American Dream is not making money. It is the well-being and the freedom of the individual throughout the world from Patagonia to Detroit.
Elite manipulation of the economy itself is indicated:
Now, look here, Jim, you know just as well as I do that there are men at that banquet who’ll be rooting for a depression, just so they can slap labor’s ears back.
Capra exposes elite methods of divide and rule (“They’ve carried hatreds around for centuries. The trick is to play on these hatreds, one nationality against the other, keep them voting as blocks.”) and shows how the people can get their voice heard on the monopolised media:
Ladies and gentlemen,this is a paid political broadcast. Paid for, not by any political group or organization,but by thousands of public spirited citizens who have taken this method of insuring that their voice,the voice of the people shall be heard.
When Matthews discovers the political manipulations going on behind his back, “He steps to the microphone before the cameras, and confesses to the American people. While promising to seek bipartisan reform — and challenging the voters to vote — he denounces as frauds both his backers and himself and withdraws as a candidate for any political office.”

Capra’s themes – (2) Working class solidarity or victory
In these films the main theme is the machinations of elites to gain control, monopolise and increase profits. The developing awareness of ordinary people that they will be the ones most affected if these plans are successful forms the basis of solidarity action.

Theatrical poster

American Madness

Set during the Great Depression, the Board of Directors of Thomas Dickson’s bank want Dickson (Walter Huston) to merge with New York Trust and resign. Dickson refuses as he believes that the merger will exclude many of his ordinary clients in the drive for profits. When the bank is robbed of $100,000 different aspects of this morality story relating to extra-marital affairs, gambling and staff loyalty are played out. As word of the robbery gets out a huge crowd of clients arrive panicked about their savings and a run on the bank starts. However, the long held policy of Dickson to help people when they were down produces positive results as favours are called in. Clients who did well arrive at the bank holding up wads of cash declaring that they were depositing money, not taking it out. This action of solidarity with Dickson calms the queues and people start putting their money back in or going home thus saving the bank from the vulture Board of Directors.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
38-year-old George Bailey postpones his plans to tour the world before college to sort out the family business, Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan. George’s father suffers a stroke and dies but the board votes to keep it open, provided that George runs it. George marries Mary Hatch but they end up using their $2,000 honeymoon savings to stop a run on the ban and it solvent. George sets up Bailey Park, a housing development financed by the Building and Loan, in contrast to his competitor Henry F. Potter’s overpriced slums. Due to a mistake by his forgetful uncle a large sum of cash goes missing which threatens the future of Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan. George becomes desperate and contemplates suicide. However, an angel appears on the bridge he is about to jump off and shows him what the town would have looked like without his efforts.

This idea is a stroke of genius in the film as the angel shows him that his town Bedford Falls has been renamed Pottersville, “a seedy town occupied by strip clubs, swing halls, and cocktail lounges” thus depicting the reality and desperation of many places in the United States at the time. George has a change of heart and begs the angel for his life back. He runs home to discover that the townspeople had rallied and donated enough money to save the bank.

In 1946 Frank Capra released It’s a Wonderful Life, a film which is still shown every year in cinemas and on TV thus maintaining its popularity. Yet when released it performed poorly at the box office mainly due to the sheer quantity of films released that year. Despite the rough start the film went on to become voted as one of the best films ever made. Though often perceived as a sentimental movie, a more recent analysis describes the story line as “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people.”

The individual and the collective
In these films Capra operates on two levels (sometimes at the same time) — the individual and the collective. He exhorts the individual to stand strong in the face of extreme pressure, and shows the power of collective action, even if it does take some time to form. However, this is an important point in itself as changing beliefs and ideas lead to a new understanding and self-awareness within the group. The success of collective action then gives the group a feeling of self-worth and power which becomes an important element in future struggles. In a way, Capra takes on a similar role as Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), the author of the 16th century book The Prince. While many would see Machiavelli as a self-serving immoral opportunist writing a book advising elites on the craft of ruling and exploiting the exercise of power, this may not have been the case. Erica Benner writes:
Just a year before he finished the first draft of his “little book”, the Medici swept into Florence in a foreign-backed coup after spending years in exile. They were deeply suspicious of his loyalties, dismissed him from his posts, then had him imprisoned and tortured under suspicion of plotting against them.
She notes that “Machiavelli’s writings speak in different voices at different times” and that “Francis Bacon, Spinoza and Rousseau – had no doubt the book was a cunning exposé of princely snares, a self-defence manual for citizens. “The book of republicans,” Rousseau dubbed it.”

Oil painting of Machiavelli by Cristofano dell’Altissimo

Benner describes the benefits of seeing Machiavelli in a positive light:
His city’s tempestuous history taught Machiavelli a lesson he tries to convey to future readers: that no one man can overpower a free people unless they let him. […] Citizens need to realise that by trusting leaders too much and themselves too little, they create their own political nightmares. […] So what can citizens can do to preserve their freedoms? For one thing, they can train themselves to see through the various ruses in the would-be tyrant’s handbook. Machiavelli’s The Prince describes most of them, in ways that mimic their disorienting ambiguity.
Capra, like Machiavelli, shows in detail how elites manipulate in many different ways, through friends, bought-off individuals and their use of the media. Capra also shows people the negative effects of trusting their leaders too much and how they can resist being overpowered by developing awareness and solidarity.

However, Capra, like Machiavelli, also experienced suspicion and rebukes from the elites he was depicting. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had been attacked as a film that showed America in a bad light, the sort of things that “unfriendly” people were saying “in and out of America” about “the institution of these United States”. [1] The film State of the Union was criticized by the Hollywood columnist Lee Mortimer of Hearst’s New York Daily Mirror as:
stuff slipped through the customers by one of the oldest dodges in the game, ‘Sure I’m against communism, but -‘ The big ‘but’ here seem to be a deep-seated dislike for most of the things America is and stands for … The indictment against this country, its customs, manners, morals, economic and political systems, as put in the mouths of Tracy and Miss Hepburn, would not seem out of place in Izvestia [Russian newspaper] [2]
The implications of being anti-American and pro Soviet Union were very serious for Capra as they attracted the attention of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) which could lead one to be black listed and effectively unemployed. As Capra himself stated:
Courage made me a champion … But the world was full of ex-champions. [3]
Capra urged respect for American traditions of free speech and political dissent invoking the names of Jefferson, Paine, Emerson and Thoreau and tried briefly to organise a petition of support for Hollywood writers, including the ones he had worked with who had been subpoenaed and black listed. However, this fell through and Capra abandoned the protest. (Capra replied to criticism by saying he was a Catholic and wanted to present a Christian doctrine). As it happened Capra was never criticized by name in the hearings “nor were [his] films such as Mr Deeds and Mr Smith“. [4] As Capra saw his colleagues being forced out of Hollywood he “set about purging his work of any elements he could anticipate that anyone, anywhere, present or future, might find ‘un-American”. [5] Sadly, this action resulted in his later films becoming ever more saccharine and innocuous.

The 1930s and 1940s were an extraordinary time for progressive cinema and Frank Capra became one of America’s most influential directors. He won three Academy Awards for Best Director from six nominations and was active in various political and social activities in the industry. His social realist depictions of society depicting the conflict of groups with very different economic and political agendas is a far cry from much cinema today.

[1] Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1992), p.422
[2] McBride, Frank Capra, p.547
[3] McBride, Frank Capra, p.543
[4] McBride, Frank Capra, p.542
[5] McBride, Frank Capra, p.543

 Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at Read other articles by Caoimhghin.