Film Festival Review

Review: 180° Rule (Dir. Farnoosh Samadi, 2020)

LFF 2020

It is not often that you hear women in Iranian cinema discuss abortion and rarely in the first twenty minutes of a film’s opening. It is the first indication that 180° Rule is a little different and that there’s a woman at the helm. Farnoosh Samadi, over the course of 83 minutes, subtly depicts a woman’s experience in a society fighting between tradition and modernity which renders women and girls without agency, and often leads to suffering and silence.

Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) is a school teacher, well liked and preparing for a few days leave to celebrate a family wedding when one of her students, Yasi (Sadaf Asgari) admits to being pregnant (after swallowing pills to induce miscarriage). Sara offers guidance and advice where she can before heading home to pack. However popular she is at work, home life is a somewhat different matter – visually symbolised by the boiling, overflowing milk-pan on the stove in the opening frame – her husband Hamed (Pejam Jamshidi) is aloof, unfeeling, stoic and somewhat miserable. Criticisms come thick and fast and those that don’t are loaded in accusation.

She’s a nag, she smokes too much, she has allowed the cat on the bed again, she’s a bad driver, she’s responsible for his daughter being ill (it’s a cough and a temperature…) and then he’s claiming his workload will prevent him from accompanying her and daughter Raha to the upcoming nuptials. Which means that they have to stay behind lest travel unaccompanied or in the car with a ‘strange man’ (a taxi driver). This is made all the more disappointing by just how much his child has been looking forward to being the flower girl. Weighing up her options – and the expectations of her mother, extended family and daughter – Sara makes a choice and it is a decision that will change her life irreparably and we see the ripples for the remainder of the film.

During which time Samadi intentionally disrupts and disorientates the audience. The inclusion of Yasi’s subplot later on is purposeful and in keeping with the pace of the film and its reflection of reality. Change happens so quickly and impulsive, even inexplicable, decisions don’t always have time to reverberate or be made understandable – the plain and simple fact is that people, women can suddenly start acting strangely.

In a patriarchal society – like the one depicted so astutely onscreen – moral responsibility is placed on women, they’re conditioned to follow the rules, to do as they are told and avoid transgression at all cost. If they fail they’re expected to suppress their feelings and the pressures of secrets, lies, shame and guilt can often be their undoing, sadder still is that Samadi’s screenplay is loosely based on a true story. 

180°Rule is an evocative film that won’t necessarily be embraced by all but the juxtaposition of light and dark, black and white whether figuratively or in a lighting choice, a costume, or animal in frame is striking. Its mournful score, thanks to Amir Nobakht’s sound design only adds to the haunting melodrama and subtle social commentary.

It’s a technically impressive and visually arresting drama led by an extremely convincing lead in Dolatshahi. Were it not for her and the empathy she elicits, from what becomes a largely subdued and silent performance, it is doubtful the film would work quite so well. It will be likened to the work of Asghar Farhadi, somewhat understandably during one particular scene yet however flattering it is to be compared to a master filmmaker, and for a first feature no less (following short films: The Silence (2016), Grace (2017) and The Role (2018)), this piece of work is made all the more compelling, not in spite of but because of its female lens.


Review: Tranny Fag (Dir. Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla, 2018)

In the traditional Portuguese Tranny Fag translates as Bixa Travesty, a little less confrontational than the English but that’s just not the style of the documentary’s subject Linn da Quebrada – the self proclaimed “tranny fag”. Residing on the outskirts of São Paulo, she is marginalised economically before even considering the fact that she’s black and transgender, struggling to exist amid poverty and in a world that, for the most part, doesn’t comprehend her.

Rather than shy away from the public eye, Quebrada is taking the Brazilian funk scene by storm, alongside her partner-in-crime Jup do Bairro. Their songs – (performed throughout) providing a back story of sorts for the 27-year-old – contain abrasive coarse lyrics which pull no punches and berate society and the expectations it places on women, what it means to be a woman like her, and dismantling the patriarchy one bridge and chorus at a time. Her words are a weapon intent on holding the world accountable and paving a way of acceptance and understanding without inciting hatred.

