by Ramin Mazaheri for The Saker Blog
I’d say it’s a pretty low bar to be the greatest political movie off all-time….
Perhaps movies are just too sensationalistic by nature to give politics the seriousness it deserves? Maybe politics are simply too complex to condense into 90 minutes, less the time needed for a compelling love story?
What are the greatest political movies of all time?
Firstly, let’s exclude the documentaries. I’m talking about the pure art of cinema – documentaries are journalism.
This allows me to exclude what many consider the greatest political movie of all time –The Battle of Algiers – because it is told in a documentary form even though it isn’t one: the director is “hiding behind” journalism instead of taking full advantage of the dream-like medium of cinema. It is a superbly-told and sympathetic story of anti-imperialist revolution – the Algerian War for Independence – and thus was banned in France for years. It is also a stunningly effective depiction of urban guerrilla warfare, and for that reason it was screened at the Pentagon ahead of their 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet another good reason this could be the greatest political flick ever is because it is the only film to have ever directly caused an actual political coup: during the filming, with the army loaning tanks to increase the realism around the capital, Defense Minister Houari Boumédiène took advantage of the cinematic-caused confusion to stage a very real coup against President Ahmed Ben Bella. This is a little-known fact about the movie – I wonder how the writer and director felt about it? However, Algeria is doing much better at Islamic Socialism than people give them credit for and, of course, this is why Westerners will only ever read negative news reports about modern Algeria.
Let’s also exclude satires, because comedies have only one master – the laugh. That is no basis for any political ideology, but comedy’s inherent fatalism does serve capitalism’s demands for submission extremely well.
(The idea that court jesters should not be policymakers is an idea which Americans have not seemed to grasp, as many turn to satirical news shows – the real “fake news” – as their personal authority on the day’s serious events. After many, many years of taking fake satirical news extremely seriously, last month the comedian Michelle Wolfe produced a perfect send-up of faux-caring & faux-political comedians like Jon Stewart, John Oliver and a bevy of other fake leftists.)
Often cited as the greatest political movie is Stanley “Never Made a Bad Movie” Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which is indeed excellent. However, it’s mostly just a satire of a relatively innocuous subject – nuclear disarmament – and to re-watch it is to laugh rarely…but it’s still excellent.
Many political movies are pure Western propaganda. Gandhi somehow makes Jinnah the one responsible for India’s partition instead of England (and Gandhi (whom Indian leftists correctly refer to as the “patron saint of the status quo”)), and it lends all the legal and patriotic weight it can muster when portraying English massacres and crimes. Lincoln rewrites history by laughably making the mentally-unstable Mary Todd Lincoln the capital’s most effective political insider; this type of revisionist history which pretends that women had more political weight than they did – but they were just written out of history – is incredibly anti-feminist because it erases their very real marginalisation and suffering…but this analysis cannot be comprehended by the typical Western fake-leftist PC mindset. Democratic Party hero Meryl Streep shamelessly whitewashed Thatcher in The Iron Lady – “older women can’t get any good roles” was likely her selfish rationale, though she may not be leftist enough to understand why she needed a rationale. The People vs. Larry Flynt was a truly astounding promotion of pornography, and which misled young viewers about what free speech is even more than how pornography misleads young viewers about what sex is; pornography is banned in seemingly all socialist-inspired countries – Cuba, China, Iran, Vietnam, etc. – but it is not just rampantly available but adored in Western capitalist societies, which is probably why the film won at least 20 US & European film prizes.
Network, written by perhaps America’s greatest screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, is the greatest movie about journalism, so that’s in the running for the title. Apocalypse Now not only lays bare the running joke that was the American claim of honest political intentions in Vietnam, but also California nihilism as well; the Redux extended version is even better for showing the virulence of French imperialism, which amounts to “I have the guns & ruthlessness required to hold this land, so it’s now called ‘France’”. JFK from Oliver Stone is such a clear condemnation of America’s Deep State that it’s amazing he even got it made and distributed widely in 1991, a full 15 years before America even began considering the idea that they may have a Deep State.
