You walk down a street and suddenly you see something you've never seen before in this city: a cop with a scoped M-16 carbine sporting a 30-round banana clip, a Kevlar helmet and body armor, and you think: We live in an age of terror.
The movies got there first, and I'm not thinking of the endless litany of blast-'em-aways of the popular culture where the various Arnolds and Bruces slaughter bad guys in burnooses by the hundreds. I'm thinking rather of those few movies that have looked hard and close at the process of terror -- the destruction of civilian morale for political ends by the indiscriminate use of violence. We'll skip the well-known classic "Battle of Algiers" on the grounds that it is a well-known classic. Let's look instead at movies that deal with the psychology of terror, its origins, its long-term effects.
The most frightening has to be Mike Reeves's terrifying 1968 film "Witchfinder General," which was recently shown at the Silver Theatre as part of the AFI's British Horror Series and too bad if you didn't see it there, because it's not available in compatible video formats here. The film features a chilling performance by Vincent Price as a politico riding a deep fear to awesome levels of power and cynicism. If you think it sounds familiar, think again: The year is 1650 or so, and the fear is of witches -- the terrorists, one supposes, of the 17th century. It's a terrifying spectacle of how popular opinion can be craftily manipulated by the unscrupulous.
Andrzej Wajda's "Danton" (1983) looks at the actual origin of the word "terrorism," the Jacobin seizure of the French Revolution under the dictatorship of Maximilien Robespierre in 1793. He became the chairman of the Committee of Public Safety and sent more than 40,000 to Madame Guillotine; he's played in the film by Wojciech Pszoniak and opposed by the great Gerard Depardieu as Robespierre's antagonist Danton.
Both those films look at terror as a profession. Other films look at it as an experience. That experience is most vividly portrayed in two other melodramatic films of several decades ago.
The best is probably Richard Brooks's version of the Robert Ruark epic "Something of Value" (1957), set during the Mau Mau revolt of 1953, when white farmers in what is now Kenya were subject to wanton massacre by bands of extremists.
It wasn't very pretty, and Brooks, a woefully under-appreciated filmmaker, manages to get into his film the sense of insecurity, even existential dread, released when full-fledged violence is unleashed against women and children. Brooks even got a pretty good performance out of the rocklike Rock Hudson as a young British plantation heir and professional hunter who has to grow up amid the slaughter.
The second is less serious, less tragic, but still compelling, yet utterly forgotten. "The Seventh Dawn," from 1964, was set during the communist revolution in Malaya after the Second World War. It follows as three survivors of the guerrilla campaign against the Japanese -- an American played by William Holden, a European played by Capucine and a Malaysian intellectual played by Tetsuro Tamba -- find themselves enmeshed in the war after the war: the American as a planter, the European as a peace demonstrator and the Malaysian as a terrorist. It sounds melodramatic, and it is. Still, director Lewis Gilbert does a remarkable job of capturing the feeling of terror, the sense that at any moment chaos and violence might destroy what lifetimes had been spent building.