As a subject, the singer-songwriter and spoken word artist is fascinating and inspiring. She’s pre-op and has yet to start hormones, consider breast implants or remove her facial hair because as far as she’s concerned she’d be pandering to society’s ideal of womanhood. Quebrada – who also co-wrote the script with directors Claudia Priscilla and Kiko Goifman – is a “black fag doll. Neither man or woman” embraces nudity, here and in her stage shows as an attempt to undermine, even recondition the collective mindset associating gender with genitalia and highlighting the façade of gender performance.

A real turning point in the documentary which jumps from talking head to music gig almost exclusively is the footage made during Quebrada’s treatment for testicular cancer, the physical effects and the profundity it had on the way she controlled her body. The scene which shows her literally pulling the lustrous locks of hair from her head, chemotherapy having ravaged her immune system is particularly powerful and in keeping with her persona, completely transgressive. This and the scenes with her mother offer a rare intimacy which is needed in an otherwise repetitive and prosaic documentary. The static camera and simplistic editing coupled with the pulsating combative stage performances start to feel isolating.

Tranny Fag is a LGBTQIA+ positive, important and transgressive, if slight, profile of a bold and beautiful artist who is unapologetically her confident self. She espouses her ideas and beliefs provocatively, is always interesting, and determined to not only stand out but belong in an accepting world.

Film Festival Review

Review: Make Me Up (Dir. Rachel Maclean, 2018)

LFF 2018

For those unfamiliar with Rachel Maclean’s work, the Edinburgh-born multimedia artist created one of the 50-feet portraits of Billy Connolly which adorned the streets of Glasgow for The Big Yin’s 75th birthday. She also submitted a short: Spite Your Face to last year’s London and Venice film festivals. This piece focussed on a Pinocchio-type character – played by Maclean – who chases the lure of wealth within an abusive patriarchal power. It was made as a response to Britain’s decision to leave the EU and Trump’s presidential campaign. Within the mise-en-scéne its colours of choice were (Tory) blue and (Trump) gold.

The artist’s first full-length feature – included in the BFI’s 2018 festival programme – uses bubble gum pinks, violets and blues in every frame, and like its predecessor zones in on the post-Brexit zeitgeist in a similarly confrontational and acerbic manner. Make Me Up begins with the familiar aural tone and visual most Apple users attribute to the Siri application, when a disembodied male voice asks, “Siri, when is the world going to end?” before a woman screams “I don’t know!” and her cries resonate over the black screen.

Siri (Christina Gordon) in this case is a woman, pink of hair, born of a gelatinous lump of flesh. Unsure of how she ended up in such an inexplicable place, she becomes allies with Alexa (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) and is forced to compete against several other women (there’s even a Cortana too) in a hyper-real game show of sorts. All under watchful Orwellian eye(s) which fall from the ceilings and monitor everything and everyone via facial expressions and status updates.

In charge is the Figurehead (Rachel Maclean). An equally magenta-haired woman who schools her audience on the role of women within civilisation and through the history of art. Like her ‘pupils’ she has no voice of her own but is a conduit for the dulcet tones of historian Kenneth Clark, and specifically his 1969 BBC TV series Civilisation. She has other voices in her arsenal, namely those belonging to Andrew Graham Nixon and critics E.H. Gombrich and Robert Hughes, all stored within a device embedded in her arm. Her mannerisms scream Thatcher as her lips sync to the pomposity of the white, male patriarch. The girls before her know to mind their Ps and Qs and if they don’t? Well, naughty girls are punished, pitted against one another before elimination. The winner gets to eat.

Every inch of the film is aesthetically pleasing – although some may find it on the kitsch-side (when is that ever a bad thing?) – from Maclean’s production and costume design (she is also editor and responsible for the compositing and 2D effects) to Grant Mason’s prosthetics and Scott Twynholm’s score; it is all substance and style. Maclean asks us to consider the toxicity of social media, the depiction of women in politics, art iconography and beauty culture. The use of The Woman of Willendorf and the Venus de Milo is particularly powerful to illustrate the evolution of the female image, with nods to the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Munch later on.

Make Me Up is a biting and thought-provoking satire which could not be more timely, not least in its celebration of the Suffragist Movement. It presents the violent and submissive fears, desires, control and pressures surrounding women. It asks questions of the role of women in contemporary feminism and art, as well as realigning the male gaze albeit sardonically amid Freudian visuals (the breast-shaped door handles and phallic dinner meat are particularly delightful). It has aspects of Alice in Wonderland by way of Sucker Punch via Hartbeat.

