Political Film Society - Newsletter #69 - April 1, 2000

April 1, 2000


Who runs America? Although academic answers to this question vary from a power elite of some sort to a large set of organized interests who check one another, Hollywood's frequent answer has consistently been that a secret clique runs the country. In The Skulls, we learn from the titles before the film that secret societies exist in all Ivy League schools. The screenwriter, John Pogue was indeed a member of one of Yale's secret clubs, though Rob Cohen, the director, was doubtless excluded at Harvard, Al Gore's alma mater. When the film begins, Ivy League teams are competing in a rowing contest, a paradigm for the social Darwinistic notion that the human race is won by the strong, the smart, the quick, and the clever. Yale wins, thanks to the muscles of Luke McNamara (played by Joshua Jackson), a Yalie who pays some of his tuition with income from a job as dorm cafeteria server, while the rest of the tuition is defrayed by loans that will take years to pay off. Luke has ambitions of rising from working class status to become a lawyer, but he also knows that he can only afford law school if he joins a secret society, the Skulls (which is supposedly patterned after Yale's 200-year-old Skull & Bones Society), which will provide the finances. As the tagline of the film claims, the Skulls is a "secret society so powerful, it can give you everything you desire . . . at a price." The film intends not only to expose the existence of secret societies among the power elite but also the snobbery of the East Coast wealthy few who believe that they rule the country, since Skull members after college are a fraternity of powerfully placed bigwigs in business and government who help each other to rise to the top. Will (played by Hill Harper), Luke's African-American suitemate at the college dorm, tries in vain to dissuade Luke from joining the elitist Skulls, arguing that "If it's secret and it's elite, it can't be good." As Will acquires considerably more information about the Skulls in his role as a journalism major, he is confronted physically by Luke's Skull "soulmate" Caleb Mandrake (played by Paul Walker) and left for dead, though executed by his father Judge Litten Mandrake (played by Craig Nelson) and then strung up as if he committed suicide in his room at the dorm.

Disturbed that the suicide was an obvious fake, Luke digs up more evidence that points to Mandrake as the real culprit, who chairs the executive committee of the Skulls. An inevitable showdown occurs, and Luke triumphs, but only because a rival to Mandrake, a Virginia Senator (played by William T. Peterson), wanted to become the new head of the Skulls, which continues to operate as before at the end of the film. Although the cartoonization of an Ivy League secret society is clearly an exaggeration, the filmmakers clearly want us to believe that the Ivy League is home to an Anglo version of The Godfather (1972). They seek to inform us that Ivy League secret societies are impregnable and continue their rivalries from college sports into the worlds of business and politics. In short, power in America is elitist, though different elites continually vie for dominance. Strangely, the film seems to agree with the thesis in Pat Robertson's book The New World Order (1992) that the "Illuminata" controls America. The Skulls also appears to alert filmviewers to the pedigree of George W. Bush, who possibly joined one of the secret societies at Yale, doubtless sponsored by his father, and now appears to be on the verge of buying an election by assembling contributions from a select few. MH

Three new papers, recently presented at the annual convention of the Western Political Science Association, have been published in the Political Film Society's Working Paper Series:
#11: Peter J. Haas, A Typology of Political Film
#12: Phillip L. Gianos, The Cold War in U.S. Films: Representing the Political Other
#13: Michael A. Genovese, The President as Icon & Straw Man: Hollywood & the Presidential Image