61 years of (the film) Spartacus

'Spartacus'

‘Spartacus’

61 years of (the film) Spartacus

[This article first appeared in the Trotskyite on-line magazine International Socialist on 24th October 2021. It’s included here, as it was first published, as I think it has a few interesting things to say about the 1960s film of the slave revolt against the Roman Empire. I don’t agree with all the comments and it’s a little tiresome to read that all Communist Party members ‘repudiated Stalinism’ – but then that’s a trope with Trotskyites. So this article is published in the spirit of non-sectarianism, just this once.]

On 6 October 1960, the film Spartacus opened in New York City’s DeMille Theatre.1 Time Magazine celebrated “a new kind of Hollywood movie: a superspectacle with spiritual vitality and moral force”.2 Long-standing New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was less excited, dismissing the film as “heroic humbug”, adding that “the middle phase is pretentious and tedious, because it is concerned with the dull strife of politics”.3 People entering the film had to brave picket lines organised by the right-wing American Legion. The Legion had sent out 17,000 letters encouraging patriotic war veterans to protest the film.4 Hedda Hopper, a columnist close to the Legion, wrote that “this story was sold to Universal Pictures from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go and see it”.5 Still, the film went on to win four Oscars at the 1961 Academy Awards.

The “Commie scriptwriter” behind the movie was Dalton Trumbo. Spartacus was the first film to carry his name on its end credits for over a decade. Trumbo had spent 11 months in prison after he refused to testify in front of Joseph McCarthy’s House of Representations Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He was part of the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and producers who challenged McCarthy’s right to investigate their connections to the Communist Party and paid heavily for it. Since 1945, no film had been prepared to publicly acknowledge his contribution, even though he had won two Oscars in this period for screenplays he had written under pseudonyms.

For the 12 years following their 1948 trial, none of the Hollywood Ten could openly work in the US film industry. Some got jobs as labourers, some left the country. Others carried on writing, albeit at a much lower rate of pay, under assumed names. By proudly displaying Trumbo’s name, Spartacus openly challenged the repressive status quo—and the anti-Communist witch-hunts weren’t what they used to be. At the Los Angeles première, the 1,500 guests were met by only 36 pickets. By the end of 1960, Spartacus was the year’s highest-grossing film.

Spartacus and the McCarthy witch-hunt

Spartacus was created in a Hollywood still reeling from the McCarthyite witch-hunts. Trumbo’s script reminds us of the indignities that he continued to suffer. At one point, the Roman senator Crassus declares, “The enemies of the state are known, arrests are in progress, the prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled.” Trumbo knew that his name could be found on similar lists that had been compiled much more recently. Although McCarthyism is now often thought of primarily as a Hollywood phenomenon, its purview was much wider. Its aim was to root out radical opinion and social resistance. Norma Barzman, who was forced into exile by the blacklist, explains: “They attacked Hollywood because it was high profile and made it easier to create a climate of fear. The blacklist was a small part of what was going on in this country at the time”.6

The 1950s had started badly for the left in the United States, as Stefan Bornost explains:

Unlike the 1930s, which was characterized by large social struggles, workers failed to break in large numbers away from the system and towards the Communist Party. Instead they were increasingly integrated into the developing conservative and anti-Communist Cold War consensus. The Communists thus lost both political possibilities and members. Party membership fell from 80,000 in 1944 to 5,000 in the mid-1950s. Of these 5,000, around 1,500 were Federal Bureau of Investigation informants.7

In 1952, the US Chamber of Commerce recommended barring “Communists, fellow travelers and dupes” from jobs as “teachers and librarians”, and from posts in “any school or university.” Specifically targetted were “the entertainment field” and “any industrial plant large enough to have a labor union”.8

McCarthy was helped by the “business union” model adopted by the big trade union federations, which actively worked to police the left:

In 1949, the CIO expelled 11 “red” unions. By 1954, 59 out of 100 unions had changed their constitution to bar Communists from holding union offices—a provision that was only recently dropped—and 40 unions banned Communists from being rank and file members.9

Beyond the trade unions, there was a broader left-liberal acceptance of McCarthyism. Instead of defending the political rights of Communist Party members, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conducted its own witch-hunt to drive radicals out of its ranks—such as ACLU founding member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.10

Spartacus was a product of a time that had witnessed these massive defeats for the left, but also one in which that left was slowly starting to recover. By the late 1950s, some of the trade unionists who had been targeted by McCarthyism were starting to regroup. If you have ever been inspired by the iconic “I’m Spartacus” scene, just think what such a display of solidarity would have meant to socialists and trade unionists who, after years of betrayal by politicians and union leaders, were beginning to organise again.

Who was Spartacus?

Spartacus was based on a novel of the same name written in prison by the Communist author Howard Fast. Fast, a one-time recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize, had also been brought before the HUAC and subsequently imprisoned. In his autobiography, Fast claimed that the story of the rebel slave was barely known before his novel:

“It would be a safe bet to say that before the appearance of my book and the film that Kirk Douglas made from it ten years later, not a single schoolboy in ten thousand had ever heard of Spartacus”.11 

Indeed, Paul D’Amato notes that “there are scarcely 10 pages written about Spartacus’s rebellion by ancient historians”.12 Historian Theresa Urbainczyk wryly notes that “slaves did not write their own history; we only know about them from the elite, who wrote the history and stamped their interpretation on events”.13 Douglas, the producer and leading man, had a similar analysis:

“Spartacus was a real man, but if you look him up in the history books you will find only a short paragraph about him. Rome was ashamed; this man had almost destroyed them. They wanted to bury him”.14

Yet Spartacus’s story was not unknown among socialists. In a letter to Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx called Spartacus the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history”.15 In an answer to a playful questionaire presented to him by one his daughters, Marx named Spartacus as his hero.16 Similarly, Urbainczyk notes that Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the slave revolution on Haiti that began in 1791, was dubbed the “Black Spartacus” by his admirers.17 When Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht formed the organisation that was to become the German Communist Party, they called it the Spartacus League. Indeed, Fast’s initial interest in the Spartacus story came from his desire to rehabilitate Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League as alternative figureheads to Stalin.18 Urbainczyk’s book about the film starts with a quote from Liebknecht, taken from a memorial in old East Berlin: “Spartacus means the fire and spirit, the heart and soul, the will and deed of the revolution of the proletariat”.19 In a footnote, Urbainczyk again quotes Liebknecht: “Spartacus means every hardship and every desire for happiness, every commitment to struggle of the class conscious proletariat. Spartacus means socialism and world revolution”.20 In the Soviet Union, many sports societies were named after Spartacus, the most famous being Spartak Moscow, which adopted the name in 1935.