There is, however, no all-encompassing decorative pink bow of a conclusion – as Siri plots her escape thanks to the support of the sisterhood, you will recognise a few – and some may even find the final shot dispiriting but thankfully women persist. Director/Writer/Artist and all-round multitasker Rachel Maclean has put together something highly intelligent and imaginative. It deconstructs the beauty myth (perfection paint, anyone?) and reconsiders art history, criticism and all with a grin on its face and a knowing wink. More please.


Review: Tag (Dir. Sion Sono, 2017)

When watching any film by Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono, it is safe to say no two films are ever the same. He can turn his hand to all forms of genre cinema and yet doesn’t conform to any. From his last, gang rap musical in Tokyo Tribe to the gritty noirish neon of Guilty of Romance through his masterpiece, the epic romantic opera Love Exposure to the wonderfully weird hirsute horror Exte, one is always guaranteed an aural and visual experience of radical proportions and Tag, which would make an excellent companion piece to Sono’s 2001 feature Suicide Club, is no different.

Opening on the road with two coaches full of schoolgirls on a class trip all – except Mitsuko (Reina Trendl) who’s writing poetry in her journal – engage in a playful pillow fight as girls are prone to, apparently (it also sets up the recurring motif of falling feathers). A supernatural event then leaves her as the only survivor and she’s stranded with only her legs to carry her. This invisible perpetrator chases her to a lake, leaving more victims in its wake, where Mitsuko can wash off the majority of the blood spatter covering her stark white school uniform. She replaces the outfit with a second variant of a uniform and takes refuge in another all-girls school where everyone seems to know her despite never being there before. It isn’t long before death and chaos follows Mitsuko and she is, once again, on the run to the next reality and the next uniform, this time with a different face as she races to survive.

Tag offers up some interesting and philosophical musings about life, death and destiny as Mitsuko (in a couple of guises) spends the majority of the film running away yet, towards something. Participating in the human race has us all running from/towards death and experiencing the absurdity of life; a concept which is taken very literally here but then, thankfully, subtlety has never been Sono’s forte when combining his arthouse sensibilities with bloody action and horror. Yet, this film seems to take some cues from mainstream culture like Alice in Wonderland via seventies comedy horror classic, House.

Keeping the cast predominately women until the very end leads us through a womanhood of sorts: adolescence, love, laughter, and freedom to marriage when everything, or so it appears, ceases – the Groom with the animal head who resides in a black coffin certainly signifies as much – cue more carnage. This then culminates to a meta end and one which can also be read as a deliberate and timely response to the GamerGate controversy. However, as Mitsuko battles the new realities and does finally enter The Male World, it all goes way beyond a 2014 harassment campaign. It’s a largely silent and grim place where, surprisingly, women are decorative objects and all for the playing pleasure of a wizened old man (astutely cast Japanese heartthrob Takumi Saito under convincing prosthetics). He is the personification of patriarchy bending the world to his will, playing with his dolls and twisting reality to suit.

Tag, (inspired by Yusuke Yamada’s Riaru Onigokko) is a highly intelligent and exhilarating ride. The creativity and aesthetic of Sono is the driving force behind this provocative and surreal little tale. It is a bloody riot yet beautiful in its macabre weirdness, not least in those first five minutes – only in something so very artificial and unconventional can reality resonate even louder. It is a shame that there are no extras on the disc as a featurette or director commentary could shed more light on the inspiration for it, however, the not knowing is also what makes Tag such a pleasing experience. You, just like Mitsuko, get to choose and decide its fate.

Retrospective Review

Review: Dances With Wolves (Dir. Kevin Costner, 1990)

The Western can be described as an opportunistic film genre[1], one often utilised as an ideological tool to re-write American history, and Kevin Costner has taken the occasion to create a mediocre revisionist Western fable. A cinematically, epic journey which is, admirably, the actor’s debut in the forum of directing. Costner has clearly taken inspiration from auteur John Ford and this is evident in Dean Semler’s sweeping cinematography of the Western frontier and surrounding landscape. Dances with Wolves[2] was born from an age of political correctness and post-Vietnam sensibilities and can be read as an apology for Westward expansion.[3] This film appears to be about righting wrongs, idealising and romanticising East/West history.


