The first motion picture, William K.L. Dickson’s “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”, was originally released in 1894 over ten years after Marx’s death in 1883. Marx’s words and philosophies have lived on and inspired many individuals, including some of the biggest filmmakers throughout the 20th century before and after the peak of the industrial revolution. Marxist theory in film is one of the oldest film theories in terms of analyzing a film through a critical lens, first started in 1926 when Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” was produced as a film with no one singular protagonist in order to better unify the film and the people within it. A lot of complaints many international directors have had with early Hollywood films were that they presented films with a pro-capitalist bent and were not yet awakened with a Marxist message. The awakening did happen however, as more and more filmmakers become aware of Marx’s readings and his messages and have since felt the need to share these messages with their audiences. Throughout the golden age and the modern age of Hollywood, filmmakers have been able to implement Marxist themes throughout their works that can help further the understandings of Karl Marx’s readings through the proper analysis.
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Though there are quite a few older films that have been found to normalize the Marxism ideology, Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is one of the most famous examples of a film with an anti-capitalism agenda. First released in February 25th, 1936, “Modern Times” deals with Chaplin’s iconic character of the Tramp and his struggles to live in modern industrial society. Employed within a state-of-the-art factory, the Tramp is used as a symbol of the modern worker in order to personify the observations and anxieties of living during the hectic world of the Great Depression as well the rise of unemployment within the united states. After the release of his film “City Lights” in 1931, Chaplin abandoned Hollywood for a chance to travel the world. While in Europe, Chaplin had the chance to see the rise of nationalist ideals and the social effects of unemployment and of automation. Chaplin studied different forms of economic theory, and began producing his own economic ideology, an exercise in utopian idealism, based on an equal distribution of both wealth but and work. There are quite a few symbols and motifs that relate back to Marx’s philosophies and his ideals, first appearing right at the beginning of the film. The opening title of the film states “The story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness” first and foremost deals with the concept of a working man being a better man, a worker desiring to enjoy their working feed. The next shot of the film is an obvious symbolic juxtaposition of sheep being herded into a factory and that of workers all arriving to the factory for the beginning of their shift. One of those workers is the Tramp, who becomes so clearly overwhelmed with his work that he ends up getting consumed by it in one of the most famous scenes in the movie. This is exaggeration is played for laughs, but in reality, actually symbolizes how the individual worker is so overwhelmed with his daily work that he actually becomes consumed by it. The Tramp is completely estranged from his labor, which is incredible menial and monotonous. The illusion of the sheep and the Tramp stressed of his work bring to mid Marx’s ideas of estranged labor, where the more wealth he produces, the more there is a “devaluation of the world of men”. The very next scene is that of the Tramp taking a break from his work to go to the bathroom and have a smoke break. No sooner has the Tramp sat down to enjoy his cigarette that the president of the factory comes on a screen in the bathroom to tell the Tramp to quit stalling and to get back to work. The idea that it would behoove The Capitalist to monitor the workers breaks is a reoccurring talking point for Marx, and again Chaplin plays up this fear to a comedic extent. The worker taking breaks, even the most minimal, would briefly make them free of the working exploitation which is why The Capitalist must do its best to keep their workers in line. The idea of the worker’s constant exploitation without stop is exaggerated even more at a point in the film where the president of the company briefly tries out a new machine designed to feed the workers while they are working. The machine, tested out on the Tramp for a comedic effect, is all about benefitting the capitalist even more by trying to get rid of the worker’s lunch breaks. The more that The Capitalist is able to control the worker by taking away their time wasted by eating, the more that they can properly exploit them. There are some other more subtle aspects of Marxism that Modern Times address such as the president of the factory being the only person within the film who can speak with diegetic sound as a way of stating that within a capitalist society, only The Capitalist has a voice while the workers are silent and cannot have their voice heard. About halfway through the film, the Tramp is wrongfully convicted of a crime where he is sent to prison. When his time is up and he is considered a free man, the Tramp states that he would rather stay in the prison then go back to the world. This can be an illusion to how the “real world” is not as free as the fantasy that we have been told, with how the world is run in a capitalist society and how the average man is taken advantage of. Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is a great tale of a man looking to be free by any means necessary, and in doing so becomes trapped in a world of automation where he is run into the ground and exploited to a point where he is trapped in the society he wants to be a part of.