Indeed, the admiration of Spartacus went beyond socialists; he was also praised by Enlightenment liberals such as Voltaire.21 So, although Spartacus was not a household name before 1960, he did hold a certain place in a popular consciousness as a symbol of resistance. As Urbainczyk remarks:

Spartacus is like Che Guevara, of whom many people have heard but about whom far fewer know very much. It is not important for them to know about him; he simply represents the idea of fighting back and of not being crushed.22

Little Spartacus and big Spartacus

In Fast’s novel, Spartacus urges “the slaves of the world” to “rise up and cast off your chains”.23 Yet, despite such rousing moments, the novel was also beset by the pessimism of a man isolated by McCarthyism’s furious witch-hunts. Bornost argues that the book metaphorically “apportions some of the blame to working people of the US—the empire functions because the masses march along, isolating the socialists”.24 Like Fast, Trumbo had been persecuted by McCarthy’s witch-hunts and had grown disillusioned by Stalin’s Soviet Union, but not in the idea of socialism itself. Trumbo “decided to stay as close as possible to Fast’s novel”, eager to “tell Spartacus’s history as a revolutionary uprising”.25 This resulted in a script which “absolutely drips with contempt for the ruling classes”.26

Trumbo’s script developed from his vision of what he called the “large Spartacus”: a warrior who “fought for the fundamental principle that every man should be free to determine his own destiny”.27 Large Spartacus did not just bemoan the personal injustices that he suffered as an enslaved person; he also denounced the system that was to blame for his suffering. He embodied “the traits, values and hopes of the proletariat”.28 Trumbo contrasted this large Spartacus to a less ideological “small Spartacus”—the vision that Universal Picture’s executives had for the character—who understood the rebellion more as “a jail-break and subsequent dash for freedom”.29 A film based on small Spartacus would be more a heist movie than a detailed critique of capitalism. Yet, as the film’s production process developed, small Spartacus started to dominate.

There were several reasons for this. For a start, Trumbo and Fast found it impossible to work together. According to Urbainczyk, Fast “disliked Trumbo intensively, and the fact that the latter was working on the screenplay had to be kept a secret from him”.30 This was a problem for Trumbo, who needed all the allies he could find. After Spartacus had been released with Trumbo’s name on the end credits, the Hollywood blacklist was effectively lifted; nonetheless, while the film was still being produced, his involvement was a secret and he was not allowed on set. This allowed the crew and some of all-star cast, such as Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton, to make significant changes to Trumbo’s script.

The artist as capitalist: Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas

Fast’s novel was neither the first nor the only vision of the Spartacus story. In 1939, Arthur Koestler, a British-Hungarian author and Cold War propagandist, wrote the novel The Gladiators, which was republished in 1956 to counteract the popularity of Fast’s more radical text.31 While Spartacus was being made, United Artists was attempting to produce a similar film version of The Gladiators.32 Even though Koestler’s novel was never filmed, it strongly influenced Spartacus’s nihilistic director, Stanley Kubrick. As Urbainczyk notes, “Kubrick had read Koestler’s novel, which was much closer to his own cynical view of humanity than Fast’s more upbeat book”.33 In his biography of Kubrick, Michael Herr says that “he wasn’t a cynic, but he could have easily passed for one. He was certainly a capitalist”.34 Kubrick wanted a film that “spared the illusions of neither the left nor the right” and “emphasised slave brutality and violence”.35 This put him in permanent conflict with Fast and Trumbo, who wanted a film that depicted the revolutionary process and reflected their experiences of the McCarthyite witch-hunt.

As its producer and lead actor, Douglas had a decisive influence over the film. Even though he was a liberal, his background and politics were of a quite different calibre to Kubrick’s. Douglas grew up a working-class Jewish immigrant:

“My six sisters and I grew up during the Great Depression. Our family struggled every day for bread and borscht”.36 

His outlook was partially shaped by his experience of racism:

“The name ‘Kirk Douglas’ got me work as an actor. The name I was born with—‘Issur Danielovitch’ wouldn’t have gotten me through the door”.37 

Pointedly, Douglas titled his autobiography The Ragman’s Son. By 1960, however, this working-class Jew with Belarusian parents was also a close friend of the incoming liberal president, John F Kennedy. Douglas’s politics were torn between the class consciousness with which he grew up and his material reality as a wealthy producer and a star of the big screen. He defended Trumbo against the witch-hunt, but his film company, Bryna Productions, paid the blacklisted writer way below the going rate. Spartacus’s battle scenes featured soldiers from the Spanish army, still led by the fascist Francisco Franco. The antifascist Douglas was undoubtedly appalled by this—but the owner of Bryna Productions knew a good deal when he saw it. Douglas was in a position to make Spartacus because of his success and wealth, but, every so often, he remembered where he had come from. According to the narrator’s introduction on the 2004 DVD version of Spartacus:

Producer Kirk Douglas wanted a larger than life hero that would enhance his stature as an actor and star. Novelist Fast wanted a pure, principled revolutionary to personify the ageless revolt of the oppressed against the oppressor. kDirector Stanley Kubrick, the master of cinematic cynicism, wanted a conflicted wretch, who was finally destroyed by the horror of bloody battle.38

The Spartacus that we see on the screen is all and none of these.

The battle with Universal Pictures

So far, we have looked at the contrasting political visions of the individuals responsible for producing Spartacus. However, the film that appears in cinemas is never the one conceived by its creators. Movies are products owned by film studios, and the bigger the studio involved, the more the film industry is able to assert control. Bornost explains:

Universal Pictures maintained full control over the final cut. Studio boss Ed Muhl put Universal’s position clearly: “Deep ideas are nice in a movie but what counts is audience appeal”.39

Douglas himself was under no illusions about who had the final say about his film:

“Without my approval, Universal made 42 cuts to the film. As its head of productions, Eddie Muhl, later admitted, they were ‘for content, not for length’”.40 

References to homosexuality, “gratuitous violence” and “bad language” were cut.41 However, the most important cuts were political, as Douglas noted:

Having capitulated publicly on the use of Dalton Trumbo’s name, Universal was now even more concerned about the political message of the film… Their tortured rationale was that if this rebel slave even appeared to have a chance at overthrowing the Roman Empire, anti-Communist critics would say that this was all part of Trumbo’s hidden message, designed to foment rebellion in America.42

In the film’s original conception (and, indeed, in the historical story of Spartacus), the rebellious army of slaves won some victories before finally capitulating to the sheer overwhelming power of the Roman Empire. In the 1960 film, all scenes showing Spartacus’s fighters’ winning battles had been removed. Douglas bemoaned the fact that “although he was still depicted as more than just a runaway slave concerned only with his own safety, any hint that he might have been leading a successful revolution was removed from the film”.43 It was just about acceptable to see slaves revolting, but to show them succeeding was still unthinkable.

Douglas complained that these changes transformed large Spartacus, who “fought for the fundamental principle that every man should be free to determine his own destiny”, into “medium Spartacus” at best.44 One reason why this was such an affront, he argued, is that this “fundamental principle” was in fact the basis upon which the US itself was founded. Indeed, this shows how far Douglas’s and Trumbo’s views of large Spartacus diverged. For Douglas, large Spartacus was about liberal individualism; for Trumbo, it was the overthrow of capitalism. Yet, even Douglas’s reformist Spartacus was butchered by Universal before the film was allowed into cinemas.