Much like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers[4] following the end of the Civil War, Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) is on a quest to discover or re-cover his identity. The war has left him disillusioned and in search of change whether that be physically, emotionally or geographically. While The Searchers (and many more besides) depicted American racism, Costner attempts to propagate the notion of good and evil in the culture of Red and White, often seen as antinomies[5] of the Western genre – here, Sioux/Pawnee tribe(s) and Dunbar/Union Comrades. Both races are ignorant of difference and fear is driven by an ignorance of the respective worlds in which they reside. Dunbar embraces the tribe and attempts to assimilate into their world, offering his ‘White Man’ wisdom in an exchange of ideas.


Michael Blake’s screenplay based upon his novel of the same name replaces the Comanche Indian with the Sioux tribe and each character performance delivers gravitas not least due to casting. White actors in ‘red face’ of the classical Hollywood era have, thankfully, been replaced with actors of Native American origin and defy stereotypes. Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Wes Studi and Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman depict the multi-faceted Native American and attempt to reconcile the ambivalence and ambiguity of the human spirit (something that the more-recently made Twilight Saga[6] has failed to do). They are, however, rarely shot alone within the frame and are often seen in groups; the ‘pack’ to Dunbar’s ‘lone wolf’. The same human ambiguity cannot be said for the female characters within the picture. There are two women who appear within the mise-en-scène, Black Shawl (Tantoo Cardinal) and the other, Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell). The latter is a white woman who has lived with the tribe since childhood and the only female who shares any prominence in the narrative – she is the means by which the two worlds of East and West/Civilisation and Wilderness can communicate effectively. When she is first introduced onscreen, she is in the same place of despair as Dunbar in the film’s opening shot; bloody, alone and without a reason to live.


It comes as little surprise that Dunbar, now named Dances with Wolves, marries Stands with a Fist and by doing do re-enforces the white patriarchal ideology of the American identity. He has been the man caught between two cultures and attempts to birth a new identity – here alluded to by the removal of facial hair and Military dress. He grows his hair, wears Native dress and speaks in Native tongue, yet by marrying the only white woman in the tribe, miscegenation is avoided and the white race can continue to dominant the screen. Dunbar fights shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘his’ tribe in another Civil War, this time Sioux against Pawnee. This is a war he agrees with as the purpose is to make men free and is not ruled by political objectives.

First-time director Costner spends a slow-paced 114 minutes attempting to reproduce a version of the American ancestor, one that descendants can be proud of. One of racial inclusion, of understanding and empathy and yet the exclusion and absence[7] of the African-American race during the time of slavery and Civil War speaks volumes. Although, the subsequent release of films like Django Unchained[8] highlights the role of the African-American cowboy in history – the last film of note to depict a black character in such a film was Unforgiven[9] – there seems to be little room for a multi-ethnic American identity as the pre-dominant patriarchal white ideology still takes precedent and the ‘Frontier Hero’ will always, it would be appear, be white.

[1] French, P. Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre, UK: Carnacet Press Ltd [1977] (2005).

[2] Dances With Wolves (1990, dir. Kevin Costner).

[3] Barrett, J. Shooting the Civil War: Cinema, History and American National Identity (London: IB Tauris 2009, p81).

[4] The Searchers (1956, dir. John Ford).

[5] Kitses, J. Horizons West, London: BFI (1969).

[6] The Twilight adaptations have replaced the word Indian with Wolf but still depict Native Americans as angry young men waging war on the ‘White’ (Vampire) man.

[7] Cripps, T. ‘The Absent Presence in American Civil War Films’ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol.14, no.4 (1994) p.367

[8] Django Unchained (2012, dir. Quentin Tarantino).

[9] Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood).

Essay Retrospective

The Littlest Rebel

(1935) Dir. David Butler


I critique The Littlest Rebel in relation to the ideological ancestor of the American Civil War on film. This is, for me, one of Shirley Temple’s most memorable performances.