The Manchurian Candidate is indeed a great movie, but it’s more of an improbable thriller with a political backdrop than an overtly political movie. A much better purely-political movie from the same era is the unjustly forgotten, Rod Serling-penned Seven Days in May, which dramatises the forgotten but fascinating story of perhaps the most rabid anti-socialist from the US, General Edwin Walker, who was allegedly shot at by Lee Harvey Oswald (before he put the voodoo on his “magic bullet” for JFK), and who served as the model for Dr. Strangelove’s insane General Jack Ripper.
I thought Syriana was an excellent political movie, and the best in a very long time. From the orchestrations of puppet master Dean Whiting (whose last name hides the race “White” and whose first name alludes to the stupidity of rule by collegiate technocracy), to the rich Texan’s exasperated corruption speech that American “Corruption is why we win!”, to the drone assassination of the lone progressive Arab sheikh who threatens to modernise his country – the movie contains many anti-American ideas which have been self-censored for many decades.
Spike Lee made two genius political movies: Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing, although the latter’s politics are not overt. The former could be considered the best, but the movie is essentially a documentary of a must-read autobiography.
The lack of overt politics allows me to exclude an entire genre I love and one which influenced seemingly all national cinemas: Italian neorealism. The fault with these movies is that they are too much art and not enough politics; too much entertainment and not enough resolving of political questions. Their politics are often so subtle that surely many miss that particular message. They’re often so subtle and desirous of criticising all sides that we’re not even sure whose side they are really on: Fellini, the greatest director of all-time, was in a Mussolini youth group, after all.
A good example of this is the movie Z, which I’d likely place alongside The Battle of Algiers as a contender with Death of Yazdgerd for greatest political movie ever. It should not be surprising that no English-language movie made my medal dais – there is no English-language country which has been remotely revolutionary or progressively political for centuries, if not longer.
The reason the movie Z only contends for the bronze is, while being a necessary takedown of anti-fascism and anti-militarism, it makes the mistake of believing (as do many “leftists” in the West) that being “anti” is enough to be revolutionary; that’s like saying the important revolution in 1917 Russia was in February (the ousting of the monarchy) when it was really in October (the groundbreaking installation of socialism). Western fake-leftists have this “being anti is enough” belief because they fundamentally support the bourgeois (West European) system and only seek to make minor modifications. I greatly appreciate that Z declares what it doesn’t want, but I don’t know what Z proposes – in the movie the political-moral centre dies, after all. Tellingly, the character demanded things everybody essentially wants, like peace (even though the movie was not set during wartime), fewer nuclear weapons, more hospitals and more schools. The very early demise of the moral-political centre shows that the author and director have no idea what to propose (being too timid to demand socialism), or was perhaps their symbolic admission of political bewilderment, and we should remember that there is plenty of postwar existentialist & nihilist film noir in Italian neorealism as well. The demise of the moral centre allows Z to start being what it really is: a law-and-order murder procedural, but with a political backdrop. That makes it more concerned with “justice” than with “politics”. Perhaps Z’s “merely anti” stance reflects the 1969 mantra of the West, which was ultimately just a failed cry of disillusionment and not a victorious demand for something (freedom from imperialism in Algiers, and freedom from monarchy and immorality in Yazdgerd). But Z is hugely political, dissecting the systemic failure of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois justice.
Elia Kazan made many great & honest movies about the US which were not overtly political, but the forgotten gem is A Face in the Crowd starring a totally-against type Andy Griffith. He swore to never again play such a negative character, and thus the movie is indirectly responsible for giving us that still-great TV show set in Mayberry.
They Live is probably the biggest cult movie on this list, and even though it’s rather a one-trick pony it’s something which I’m surprised didn’t come out of the USSR 50 years earlier. However, if it had it could not have possibly starred American professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the greatest “heel” character ever (although I was obviously partial to The Iron Sheik – Nikolai Volkoff tandem, mostly due to their well-thought-out – but never well-received – political diatribes directed at the audience.)
Many call Chaplin’s The Great Dictator the greatest political movie ever, but I’ve never been a big fan of his work and if I saw this I don’t recall it, like all of his movies. His vaudevillian style belongs to the 19th century and I just can’t relate, as I grew up with electricity.
