Thursday, 16 February 2012

"Ransom" - one of the most stonkingly right-wing films ever made

The 1996 film, Ransom, isn’t the best right-wing film ever made – but it is one of the most right-wing films ever to come out of Hollywood. If it hadn’t been directed by Ron Howard and hadn’t starred Mel Gibson – both of whom were flying high at the time – I somehow doubt this remake of the 1956 Glenn Ford film, Ransom!, would ever have been greenlighted by executives in the world’s most liberal industry.

The plot is simple enough. An airline owner’s young son is kidnapped and a ransom is demanded. The Feds are called in. When he tries to pay the ransom, Gibson realises that the kidnappers have no intention of releasing his son. When another ransom demand is made, Gibson, on his way to the drop point with a suitcase stuffed with $2 million in banknotes, changes his mind, drives straight to the nearest Fox affiliate TV station and delivers the following speech on live TV – a speech that will have had right-wingers roaring with approval:
The whole world now knows... my son, Sean Mullen, was kidnapped, for ransom, three days ago. This is a recent photograph of him. Sean, if you're watching, we love you. And this... well, this is what waits for the man that took him. This is your ransom. Two million dollars in unmarked bills, just like you wanted. But this is as close as you'll ever get to it. You'll never see one dollar of this money, because no ransom will ever be paid for my son. Not one dime, not one penny. Instead, I'm offering this money as a reward on your head. Dead or alive, it doesn't matter. So congratulations, you've just become a two million dollar lottery ticket... except the odds are much, much better. Do you know anyone that wouldn't turn you in for two million dollars? I don't think you do. I doubt it. So wherever you go and whatever you do, this money will be tracking you down for all time. And to ensure that it does, to keep interest alive, I'm running a full-page ad in every major newspaper every Sunday... for as long as it takes. But... and this is your last chance... you return my son, alive, uninjured, I'll withdraw the bounty. With any luck you can simply disappear. Understand... you will never see this money. Not one dollar. So you still have a chance to do the right thing. If you don't, well, then, God be with you, because nobody else on this Earth will be.
As he packs his money away following the broadcast, Gibson becomes aware of the disgusted, accusing stares of the TV production team. Outside, an angry crowd shouts insults as he leaves the studio. His wife is appalled by what he’s done, as are the FBI team working on the case. The whole world is against him.

But he’s right and they’re all wrong.

Yes, of course it’s a male fantasy. Modern existence is nothing but compromise aimed at a quiet life and some vague notion of the greater good. But now and then it’s liberating to imagine what would happen if one simply decided to “do the right thing” and not compromise. Most of us – fortunately – never have to face those choices.

So what makes this such a quintessentially right-wing movie? Well, for a start, the hero is a rich businessman without any desire to save the world, and with a dodgy past – he’s been investigated for corruption. There are no rich businessmen heroes in liberal films – unless they’ve seen the communitarian light and are busy making the world a better (i.e. more liberal) place.

Second, it’s society’s agents who are wrong here – to such an extent that the main kidnapper turns out to be a serving NYPD detective (Gary Sinise, in excellent form). The message is clear: don’t trust the experts. Left-wingers display an almost religious reverence for experts, especially when they're appointed by the state.

Third, the hero uses his ill-gotten gains to defeat his enemies by appealing to the greed of the other kidnappers. Gibson is a person who doesn’t need people, and therefore isn’t one of the luckiest people in the world: he decides to rely on his  brains, his guts and his instincts. He doesn’t appeal to the kidnappers’ better nature, because he knows they don’t possess one: they’re scum. And because the kidnapping is a business deal (albeit a criminal one), Gibson feels he’s more in his element than the government-appointment “experts” who are trying to help him.

The original 1955 film (which started life as a TV play) has the exact same plot, only the ransom demand is for a paltry $500,000 (and I imagine today’s kidnappers don’t get out of bed for less than $10million). If anything Ransom! Is even more of a hymn to right-wing, don’t-rely-on-the-state, stand-on-your-own-two-feet-ism than its successor. It’s left to the frazzled Chief of Police to expose the namby-pamby gutlessness of the centrist, corporatist state: “How long do you think I’d hold my job in this community if I went around doing what I thought was right…What do you want, Charlie, a criminal code with guts?... This is the USA, for Pete’s sake – we’re a very humane people.”

By the way, in right-wing films, “humane” is not a term of approval.


  1. I haven't seen this film so I have ordered it on LoveFilm. I did see the original Glenn Ford/Donna Reed/Leslie Nielsen version which was excellent and is known as "Fearful Decision" [not available].It was Nielsen's first film [both he and Ford happened to be Canadians - odd. Why? Dunno.]

    I can never understand glaring gaps in film catalogues. With the recent death of Nicol Williamson I was trying to get hold of the three films he made with British director Jack Gold - "The Bofors Gun", "Inadmissable Evidence" and "The Reckoning". And there are many more. You are a film buff. Perhaps you can explain? Orson Welles in "Chimes at Midnight"?

  2. You're in for a treat! Interestingly, Mel Gibson and the main villain in the film, Gary Sinise, are both Republican supporters, which may explain its non-pantywaist stance.

    I am equally bemused by the lack of the films you cite on Sky or TCM - especially Chimes at Midnight, which was the first "art" film I actually went to a cinema to see, and which I still consider a masterpiece - brilliant sequences in a cathedral with John Geilgud, fantastic snowy landscapes and a brilliant battle sequence, and Orson Cart and Margaret Rutherford (as Mistress Qickly) hamming it up fit to bust (I remember our English teacher taking us all to see Welles's "Macbeth" in Tooting, and, despite being impnetrably gloomy, it was also a terrific watch).

    As for Williamson, well, he was an erratic and highly mannered actor, certainly, but by God he held one's attention. His double-speed "Hamlet" ("Sir has an enormous Hamlet!") was different, to put it mildly, and "The Reckoning" was superb - "Get Carter" for the middle classes. "The Bofors Gun" I barely remembe, but would like to see again, while my main memory of "Inadmissable Evidence" is of a woman at a middle class dinner party talking about her after-birth and Williamson sneering the word "dis-gusting!" Apparently he slapped another actor during the curtain call for the musical "Rex" in 1976, so I'm guessing he could be a trifle "difficult" to work with - which, I'm also guessing, is why he all but disappeared from our screens for the last 25 years - that and the heavy drinking and smoking 80 fags a day!

    Anyway, you're right - there should at the very least have been a Nicol Williamson season on BBC Four, and regular outings for "Chimes at Midnight".

  3. I get the impression from this blog that a little bit of right-wing wingery excuses all manner of other sins. If Mel Gibson's Republicanism is behind the toughness of Ransom, then what explains Braveheart? The fact that he's an arse?