While normally we try to keep our little corner of the internet relatively apolitical, even the most politically inactive, apathetic or far-removed of us has had cause to gape in awestruck horror at the campaign being run by frontrunner candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. With soundbites and speeches that sound like satire, and countless elegant and not-so-elegant takedowns —of his suitability, his honesty, his intelligence, his basic goddamn decency, even his business savvy— apparently doing little to stem his incomprehensible popularity, we’ve done what we always do when despair hits. We’ve gone to the movies.
So here are ten films that have given us food for thought when considered in light of Trump’s seemingly irresistible rise, and the only slightly hyberbolic disastrous consequences that could possibly ensue if he goes unchecked. Spoiler alert: while some are comedies and others are deadly serious, all are cautionary tales.
Richard III – “Richard III” (1995)
As icy as Ian McKellen‘s blue-eyed stare, this brilliant version of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” updated to a parallel 1930s fascist Britain, must rank among the chilliest films ever made. Moving with a relentless, reptilian intelligence, it tracks the deviously ugly rise and brisk, deserved fall of McKellen’s Duke of Gloucester as he removes every obstacle to his coronation as King Richard. It’s a particularly fascinating work of alternate history, considering the foothold that fascism had in Britain during this period (it’s in itself a cautionary tale for the “it could never happen here” brigade), and McKellen, along with co-writer and director Richard Loncraine (plus absolutely spectacular production design) mine the parallels for all they are worth. But it’s also a portrait of a certain type of megalomaniac —Richard is a self-confessed villain from the outset, but his sociopathic charm generates its own weird brand of popularity —he wields a seductive power that is only heightened by the soliloquies he delivers straight to camera like a really, really, super evil Ferris Bueller. With a star-studded cast fielding the anachronistic, musical dialogue with perfect fluidity (as well as British thesps Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Adrian Dunbar, Kristin Scott-Thomas, and Dominic West, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. bring an interestingly American modernity to their roles), it’s a clinical examination of the danger posed by a man who wants power only for power’s sake. He will lie and deceive (and in Richard’s case, rack up a body count that would be the envy of Zodiac Killer) to get it —but what sort of a human will he be by the time he gets to wield it?
President Judson Hammond – “Gabriel Over The White House” (1933)
Anyone looking for an insight into the American mindset the last time that the world saw the rise of an unstoppably powerful authoritarian, totalitarian leader could do a lot worse than to watch Gregory La Cava’s utterly bonkers 1933 curio “Gabriel Over The White House,” a film released to coincide with FDR taking office that essentially pleads for America to become a fascist dictatorship. The film stars Walter Huston (father of John and grandfather of Angelica) as President Judd Hammond, a corrupt and useless leader of a country overrun with gangsters and big business who has a car accident that puts him into a coma. When he awakens, he’s undergone a complete transformation: he’s had a spiritual vision and sets out to save the United States. He does this by expelling business interests from government, dissolving a Congress that tries to impeach him, nationalizes the alcohol industry, imposes martial law, sets up a brown-shirted secret police and begins executing his enemies, particularly in organized crime. Oh, and then he uses a secret weapon to blackmail the rest of the world into peace. In some hands, this would be a cautionary tale, but what’s so fascinating about the film (based on a novel by T.F. Tweed) is that it plays like unapologetic wish fulfillment, virtually a propaganda movie demanding a leader who’ll pull America out of the Great Depression by any means necessary, even at the cost of its own constitution. It’s a fascinating, albeit terrifying capsule, and one that supplies more insight into the appeal of Trump to voters than we’d perhaps like to admit.
Idi Amin – “The Last King Of Scotland” (2006)
Powered by a career-defining, Oscar-winning performance by Forest Whitaker as Ugandan despot Idi Amin and based on the novel by Giles Foden, Kevin MacDonald‘s “The Last King of Scotland” is a bruising and brutal experience. But it’s not just in tracking the rise of Amin, who would suspend the country’s constitution, establish a military dictatorship and go on to murder 300,000 of his countrymen, that the story is valuable. With its fictionalized elements, it also becomes an intelligent dissection of both the white savior complex (as seen through the eyes of James McAvoy’s callow doctor Nicholas) and the kind of willful blindness that can afflict those nearest to the intoxicating influence of absolute power. And so Nicholas, who finds himself working in a clinic in Uganda more out of boredom than any idealistic commitment of helping people, only gradually comes to realize that the jolly, charismatic leader offering him career advancement, friendship, and even a kind of fatherhood, is actually a paranoid psychopath, and it’s not until he’s faced with a literal dismemberment that he understands the damage Amin is doing to the poverty-blighted nation. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the old saying goes. But “The Last King of Scotland” shows that corruption doesn’t stop with the man who wields the power. Rather, the reek of it seeps into everyone around him, and the whole power structure by increments. Which is why it is dangerous to wholly trust in any system of checks and balances to rein in a power-crazed demagogue: rot spreads.
