War with the Newts is a black satire, the best since Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Karel apek’s satire is multifaceted, hitting every possible target. The Czech incursion into newt territory serves for an attack on colonialism and imperialism. At first, everyone benefits. Captain van Toch gets pearls, and the newts get weapons and tools and become safe from sharks. Soon, however, newts become the victims of greed. The exploitation of newts for profit, so ruthless that employers and owners try to find ways to make newts work with a minimum of food and tools and to starve those that balk at working, is an attack on cutthroat capitalism. The treatment of newts as subhumans, even as they demonstrate an intelligence equal to or superior to that of humans, becomes a satire on racism and anti-Semitism. At times, the newts are specifically made analogous to black people, and there are several references to lynching; at another time, they are analogous to Indian untouchables. When newts are tortured in pointless, sadistic medical experiments, apek shows the world of Nazi doctors.

Everybody tries to get into the act. A sexy but silly Hollywood starlet thinks of using newts as Tritons, with herself as a nearly nude white goddess, in films that satirize such 1930’s productions as Trader Horn (1931), King Kong (1933), Bird of Paradise (1932), Dorothy Lamour sarong epics, and Tarzan pictures. Various...

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