Topics in History: History through Film

A Southport student review of the 1987 movie The Untouchables

Topics is a course at Southport High School, taught by Kevin Sanders, which analyzes major events from United States and world history through Hollywood films that attempt to portray those events. Students investigate historical documents and other sources to determine if a film is historically accurate.

The goal is for students to develop deeper understandings of the historical discipline while generating questions about the way the world is around them, along with watching classical films that have graced American and international screens. This week, David Johnson reviews the film, The Untouchables.

By David Johnson

The Untouchables is a movie about the cops who took down notorious mobster Al Capone. It shows their story, tactics and the story of the crimes Al Capone committed. The story surrounds the Prohibition era when Capone was at his height and was the biggest criminal in the world. The story is seen as a great movie, but there is a lot that is lacking on Capone and his character that could’ve pushed this movie to legendary status.

Though Al Capone was not a person you would want your kids to look up to there is no doubt his story is legendary which is why it is very damaging to the movie that Capone is a very shallow character who is just seen as your average villain. Al Capone was a very critical thinker, and the movie does not acknowledge that. They use Capone more as a set piece than a character because he really only delivers big lines and has a big entrance, but the scenes he has are much more limited than you would expect from the biggest criminal ever.

Capone in real life was seen as this larger-than-life man who was known by all in a bad way. He was a super villain in real life and even got away with it for a while. He was a millionaire while still being very young and set a small empire under the nose of the government and it is not shown enough in the movie. While the movie talks about all of his illegal alcohol operations it does not bring up his tax evading and things of that nature nearly enough even though they are a huge reason for how he got caught.

The Untouchables does focus more on the story of the police who stopped Capone; the movie is even named after them, but I think having a movie with Al Capone along with having a legendary actor like Robert De Niro play him is a missed opportunity to not make him more of a main character. A scene that is good at showing Capone and his methods are two scenes early in the morning. The first is when he is getting shaved, and the man shaving his beard accidentally cuts him. At first Capone looks serious and you can see the fear that strikes the man that cut his face, but then Capone tells him it’s all right and the press begins talking to Capone. This scene just shows the shear intimidation Capone had as a person, and it was just not jumped on enough in this movie. The other scene that shows his crazy tactics was when he was at dinner with a bunch of other men. They are all agreeing with what he is saying and then out of nowhere, to send a message, he beats one to death with a baseball bat, silencing the room. This shows the crazy genius of Capone; even though he was a horrible person he found a way to control the way people acted around him, and he was a borderline puppet master.

Other than the two scenes previously mentioned, the movie does not capitalize on Al Capone’s character in this movie. The movie would tremendously improve with a deeper Al Capone character and more about his story and why the Untouchables wanted to get him so badly.