Spartacus to Hunger Games, movies inspire off-screen rebels with a cause

Hold the popcorn, iconic film imagery often incorporated into real-life protests

Student Natchacha Kongudom raises her arm in a three-fingered salute inspired by the film series "The Hunger Games'' in front of a poster for the most recent installment at a cinema in Bangkok on November 20, 2014.
Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

Three students were detained this week in Bangkok after handing out free tickets to the latest installment in the "The Hunger Games," from which Thai activists have borrowed a three-fingered salute flashed by the film's protagonist to protest the very real military-imposed government now in force in Thailand.

The trio were held briefly and then released, but they are now part of a vaunted tradition where films and protest intersect, with movie-goers taking the imagery and words of cinema to the streets. It’s not just “The Hunger Games’’ that inspires action. Take a look at the world of Katniss Everdeen and some other talking pictures that spoke to protesters.

The Hunger Games, 2012 (Directed by Gary Ross)

In the trilogy of "Hunger Games'' books by Suzanne Collins, a country called Panem sets up a competition each year amongst the country's twelve districts. Two youths from each district are randomly selected and then collected in a vast arena to fight to the death.

The setting has become a potent metaphor for young people made vulnerable by chance and channeled by society into an uncertain future in which they are forced to fight for their lives. The film's imagery — especially heroine Katniss's three-fingered salute — have been lifted by pro-democracy activists in Thailand. The prime minister there recently warned that protesters using the gesture could "jeopardize their futures."

A demonstrator dressed as a Na'vi character from the movie "Avatar'' during a protest by Palestinians and activists on February 12, 2010 against Israeli settlements and house confiscation. Environmentalists have also adapted the look for their cause.
Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

Avatar, 2009 (Directed by James Cameron)

In James Cameron's epic space adventure set two centuries in the future, a human mining company finds a rare mineral on a moon in another galaxy. The only problem is that mining for it will disrupt the lives of the moon's natives, called the Na'vi.

One of the human explorers joins the Na'vi and goes native, setting up an epic battle — a classic standoff between the forces of destructive progress and the natural inhabitants of the land, and one that was not lost on environmental activists around the world. The Na'vi are outgunned, of course, but have some pantheistic allies come to the rescue. In 2010, pro-Palestinian demonstrators dressed as the Na'vi to protest an Israeli separation wall in the West Bank.

The iconic moment in Sally Field's Oscar-winning performance in "Norma Rae.''
Everett Collection

Norma Rae, 1979 (Directed by Martin Ritt)

This is the quintessential example of feel-good 70s activist cinema. Sally Field plays the titular character, a worker at a North Carolina textile plant. She becomes politicized by a union organizer and eventually leads the plant to unionization.

Under the strong hands of director Martin Ritt, the film became a potent symbol of feminist empowerment in the "I Am Woman" era. The film's climactic scene has become an iconic cinematic moment — doubtless helping Field to the Best Actress Oscar that year. Protesters, usually in the labor movement, have recreated that scene ever since.

A man dressed as William Wallace from "Braveheart'' poses for a photo in Edinburgh on August 21, 2013 during the annual Fringe Festival. As Scotland neared its vote for independence in 2014, many more adapted the guise of the 13th Century warrior famous for waging a battle against Britain. In the end, voters decided to stay with the British.
Andy Buchanan / AFP / Getty Images

Braveheart, 1995 (Directed by Mel Gibson)

This historical epic tells the story of the heroic, doomed William Wallace, who led Scots in an uprising against Britain's King Edward I in the late 13th century. Wallace doesn't survive, but he remains an inspiration to the Scots, who eventually win independence.

The scenes of defiance range from the gory (beheadings) to the slapstick (when the Scots expose their rear ends to the English) to the decorative (The distinctive face makeup Gibson used on his soldiers).

The country fell back into an alliance with England in 1707, but this year nearly became independent again — via the voting booth, not on the battlefield. Supporters of independence adopted Gibson's fanciful makeup to press their case.

The mask of Guy Fawkes, the 17th Century Catholic radical, features prominently in the movie "V for Vendetta'' and the hackers who call themselves Anonymous.
Everett Collection

V for Vendetta, 2006 (Directed by the Wachowskis)

This film was a much-anticipated follow-up to the Matrix trilogy by Larry and Andy Wachowski. The mask prominently featured in the film's marketing is that of Guy Fawkes, a Catholic radical who came close to blowing up the House of Lords in 1604. The story here, based on the graphic novel of the same name, is of rebels battling against a fascist government — and pulling the job off.

The book and film spoke loudly to protesters throughout the west, particularly the very modern activist hackers in the Anonymous group who use the Guy Fawkes mask as their symbol.

This iconic film by Stanley Kubrick features Kirk Douglas as the leader of a rebellion by Roman slaves and gave us the line "I am Spartacus!''
Mary Evans / Everett Collection

Spartacus, 1960 (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)

This swords and sandals epic is an unlikely job for the bleak and sterile lens of Stanley Kubrick; in fact, it was the only time he did not control his own production. This telling of the Roman slave rebellion was actually in the control of star and producer Kirk Douglas.

Still Kubrick created an iconic work. It is known for the mother of all scenes of rebellious defiance as one by one, Spartacus' men stand up to declare "I am Spartacus!" The film is referenced whenever a group stands up en masse to protect one person. In 2010, after a British man posted a joking tweet about a closed airport and ended up getting fined for making threats, thousands re-tweeted his original message in solidarity. And British punk and new wave singer-songwriter Ian Dury wrote the song "Spasticus Autisticus" to protest what he thought was a condescending declaration called "The Year of the Disabled" by the UN. (Dury himself suffered polio as a child.) "I'm Spasticus!" he hollered, over and over.

"The Battle of Algiers'' is hailed as one of the best war movies ever made, inspiring everyone from The Black Panthers to those at the Pentagon.
Mary Evans / Everett Collection

The Battle of Algiers, 1966 (Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo)

This extraordinary and uncompromising film is often cited as one of the most draining and exciting war movies ever made. It was unusual for its focus on the guerrilla movements working to overthrow the colonial French occupation of Algeria.

While the horrors of war has of course often been the subject of film from the beginning, the terrible acts committed by both sides here reminded everyone that, in war, no one has clean hands. So powerful was the film's message that it was banned in France for years.

And in its time the film was closely watched in America for clues to how to cope with the guerrilla war the U.S. was then facing in Vietnam — and studied by the Blank Panthers for tips on how to wage a rebellion. As recently as 2003, the film was screened by the Pentagon to an invited audience to ponder its relevance to the war in Iraq.

Whether you're a fan of Errol Flynn's version or of Kevin Costner's portrayal, Robin Hood has supplied plenty of imagery for protest. Here, the U.S. Robin Hood Tax Campaign protest outside JP Morgan Stanley corporate headquarters on June 19, 2012 in New York.
2012 Getty Images

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991 (Directed by Kevin Reynolds)

Robin Hood is regularly made into TV or film fodder, going back to Errol Flynn's rollicking 1938 classic. This feature film is probably the best of the moderns feature film takes on the legend. It sees Kevin Costner as the classic English outlaw. There's also a more recent version from 2010 starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott.

The story's endless popularity reflects a time-honored social anxiety of the battle between the rich and poor, and the need for the disadvantaged to have a little firepower on their side to even the fight.  IN 2012, protestors before a NATO summit in Chicago advocated a "Robin Hood tax" on banks.

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