John Travolta's revolting box-office dud, "Battlefield Earth", has been greeted with some of the most ferocious reviews in recent memory. This film is so bad it has critics describing it as "Ed Wood's Planet of the Apes" and predicting that in future years it will join the ranks of films remembered by the public for being unimaginably awful, perhaps even outstinking "Ishtar."
In fact, to find reviews this bad, you would have to go back nearly 20 years, to when another movie funded by a controversial cult figure hit American cinemas with a resounding thud. I refer of course to Sun Myung Moon's war epic, "Inchon", which was hooted of the theatres by critics such as Peter Rainer of the _Los Angeles Herald Examiner_, who commented: "Quite possibly the worst film ever made ...
stupefyingly incompetent," or Jack Kroll of _Newsweek_ who commented:
"The worst movie ever made ... a turkey the size of Godzilla."
(Thanks to Craig Maxim, whose website, www.xmoonies.com, supplied these memorable quotes).
In both cases, we have movies in which major acting talent was signed on and no expense was spared to produce spectacle and grandeur. And yet both movies suffered from horrendous screenplays that reduced the characters to little more than stick figures, going through what amounts to simple-minded, melodramatic plots that fairly reeked of some writer trying to tell his audience, "This is the revealed truth and you will be overawed by it!"
In Inchon's case, Moon signed on no less than Sir Laurence Olivier to play the role of General Douglas MacArthur, in one of his final screen roles. Jacqueline Bisset and Ben Gazzara also starred in the movie. In the case of "Battlefield Earth", of course, the main star was Travolta himself, playing the chief villain. Whatever you think of Travolta's connection to Scientology, no-one can deny that he is a fine actor when he has a fine script to work with. This time, he chose a script inspired by one of the most profoundly mediocre talents in the science fiction pantheon - L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. Both movies ended up burying these actors' talents under bad scripts.
The two failed films raise the question why ideologically-driven artists generally produce poor art. I would say it is because totalist ideologies are inherently shallow; they see things in simplistic terms, and any contradictions are simply ignored or explained away with doublethink. A script written from such a viewpoint would lack subtlety and would contain inherent contradictions that the writer would feel he or she dare not examine or even acknowledge. Some of the best European writers of the last century were former Communists who abandoned their ideology in later years: George Orwell, for example, or Arthur Koestler. They were able to produce fine works only after they left their ideology behind.
The parallels between "Battlefield Earth" and "Inchon" are particularly striking. Both films cost many, many millions of dollars. Both quickly disappeared from cinemas after ferocious reviews. In both cases, members of the respective cult groups were urged to attend the cinemas in droves, but because of the small numbers of members, they could not influence the box office receipts.
I was still a member of the Moonies in 1982 when "Inchon" hit the theatres. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and went to the movie with another church friend and her son. Earlier, I had gone around to houses -- on Sun Myung Moon's orders -- to hand out fliers for the movie. Moon asked that all members distribute thousands of these fliers, in addition to all their other duties, from which they were not excused. When the big day came, word of mouth started going around to members of the Unification Church not to expect very much from the film. All the members had been waiting for this film for years, expecting it to be a huge event which would boost Moon's popularity. So of course I went to see the film, and I pronounced it "good", though I remember almost nothing of it. My friend told me she thought Olivier was merely going through the motions in his acting.
After the spate of furious reviews, Sun Myung Moon took out full-page advertisements in many American newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The ads, with the word "Inchon" running around the page as a border, contained an open letter from Moon accusing the critics of being biased against the movie merely because he was the producer. Moon claimed they were condemning the movie for that reason alone instead of examining it on its merits. (I wonder how many times Moon himself actually watched this clunker. After all, it wasn't in Korean, and he speaks poor English.)
Scientologists, for their parts, will probably blame the failure of "Battlefield Earth" on the fact that many film critics are "suppressive persons," instead of considering that maybe -- just maybe, mind you! -- the film stinks.