In films, as in real life, Freedom is a relative concept, dependent on the characters’ expectations and circumstances. Whoever they are though, all characters want their freedom and they take it anywhere, anyway and anyhow they can. Freedom films encompass a variety of genres and a wide range of actors. A freedom film can be a vehicle for young first-timer Jamie Bell, making his impressive whirlwind debut in the working-class male ballet movie Billy Elliot, asserting his identity against the accepted grain of a close-knit society, or it can be a charismatic screen great like Steve McQueen, turning the quintessential World War Two prison camp movie The Great Escape into a mere backdrop when he revs up his motorbike to embark on the greatest motorbike screen stunt ride in a movie, ever.
With his golden hair, suntanned poise and whiskery croak, McQueen is the American outsider nicknamed ‘The Cooler King’. The 18 failed escape bids to his name mark him out as the impetuous hothead, contrasted with the cool, level-headed Brits led by Dickie Attenborough and James Donald. The latter adhere to their painstaking plan involving tunnels called Tom, Dick and Harry while McQueen takes to his bike. Sticklers (or spoilsports) will point out that no such motorbike chase ever took place in the real-life story the film is based on.
The fact McQueen chooses to ride the distinctly non-WWII 1961 model Triumph Trophy Bird may just be a clue that the star, along with director John Sturges, was using the famous scene to make a point or, even better, movie history. The point being that, though impatient to break free, as he attempts to jump the Nazi barbed wire of Luft Stalag North, McQueen’s Virgil Hilts makes a valiant self sacrifice. Acting as a decoy for the Brits to complete their passage through Tom, Dick and Harry, Hilts rides into Freedom Film Iconography. ‘Facts’ are not always beneficial to good freedom filmmaking. But the fact that as a lad McQueen was sent to a reform school probably helped him play the part of a man keen to escape to freedom with that much more empathy.
Though made in 1946, considerably closer to the conflict that it covers than The Great Escape, Powell and Pressburger’s magisterial A Matter Of Life And Death has even less time for mere realism. For David Niven, the stiff-upper-lipped English pilot trapped in the cockpit of his fighter bomber shot down over his homeland, the deadly sound of the roaring, malfunctioning engine presents certain doom. The sound of freedom comes in the sweet, siren call of Kim Hunter’s female air traffic controller. Her voice or, more specifically, the effect it has on Carter, causes something in the grand heavenly scheme to go awry. In the predestined afterlife masterplan Niven’s Peter Carter wasn’t meant to survive the crash so, while under anesthetic for brain surgery, he’s whisked away to a celestial court. There a heavenly tribunal must decide whether falling in love during his final descent is sufficient cause to set him free from the bonds of eternal life. As played out on Alfred Junge’s awesomely-staged sets, the freedom film (from the chains of death into the freedom of love) really doesn’t get any grander, more dramatic or more cinematically-inspired than A Matter Of Life And Death. A particular masterstroke is the use of the tear of love, captured on a flower, used as evidence in arguing Carter’s case at the heavenly court. A Matter of Life and Death is the freedom movie played out on a cosmic scale.
In the modern era the freedom movie that most captured the public (particularly female public) imagination was Thelma And Louise. It’s a revolutionary road movie where the female buddies, played by Geena Davies and Susan Sarandon, match and, in one significant detail, outdo their male predecessors in movies such as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and Easy Rider. Taking off from Nowheresville Arkansas, the pair are out to escape the confines of their drab lives – Thelma’s controlling thoughtless husband, Louise’s waitressing job. But a girls’ weekend away turns into a transformative journey where the heroines take on the forces – often of law and order – blocking their passage to freedom. These include Brad Pitt, a handsome cowboy who makes off with Thelma’s money, the convenience store they have to rob to make up the shortfall, a hapless policeman who they lock in the trunk of his patrol car and the have-a-go hero driver who foolishly harasses them and gets his gas truck blown up for his trouble. There are many things, many moments, which make Thelma and Louise a classic freedom film. The way that the characters discover new untapped resources inside themselves once what Louise identifies as ‘the call of the wild’ takes hold is striking. Amid the mayhem, Louise is reminded of her face-painting obligations when she sees overly made- up matrons in a diner, but as she applies the lipstick she hesitates and thinks better of it, as if to say, why bother trying to fit in? The life that held them trapped is gradually discarded and, in a definitive break with her past, Thelma hands her jewellery to an astonished homeless guy.
