THE BOOTLEG FILES: “MISTER FREEDOM” Image

BOOTLEG FILES 143: “Mister Freedom” (1968 satire of U.S. imperialism).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Poorly regarded, even by America bashers.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not likely in the U.S., but it is available on French DVD.

In the course of my movie-viewing life, I’ve twice fallen asleep in the middle of watching a film. The first time was years ago when I attempted to watch a TV broadcast of John Huston’s 1966 epic “The Bible…In the Beginning.” By the time that overproduced monstrosity found its way to the zany adventures of Abraham, I was snoozing happily. I had to read the book to find out how the film ended.

The second time occurred the other day when I watched my bootleg video copy of William Klein’s 1968 satire “Mister Freedom.” This go-round in dreamland, however, was more unfortunate. Whereas the Huston film was a slow-moving and painfully serious drama, the Klein movie was a fast-paced, loud, chaotic assault on the funnybone. Falling asleep during a film designed to generate laughs is not a ringing endorsement for the production’s comic value.

But then again, “Mister Freedom” has a reputation for being a notorious failure. Indeed, its reputation was well-earned. Rarely has a film been given so much potential (a send-up on America’s bone-headed and boorish imperialist politics) and delivered such an anemic burp for a payoff.

“Mister Freedom” opens in an American inner city during a riot. A cigar-smoking, beer-guzzling sheriff returns to his police station and pulls back a giant American flag covering a wall. Behind the flag is a closet containing the uniform of the superhero Mister Freedom. This red, white and blue get-up actually looks like a hodgepodge of football, baseball and hockey uniforms.

Mister Freedom, with guns blazing, goes into the night and bursts into the apartment of a black family. After shooting off some bullets, he breaks into his theme chant: “F-R-Double E-D-D-O-M!” Yeah, he spelled “Freedom” wrong. It is not particularly funny the first time and it gets less amusing with the many reprises throughout the film.

Mister Freedom is then summoned via his wristwatch TV by Dr. Freedom (played by British actor Donald Pleasance sporting a perfect American accent). Mister Freedom is summoned to Freedom Inc. HQ (housed in the same complex as imperialist conglomerates including the United Fruit Company and Standard Oil). Dr. Freedom appears via flickering TV monitors to assign Mister Freedom with a trans-Atlantic mission: go to France to stop a Communist takeover. The previous Freedom Inc. leader there, Capitaine Formidable (Yves Montand in an unbilled gag appearance) was murdered, so Mister Freedom needs to save the French from the Reds.

In France, Mister Freedom travels about Paris wearing a red shirt, white cowboy hat and blue suit. He connects with Marie Madeline, the widow of Capitaine Formidable (Delphine Seyrig in a Little Orphan Annie wig and a drum majorette bodysuit). She, in turn, connects him with the local pro-Freedom Inc. operatives (including singer Serge Gainsbourg, who oddly never gets to perform in the movie despite hovering around a piano for most of his scenes).

In his Parisian journey, Mister Freedom stops by the U.S. Embassy (which looks like a supermarket/department store) and he encounters various foes: Super French Man (a large balloon shaped like a man), the Marxist gang leader Moujik Man (Philippe Noiret in a red balloon suit), Red China Man ( a large dragon balloon with smoking nostrils), and the mother-son team of Mary and Jesus (yes, of Holy Family fame).

Eventually, Mister Freedom discovers the French don’t want to be saved by him or his American style of democracy. He decides the French can only be saved by being destroyed – so he sets off a nuclear device that wrecks France and destroys himself in the process.

“Mister Freedom” should have worked brilliantly. It offers significant satirical jabs at the failings of American society (rabid consumerism, racist attitudes, the inability to realize American values don’t automatically translate overseas, the belief that force is a great way to sell ideas, etc.). There is even an eerily prescient declaration of whether the French locals are “with us or against us” (did Dubya see this film?).

But the film fails for several reasons. The primary problem is John Abbey’s performance in the title role. The actor looks the part of a superhero (tall, broad shouldered, ruggedly masculine), but he never grasps the nuances of the irony this film needs so badly. Abbey’s acting is too stiff and his comic timing is never on track to make the character work. His Mister Freedom is too dull to generate any audience emotion.

Yet if Abbey is off, then writer/director Klein clearly has no idea how to build a feature-length comedy. Klein, an American expatriate who enjoyed a career in France as a fashion photographer and occasional documentary filmmaker, obviously had a lot of anger against American society circa 1968. In some moments, he knows how to channel that anger (the embassy-hypermarket is a brilliant sight gag). And some bits of dialogue are very funny (especially when an exasperated Jesus cuts off his mother by insisting: “Mom, please!”).

But on the whole, he is clueless in building comedy sequences. Most of his big sequences, such as Mister Freedom’s two pep rallies with his French supporters or the encounters with Moujik Man and Red China Man, are shapeless and pointless. Klein never knows how to locate laughs, nor does he know how to cut his losses when his laugh hunt turns up dry. And having Mister Freedom rant about “n*****s” and the need for white unity only further isolates the audience from the character – there is nothing to laugh at with someone like this.

Incredibly, “Mister Freedom” did get a U.S. theatrical release: in 1970 via Grove Press, which specialized in underground-worthy oddities. But no one on this side of the Atlantic was amused and the film vanished quickly.

“Mister Freedom” never had an American video release. It was released in March on DVD in France via the Arte label, but no U.S. company has announced plans to import it. The film’s anti-American sentiments would probably find little commercial support today, even among fans of seriously warped underground movies.

But “Mister Freedom” isn’t really offensive. It is just boring, to the point of inducing sleep. And in my case, it wasn’t even a good night’s sleep – just a lumpy little nap from which I awoke angry that a movie could shut my eyelids with its ineptitude.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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