James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi thriller “Aliens” is another film made in modern Hollywood with many Marxist undertones. Set half a century after Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien, Aliens deals with heroine Ellen Ripley awaking from a hyper sleep to be sent on a mission in by a Weyland-Yutani Corporation executive named Burke in order to lead a team of colonial marines to attempt to regain contact with a moon base that has lost contact. When they get there, they discover that the planet is infested with Xenomorphs, and chaos ensues. Cameron’s depiction of struggles between the everyday proletariat class and the bourgeois class is prominent in many of his films, his 1997 film Titanic and his 2009 film Avatar depict this as well, but Aliens is the most fascinating to rediscover through a Marxist lens. Ripley is the traditional everyday worker. Both strong and protective, Ripley is a strong powerful individual who can work in conjunction with the colonial marines with whom she is paired with. In contrast, Burke is the traditional capitalist. Burke and his company Weyland-Yutaini are perfectly comfortable exploiting the labor of the proletariat class, sacrificing the colonial marines in order to reap the benefits of their work. Burke is money hungry, all too focused on the idea that his company needs to make revenue, while the rest of the colonial marines and individuals on aboard this ship are merely worried about their survival and wellbeing. In order to stop the infestation of Xenomorphs spreading any farther, Ripley proposes destroying the entire moon base, to which Burke says that there is a significant dollar value attached to this base, and that there is a need to preserve the installation. The inhabitants of the moon base have all been wiped out by the alien menace, but the only thing that matters to Burke and his capitalist views is the preservation to the base and the wealth attached to it. A major twist in the films plot develops about mid-way through when it is discovered that Burke and the Weyland-Yutani company are planning to keep an alien life form captive on the ship in order to run tests on it. The breed of alien species, known as the face hugger, is only able to survive if it plants its seed inside a human carcass. Burke knows this but values the worker’s life so little that he will allow for them to die in an order to find a way to make it profitable. Ripley understands Burke’s obsession with wealth more than most of the colonial marines and sums the whole thing up within her quote “I don’t know which species is worse, us or them [the aliens]. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamned percentage”. The exploitation of the colonial marines is so severe that it is not even worth the life of a worker in order to achieve revenue. These themes of classism and a divide between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat class exist in the same way in the fact of how little Burke thinks of the colonial marines. As Marx states, “the proletariat and wealth are opposites”, and it is clear that Burke views the colonial marines as opposites and lesser than himself . Burke refers that the head marine in charge of the moon base mission, corporal Hicks, as a grunt who is not allowed to make any decisions for themselves. The scene in the film where the colonial marines are first awoken out of hyper sleep is also a primary indication of how Burke feels about being closely associated with the proletariat. Burke sits at a separate breakfast table as the rest of the marines and relies on the resident android aboard the ship to communicate any direct orders through any form of interaction. While the Weyland-Yutani company is referenced multiple times throughout the film as the head corporation, there are rarely any other members of the bourgeois class shown throughout the film. Burke is the most prominent and most vocal figure head, personifying the entire bourgeois class into a singular individual for the sake of better communication. Burke is the resident of the company aboard the ship, and in doing so has his voice as the most prominent against the colonial marines. Finally, after the marines have had enough in terms of being exploited by their capitalist leader, they overthrow him and unite in order to escape and destroy the Xenomorph aliens for good. Even though the Aliens appeals to the masses on the basis of being a sci-fi action film, the anti-capitalist undertones paint an interesting picture of how capitalism is dealt with in the future. The proletariat is still taken advantage of, and in some cases left to die at the hands of the bourgeois and yet it is not till the very end of the film with their backs against the wall does the proletariat even acknowledge the idea of a revolt. In terms of the Marxist revolution, Aliens is comfortable telling the viewer that if the class revolution is not even existent in our distant future, it may never exist at all.
