The Top Films Every Libertarian Should Know
by Jo Ann Skousen | Posted July 27, 2015
Film has the power to change minds, often by changing hearts. Libertarian films are about choice, opportunity, and knocking down obstacles — in any setting. They demonstrate the power of persuasion over the force of authority. Libertarian films often point out the unintended consequences of government intervention, but they are just as likely to present a protagonist's personal struggle for self-expression. They show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.
At this year’s Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, 18 films were screened to packed audiences. We also presented several panels on topics related to film. For one of our sessions I invited four film enthusiasts to present their recommendations of the top films that every libertarian should know. Then, as a follow-up to the panel, I asked each participant to send me his recommendations for this article. Here are their selections, from the messages they sent.
Gary Alexander, who has served as an Anthem Libertarian Film Festival judge since its first season, is a music and movie historian whose weekly radio show provides insightful background as well as provocative music choices. He offered his top libertarian films in chronological order, presenting an historical look at the way freedom and individualism have been presented in film. He began with 1939, the year often called “the golden age of movies.”
Last year I watched all the major films of 1939 because it was their 75th anniversary. My pick from that year is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, director). It was #3 in box office that year, behind only Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It reveals political corruption in an era of idealism.
1963: America, America (Elia Kazan, director). This is the American Dream personified in a young man. The protagonist, an ethnic Greek living in 19th-century Turkey, is entrusted with the family fortune to start a carpet business in Constantinople, but he dreams of emigrating to America.
1965: Shenandoah (Andrew V. McGlaglen, director) was in the top ten for box office receipts in a year dominated by The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago, and James Bond. Set during the Civil War but made at the height of the Vietnam conflict, it presents draft resistance in an honorable light.
1988: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, director). Tucker was a maverick car designer who faced crony capitalism as he tried to bring his revolutionary car to market.
2011: Atlas Shrugged 1 (Paul Johansson, director). This film has to be included for its pure libertarian theme. The film’s producer, John Aglialoro [who spoke at FreedomFest on “Wall Street Goes to Hollywood: The Risks and Rewards of Making Movies”], said that he wants to do a 13-week mini-series based on "episodes" within Objectivism, Ayn Rand's works, or even Atlas Shrugged, thoughnot based in a linear storytelling narrative, per se. This might provide a better way to present the overarching themes of Rand’s works. We the Living (1942, Goffredo Alessandrini, director) would be a superior Rand film, but I want to give Atlas a belated boost.
Libertarian films show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.
As an aside to the power of libertarian movies, I was just watching a taped Stossel show when a member of the audience asked Lawrence Reed [President of the Foundation for Economic Education and another speaker at FreedomFest] how he found the courage to spread freedom literature behind the Iron Curtain. Reed said, "It may sound corny, but it came from a movie." Stossel responded, "Yes, that sounds corny. What movie?" and Reed replied, "In 1966, when I was 14, my mother dragged me and my sister to Pittsburgh to see The Sound of Music. Then, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, I saw that Austria was next door and I wanted to help undermine the communists as the von Trapps did to the Nazis.”
So . . . I don't feel so silly bringing up musicals on the panel, including Sound of Music.
Doug Casey, an entrepreneur and investment specialist known to libertarians everywhere, was one of the original judges for Anthem and always provides interesting insights for the film panels. This year he focused on genre rather than specific films.
There are two genres that are overwhelmingly libertarian: westerns and sci-fi. That's likely because they both deal in frontiers, where the individual is responsible for a situation’s outcome. They tend, therefore, to be morality plays. And libertarianism is essentially a moral philosophy. One favorite Western is High Noon. And in sci-fi it's tough to beat V for Vendetta. Characters within films are very often libertarian as well, in particular Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, which is kind of a western. And Han Solo from Star Wars. It's odd, and counterintuitive, to me that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.
Marc Eliot is known as “Hollywood’s biographer” because he has written biographies of many of its biggest names, including Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant, and John Wayne. He has served as an Anthem judge for four years and is a popular speaker at FreedomFest. His choices run the gamut of Hollywood’s best films.
1. A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan, director). A premier libertarian film about, among other things (many other things), the insidiousness of big government, how it has tentacles in every aspect of our culture. It examines the link between politics-free entertainers and how they affect the popularity of candidates. A supremely important film, and highly entertaining.
