How to "Successfully" Assassinate a Dictator

How to “Successfully” Assassinate a Dictator

A comparison of “Valkyrie” to a film about the “successful” assassination of Korean President Park Chung-Hee, “The President’s Last Bang.”

valkyrie_posterCritics have certainly contested the merits of Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s historical drama Valkyrie, but everyone can agree that this film has raised historical awareness of the true-life 1944 plot by German high officials to assassinate Hitler and take over the government. Sure, the conspirators failed, but at least they tried. I’m sure many people left Valkyrie wondering, “Wouldn’t it have been great if they’d succeeded and brought an early end to World War II in Europe?” Their actions could have saved countless lives and may have prevented the East/West Germany division that lasted for over forty years.

For those people pondering such history, I say, not so fast. Killing the dictator and taking over the government is far easier said than done, and I have the historical proof AND the accompanying based-on-true-events movie to prove it: the 1979 assassination of South Korean strongman Park Chung-Hee, and the 2005 movie based on the event, The President’s Last Bang (그때 그사람들, for all you OTI Korean speakers out there):

Yup, that’s bubble gum in that guy’s mouth. One of many things that this movie and Valkyrie don’t have in common. Analysis, comparison, and a brief overview of South Korean history after the jump.

First, let’s do a quick comparison on these two films’ styles and moods. As you probably know, Valkyrie takes itself quite seriously. It’s one of those Oscar-Baiting Important Movies that comes out in December:

The oppressive THUD THUD THUD sound effects are a dead giveaway. As are all the swastikas and Nazis.

The President’s Last Bang, on the other hand…well, see for yourself.

Though it starts somewhat conventionally, the trailer takes a turn for the bizarre about 46 seconds in. Yup, that’s the assassin on the crapper letting a fart rip. The goofy trombone music and the physical comedy gags further state the case that this movie isn’t taking itself too seriously. Instead, it’s a dark comedy about a very serious subject.

Park Chung-Hee

Park Chung-Hee

To understand why this is appropriate, we need to understand both the historical and contemporary cultural contexts of the events depicted in this film. Park Chung-Hee, the target of this assassination flick, took control of South Korea in 1961 in a bloodless coup and ruled until his assassination in 1979. His style was typically autocratic: he jailed dissidents, assassinated opponents, rigged elections, and censored the press. He was no Hitler (no mass murder on the resume), but he was still a pretty bad dude and enough of a dictator to earn an entry on the “Dictator of the Month” website.

He is not, however, universally reviled after death. Many still credit him for spurring rapid economic growth in Korean in the 1960’s and for keeping North Korean communist influence at bay. His daughter, Park Geun-hye, has had a successful political career at the top of Korea’s conservative Grand National Party and almost became the party’s presidential nominee in 2007. I doubt many children of other dictators of the month have seen that much political success.

Consider also the assassin and his legacy. Kim Jae-gyu, who was head of the Korean CIA and a member of Park’s inner circle, claims he was acting on behalf of democracy in Korea. But you won’t find any memorial to him in Seoul like you would for Claus von Stauffenberg, Hitler’s would be assassin, in Berlin. His portrayal in The President’s Last Bang is far from heroic or patriotic; instead, he is depicted as slightly deranged and not particularly competent.

And for good reason. Kim lacked any realistic plan for filling the power vacuum after successfully killing President Park. His mistakes included A) leaving behind a surviving witness to the assassination, an ally of the President, who eventually ratted him out and B) unrealistically expecting support from the army and other power centers to coalesce around him. The film goes so far to show him taking a nap in the cabinet chambers during the critical hours after the assassination.

Gwangju Massacre: not part of the plan

Gwangju Massacre: not part of the plan

It gets worse. Instead of a democratic revolution rising in the place of the slain dictator, an equally bad if not worse strongman, Chun Doo-hwan, eventually took control over the government. His reign brought even more political repression, including the infamous Gwangju Massacre of 1980, in which hundreds (if not thousands) protesters were killed by the Korean army. Democracy wouldn’t come to South Korea until 1992, when Kim Young-sam was elected the country’s first civilian president in 30 years. Definitely not part of Kim’s plan to liberate Korea from Park’s dictatorship.

Granted, the 1944 plotters had a much better post-assassination plan (the film version even had a slick Ocean’s 11 style montage showing how it would all go down), but in both the film Valkyrie and the real life course of events, it’s readily apparent that their plan could have failed at dozens of points beyond the assassination of Hitler. Even if they took initial control over the key points of power in Berlin, there’s no guarantee they could have gotten all of the army units in the field to go along with their plan to end the war. A civil war could have erupted. A new dictator could have taken Hitler’s place. Tom Cruise could have turned Germany into a Scientologist theocracy. Who knows?

One of the plotters in Valkyrie claims that “any problem on earth can be solved with the careful application of explosives.” (It’s in the trailer; see above). That seems reasonable when the problem is Hitler and Nazis, but think about that same statement and substitute “violence” for “explosives.”

It didn’t solve Mr. Kim’s problem. It might not have solved Mr. Von Stauffenberg’s problem either.