Race, gender and sexuality

The 1950s were not just experiencing the rebirth of labour struggles. In the black ghettos there was a growing feeling that a change was gonna come. Already in 1955, Ebony Magazine had announced “the emergence of a “new, militant Negro”: a “fearless, fighting man who openly campaigns for his civil rights, who refuses to migrate to the North in search of justice and dignity, and is determined to stay in his own backyard and fight”.45 In the same year, the successful 384-day Montgomery bus boycott made Martin Luther King a household name. In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to sign a new Civil Rights Act. Three years later—in the year of Spartacus’s release—four black college students refused to leave a segregated lunch counter in Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, launching months of protest. During the 1961 “freedom rides”, black and white activists went to southern states to fight for desegregation of public transport.

The significance of Spartacus’s depiction of a slave rebellion was not lost on black militants, whose recent ancestors had themselves been enslaved. Just in case the audience missed the point, the opening voice-over explained that the film was about the dream “of the death of slavery, which would not come until 2,000 years later.” Clearly, the film was not just about ancient Rome. Although Spartacus had a very white cast, it was both a product of and a contribution towards the growing wave of resistance. Without the nascent civil rights movement, it would have been a less significant film, but it also played its part in bringing the fight for civil liberties into the mainstream.

However, Spartacus’s politics focus on more than just race. In one scene, as Neil Faulkner notes:

Guards jeer at Spartacus when he is provided with a slave prostitute. He yells at them, “I’m not an animal!” And very quietly she says to him, “Neither am I.” This is about another kind of oppression—also set to explode across America with the rise of the women’s movement.46

Nevertheless, the rare female characters are generally poorly drawn. Spartacus’s slave army does include women fighters, but they are largely mute. Like most historical epics, Spartacus focuses on a single, male hero. As film scholar Joanna Paul observes, “The narrative centrality of the single hero is readily announced in the titling of SpartacusBen-HurGladiator and Alexander”.47 Often these films eponymous characters act as ciphers for the ideological ideals and contradictions of masculinity. For instance, at the end of the film, Spartacus is offered a choice between fighting oppression and family life with his wife, Varinia. He ultimately conforms:

General Spartacus was replaced by the family man Spartacus… The Spartacus who appears on screen dreams of a family life in freedom, focusing on private life in accordance with the conservative family values of a USA in the 1950s.48

The film’s sexual politics are most contradictory when it comes to the treatment of homosexuality. References to Crassus’s apparent bisexuality were cut after intervention from Universal Pictures, first appearing in a restored 1991 version.49 However, although the production team’s desire to put such a character on the screen challenged the sexual norms of the time, Crassus’s sexuality is also shown as part of the depravity that condemn him and his society to ultimate failure. Urbainczyk argues that, “with his English accent and bisexuality, Crassus represented degeneration and helped audiences, at least in the US, know where their sympathies should lie”.50 Spartacus was at least willing to discuss homosexuality, but only as something dangerous and un-American.

Challenging Hollywood’s cultural politics

In 1947, President Harry Truman presented his “Truman Doctrine” to the US Congress. Under the pretext of “supporting free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”, it intensifed the Cold War by promising aid for anti-Communist forces around the world. Truman’s aim to crush the danger of Communist-led insurgency in post-war Europe, particularly in Greece, as well as in the colonial world.51

This new, expanded imperial role for the US was reflected in Hollywood. A proxy war was fought on cinema screens, with “the Commies” metaphorically represented by aliens in science fiction films, Native Americans in Westerns and even by giant ants in the “big bug” movie, Them!. However, not all these films were straightforwardly reactionary, even if, as film historian Peter Biskind notes,

“most stressed the virtues of conformity and domesticity”.52 

Yet, under the relatively benign presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower, 1950s Hollywood stressed consensus rather than open ideological conflict. There were some overt, anti-Communist films such as The Iron Curtain and My Son John, but these “pleased neither the public nor the critics and did badly at the box office”.53 Popular cinema preferred people to come together, like the jurors of Twelve Angry Men did under the watchful jurisprudence of Henry Fonda.

Nevertheless, as Biskind explains,

“as the 1950s got ready to become the 1960s, the seams started to show. Something wasn’t right. Nowhere was this change more evident than in the movies”.54 

Spartacus was a challenge to the old consensus politics. Despite utilising the relative conservative form of the “sword and sandals” historical epic, it challenged existing orthodoxies. Spartacus may have had, as classic film expert David Blakeslee remarks, “massive sets, abundant pomp and pageantry, portentous dialogue and the proverbial ‘cast of thousands’.” Yet, simultaneously the film displayed an “underlying tone of subversion and challenge to popular mores and conventional power structures.55 Blakeslee contrasts Spartacuswith the previous year’s Ben-Hur, as “a film much more compatible and even subservient to cultural authoritarianism”.56 Writer Tom Breihan puts it more succinctly:

“In some ways, Ben-Hur is the culmination of a whole wave of religious epics, the pinnacle of a lineage that includes huge 1950s hits like The Ten Commandments and The RobeSpartacus is something else. It’s a movie about class struggle”.57

Nowhere is Spartacus’s sense of solidarity clearer than the “I’m Spartacus” scene—a scene that, incidentally, Kubrick dismissed as “sentimental trash”.58 Here we see a hint of a different form of collective narrative. Normally, film assumes an audience which is both passive and atomised. We watch on as individual heroes and villains act upon the world. Whether it is Batman or Erin Brockovich, what happens in films is usually shaped by the acts of individuals, often acting alone. However, as one former slave after another stands up in solidarity with their leader (and with one another), we see and can identify with collective action. This moment is fleeting, and the camera soon swings back to Kirk Douglas’s dimpled chin, reminding us that the title of film we are watching is not “The Collective Slave Struggle” but instead is named after one individual man. Nonetheless, we do get the sense that things could be different.

A similar critique could be levelled at Ken Loach’s excellent Land and Freedom, set during the Spanish Civil War. In the “collectivisation scene”, perhaps the most effective scene in film history, Republican militants discuss amongst themselves how to take their revolution forward. Action is driven not by the thoughts and deeds of a single person, but by discussion, which ultimately results in a majority decision. This again, however, is just a single scene, albeit one that lasts over 10 minutes. The film’s story is mediated through the ideas and experiences of one man, a British volunteer in the Republican forces called David Carr. Of course, these sorts of limitations are, in some senses, inherent to how we experience film—to a degree, it is a reformist medium that encourages us to sit back and watch the adventures, decisions and impacts of other people.

Despite all this, Spartacus spoke to the prevailing mood of the need for change. This mood has not gone away. As such, Blakeslee argues,

“It’s a film that speaks to us today, in an age when wealth, privilege and access to power are increasingly concentrated into the hands of a few, to the detriment of the many”.59 

In his 2014 book about the making of Spartacus, Douglas reflects on the lasting relevance of the film in the context of the Arab Spring and the other great wave of revolts that followed the 2008 financial crisis: “The fight for basic human freedom depicted in Spartacus is going on all over the globe”.60

Individual versus collective solution

The most interesting aspect of the film’s politics is perhaps the question of what sort of solution to oppression it suggests. Is it the triumph of one man, as suggested in the film’s title? Or is it the more collective response shown in the “I am Spartacus” scene, which, as Breihan says, “is not a moment of individual heroism, but the proletarian mass coming together and becoming the hero”.61 This is the centre of Trumbo’s distinction between large and small Spartacus, but it also reflected a more general discussion taking place in wider society.

