Today in Movie History: December 29

It was a good day for bad men at the movies, starting with Sergio’s Leone’s legendary The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, released in the U.S. on December 29, 1967. Leone wrapped a strange anti-war message into his farewell to The Man with No Name, as well as providing the great Eli Wallach with his finest role.

Sam Peckinpah had his own thoughts about humanity’s capacity for violence — some good some bad, but always compelling — and perhaps found his most troubling expression of it in Straw Dogs: a story of the limits of pacifism and the sad fact that self-defense remains a necessary right. It opened today in 1971.

If those boys weren’t bad enough, then there’s always the greatest monster in literary history. 1995 saw a fresh new take on William Shakespeare’s Richard III hit theaters today, with England remade as a fascist dictatorship and Ian McKellen delivering perhaps the finest performance of his career as the titular ruler. Annette Bening, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne and Robert Downey, Jr. also lent their talents to the production.

Finally, there’s Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking, an examination of the death penalty that won Susan Sarandon an Oscar and came damn close to scoring one for Sean Penn as well. People who shy away from the film because of the shrill politics of the principals will be surprised to see how even-handed it is: respecting both sides equally and presenting a take on it that ferments fruitful discussion instead of preaching at us until we scream. It opened the same days as Richard III, in 1995.

Movies for the Resistance: Richard III

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Robert Downey Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, John Wood and Dominic West
Directed by: Richard Loncraine
Running time: 110 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1995


William Shakespeare had a lot to say about the nature of power, and our current political climate reminds us again how pertinent his dark lessons remain. Pundits have recently taken to comparing Trump to Lear, for example: howling into the storm about fake news or the Dems or whomever made him feel like a not-a-big-boy that morning. And certainly, the palace intrigue in this hopelessly compromised White House would make properly sudsy melodrama were it not for the racism and nuclear codes and whatnot. But when thoughts turn to the Bard, and his unique way of pinpointing the flaws in human nature that bite us again and again, they inevitably settle on Richard III.

Writing this, I honestly wondered if I would besmirch Richard’s name by comparing him to Trump. I mean, sure, he’s the most fiendish villain in literature, but at least he had brains. He could play the long game (though he proved dreadfully short-sighted in the end), he had an eye for honest self-assessment, and he never underestimated his enemies. Trump is like the clownish mutant clone they grew from an excised wart on Richard’s hump: capable only of seething about the Horrible Brown People and tweeting public expressions of cruelty. Even so, shades of the one appears in the other’s DNA.

Richard is a creature of pure political ambition, willing to literally murder small children to take power and callously betraying any of his helpers when they cease to be convenient. Winning is all that matters to him; victory for its own sake propels him to acts of unspeakable personal cruelty to match his political despotism. He wants it all, he wants it now, and nothing else in the universe matters to him. Ian McKellen’s take on the character bears particular relevance to Trump because of his fascist trappings, cutting a bloody swath across a reimagined England of the 1930s. The vanity, the self-regard hiding crippling insecurities, the ability to mask pure hate beneath a shockingly crude façade and somehow still hustle it past a whole lot of people who should know better… yeah, we’ve seen WAY too much of this guy lately.

Consider, for example, Richard’s conquest of Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas): the freshly minted widow of the man he just killed. He melts her, woos her, claims her heart, and dances away through a crowd of indifferent onlookers… bragging all the while and utterly indifferent to who hears him. It’s an act of pure ego, conducted solely for the sake of “winning.” He certainly doesn’t love her. He desires her only as a trophy of his own prowess and the final defeat of his enemies.

He applies the same-all-or-nothing approach to seizing the crown itself, which requires the wholesale murder of multiple heirs ahead of him. More importantly, it means sowing enough dissent and confusion to provide cover for his butchery. He’s far more eloquent than Trump (he has a better speechwriter) and even then he doesn’t fool many people (Annette Bening’s Elizabeth never bothers to conceal her crawling skin). But his loyalists stand by him and happily conduct all manner of villainy in exchange for his proffered rewards. With his public bluster and hyperbole as cover, the obstacles to his rise fall one by one.

The madness in his method bears familiar trappings as well. Richard is so concerned with victory at all costs that he never ponders what to do with the throne once he has it. He has no taste for governing and no agenda beyond his own self-aggrandizement. (The fascist trappings come into the forefront here, from Richard’s mini-Nuremberg rally to the absurdly pompous portrait hanging above his desk.) Having conquered the state – even become it to some extent – it now exists in his mind solely to do his bidding. Exercising power means simply stating his wishes and waiting for others to fulfill them.

The irony is that the skills required to win the crown are ill-suited for governing. Trump’s obsession with his compromised Election Night victory reflects the same fallacy. Focusing exclusively on “winning” leaves you unable to act on what you’ve won: seeking the next enemy to vanquish instead of the will to actually accomplish something, and turning his presidency into a toxic disaster in the process.

Richard III lays out the same path in stark and inescapable terms. Having gained so much by acting so selfishly, Richard cheerfully ignores the notion of sharing the spoils. The same zeal that drove him here in the face of so many challenges now turns on those who helped him get there. He now throws them under the bus with cheerful abandon and continues to demand ever more outrageous gestures of fealty from those foolish enough to remain. One by one, they fall away, leaving him bereft of allies when his foes finally close in.

One cannot help but think of Richard’s bloody fate as a preview of coming attractions. We don’t know how our current mad king’s reign will conclude, though he seems destined to self-immolate in some appropriately spectacular fashion. But even if he goes with a whimper rather than a bang, his bloody marks remain on the nation foolish enough to elect him. Again, Richard proved better able to assess the threats against him than Trump, though his acumen comes far too late to save him (or Britain, which he’s claimed as spoils and desecrated in the process). One can only assume that Trump – possessing neither Richard’s political craftiness nor his gift for words – will fall back on cruder and more inept acts of defiance as the noose continues to tighten.

Richard’s fall gives reason to hope that we can halt this poison before it destroys what’s left of the body politic. But we can’t escape the damage, nor forget when it cost us in the process. Trump’s core supporters seem keen to back him at all costs in the face of ever-growing opposition. They’re going to spread the fire as far as they can before the end, following their leader “if not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.” It’s up to the rest of us to ensure they don’t take anyone else with them.

Today in Movie History: March 11

There’s nothing quite like a villain, and nobody could do them like William Shakespeare. I confess I prefer Ian McKellen’s take on his bloodiest king, Richard III, but Laurence Olivier had his own version of it, and it’s well worth a look. It opened today in 1956.

And hey, if scheming kings are your thing, then you get a double dose today. Peter Glenville’s Becket opened today in 1964, featuring Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Richard Burton as the close friend who decided that God’s commands outweighed his king’s.

We’ll stretch back a lot earlier for the next one. Warner Bros helped launch the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals with 42nd Street, based on a popular Broadway play and featuring choreography form Busby Berkeley that helped set the standard for generations to come. It opened today in 1933.

Finally, before he changed movies forever with Star Wars  — and then earned the title Devourer of Childhoods with the prequels — George Lucas put himself on the map with the brilliant Orwellian fable THX-1138, which opened today in 1971. Among its other joys is seeing the first seeds of the themes that would blossom more fully in that galaxy far, far away.