By the time The Avengers opened globally in the spring of 2012, most of the world's moviegoers had seemed to embrace the concept of American superheroes. Not quite half a century ago, however, the superhero seemed to many outside America as an embodiment of a supposed national proclivity to solve problems with infantile violence. Such was the opinion, apparently, of an American, the innovative fashion photographer William Klein, who made this send-up of superheroes and American adventurism in 1968, a year of political upheaval and mayhem in both the U.S. and France, Klein's adopted country. He wrote and directed the film while cinematographer Pierre Lhomme (whose next project was Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows) shot it. They deserve to share credit for a spectacular if superficial visual achievement.
Mr. Freedom opens with news footage of urban rioting in an American city. A tall man in a state trooper's uniform opens a secret closet to reveal the uniform (basically a football jersey and pads and a baseball catcher's mask) and weapons of Mr. Freedom (John Abbey), who tracks down some ghetto looters and massacres them and their family. After this representative episode, the same mystery man reports to his boss, Dr. Freedom -- evocatively and provocatively played by Donald Pleasance, who was probably best known at the time this film came out as the superterrorist Blofeld from You Only Live Twice. The good doctor instructs Mr. Freedom to go to France, where Capitaine Formidable, a hero friendly to America, has gotten into trouble. In Texan mufti that suggests a more menacing version of Joe Bob Briggs, Mr. Freedom arrives in Paris, brushing aside tourists at the Eiffel Tower. In a hotel elevator, he confronts a karate-chopping femme fatale who reveals herself as Marie Madeleine (Delphine Seyrig), Capitaine Formidable's sidekick. After establishing her credentials by singing the Mr. Freedom song, she conducts our hero to a secret lair where his French acolytes hold a pep rally for him.
They are the enemies of the FAF, a leftist terror cell suspected of taking out Capitaine Formidable. Seeking to rescue or avenge the Capitaine, Mr. Freedom charges into an uncertain situation. The FAF receives funds from Moujik Man (Philippe Noiret), a bloated Soviet agent mainly interested in reaching some compromise with the American hero, but are tempted by the uncompromising rhetoric of Red China Man, a giant dragon that lurks within the Paris Metro. Meanwhile, Super French Man, a sort of giant balloon creature representing General de Gaulle, remains aloof, offering no help to Mr. Freedom, who lays waste to the Frenchman's minions with his X-Ray spectacles.
Everything builds to an escalation of the Cold War to the psychological terror stage as Mr. Freedom's forces take the fight to the FAF while the hero himself is temporary felled by a crisis of confidence. Marie Madeleine's child calls him a bad, scary man, causing him to question all his assumptions about the world. At his trough, he breaks out in stigmata, -- perhaps related to a cameo appearance by Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin -- but Marie Madeleine restores his confidence by feeding him an enormous bowl of Corn Flakes. Mr. Freedom renews the struggle, but unexpected reversals and betrayals force him to go for The Big One -- to destroy France in order to save it....
If Mr. Freedom is an anti-American film, it should be noted that Klein has little good to say about any other political entity, based on his cartoonish presentation of the Russians and Red Chinese. Klein seems to retain some faith in revolution, however, or in revolutionary youth. The most positive, cheerleading moment in the picture comes when he shows Mr. Freedom's ultimate act of destruction, set up in a scene arguably inspired by White Heat, actually to have been fairly limited in scope. He swishes over to a demonstration several blocks away, which he presents in an approving way, as if to say that America can't suppress the people's rebellious spirit. From Mr. Freedom's addled perspective, these people oppose freedom, and Klein seems to agree. That is, they oppose a particularly crassly materialistic and selfishly self-righteous form of freedom that Klein identifies as uniquely American. Part of this freedom is tasteless consumerism, represented by an American Embassy that's a typical diplomatic structure on the outside, but a grocery store on the inside -- albeit one apparently stocked entirely with French consumer goods, since I didn't recognize any of the brand names -- where blonde cheerleaders attend our hero as he tours the aisles. It is also, inevitably, bigoted. We earlier saw Mr. Freedom shoot down a family of black people; he later uses the "N-word" freely and muses that life was simpler in America before the slaves and other foreigners came. If Klein intends Mr. Freedom to represent American attitudes, many American viewers will understandably see it as slanderously unfair. But Klein comes from an era when many people felt that American self-righteousness (e.g. "Better Dead Than Red") made nuclear war possible if not likely. Many people around the world probably wondered why Americans hated them, much as Americans wonder now why Islamists hate them. Fear and hatred toward a kind of exaggerated or imagined Americanism was an understandable if not absolutely justified attitude of the time that Mr. Freedom preserves like a piece of Pop Art in a museum.
As a movie, Mr. Freedom is a pictorial wonder, but not necessarily a cinematic one. Klein and Lhomme bombard us with dynamic, colorful comic-book style imagery, even if the comic-book style is more Mad than Batman. To call the film Pop Art is no great exaggeration -- call it Agit-Pop if you prefer. I suspect it had some visual influence on Alan Moore's Watchmen comics, to close the circle. Shots of our hero standing in front of banks of TV screens anticipate Dave Gibbons's artwork, while Mr. Freedom himself may well have influenced Moore's concept of The Comedian. But the movie's comic-book visuals are also its weakness. Klein can create brilliant compositions with characters in iconic poses, but he isn't very good at directing action. Despite his and Lhomme's visual brilliance, too much of Mr. Freedom looks like a concert film -- a recording of a live performance that hasn't been fully conceived in cinematic terms. Mr. Freedom gets many monologues -- all well-delivered by John Abbey -- which, while not too far removed from Batman's inane pontifications on TV, are too theatrical in their duration and their word-jazzy intonations. Klein may or may not have been inspired by the Batman TV show, but his fights (most involving firearms and characters in bizarre costumes) lack the "Pow! Zap! Biff!" dynamism of Batman or any real sense of slapstick humor. One reason many Americans may not be able to laugh off Mr. Freedom's anti-American attitudes is because the movie isn't really very funny. Part of that might be Klein's mean-spiritedness, but much of it is his failure as a comedy director. But if you come not to laugh but simply to look, you'll probably have a more rewarding experience. Mr. Freedom is a unique visual document of its time.