Small Spartacus represented the hope that Kennedy, the new, young and modernising president, could deliver the reforms being demanded by growing movements against oppression. According to this view, the problems in society are not systemic and thus can all be solved by having the right person at the top.

Indeed, as an individual hero, Spartacus himself cannot stand for a collective solution. Rosenbaum comments:

Spartacus may be a charismatic proletarian hero, but he’s also a teacher and father figure who makes all the basic decisions—moral as well as practical—for the slave rebellion as a whole. He clearly doesn’t qualify as a cell member.62

Bornost writes:

Spartacus does not want social revolution, but freedom for himself and his love. He wants freedom undisturbed from tyranny, and is prepared to fight tyranny if it comes between him and freedom. He trusts his own abilities, and can therefore shake off the yoke of slavery. In short: he is an American.63

It is significant that the corrupt Roman senators are all played by British actors and that the rebellious slaves have bought into the American dream. Indeed, seeking to head off attacks for his use of a blacklisted screenwriter, Douglas issued a statement calling the film “an American statement by an American film company about the cause of freedom and the dignity of man”.64

Large Spartacus, on the other hand, stressed the need for an independent mass movement. Strong leaders are good, but social power lies in classes, not individuals. Small Spartacus took a hit in Dallas, Texas, in 1963 with the assassination of Kennedy. The movement was sustained as large Spartacus took to the streets, first against racism and increasingly against the Vietnam War. Although Spartacus’s protagonists are atomised slaves, the film made a clear overture to workers and collective struggle. Breihan argues:

The story was all about worker solidarity. It romanticises a whole class of people who don’t even need to discuss a plan with one another before they start killing the people higher than them in the social hierarchy.65

The slave army sometimes acts as a prototype of a workers’ council: “The rebels are harbingers of the coming classless society. They were something that the world had not yet seen. They were as people could be”.66

In a discussion towards the end of the film between Spartacus and Antoninus, the character played by Tony Curtis, Antoninus asks, “Could we ever have won?” Spartacus replies: “Just by fighting we won something. When just one man says, ‘No I won’t!’, Rome begins to fear. We were tens of thousands.” For this reason, Spartacus is necessarily about more than just one man. As Crassus declares, the Roman military campaign against the slaves “is not alone to kill Spartacus. It is to kill the legend of Spartacus.” He is not afraid of future individual leaders inspired by Spartacus, but by the mass uprisings that may follow in this one’s wake. Indeed, even the failure of Spartacus’s slave army points to the need for a collective response, as Urbainczyk notes: “Spartacus fails because the other slaves of Italy do not rise up. Rejection of slavery in one city will not work”.67

Conclusion

It is strange that an art form as collaborative as film has given birth to the “auteur theory”, which ascribes artistic success to individual genius. When we examine the final film, it makes little sense to talk of Douglas’s Spartacus or Trumbo’s Spartacus—and still less Kubrick’s Spartacus, since he later disowned the film. Far more than a novel or a painting, a film is the product of the collaboration and conflict between a wide range of people, who may well be trying to pull it in quite different directions. Even if it were possible for a film to have been solely created by a single talented individual, it is still ultimately a product and often the property of a large film company. Against the wishes of Douglas, Trumbo and many others, the film that was shown in New York in 1960 was the corporate Spartacus that had been approved by Universal Pictures.

For all the film’s weaknesses, there is much to love, both politically, and artistically. Spartacus is a film that constantly breaks stereotypes and defies expectations:

“Even the ending was daring. The crucified hero is denied a conventional victory, and has to be consoled with the hope that his ideas will survive”.68

 It is also testimony to the writers’ continued belief that ideas and movements are more important than individual leaders. As Paul ruefully comments,

“Disagreements among the filmmakers splintered key elements of Spartacus’s heroic characterisation, meaning that the finished film offers only unsatisfactory glimpses of the more complex epic hero lurking behind the scenes”.69 

Well, that’s as maybe—the Spartacus that was never made may be even better than the one that we have—but even the fact that the film can still provoke this sort of debate after six decades is testimony to its lasting greatness.

Although Spartacus was used by some to confirm Cold War prejudices, it also contained the essence of revolutionary change. Biskind notes that a film’s success is “mediated by mainstream institutions like banks and studios.” These “transmit ideology in the guise of market decisions: this idea will sell, that one won’t. The old figure of speech, ‘Will it play in Peoria?’, masks a multitude of ideological sins”.70Regardless of the different machinations behind the scenes, Spartacus did “play in Peoria”, making $60 million at the box office and achieving huge popularity. Its time had come. The political and artistic potential that was yet to come was already palpable in 1960 when Spartacus was released. Radical change was on its way, and the film is infected with the germ of this change. It is right that we remember Spartacus as the film that broke the blacklist and contained that famed scene with its extraordinary depiction of solidarity. However, we should also see in it the portent of much greater things to come.

We can learn a number of lessons from watching Spartacus, and I will set out three of them here. Firstly, every work of art is a product of the time in which it was created. Films are not just the product of the individual genius of their writers, directors and producers. They also come out of a particular political moment. As Marx says,

“People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.71 

Without McCarthyism, without a resurgence in trade union fights and without the incipient movement against racism, Spartacus may have existed but not in the same form. All art reflects the political discussions prevalent at the time when it was made.

Secondly, despite this, the contributions of individual writers and producers do make a difference. This may seem to contradict the first point, but there is in fact a dialectical relationship. People make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. In 1960, the conditions were ripe for a film such as Spartacus to have mass appeal, but this does not mean that anyone was going to make it. Frank Sinatra had also tried to produce a film, The Execution of Private Slovik, which was to be directed by Albert Maltz, another of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. Sinatra, who was part of the Kennedy election campaign at the time, came under pressure to cancel the production. Douglas persisted where Sinatra allowed his film to be smothered by the Democrat establishment.72

Thirdly, although the discussion about large and small Spartacus may seem esoteric, it touches on our general reaction to art and politics. “Large Spartacus” is, in effect, a call for mass action. Of course, it is unclear how much this ideal can be realised using the traditional format of a film named after a great hero who will change everything for us. Art in general, and film in particular, stands apart from its audience. They show something on the big screen, we consume. Large Spartacus challenges this, especially in the “I’m Spartacus” scene, which at least opens the possibility that art can be communal and actively involve its audience.

