Tyranny at the Movies
The Killing Fields
This critically acclaimed film about a real-life journalist, New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, makes one wonder whether the movie-making elites or journalists have more disdain for America.
The Killing Fields describes the ordeals of Schanberg and his interpreter, Pran, during and following the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. This gripping “docu-drama” blames Cambodia’s miseries on not only the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese invaders but as well the Americans, all of whom are brutal. Schanberg rails against the Americans, for having expanded the war into Cambodia and thereby having made inevitable the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reconstitution of Cambodian life, culminating in the ghastly killing fields, where all those who somehow seem to threaten the new Cambodian society are slaughtered. But miraculously Pran escapes death and is reunited with Schanberg. (The appropriate sound-over in the film’s final scene is John Lennon’s Imagine.)
What can one expect of a film whose advisers include William Shawcross, a journalist who has written extensively of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge but has blamed it on the Nixon Administration’s bombing of Cambodia?
The film quite deliberately overlooks the origins of the killing fields. They were not simply the result of traditional Oriental despotism (let alone a restrained Nixon-Ford foreign policy) but rather the product of a Western idea-namely, the Marxism-Leninism which the Khmer Rouge leaders studied in France. The killing fields were in fact a gigantic experimental laboratory, the fulfillment of a mad philosopher’s vision of the future. But this country’s film-makers and some of its putative experts on Southeast Asia would leave the impression of America’s culpability.
The current President of the United States began his turn away from conventional leftist views after encountering Communist and extreme leftist sympathies in the film industry. Judging by the acclaim this film has received, a warm reception of a foreign tyrant such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega by leading members of the film community and many similar episodes, had he remained an actor, he would have found little different today.
This film’s depiction of totalitarianism is essentially faithful to writer George Orwell’s intentions, skillfully exposing both the dreariness and the horror of life under a totalitarian regime. To think of the future, inquisitor Richard Burton intones, think of a boot in your face forever.
Several critics have noted the problem of bringing Orwell’s novel to the screen, claiming it was too faithful to the novel. In this view, Orwell’s message in its new medium lacked the force of the book. But a more fundamental failure may account for one’s dissatisfaction with the film. As edifying an observer of twentieth century politics Orwell remains, his work, and in particular 1984, lacks the tragic depth of the best contemporary writers on tyranny—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, to name the leading instance. Any film version of Solzhenitsyn’s novels or histories would fail. In the end, neither botched nor overly faithful adaptation produces our disappointment; it stems, rather, from the intrinsic shortcomings of Orwell’s novel.
A Passage to India
We too easily dismiss as rationalization for British imperialism John Stuart Mill’s admonition, in On Liberty, that “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Also, Mill, like his contemporary Tocqueville, warned of “soft despotism.” This degrading condition is brought about by the combination of an overly obtrusive state, the prevalence of fatalistic doctrines, and the loss of the spirit of liberty. These produce the herd-like condition known as the “last man.” Passage to India depicts such last men (and women), British bureaucrats and silly women in an India promising the exotic but, in fact, dominated by despair. And India’s miseries stem from a tradition of fatalism and centuries of despotism. The critical and box-office popularity of this languor-inducing film reflects the extent of the West’s surrender to Asian enervation and its lack of appreciation of the civilized qualities which are the condition of political freedom.
“Witness” translates a Greek word which also means sycophant. If Witness flatters anyone, it is the Amish, whose simple life and communal spirit contrast favorably with urban America.
But is it really America, in its fullest sense, that the movie explains? Tellingly, the Amish call the outside community “the English”: They continue to live, politically as well as culturally, in pre-Revolutionary America, under the pretense that American nationhood means nothing. “We want nothing to do with your laws,” the Amish mother says to police officer Harrison Ford, who responds with a light remark that this was the case with too many people today. That is, the Amish and the criminals are in a way the same.
This is assuredly too harsh a view of the charming Amish characters we see in this film, even if the most appealing ones are, in a way, too spirited or erotic to remain contented members of their community. Will the young boy remain among the Amish? Their community strength must somehow repress his sagacity: When asked by his grandfather, whom would he kill if he had to kill, the boy wisely replies, “The bad men.”
In the end the Amish are witnesses to the strength of an America that—whatever its deficiencies—can afford to tolerate the existence of eccentrics. But such cultural and linguistic separatism ceases to be charming when it promotes the erosion of the principles of American political life, as has occurred in the Los Angeles of an even better Harrison Ford film, Bladerunner.
Beverly Hills Cop
Fortunately, the problem Witness leaves us has been answered by Beverly Hills Cop, an edifying as well as an entertaining movie. Eddie Murphy’s cunning, commonsensical detective character teaches his Beverly Hills counterparts correct police procedure. Someone who appears alien and odd is, in fact, a comrade-in-arms and a reliable partner. Both friend and foe recognize Murphy for his talent. And similarly the movie’s audience comes to admire him. Thus Murphy promotes the good will which is the basis of a friendship of excellence. Such excellence, the film suggests, can unify this nation of many nations.