If you aren’t feeling terribly patriotic this Fourth of July, and aren’t interested in watching yet another superhero movie in theaters, then we have the perfect alternative for you. To celebrate America’s Independence Day, we recommend Mr. Freedom (streaming on Filmstruck), which was written and directed by an American expat in France in 1969 and viciously lampoons both superheroes and the United States.
Though he’s best known for his fashion and street photography, over the decades, William Klein has also worked as a filmmaker. In the ’60s, during a fever pitch of political activism and anything-goes avant-garde in France, he directed a series of leftist movies. Most were documentaries, like a profile of Eldridge Cleaver, or one against the War in Vietnam which was made in collaboration with the likes of Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Jean-Luc Godard. But Klein also directed also two fictional comedies, mocking the fashion world in 1966’s Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? and America, capitalism, and imperialism in Mr. Freedom. A fine specimen of comedic anarchism, Mr. Freedom proudly thumbs its nose at Yankees, decorum, and the idea that satire has to be subtle.
Klein’s fellow expat John Abbey plays the title character, a square-jawed, broad-shouldered, POC-harassing sheriff by day and also a POC-harassing superhero by night. This film packs as many American stereotypes into each frame as it can — Mr. Freedom’s red, white, and blue getup is modified football gear, and in his civilian guise he struts about Paris in a cowboy hat and bolo tie. America’s Freedom Inc. (headquartered in the same building as Standard Oil, United Fruit, and Unilever, among others) dispatches the hero to France to fight the rising red tide there. His allies include femme fatale Marie-Madeleine (Delphine Seyrig) and the squirrely M. Drugstore (Serge Gainsbourg), while his enemies are Soviet super villain Moujik Man (Philippe Noiret) and Red China Man (an enormous inflatable dragon).
Mr. Freedom’s fight for the hearts and minds of France doesn’t go terribly well at any juncture, mainly because his strategy consists of killing almost everyone he meets and resolutely ignoring any urges toward moderation. When doubts about America’s greatness set in halfway through the movie, it physically weakens him (and turns out to have been the result of communist signals beamed into his brain). A casual, unrepentant racist, misogynist, and cultural chauvinist, he is equally ignorant of his own faults and others’ concerns. Mr. Freedom is the physical embodiment of everything people in the ’60s hated about America.
Superheroes are an almost pure American construct, and the superhero stories we’ve told — both in their native medium of comics and in film, radio, TV, etc. — have often reflected the images Americans internalize of themselves, their country, and their role in the world. There’s a reason why superhero storylines often revolve around heroes fighting the perceived social threats of their day, acting as watchdogs on the world stage, and gallantly coming to the rescue of weaker nations. And it’s no coincidence that as Americans have shifted from viewing themselves as rugged pioneers to world leaders, the former top movie genre, the Western, has gradually been supplanted by superheroes.
The nature of these social threats (crime waves, drugs, terrorism) has evolved to match changing cultural anxieties, as have the specifics of heroes’ missions abroad. Compare 1940s comics, in which superheroes led the charge in World War II (Captain America was introduced punching Hitler in the jaw), to modern superhero films, which are much more circumspect about how superpowered individuals affect the international balance of power, reflecting global controversy around security and military institutions in the midst of the surveillance state and the War on Terror. Mr. Freedom was ahead of the game in its critique, not just calling out American interventionism but also recognizing how the tropes of the superhero genre are often tied directly to conservative ideals and mores.
In Mr. Freedom, every dig at American belligerence, hypocrisy, excess, and ignorance hits true. That Mr. Freedom’s solution to most problems is to bomb them and wreak havoc remains a scathing indictment of American foreign policy, and, on the bonus side, presaged the modern superhero (and general blockbuster) obsession with mass destruction. A poisonously funny film that hasn’t lost any of its bite — both because of its incisiveness and also because America has only grown more powerful since — it makes for the perfect anti-Fourth of July viewing.
Mr. Freedom by William Klein is available to stream on Filmstruck.