We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Welcome to the world of symbols, subtext and messages buried beneath the surface. Here are 15 movies with hidden meaning, starting with the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz."
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The yellow brick road is said to represent the gold standard, and Emerald City could be a stand-in for Washington, D.C., a town that mixes money (green) and politics. But the key symbol is the Wizard himself, a fraud who, like an untrustworthy political leader, does his best to divert the public's attention ("Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!").
High Noon (1952)
A lawman (Gary Cooper) can't get a single citizen to man up and help him fight an outlaw gang due to arrive on the noon train. The story was a veiled reference to McCarthyism: Screenwriter Carl Foreman had been blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. John Wayne, who had turned down the lead role, called the movie "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life."
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Even before Luke (Paul Newman) talks to God, the movie is packed with religious references. When he collapses after winning the egg-eating bet, Luke looks like Jesus on the cross. He sings the song "Plastic Jesus" after his mother dies, and in the end, the war veteran turned chain gang prisoner is killed by the authorities. Sacrificed, you might say.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Hidden behind the story of 10-year-old Elliott is the story of Steven Spielberg. Elliott lives with his mother, brother and sister, as the director did when he was growing up. The boy's father, like Spielberg's, has apparently abandoned the family. Many details in the film (Elliott faking a temperature by holding a thermometer to a lamp, for instance) come directly from Spielberg's life. Though we don't think young Steven ever befriended—or tearfully said goodbye to—a space alien.
All About Eve (1950)
Although it's not spelled out, many say Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the adoring fan turned assistant of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), is a lesbian. Theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) is also said to be gay—a taboo subject for Hollywood back in the day. During the Red Scare, homosexuality and communism were often linked, which gives a Cold War subtext to a movie that doesn't seem to be about politics at all.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the Stephen King novel includes a number of subtle references to the annihilation of Native Americans. The hotel where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family stay for the winter was built on an Indian burial ground (this isn't in the novel). It's decorated in Native American artifacts, and when Jack kills Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) the body lies on a rug with a Native American motif.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Some religious moviegoers see Harold Ramis' celebrated comedy as, well, a religious experience. Weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) finds himself in Purgatory. He has to relive the same day over and over until he gets it right—i.e., makes himself a better man than he was when the day started. Makes sense to us. Makes sense to us. Makes …
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Another Cold War parable, this science fiction film combines allusions to Christianity (the spaceman Klaatu goes by the name John Carpenter) with a message for the nuclear age. The scientist played by Sam Jaffe is based on Albert Einstein, who co-sponsored the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in 1949. Einstein was then branded a radical—as was Jaffe, who was blacklisted for much of the 1950s.
Film scholars almost unanimously agree that Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror flick is rife with dark sexual overtones, specifically dealing with rape. This makes sense when you think of the phallic creature that bursts out of one astronaut's chest and spends the rest of the movie chasing down the others.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
It's easy to miss hidden meanings in a fantasy movie where humans and cartoon characters share the screen, but the clues in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" all point to a theme involving racism. Even though Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) helps to clear Roger Rabbit on a murder charge, the detective actually hates all the "toons" who live—segregated from the human population—in Toontown. Sound familiar?
This cult classic is about as surreal as horror movies get. It also carries a disturbing hidden message: Parenthood is terrifying. You get that impression when Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) has a vision of being decapitated by a creature that looks like his own child. Director David Lynch apparently got over his fear, but how do his four children feel about it? "I think they really like the film," Lynch said, "but I don't know what their take on it is."
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Some key characters in this musical fantasy have been linked to the seven deadly sins. They run the gamut from overfed Augustus Gloop (gluttony) and stuck-up Violet Beauregarde (pride) to Willie Wonka himself, who personifies wrath. This hidden meaning seems like a natural for Roald Dahl, the dark but brilliant author of the children's book that "Willy Wonka" is based on. Then again, Dahl disowned the movie.
To fully understand this beloved classic, just look to Sam's piano. It's the heart of the movie—and of Monsieur Rick (Humphrey Bogart), who is cynical about everything except Sam and his music (just don't play "As Time Goes By"). It's no accident that Rick hides the letters of transit in that piano, or that Sam is front and center when the regulars at Rick's Cafe drown out the Germans by singing "La Marseillaise."
Planet of the Apes (1968)
It's obvious who we're supposed to root for in this one. Astronaut George Taylor (Charlton "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" Heston) is our guy—after all, he's human. But there's an allegorical message here about racism. In the end, it's an ape named Zira (Kim Hunter) who helps Taylor to escape from Ape City. We may not be the superior "race" after all.
Try this hidden meaning on for size, courtesy of the 2006 documentary "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema": The three floors in Norman Bates' house represent the three parts of the psyche identified by Sigmund Freud. The top floor (where Mother lives) is Norman's superego, the ground floor is his ego, and the basement (where Norman ultimately carries his mother's corpse) is his id. Now go ahead and scream.
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