The top 10 conservative movies of the modern era
By Nile Gardiner
Two years ago I produced a list of the top 10 conservative movies of the last decade, which sparked a good deal of debate among film fans on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ve produced a sequel, a list of the ten best conservative films of the last half-century, from the 1960s onwards. I plan to eventually write a list of the top ten conservative films of all time, where the likes of On the Waterfront (1954) and High Noon (1952) will certainly be leading candidates for inclusion.
As I noted in my 2009 post, this is a list of cinematic treasures that have “advanced a conservative message, ranging from strong support for the military and love for country to the defence of capitalism and the free market. These are all brilliant movies that conservatives can be inspired by, and which are guaranteed to offend Left-wing sensibilities in one way or another.” I include four films from my first list: Master and Commander, Black Hawk Down, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Pursuit of Happyness.
These are movies that I believe can and will inspire conservatives and conservative leaders. They are not necessarily made by conservative film-makers, however, and the majority of directors on this list are not known for their political views. Some ideologically liberal directors have made great conservatives movies. Steven Spielberg for example is a politically liberal figure who consistently makes films that advance conservative values. The second film on this list, Zulu, was directed by Cy Endfield, who was wrongly blacklisted during the McCarthy era and forced to work in exile abroad in Britain.
In recent decades Hollywood has been a bastion of liberalism, but at the same time its studios have produced and distributed some major hit movies that have a conservative outlook or message, not least because, as Gallup has found, conservatives significantly outnumber liberals in the US population as a whole and form a major part of the cinema-going public. Witness the recent success for example of Sandra Bullock's The Blind Side, a film that grossed more than $300 million for Warner Brothers in 2009.
Below are films that conservatives can be taken to heart in both the United States and Great Britain, movies that celebrate conservative values, the defense of the free world, deep-seated patriotism and individual liberty.
1. Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981)
Chariots of Fire is one of the greatest British films of all time, and a truly conservative masterpiece. It received seven Academy Award nominations in 1982, winning four including Best Picture, Score (by Vangelis), Original Screenplay and Costume Design, and also went on to win Best Film at the BAFTAS. Ben Cross and Ian Charleson played the athletes Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell who competed for Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics, both winning gold medals, in the 100 Metres and 400 Metres respectively. The superb supporting cast included Sir Ian Holm, Sir John Gielgud, Nigel Havers, Patrick Magee and Lindsay Anderson. Chariots of Fire exudes patriotism, tradition, faith, honour and sacrifice in a magnificently inspiring motion picture that captured the hearts of cinema goers all over the world. Produced by David Puttnam, Chariots led a renaissance of British cinema in the 1980s, including a string of major hits including Gandhi, A Passage to India, The Mission, and The Killing Fields. In accepting his Oscar, the film's writer Colin Welland famously declared "the British are coming" – and how right he was.
2. Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)
Arguably the most influential war film of the modern era, Zulu is a magnificent tribute to the tremendous bravery of the 140 British soldiers of the 24th Regiment of Foot who defended the small mission post at Rorke’s Drift, Natal, in the face of thousands of Zulu attackers during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, winning 11 Victoria Crosses in the process. At the same time the film honours the great courage of the Zulu impis, who died in the hundreds during the battle. The film featured a breakout performance by a young Michael Caine, who brilliantly played Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, alongside Stanley Baker’s Lieutenant John Chard, stunning cinematography by Stephen Dade and a rousing score by John Barry. Made in the dying days of the British Empire in Africa, Zulu was strikingly old-fashioned even for its day, in its heroic depiction of the British warrior ethos at the height of the Victorian era. Zulu is one of the only films of the modern age that chose not to condemn or vilify Britain's imperial heritage, but instead highlighted the extraordinary courage of the men who fought and died in defence of the largest and most benevolent Empire the world had ever seen.
3. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
Steven Spielberg has made some of the best and biggest movies of the last four decades: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List to name but a few. His finest film though is Saving Private Ryan, inexplicably overlooked for Best Picture at the 1999 Academy Awards in favour of Shakespeare in Love. His soaring tribute to the bravery of American soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 was a powerful reminder of the huge sacrifices made by an earlier generation in the defence of freedom. It is a reminder that the defence of liberty comes at great cost. It should be essential viewing for every US president as he takes office. It is a truly humbling film that depicts the horror of war in unflinching detail while illustrating the magnificent courage of those who laid down their lives for the United States on the European battlefields of World War Two.
4. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003)
Peter Weir’s unashamedly old-fashioned and visually stunning adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s novel is one of the greatest odes to leadership ever committed to celluloid. Australian director Weir has made many terrific films, including Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Witness, but Master and Commander was the pinnacle of his career so far. Nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, it should be essential viewing for any Commander-In-Chief. Russell Crowe delivers a immensely powerful performance as Jack Aubrey, Captain of HMS Surprise, a British warship that hunts and ultimately captures a far larger French adversary during the Napoleonic Wars. Set in 1805, it is an epic tale of heroism and love for country in the face of incredible odds, and a glowing tribute to the grit and determination that forged the British Empire. Needless to say, it should be shown at the next EU summit by the UK delegation for the benefit of Nicolas Sarkozy when he gets on his high horse and starts lecturing Britain about French superiority.
5. Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)
Sylvester Stallone has been one of the most successful conservative movie stars of his generation, and rose to fame in the 1977 Best Picture winner Rocky. Made for less than $1 million, Rocky was the underdog that went on to beat All The President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network at the Oscars, with Stallone nominated for Best Actor for his performance as humble boxer Rocky Balboa who rises from poverty to become a world champion. The film sparked five sequels, culminating in the terrific Rocky Balboa in 2006, and the series has pulled in more than $1 billion at the US and worldwide box office combined. Produced largely on location in Philadelphia (out of the reach of the powerful film industry unions), and featuring a dynamite score by Bill Conti, Rocky was an incredible success filmed in the space of just 30 days. Conservative to the core and deeply patriotic in outlook, the Rocky films are a celebration of American values and individualism, and have come to embody the nation’s tremendous fighting spirit and love of liberty.
6. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
The Deer Hunter came away with five Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor, and is one of the most iconic dramas of the 1970s, alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and William Friedkin’s The French Connection. But in contrast to several other major Vietnam-themed films of the time, which include Apocalypse Now and Coming Home (and later Platoon and Full Metal Jacket), it cannot be described as an anti-war treatise. Michael Cimino’s visceral masterpiece was attacked upon its release by some critics for its portrayal of the Vietcong as a sadistic, brutal enemy, with its infamous Russian roulette sequence featuring Robert De Niro, John Savage and Christopher Walken as American prisoners held by the North Vietnamese. It even prompted a walkout at the 1979 Berlin International Film Festival by delegations from a number of Communist countries led by the Soviet Union. It is undeniably patriotic, with the film ending with a moving and unforgettable rendition of “God Bless America” sung by the film’s main characters, including a young Meryl Streep. A truly great film, The Deer Hunter is an American epic that three decades on still packs a powerful punch.
7. The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984)
Despite the huge destruction wrought by Communism in the 20th Century, disappointingly few films have addressed its evils. A notable exception was Roland Joffe’s searing The Killing Fields, the story of American journalist Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) and his interpreter and fellow journalist Dith Pran, set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The film’s harrowing depiction of the Cambodian genocide between 1975 and 1979 is simply unforgettable, conveying the full horror of Pol Pot’s savage killing machine and inhuman forced labour camps that wiped out up to two-and-a-half million people. Pran’s character, played by Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor, was himself a real-life survivor of the Killing Fields. The British film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning three, as well as the BAFTA for Best Film. The Killing Fields is an uncompromising portrait of a brutal Marxist tyranny, and a warning to the world never to allow this kind of barbarism to be repeated.
8. Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001)
Sir Ridley Scott’s searing depiction of the ill-fated US raid on Mogadishu in 1993, which left 19 American servicemen dead, was released just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the launch of the War on Terror. Based on the book by Mark Bowden, it won Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Sound, and Scott was nominated for Best Director. Many critics enthusiastically dubbed Black Hawk Down an anti-war film, and it is in some respects a cautionary tale about the perils of nation-building. But I regard it above all as an extraordinarily powerful and deeply patriotic tribute to the heroism and bravery of the US military, faced with overwhelming odds in a hostile city dominated by brutal Somali warlords, a story of incredible sacrifice and camaraderie in the heat of battle.
9. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003)
All three parts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy were breathtaking pieces of cinema – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and finally The Return of the King, which won Best Picture at the 2004 Academy Awards. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings, was a devout Catholic and conservative, and a close friend of C.S. Lewis at Oxford. His vision of a mighty battle between good and evil in the realms of Middle Earth was brilliantly transferred to the screen by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, perfectly fitting a post 9/11 world where the forces of freedom found themselves pitted against a barbaric enemy. A two-part prequel to the trilogy - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and The Hobbit: There and Back Again – will be released in December 2012 and December 2013.
10. The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabrielle Muccino, 2006)
This Will Smith classic, based on the autobiographical bestseller by Chris Gardner, is one of the most compelling, heart-felt tributes to the free market and the value of individual responsibility ever made. Smith plays an impoverished entrepreneur from a humble background in 1980s San Francisco who through sheer determination and strength of human spirit defies all odds to become a stockbroker with a top investment firm, before making his fortune. Smith’s character embodies the can-do spirit of Reagan’s America, and rejects the welfare state in favour of the capitalist ideal, while bringing up a young son on his own. The Pursuit of Happyness is an inspiring and often deeply moving tribute to the American dream, and one of the great conservative movies of this generation.
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010)
The King’s Speech thoroughly deserved its Oscar success last year, sweeping the major awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay. As I wrote after seeing the film on its opening night in Washington: “Anyone who doubts the Special Relationship is alive and well in the hearts of the American people should see this film in a US theatre and listen to the rapturous applause it receives. The King’s Speech is undoubtedly one of the best British films since Chariots of Fire, with stunning performances from Colin Firth as George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his unconventional Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Tom Hooper’s period drama is a hugely inspirational and moving film that is a triumph for British cinema. It is also deeply patriotic in its portrayal of a stammering, shy monarch who ultimately overcomes tremendous odds to lead a nation at war in the face of a totalitarian enemy.”
These films didn’t make the final list, but deserve recognition for their contribution to conservative values, ideals and principles:
Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971); A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough, 1977); Who Dares Wins (Ian Sharp, 1982); Uncommon Valor (Ted Kotcheff, 1983); Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985); Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989); Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, 1989); Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986); Shadowlands (Richard Attenborough, 1993); Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994); Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000); We Were Soldiers (Randall Wallace, 2002); Tears of the Sun (Antoine Fuqua, 2003); Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004); The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004); The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006); United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006); Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006); Katyn (Andrzej Wajda, 2007); 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007); The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008); Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008); The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009); 5 Days of War (Renny Harlin, 2011).