But I am not insensitive to the charms of the olden days: Eisenstein’s October: 10 Days That Shook the World is stunning despite being a silent movie, and the famous and glorious scene of Lenin at the Finland railroad station (at the 10:00 mark here) should never fail to give chills to any socialist. I would also say that never has an actor looked more exactly like the historical figure he was portraying, LOL.
There are many leftist movies which are deliberately omitted from lists of “Top Political Movies”. The Grapes of Wrath is the definitive cinematic representation of the “American Holodomor”; it’s amazing how Ukrainians, Russians and Chinese died by the millions during that era but no American Dust Bowl farmers ever seemed to perish, not even the starving Joads or their many companions…at least that’s what they tell us. I cannot urge more strongly to re-assess what is often considered to be the biggest box office bomb of all time, Heaven’s Gate: I contend that the film gives such an obviously leftist and class-based reassessment of the Western settlement of the United States that it simply had to get a character assassination before it ever even premiered. However, at least it allowed director Michael Cimino to atone for one of the greatest counter-revolutionary movies ever, The Deer Hunter: the infamous Russian Roulette scene made the Vietnamese quite possibly the most ruthless, humanity-devaluing psychopaths in cinematic history, thus allowing 1978 America to feel justified about their (failed) invasion.
I talk about four political movies in this recent article which are often great but not the best: the unfairly maligned Soviet The Fall of Berlin; a mini-mea culpa but still elitist The Last Ten Days from Germany; the appallingly pro-Hitler Downfall, from Germany in 2004; and last year’s The Death of Stalin, which is not funny at all, unfortunately.
So I think we’ll agree – there are a LOT of movies produced decade after decade and yet we have a very, very short list of truly great political movies, all of which are rather flawed.
That brings me to Iran’s entry: The Death of Yazdgerd, which you can watch for free with English subtitles here and judge for yourself.
The movie is so good that this article will not include any spoilers whatsoever – that is how I much I encourage you to watch it!
But what is needed is just a bit of historical background – I’m sure many are asking, “What on earth is a ‘Yazdgerd’?” Great art encapsulates their time, and so we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the intended audience. This article will give just that information, and I’m sure viewers will at least not doubt me when I say that this movie explains and justifies the 1979 Islamic Revolution better than any other movie.
However, I can show how its genius is so universally-applicable & so necessary in 2018 that you might actually agree that it is also the greatest political movie of all-time.
Iran and cinema – no mere ‘mirror’ for society, but instruction & decision
Cinephiles know that Iran – pound for pound – produces more great movies than any other country. For decades they have routinely taken home top international prizes.
I think it’s somewhat unfortunate as movies are usually just a way turn off one’s brain – and clearly don’t produce very interesting political ideas – but cinema has undoubtedly become Iran’s main artistic passion. Iranian kids today, I’m telling ya…it’s all, “My cousin in Los Angeles says he is a producer! I wanna go to Hollywood!” Frankly, I have often joked that the entire Iranian Islamic Revolution was the singular result of seeing how terribly narcissistic our family members became after they moved to Los Angeles! “Oh no – we’ll have none of that over here, thank you! Somebody get Khomeini on the phone!”
Of course, most of the Iranian films which are lauded or even just distributed in the West seemingly have to meet a minimum quota of roughly 1.4 abused Iranian women per screen hour. But very few of our “not totally depressing” movies have snuck through the West’s mostly pro-Zionist film censors – like all socialist-inspired countries, Iran must be portrayed as gloomy, depressed, victimised, atrophied, etc.
It should finally be clear from this 11-part series that Iran was the world’s last great openly anti-capitalist revolution – it is only natural that their art would reflect that. This series is also essentially devoted to unveiling something Westerners on both the left and right have shown no inclination to admit: the obviously socialist nature of Iran.
But it is perhaps the world’s inability to see the global resonance of the Iranian Revolution which makes modern Iran so misunderstood. Despite the unprecedented role of religion, Iran’s revolution is as relevant and as applicable to every society as the great French and Russian revolutions; because this movie makes that universal relevance perfectly clear, it deserves the mantle of “the greatest political movie of all-time”.
