The Interview and the geopolitical crisis it caused is arguably the most important movie-related story of recent weeks.
The story device featured in The Interview, the idea of a film featuring the assassination of the current ruling leader, is nothing new, and in fact is seen through much of film’s history. In 1941 a German-in-exile Fritz Lang shown an unsuccessful attack on Adolf Hitler in Man Hunt (this story was also told in BBC’s Rogue Male from 1976 starring Peter O’Toole). The Shaw Brothers used the actual newsreel footage of Queen Elisabeth visiting Hong-Kong (then a British colony) in their 1976 martial arts flick A Queen’s Ransom (a.k.a. The International Assassin) starring post-James Bond George Lazenby as an IRA assassin and Angela Mao as a heroine trying to stop him. In fact, the Queen of England might be the most popular assassination target among actual world leaders—terrorists were even trying to kill her in The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! (1988). Some may remember the 2006 British film Death of a President showing the fictional assassination of George W. Bush. Largely ignored by the US government, two major US cinema chains refused to show it, and the widest release it received was 143 screens, similar to the post-hacking release pattern of The Interview (widest release 331 screens).
These films showing the different ways a grand political assassination can be used by a film industry. Man Hunt is an early anti-Nazi propaganda made in a country preparing itself to war with Hitler. Attacks on the US and the UK leaders are protected by the freedom of speech guaranteed by both countries. But if we want to find a film with the most similar plot to The Interview, we have to go back 46 years and look for The Chairman (1969), a spy thriller starring Gregory Peck. Both films can be summarized exactly the same way: a Westerner is used by a secret service to assassinate a distant, brutal East-Asian dictator.
BEYOND THE BONDMANIA
To understand The Chairman better, first we have to set some things straight. Following the big success of the first James Bond feature, Dr. No (1962), everybody wanted to have its own Cold War spy. The late 1960s were full of these movies: the Harry Palmer series with Michael Caine and the Matt Helm series with Dean Martin, James Coburn’s Matt Flint, and the Napoleon Solo TV series and films starring Robert Vaughn. Not to mention a whole Eurospy movement—hundreds of mockbusters with ridiculous names like Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die, Agent 077: From the Orient with Fury or The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World.
At the time, China was not the country we know today—the second biggest film market and the biggest economy in the world. Starting with Stalin’s death, Soviet Russia and Communist China offered a different view on Marxism that lead to the so-called Sino-Soviet split. In the late 1960s, China was almost as isolated as North Korea is today—communist countries were oriented pro-USSR, while the Western world started recognizing China only after Nixon’s visit in 1972. To show how isolated they were, let’s just say that the only European country China was on speaking terms was Albania. Meanwhile, China’s leader Mao Zedong returned to power in 1966 (he was marginalized after the disastrous Great Leap Forward programme that has killed millions) with a new movement—the Cultural Revolution.
The geopolitical climate and Bondmania made The Chairman possible. The film started with Jay Richard Kennedy who, according to The New York Times, worked in 28 different occupations, including sharecropper, movie producer and munitions manufacturer. He moved from being an employee of the communist Daily Worker newspaper to being a staunch anti-communist believing that Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement was infiltrated by Soviets and Chinese. In 1966 he took a position as a vice-president and story editor at the Sinatra Enterprises. There he started working on a script that later became The Chairman. First it was set to star Frank Sinatra together with Yul Brynner and Spencer Tracy, but nothing came out of it and Kennedy turned the script into a book.
The novel was too hot to stay in development hell for too long. Arthur P. Jacobs, following the highly successful Planet of the Apes (1968), invited Clarence Brown of The Asphalt Jungle fame to write the script and asked J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone) to direct. Production faced problems from the beginning. Steve Chibnail, in the director's biography, writes:
“Elaborate sets were constructed at Pinewood, but recruiting sufficient numbers of Chinese extras to fill them was headache. Unable to film in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, the crew went to Hong-Kong but was met with demonstrations and threats from Chinese communists who claimed that the film would be ‘an insult to Chairman Mao’. Lee Thompson remembers that the crew members feared for their safety. ‘In the end I had to secretly photograph some of the Hong Kong scenes from cabs or private cars’. Official filming was cancelled by the Hong Kong Government and had to be continued in Taiwan. The final scenes (…) were actually shot in Wales.”
Shot between August and December 1968 on a $4,915,000 budget, it was a sixth most expensive production released by 20th Century Fox in 1969. Compared to other spy films, it was distinctly cheaper than the James Bond entry of 1969—On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was shot with $7 million—while Hitchcock’s Topaz was a little cheaper with a $4 million budget.
THE INTERVIEW OF THE 1960S
Gregory Peck stars in this fourth and final pairing with J. Lee Thompson (after Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear and Mackenna’s Gold) as Dr. John Hathaway, a Nobel-prize winning scientist. He’s sent on a dangerous mission—while visiting an old friend in China he has to steal a precious enzyme that might end hunger. Unknowingly, he’s also carrying a bomb implanted in his head that might be used at any time by the secret service.