Described by the New York Times in 1935 as “an eventful slice of meringue and quite the most palatable item in which the baby has appeared recently [while continuing] to be the most improbable child.”[1] The Littlest Rebel (David Butler, 1935) is a rather unusual Civil War film as one often thinks of men in boots and beards rather than six year old girls with perfectly formed ringlets and dimples. To utilise a phrase by Will Kaufman, it can be described as a film which “regenders”[2]  the Civil War. Like So Red the Rose (King Vidor, 1935) and Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) Rebel initially takes place on a Southern plantation and also has a family at the forefront of its narrative. Mrs (Karen Morley) and Captain Cary (John Boles) idolise their daughter Virginia ‘Virgie’ (Shirley Temple) and the film opens with a dinner party all guests adorned in fine dresses and dinner jackets. It is only upon closer inspection when the camera moves in for a medium shot does the viewer realise that these are children; extremely civilised and polite adolescents uttering ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to their gracious hostess. Virgie is tenacious and independent, sacrificing her own ice-cream in order to ensure that her guests are content and full – she is also white. The Cary’s own slaves, each defined by a stereotype included in Donald Bogle’s pantheon[3]; Uncle Billy (Bill Robinson) is the “Uncle Tom”[4] amiable and protective of his ‘honey-child’ ward. James Henry (Willie Best) is evidently the “Coon”[5], his lack of intelligence and naivety used for comic effect and to incite irritability in Miss Virgie, who at six is his intellectual superior. A secondary character can also be clearly defined as the “Mammy”[6] a robust woman complete with an Aunt Jemima handkerchief around her head.

The news that there have been shots fired at Fort Sumter breaks up the party and sends families back to their homes, Captain Cary must report for duty as rebel scout for the Confederate army and leaves his family. This is a prospect Virgie seemingly relishes as she declares that her “daddy is the best soldier in the whole army”, however, her views change when she realises that her father will be kept away from the plantation for long periods of time. The fighting escalates and the Union army take the Cary land for their own, looting the property under the supervision of Sergeant Dudley (Guinn Williams) who is searching for absent patriarch Cary. Fearing for Virgie’s safety, Uncle Billy hides the little girl away in a secret wall space while the aggressive ‘Yankees’ ransack the house. When Virgie is found she is mistaken for a slave child as she has painted her face and hands with black boot polish in an attempt to conceal her whiteness and remain safe. This ‘blackening’ of Temple’s skin is also repeated in The Little Colonel (David Butler, 1935) when her character recreates a black riverside baptism in a muddy puddle. Lori Merish in her “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics” article states that Temple “purge[s] the cute of its unsettling racial resonances, performing an absorption and domestication of comic styles associated with blackness”[7], a term Richard Dyer describes as “binarism”[8]. She further describes Temple’s temporary ‘blackness’ as “racial hybridisation”[9] which forces the audience to view Temple and Robinson as the visual equivalents of each other. I would disagree; despite concealment beneath mud or boot polish the star persona and ‘whiteness’ is reinforced, there is no ambiguity. Virgie and Uncle Billy are not equivalents of each other but binary opposites: female/male, mature/adolescent, white/black and free/enslaved, a relationship that is described as “safe” by Benshoff and Griffin[10]. Certainly, the two are rarely seen embracing or are physically close with one another and it is Virgie’s relationships with the other male characters that are more compelling. She appears to be somewhat manipulative, particularly, with her affection and happily kisses men on the mouth and climbs into their lap; Virgie lacks no confidence in standing up for her beliefs.


A few weeks (this is a presumed timeframe as the viewer is never aware of days and dates) after her father’s departure, Virgie is playing ‘soldiers’ with a group of slave children and James Henry; leading the way wearing a Confederacy cap while they wear white hats reminiscent of Klu Klux Klan hoods. A Union soldier rides onto the land and the other children run away but Virgie stands her ground and fires a slingshot at Colonel Morrison (Jack Holt), marching in front of him singing ‘Dixie’ and declaring proudly “I’m a Confederate”. The Colonel likes her honesty and finds the ‘little rebel’ amusing. Not long after, following the death of his wife Captain Cary attempts to cross enemy-lines to get his daughter to safety in Richmond and with the assistance of Colonel Morrison he almost makes the journey, unfortunately they are both captured and sentenced to death by firing squad. Virgie comes to the rescue when she is granted an audience with President Lincoln to beg for clemency for the two men she considers her ‘daddies’.

