Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Despots' choice: dictators' favourite films

A few years ago, stylista Peter York published a mesmerising book about despots' lifestyles called Dictators' Homes, in which he assesses the taste crimes of Mobutu and more against the very real atrocities they committed while in power. It casts a new light on Saddam Hussein, for instance; mocked for his palaces burnished with gold taps and murals of Amazon women on Mars - the sort of airbrush posters Athena used to revel in - York says the Iraqi dictator would been equally used, after years of hiding from potential assassins, to the underground hovel where US troops ignominiously unearthed him.

Concentrating on their interior décor, York omits to mention other aspects of his subjects' preferences, such as their taste in movies. In 1937, Adolf Hitler is said to have told British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax that one of his favourite films was The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), an adventure film about British colonisation of India starring Gary Cooper. The dictator held regular private screenings and was a great admirer of Britain's Empire, hoping Germany and the UK wouldn't come to war.

Stalin's favourite movie was reportedly Volga-Volga (1938), a musical about a folk singer who makes his way to Moscow for a music competition. While York's argument is often that dictators find it difficult to leave behind their simple backgrounds, this sounds like a model for contemporary Saturday-evening TV fodder, but then isn't Simon Cowell after global domination? (Stalin gave a copy of the film to US President Roosevelt and aides are said to have pored over it for hidden messages.)

Given his complex tribal allegiances, it comes as no surprise that Saddam Hussein is said to have been a fan of The Godfather (1972) nor, perhaps, that he liked thrillers such as The Day of the Jackal (1973) and The Conversation (1974), despite himself spewing forth literary dreck. If you're looking for a message, it couldn't be clearer than the self-glorifying, paranoiac, power-tripping nonsense adored by North Korea's Kim Jong-il, whose favoured movie franchises include the Rambo, Godzilla and Bond films.

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