More Libertarian Movies


Tim Cavanaugh already mentioned one of my nominees for the next libertarian film festival: Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), a dissident Cuban comedy that feels like Kafka crossed with Laurel and Hardy. Here's a few more suggestions:

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964): Fans of Hammer horror usually neglect this movie, largely because director Freddie Francis isn't as capable as Terence Fisher, who helmed Hammer's other Frankenstein films. But I adore the story, which treats Peter Cushing's Dr. Frankenstein—a contemptible figure in the subsequent series—as an individualist hero driven by his love of scientific innovation. He runs into three characters who represent three different sorts of villainy: government repression, religious superstition, and corporate fickleness. (An entrepreneur of sorts is initially helpful but proves susceptible to—how shall I put this?—non-market pressures.) If I liked Rand I'd call the movie Randian.

Theodora Goes Wild (1936): One of my favorite screwball comedies, this picture mocks small-town prudes and censors—then turns around and mocks the thinly masked parochialism of those self-styled urban sophisticates who look down on small-town prudes and censors.

Death Wish (1974): I made the case that this was libertarian here.

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997): Errol Morris' best documentary. It's all about spontaneous orders.

The Gleaners & I (2000): Another documentary. I suppose it's more left-anarchist than anything else, but rightward-leaning libertarians ought to appreciate it too. I wrote a bit about it here.

The Oklahoma Kid (1939): I'm still trying to figure out how this one got past the Hayes Office. It's the sort of western most people believe was invented in the '60s or '70s. Jimmy Cagney's character denounces laws, governments, empire, and the treatment of the American Indian … and he's the hero. Not a great movie by any means (aside from White Heat I'm not a big Cagney fan), but it's a fun curio.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): Another anarchist western. Clint Eastwood's best picture.

The Wizard of Oz (1939): Someday I'll write a long essay on all the libertarian themes in this film. For now I'll just note the pleasure of watching a movie that can distinguish giving someone a diploma from giving someone a brain.

NEXT: Makes Me Wanna Ralph

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  1. Easy Rider!
    I can’t believe no one thought of it. I didn’t either, I just noticed it when I looked to see how anyone could claim “Death Wish”. I reject most nominees, sure you can impose libertarian ideas on just about any film, but that’s not (or shouldn’t be) the point.

  2. I can’t believe no one thought of it.

    I guess we blew it, eh?

  3. Somebody beat me to Brazil (While I was typing it, actually.) But I don’t think anyone has mentioned Repo Man.

    Enforcing property rights, just barely keeping it legal.

  4. The Wizard of Oz Silver Standard fo’ life, yo!

  5. What about “The People Vs. Larry Flynt”, “Glory”, “Traffic”, and “Braveheart”.

  6. Shock Corridor should also be on the list.

  7. How about — Harold and Maude? Ferris Bueller? Fear and Loathing? Office Space? Up in Smoke? Trainspotting?

  8. I started thinking about Sam Fuller, and I came across this bit of dialogue from “Pickup on South Street”

    “There’s a big difference between a traitor and a pickpocket, but very little difference between the cops and the Reds, or the Fascists, or the Mafia, or anyone who tries to make all the rules.”

  9. Brazil gets my vote, too.

    I’ll probably get crucified for this, but I’d also put The Matrix (the first installment) on the list, for what it says about ideology as a cloak for power interests.

  10. Volunteers with Tom Hanks and John Candy might be a good one. The hero flees to southeast asia as part of the peace corps to escape gambling debts. The peace corps is going to build a bridge for a small village (which the village isn’t really that wild about). Others are interested in the bridge, namely the american military/intelligence, communists, and a drug lord. In the end he wins against all of them and it finishs with him going to build a bar in the village (with alcohol, drugs, and gambling if I remember correctly).

  11. What about Brewster’s Millions? None of the above would be a great choice for this presidential race. Or is that Nader?