Adenoid Hynkel – “The Great Dictator” (1940)
Comparing anyone to Adolf Hitler is a fool’s errand, an example of the kind of hyperbole that says less about the one so accused than the person doing the accusing. And so we wouldn’t dream of comparing Trump to little-known mid-century politician Hitler; we’re going to compare him to Adenoid Hynkel instead. The centerpiece of Charlie Chaplin‘s bona fide 1940 masterpiece, Hynkel is a not-at-all-veiled approximation of Der Fuhrer, right down to stupid mustache, murderously short temper and megalomaniacal desire to “Aryanize” the world (Hynkel and Goebbels proxy Garbitch plot, after dealing with the Jews, to turn their attentions to the threat posed by “brunettes”). There are many astounding things about the film. On the level of pure craft, in his first sound film Chaplin’s mastery of the medium is evident in every frame. The wordplay and fun-with-homophones is quite dazzling. And despite the anger underpinning it, “The Great Dictator” is actually funny, leaving ample space for Chaplin to indulge in whimsical physical comedy even when the backdrop is anything but —diving into barrels, skipping along sidewalks daubed with hate speak, and as Hynkel, literally playing with the world (a balloon-globe) until it bursts and he throws a tantrum. But most remarkably, this film was developed before the outbreak of World War II and long before the Final Solution was enacted, and yet it is so uncompromising and so horribly prescient, even if the full extent of the oncoming evil was inconceivable. We can’t know what anyone will do in the future, but “The Great Dictator” proves we can make a pretty good guess, based solely on the present.
The Emperor – Various “Star Wars” Films 1980-2005
The “Star Wars” prequels didn’t achieve much of anything positive, but they did at least succeed in intriguingly fleshing out the backstory of one of cinema’s most iconic villains —Just probably not the one it was intended to. While Darth Vader was only lessened by his portrayal as Jake Lloyd’s gee-whiz boy inventor and then by Hayden Christensen’s petulant dust-kicking teen, the Emperor, the biggest big bad in a galaxy far, far away, was made a rather more interesting figure than the cypher-like guy from the original films. The Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is a shadowy figure until “Return Of The Jedi,” but we swiftly see his despotic leanings: he’s dissolved the Imperial Senate in the first film (a classic dictator power move), and tries to wipe out the threat posed by Luke Skywalker in the second. He moves front and center finally in the third, appearing in person with a second genocide-causing superweapon, and is ready to throw out his second-in-command, Vader, who’s becoming a threat to him (it ends poorly, with Vader dumping him down a shaft). The prequels show the depth and origins of his villainy, and it’s a path deliberately reminiscent of many real-world dictators: the Emperor was once Senator Palpatine, who manipulates his way into power, then stoking fears and pulling strings behind the scenes to firm up his position before in his own Galactic version of the Night Of The Long Knives, wiping out the Jedi and their allies. We might not really know what he stands for beyond ‘ruling the Galaxy’ (a common problem with “Star Wars” villains), but he’s one of the cinema’s worst dictators nevertheless.