Many will not watch this movie because they assume it is all about Islam, but that is not at all the case! This movie only subtly and very briefly supports Islam. The movie is far more focused on undoubtedly universal concerns: The Death of Yazdgerd is a two-hour machine-gunning of monarchy, aristocracy and outdated religion, with all these massacres being defended by the right of the People to wage class struggle.
Class warfare in 1978 Iran…not much different from class warfare in 578 BC Iran
This movie was written in 1979 but broadcast on Iranian public TV in 1982, with an all-star cast.
Frankly, it is a riveting but rather exhausting movie to watch: Just as reading Dostoyevsky is no walk in the park, the movie repeatedly exposes your own reactionary and thoughtless impulses. One is often struck on such a personal level that you feel compelled to stop and ponder your own sins, but unlike a book you cannot easily put a movie down and resume it when you have regained your equilibrium.
The movie first debuted as a play, and that explains why it is seemingly six hours of dialogue compressed into two hours of movie. The movie maintains a seemingly impossible fever pitch and tension throughout, and every emotion is played to its hysterical utmost. And why not – the movie is about a family on trial for allegedly killing a king. Surely that’s a moment of high drama!
But not just any king: Yazdgerd III was a real historical figure. He was the last in a thousand-year line of Persian & Zoroastrian-religion kings, as he was felled by the Arab Invasion and the Revolution of Islam. Like all Persian kings, Yazdgerd was the “king of kings”, but he was even more extra-ordinary than that; like Tsar Nicolas II or, more accurately, the Aztec Moctezuma II, Yazdgerd was the rare king who truly marked the absolute end for an entire cosmogony. Yazdgerd didn’t just get toppled in 651 AD – he was deposed by Allah…literally.
Of course, readers can understand that in 1979 Iranians were celebrating the exact same thing about Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
One should now see the genius of the author for drawing the historical parallel with Yazdgerd, who represents not just a societal “sea change”, but an incredible inversion of sea with sky.
The legend is that Yazdgerd III was killed by a simple miller at the behest of the aristocracy, who wanted to avoid the bad karma associated with killing “the Shadow of Ahura Mazda on Earth”. (Ahura Mazda is the sole god of Zoroastrianism, and this monotheism is why Zoroastrianism is tolerated in the Islamic Republic of Iran today – the fires in their fire temples have not gone out for 2500 years.)
There’s no need to change that fine story…unless you are that miller!
And the movie’s plot is essentially that: The miller and his family are forced into concocting subterfuge after subterfuge at their impromptu trial for regicide, with the goal of creating confusion about if it was the miller who killed the king in order to greedily ascend his throne, or if it was the king who killed the miller in order to hide from the invading Arabs.
The Miller, his Wife and Daughter don’t just spin a web, they spin webs within webs in order to save the family from the false justice of the 1%, as represented by an aristocratic knight, a graying warrior horseman, and a mubad (a Zoroastrian priest: called “magus” in Latin, the plural of which is “magi”). These are essentially the only six characters.
Sympathy for the miller…we can see this movie is a class-based retelling of the legendary death of Yazdgerd. And it’s not a movie-ruining “spoiler alert” to reveal the main message: we 99% have all been the Miller, whether under Yazdgerd, Shah Mohammad Reza, Moctezuma II, Louis I through Louis XVI, or any unelected monarch. My claim of “greatest political movie of all-time” becomes clearer when we remember that the Iranian situation prior to 1979 had not been any measurably different from anyone else’s: From the pre-literate time until 1979 (or even in 2018 for some nations) the People have been oppressed in the exact same manner around the world.
Every country without a modern, socialist-inspired government has always ultimately been ruled by feudalism, monarchy, thieves of your wages, abusers of your taxes, rapers of your women, murderers of your sons whom they send off to fight the elite’s wars, the unjust jailers of your nephews, the intimidators of your nieces, as well as by unregulated capitalism, bluffing technocratism, colluding holy men, bullying aristocracies, intellectual leaders who are actually anti-science, and other outright reactionaries who seek to retard social progress so they can jealously guard the gains of economic progress for only themselves.
