Leila Kozma / June 4, 2019
The 1970s saw the release of numerous superhero films, including 1974’s Wonder Woman (starring the incredible Cathy Lee Crosby), 1977’s Spider-Man, 1978’s Superman, and 1979’s Captain America. Most of these films allude to U.S. politics: In Superman, Lex Luthor reprograms U.S. nuclear missiles to destroy the East and West Coasts; Wonder Woman is hired by the Central Intelligence Agency to recover stolen codes; and Steve Rogers develops superpowers and becomes Captain America after the U.S. government injects him with a “super-steroid.” None of them, however, addresses current affairs quite as daringly as William Klein’s 1969 Mr. Freedom, a superhero satire featuring a morally corrupt populist as its main character.
Klein’s cult classic offers so much more than traditional superhero fare: it’s a highly critical portrayal of the political issues of the era (including frequent, condemnatory references to the Vietnam War, the Congo Crisis, and the Cold War), incredibly inventive costumes and set designs made from a staggeringly low-budget (ever seen superhero attire made of recycled baseball gear?), an honest depiction of gender relations within the political establishment, and outstanding homemade effects depicting battle, war, and explosions. Long before CGI, Klein succeeded in coming up with an aesthetic just as amusing as the grand finale of any blockbuster movie (the final battle scene in the 2018 Avengers: The Infinity War has nothing on Klein’s set piece).
Peter Parker transformed into Spider-Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider; Wonder Woman was formed out of clay by Greek goddess Hippolyta; brilliant scientist Bruce Banner became the Incredible Hulk after being exposed to the rays of a gamma bomb explosion during a nuclear test. Mr. Freedom (John Abbey) becomes Mr. Freedom, on the other hand, while working tough, blue-collar jobs: shoe-shiner, cotton-picker, farmer, boxer, and male nurse. Unlike a traditional superhero, Mr. Freedom earned first-hand experience of what it feels like to work your way up from the gutter. He is the first populist superhero: the seeming representative of the destitute, the disillusioned, those who are by-and-large ignored by the political establishment.
Mr. Freedom goes from zero-to-hero in no time, transforming from a simple-minded everyman to a greedy, self-righteous, power-hungry beast. In the course of the film’s 120 minutes, the working-class savior depicted in the first few scenes becomes a two-faced, morally corrupt, insatiable man, fixated on using his talents and abilities to wage war, kill, and rape. Just like the populist politicians of our time, Mr. Freedom becomes intoxicated with his own ego, weaponizing his boyish charm and rhetorical skills to persuade citizens to back all the wrong causes.
Losing interest in the common good and the betterment of the country, the film shows Mr. Freedom’s mutation into pure evil. A number of scenes depict him committing murder: he throws a friendly window-cleaner from a balcony to ensure that nobody’s listening on a private, confidential conversation; he manipulates an assassin into poisoning herself; he shoots a man in cold blood; and the last scene shows him threaten to destroy the whole world by activating a nuclear warhead (more Lex Luthor than Superman, obviously).
To emphasize just how two-faced the main character is, Klein, who was born in New York City but spent much of his time in France as a fashion photographer, includes a number of scenes revealing the financial, individualistic gains that populist rhetoric can easily give way to. Though Freedom parades as the representative of everyday people and the public interest, the headquarters of his organization is located in the same building as the corporate offices of Aramco, Shell, United Fruits, and General Motors, a catchy mid-film allusion to the pervasively corrupt relationship between politics and big money. In another scene, he takes a stroll across an enormous, Walmart-like supermarket, lending a sympathetic ear to the owner, who is aggravated by plummeting sales and political dissidents. Despite his strongly critical views about the upper class, Freedom obviously relishes rubbing elbows with them. He offers soothing advice to the owner-investor and flirts with the scantily-clad women invited to keep him entertained during the tour. The scene lays bare the inherent flaws of the populist ethos.
Regardless of its political views and the lack of a true superpower, Mr. Freedom has everything a superhero movie needs. In the very first scene, we watch John Abbey’s character transform from your average sheriff into a superhero by means of a secret, built-in-wardrobe kitted with all sorts of blades, guns, masks, and other weaponry. Later on, he receives a briefing from his supervisor, Dr. Freedom (Donald Pleasance), via a televised message—a requirement of the genre—while the movie culminates in various mass fight and shooting scenes. The last frame captures Mr. Freedom as he takes matters into his own hands: lonely, isolated, with his team killed off by the enemy, he decides to trigger a nuclear explosion to wipe his commie enemies from the face of this earth—only to discover that the warhead wasn’t effective enough to do more but destroy the housing block he was residing in.
By mapping the main events of the Cold War era onto the relationships between the leading characters—Mr. Freedom, the communists Mr. Moujik and Red China Man (an inflatable dragon), and the “anti-freedom” Super French Man—Klein attempts to offer a new, radically different angle on the problems much-discussed in Paris at the time: Klein started shooting Mr. Freedom only days before the May 1968 uprising in France. Despite its filmic shortcomings, the movie captures an era fervent with revolutionary spirit, alongside cult classics including 1968’s Wild in the Streets and 1969’s Medium Cool and Easy Rider, all of them challenging viewers to think about the growing divide between the elites and everyday people. For an auteur who has always been an ardent critic of the U.S. political establishment—in a Guardian interview, he simply uses the term “crazy right-wing assholes” to refer to the leaders of his country of birth—the movie offers a splendid condemnation of the reactionary attitudes that culminated in the Nixon presidency.
Mr. Freedom also eerily foreshadowed our current crop of political demagogues—charismatic “men of the people” who, like Mr. Freedom, wrap themselves in the flag, surround themselves with blind followers, pick fights like schoolyard bullies, and seem to believe that morality and human compassion border on delusion. Just like Klein’s fictive narrative, the era of Trump and Brexit is brimming with egomaniac politicians and pundits always ready to exploit the suffering of the working-classes for the benefit of the rich. What Klein produced at the time was something entirely novel, even as the events and attitudes expressed in his satire have become normal, no longer worthy of notice.
Leila Kozma is a journalist whose work has appeared in Tank, The King’s Review, Sleek, and others. She’s currently working on a piece about Agnes Bowker, an early-modern era maid-servant reputed for giving birth to a cat.