2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel, director). One of the strangest and most intense love stories of the ’50s, set in a world where everyone is supposed to be the same. The loss of individuality here is a bold metaphor for the infliction of political correctness via big government. Should be seen by all. Love is the film's solution, and its shocking ending underscores that real love is the antithesis of imposed sameness. The tacked-on opening and closing were mandated by the studio, Allied Artists, after the film tested too frightening. It still is, filled with all the fear and paranoia of the glorious ’50s, Hollywood style.
3. The Best Years of our Lives (1947, William Wyler, director). The first and still the best film that looks at the way the Greatest Generation was treated after it helped save America and the world from Fascism. What was it like when the soldiers came home, and how difficult it was for them to readjust? What role did the government play, if any, in making their transition back to civilian society? The harsh way the three principal characters are treated is an eye-opener, and perhaps even more relevant today. Also, Wyler's use of deep focus allows the film to remain ambiguous in its depiction. One of the great ’40s Hollywood films.
It's odd, and counterintuitive, that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.
4. The Godfather (I and II, but not III) (1972, 1974, Francis Ford Coppola, director) is the story of a mob family that is the story of Corporate America ("It's business, Sonny, business"). One might wonder where the government is in all of this, apparently invisible because the Corleones are the government. Even in the second film, when the hearings into organized crime take place, the senators are already in the family's pocket. These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.
5. Modern Times (1936, Charlie Chaplin, director). The final appearance of The Tramp, caught in a world so mechanized that he becomes a living machine. Chaplin's vision of oppressive authority and an ever-increasing mechanical, or technological world, is well worth watching. One of the funniest and most profound films of the ’30s.
6. The Ten Commandments (1957, Cecil B. DeMille, director) deals with a higher authority even than big government, and one of the very few films to deal with Jews as victims. The film was made in the decade following the Holocaust and serves as both a memorial and a cautionary tale. Hitler was the ultimate non-libertarian, and this film reminds us that religion, faith, and righteousness will prevail over governmental enslavement. Still holds up; actually gets better with age.
7. The Searchers (1957, John Ford, director). The individual lost in a society that services the big government of the post-Civil War. Ethan (Wayne) was on the losing side of the war and as a result has lost everything. He returns home to retrieve the last of his life. Ford lets us know that Ethan's sister-in-law is probably his former lover, and that Debbie is not just his niece but, in fact, his daughter. When the house is burned down by the Comanches and they take Debbie, what follows is the ultimate chase film. Ethan tracks down Debbie to preserve his own past, or to destroy it. We don't know until the end of the film if he will kill Debbie or save her; if he will preserve the values of the union or make it, and him, slip into spiritual anarchy. A great film.
These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.
8. Vertigo (1957, Alfred Hitchcock, director). Not a libertarian film, but everybody should see Vertigo at least five times in life. The only film that treats lost love as something that is never truly lost. Hitchcock may have resembled Burbage but he was the 20th-century Shakespeare.Vertigo is the kind of deep, beautiful, and profound experience the Bard would have approved of. A lesson in repressed feelings, delusional love, fetishistic fatalism, and blind worship. There is simply no other film like Vertigo. I could teach an entire semester on Hitchcock and hardly scratch the surface. A Brit, he flourished in his American period, when British filmmaking came under threat of Nazi attack and much of the best talent fled to America. See it!
9. High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann, director). The granddaddy of Dirty Harry, this is a film that shows how the invisible hand of big government controls our lives. When it becomes known that the bad-guy Miller gang (led by Frank Miller, who has been pardoned from life imprisonment) are returning to town to seek their vengeance on Marshal Will Kane who arrested Miller, the judge who sentenced him packs his bags and flees, warning Kane that when tyrants who have been defeated return, they are always treated like heroes. Life is always better, for a while, when tyrants rule. Sure enough, the town fails to help Kane, because "the boys up north are watching, and they won't want to invest in a town that is still having shoot-outs in the streets." So much for friendship, loyalty, and support. When Kane throws his badge on the ground (an act that got the writer of the film, Carl Foreman, blacklisted), he turns his back on the town that left him to die. The best ride off into the sunset forever. A must-see. And a very libertarian film.
10. All The President's Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula). Film follows history; it is not avant garde. Here is the ultimate story of government gone crazy, and the power of journalism to help keep democracy intact. Not really a political film, more of a spy-type thriller. Enjoyable even if you've never heard of Watergate. Perhaps too liberal for libertarians, it nevertheless says that tyranny is vulnerable to a constitutionally protected free press.