  12. Easy Rider!

    And don’t forget the movie that came before it and brought Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper together, The Trip! (1967)

    Its pretty tough to find a copy of this film, but if you can, the LSD trip depicted in the film is still far better than anything done in Fear and Loathing. Word was, Peter Fonda ate several hits of the Sunshine Acid during filming of the trip sequence.

  13. “The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): Another anarchist western. Clint Eastwood’s best picture.”

    I would like to humbly suggest that High Plains Drifter is an even better picture. No Name comes in and gets hired to protect the rights and property of towns people, who are dominated by a useless mayor, a pathetic clergy, etc.

    Also, it’s one of the few Eastwood westerns that don’t feature a gang rape. Why does he always have to have a gang rape?

    I mean, sometimes, he cast his wife. I imagine him saying something like, “Honey, that was great, but we’re gonna have to shoot it again. So this time with FEELING…okay?”

  14. Rudy

    An inspiration to get off your ass and make your dreams come true.

  15. Yeah, the Wizard of Oz hardly counts as a libertarian flick. It’s basically an assualt on hard money. The cowardly lion = W. J. Bryan of Scopes trial fame. Oz itself = oz. as in ounces. The wizard was Mark Hanna, etc. etc.

  16. Against All Flags (’52): Errol Flynn’s last good swashbuckler is set in a pirate republic. Includes a pirate recruiting poster with a great line: “No prey, no pay.”

    The Promoter (’52): Alec Guinness invents a discount/credit card. A very pro-free-enterprise film.

    All at Sea (’57): Alec Guinness buys a run-down amusement pier and fights local authorities to make it work.

    Passport to Pimlico (’49): During subway excavation, an ancient treaty is discovered which makes a London neighborhood a sovereign territory.

  17. The Shawshank Redemption always struck me as a deeply libertarian movie, which is why it’s so nice to see it on top ten lists everywhere.

  18. Forgot to mention: the pirate republic in Against All Flags is called “Libertatia,” which may or may not have really existed, depending on who you read.

  19. I saw a poster in one of the schools I work in that said “Is the Wizard of Oz the story of the populist party?” I didn’t know the answer, does anyone here?

  20. “Smokey and the Bandit.” The hero is a fast-driving bootlegger. The villain is a law-enforment officer. The police are depicted as uniformly incompetent or worse. And I think this was Karl Hess’ favorite movie.

  21. I’d like to nominate Fight Club for its message of “Think for yourself damnit !”.

  22. The Trip is indeed great. I’ve only seen it once but I think about it often. Holding an orange: “It’s like the sun in my hands, man.” Peter was hot.

  23. Regarding Oz,

    The book was written during a recession; Bryan was advocating moving off the gold-only standard and including silver. This would, he thought, give farmers easy access to credit. (He claimed that farmers were being crucified on a cross of gold.)

    The tornado represented the silver movement, the scarecrow represented agricultural workers, the tin man represented industrial workers, and the cowardly lion probably represented the mood of the country.

    The yellow brick road represented the gold standard and, in the book, Dorothy’s shoes were made of silver. To get home, she clicks her silver heels together, and silver saves the day.

    It’s a libertarian story in some ways, they all find what they’re looking for in themselves rather than in Washington D.C.(The Land of Oz). But the author IS advocating dumping the gold standard.

    I don’t think of Nixon as a good libertarian; we’ll probably rebuild the trust in the president we had before we see the end of the results of him dropping the gold standard.

  24. As far as I can tell this is the definitve essay or Oz being populist propaganda by Henry M. Littlefield, in case anyone is interested. We read it (or at least a similar one) back in high school.

    And in case you like that kind of stuff:

  25. Whether or not you buy the theory that Baum’s Wizard of Oz was a silver-standard fable — I don’t think it is, but I love that interpretation just for its weirdness value — the movie clearly doesn’t share those politics. I mean, geez louise, they changed the silver slippers to ruby!

    Anyway. I’ve got to second the nomination of Passport to Pimlico. And I think someone mentioned another great libertarian Alec Guiness comedy in the other thread — The Man in the White Suit. Rent them both.