Having said all this, what ultimately matters is the audience response. Some left-wing critics have expressed disappointment at the film’s message. Breihan argues,

“In Spartacus, the hero fails to learn any personal lessons, except perhaps the one about the futility of his own fight and the one about how it is worth fighting anyway”.73

Similarly, Urbainczyk claims,

“Just as the Romans nailed up the slaves’ bodies on crosses, the film holds up the consequences of revolution for us to shudder at, and we do”.74 

There is some truth to this, but Bornost argues that her pessimism is excessive: “Millions of people have seen the film and read from it a different message—people can rise and fight for their freedom, even if the chances seem bad”.75 As Breihan concedes:

The knowledge that some people do rise up and fight for their freedom is what viewers remember from the film, and what readers remember from Fast’s novel and from Plutarch’s Life of Crassus. That is the legacy of the story of Spartacus, not that he ultimately failed but that he dared to fight.76



Notes

1 Thanks to Bridget Anderson, Richard Donnelly, Carol McGuigan and Tash Shifrin who commented on earlier versions of this text and made very useful suggestions. Special thanks to Stefan Bornost to sending me a copy of his unpublished manuscript on Spartacus. All errors are, of course, my own.

2 Time Magazine, 1960.

3 Crowther, 1960.

4 Douglas, 2012, p156.

5 Urbainczyk, 2004, p118.

6 Basketer, 2005.

7 Bornost, n.d., p10. The translations from Bornost’s manuscript are my own and so are any mistakes and misinterpretations.

8 Stone, 1973, p80.

9 Schulte, 2005.

10 Schulte, 2005.

11 Fast, 1990.

12 D’Amato, 2010.

13 Urbainczyk, 2004, p96.

14 Douglas, 1988, p304.

15 Marx, 1861.

16 Marx, 1865.

17 Urbainczyk, 2004, p12.

18 Urbainczyk, 2004, pp10-11.

19 Urbainczyk, 2004, p9. In Stalinist East Germany, this monument was open to the public, but it is now behind locked gates in the private garden of a luxury flat complex.

20 Urbainczyk, 2004, p131.

21 Urbainczyk, 2004, p11.

22 Urbainczyk, 2004, p109.

23 Smith, 2014, p187.

24 Bornost, n.d., p10.

25 Bornost, n.d., p13.

26 Breihan, 2019.

27 Douglas, 2012, p157.

28 Smith, 2014, p189.

29 Douglas, 2012, p156.

30 Urbainczyk, 2004, p126.

31 Urbainczyk, 2004, p109.

32 Cooper, 1996.

33 Urbainczyk, 2004, p129.

34 Herr, 2000, p12.

35 Cooper, 1996; Paul, 2013, p203.

36 Douglas, 2012, p22.

37 Douglas, 2012, p13.

38 Cited in Paul, 2013, p175

39 Bornost, n.d., p13

40 Douglas, 2012, p156

41 Douglas, 2012, p157

42 Douglas, 2012, p157

43 Douglas, 2012, p157

44 Douglas, 2012, p157

45 Kelly, 2008, pp78-79.

46 Faulkner, 2020.

47 Paul, 2013, p178.

48 Bornost, n.d., p16.

49 See Douglas, 2012, p143.

50 Urbainczyk, 2007.

51 Truman, 1947.

52 Biskind, 1983, p4.

53 Biskind, 1983, p3.

54 Biskind, 1983, p356.

55 Blakeslee, 2011.

56 Blakeslee, 2011.

57 Breihan, 2019.

58 Reid, 2020.

59 Blakeslee, 2011.

60 Douglas, 2012, p171.

61 Breihen, 2019.

62 Rosenbaum, 1991.

63 Bornost, n.d., p17.

64 Wyke, 1997, p65.

65 Breihen, 2019.

66 Bornost, n.d., p9.

67 Urbainczyk, 2004, p110.

68 Ebert, 1991.

69 Paul, 2013, p205.

70 Biskind, 1983, p5.

71 Marx, 1937.

72 For more information, see Douglas, 2012, pp152-155.

73 Breihan, 2019.

74 Urbainczyk, 2004, p122.

75 Bornost, n.d., p17.

76 Urbainczyk, 2004, p130.


References

Basketer, Simon, 2005, “Hollywood: The Red and the Blacklist”, 

https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/7448/Hollywood%3A+the+red+and+the+blacklist
Biskind, Peter, 1983, Seeing is Believing: or How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the 50s (Bloomsbury).

Blakeslee, David, 2011, “Spartacus (1960)—#105” (23 November), Criterion Reflections, http://criterionreflections.blogspot.com/2011/11/spartacus-1960-105.html

Bornost, Stefan, no date, An unpublished manuscript on Spartacus.

Breihan, Tom, 2019, “Our New Column on Hollywood Hits Launches with Stanley Kubrick’s Gladiatorial Smash Spartacus”, AV Club (19 April), https://film.avclub.com/our-new-column-on-hollywood-hits-launches-with-stanley-1834012710

Cooper, Duncan L, 1996, “Dalton Trumbo vs Stanley Kubrick: Their Debate over the Political Meaning of Spartacus”, Visual Memory, www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0101.html

Crowther, Bosley, 1960, “Screen: ‘Spartacus’ Enters the Arena—3-Hour Production Has Premiere at DeMille”, New York Times (7 October), https://tinyurl.com/rkx823ch

D’Amato, Paul, 2010, “Who was Spartacus?”, SocialistWorker.org (15 January), https://socialistworker.org/2010/01/15/who-was-spartacus

Douglas, Kirk, 1988, The Ragman’s Son (Simon and Schuster).

Douglas, Kirk, 2012, I am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist (Open Road).

Ebert, Roger, 1991, “Spartacus”, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/spartacus-1991

Fast, Howard, 1990, Being Red: A Memoir (Routledge).

Faulkner, Neil, 2020, “I’m Spartacus!”, Mutiny (12 February), www.timetomutiny.org/post/i-m-spartacus

Herr, Michael, 2000, Kubrick (Grove Press).

Kelly, Brian, 2008, “Unfinished Business: Martin Luther King in Memphis”, International Socialism 118 (spring).

Marx, Karl, 1937 [1852], The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm

Marx, Karl, 1861, “Letter from Marx to Engels in Manchester”, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1861/letters/61_02_27-abs.htm

Marx, Karl, 1865, “Karl Marx’s ‘Confession’”,www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/04/01.htm

Paul, Joanna, 2013, Film and the Classical Epic Tradition (Oxford University Press).

Reid, Monica, 2020, “A Deep Dive into the Workings of Stanley Kubrick Masterpiece ‘Spartacus’”, Far Out Magazine (13 March), https://tinyurl.com/ukjt9ese

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, 1991, “Hollywood Unchained”, Chicago Reader (9 May), www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/hollywood-unchained/Content?oid=877596

Schulte, Elizabeth, 2005, “From McCarthyism to COINTELPRO”, CounterPunch (9 April), https://tinyurl.com/yh2888u4

Smith, Jeff, 2014, Film Criticism, the Cold War and the Blacklist: Reading the Hollywood Reds (University of California Press).

Stone, I F, 1973, The Truman Era (Vintage Books).

em>Time Magazine, 1960, “Cinema: The New Pictures” (October 24), http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,871800,00.html

Truman, Harry S, 1947, “Truman Doctrine: President Harry S Truman’s Address Before A Joint Session Of Congress, March 12, 1947”, Yale Law School, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/trudoc.asp

Urbainczyk, Theresa, 2004, Spartacus (Bloomsbury).

