(NOTE: This post will spoil a few things for you if you haven’t seen Wizards, particularly the ending.)
The events in Charlottesville, Virginia have sane people everywhere asking once again ‘How the fuck does this happen?’ Seeing Swastikas being borne down American streets is always a shocking sight. An estimated 60 million human beings died as a result of World War II. The actual number ranges from 50 to 80 million, but I think it’s safe to settle on the median figure. Six million of those were butchered in concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis, who committed an ungodly array of atrocities until they were decisively hammered by the combined forces of the Allied powers. The flag they marched under was the very same one we saw carried aloft by American National Socialists / Alt-Right / White Supremacist protesters this weekend. But you know all this. We are all painfully aware of the terrible acts perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II – so much so that seeing it being waved around as a symbol of pride by anyone (especially by Americans) is damn near existentially perverse.
And yet – they do.
Witnessing it happen, and the violence it begets, calls into question our ability as a society to bear the weight of history. Of course, Fascism never went away. It was always there, lurking in the shadows waiting for the right confluence of events to spring into existence like a metastasizing tumor. And like cancer it will surely rot us from within if not destroyed without mercy.
Fantasy, as a genre, is often painted as escapism. Not serious enough to tell us anything meaningful about the world we live in. I think that’s bullshit – although frankly, I think this has as much to do with the consumers of fantasy as anything else. All too often we are given what we demand…and I suspect we demand far too little from our culture to expect anything meaningful in return. Thankfully there are artists out there who reject the impulse to feed people what they want and sometimes give them what they need. Ralph Bakshi is one such artist.
A native of Israel whose family escaped persecution during the war by fleeing to the United States, Bakshi has for his entire career challenged and pushed the boundaries of animation. After working his way up the ladder in the traditional animation industry, Bakshi’s first feature film – Fritz the Cat – was a shot across the bow of anyone who considered animation as being strictly a child’s medium. Based on the work of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, Fritz the Cat is raunchy and uncompromising…in other words, exactly what you’d expect from an animated film based on Crumb’s work.
Bakshi would follow his controversial debut with two more works, each increasingly savage and raw. Heavy Traffic was a slice-of-life drama set among the Jewish and Italian communities of New York City…something Bakshi, who grew up in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, knew well. His third film, Coonskin, was his most controversial yet. Often misinterpreted as a racially insensitive sideshow (which resulted in disruptive action from Al Sharpton and members of CORE), Coonskin is actually a mirror of American racial prejudice – taking the worst stereotypes of African-American culture and laying them bare…rubbing White America’s nose in its own shit, so to speak.
Therefore, it was a bit of a surprise when Bakshi’s next feature turned out to be a kids’ film. Originally titled War Wizards when pitched to 20th Century Fox (the name was eventually shortened to Wizards at the request of George Lucas, whose own debut was on the cusp of release at the time Wizards hit theaters), Wizards is a colorful Science-Fantasy film which takes place in a future Earth which has recovered from a devastating nuclear war. With the wane of 20th century technology magic once again reigns supreme, bringing with it Elves and Faeries – beings whose existence was presumably diminished by the rise of scientific advancement.
This is not a paradise, however. Many lands still burn with radiation and give rise to hideous mutants which, while terrifying, are also too inept to truly threaten their neighbors. Into this world are born two Wizards – brothers – one pure of heart…the other corrupt and scheming. The siblings feud and eventually the good Wizard (Avatar) defeats the evil Wizard (Blackwolf) in a magical duel, sending him into the world to lick his wounds and re-consider his demeanor. Of course, Blackwolf does no such thing. Instead, he spends a good long while trying to figure out a way to inspire his mutant minions. Blackwolf unearths an enormous amount of 20th century technology which his army of monsters can use to defeat their adversaries – but what really turns the tide is a trove of Nazi propaganda films which he uses to fire up his troops. Thus armed, Blackwolf stands to threaten the world and it is up to Avatar and his companions to put an end to him once and for all.
To tell this tale, Bakshi assembled a talented crew of animators and artists that included comic book legend Mike Ploog and illustrator Ian Miller (whose work will be instantly recognizable by anyone who has spent the last few decades playing Games Workshop stuff). The result is a visually distinct adventure yarn that has stood the test of time. While many who have discovered the film recently consider it to be a bit crude and rushed, I’d advise those who hold such an opinion to re-assess in the knowledge that Bakshi and his ragtag animation studio worked on a shoestring budget to assemble their vision, overcoming obstacles that would have deep-sixed many other studios. The oft-noted rotoscoping is one such shortcut that had to be undertaken when 20th Century Fox withheld much-needed resources to film the movie’s elaborate battle scenes. Faced with doom, Bakshi took to hand-reproducing hundreds of frames of stock footage, adding embellishments to create the film’s unique look. Anyone who accuses Bakshi of cutting corners would be well advised to consider the technique’s descendant – computer motion capture – without which many modern films could not be made.
Taken on its’ own merits, Wizards has well-earned its reputation as a seminal classic of 70’s genre cinema. But with everything that’s happening in current US politics I can’t resist the urge to re-assess the film as a prescient warning siren about what happens if we become complacent about Fascism. After all, Blackwolf’s understanding of the potency of images is keen – and not one hair off the mark. People rally around symbols because they offer a simplification, and a symbol which both explains the world in stark black and white terms but also empowers those who fall under its’ sway is potent indeed. Such is the strength of Fascist symbols and ideology. They promise a bulwark against one’s enemies. Strength in unity, rallied against a common foe. The fascist marchers in Charlottesville – like Blackwolf’s armies – draw strength from the past, chanting ‘Blood and Soil’, a chilling reminder of the German fascists who chanted Blut un Boden, the rallying cry of pure blood and national pride. These are not merely a pack of White agitators who are acting out some Twitter-fed aggression. These are Nazis, pure and simple, marching down the streets of a modern American city without shame.
Bakshi’s film stands as a potent reminder of just how tenacious these beliefs are. We see Bakshi’s rage against the bootheel of militarized hate in a synagogue massacre, on a carcass hanging from a meathook branded with a Star of David. We see it in Blackwolf’s desire for a ‘pure’ child, in his rapidly growing war machine, in his mutant subordinates wearing SS uniforms.
But Bakshi also shows us how to properly deal with Fascists in the film’s final climactic showdown between Avatar and Blackwolf. There’s very little banter. No cleverness or fair play. No – when Avatar finally confronts his brother, rather than an elaborate magical duel, he simply produces a pistol and puts two rounds in him. Give them no quarter. Do not talk to them. Eradicate and destroy them without mercy.
I often find it remarkable that Wizards is Bakshi’s idea of a kids film. It’s packed with violence and suggestive sexuality, laden with ideology, and unapologetic displays of fascist aggression. But – it’s also brave film making. It’s the kind of kids film most are afraid to make these days. And it’s also the kind of kids film that doesn’t shy away from delivering a moral message.
Given the state we are in as a country, I can think of far worse things you might expose your children to.