Three of the best film allegories of all time

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An allegory is defined as “a story, poem, picture or movie that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one”. But allegories aren’t just for literature lessons; they can be spotted in a broad range of films for children and adults alike – last week director Lilly Wachowski confirmed speculations that The Matrix was created as a trans metaphor. Once you’ve discovered these second meanings, they’re even harder to forget. The following movies contain three of the most creative allegories in mainstream cinema.  

Wizard of Oz (1939)

The classic, Wizard of Oz, is a typical children’s favourite that must people have probably seen before. It’s the type of movie you would put on to pass a snow day spent at home. But on first watch, few recognise that a deeper meaning lies underneath the surface of the seemingly innocuous yellow-bricked Oz. The story has underlying economic and political references that make it a popular tool for teaching university and high school students – mainly in the US – about the economic depression of the late 19th Century and the story behind the Populist movement.

The film is based on Lyman Frank Baum’s book that was published in 1900, just after an economic depression in America. Debt was oppressive, prices had fallen drastically and those most affected were farmers. Politicians and academics have claimed that both the film and Baum’s book offer a soft critique of the Populist political party that was established in 1900 to represent the interests of the labourers impacted by deflation.

In this reading, Dorothy symbolises the everyday American, the Scarecrow a farmer, the Tinman an industrial worker and the Wizard of Oz the US presidents of the late 1800s. At the time of publication, the US was operating on a “gold standard” system where the dollar was valued according to the quantity of gold. No one Dorothy meets can help her get back home. She comes to realise that it is only her silver shoes (which were ruby in the film) that have the ability to take her to Kansas, implying that gold cannot be the sole solution to the many economic problems facing Americans.

Spirited Away (2001)

This stunning Studio Ghibli film follows a girl Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) whose parents are transformed into swine after “pigging out” on the food of spirits. But there is a far darker meaning behind this story: as its director Hayao Miyazaki disclosed, Spirited Away is an allegory for the Japanese sex industry.

Chihiro is brought to work in a bathhouse – which could symbolise a brothel – where she works for the corrupt Yubaba, whose name directly translates to the name given to brothels in the Edo period. She tries to find a way to free herself and her parents in order to return to the human world.

Chihiro is never explicitly asked for sex, but the character No Face – a wealthy and influential spirit – frequently offers her large sums of money for something unidentified which Miyazaki also confirmed to be an offer for sex.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

The allegory in Apocalypse Now is a well-known one, and for those who have read Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, it’s also fairly obvious to spot. From the off, the Vietnamese rivers of Apocalypse Now which see Captain Willard journeying down in order to reach Kurtz – an American solider-turned-overlord during the Vietnam War – can be directly compared to Marlow’s infamous journey down the Congo in Conrad’s novel.

Marlow and Willard are motivated by the same cause. For both, the journey down the river is not just an assassination mission; it also represents a metaphorical journey into themselves and the racial prejudices and desire for power which are submerged in the Coloniser’s psyche.

In a shocking final scene, Willard reaches the God-like Kurtz, who is surrounded by his native disciples; he hacks Kurtz to death. The fires of the animal sacrifice blaze outside. But after this, Kurtz’s large following of Vietnamese natives look at Willard, kneel, put down their weapons and let him walk through. Choosing not to take Kurtz place as their new “God”, although the option is clearly there, Willard walks back to their boat. Kurtz dies whispering, “The horror…the horror…” – a direct quote from Conrad’s Kurtz right before his death.

Willard’s last act on the boat is to turn off the radio when he hears the command post calling him. Will he go rogue? Has he just had it with the army and the war? It’s not completely set in stone whether Willard has escaped the cycle or not.

Francesca Lister-Fell


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