The new movie The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about the Irish struggle for independence in the early 1920s, has beautiful Irish cinematography and effectively shows us the poverty of Ireland, the commitment of the rebels, the conflicts inevitable in any political movement, and the brutality of the British occupiers. Critics complain it goes overboard on that last point. Michael Gove protested in the Times of London that it portrays the British Black and Tans as “sub-human mercenaries burning thatched cottages, torturing by using pliers to rip out toenails [actually fingernails] and committing extreme violence against women.” It’s not the first movie to be criticized for making the British out to be more brutal than they actually were. Mel Gibson’s The Patriot depicted the British army herding all the residents of a town into a church and then setting it on fire. Never happened, historians say.
But hey, the British Empire committed plenty of crimes over the centuries, so I’m not so upset that the Australian right-winger Mel Gibson and the English left-winger Ken Loach may have overreached on the details. What I’m wondering about is, Where are the films depicting Communist atrocities?
Anti-Nazi movies keep coming out, from Confessions of a Nazi Spy and Hitler, Beast of Berlin in 1939 and on through The Great Dictator, The Mortal Storm, The Diary of Anne Frank, Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, right up to the current Black Book. And many of these have included searing depictions of Nazi brutality, both physical and psychological.
But where are the anti-communist movies? Oh, sure, there have been some, from early Cold War propaganda films to such artistic achievements as The Red Danube, Ninotchka, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Killing Fields, East-West, and Before Night Falls. But considering that National Socialism lasted only 12 years in one country (and those it occupied), and Communism spanned half the globe for 75 years, you’d think there’d be lots more stories to tell about Communist rule.
No atrocities, maybe? Nazis and Brits were vicious, but Communists were just intellectually misguided? Well, that seems implausible. They murdered several times as many people. If screenwriters don’t know the stories, they could start with the Black Book of Communism. It could introduce them to such episodes as Stalin’s terror-famine in Ukraine, the Gulag, the deportation of the Kulaks, the Katyn Forest massacre, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Hungarian revolution, Che Guevara’s executions in Havana, the flight of the boat people from Vietnam, Pol Pot’s mass slaughter—material enough for dozens of movies.
Lloyd Billingsley wrote about the great stories, the great villains, and the great books that might inspire movies about Communism:
“Though of global dimension, the conflict encompasses millions of dramatic personal stories played out on a grand tapestry of history: courageous Solidarity unionists against a Communist military junta; teenagers facing down tanks in the streets of Budapest and Prague; Cuban gays oppressed by a macho-Marxist dictatorship; writers and artists resisting the kitsch of obscurantist materialism; families fleeing brutal persecution, risking their lives to find freedom.
“Furthermore, great villains make for great drama, and communism’s central casting department is crowded: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hönecker, Ceaucescu, Pol Pot, Col. Mengistu—all of cosmic megalomania—along with their squads of hacks, sycophants, and stooges, foreign and domestic.
“A few English-language films have drawn on this remarkable material, especially book-into-film projects based on highly publicized works, among them One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (a 1971 British-Norwegian production) and, of course, Doctor Zhivago (1965). But many other natural book-to-film projects remain untouched, from the story of Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (who left Russia for the West) to works by such high-ranking defectors as Polish Ambassador Romuald Spasowski (The Liberation of One), KGB agent Arkady Schevchenko (Breaking With Moscow), and persecuted Cuban poets Armando Valladares (Against All Hope) and Heberto Padilla (Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden). In light of the most recent revelations concerning the espionage of Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers’ Witness is another obvious candidate.”
Some might say that the Soviet Union is no more, this is ancient history, and we should let bygones be bygones. But Ken Loach’s new movie depicts events of the 1920s, and the Nazi regime fell in 1945. The Soviet Union continued until 1991, and communism continues in Cuba, China, and Vietnam. Besides, as the great historian Lord Acton knew, the historian must be a moral judge. The muse of the historian, he thought (in the words of his colleague John Neville Figgis), is not Clio, but Rhadamanthus, the avenger of innocent blood. The victims of communism, and its heroic resisters, deserve to have their stories remembered.