You may think that most Hollywood blockbusters are designed purely to entertain punters and make a load of cash. Well, you may be surprised that some of the most popular movies ever made often have hard-hitting political messages woven throughout them.
Below are seven hidden meanings in films that might surprise even their biggest fans.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
What it’s about: A plucky group of rebels fight against an evil space empire.
What it’s REALLY about: The Viet Cong fight the American empire.
When George Lucas began work on ‘Star Wars’ in 1971, the Cold War was at its height, as was the conflict in Vietnam. Many fans of the franchise believe that the ‘Star Wars’ was a political message about the Cold War, but in a 2005 interview Lucas confirmed that “’Star Wars’ was really about the Vietnam War.”
In interviews for DVD extras conducted for the original ‘Star Wars’ series, Lucas even said that he thought of the tiny, peaceful Ewoks as like Viet Cong fighters battling against the might of the American war machine. Lucas said, “That was the period where Nixon was trying to run for another term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”
Not content with one analogy between his own space opera and America’s wars, Lucas drew attention to the similarities between President George W Bush and the rise of Senator Palpatine in the film ‘Star Wars VI: Revenge of the Sith’ and the war in Iraq. Fans have highlighted in particular Senator Amidala’s line, “This is how liberty dies: with thundering applause.”
The Lord of the Rings
What it’s about: Men battle hideous orcs and their armoured leader, Sauron
What it’s REALLY about: The Battle of the Somme
When World War I broke out, J. R. R. Tolkien was mid-way through his studies at the University of Oxford. He deferred enlisting in the army until he had finished his degree, but signed up in 1915.
A year later his unit was sent to the Battle of the Somme, where 60,000 British soldiers died one day during the infamous ‘over the top’ trench assault. Overall, nearly a million people were killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
Speaking later of his experiences in France, Tolkien simply said, “It was like a death.”
Tolkien’s survival of the Somme was in part due to the fact that his unit was held in reserve, seeing action weeks into the conflict, by which time British troops had broken through the German ranks.
As he recovered in hospital, Tolkien wrote his first Middle-Earth story: a strange, stand-alone tale featuring dragons which were half beast and half machine. These dragons are a metaphor of the tanks, which the British used in the mud of the Somme. Peter Jackson’s depiction of Saruman’s orcs being created recalls this imagery of animal fused with metal, as does his metallic, robot-like depiction of the villain Sauron.
In letters to friends, Tolkien admitted that the hellish marshes which the heroes of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ splash through were directly inspired by his experiences of France. In a letter, he wrote, “The Dead marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”
Peter Jackson’s bleak, blasted Mordor also recalls the landscapes of World War I. At one point Sam and Frodo hide in a ditch which resembles a shell crater. The imagery of real, human war is also present in the battle of Minas Tirith, and the Ring Wraiths riding in triumph through the ruins. Both Tolkien’s book and Jackson’s film dwell on this destruction.
Observers have also commented on the significance of the One Ring, which is widely considered to represent the atomic bomb.
What it’s about: A giant monster rears up out of the seas
What it’s REALLY about: Hiroshima
The original black and white ‘Godzilla’ film was made in Japan in the early Fifties, when the country was still reeling from the twin nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The original ‘Godzilla’ films were directed by Ishiro Honda, who had just served in the Japanese army, and returned convinced of the futility of war and with a horror of atomic weaponry.
The first ‘Godzilla’ film includes scenes with scientists carrying Geiger counters taking radiation readings from Godzilla’s radioactive footprints, and the monster is revealed to have been created in a nuclear explosion.
When this news comes out, some characters immediately argue that it must be kept secret. For Honda and his Japanese audience, the real villain would not have been hard to discern: the escalating Cold War, and in particular the arms race between America and the Soviet Union.
In 1954, the year ‘Godzilla’ came out, America had just detonated the most powerful hydrogen bomb it would ever set off at its testing ground on Bikini Atoll. The test was meant to be a secret, but a huge cloud of radioactive fallout dust blew over nearby islands, giving their inhabitants radiation sickness. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the first victims of the radioactive Godzilla are also Pacific islanders.
Atomic weaponry is mentioned in 18 of the 25 fantasy films Honda would go on to make. These include genre classics such as ‘Godzilla vs Mothra’ and ‘War of the Monsters’.
The War of the Worlds
What it’s about: Terrifying alien creatures invade Earth
What it’s REALLY about: Terrifying Europeans colonise the world
Written in 1898, the science fiction classic ‘The War of the Worlds’ has been filmed many times, but in none of those versions, nor the 1996 film ‘Independence Day’ (which takes many of the themes of the book) would a viewer suspect that the aliens are in fact meant to be white Europeans, and the plucky humans battling them are meant to be Aborigines.
The book was written to horrify readers with a vision of what it would be like if Europe were confronted by a contemptuous, technologically superior force – much in the manner the British Army had as it colonised countries around the world. Wells, a lifelong socialist, was particularly horrified by the war of extermination waged against the Aborigines in Tasmania by British colonial forces.
In the novel, Wells writes, “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination. Are we such apostles of mercy, as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
According to his biographer, former Labour leader Michael Foot, Wells poured his scientific knowledge into the book in an attempt to horrify white Europeans with the idea of technologies far in advance of their own.
The alien craft and walkers in the books and films were conceived long before the first tanks fought in World War One, and Wells, a trained biologist, also dreamed up beam weaponry such as lasers, long before such things existed, and the use of chemical and biological weaponry.
Author Wells kills off the alien foe with Earth bacteria. In ‘Independence Day’, a computer virus is substituted. But in the novel, Wells can’t resist one last dig.
The aliens’ last words refer to how their war machine would “fight no more for ever.” It’s a direct reference to the last words of Native American Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce as he surrendered to American forces in 1877: another victim of a Western war of technological domination.
The Dark Knight
What it’s about: A deranged terrorist, The Joker, battles Batman and the police
What it’s REALLY about: The War on Terror
Even in the comics, Batman is a dark, changeable figure who is psychoanalysed by the Joker in the classic ‘Arkham Asylum’. In Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’, despite a truly chilling villain in the form of Heath Ledger’s cackling Joker, it’s no longer clear who the bad guy really is. Is it the psychopathic terrorists who attack Gotham, or is it the increasingly draconian authorities? Parallels with America’s War on Terror run through the film.
The first parallel is the shift from the regular comic book bad guys that shoot lasers from the moon in order to take over the world. This time the threat was more sinister. The Joker blew up public buildings (including a hospital) and convinced weak criminals to become suicide bombers.
Once this realistic threat was established, more similarities can be compared. The Joker drives Attorney Harvey Dent to evil and eventually death, the Harvey Dent Act is put into law in his memory, giving police extra-judicial powers against criminals. It’s a direct echo of the Patriot Act, an Act of Congress signed into law by George W Bush in 2001, giving the authorities increased powers of surveillance and wire-tapping after 9/11.
The questionable ethics of this are highlighted further by Batman’s bank of surveillance equipment that enables him to spy on everyone with a mobile phone and use it as a 3D map.
There’s also the scene where Batman forcibly extradites Lau (a criminal accountant) from Hong Kong and delivers him to US officials which directly mimics the CIA’s methods.
Legendary film critic Roger Ebert wrote of the Dark Knight, “Throughout the film, [the Joker] devises ingenious situations that force Batman, Commissioner Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent to make impossible ethical decisions. By the end, the whole moral foundation of the Batman legend is threatened.”
A comment that can be directly compared with the increasingly questionable methods the US Government are employing in the War on Terror.