Marxist themes can be found in all forms of media, even within media targeted for children. One of the most prominent examples of Marxism targeted to children is within Disney Pixar’s 1998 animated film, “A Bug’s Life” directed by John Lasseter. The movie’s centers around Flick a misfit ant who leaves his ant colony in search of warriors to save his colony from a gang of greedy grasshoppers. The warriors, who turn out to be a group of circus performers, help the ants rise up against the gang and take control of their ant hill and the colony once and for all. While A Bug’s Life is often lauded as having a more “anti-feudalist” bent, mostly because of the similarities it shares with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, there are quite a few themes throughout the movie that echo Marx’s themes. The first is that the ants live within a society where the efficiency is key. Within the ant colony and the civilization, they live in, the sun grows the food, the ants pick the food, the grasshoppers eat the food. The ants seem to be aware of this societal hierarchy and how unfair it is, but worry about trying any sort of shake up, as stated by the ant queen at the beginning with the quote “That’s our lot in life. It’s not a lot, but it’s our life”. The ants are entirely alienated from their labor, to the point where they are spending all of their time and effort in order to harvest food that will end up being consumed by others. Flick, the main ant throughout the film, seems to be more aware of this than some of the other ants and begins building inventions to increase efficiency in order to have more time for the ants to harvest and live for themselves. Flick’s search for a sense of freedom makes him long for something outside of just doing the work of the grasshoppers, so he creates new ways to make his life easier. Within the context of the bug’s society, the ants are the proletariat. In contrast, the grasshoppers are the bourgeoisie’s class. The grasshoppers are outnumbering by the ants, rely on the ants to collect food, and then leave the bare minimum food that the ants need to survive to continue this cycle. The grasshoppers rely on the ants never achieving class consciousness and need to do their best to keep them in line. This is summed up perfectly by the main villain in the movie, the grasshopper Hopper when he tells the rest of his grasshopper gang “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up! Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one and if they ever figure that out there goes our way of life! It’s not about food, it’s about keeping those ants in line”. This is echo’s Marx’s writings in “Alienation and Social Classes” where he discusses how “giving rise to the proletariat as proletaries” will bring about a chance and acknowledgement of how they are being treated. Hopper and the grasshoppers are also focused on maintaining ideological control over the ants, making sure that they do not start thinking of a newer way of life because, as Hopper says to the ants at the end of the film, “ideas are a very dangerous thing”. Within this small society, The circus bugs who double as warriors for the ant colony serve as vanguard parties, agitators used to arouse the proletariat ants into a better way of thinking of revolting and achieving that class consciousness that the grasshoppers are so scared of existing. At the end of the film Flick is able to lead a call to arms against the grasshoppers, helping awaken the proletariat ants by telling Hopper “Ants don’t serve grasshoppers! It’s YOU who need US! We’re a lot stronger than you say we are… And you know it, don’t you?”. This quote helps rile up the ants, achieving class consciousness, linking arms and revolting against the grasshoppers. The film ends with the ants in control of their own means of production, collecting all of the food they need for themselves and looking out for their own independence. The themes of revolution and keeping knowledge of the ideas of class consciousness and exploitation of labor are some quintessential Marxist ways of thinking, and the fact that these themes can be found in media made for children is comforting that it is never too early to have youth aware of societal structure and issues that may exist within it.
As Marx’s teachings have found, there will always be individuals who are being exploited within a capitalist society. The same can be said for a massive media industry like Hollywood, where there is a plethora of workers under the thumb of some of the biggest moguls in the world. However, it is always important for some form of agitators to help get across these messages and have their voices heard. Even if they have to hide their messages in some more subtle ways, storytellers like Charlie Chaplin, James Cameron and John Lasseter to get across Marxist themes and ideas within some of the most classic Hollywood films.
Fig 1. The Tramp on a smoke break. He is interrupted by the President who is always watching him
Fig 2. The Tramp is a test subject for the new company machine
Fig 3. Bishop, Ripley, and Burke eat breakfast with the marines seated at a different table
Fig 4. Flick’s invention to harvest more food and increase efficiency.
- A Bug’s Life. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton. Disney, 1998.
- Aliens. Directed by James Cameron. By James Cameron. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1986.
- Fairfax, Daniel. “Marxism & Cinema: Daniel Fairfax.” Marxism & Cinema: Daniel Fairfax | Historical Materialism. November 6, 2017. Accessed May 09, 2019. http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/reading-guides/marxism-cinema-daniel-fairfax.
- Robinson, David. “Filming Modern Times.” Charlie Chaplin: Filming Modern Times. 2004. Accessed May 09, 2019. https://www.charliechaplin.com/en/articles/6-Filming-Modern-Times.
- Tucker, Robert C. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton, 1978.
 Fairfax, Daniel. “Marxism & Cinema: Daniel Fairfax.” Marxism & Cinema: Daniel Fairfax | Historical Materialism. November 6, 2017. Accessed May 09, 2019. http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/reading-guides/marxism-cinema-daniel-fairfax.
 Robinson, David. “Filming Modern Times.” Charlie Chaplin: Filming Modern Times. 2004. Accessed May 09, 2019. https://www.charliechaplin.com/en/articles/6-Filming-Modern-Times.
 Tucker, Robert C. The Marx-Engels Reader, page 71. New York: Norton, 1978.
 Aliens. Directed by James Cameron. By James Cameron. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1986.
 Tucker, Robert C. The Marx-Engels Reader, page 133. New York: Norton, 1978.
 A Bug’s Life. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton. Disney, 1998.
 Tucker, Robert C. The Marx-Engels Reader, page 134. New York: Norton, 1978.
 A Bug’s Life. Directed by John Lasseter.
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