Almost a year ago a Canadian film, Ticket to Heaven, was released but was shown in only a few theaters in the United States. Its protagonist was a young man who, lacking assurance and independence of mind, became involved in a religious cult. Through the charismatic personality of cult leaders and the repeated chanting of slogans, the cult gradually transferred control of his mind and will from himself to the cult. His parents hired someone to kidnap him and forcibly deprogram him while he was locked up in a bedroom over a period of weeks.
Now an American film has appeared, Split Image, with an almost identical plot: the vague dissatisfaction with life, the emotional dependency on the approval of others, the psychological attraction of the cult, the quelling of doubts, the enforced rituals, the kidnapping, the deprogramming. The best scenes in Split Image are those involving actor James Woods (the killer in The Onion Field) as the determined deprogrammer, whose behavior induces revulsion but at the same time a certain grudging admiration for the effectiveness of his methods.
Split Image contains several powerful scenes, but it is no better than its much less publicized predecessor. The most dramatic part of the story, the deprogramming, is in fact more convincingly done in Ticket to Heaven than in Split Image. Example: when the new recruit in Ticket accompanies the seasoned veteran of the cult selling flowers on the street to raise money, he is told to say, "It's for our drug rehabilitation program." But after the sale the new recruit says, "But that's a lie—we don't have a drug program." The veteran smiles sympathetically: lying in the service of a good cause is all right. "That was Satan's money—we just got it back again, to use for God." But how can God command lying and stealing? "Ah, you're doubting again—doubts come from Satan," and they kneel on the sidewalk together to pray that no more doubts shall cloud the mind of the new recruit. Later, during the deprogramming, it is these very doubts, never fully suppressed, that are played upon to get the ex-recruit to reclaim his self-identity. In Split Image, by contrast, the means employed to deprogram are more physical than mental, and they carry less conviction. There is less emphasis than in the earlier film on getting the subject entrapped in his own inconsistencies, and hence the newer film misses an opportunity (fully exploited in the earlier one) to generate a unique tension and power. Both films, however, deal intelligently with the same subject, and both are eminently worthy of being seen.
In most respects Inchon is an extraordinarily bad film. The script contains more tired clichés than any other in recent memory. The dialogue would have seemed inane even in 1930. The plot—the part dealing with the personal lives of the participants, not the military operations—is simplistically contrived. Example: when a nice officer has both a wife and a mistress, and the background is war, you can be sure that one of the two will be killed before it's over, and predictably this happens. In real life, General MacArthur, the central character in this film, was eloquent in speech and master of the bon mot; in this film, many of his pronouncements have been reduced to religious platitudes and remarks worthy of a functionally illiterate high school dropout. And Laurence Olivier as MacArthur has substituted for his British accent a form of American speech so flat and dreary that the real MacArthur would have retched at the sound of it.
Yet there are reasons for some people to see this film. Like another aesthetic turkey last year, Lion of the Desert, which dramatized to most audiences for the first time the horrors of the Italian invasion of Libya in the 1930s, this one tells the story ($50 million worth, with no expenses spared) of the savage North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 and culminates in a step-by-step presentation of the counterattack at Inchon by the UN forces, under virtually impossible conditions, to cut off the invader at the most strategic point. MacArthur's invasion plan was one of the most brilliant strategic moves in military history, and it is thoroughly detailed in this film.
This is a stridently anti-Communist film, and those critics who can forgive the anti-Communism cannot forgive the stridency. Nor can they forgive the financing of the film by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, though it was done not as propaganda for his religious cult but as a cinematic record of the invasion of his country, lest the world forget that it ever happened. The ordinary viewer, who is quite indifferent to critical acclaim or condemnation, is not likely to forget it. It isn't as good as reading history, but it's something.
Increasing numbers of citizens are unhappy with the current government. Some become revolutionaries and start shooting people down in the streets to replace the established order. The prime minister declares martial law in order to deal with the revolutionaries. But in doing so the government increasingly uses the same methods as the revolutionaries: some innocent people are shot; others are rounded up for interrogation and confinement without trial. Gradually the moral distinction between the two regimes becomes blurred. What is the individual to do who is caught between these conflicting forces, threatened by each with torture and death if he does not attempt to discover and disclose the secret plans of the other?
Sleeping Dogs is a minor but well-done political thriller from New Zealand that it would be easy, but unfortunate, to miss. It illustrates some of the recurring problems involved in political allegiance. If you need order through law, and the law or its methods of enforcement become more and more imperfect, should you go along with those who want to change it by force, including the use of methods of which you disapprove? And in the process, what happens to the revolutionaries themselves, who begin as idealists but end up as despots who would use any kind of terror to squelch those whom they oppose? The film shows dramatically why it is that violent revolution usually causes a regime that is semi-totalitarian to be replaced by another that is totally totalitarian and how the ideals of even the most conscientious and nonaggressive people become corrupted by the methods they are made to use as they seek to institute changes.
John Hospers teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".