Tuesday, January 04, 2005

John Herreid: Distorted Reality- Communism and the Movies


Kids walk to and from the university near my workplace every day. Usually they dress casually, with t-shirts and jeans. Shirts express everything from devotion to a particular brand of beer to religious affiliation, but the face that is seen most often is that of Communist revolutionary Che Guevara. Fascism is reviled worldwide, but the equally evil system of Communism isn’t seen as a threat, even after a century of violence, death, and religious persecution.

Why is this?

The answer, at least in the United States, is partly because of Hollywood. Stars and directors have flocked to have their pictures taken with dictator Fidel Castro (Oscar-winners Oliver Stone, Sean Penn and Steven Spielberg among them.)

A recent example: Robert Redford, the popular actor who starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is the producer of the new movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, which purports to be a factual tale of a young Che and a friend trekking across South America in the 1950’s. Inspired by the suffering he sees, the saintly Che becomes a revolutionary. The massacres and murders that he ordered as a military leader are never mentioned, or the religious persecution that followed in his wake.

But it wasn’t always this way. During that supposedly dark age known as the 1950’s, Communists within the movie business were exposed and blacklisted. Zealous patriots like Ronald Reagan testified of the perceived threat of Communist infiltration of Hollywood.

Times change though, and by the time the 1960’s rolled around, the once blacklisted writers and directors were back in the saddle. One of the most powerful and acclaimed movies of that era was Spartacus. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and written for the screen by Dalton Trumbo (a formerly blacklisted screenwriter) it showed used an underlying message of class struggle that came straight from the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

Motion pictures shape how people see issues—even intelligent viewers can be swayed by a deftly portrayed plot, which is why dictators like Adolf Hitler sought the help of talented filmmakers to get his message across.

In the current climate of Hollywood, it would be just as hard to make an anti-Communist film that would be accepted by critics as it would have been to make a mainstream pro-Communist film in 1954. For example, the 1980’s John Milius’ film Red Dawn, showing a fictional invasion of America by Russian and South American Communists, was denounced by critics as “fascist.”

It is ironic that an industry that is celebrated for creativity and freedom of thought is caught up in such a lock-step when it comes to political statement. After Steven Spielberg visited Cuba recently, the only Hollywood criticism he got came from actor Robert Duvall. Duvall acknowledged that he would probably be blacklisted from Spielberg’s Dreamworks Studios for speaking out on the issue, but felt that someone had to say something: "Spielberg went down there recently and said, 'The best seven hours I ever spent was actually with Fidel Castro.' Now, what I want to ask him [is] 'Would you consider building a little annex on the Holocaust museum, or at least across the street, to honor the dead Cubans that Castro killed?”

For the most part, it’s only outside the Hollywood system that criticism is allowed. The most thoughtful assessment of Communism in movies of the past year was The Barbarian Invasions, a French-Canadian film about a dying professor who rethinks his radical view on religion, politics and family. At one point he recalls congratulating a Chinese woman on Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”, not realizing that the woman had lost her family and nearly died herself during the violence and terror that accompanied the phenomenon. The independent film presents an honesty that is too frank for most in Hollywood today.

From a Christian point of view, Communism has always been a failure. It has always gone hand-in-hand with suppression and persecution of religious belief, and has produced some of the most violent anti-Catholic propaganda the world has seen.

The renowned Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn discussed the essence of socialist Communism in an interview with biographer Joseph Pearce.

"In different places over the years I have had to prove that socialism, which to many western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was in fact full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice, and consistent within itself that socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion. Communist propaganda would sometimes include statements such as "we include almost all the commandments of the Gospel in our ideology". The difference is that the Gospel asks all this to be achieved through love, through self-limitation, but socialism only uses coercion. This is one point.

Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive."

So, just as we must be careful that we do not allow ourselves to be enraptured by the idealization of violence and sexual immorality that is shown on movie screens, we also have to be cautious of how we allow our political outlook to be influenced by the message of films. What may seem innocuous to many because of a lack of obvious immoral content may be poisonous in its ideology.

And that is the sort of influence that leads idealistic young people to glorify persecution and murder through a t-shirt they wear, not seeing that the message is a seductive poison.

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