The Littlest Rebel presents itself as a generic hybrid, while it has clear melodramatic indicators not least in the acting styles within the mise-en-scène. Virgie/Temple is often displaying facial expressions of an over-exaggerated nature and, at times, when emphasising her point out tends to pout and put her hands on her hips. When she cries, she has to point out the tears in an effort to reiterate the emotion of the scene, Molly Haskell describes her as the following:

[Virgie’s] flirtatiousness with her daddy [is] outdone, in precociousness, only by the patronizing way in which she [treats] her contemporaries. She [is] not only a little lady, advanced in social etiquette beyond her years, but a little mother, assuming the maternal role with [the] older men [in the movie][11]

Morley’s Mrs Cary delivers a more-understated performance; however, her death allows Virgie to usurp her in the family unit becoming a little mother/housewife and child all the while reinforcing Temple as the star of the show. A non-diegetic score, usually found in the melodrama is seconded to diegetic music in the form of songs sung by Virgie to her father at the film’s conclusion. The musical scene between Virgie and her father also reiterates the North/South dichotomy and in particular the masculine Northerner and the effete Southerner, here personified by Colonel Holt and Captain Cary; their star personas played up to maximum effect; John Boles was a silent star who became a Broadway regular and Jack Holt was a stalwart of the Western genre and favourite of John Ford. This information is not meant to imply that Boles any ‘less masculine’ than Holt, however, Boles’ visage is certainly softer, complete with long eyelashes and dimpled chin, he is often filmed in close up or medium shot and clinched in an embrace with his daughter. Holt on the other hand, much like Rhett Butler, is more stoic with his prominent jaw and monotone drawl.

As with other Civil War melodrama there are ideological messages which are present in Rebel. These suggest that it right to protect your kin – dishonesty is acceptable when for an honourable cause – embrace the beauty in death and show mercy to oppressors. In addition to ideological messages, Jenny Barrett suggests that protagonists within the Civil War melodrama complete three stages: old morality, transformation and new morality with “the civil war thus operat[ing] as a tool for the narrative structure, allowing the moral development of the central characters”[12]. Whether Virgie completes this moral journey is open to conjecture, she starts and ends the film as a six year old, yet in between loses her family home and mother. She is a child who does not know war but learns tolerance of her Northern Oppressors, gains a little independence while trying to save her father’s life and to reiterate Sennwald – an improbable child indeed. Rebel is similar to The Drummer of the 8th (Thomas H. Ince, 1913) in its generic hybridity and child-as-protagonist attempting to reconcile the turmoil of war with family life, however, while Virgie never sees any action (unlike Billy) she knows death.

Historically, The Littlest Rebel was released at Christmas, 1935 to a country in the middle of the Great Depression (1933-1940) two years after the commencement of President Roosevelt’s New Deal[13]. After the release of Rebel Roosevelt made the following statement “when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles”[14]. It shows the power of cinema if a film trying to depict the ‘lighter’ side of a war can make an audience forget poverty, mass unemployment and the worst economic crash of the decade. Little change was made to Civil Rights[15] so one has to wonder whether the black community were able to ‘forget their troubles’ by watching their ancestors on screen or whether the ideological white, patriarchal antecedent, evidently celebrated, is nearer to the ‘he’ that Roosevelt is addressing.[16]

Robert Brent Toplin has argued that cinematic history is also a generic category and that an audience is able to recognise the historical genre by the casting of certain actors[17]. However, I would suggest that by default all cinema, by production alone, has a history and to describe ‘cinematic history’ as a generic category is problematic; more viewers are likely to recognise the historical context of films through more obvious indicators like the biopic, war film, Western, etcetera. To think that viewers freely associate actors with a history film in this modern age is somewhat naïve, specifically the actors he uses as examples[18], not to mention highly subjective – one person’s President Roosevelt may be another’s Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)[19]. Shirley Temple is not usually an actress associated with historical films, her oeuvre consists of more generic recognisable labels like the musical, and is not therefore a principal characteristic by Toplin’s theory. The fact that Abraham Lincoln is present within the diegesis would suggest that Rebel is allied, with cinematic history along side the melodrama and musical.