Senator Iselin – The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)
Remember that moment a few weeks back (or in political terms, several decades) when the old chestnut “Would you kill infant Hitler?” actually became part of the discourse? Well, it’s a hypothetical that various films have dealt with. The closest is probably “The Dead Zone” (see below), but the same moral quandary issues also arise with John Frankenheimer‘s dazzlingly weird 1962 classic, “The Manchurian Candidate” (which comes to the Criterion Collection next week, btw). In a situation a little like the one we find ourselves in right now, what’s at issue is not what a current totalitarian leader is doing, but what an incipient one may do in the future, as well as the maneuvering and manipulation being employed to bring him to power. In Frankenheimer’s film (which is so much more surreally textured and creepy than the 2004 remake), it’s the relative innocent Raymond Shaw (a perfectly blank Laurence Harvey) who is brainwashed into attempting a presidential assassination so that Vice President Iselin (James Gregory) can assume the Presidency. However, the Communists behind the brainwashing are aided by the senator’s wife (Angela Lansbury) who just so happens to be Shaw’s mother, making this one of the most twisted mother/son relationships in cinematic history. Interestingly, though it’s only a small role, Iselin’s brusque manner is clearly modeled on famed commie-hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy, despite the fact that his wife is secretly one herself, but that points to the film’s real concern not being ideological at all. Though firmly of its time, “The Manchurian Candidate” is not so much about the Red Scare as it is about the corrosive nature of the pursuit of absolute power — it’s so rotten that it can pervert the most basic human decencies, even a mother’s love.
President Snow – “The Hunger Games”
It has its flaws —the love triangle, a damp squib of a final installment, the bit when Josh Hutcherson disguises himself as a log— but at its best, “The Hunger Games” series wasn’t just a dystopian sci-fi franchise of rare quality, but also one that grappled with real politics in a far more successful way than you might imagine for a so-called YA movie. And that was perhaps best exemplified in its treatment of the arch-villain of the series, President Coriolanus Snow, as played by Donald Sutherland. We get to learn little of his back story or rise to power across the four movies, but we don’t need it: Sutherland, equal parts avuncular grandfather, Serbian warlord, Roman emperor and Stalin, paints a portrait of a man of utter ruthlessness who’ll go to virtually any lengths to keep the have-nots at bay, especially if those lengths involve getting children to kill each other. The character is disturbing in a way that few blockbuster villains are, in part because he’s all too plausible a figure, and in part because of the deep well of sourness inside him. You don’t really get the sense that The Emperor really hates Luke Skywalker, or that Loki hates The Avengers, but any time Sutherland’s on screen with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, you see the absolute disgust with which he holds towards her and those like her. But Sutherland finds other notes to play: one of the few highlights of the last film is seeing Snow deposed, and as with so many despots when they’re stripped of the power, you’re left looking at nothing but a rather sad, pathetic madman.
Alfonse Simms in “Moon Over Parador” (1988)
There doesn’t seem to be a lot in common between Trump and Alfonse Simms, dictator of the fictional Parador, except peculiar hair and unnatural skin tone. But in one way, Paul Mazursky‘s otherwise breezy, disposable comedy provides insight into the current political climate: like Ivan Reitman‘s rather better “Dave,” it is founded on the idea that “power” is little more than the performance of power. Richard Dreyfuss plays struggling actor Jack Noah, who gets strong-armed into replacing Simms, the tinpot dictator of a banana republic, after Simms (himself a puppet) dies. The location allows Mazursky, who also co-wrote the film, to run through the Big Hollywood Handbook of Latin America cliches —corrupt military advisers (Raul Julia), tacky palaces, starving peasants, “communist” guerillas and impossibly curvaceous, sexually rapacious, manipulative mistresses who turn out to be both politically aware and morally courageous. Ok, there’s only one of those, Simm’s mistress, named Madonna, which is funny since she’s played by Sonia Braga channeling Evita Peron. The film has its flaws, not least its flashback structure which robs it of suspense, and its satire lacks the bite of other Mazursky titles, but it’s almost accidentally incisive about how in politics the clothes (and hair, and make up) make the man. It demonstrates the ease with which someone who has never earned it can rise in influence, simply by walking and talking in a certain way. And it builds to a gruesome prospect, one with more potential for both comedy and horror than Mazursky explores: the guy who wields power (propped up in this case by a shamocracy ) is not a cackling madman, but only an empty vessel —an actor rapidly getting bored with his role.
