The Criterion Comparison: Captain America: The First Avenger and Mr. Freedom

When I went to see Captain America: The First Avenger this past weekend, I enjoyed it immensely. It was a fun, nostalgic look at 1940’s America and with enough of the Second World War as to not paint it too beautifully. It was corny, but in a way that you don’t mind. Like how a grandfather is corny, which in turn makes you think fondly and just shake your head and smile. Not offensive in any way, just the way Captain America has always been. And I even read the comic book when he was turned into a werewolf (he was known as Cap Wolf, turned into the beast by Nightshade. Don’t believe me? Look it up.).

It also had me thinking of other patriotic heroes through the years and ultimately had me come right home and give William Klein’s 1969 Mr. Freedom, a hilarious look at a political hero who fights for the American way of life, no matter what the cost. This isn’t a versus match, more as an aside to everyone reviewing the new Chris Evans film or comparing it to the previous Albert Pyun or TV movies starring Reb “I like to scream and am amazing” Brown. Instead I wanted to focus on the lesser known Mr. Freedom, a film in which when I saw it at a tender young age of 8 really made my head spin and made me seem like I was nuts when describing the film.

Most thought it was a fever dream, brought on by the ever changing political landscape, especially when 24 hour news television was getting steam in the early 1990’s and my love of comic books, especially Captain America. I had a love for the good ol’ boy of red, white and blue, but when I would talk about William Klein’s film, I didn’t remember the name or who was in it (not even Donald Pleasance, sadly).

I would just speak about this angry American superhero who fought crime, killed a family for stealing cable and his enemies were Communist supervillains, ‘one from China’, is all I could remember. And for years and years, my friends and family thought my imagination was running wild like Hulk Hogan, smashing into my brain with this film that didn’t exist.

But then I was lucky enough to find a trailer, back in 2004/2005 which I posted a link on Livejournal (remember that site?) and had a few people chuckle, thinking it wasn’t a real movie but a funny video. I had one person ask me if it was from Mad TV. It saddened me because I couldn’t find a copy of this film, which I found out later only had a few VHS releases, but were hard to find. And then the Criterion Collection announced Eclipse Series 9: The Delirious Fictions of William Klein.

I thought nothing of it until I happened to glimpse the 3 films featured in the collection and my brain went “Ah ha!” and I pointed at the screen, called my brother up and showed him the pictures from the film and I realized I truly wasn’t crazy. This film did exist and now I could finally re-watch it after almost 2 decades. And then the release came and went in 2008, I was without a job and I couldn’t worry about DVDs. So again, the lack of jobs in our great nation made it hard for me to watch a film that I needed to see once more and hopefully like as much as I did when I was 8 years old.

So where does the Criterion Comparison come in? Will this be some battle to the death? Of course not. We’re lovers, not fighters here and we’ll leave the killing to the heroes and villains in these films. Both are heroes who fight for what they believe in, the American Way. But both of these beliefs are completely different. Mr. Freedom fights for what he believes in, even if he has to rob, rape and kill anyone who might disagree with him. To some these wouldn’t be so American, but you need to realize William Klein made this film at the height of the Vietnam War, when all hell was breaking loose not only in that country but in the U.S.A. as well.

Klein was painting a satirical picture, how he viewed the U.S. at the time, being one huge bully who was controlled by the corporations themselves and who didn’t have to worry who they stepped on in order to make a quick buck. Being born in America didn’t mean Klein wouldn’t hold back any punches from what he believed, which is an amazing venture for any filmmaker. Living and working in France, he based the majority of the film there, with Mr. Freedom trying to save the country from the evil Leftists and their Commie ways. When he doesn’t get welcomed into the French society as warmly as he had hoped, he vows to destroy the country.

Steve Rogers on the other hand would never do so. He fights for what is truly right, no matter the cost to himself. He would die for what he believes, and it gives us the beautiful picture of an army officer doing what it takes to stop the enemy and attempt to do so with as little bloodshed as possible. He has his happy band of soldiers, his ‘Howling Commandos’ and they just go from point A to point B to stop Hydra and The Red Skull himself. That is their enemy, because not even the Nazis are truly the worst people around anymore.

Hydra have trumped even Hitler and company, so the Captain takes it upon himself to fight the enemy fist to mouth instead of selling war bonds to the American public. This is all well and good, but like the old timey films Rogers appears in, it is itself a propaganda film. We even see them filming Steve and his crew, with him looking at a picture of his sweetheart, to humanize the fight itself. It’s wonderfully done, but as we all know, all sides of a war will make films to hammer in the ‘right’ idea to the public.