It would be imprudent to accept The Littlest Rebel as an interpretation of historical fact and would be more appropriate to describe it as an interpretation of historical truth. Fort Sumter was, indeed, fired open and is widely regarded as the place where the war began and not, as suggested by this picture as the North attacking the South, nor did the fighting cease after two soldiers are granted clemency as depicted at the film’s conclusion. Certain artistic liberties have been taken as with the majority of motion pictures, just as Toplin freely admits in his thesis[20], not least in the depiction and representation of the African American male(s) featured, however minimally. They are all slaves and not soldiers which history informs us was not the case. Rebel states, quite categorically, within the opening sequences that the cause of the Civil War was the emancipation of slavery, Virgie asks Uncle Billy what a war is and after he tells her about men killing each other he adds, “A white man says that there is a gentleman up North who wants to free the slaves”.

The ‘man’ he refers to is, of course, Abraham Lincoln and I would suggest that it is through his presence that may shape a historical truth certainly surrounding his Presidency and the time of war. This would substantiate Toplin’s statement that “Hollywood’s interpretations of American history can make a significant impact on the public’s thinking about the past[21], Lincoln’s mythology lend itself to The Birth of a Nation, Young Mr Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) and Rebel amongst others. All attempt to depict the sixteenth President of the United States as the father of the nation – specifically in the latter picture where fatherhood is a metaphor heavily relied upon throughout – a man who was a friend of the people, as wholesome as the apple shared and eaten with Virgie (or the pie judged at competition in Young Mr Lincoln). A confidant who shows clemency to a chosen few – the issue of the 620,000 deaths he helped contribute to with his political decisions is rarely commented upon – instead he is martyred on screen and his antebellum memory is romanticised thereby allowing both filmmakers and audiences alike to avoid serious questions about Lincoln’s character and legacy. This is not a man torn by real indecision (peach or apple pie preference not included[22]), as suggested in the letter to Horace Greeley in 1862[23], but a gentleman who exuded confidence and was fair to the Southern people and indifferent to race – he shakes both Virgie and Uncle Billy’s hand without hesitation and it would seem that the mythology of Mr Lincoln informs both the historical truth and interpretations of the past on the present.

The Littlest Rebel attempts to correct the ruin, death and unhappiness[24] of So the Red the Rose and Gone With the Wind with its romanticised innocence, musical melodrama and racist undertones. The film depicts (circa) 1861 as a time of continuing racism and poverty during war. Its production in 1935 (also a time of continuing racism and poverty[25]) suggests that the historical context of production and finished aesthetics add authenticity to the Hollywood version of history. Shirley Temple coquettishly straddles childhood and adulthood like the improbable child described in Sennwald’s 1935 review. She does, however, surrender her active independence to the hegemonic white, patriarch who continues to inform the ideological American ancestor.

[1] Andre Sennwald, New York Times Reviews The Littlest Rebel, 20 December 1935.

[2] Will Kaufman, The Civil War in American Culture, UK: Edinburgh University Press (2006) pp92-109.

[3] Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films USA: Continuum (1991).

[4] Ibid. pp4-5

[5] Ibid. pp5-6

[6] Ibid. p6

[7] Lori Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics” in Rosemarie garland Thomson (ed) Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, New York: New York University Press (1996) p198.

[8] Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation, London & New York: Routledge (1993) p133.

[9] Merish, (1996) p199.

[10] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film:Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, UK: Blackwell Publishing (2004) p81.

[11] Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies 2nd Edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1987) p123.

[12] Barrett, (2009) p53

[13] Roosevelt created the New Deal and the 3 Rs – relief, reform and recovery in order to bring the USA through the greatest economic crash of the decade.

[14] Shirley Temple, Child Star, New York: McGraw (1988) p59.

[15] Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940, London: Macmillan (1989) p252.

[16] Anne Edwards, Shirley Temple: American Princess, New York: William Morrow (1988) p85 – in 1935 black men were still not treated as equals to the white man and Bill Robinson, reportedly, had to enter by the rear of the studio lot, could not share his meals with white cast members or use the same bathroom facilities.

[17] Toplin, (2002) p14.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jon Voight played Roosevelt in Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001) and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy – two roles which are widely diverse. One would not necessarily associate him with a history picture with these multi-faceted performances.

[20] Toplin, (2002) p59.

[21] Toplin, (2002) p1.

[22] As visual metaphor to depict Lincoln’s ever-changing min over saving the Union or abolishing slavery.

[23] New York Tribune, 22 August 1862.

[24] New York Times review, 1935.

[25] Badger (1989), p3