Stephen Cox is editor-in-chief of Liberty and professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. He also is a film buff who knows the classics. He approached the panel assignment thematically.
Let’s begin with Rosalind Russell movies. If you want an uncompromising satire of (elected!) political power, His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks, director) is it. "Aw, go on, you'd hang your own mother to be reelected — and you know it" is one of my favorite lines. Auntie Mame (1958, Morton DaCosta, director) is the apotheosis of a free individual. Best of all, for libertarians, is Roughly Speaking (1945, Michael Curtiz, director). Roz is an entrepreneur whose investments, but not her individualism, always fail. She keeps coming back. "This is America!" she says.
I also like movies with challenging problems for libertarians. In Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles, director) Kane is simultaneously a power-hungry politician, of whom one of his friends says, “It seems we weren’t enough; he wanted all the voters to love him, too,” and an individualist who says, "There's only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do — and that's me." Red River (1948, Howard Hawks, Arthur Rosson, directors) is a story constantly concerned with problems of property rights. It’s also fraught with theological issues, although that's off topic: the Red River is the place where blood is sacrificed so that the protagonist can continue to the land of promise; the father figure resembles the judgmental Old Testament God and the son figure resembles the heroically self-sacrificing New Testament God; etc.
Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication. I would include The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, directors), which is the ultimate drama of ballet, and All About Eve (1950, Peter Sullivan), which is the ultimate drama of the theater.
And now for me, Jo Ann:
I was fascinated by the scope of films offered by our panelists, and I was pleased to see that they reached beyond the obvious films about opposing government. Libertarian heroes are not necessarily activists working for a cause. They are individuals who follow their own paths. They do not conform to the expectations of others. When something goes wrong, they fix it themselves. When something goes right, they give credit where it is due. Libertarian stories may occur within any family, community, or industry. They do not have to be set in a dystopian future! Here are some modern films that ought to become libertarian classics:
A perfect example from 2013 is 42 (Brian Helgeland, director), the movie about how Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman) broke the race barrier in sports. It wasn't a government edict that integrated baseball; in fact, the cops tried to keep Jackie from taking the field in some venues. No, it was a businessman, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who recognized that he could sell a lot more tickets, win a lot more games, and possibly earn the World Series title, if he hired some talented African-American ballplayers. No one forced him to do it, and no one forced the other managers in the League to follow suit when they saw that they couldn't compete successfully without black ball players. It was just plain good business.
Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication.
Another great example appears in the Oscar-nominated movie Winter's Bone (2010, Debra Granik, director). The protagonist, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), is a 17-year-old girl living in the backwoods of Missouri and struggling to keep her family together after her father skips out and her mother becomes incapacitated. When her little brother notices the neighbors skinning a freshly killed deer, Ree cautions him, "Don't ever ask for what ought to be given freely." That night the neighbor brings over a shoulder of meat and some potatoes and onions. On her way out, the neighbor says, "I noticed your woodbox is low. You can use our splitter if you want." As the neighbor leaves, Ree says to her little brother and sister, "Who wants stew?" When they look up eagerly she adds, "Then get over here so I can show you how to make it."
This is the story of "The Little Red Hen" in action. Ree knows the importance of teaching her siblings self-reliance. The neighbor brings meat because the Dollys don't have any. She doesn't cook it into a meal, however, because Ree is capable of doing that herself. The neighbor lends the splitter but doesn't offer to cut the wood, because Ree and her brother can do that too. The neighbor helps the Dollys of her own free will and choice, but she respects Ree's dignity and character too much to offer her more than what Ree can't do for herself. What a great example of libertarian values.
Another unlikely libertarian hero appears in the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al Mansour, director, previously reviewed in Liberty. The title character (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons about the goodness of Allah.
But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to Western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean).
Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. In many ways the bike represents what girls can do, given the same tools and opportunities as boys.
Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and, with a determined voice and a winning smile, convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes current gratification when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store in order to save for her big purchase.
Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through.
Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price. So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Koran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Koran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.
Wadjda presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.
But to return to our panel discussion — what happened then is what always happens: all too soon we were ushered from the room by the next event, just as our audience was warming up with selections and offerings of their own. So what are your favorite libertarian films? What did we leave out?
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature and writing at Chapman University and Sing Sing Correctional Facility. She is the founding director of the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, which is part of FreedomFest, “the world’s largest gathering of free minds.” You may reach her at email@example.com.
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