What Klein did with his film was take a very unpopular idea, of America being the evil war monger, and putting this idea in a ridiculous costume to fight crimes that are looked down upon as anti-American (which critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about Mr. Freedom itself back when it came out). Is making an Anti-American film truly that against America or is it trying to flash a mirror at the public’s own grotesque face, during a war that a lot of people were against (sounds like something recent…) and seems to have been forgotten over time, partly due to this fact.

One wonders how well Captain America: The First Avenger would have done if it came out a couple of years ago when we were still battling what seems to be an endless battle against terror. I will assume it might have gone the way of Jarhead and Stop:Loss, films that are about the world around them and the war we were fighting but seemed to keep the wound open that our country was hoping to sew up. Then again, Joe Johnston did the smart thing, which is focus the film in World War 2, for some reason a war that no matter how horrific it was tends to be depicted looking very pretty. Even with death all around you, they tend to not focus on those bits. So nostalgia trumps again.

As I said earlier, this isn’t a match between two films. But in a weird alternate world, Mr. Freedom is the ideal Captain America. Even in the comics, one character named Super-Patriot, who took over the mantle of Captain America (when Steve Rogers retired for a bit). The crazy coincidence is when he was Super-Patriot, John Walker was in debt and in turn was sponsored by a corporation to spread the word of his character. He criticized the way Captain America went about his ‘American ways’ and even kills a terrorist.

Mark Gruenwald, who created this character, had to have seen Mr. Freedom at some point of his life, because the characters are very reminiscent of one another. An angry young man, who is corrupted by those above him, to fight for their ideals and hurt anyone who disagrees with them.

As I watch John Abbey ham it up to perfected as Mr. Freedom, you can tell that everyone on that set and in the film got what they were going for. Same has to be said for the cast of Captain America: The First Avenger. Both films were striving to be one specific thing and both accomplished what they sought out to do. One has made millions of dollars, the other has made others question the black and white world we think we live in. Both have men that believe in what they fight for, but one does it because they are a good man and the other thinks they are a good man. Both are patriotic, one for the ways we hope for and the other is the worst case scenario. And I love both films, which ultimately is what I hope this series will do for all of you. To find some films in some part of Criterion’s film catalog, be it in the Eclipse set or a Janus pickup.

To give a film a bit of a rub is what I hope can occur with this. And what’s even better is that you can view Mr. Freedom right now on Hulu Plus right now. You’ll even question your sanity because it is definitely a WTF movie, but one that will hopefully open your eyes to William Klein’s work in general. It’s a darkly comical film and if it was a Marvel comic book itself, it would probably be featured in a What If? issue. I’ll leave you with my favorite exchange in the whole film, between Dr. Freedom and Mr. Freedom, mentor and student if you will.

Dr. Freedom: ‘They are 50 million mixed-up, sniveling crybabies who haven’t stood on their two feet since Napoleon. And that wasn’t yesterday. And Napoleon wasn’t even French.’

Mr. Freedom: ‘He was Corsican!’

Dr. Freedom: ‘That’s right, boy. So the French are the white man’s burden. Our burden. We’ve had to carry them through two world wars already, and we’re damn well gonna have to carry them through the next.’

Check out David’s Journey Through The Eclipse Series entry on William Klein’s Mr. Freedom.

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  • Great comments James! And what a fun idea for a column… I may try my hand at it sometime! You cracked me up with that reminiscence of seeing Mr. Freedom as a kid and having the images burned into memory but just fuzzy enough to make you wonder if you’d really just dreamed it all up yourself. I think we all carry around little mental snippets like that from our childhoods. I have a whole melange of Flintstones, Gilligans Island, Three Stooges, Little Rascals and Japanese monster movies that still swirls around in my head decades after they first left such vivid impressions on me.

    A Mr. Freedom/Captain America double feature sounds like a great pairing, and we can toss in Team America: World Police to make it a legitimate movie marathon…

  • Definitely go for it. It doesn’t have to necessarily be for contemporary films, but anything that might remind you or give you the itch to write about a film in the collection in some way that deserves a bit of recognition. Mr. Freedom is not a movie one should have watched as a kid… my parents might have thought it was some goofy costumed hero film. Boy were they wrong. 

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