A movie which uses a 20th century medium to demand modern political policies, universally
Those are (some of) the explicit points the movie tries to fit in – like some jam-packed Persian carpet. The author refuses to omit any of the monarchy’s / aristocracies atrocious crimes because an average Miller’s family would have been spared none of them.
That makes it an obvious defense of the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and an ideological massacre of the pro-Shah ideology which just fell. One need not be Muslim to grasp this nor to agree with it.
A common slogan in 1979 was “The Martyr Is the Heart of History”, and that’s because political history (without socialism) is actually timeless: the oppressor always exists in the same form, regardless of the date on the calendar. This movie, had it been written in 600 BC and in any part of the world, would have made the exact same points and described the exact same abuses of average person.
And that is what artistic genius achieves – cultural and historical universality. This is not a movie about Iran, Iranian-ness nor Islam – it’s a movie about politics, a universal human practice.
Such universality is only possible with a socialist worldview, and it is only socialism which universally speaks truth to power. In 1982 viewers around Iran undoubtedly saw the story of the Miller, his Wife and his Daughter and thought: “Well, come what may, at least I’m not forced to put up with THAT anymore.”
For the viewers in 1982 Iran, all of whom were involved in both revolution and under unjust attack by Iraq, it is made crystal clear the only way to break this feudal chain – on an economic and political level – is via the socioeconomic equality of socialism.
Iranians back then would also have easily comprehend how old religious ideas – which while being fundamentally sound have not benefitted from the wisdom of centuries of human experience – hindered the revolutionary, all-embracing unity and compassion of Islam and its concomitant Abrahamic faiths.
I don’t think you have to even watch the movie to agree: there is no other movie in history which has tried to make these points in such a 100% overt manner. There is no discreet charm here – this is a movie which demands to be listened to on the most vital of social issues, demands your sympathy for the Miller and his family, demands your condemnation for his oppressors, and demands you choose sides.
In that sense it is very much in line with the Brechtian philosophy of drama. However, instead of their totalitarian-style austerity and love of bitter irony, there is a culturally-Persian luxuriation in excessive and disorienting sentiment, as well their ability to effortlessly evoke the highest emotional raptures and the lowest wraths as only committed monotheists can.
The movie is Joycean in not only its rapid shifting of time and consciousness – as the Miller’s family is constantly donning and discarding the persona of each other (i.e., the Wife now plays the role of the Daughter, the Daughter now plays the role of the King, etc.) – but in the staggering amount of political detail contained in the incredibly dense dialogue.
The final point which must be made is to note how amazingly it captured the essence of its time: I would LOVE to discuss the final scene, and how it so starkly encapsulated Iran’s exact situation in 1982, and how truly breathless it must have left every single one of its viewers…but that would be to spoil it for you. Again, if a viewer considers the situation of 1982 Iran, the ending’s intense, quaking urgency will be abundantly clear. All I can say on this score is: it is stunning how universally applicable and yet how also immediately appropriate the film was upon its release – most works of art can’t even satisfy just one of either category.
If this movie was only politics…it wouldn’t be a ‘movie’, would it?
Call up all your favourite Italian neorealism-inspired films and I contend that Yazdgerd still holds the crown of crowns.
It has to work on the level of mere entertainment: Well, there are only six characters but two hours of intense dialogue. The family is trying to outwit their judges in order to save their lives, therefore they are forced to employ a dizzying array of intellectual gambits. Even an astute viewer will have difficulty keeping track of what is what, who is who, and which Rashomon-like reality is being recounted to the judges at any given time. Even if one is not prepared with the necessary cultural background to fully enjoy it, the movie is relentless from start to finish for the simple fact that there is no capitalist-feudal horror which is not realistically and accurately presented: Murder, rape, starvation, cheating, lying, deception, theft, humiliation, sickness, alienation, poverty, agitation, distraction, swallowed shame, death of children, etc. (and all cause by the lack of socioeconomic & political equality).