    Franklin Harris is right about Smokey and the Bandit: It was Karl Hess’ favorite movie. It belongs in the same film festival as Up in Smoke and Sam Peckinpah’s bizarre trucker flick, Convoy, which isn’t all that good but still is much better than any movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw has the right to be.

    But Against All Flags? It’s been years since I saw it, but by my recollection the pirate sells out at the end. Watch the wonderfully perverse Captain Blood instead.

    (Against All Flags was inspired, incidentally, by a Daniel Defoe tale that purported to be true and still attracts some believers. The same story was among the inspirations for William Burroughs’ novel Cities of the Red Night.)

  26. The law and freedom fight it out in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). Lee Marvin plays Liberty Valance a cold and cruel representative of the anarchistic and lawless old west. Jimmy Stewart, plays the soft-hearted but determined lawyer from back east. When Stewart tries to civilize the old west, it takes John Wayne to do the dirty work of paving the way for the demise of his own way of life.

  27. Mark,

    Any movie that bashed Mark Hanna and the government’s legal tender laws, to me, is pretty libertarian.

  28. Kurosawa’s Ikiru (just out on DVD). The story of a middle-aged Tokyo bureaucrat who discovers he has terminal cancer. He spends the time left trying to find some meaning in his torpid life. To the dismay of the other slugs in city hall, he decides his redemption lies in getting something significant done for his constituents.

    It’s a lovely film, somber but also witty and humane. It’s also shot through with libertarian themes (and a few hilarious jabs at city hall turds).

  29. It’s amazing to me that I am the first to mention THE CIDER HOUSE RULES.

    The elder hero delivers the illegal service the public needs and demands, risking his medical license. The younger hero does the same, and needs no stinkin’ license.

    And those who live in the cider house don’t have to follow rules written by someone who does not.

  30. “I don’t think anyone has mentioned Repo Man.

    Enforcing property rights, just barely keeping it legal.”

    Shultz, we went over this whole repo thing a couple of days ago (in regards to the Canadian Dude who took the 24 mo. smoking jail sentence, instead of the 20 mo. smoke-free one.) It turned out I was right again and all …

    Even so, that one sounds like my kind of movie. Anyone seen Midnight Run? Not libertarian, but a kick-ass road movie nonetheless.

    You gonna nominate Hogan’s Hero’s next, eh Shultzy?

  31. “I’d like to nominate Fight Club for its message of “Think for yourself damnit !”.”

    I’d like to de-nominate Fight Club after seeing the preview:

    “First Rule of the Fight Club:
    You DO NOT tell anyone how bad the movie sucks!”

  32. Executive Suite by Robert Wise
    CEO of a major furniture manufacturer dies on a Friday afternoon and the board of directors (A Old School exec, a Visionary, an asskisser, a number cruncher, etc) spends the weekend choosing a new one. An explortion of the forces that send big companies in certain directions. William Holden, Walter Pidgeon, Nina Foch, June Allison, and Barbara Stanwyck.

  33. “To Kill a Mockingbird” 1962

    Besides just being an absolutely beautiful novel, the movie is also one of my top five faves. Anyone here familiar with it? Its a must see.

  34. I already wrote an essay on the Wizard and Libertarian themes:

    Unfortunately it was my resignation from the party basically because of their cowardice. Local and international.

  35. My distaste for Randroids notwithstanding, how can you forget “The Fountainhead” on a list of Libertarian movies?

  36. I’m not quite sure about the “Wizard of Oz.” Maybe it carries some libertarian themes, maybe it doesn’t. All I know is that it is a poorly made movie that puts me to sleep every time. “Brazil” is definitely my favorite, but I’m surprised nobody has mentioned “The Hours,” with its overall theme of self determination. Another interesting Japanese movie dealing with determining your own fate is “Fireworks.” A retired Tokyo cop who’s spent his career fighting the Yakuza, faces an unbeleivable life and death decision in the final scene, and the best part is that you have to figure out for yourself what happens after the fade to black.

