Recently, promotion began on the upcoming comedy, The Interview. The film is starring James Franco and Seth Rogen and the story follows a TV host (Franco) and his producer (Rogen), who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un after securing an interview with him. As it turns out, North Korea doesn’t quite have the sense of humor that Hollywood was banking on. Instead, Jong-un has issued more than one complaint and even some threats against the US government. According to The Guardian, he has stated that, should the American government fail to stop the film from being released in October, he will have to consider the film an “act of war”, and retaliate accordingly. So far, his threats have been taken rather lightly, and there have been no plans made to ban the film.
But this is not the first time the American (or another) film industry has lashed out against dictatorship. Hitler, Hussein and even former North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, have all been confronted on the big screen, again and again. The approaches are innumerable. Some use comedy as a way to degrade, or emasculate known dictators, while some use historical fiction to right their wrongs, or punish them. There are also those who use fictional characters to represent recognizable dictators, to challenge all at once. But one thing holds true across the board – they are bold, relentless and unapologetic. Here are 8 of the most well known films meant to challenge dictators, and the concept of dictatorship altogether.
8. Inglourious Basterds
This 2009 Tarantino pic is a co-production with Germany, which might just make it a little more satisfying. While Germans have been accused for years of crimes such as Holocaust denial, here we have a film that not only confronts the issue of Naziism, but manipulates history so as to assassinate the perpetrator – Hitler. The film was a huge success, and until Django (2012), was Tarantino’s highest grossing film, with a box office intake of over $320 million. Despite its popularity, it has been met with some criticism from French and Jewish media. It has been described as “lacking moral depth”, and has a demonstration of Tarantino being “lost in a fictional world”. Still, many people appreciate a good-old-fashioned Hitler assassination.
7. The Devil’s Double
This 2011 bio-pic depicts the story of Latif Yahia, a man who was supposedly forced by Saddam Hussein’s army to act as a body double for his son, Uday Hussein. The drama takes an in-depth look at the lavish and vicious lifestyle of Hussein’s regime. However, criticism of the film is founded on the fact that there is no evidence that this story is actually true. IGN has said of the film, that it is a “fresh perspective on one of the Middle East’s most brutal dictators.” However, the LA Times was unimpressed with its relentless violence. With a limited release, the Belgium-Netherlands co-production pulled in nearly $5 million at the box office.
6. The Dictator
Some may find it difficult to make light of the overwhelmingly violent nature of dictatorship, but not Sacha Baron Cohen. In his 2012 film The Dictator, he mimics no one in particular but instead, chooses to poke fun at the notion of dictatorship as a whole. By belittling his character through comedy, Cohen allows the first-world audience the opportunity to indulge in what we tend to view as “ridiculous,” in the developing worlds. Reportedly, Cohen based his character on Kim-Jong il, Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi and Saparmurat Niyazov. Roger Ebert praised the film for its cleverness and said, “in a speech about dictatorships, he practices merciless political satire.” Many countries have softened the film with extreme censorship policies against it, but it still brought in almost $180 million at the box office.
5. The Last King of Scotland
This 2006 UK/US drama depicts Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. The story follows a fictional Scottish doctor who becomes Amin’s personal physician, and it is named for Amin’s habit of presenting himself with lavish and undeserved imperial titles. The film is highly acclaimed, with its winning numerous awards, especially Forest Whitaker, for his portrayal of the dictator. It has been praised for historical accuracy, and even went over well with Ugandan audiences. Despite its limited release and R-rating (for strong violence, language, and nudity), it ended up making nearly $50 million at the box office.
4. Team America
Written by the writers and creators of South Park, it’s no surprise that this 2004 satirical-comedy pulled out the big guns. Unwilling to hold back in any capacity, the film attacks Kim-Jong il for his dictatorship and sends in Team America: World Police, to stop him from executing a major terrorist attack. It not only speaks against dictatorship and terrorism, but has also been noted as attacking leftist ideals, as well. The film has since been added to the National Review’s list of “The Best Conservative Movies.” Expressing Libertarian sympathies, the film also sparked the concept of the “South Park Republic.” It has also been accused of mocking the war on terror – which might not be an insult to the creators. Ultimately, it was something of a success, bringing in just over $50 million at the box office.
This 2004 German war-film is set in 1945, and follows the final 10 days of Hitler’s reign from the point-of-view of Traudl Junge, his final secretary. The film was quite controversial in Germany, where the topic of WWII was still rather sensitive. A German tabloid even asked, “Are you allowed to show the monster as a human being?” The depiction is considered by some to be too sympathetic, as it humanizes him, and shows his effective struggle during the final days leading to his suicide. Roger Ebert wrote, “I do not feel the film provides ‘a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did’, because I feel no film can, and no response would be sufficient.” Nonetheless, Bruno Ganz’s acting itself has been praised, and the film made over $90 million at the box office.
2. Pan’s Labyrinth
This 2006 Guillermo del Toro picture is as much historical-drama, as it is dark-fantasy. The film depicts the cruelty of Franco’s Spain form the perspective of a young girl whose new step-father is Franco’s top-ranking officer. Although Franco does not appear within the film as a character, Captain Vidal is a more than acceptable stand-in. His ruthlessness perfectly captures the spirit of dictatorship, and it is all the more emphasized by the use of young Ofelia’s point-of-view. The film is to be considered a parable, and so it’s fitting to have Captain Vidal be killed, rather than a Franco character itself. The film was a major critical success and with releases ranging from limited to wide, it managed over $80 million at the box office.
1. The Great Dictator
The “Godfather” of satire, The Great Dictator was the first film to explicitly attack Hitler through parody. It is arguably the foundation upon which all of the other films on the list have been made. The 1940 film was Chaplin’s first “talking picture” and his most successful. It was released at a time when the US was still officially at peace with Nazi Germany, but it spoke to a growing anticipation to speak out against Hitler’s regime. Since 1997, it has been preserved by the National Film registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” This is a highly politicized piece of work, as is all of Chaplin’s filmography, that paved the way for films like The Dictator, Team America (and now perhaps The Interview), which use satire as a form of political activism.