Bananas (1971)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Louise Lasser, Carlos Montalban

One thing I’ve noticed about certain live television events, whether it’s sports or national news, is how much the viewing audience is always left hanging on the edge of their seats waiting for carnage to ensue. Woody Allen recognized this as far back as 1971, which is why he begins “Bananas” with a televised assassination featuring the sort of news coverage you would have expected out of a boxing match. To top it all off he includes sports commentator Howard Cosell, who describes the action in the same way he would call the action for one of Muhammad Ali’s fights, which only serves to make this opening sequence all the more hysterical. Beginning his movie this way, Woody Allen has already hooked you. We cannot “change the channnel” now, fearful that we may miss something. Such instincts would be correct.

Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) is a college dropout who earns his keep as a products tester. Highly neurotic, as is the trademark for all of Allen’s characters, Fielding has his troubles in the romance department. It’s not that he can’t “perform,” but that his personality is so grating that no woman in her right mind would stick around for very long. Even Nancy (Louise Lasser), a political activist, finds something missing in her time spent with Fielding. One of Nancy’s great passions at the moment is the revolution going on in the “banana republic” of San Marcos (a fictionalized country based mainly on Cuba). Dumped by Nancy but still motivated by lust, Fielding takes an interest in the internal conflict of San Marcos and decides to pay a visit to the republic.

While in San Marcos, Fielding draws the ire of the country’s new dictator, Gen. Emilio Vargas (Carlos Montalban), who plots to kill him and blame it on the rebels. But Fielding is saved at the last minute by the rebels, who teach him how to be a revolutionary while he helps their leader assume power. But, as seems to always happen in countries which overthrow one dictator, the man to replace him also becomes drunk on power. Before Fielding has time to react, he’s become the rebels’ choice as San Marcos’ new President. Seeking financial aid, he reunites with Nancy, who does not recognize him until the moment he removes his ridiculously fake beard. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has caught wind of Fielding’s rise to power, and they intend to bring him to trial on charges of being a Communist traitor.

Often is the case with the films of Woody Allen that he manages to cast at least one future Hollywood star in a cameo role. In “Annie Hall” it was the statuesque Sigourney Weaver appearing as his date in a wide shot near the film’s end. The scene to watch for in “Bananas” is around the 11-minute mark, where two thugs board the subway car which Fielding is traveling on and proceed to cause trouble. Nervously reading a “dirty” magazine, Fielding plots to push them out the open door, thinking that it will close up and he’ll be rid of them. It closes, all right, but soon after it opens right back up and Fielding knows he’s in for a rough ride. The more prominent of these two hooligans is none other than Sylvester Stallone, five years before “Rocky” put him on the map.

During a time before he’d settled in on producing mostly dramatic pictures, Woody Allen infuses “Bananas” with a healthy dose of slapstick comedy. Some of the humor is a bit obvious, but the payoff is always great. Made during the time of the Vietnam War/Richard Nixon administration, the movie is just as much a parody of government protest and the Red Scare of the Cold War as it is of “Don Quixote” and ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Allen could not have known how relevant these topics would still be today, albeit in different forms, but they serve to keep the humor of “Bananas” as fresh to the audience of the 2010’s as it was for the audience for which it was originally intended.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Excellent!! You really nailed it! So glad you enjoyed it. It’s one of my favorite Woody Allen films.

  2. vinnieh says:

    I’m currently trying to watch more Woody Allen as I’ve only ever seen two of his movies. Both have been reviewed on my blog. I look forward to watching more of his work.

    • “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which you’ve reviewed, is one which I have not seen. Ones which I can define as can’t-miss are “Sleeper,” “Annie Hall,” “Interiors,” “Manhattan,” “Stardust Memories,” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” I’m sure others will advocate for titles from later in his career, but those are my favorites.

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