Perhaps the moment that makes Thelma and Louise a freedom film with that unmistakable something extra comes when Harlan, a randy cowboy turned would-be rapist, is prevented from attacking Thelma – when Louise shoots him. That scene ensures that Ridley Scott’s revisionist feminist road movie captures the terror – and excitement – the struggle for freedom contains in singular fashion. Given the worryingly low convictions in rape cases, Louise’s summary justice acts as a real rallying point, one that no male freedom figure could hope to create. Thelma and Louise is now so ingrained in the popular psyche that it gives its name to an ‘online worldwide community where women can meet travel companions and fulfil their aspirations’. Though hopefully they can do so without shooting anyone, or driving their classic convertible off the edge of the Grand Canyon at the end of their trip.
The prison movie was never more sumptuous or compellingly plotted than Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. Prison films are, of course, a natural home to the freedom movie, and much of In The Name Of The Father is set in English and Scottish jails. Daniel Day Lewis plays Gerry Conlon, the real-life Belfast expatriate and Guildford Four member tried, jailed and eventually found to be wrongly convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings.
Even before he gets arrested for crimes he did not commit and thrown into an 18-year hellhole of hate and recrimination, Conlon’s freedom flight is vividly captured. He mimes Hendrix air guitar midway through stealing lead off a local chimney stack, drunkenly carouses to Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone on a ferry crossing the Irish Sea, finds free love, dope and outlandish clothes in London. When he returns to Belfast an extravagantly dressed glam hippy, Conlon is at odds with the backward, repressed, sectarian land that bred him. Then comes the knock on the door, the show trial, and monumental miscarriage of justice. Some critics, totally missing the point, complained that the real life Conlon and hapless father Giuseppe (arrested and imprisoned after coming to England to help his son) were never in prison together. The harrowing conversations the film shows between father and son in a shared cell may have never actually taken place, but they strike a deep, universal truth.
The prison cell becomes akin to another realm, one where Gerard can unload all the festering resentment he has long harboured toward his overprotective father. The scene where Giuseppe reads his rosary while Gerry, high on acid, dissolves in a fit of helpless laughter, highlights the chasm between father and son. Just as Gerry’s closing speech outside the courthouse shows the love that lies beneath that chasm. As a freedom film, In The Name Of The Father’s appeal works on at least two levels; just as many viewers can identify with the Gerry’s fight to escape family ties that bind as can appreciate the need to fend off the jackboot of authority.
The idea of something as small and as elusive as a canary breaking through a hard heart is a potent symbol of freedom. That is the image presented by the not inconsiderable caged beast that is Burt Lancaster, gently handling one of his many adopted pets, in The Birdman Of Alcatraz. The real-life character the film was based on was Robert Stroud, a violent pimp who stabbed inmates and attacked hospital orderlies during his long stay in prison. Perhaps to help himself feel a little freer, Stroud was also found to be using some of the apparatus, obtained to work on his feathered friends’ ailments, to make illegal alcohol in his cell. The prison Stroud actually cared for his birds in was Leavenworth, rather than Alcatraz, and he was never allowed to see the movie based on his extraordinary prison life. Cruel as that may seem, it makes sense – as a world-renowned expert on canaries and their mating habits, the Birdman, played by the Academy Award-nominated Lancaster, finds his freedom among winged wonders. Any other entertainment would be an unnecessary diversion.
‘I believe in two things: discipline and the bible. Trust in God, the rest belongs to me. Welcome To Shawshank,’ with those less than encouraging words the Governor greets banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) to his life sentence. The background characters in Shawshank Redemption, like background characters in most prison movies, are looking for their freedom. The voice-over by Andy’s prison pal Red (Morgan Freeman) tells how they find a little bit of it one day after Andy helps a warden sort out a tax problem and receives payment for each of his associates – a bottle of beer in the sun. Fending off beatings and brutal rapes, Andy is the on-screen embodiment of human endurance. He is a character who lives by the movie’s tagline: ‘fear can hold you prisoner – hope can set you free’, and the light of liberty is kept alive within.
Freedom films can be as remarkable as Gandhi – the true story of a small one-time lawyer who dons the clothes of a beggar to lead his country to freedom from their colonial masters. Ben Kingsley’s performance in the title role, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough, was so convincing that, 15 years after it was released on the 50th Anniversary of India’s Independence in August 1997, an English broadsheet used a still from the movie, rather than a picture of the real Gandhi to illustrate a story on his legacy. Copious apologies ensued, but there was a marked lack of protest in India. This is possibly because, despite his history, these days his countrymen show little lasting affection for the idea of Mahatma as freedom’s frontiersman.