  37. In “Road Warrior”, a hard-working little group sets up a business under most difficult circumstances. Then the liberals show up, raving about peace and sharing while they try to kill everyone in their way. The little group defends itself against the weirdest collection of homicidal maniacs this side of the ACLU national office.

  38. I hope STRAW DOGS will be strongly considered. Also, GATTACA is entertaining and has an interesting neo-Randian theme.

  39. “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997): Errol Morris’ best documentary. It’s all about spontaneous orders.”

    Is it? Where’s the spontaneous order in the lion tamer bit? Or the topiary gardiner? I took it as an investigation into the limits of empathy, and the human meaning of change (loss, progression, devolution/evolution, ect – all as one).

    How about Battle Royale as a libertarian movie? It’s the future, and the government (through the votes of Japaneese adults – read: majority) deals with rising unemployment and high rates of high-school dropout by forcing 9th graders to battle to the death on a booby-trapped island. Doesn’t make sense, which is why the govt. is a credible vilian. Tons of material here to spin into a libertarian essay. Also, a kick-ass performance by Takishi Kitano.

  40. Jessie,

    The only problem I have with that explanation of FCaOOC is that I didn’t learn anything about emergent order other than from Rodney Brooks, and possibly a bit from the photographer talking about the mole rats. They all relate in some way to emergent order, but it hardly has any broad emotional resonance in the film – or, from what I remember of the editing justopositions, any intentional investigation of the concept as a whole. I would place emergent order as a facet of the film’s investigation into man’s relationship to nature (very interesting in the film since the impression of nature one gets from each of the subjects is different).

    Also, as John Zipps mentioned, Ikuru should be on any libertarian list.

  41. I love Ikiru but the fact that its hero is a lifelong bureaucrat might mitigate against it. I have referred the case to the Council of Libertarian Elders.

  42. Fast, Cheap is another one of those movies that deserves a full essay. Someday I’ll watch it again and make my case.

    In the meantime, here’s my short answer: The mole-rat guy studies a emergent order of beasts; the robot guy tries to create a emergent order of artificial beasts; the topiary gardener tries to tame a emergent order by creating artificial beasts; and the lion tamer just tries to tame beasts. The acts of taming, in the latter cases, require you to enter a process that’s, paradoxically, out of your control, producing its own sort of emergent order.

    Saying more than that would require that full essay I was talking about…

  43. I’ve always thought the principals – Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachgook – in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans were at the least libertarian, at the most anarchist. Also, settlers like John Cameron and Jack Winthrop seem to have had a good grasp of the libertarian (individualist) ideal.

    I find the film highly quotable, too, but it’s forever being neglected on lists like these.

  44. Anyone old enough to remember an episode of the original Star Trek TV show called “The Apple”? It aired in 1966, season 2. It’s a great illustration of how I think many libertarians see the US, and what they’d like to see happen.

    The crew beams down to a planet where all the sheeple think everything’s just great. There’s this “Protector”, Vaal, a machine the sheeple all believe is god (much like the US government and many citizens view the US government). Vaal protects the citizens from all evils, including themselves. Vaal senses trouble when the Enterprise and crew show up, so it caps a few security guards, and starts reeling the ship in with a tractor beam.

    The people have everything they’ve been brainwashed into thinking they want (like the US government more or less keeping us happy with gasoline, guns, and beer). In return, the citizens feed Vaal what are really energy pills like mindless drones in daily ceremonies. Basically like US citizens paying taxes. Eventually, starvation shuts down Vaal, releases the Enterprise, and everyone is allowed to think again.

    This does stray from libertarian philosophy when the starvation of Vaal occurs by force — Capt. Kirk and friends physically stop the citizens from performing their Vaal feeding ritual. If only we could figure a way to get US citizens to stop feeding (via tax after increasing tax) our version of Vaal without force, imagine the result.

    No more bloated, intruding, meddling government. It would be interesting to see how the citizens of the planet fared without Vaal for the first year or two.

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