James Delingpole

Seven cult films about freedom

Seven cult films about freedom
Into the Wild (Image: Paramount/Shutterstock)
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Since freedom is in short supply right now, there's much to be said for spending a nostalgic evening recalling the thrill of cutting loose and doing whatever you damn well please. So here are seven classic movies that take freedom to the extreme:

Into the Wild (2007, Amazon Prime)

Every so often, I like to picture myself in the log cabin of my dreams, cut off from the world, chopping wood, shooting deer, and reading a tattered paperback by the dying embers of the fire. Then I remember there’s something on TV I’ve forgotten to record, my back aches, and that the lasagne needs making for supper. Into the Wild is a cautionary tale about the terrible price that sometimes must be paid when you try to live out the Thoreau-esque fantasy of the simple life amid the splendours of unspoilt nature. Adapted from Jon Krakauer’s tragic telling of the life of hiker Christopher McCandless Into the Wild at once indulges and tempers our wanderlust, letting us feel free enough to know that we could follow it we wanted, but reminding us that a life on the road has its drawbacks. 

Spartacus (1960, Amazon Prime) 

"I'm Spartacus." And don't we all want to be that man, now more than ever, even if it means ending unhappily on one of the thousands of crucifixes lining the Appian Way? Kirk Douglas stars as the eponymous Thracian gladiator forced into a deathmatch arranged as a wedding gift for the sister of Crassus (Laurence Olivier, who famously later tries to seduce his slave, Tony Curtis, in the bath with his insinuating speech about 'snails and oysters). After he is spared by his opponent – who launches himself at Crassus and is strung up as an example – Spartacus decides he cannot tolerate his imprisonment any longer and his insurrection ignites an overthrow of the slavemasters. Spoiler alert: they all die in the end. But oh, how sweet the taste of freedom while it's all going well: the escaped slaves frolic amid the wide open spaces of an Italy looking remarkably like California (because that's where it was filmed) and engage in worthy, hearty, proletarian activities (spinning and weaving for the womenfolk, military training for the men) which remind you that this escapist classic was written by a dyed-in-the-wool Commie, Dalton Trumbo. Ironic, eh?

Les Intouchables (2012, Amazon)

The most watchable of the niche but surprisingly popular ‘depressed and repressed paraplegic brought back to life by unconventional nurse’ genre, Les Intouchables is an unashamed heartstring-tugger. Driss (Omar Sy, now star of Netflix’s latest bingeable series, Lupin) turns up to a job interview just so he can get a signature to let him continue his unemployment benefits. The job is that of carer for reclusive quadriplegic millionaire Philippe (François Cluzet), and despite his best efforts to fail the interview, he is hired. Initially reluctant, Driss attempts to restore excitement to Philippe’s life, as well as repairing the latter’s relationship with his wayward daughter. What follows can be twee and ‘life-affirming’ (think fast car driving and paragliding) but since it’s in French and it’s very charming, you can override all your critical quibbles and just enjoy. 

Point Break (1991)

Point Break - Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 classic, obviously, not the 2015 remake - is possibly the silliest, but also the most wonderful male fantasy movies ever. Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and his surf gang are living the dream – riding waves, travelling the world, snatching as many adrenaline-fuelled opportunities as they can, the only wrinkle being that with a lifestyle that precludes day jobs they have to finance it by robbing banks instead. 

Enter the movie's hero – deeply implausible FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) who must infiltrate the gang by cunningly impersonating an airheaded surf dude, almost developing Stockholm syndrome in the process. Mainly the preposterous plot is an excuse for lots of extended life-affirming involving freefall dives and big surf. But it all comes together in the almost unbearably poignant final scene where - funny how this theme recurs in so many of these disparate movies - freedom can only be attained by paying the ultimate price. One of those rare films you can watch over and over again and never be disappointed. 

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1987, Netflix)

An ode to youth and pulling a sickie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a film that will never go out of fashion. Ferris takes his girlfriend Sloane, and his best friend Cameron – a perpetual worrier – on a lark through a suspiciously idyllic Chicago (fair play to the Chicago Tourist Board…) Ferris is akin to the male version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manic_Pixie_Dream_Girl), illuminating the world for the serial introverts and acting as a standard-bearer for a life lived to its fullest. It makes you want to steal your dad’s prized Ferrari and go to a baseball game, and if you can’t do that, well at least you can spontaneously lead a large parade in a rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’. Right? 

Groundhog Day (Netflix, 1993)

What if you lived the same day over and over again? Not a premise, perhaps, that we've found that hard to imagine since March 2020. But this one is much more enjoyable. When weatherman Phil Connors starts living the same day in a loop, he initially hates it, suffers, despairs, and struggles against it – to the point where he starts acting reckless – insulting people, indulging in every vice, and killing himself just to test his limits. After a certain point however, he begins to realize that his curse is actually a gift, and he begins to recognize the importance of being able to live each day as if it’s your last. Bill Murray is sublime, and the film is made in such a way that the message never becomes tedious or tendentious – a rarity in 1993, and even more scarce now.

Thelma and Louise (1991, Netflix)

'You've always been crazy,' says Louise to Thelma. 'This is just the first chance you've had to express yourself.'  Beloved by film buffs everywhere, Ridley Scott's road trip movie hardly needs an introduction. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis play a pair of best friends who, after setting off on a fishing trip, inadvertently end up committing a murder and going on the run from the cops. As the inevitability of their arrest sinks in, the duo get a new kick out of breaking the law and their efforts to avoid capture become ever more brazen, delightful and absurd. You'll be mulling the ending - one of the most famous in the history of Hollywood - long after the credits roll.