The Rail’s Williams Cole recently sat down with director Robert Stone, whose film Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst recently opened nationally. It’s the story of the small group of middle-class armed militants in the 1970s known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and how, through the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst, the SLA became media celebrities.
Williams Cole (Rail): The SLA began around the time a president who had escalated an unpopular war was elected for a second term. Is there an historical parallel? Is there a new time of radicalism?
Robert Stone: No. I think the thing that made that period different was the draft. The draft made it a movement then, more than a few isolated protests, which is what we have now, along with all this despair on the left. The draft is really what separates that era from this one. But having said that, clearly there are parallels between the Nixon administration and the Bush administration. There’s an unpopular war. The SLA were critical of materialism, capitalism, corporate power structures, and the like, things you can see in the antiglobalization movement. For the SLA, though, it went beyond the draft. At the time they became active, the Vietnam War was winding down and the draft was ending, and they said, “Hey, this is not only about the draft. Aren’t we supposed to be doing something?” So they felt very betrayed and said, “No, let’s keep this thing alive.” The way they thought to do it was by picking up a gun and trying to ignite the revolution among poor black and working-class people. They thought by doing something dramatic they could start something. Well, it proved to be an abysmal failure.
Rail: But do you see a politicized society now?
Stone: I don’t, unfortunately. I think there was a lot of activity around the election. I’m not a teacher, but I’ve talked to a lot of professors in the course of taking this film around, and they tell me their students are really not that engaged. I think there’s a survey that says fifty percent of college students are Republicans now. It really is a different time. So I think some of the parallels that people have been writing about a lot are, well, misconceived. We are living in similar times, and you can make a film about that, as I have done, that in many ways is a parable of now. But the film is really about the relationship of mass media and terrorism and seeing the birth of the media becoming an extension of the entertainment industry and seeing how terrorism plays into that. I mean, what the SLA were able to achieve is really about the triumph of celebrity, and celebrity is the ultimate trump card in American political life, in American life in general.
Rail: Do you see a similar media reaction to current terrorism?
Stone: It’s happening every day. You get a few people in Baghdad who go and kidnap somebody and then upload images onto the Web, and then they’re front-page news around the world. This is where we’ve gotten to, and it began with the Patty Hearst kidnapping. When you contrast the coverage of 200,000 people marching against the occupation with a kidnapping, the march doesn’t even get a blip. This is the power that terrorism has. The problem is what the news media, especially TV, has become by being an extension of the entertainment industry. They are entertaining us. And therefore terrorism has, I think, become a form of mass entertainment. They say that the videos of these beheadings are one of the most popular downloads on the Internet right now. The most popular downloads! What does that tell you? The terrorist is a kind of modern outlaw, the Bonnie and Clydes that we’ve always been attracted to throughout Western literature. The idea of the lone knight single-handedly bringing down the evil empire is a theme of most of the video games that kids play today. When this gets played out on television with terrorists, we’re attracted to it, we’re fascinated by it, we want to see it. But it gives them inordinate power to dictate the terms. I think the Bush administration, the whole government apparatus, has really misunderstood what these people are and what kind of threat they pose and what power they have. I think a few years ago, Al Qaeda was a cult. But we treated them as a political organization, as a legitimate military threat, and now they have become just that. You can see in the film that the SLA, by not being regarded as a cult, which is what they were, became larger than life, and then they ended up buying into it. They said, “Well, if you’re talking about us like we’re an army, then maybe we really are.” That transformation is fascinating to watch.
Rail: What if a militant group like the SLA—middle-class, artsy, mostly white American kids—erupted in the U.S. now? How would they be treated by the media?
Stone: If they did something dramatic, they would get the attention of the media. The SLA would have been nothing, they would have been a little footnote in history had it not been for the spectacle they created and their brilliant propaganda. These guys were art students and drama students and English lit students, so they drew that seven-headed snake thing. It was like a swastika, a symbol that scares the hell out of you. And the pose of Patty with the gun is up there with the famous photo of Che Guevara. It was brilliant. And their slogan, “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of people,” was a little long-winded but scary. And calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. Sounds very scary and very cool. They were all “generals,” and Cinque [the SLA leader] was a “general field marshal,” so you had to assume that if there were generals there must be foot soldiers. But there weren’t more than a dozen SLA members at any given time. So that’s the power. Could a group spring up like that today? Well, maybe there are some right now. For example, splinters of the so-called eco-terrorists. But they haven’t made a mark. Maybe if they kidnapped some famous person, like Paris Hilton.
Rail: Or Lachlan Murdoch.
Stone: Exactly. And converted them. Then they would have something they could use as a platform. But would it gain them any supporters? No. It would probably turn everyone against them. It would probably be the death knell of the environmental movement. Just like there was the extreme radical right movement in the 1990s, and then Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, and that movement collapsed.
Rail: What made the Hearst kidnapping such a media sensation?
Stone: The SLA played it brilliantly and in a way they could never have imagined. I believe it’s true that Patty Hearst was on the cover of Newsweek more times than anyone in history who was not an elected official. She was on the cover when she was kidnapped. Then she starts dissing her dad. Then she joins the SLA, and they release the photo of her with the gun. Then she’s there robbing a bank. Then there’s the shootout. Then she’s arrested. Again and again, this story was kept alive by this unbelievably bizarre transformation. If there was ever a story where facts were stranger than fiction, it was this one. If you wrote it, nobody would believe it. It would be like some B-movie. But it captured our attention like the great outlaw stories, like Robin Hood.
Rail: What’s Patty Hearst doing now?
Stone: She lives in Connecticut. She acts occasionally in John Waters films and other films. She goes to a lot of charities; she’s very wealthy. I’ve met her. She’s remarkably well-balanced and has a happy, stable marriage and a great family. I mean, considering her family background alone, let alone everything she experienced with the SLA, it’s kind of remarkable. Her way of dealing with it is very good for her but not very good if you want to sit her down and get some painful truths about her experiences with them. To her it’s all vague, it’s all “they” and “them,” almost like she wasn’t there. It’s probably good for her to remember it that way. But it’s not good in terms of getting an interview out of her.
Rail: How do you see the difference between the SLA and the era’s other middle-class revolutionary group, the Weather Underground?
Stone: Depends on whether you mean the group the Weather Underground or how they were portrayed in the film, because they’re two very different things. I mean, the Weather Underground—you listen to their tapes, and they said some pretty kooky stuff, like how great Charlie Manson was. They were pretty out there, too. But they never got the attention. The thing that’s interesting about the SLA is the fact that they got so much attention, more attention than any of these groups put together. And because of that, many people on the left, even though they were horrified by some of the things they had done, kept trying to give them credit, saying, “They got all this attention, maybe there’s some way to bring them around. Let’s try to make some good out of this.” But the SLA distinguished themselves from these other groups by their incredible success as terrorists. No one has ever achieved that, maybe the Black Panthers to a degree. But they got attention in similar ways, by waving guns around and being theatrical and having a great logo. The Weather Underground could never figure out what they wanted to be, and they never got that much attention.