Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Culture flash: fallen dictators

This week's news in the arts

When President Assad or Colonel Gaddafi watches Star Wars ? which surely sometimes happens ? whatever do they make of it? Do they tut and nod about the sad necessity of Darth Vader's strong leadership, and the difficulty of finding a good henchman nowadays? I ask because, among the many stories told about dictators (usually by men), very few are on the tyrant's side.

By far the largest group are the biographies and based-ons. George Orwell neither fooled anybody, nor tried to, with his meticulous allegory of Stalin's Russia, Animal Farm. Unusually, the book begins with a dictator's overthrow, when farmer Jones is defeated, then shows Napoleon the pig's slow progress towards becoming his replacement.

Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler in Downfall has become perhaps the most memorable performance in the category, thanks partly to its brilliance, but mostly to its aptness for revision on YouTube. Charlie Chaplin made rather more deliberate comedy out of Hitler in his first talkie, and arguably his finest film, The Great Dictator.

Idi Amin, on the other hand, was often mistaken for a comic figure, but Giles Foden (once of the Guardian) skewered that with his novel The Last King of Scotland. This soon became a film, with Forest Whitaker supplying Amin's big-boned paranoia. Honourable mentions go to Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat (about Rafael Trujillo), Julian Barnes's The Porcupine (Todor Zhivkov), and William Shakespeare's Richard III (Richard III). Generals Alcazar and Tapioca from Tintin and the Picaros, however, are as interchangeable with any Latin strongman as they are with one another.

The Who actually prefigured Herg�'s sentiments, and echoed Orwell's (whether they realised it or not) in Won't Get Fooled Again: "Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss." The same crazed delight appears in Pink Floyd's In the Flesh. Aussie/German rockers Crime and City Solution look at things the other way around in The Last Dictator, a sad imagining of a tyrant contemplating his defeat ? a theme later revisited by Coldplay in Viva La Vida. And we will sidestep, for now, Mel Brooks's heroically misguided rap from 1981, It's Good to Be the King. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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