Five Movies About Class Warfare
There have always been dividing lines in society, and the divisions take many forms, including gender, age, educational level, political and religious. But perhaps the most conspicuous set of dividing lines in any society is class — more specifically, the divisions that exist between the rich, the poor, and those who believe themselves to be somewhere in the middle.
Issues relating to wealth are particularly contentious because, unlike other divisions, it’s subjective and relative. For example, age and religion are what they are, but what amount of wealth makes a person rich or poor? A person is really only “rich” or “poor” in comparison to what other people have, so the urge to continue accumulating more and more, and to rise above other people, is virtually insatiable. And there are no bounds to what people will do to improve their class.
Inspired by the events surrounding Wyoming’s Johnson County War, Heaven’s Gate is one of those movies
John L. Bridges: It’s gettin’ dangerous to be poor in this country…
James Averill: It always was.
where a lot of people have heard (and perhaps even have an opinion) of it, but only a fraction of those people have actually seen it.
The story follows poor immigrant homesteaders who come into conflict with wealthy cattlemen and their mega-herds over issues of land rights and grazing access. The immigrants are generally honorable and heroic, while the wealthy business owners are ruthless, bordering on sadistic. No, it’s not necessarily an exciting premise. And Heaven’s Gate is not an exciting film. In fact, at many points the tempo seems impossibly slow; sometimes not moving at all. The infamous rollerskating scenes are particularly apt — circling around and not really getting anywhere.
Still, there’s something compelling about Heaven’s Gate. The deliberate pace, combined with the beautiful camera work and composition transport the viewer to Wyoming circa 1890. I didn’t feel like I was watching a movie. For better or worse, I felt like I was there.
If Heaven’s Gate didn’t have the history it did, with the huge financial losses, the horrible stories about directorial excess, and its supposed role in killing the New Hollywood, would it be as poorly regarded? And did the movie already have an insurmountable hurdle in front of it because we didn’t want to see this flavor of class portrayal at the dawn of Reagan’s America? Most of the poor immigrants in Heaven’s Gate were Russian, after all.
Eddie Murphy has been in a lot of very bad movies. Epically, catastrophically bad movies like The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Norbit (the latter of which somehow, shockingly, managed to do $160 million at the box office). He’s also been in a few very good ones.
Randolph Duke: Money isn’t everything, Mortimer.
Mortimer Duke: Oh, grow up.
Randolph Duke: Mother always said you were greedy.
Mortimer Duke: She meant it as a compliment.
Trading Places is one of those very good ones and, unlike a lot of 1980’s comedies, it’s stood the test of time.
The obscenely wealthy Duke brothers wager with one another on the outcome of a social experiment that they’ll conduct. They choose two men on opposite ends of the success spectrum — a princely young executive at their brokerage (Dan Akroyd) and a street pauper (Eddie Murphy) — and conspire to switch their places in society. It’s a “nature vs. nurture” bet to see whether circumstance and wealth builds good character, and vice versa. The subjects of the wager eventually learn that they’re being manipulated, and seek to turn the tables on the men who toyed with their lives so callously.
For all the hi-jinks, there’s a serious commentary here. Recall that in 1983, when Trading Places was released, the U.S. economy was a wreck. And for some, things haven’t really been good since then.
Is success a product of hard work, clean living, and a good education? Those certainly may be contributing factors, but perhaps a more important predictor is simply where a person starts out in the rat race. The further ahead a person starts, the more likely it is they’ll succeed.
Even though country club membership is no longer the status symbol it once was, it remains a powerful reminder of class division. Gated entrances, sometimes discriminatory admissions practices and prohibitively expensive membership fees all serve to segregate.
Danny Noonan: I planned to go to law school after I graduated, but it looks like my folks won’t have enough money to put me through college.
Judge Smails: Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too.
Caddyshack is ostensibly about a young caddy who’s struggling to decide the right path for his future, but the story bounces back and forth between a host of colorful individuals who work and play at a country club. The story itself isn’t particularly interesting, but at least we’re not presented with a tired “rich = bad; poor = good” dichotomy. Even some of Caddyshack‘s own promotional copy describes the story as “The Snobs Against The Slobs,” which suggests that while money may be the most obvious dividing line, there are other ways we can be classified.
The resiliency of Caddyshack isn’t in the overall story; it’s the talented actors who play their sometimes exaggerated roles. Bill Murray and Chevy Chase may be the top stars, but it’s Ted Knight’s skill playing the nasty Judge Smails that serves to hold together what would otherwise be just a series of funny set pieces.
Wealth divides us, and educational level is perhaps the biggest predictor (apart from the wealth of one’s parents) in how much money a person can expect to earn during their life. But, of course, wealth begets greater opportunity (and therefore wealth), so less affluent young people can easily feel like they’re not on the path to success.
Dave: Everybody cheats. I just didn’t know.
Dad: Well, now you know.
In Breaking Away, Dave and his friends have graduated high school but are still trying to figure out what to do next with their lives. They live in Bloomington — home to Indiana University — so they can see every day how good it is to be a college student, and how much better the future looks for college grads. They’re forever on the outside, looking in.
Dave is a gifted cyclist, but doesn’t have any other interests or direction in his life. So he takes the college life on something of a test ride by pretending to be an Italian exchange student and becoming romantically involved with a female student. And when the Italian cycling pros he idolizes come to town for a race, he enters with the dream of competing against them (and being accepted by them) as a contemporary. But the romantic relationship and the bicycle race with the Italians reveal painful lessons to Dave about who he really is.
After an altercation with some frat boys, Dave and his friends get the opportunity to ride in the “Little 500,” an annual bicycle race at the University. At long last, while staying true to himself and his roots, and finding himself in a fair race, Dave is given a chance to show that he has the strength and ability to compete. Finding the courage to believe that you can achieve right alongside those who begin life with a head start is difficult, but the only real way to elevate ones own status.
It’s tough to pull off a movie where the characters are so beaten down and desperate, and where their outlooks are so bleak, that you have absolutely no reason to be optimistic for their futures. Set in the Great Depression, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a brutal portrait of class division. A handful of desperate and hungry individuals compete against one another (in the form of a brutal dance marathon) for the entertainment of those who are thriving in the tough economic times.
Rocky: I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure as hell can spot a loser.
As it turns out, the worst part of of the contest isn’t that the participants are driven near (and even to) the point of death — it’s that even the eventual winner isn’t going to receive what they had hoped for. Their lives are a never-ending race to the grave, with the wealthy cheering them on, and there’s no way to come out a winner.
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