It has to work on the poetic level: Poetry is nearly a national birthright for Iran, so you symbolic-types can rest assured that the classic poetic and cinematic language & semiotics are presented in master form. The writer and director, Bahram Beyzai, is the son, nephew, grandson and great-grandson of notable Iranian poets. Beyzai is perhaps Iran’s greatest playwright and one of the most influential movie directors – he is obviously not just another political ideologue.
It has to work on the psychological level: Should we really kill the “king” – our ego? What happens afterwards, then? How did our king get this way and who are we really? Even humble Millers are not exempted from asking such questions. When I become too confused by such human questions I will take heart from a superb line in the movie: “A man who is lost is still also a man.” That’s just one example of the pithy philosophical writing in the movie, and over such a huge range of human experiences.
There is also plenty of humor: “No one has ever disobeyed the King of Kings,” shouts the CEO, excuse me, the aristocratic knight. “Oh really?” questions the Miller’s wife, “Then order the Arab army to retreat!” The lampooning also gets serious and sharper: “Do you put kings at the same level as bandits?” The laugh-to-keep-from-crying response: “Unlike kings, bandits show mercy to the poor.”
Furthermore, the movie is also an in-depth examination of the only other institution as revered in Iran as Islam – the family. This reverence doesn’t make Iran unique in the slightest, but its addition is another element which makes the film so great. Without getting into spoiler specifics: Force a father, mother and daughter to talk and recount their lives for two hours – and to play-act the roles of each other – and it would be impossible for family politics to not surface. Iranian social life is inextricable from family life, so of course the author has salient things to say in what is truly the junior topic of this movie.
Indeed, innumerable other topics besides “political” politics are broached and commented upon: marriage politics, parent-child politics, gender politics, sexual politics, puberty, money, gossip, etc.
The reason this explanation of Revolutionary Shi’ism is so universal is because: while its pro-socialist propaganda could not be more blindingly obvious, its pro-Islam propaganda is so subtle that it is likely missed by many viewers. This is a political tract and not a religious one…but it also got approved for mass broadcast amid humankind’s only other Cultural Revolution for a reason. Can you tell which two lines of dialogue likely clinched its official approval?
But, again, the massacring of feudalism (and thus capitalism) does not necessarily have anything to do with Islam because the former is universal whereas Islam is region-specific. That’s why this movie should be required viewing for any nation with a monarchy. Any nation which is a republic has the right to feel superior, but they should watch it to remind themselves of our shared humanity & what will result by reactionary backsliding. The entire Western Hemisphere, lacking any monarch (save Queen Elizabeth II) should watch it as well because they wiped out all the aboriginal monarchies (while under the banner of West European monarchies, of course, so no credit is due).
“Once the king dies, the nation is dead,” is a line from the movie but we can never forget that it was a universal & rock-hard belief for millennia – how many of your sociopolitical-economic beliefs stem from that era, and how many come from after Marx? For the Miller’s Wife, and for modern Iranians, that line provokes grinning disbelief: “What is this I just heard…?”
Incredibly, in Western Europe and many other places such a line produces misty-eyed, reactionary conservatism. That is a huge political problem in 2018; economic problems cannot help but follow, as a result. Iran resolved this problem in 1979, and that is the ultimate point of this movie, which stands as a testament to this political fight which claimed countless billions of martyrs, prisoners & victims since time immemorial.
Even if, as doubters claim, religion only exists as a cautionary tale to spur proper social choices, The Death of Yazdgerd is the greatest political movie ever because it so clearly shows what humanity got and will continue to get by refusing the socio-economic, ethnic and political equality only offered by socialism and never by capitalism: To watch it is to be converted to political modernity.
What other movie can possibly make such a claim?
Greatest Political Movie of All-Time – The Death of Yazdgerd.
This is the 10th article in an 11-part series which explains the economics, history, religion and culture of Iran’s Revolutionary Shi’ism, which produced modern Iranian Islamic Socialism.
Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
‘The Death of Yazdgerd’: The greatest political movie ever explains Iran’s revolution (available with English subtitles for free on Youtube here)
Iran détente after Trump’s JCPOA pull out? We can wait 2 more years, or 6, or…
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.