Urbainczyk, Theresa, 2007, “Review: Spartacus: Film and History”, Bryn Mawr Classical Review (8 September), https://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2007/2007.08.59

Wyke, Maria, 1997, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History(Psychology Press).

Phil Butland is a British socialist who lives in Berlin and is the joint speaker of the Die Linke Berlin Internationals group. He is the commisioning editor of theleftberlin.com and curates the CinePhil film blog at https://cinephil.home.blog

A War (Krigen), 2015, Dir: Tobias Lindholm

Murdered children in Afghanistan

Murdered children in Afghanistan

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Even though the invasion and subsequent war in Afghanistan has been a total strategic disaster, now turning into a seemingly never-ending conflict, there hasn’t been a shortage of films, both fictional and documentary, about this foreign involvement. The situation was very different following the US invasion of Vietnam where Hollywood took years to be able to address the shameful defeat of the most powerful nation on Earth. (The trouble is that this preparedness to look at the open wounds doesn’t seem to have led to any significant reluctance to get involved in foreign wars, either on the side of the politicians or the public of the respective countries.) The most recent in this series of films is A War – Krigen, directed by Tobias Lindholm.

One of the possible reasons for this spate of soul-searching is the advance in photographic technology. In the 1970s and 80s it wasn’t easy to make a film without a huge amount of resources. Today films can be, and have been, made on smart phones and light weight, yet high quality digital video cameras. It is from this standpoint that has made ‘A War’, a reasonably low-budget film produced from a relatively small country, possible.

This is a film from the Danish perspective. Previous films have looked at the situation from the viewpoint of the two major players in the debacle, the Americans and the British, so it’s slightly refreshing to see how another, junior partner, in this coalition of hypocrisy and double-talk sees as its role on the world stage.

(Here it should be mentioned that the Afghans themselves are still either the ‘enemy’ or the victims. No one has sought to look at the almost 15-year-old war from the perspective of those who have been on the receiving end of all the billions of pounds worth of bullets, air strikes and missiles. But then we still haven’t seen a film that concentrates on the plight of the Vietnamese in their struggle against American Imperialism.)

Although the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, under the name of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, was supposed to bring a better life to the inhabitants there’s no indication at all that there have been any real positive gains for the local populace. The Taliban haven’t been defeated, far from it. Recent information indicates they seem to be getting more powerful day by day as the ordinary Afghan peasant lives under the oppression and corruption of the ‘democratically elected’ government and its US/UK trained puppet army. So-called ‘collateral damage’ means that innocent people are daily at risk of being killed following their normal routine in order to survive. The cultivation of the heroine poppy has resumed with a vengeance resulting in the reappearance of drug lords, together with the inevitable violence and mayhem following such a trade (which had been virtually eliminated under the Taliban, as recognised by the United Nations only a matter of weeks before the invasion of the country in 2001) and tribal War Lords control huge swathes of the country.

‘A War – Krigen’ takes place in 2003 when it could be argued (at least by the occupying forces, not by me) that there was a chance of changing things for the better, that the armed forces from so many countries, a grand coalition – so as to spread the blame if not the glory – could still say, without a hint of irony, that they were there for the people of Afghanistan. But they were only there if it meant that casualties on the invading forces’ side were at an absolute minimum.

These Danish soldiers whoop and holler at the death of a ‘terrorist’ but go into mental melt down when one of their own is injured – similar scenarios having also been depicted in previous fictional or documentary films about the war. Behind this is the mindset and thinking of the invading powers that because they have ‘right’ on their side they are, or, at least, should be, invincible. They have the technology, the weapons, the protection, the back up (both in terms of military intelligence and medical resources), that they are the ‘good guys’ – so how can they lose?

This has been the thinking of the imperialist countries in all the wars, ‘insurgencies’, ’emergencies’ and uprisings they have been involved in since the end of the Second World War. They have the God-given right to do what they so chose in whatever part of the world they chose to do it and if anyone in those countries opposes their invasion they are immediately branded as being insurgents and terrorists (and other descriptions with negative and racist connotations) so therefore their lives are of no value and expendable. This way of looking at the local population resulted in the countless massacres committed by these forces of ‘democracy and freedom’ that was epitomised by the murderous attack on the Vietnamese villages around My Lai in March 1967.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

Although, I suppose, ever since warfare (even before anyone could enunciate the term, in whatever language) began the aim was to inflict the heaviest casualties on the enemy with the least to yourselves. However, in any conflict it would be ludicrous to expect that you can go up against an enemy and not sustain casualties. Granted the British have not been that good at the useless throwing away of young lives, witness the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ in October 1854 during the Crimean War and the countless examples of huge casualties, with little or no territorial gain, on the Western Front in the War of 1914-19.

But following on from the imperialist arrogance is an idea that war is in some manner ‘safe’. If we are fighting ‘evil’ when right is on our side, together with God, less body bags will be needed. Politicians who start these wars want to perpetuate such a fallacy as it allows them to convince the majority of unthinking people that the costs of war are not that great, that the days of high casualties are a thing of the past.

This led to the crazy and bizarre situation that developed around the returning bodies from recent wars in the Middle East which arrived at the Royal Air Force base at Lyneham in Wiltshire in the South West of the UK. The parading of the coffins through the near-by town of Wootton Bassett, which at first was seen as a ‘proud’ nation honouring those who had died ‘to keep us safe’ became a political and military embarrassment. Making a big show on a few occasions was politically advantageous to the State but when it was a regular event it only went to show that the war wasn’t going the way the aggressors thought it would. One senior military officer even stated that such public displays of ‘grief’ were counter-productive as war will invariably mean death and it was dangerous to the State if death was fetishised.

It is by putting this idea of the welfare of the injured to the fore that leads the Danish officer (who, in normal circumstances, shouldn’t have been on the front line at all anyway) to call in air support to attack and destroy a compound from where he ‘thinks’ the Taliban might be firing. The consequence of this is that a number of civilians, including children, end up being killed or wounded. For this he is recalled to Denmark to face a legal inquiry.

This might be considered a genuine approach to dealing with the reasons for civilian casualties, especially when the issue is seen through the ‘liberal’ eyes of a Scandinavian country – although that liberalism is becoming somewhat tarnished with some of the more draconian laws that have been passed as a response to the increase in the number of migrants arriving in Europe in the last year or so. But by placing the incident in ‘the heat of war’ the commander has a get out, whether he is telling the truth or not.

In the fifteen years of the foreign occupation the majority of the casualties have been civilians and most of them were killed by the occupying forces. The obscene term ‘collateral damage’ (coined by the Americans around 1968, in relation to possible outcomes of a nuclear conflict but then used in their war of aggression against the Vietnamese people) is now so commonly used that people in general don’t seem to baulk at the seriousness of the consequences of military action on the local populace. We can also see the hypocrisy of the US and other ‘western’ countries when a similar situation is indeed a crime when committed by others, e.g., the Russians in Syria in 2016, but is OK if committed by them in any theatre of war. We should also remember that the US refuses to allow any of their personnel to be committed for any sort of war crimes, even when one of their soldiers leaves a base, at night, twice, and goes on a killing spree, randomly murdering people in their beds.