The White Witch – “The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” (2005)
As with their real-life equivalents, onscreen despots are overwhelmingly male, due to centuries of power imbalance between the genders, and also because men are literally the worst. But sticking up for women in the cinematic dictator world (joined more recently by Julianne Moore as President Coin in “The Hunger Games,” though she barely got enough time in power to really qualify) is The White Witch from the “Narnia” franchise, and most notably the first of the films, “The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.” As played by Tilda Swinton in a rare blockbuster appearance, the Witch (or Jadis, as she’s known to her friends) has been ruling over the magical kingdom of Narnia for many years, causing an endless winter to fall over the world (and worse, no Christmas!). She’s enslaved many of the creatures that populate the land, including wolves, dwarves and minotaurs, and turned many of her enemies to stone. A classic dictator in many ways, and thanks to Swinton, we see her seductive charisma as she wins over Edmund (one of the four children who’ve accidentally traveled to Narnia) with turkish delights and flattery, but her vicious side is never far from the screen. The Narnia movies were never that great, feeling cheap and overlit in many cases (and unable to overcome the preachiness of the source material), but whenever Swinton was onscreen, with her beehive dreads and polar-bear chariot, she provides the films with a villain far more intimidating than anything rival fantasy franchises “Lord Of The Rings” and “Harry Potter” could offer.
Greg Stillson – “The Dead Zone” (1983)
Martin Sheen’s Greg Stillson in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “The Dead Zone” is a slightly different figure from the others on this list. He never actually takes power, for one, and in the film’s timeline doesn’t get to wreak the kind of havoc that he might have otherwise. But for all that (and hopefully because of that), he might be closer to Trump than even the names above. Both King’s novel and Cronenberg’s film (one of the director’s most mainstream outings, but arguably one of his most entertaining) focus principally on schoolteacher Johnny (Christopher Walken), who wakes from a five-year coma to discover he can discover the past, present and future secrets of anyone he touches. Stillson, appearing late in the movie (he’s a joint main character in the book), is a senatorial candidate who, Johnny’s touch reveals, will go on to become President, and more specifically a ranting, raving president who will start a nuclear war (“The missiles are flying. Hallelujah, hallelujah”). Comparing it to the chance to stop Hitler before World War Two, Johnny goes on to attempt to assassinate Stillson: he fails and dies, but Stillson grabs a baby as a human shield and is exposed as a coward. While much of the character’s back story is dumped for the movie (kicking a dog to death, blackmail, threats of murder), Sheen gets across the perfect amount of wide-eyed mania and ego in the short screen time he gets, giving a performance that’s decidedly Trump-esque in retrospect, even if it’s surely a coincidence.
With the exception of Idi Amin (and that story is based on a fictionalized novel), none of our picks are based on historical figures —though obviously, Chaplin’s “Great Dictator” comes pretty close. However, two real-life card-carrying dictators have been portrayed recently, with rather hilarious results: Kim Jong-Il in “Team America: World Police” and Kim Jong-Un in “The Interview.” Similarly, Saddam Hussein cropped up in “South Park” and “The Devil’s Double,” Napoleon in 1926’s “Napoleon,” and Genghis Khan was portrayed by Tadanobu Asano in the pretty decent “Mongol” and by John Wayne in the dire “The Conqueror.” “Quo Vadis” portrays Nero as a despot, and “Julius Caesar” is very much about the threat of despotism, and of course, there’s the brilliantly definitive embodiment of Hitler by Bruno Ganz in the excellent, essential “Downfall,” along with myriad, mostly lesser portrayals, while Issey Ogata as Emperor Hirohito of Japan in Sokurov‘s “The Sun” is one of the most impressive and undersung performances of the century so far.
On the fictional dictator level, there are films that just missed the cut: obviously Sasha Baron-Cohen‘s “The Dictator” qualifies, but his finest moment was throwing ash over Ryan Seacrest at the Oscars so we scratched him out. We already had “The Manchurian Candidate,” so we dropped Frankenheimer’s “Seven Days in May“; there are a couple of potentials in the widely panned “Land of the Blind,” but that film is pretty poor, and Jodie Foster‘s turn in “Elysium” is horrifying for other reasons, and we didn’t want to muddy the waters. Finally, there’s Groucho Marx’s Rufus T. Firefly, leader of Freedonia in “Duck Soup,” but while he is a dreadful, dreadful leader, he is altogether too lovable for us to lump him in with the subject of this feature.
Over to you, then —what cautionary tales do you have on (tiny) hand to illuminate these dark days further? Or are you disgusted (because you can hardly be surprised) by our unapologetically anti-Trump bias? Let it all out in the comments.