When modern states dictate what movies get made

I was thinking about the recent events surrounding the so-so movie, The Interview.  To review, hackers infiltrated Sony’s computer systems in response to the impending release of the Seth Rogen comedy about a fictional assassination of Kim Jong Un.  It has been widely believed that the hackers work for the North Korean government, although as of this writing the North Koreans have denied this.

There are two things that need to be said about these events that really help put things in perspective.  The first is that there is already a spoof about a killing of a North Korean Supreme Leader that was widely released in the movies.  Team America: World Police, released in 2004, is a far more funny, obscene, and effective satire than The Interview.  In this movie, Kim Jong Il is not only killed, but is reincarnated as an alien cockroach.  No attempt was made to interfere with the movie’s release in the U.S.** – although, according to the Wikipedia article, the North Korean government attempted to have the movie banned the in Czech Republic.

**One could say, however, that the MPAA did effectively censor parts of the movie out by issuing an initial NC-17 rating.

The second thing is that there is a long, ugly precedent of a foreign power interfering with the release of a movie.  The movie, which unfortunately did not get made for fifty years – and even then, was a castrated version of the intended feature that almost no one saw – was to be based on a novel called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel.  The history of this book and its subject matter invoked the ire of a major world power that is the gold standard of censorship by a foreign power that holds to this day.

Basically, Forty Days is based on a real-life incident that happened in Turkey during WWI.  During 1915, the Turkish government conducted a campaign of deportation of Armenian villagers to the Syrian desert (then under Ottoman control).  The novel provides a fictionalized account of an act of resistance to one of the deportation orders.  About 5,000 villagers took refuge on a mountain, Musa Dagh, to fend off Ottoman Turkish forces who had arrived to carry out the deportation.  After 53 days (not 40), the villagers were rescued by Allied warships.

Forty Days, first published in Germany in 1933 (in an act of brutal irony), served as an inspiration to Jewish ghetto inhabitants in  Białystok and Vilna.  More importantly, it gave much-needed publicity to the then-neglected treatment of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during WWI, a treatment that inspired Raphael Lemkin to introduce the word “genocide” into the English language.  Turkey, however, holds to this day that no such genocide ever took place.

Release of Forty Days inspired intense interest in a film version.  MGM studios secured the rights, and pre-production work started in 1934.  The government of Turkey immediately registered protests and ordered its Ambassador to stop the film from being made.  Although attempts were made at mollifying the Turkish government, nothing short of outright cancellation would stop the protests.  Although angry studio executives swore that no foreign country could stop their work, some classic anti-Semitic threats did the trick, according to a book Musa Dagh by Edward Minasian.  (The United States government was little help and in fact likely helped make sure the movie would not get made, according to Minasian.)

To this day, the only movie based on the book was made in 1982, nearly 50 years after MGM began pre-production.  I certainly never heard of it, and it looks like a small production that few people saw and has been since forgotten.  Subsequent attempts to release a film have come to naught because of protests.  Given the understandably strong desire of a powerful government to suppress an important piece of history, I doubt it ever will.