In 1955 The Man With The Golden Arm, a film where one man, jazz drummer Frankie Machine, played by Frank Sinatra, attempts to free himself from the slavery of heroin abuse, did incite protests. Drugs were still forbidden Hollywood territory back then, and at first Otto Preminger’s ground-breaking adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel was denied a Motion Picture Association of America certificate. The truth couldn’t be hidden for long however, as the film was one of Sinatra’s most impressive screen performances (he snatched the role from a keen but slow-to-rise-to-the-challenge Marlon Brando). The cold turkey scenes, featuring Ol’ Blue Eyes and Kim Novak, are as gripping, seedy and desperate as any freedom film can be.
In the musical biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It, the freedom film charts Tina Turner’s journey from backwoods poverty, through the tempestuous and violent marriage to husband Ike, to the discovery of personal freedom and autonomy. A standard-issue Hollywood tale where a plucky little lady overcomes insurmountable odds makes for perfect freedom film territory.
In 1969 Lindsay Anderson relocated the school uprising depicted in French director Jean Vigo’s Zero De Conduite to an English public school (specifically Cheltenham College, Gloucestershire, the director’s old alma mater). Filled with the spirit of rebellious youth and the contemporary riots in Paris and London, Anderson’s film, the Malcolm McDowell-starring fin de siecle landmark If…, became an anti-establishment favourite.
The freedom film’s ability to cross time and cultures is graphically illustrated by the way Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece The Seven Samurai was transplanted from 16th-century Japan to the American west, remade as The Magnificent Seven. For once this was a Hollywood remake – by The Great Escape freedom film director par excellence John Sturges – that made perfect sense. The timeless tale of a bunch of disparate warriors joining together to protect or gain liberty for a community facing outside marauders was inspired by Kurosawa’s love of classic Hollywood westerns.
There was something of that old Western frontier spirit evident in easy rider when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda saddled up their choppers to find the spirit of America. As with If…, made in the same year, Hopper’s classic movie set out to reflect the state of the counter culture in his country. With Easy Rider, the on-the-road freedom film was said to have c0me of age. In the past, American movies had been populated with tall in-the-saddle patriots like James Stewart, Henry Fonda and John Wayne, the Old West presented as a near-mythical time and place. With their long hair, copious drug use, drug-dealing and contemporary rock classics soundtracking their journey into the Deep South, Hopper and Fonda became the outlaws of a new era.
Like any freedom film worthy of the term, Easy Rider features characters who have to face up to the limitations that keep them from being free. Nicholson’s bonfire freedom rap is key, not just because it gets to the heart of the ideas of freedom the new generation have, but because of the conclusion it reaches about how the old order will react. ‘It’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cos then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.’
In fact, rather than blithely championing the counter culture’s drive for freedom, Easy Rider is unerringly pessimistic and defeatist about the outcome. So much so that it has been cited as a reason why a lot of its target audience did not drop out and join its lead characters on the road to God knows where. When the Easy Riders meet their match in a bunch of Louisiana rednecks the film becomes a cautionary tale, one that may have persuaded its target audience to knuckle down and study, eventually becoming the pillars of a straight society (aka yuppies) that they once despised. A course of action suggesting that sometimes freedom means never having to say you are sorry.
With his manic laugh, irreverent attitude and undeniable screen presence, Jack Nicholson went on to become the ultimate freedom film star in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which was based on the novel by Ken Kesey. Nicholson’s Randall P McMurphy was, in the allegorical confines of the asylum representing the world at large, the greatest freedom fighter in 1970s cinema. Facing up to the terrifying Nurse Ratched, insisting on patient’s rights, waking up fellow inmates from their docile slumber to play basketball, sample the world outside and the illicit joys of sex and alcohol, McMurphy is a threat to the establishment that must be pacified.
And so he is – when his mostly mute Native American buddy Chief Bromden puts the newly-lobotomised McMurphy out of his misery with a pillow, it’s a reminder that sometimes the fight for freedom entails the ultimate sacrifice. Then, when the chief rips out a sink from the washroom floor and throws it through a window to make good his escape, the irresistible lure and, indeed, threatening nature of freedom is reasserted.