Cinema has rarely dealt with the issue of civilian deaths in the many wars since 1945, after which year civilians were no longer the ‘rear’ but the forefront of any conflict. This was even more so in those situations where the fighters were guerillas who lived amongst and came from the people. Taking Chairman Mao’s dictum that the guerillas should be ‘like fish swimming in water’ of the populace the reactionary forces sought to drain the rivers and lakes. Whereas ‘A War’ fudges this issue of civilian deaths (and gets publicity owing to it being nominated for an Academy Award) a film that addressed the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ‘Good Kill’ (2014), was almost totally ignored.

Being a ‘liberal’ country the case of the civilian deaths is investigated by the Danish military authorities and the commander called back home to face a court of inquiry. An interesting aspect of this inquiry was the depiction of the Danish court process itself, not just for this fictional case but for anyone who has to face ‘justice’ in that country. The informality makes the process much less intimidating than it is in a British or American setting and gives the impression, at least, that the person on trial is innocent until proven guilty. This was even down to using the given name rather than the surname of the accused.

Although the viewer knows that the commander is guilty we have to wait to see if this guilt will be proven in an ‘impartial’ inquiry. Witness after witness gives evidence that seems to place another nail in the commander’s coffin until one witness states, categorically, that he ‘knew’ there was concrete evidence for the commander to call in the air strike, the consequences of which were the civilian deaths. This evidence gets the officer off.

Now this particular development introduces interesting aspects of the military of capitalist and imperialist countries. If we can imagine that this situation is real and were to go into the future following this trial and ask ourselves who would be more trusted by his comrades, those who told the truth or the liar, we would have to say the liar. That’s because the very structure of capitalist armed forces is based upon a small group of people having absolute faith in the idea that those around each individual will be supported, in many ways unquestioningly, by the others in his group.

In the situation presented to us in this film how could anyone have such trust in a person who was prepared to see the conviction of one of their own, albeit a senior officer? The countless cases of those soldiers accused of crimes in the invasions of Middle Eastern countries in the 21st century, with none of them ending up being ‘proven’, is testimony to the closed nature of such groups of killers. It’s exactly the same situation amongst the police where there’s an unwritten code of practice in which the truth is just far too inconvenient.

There is another consequence of these constant invasions and wars and this is the effect that the killing process has on those very well supported, very well supplied and very well armed soldiers. This is demonstrated in a scene early in the film.

A situation arises where one of the members of the patrol is so traumatised by one of his comrades stepping on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) that he virtually breaks down and refuses to go on patrol. Being a ‘liberal’ country the Danish commander (who establishes his credentials as caring and concerned about those under his command) allows him to be reassigned to base duties until he can get his act together. Here we are presented with the issue of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Now in 2003 it could have been possible to say that those who were in the armies of the imperialist invaders weren’t aware of the consequences of what they were doing. I say ‘could’ rather than ‘would’ as I would have thought that anyone who is prepared to be taught how to use instruments whose only purpose is to kill should understand that death was going to be the consequence of those instruments being used. The hope is that the deaths would be ‘theirs’ but, from time to time, it could be ‘ours’. So why the surprise? Despite how they might be presented at times in the past armies are killing machines, they are not an arm of the social services.

It’s also important to remember that all the armies from all the countries that have been part of a US led ‘coalition’ are composed of volunteers. They are not conscripts as they were in the wars in Korea or Vietnam. These men and women had, and still do, make a conscious decision to enlist. I don’t know why they are surprised when they are confronted with the realities of war. Are they so stupid that they think the real thing is like the computer games that might have convinced them to join up in the first place? That once someone is killed all they have to do is reboot and they will come alive again?

If that’s valid for 2003 how much more valid is it for 2016? Those who are joining these armies now were only toddlers when these 21st century wars of aggression started and since the ‘war of terrorism without end’ began. If they watch the news and think they want to be like John Wayne (who never fired a bullet against a real enemy and, therefore, never had to face danger himself, unlike many in Hollywood, either the actors or scriptwriters he was party to ostracising at the time of (HUAC) the House Un-American Activities Committee – see the film ‘Trumbo’ for a good take on Wayne’s ‘patriotism’) don’t they also know that PTSD is a part of these wars? So now that issue is becoming a drain of health services, a problem to the societies to which they return yet still not an issue that makes people address the validity of such wars in the first place. And, most importantly of all in this, the mental welfare of the men, women and children who are on the receiving end of all these billions of pounds worth of munitions is not considered at all. The wars nominally being fought for their well-being and future don’t take their well-being and future into account.

Finally, other films addressing the war in Afghanistan have almost exclusively concentrated on the soldiers in the country itself, their home lives only considered as an aside, being part of banter amongst the soldiers, referenced by telephone/Skype conversations with family members or by images of the ‘life they left behind’ on the walls of their barracks. In ‘A War’ not only do we get the court room scenes back in Denmark we also get an indication of the problems that can occur within the family as a consequence of the father being away for such a long time.

But here we have another contradiction. We are talking about 2003, a couple of years after the ‘war on terror’ began. Presumably the wife of the commander married, and had children, with a man who was in the military but then he was only playing at being a soldier, not killing other people and not being put in danger. Things start to fall apart when he is doing the job he signed up for many years before and for which he is being paid. So why this shock when matters develop so that he actually does what he was trained to do? Why are so many parents and families proud of their sons and daughters dressed in their smart uniforms at their coming out parades not aware what they could face in the future? Why is it always someone else’s fault if they should get killed or injured in a foreign country? Why do so many people want to claim victim status? If you make a conscious decision to go to another country and kill its people live (or die) with the consequences.

If Denmark is not exactly an imperialist nation at present it is certainly there to support the interests of the most aggressive and powerful imperialist nation at the moment, that is the USA. NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance) exists to dance to the tune that the US decides to play. Huge resources, from all the countries in the organisation, are directed towards this end. As the grip of capitalism and imperialism weakens the necessity for these national forces to get involved in international conflicts has increased – and this will be even more so in the foreseeable future.

Imperialism appears to be strong because it seems to have the ability to respond in any part of the world with massive amounts of force. But can this really be seen as a success for imperialism? In Afghanistan the US has been involved in the longest war in the country’s history – and it’s not fully disengaged yet. In 2001 GW Bush declared the ‘war on terror’ would go on as long as it takes and in the middle of February 2016 the French Prime Minister said that ‘hyper-terrorism (whatever that might be) is here to stay’. So the imperialist powers have already admitted that all the invasions of the 21st century have not achieved, in any sense whatsoever, the goals they set themselves 15 years ago.

So, as far as imperialism is concerned, we are in a more dangerous situation than the world was at even the height of the ‘Cold War’. The threat of nuclear extinction from the Soviet Union has been replaced by an enemy that hates what the west represents in a way never seen before. In the past those people who had suffered at the hands of rapacious and murderous imperialism, from the Americas through to Africa and on to Asia have, in some ways, ‘forgiven’ the oppressors or, at least, pushed the events of the past to the back of their minds. Not now. Those groups whose foundation goes back to the times of anti-Communism in Afghanistan are not thanking their progenitor. Just the opposite. The child hates the father in a way not before seen in modern times. The chickens have truly come home to roost.