The introduction of the East Asian dictatorship is very similar in The Chairman and The Interview (in case of the former, the story behind the trip is told through flashbacks, the film starts already on the plane to Hong Kong). In each, there is a brief meeting in a nearby country with a high ranking official to discuss details of the trip. Later, the respective stars—Gregory Peck in the 1969 film, James Franco and Seth Rogen in the 2014 one—meet a security apparatchik touring American guests through major landmarks, happy people and a prosperous nation. All of this is followed by a surprising visit of the leader. Here’s the major plot difference: for The Interview the first meeting with the dictator is just the beginning, he’s hanging out with main characters for the rest of the movie. For The Chairman, it’s the only scene with a leader. A long talk between Dr. Hathaway and Mao Zedong combines several aspects we can see throughout in multiple scenes in Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s comedy. Both pictures have a sporting competition (Hathaway and Mao are playing table tennis, the most stereotypical Chinese sport, while Franco plays basketball with Kim Jong-un), a tough discussion about the human rights, and, of course, an assassination attempt. The subsequent major divergence between the two films is that while in The Interview the first attempt is unsuccessful, Kim Jong-Un ends up dead. In The Chairman, the surprised American Secret Service decides to not use the bomb after consultations with British and Soviets (it was not planted for the assassination, but to kill Hathaway in case of defection) and Mao survives.
Over the ping pong table, Mao asks Dr. Hathaway for help with the enzyme. He reluctantly agrees after the promise that he might walk free with all the results after his work is done. After the meeting, the film fades into a typical 1960s spy caper. He steals the enzyme and flees the country with the help of the Soviet army, which attacks Chinese guards chasing Peck (coincidentally there was an actual border war between the two states in 1969).
While The Interview has a happy ending, with North Korea becoming a democracy after the death of Kim Jong-Un, The Chairman has a bleaker coda. Dr. Hathaway returns and learns that the enzyme will not be used to end hunger. It will be used by the United States as a weapon against other countries.
RESULTS OF THE ASSASSINATION
The Chairman was released over the summer and fall of 1969 in the Western hemisphere and met mediocre reviews. Roger Ebert gave it two stars, criticizing Peck for being not savvy enough for an action movie. Howard Thompson in The New York Times praised the first half on the movie up until the meeting with the chairman, writing "a film that makes provocative entertainment for the first half, hits a snag, begins to fall apart and came in for a tame, wobbly landing..." British critics were also divided. The Daily Mail and the Sunday Times gave warm reviews while the Evening Standard and The Times found the movie dull and boring. Steve Chibnail sees The Chairman as a follow-up to Thompson and Peck's earlier film Cape Fear in “attempting to graft the film’s discursive concerns onto a conventional action-genre narrative.” In his opinion “the Bondian conventions threaten to trivialize the film’s [pacifist] ideas.”
With $2,5 million earned in the US cinemas, it was a 41th most popular release of 1969. Hardly recuperating the initial budget, and falling short of the $64 million earned by the newest Bond, the movie was a flop. Years later, commenting on the plot, Gregory Peck found it “hard to swallow.”
After The Chairman, J. Lee Thompson directed two Planet of the Apes sequels and later descended into low-budget Charles Bronson’s and Chuck Norris’s. Gregory Peck went to star in Marooned (a.k.a. the Gravity of 1969) and continued his career until the end of the century. Conrad Yama who played Mao, reprised his role in a Van Hausen’s shirt commercial and a theatre show. Later he played some minor roles in Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Battle of Midway and a couple of forgotten TV films. He died in 2010. Mao Zedong ruled China for 7 more years, dying in 1976. 40 to 70 million Chinese citizens died during his reign.
Film studios are often trying to promote their films basing on a controversial content. Usually this trend is led by the indie producers, who are unable to do a big-budget advertising campaign and are relying on a scandal to bring the audience. Bigger companies are a little more varied about this, often being more conservative, but as we can see with Man Hunt, The Interview or The Chairman, they sometimes take their chances.
Usually these films are ignored by the real targets of the fictional assassination. Sometimes there are protests (such as the one that forced The Chairman crew out of Hong Kong), but the geopolitical crisis following The Interview is something new for the film industry. So far similar attacks were only following the controversial anti-Muslim films like The Innocence of The Muslims (2012).
The rise of the globalization and use of the new technologies made the attack on Sony easier. The world 46 years ago was different. Only a couple of computers had internet access and all of them were based in the United States. People living under communism never heard of The Chairman (it wasn’t released in Communist countries) and therefore were unable to be outraged and protest. Even in that divided world the idea of the assassination of the living leader successfully blocked shooting in Hong Kong. The Chinese minority was furious 46 years ago just like North Korea is now.
There is also another difference that led to the extraordinary attack against The Interview: a genre. Whether it’s The Great Dictator (1940) or an opening scene in The Naked Gun, comedies envision real leaders in a radically different way than thrillers. In The Chairman, Mao Zedong is ruthless and brutal, but he’s also an intelligent and a respected person. Kim Jong-Un in Goldberg and Rogen’s comedy is a childish, despicable ruler. Dictators are not really well known for their sense of humor. Showing them as brutes might annoy them, but it’s reinforcing an image they try to maintain. Ridiculing them is a completely different thing—and that’s why North Korea’s response was so severe.
The case of The Interview might lead to an end or at least a pause in a long history of the film industry fictionally killing actual leaders. These film were very varied, used for ideological or entertainment purposes. With movie companies relying on new technologies that even as desolate a country as North Korea can hack, the fear of retaliation might supersede these plot ideas. So if you’re waiting for the next The Interview, it’s more likely that the filmmakers would fall back on such regular targets as the President of the United States or, again, the Queen of England, than, let's say, Bashar al-Assad.