What movies are about the dangers of conformity?
Dave, in my film class we're supposed to write an essay about movies that address the dangers and problems with overly homogeneous, uniform cultures where there's huge pressure to conform to group behaviors. I'm kind of stuck for what movies to focus upon. Since I know you're a movie fan, do you have any suggestions?
Generally I don't offer homework help but I'll take this one on because it is very interesting to look across the decades of cinema for common threads and stories. In particular, there were quite a few movies made about the dangers of conformity, where that almost always represented Communism, either Chinese or Russian. During the Cold War (late 50s to mid-60s) Communism was universally feared as a totalitarian world where individual identity was completely subsumed by the needs of the state or collective.
Two films that, in different ways, are quite illustrative of the angst Western society had with the so-called "red menace" of communism are Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Manchurian Candidate. First off, a caveat: as with any film I talk about, I'm referring to the originals, not the remakes. Universally remakes of Cold War movies completely miss the underlying anxiety and fear of conformity instilled by anti-communist propaganda. So in this instance, I'm talking about the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate.
The story line of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is summarized by the Internet Movie Database as: "Dr Miles Bennel returns to his small town practice to find several of his patients suffering the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. He is initially sceptical, especially when the alleged dopplegangers are able to answer detailed questions about their victim's life, but he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened, and determines to find out what."
Bennel [played by Kevin McCarthy, which is interesting in its own right because one of the fears tackled in the movie is the 50s anti-communist purge of Hollywood and the entertainment industry by Senator Joe McCarthy] constantly has others in the movie warn him that people are being replaced by pods that pick a victim, grow to look exactly them, then replace them in the small town. But he doesn't believe until he too stumbles into a growing pod and realizes with horror that the town is being overrun by unemotional dopplegangers, pod people who seem vaguely like their human hosts, but aren't.
By the time he tries to escape, the pod people are organized and aggressively pushing to absorb everyone into the collective. The pod people tell Bennel that "Love, desire, ambition, faith... without them life is so much simpler." The film ends with him desperately trying to escape, the last non-pod person in Santa Mira, saying directly to the camera "Get on your radios and sound an all points alarm. Block all highways, stop all traffic, and call every law enforcement agency in the state! Your town could be next!!"
The clear message in the film is that differences, emotions, discord and even differing beliefs and acceptance of other viewpoints is what makes us, well, not human, per se, but interesting. It's what makes us Americans, and any attempt to stifle that, to force uniformity upon a group, is going to end very badly.
Another movie in this ilk that I really think is superb is The Manchurian Candidate, which posits a chilling situation where a group of soldiers are captured in North Korea and then brainwashed by Chinese interrogators into believing that one of their own, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey) actually rescued them from harm. When they return, their stories perfectly coincide and Shaw is given a medal of honor for his bravery, but in fact, they were all brainwashed and Shaw is an assassin who will ultimately try to kill, well, I won't ruin the entire movie for you.
The real protagonist of the film, the "hero", if you will, is Major Bennett Marco (played wonderfully by Frank Sinatra), who has been plagued by recurring nightmares since returning from Korea. Putting the pieces together, it becomes clear that his nightmares about Chinese interrogators and heinous acts they are forced to commit really did happen and that the entire story about the heroic rescue by Shaw is a complete fiction. With a splendid part as the unabashedly evil mother, Angela Lansbury also shines in this disturbing movie.
What makes it a good fit for the question of conformity is the brainwashing itself. Any two-bit hypnotist knows you can trick people into doing behaviors that they might not do ordinarily, but in many ways the terror of realizing your memories aren't your own (brilliantly revisited in Blade Runner) is the terror of mindless conformity. Are they brainwashed in The Manchurian Candidate, or are they assimilated into a Chinese communist culture where individual identity has been eliminated?
[The Manchurian Candidate has a fascinating history too. It was released during the midst of the October Missile Crisis and less than a year later President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman, just as posited in the movie. Immediately after the real assassination, Sinatra bought up all the copies of the movie and kept it out of circulation for decades, the victim of very bad timing. Or, a possible alternative explanation, according to Roger Ebert: the film was pulled from circulation because Sinatra had a dispute with the studio about money... this version doesn't really make sense to me, however. [Thanks Bennett for this historical note]]
There are movies from just about every era that address conformity versus diversity, actually. Another interesting film for you to consider is the 1975 movie The Stepford Wives, where happy housemaker Katharine Ross (played rather stiffly by Joanna Eberhart) and her husband move to the quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut, just to slowly realize that all the wives in the town are gradually being replaced by robot replicas, programmed to be friendly and completely submissive to their husbands. It's a clear metaphor for the cultural collisions of the 70s between the "hippies" and the "squares": is becoming a square in fact losing your identity?
If you really want to go a bit further afield, 1971's controversial A Clockwork Orange also dealt rather shockingly with issues of conformity and fitting in to societal behaviors versus being a, um, free spirit. A wonderful movie that's just full of disturbing scenes, it accurately predicts such crass violent films as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, as well as offering up a harsh commentary on fitting in versus being a real person. Too wild? Try the 1966 b-movie Farenheit 451, or, for that matter, 1976's Logan's Run that also explore issues of conformity and homogeneity and the dangers that can bring.
Anyway, that should get you going. A great question and it's been fun writing about these films. I think I'll check my TiVO to see if any of 'em are on this week...
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