Bonus Postscript

Can we have our cake and eat it, too? Is there a movie in which the assassination of an unequivocally evil dictator makes way for peace and freedom, with a little bit of comic relief along the way? Why, yes there is…

Huzzah! Cue the Ewok dance!

Lastly, one graphic to sum it all up:

L-R: The President's Last Bang, Valkyrie, Return of the Jedi

L-R: The President's Last Bang, Valkyrie, Return of the Jedi

12 Comments on “How to “Successfully” Assassinate a Dictator”

  1. mlawski #

    Fun post, Lee. Now, bear in mind that I haven’t read the Expanded Universe, but I’ve always wondered if Luke et al ended up fascists themselves after the fall of the Emperor. After all, Luke isn’t the most stable fella. He talks to ghosts, he has a messiah complex, he made out with his sister… We’re getting into Caligula territory here, friends. I think if George Lucas were honest, he’d show an ending similar to what went down in S. Korea.


  2. lee OTI Staff #

    @Mlawski: you’re referring to the Star Wars novels that follow Return of the Jedi, right? From what I remember, in the Timothy Zahn novel trilogy, that doesn’t quite happen, but the New Republic faces some pretty serious challenges from the remnants of the Imperial Navy, which is no big surprise.

    I should also point out that at the end of the re-released Return of the Jedi, Lucas chose to insert a scene of a celebration on the planet of Coruscant, the former Imperial capital, as if to say, “That’s it! Game over for the empire!” Which, if you stop and Overthink about it, is pretty unlikely.

    I seem to recall an explanation in some Star Wars non-movie canon that the Emperor’s dark force powers were helping him keep control over the galactic empire, and that his death effectively broke his spell over the imperial forces.

    (Yeah, I read Star Wars novels. I’m sure I’m not the only person on this site who did/does.)


  3. lee OTI Staff #

    Also, added bonus. If you don’t mind having this scene “spoiled,” you can check out the presidential assassination scene from _The President’s Last Bang_ here. Warning: NSFW, lots of blood.


  4. JT #

    All 3 Terminator movies could be considered failed assassination films. But John Connor is not an evil dictator, at least not yet.

    Maybe a successful assassination/coup movie would be V for Vendetta.


  5. Gab #


    Am I the only one thinking Vader looks bored as he picks up Palpatine? It’s like he sighs, “Oh, fine,” and does it.

    Lee, are you saying _The President’s Last Big Bang_ is a dark comedy because the result of the assassination was worse than how things already were? And if so, does this mean the filmmakers were poking fun at it to bring speculation as to how things would have turned out, had the assassination failed?


  6. lee OTI Staff #

    @Gab: that’s part of the reason, but in general, I was pointing to lack of moral black/white in this historical situation as the main reason why it was appropriate to make this a dark comedy. The dictator was a bad dude, but not all Koreans watching the movie were looking forward to him taking a bullet in the head. The assassin may or may not have had the best intentions, and he was kind of sloppy, and any viewer, regardless of his/her knowledge of the context, really wouldn’t have been rooting for him.

    I suppose all of this could have been accomplished in a more straight-up drama style, but then you’d have lost the opportunity to show the assassin on the crapper.


  7. Gab #

    So Hitler just can’t be funny?


  8. lee OTI Staff #

    _The Producers_ is an obvious example of a funny Hitler.

    _Hogan’s Heroes_ has funny Nazis, thought to my knowledge, Der Fuhrer himself never shows up in the show.

    Also, last summer, several writers saw “Hard Rock Zombies,” which featured a hard rock band, zombies, Hitler, AND a zombie Hitler:

    While this Hitler wasn’t exactly “funny” per se, he was certainly campy. Oh, and gas chambers. This movie actually went beyond camp; it was rather hideous to watch.

    So you can have funny Nazis/Hitler, but it’s obviously very tricky to pull off.

    This subject is probably worth an entire post on its own, as well as other forms of war comedy.


  9. Gab #

    Would you really count _The Producers_, though? It’s a comical depiction of the production of what is intended to be a farce. Granted, the audience in the movie totally digs the Hitler in the musical, but really, would that musical ever be produced with the honest intent of success rather than failure in our happy, P.C. world? And would the general public really go for it like they did in the movie? I really don’t think so- the Holocaust and Hitler are things “decent people” just don’t joke about in public. It’s one thing to say, “Hitler,” if the adjective is “sexy” when playing Apples to Apples with your friends, but it’s another thing to make a comedy about him for major release. But I’ll concede that it HAS happened before, comical Nazis, but emphasize how you said it’s hard to pull off; and I can’t think of a successfully comedic Hitler.

    _Hard Rock Zombies_ doesn’t even have a Wiki page. Doesn’t that speak volumes about its reception (or lack thereof)?


  10. CppThis #

    The problem isn’t so much the violence itself, but the fact that just killing one guy won’t normally do much. Dictators always have a party full of lieutenants and cronies backing them up, so kill the top guy and one of them will take over.

    The July 20 plot might have worked as a military coup, but would have probably ended in messy civil war with Nazi loyalists like Himmler fighting the Stauffenberg faction for control of Germany.


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