The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010/11 has changed the situation in the countries were it took place not one iota. Whatever the optimism and enthusiasm that existed over that period of time some of the faces at the top might have changed but substantially the situation for the vast majority of the population remains the same. Worse than that, some of those countries which underwent a popular uprising are even more aggressive, both nationally and internationally, as they were prior to 2010, Turkey being a case in point.

It’s true that imperialism has succeeded in destroying those functioning societies that were a potential threat to its interests in the region, in the case of Iraq, Libya and Syria, but at what cost to the people? Those once strong militarily countries whose leaders were from time to time courted by the ‘west’ when it suited, are now in chaos with the consequences beginning to have an effect on Europe as more and more refugees seek sanctuary in a part of the world that caused the problem in the first place.

But the populations of the countries who have gave birth to, then incubated this hatred so that it has grown into a myriad of western value hating groups in an increasing number of countries throughout the world, don’t seem to realise that they are part of the problem themselves. Their acquiescence in the face of the jingoism and sabre rattling of their ‘democratically’ elected governments is forgotten. The ones who are fundamentally the cause of the problem claim victim status. Those killed in acts by these ‘fundamentalist’ groups are described as ‘innocents’ yet those civilians killed in drone attacks, air raids or just because they were in the wrong place at the time of a military operation are dismissed as being merely ‘collateral damage’ and all the resources of the invading forces is put into sanitising and excusing those responsible. The lives of an Afghani or an Iraqi is considered of lower value to that of a European. Is it any wonder that people are angry?

‘A War’ is not, by any means, the best film about the invasion of Afghanistan or any other wars that are taking place at the moment (or even of those to come) but it does offer the opportunity for people to look at their own complicity and hypocrisy if they care to do so. I fear, as has been the case in all the other imperialist attempts to maintain or increase their influence in the past, most people will just hope that the problem will go away. It might have quietened down in the past but the result is unlikely to be the same in the present or the future. One day people are going to have to make a decision to challenge the status quo otherwise this war really will go on forever.

Joy 2015, Dir: David O Russell

New Miracle Mop

New Miracle Mop

Warning: Might contain a couple of small spoilers!

The only possible joy you can get out of this dire film is from the title. I just can’t imagine for what qualities this film is being heralded as a celebration of a ‘successful’ woman.

All the characters are odious, ignorant, selfish, loathsome and self-serving. We have a family of four generations and there doesn’t seem to be one iota of real love or respect between any of them. We are told (by the narrator) that Joy and her divorced husband are the best of friends, but we don’t really get any feel of that from what we see on the screen – this is a case of tell don’t show.

This is the type of family where you would be afraid to turn your back, their being so many knives out one would bound to end up in your back.

The eponymous character walks through all this in an almost catatonic state. She has sacrificed her future for others (compounded by a disastrous marriage which might have produced children but even when on screen they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time).

Just in case we’re not clear that she is a put upon drudge, her good nature being abused by all around her, when in a difficult domestic situation she is shown with spilt food, vomit and any other detritus that’s supposed to be the consequence of bringing up young children.

Her principal invention was a mop. Now, is this a problem with American housewives (obviously at the time the film is set, late 80s/early 90’s men wouldn’t be regularly mopping the kitchen) or generally throughout the world? She gets her inspiration from ‘having’ to squeeze out a mop with her hands after a glass had been smashed but instead of trying to pick up as much glass as possible, then attacking the liquid she tries to collect both glass and liquid at the same time meaning she has to squeeze cotton full of glass shards and cutting her hands in the process. Are people really that stupid? And wasn’t the mop bucket invented by the 1990s?

The invention of this revolutionary mop is her contribution to ‘female liberation’ .

But it’s one thing to invent something, it’s another to get it sold. Her breakthrough comes when she, herself, stands in front of the camera of a TV shopping channel and promotes the virtues of her baby. But the scenes at the studio were likewise ludicrous. The initial attempt, using a so-called ‘professional’ presenter is sabotaged as he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Her own attempt is close to disaster when she appears like a rabbit caught in the headlights when the cameras roll. Is that credible? Would such a commercial broadcasting company put people on live television without adequate preparation? Did Jennifer Lawrence herself just turn up on the set of her first film without a screen test? Does the director consider us that stupid? (Presumably, the answer is yes.)

After yet another scene where her abilities are being disparaged by her family instead of standing up for herself and arguing back she meekly leaves the building. This being the United States of America she then asks for the loan of a pump shotgun (from a conveniently placed, open air firing range) and then kills a few bottles. She would have been better served, and it would have made a much better and more interesting film, if she had returned to the office and used it on her family.

At a time when there are (almost invariably not to be unimplemented) measures talked about gun control in the US we are here given a demonstration where the release of frustration through the use of a hand-held killing machine is the way to achieve the ‘American Dream’.

After yet another scene where the world seems to be against her (and especially her odious family) she is shown, for the first time, actually doing something rather than just acting as a doormat or a mouse. And how do we know she is now on the warpath? She perpetrates the (seemingly) greatest crime a woman can do to herself – she cuts her long girly tresses.

Then things get worse. She travels half way across the country, arranges to meet someone she believes has cheated and defrauded her in an empty room in a cheap hotel, whose first words to her are that she doesn’t know who he is and whether he has come to eliminate someone who is becoming a nuisance, but then he just caves in to her threat to expose him. Not only that he offers to give her a more money to placate her anger. That scene was absolutely ridiculous. The whole build up to it was ridiculous.

Throughout we are bombarded by trite, home spun philosophy about achieving potential, never giving in, examples of those who had lived the ‘American Dream’, that all are equal in America, that anyone can achieve success, regardless of class or colour. On and on it went. Perhaps instead of telling the viewer of the film they should have said so to those who are queuing outside food banks throughout the benighted United States.

If all this isn’t enough when we get to the end and hear how she continued to support her despicable family, even though they tried to rob her (yet again), we are subjected to her being patronising to a young, black, female inventor and distributing her largess. And to remind us (as if we need reminding) that she came from humble beginnings we see her finger her scraps of paper from her childhood. It was enough to make my skin creep.

And whose idea was it to give us a narrator who is literally telling the story from beyond the grave?

Finally, what has happened to that coterie of fine American actors who came on our screens in the 1970s? Robert de Niro is in this film and he was an embarrassment. If he has to continue to appear on the big screen perhaps he should be doing what a couple of his contemporaries, i.e., Pacino and Keitel, are now doing. Just make adverts where bad acting is a bonus and live on the glories of the past.

For reasons that are beyond me this film is up for nominations in the upcoming awards season (and has already been nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress – Musical or Comedy, in the 2016 Golden Globe Awards). It might well win (you can’t blame the Academy, for example, for taste). Win or lose Lawrence will probably be able to command even more money than she does at the moment for the roles she will take on. She might not get as much as the men but will still earn more than 99% of the world’s population, let alone those in the acting profession worldwide. We can only hope that with some of those earnings she buys her Mexican maid (probably on minimum wage) a new mop.