I recall an article in the New York Times entertainment section that heralded the forthcoming release of three overtly political films in what must have been the fall of 1979. (I have searched in the Times’s archives in vain for the article; if you can track it down, please let me know.) The author of the article noted the usual lack of success experienced by such overtly political films, but purred with excitement that the upcoming trio of films might change things. In the event the three films proved successful, Hollywood might get serious about using the medium to educate the masses.
I say it must have been 1979 because, as I recall, one of the three films previewed in the article was Richard Lester’s “Cuba,” starring Sean Connery. “Cuba” was a dud released in December 1979. The enthusiastic Amazon entry by Marshall Fine at least honestly notes that it is “one of Sean Connery’s least-seen films.” I went to see the film at the Grandview Theater in St. Paul because of the Times article, and I can testify that there is good reason for the film’s status as “one of Sean Connery’s least-seen films.”
The release of war-related films this season brings the old Times article to mind. The AFP story linked by Drudge calls Hollywood a “casualty of war as moviegoers shun Iraq films.” The article quotes one Lew Harris making a trenchant observation:
“These movies have to be entertaining,” Harris told AFP. “You can’t just take a movie and make it anti-war or anti-torture and expect to draw people in.
The AFP story also quotes Harris, as you might expect, blaming the victim (i.e., the audience for these films):
“People want war movies to have a slam-bang adventure feel to them … But Iraq is a difficult war to portray in a kind of rah-rah-rah, exciting way.”
One of the war movies that is deemed a commercial failure is “The Kingdom.” Lewis’s explanation does not account for its failure. It had plenty of slam-bang adventure; it was lacking in slam-bang intelligence. The film was critically compromised by a hectoring muliticultural stupidity. Robert Bidinotto’s “Anti-war movies tank at the box office” provides some needed perspective.
I hypothesize that the failure played out here is the general failure of leftist politics to fuel viewership of big commercial films. Among the few items worth reading on the current crop of Hollywood anti-war movies is the pseudonymous David Kahane’s NRO column “What’s wrong with America?” In the AFP story, Steven Bochco asserts that it is hard to engage audiences in entertainment based on “a hugely unpopular war.” Mickey Kaus suggests that we need a controlled experiment (scroll up) to determine the cause for the failure of these films:
Are Hollywood’s Iraq dramas bombing because a) people don’t want to hear about Iraq or b) people don’t want to hear about Iraq from Hollywood liberals? … Several hundred commenters at Breitbart.com (most, presumably, sent by Drudge) seems to think they know the answer. It’s not Steven Bochco’s. … If there were an Iraq film not made by Hollywood liberals, we might be able to settle the argument. …
I think if we stretch the horizon beyond the current crop of films to include the Hollywood bombs of yesteryear such as “Cuba” — and thus see the films as part of the recurring manifestation of leftist politics fueling commecial failures — the need for a controlled experiment might be obviated.
In part via Instapundit.
UPDATE: Andrew Breitbart writes regarding the comment thread on the AFP story:
We just started comments on Breitbart.com after two-plus years, and this is by far the biggest thread. I think a few have gotten into the 70s, but this one is at 500 and growing. Given that other threads have varied in political stances, I am flabbergasted that there is no dissent from my fundamental thesis on Hollywood’s downward spiral and detachment from the American mainstream. The comments build up to a crescendo when regular people (and not just Americans) realize that not only are they not alone, but also that the self-interested media downplay the problem.
And Bill Katz comments:
During World War II the war movies were very popular. And that was even true early in the war, when we were struggling, and when there were questions about FDR’s leadership. (People forget that the GOP made important gains in the 1942 elections, only 11 months after Pearl Harbor.) When “Wake Island” premiered, also in 1942, the Marine Corps set up recruiting booths in movie theaters. Films were also used, as you know, to sell war bonds.
Hollywood worked with the Office of War Information. There was never any question about which side the film industry was on. Of course, there was no television, so people had to go to the movies for visual entertainment. A theater was also the only place you could see news film of the real war.
It’s different today. As you point out, war films are tanking, even if they’re decorated with major stars. The key question is this: How do these films get approved? Executives, after all, have financial obligations, yet they “green light” scripts that they must know will fail. They may argue that they’re fulfilling their “social responsibility,” but that’s nonsense.
From what I’ve observed in my own career, there are two reasons these films get made: Parties and employment. First, Hollywood is social, and it doesn’t hurt to take the “correct” point of view if you want to be on the party-circuit A-list. Second, everyone in Hollywood fears being fired, and most eventually are. You develop a powerful network by going along with the prevailing political winds. If we scratch down deep, we’ll find that much of the motivation behind the making of these failing films is personal. The people who approve them, and put dollars behind them, will fail upward, in the great tradition of modern Hollywood.
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