David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, a star-studded mystery-comedy set in the heady interwar years of the 1930s, starts with a tagline: “A lot of this actually happened.” It’s a nice trick—a way to harness the narrative power of historical authenticity while giving Russell & Co. license to make up pretty much whatever they want. And fair enough: it’s Hollywood.
But as it happens, I’ve spent most of the last decade researching that period, and in particular the inspiration for one of the movie’s central figures: the real-life Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler, who inspired the character played by Robert De Niro. The book that resulted from that research, Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire, begins and ends with the real-life version of the high-level conspiracy that gets fictionalized in Amsterdam. In other words, I know which parts happened and which didn’t. (Needless to say, numerous spoilers for the movie follow.)
For me, the main contradiction of Russell’s film is encapsulated in a single, briefly seen piece of wardrobe: the ribbon rack on De Niro’s hanging uniform. Russell’s costume designers meticulously copied Butler’s real-life ribbons—from the baby-blue, star-spangled rectangles that represent his remarkable two Medals of Honor, to his French Ordre de l’Étoile Noire, given after his service in the First World War. But the movie erases what Butler did to earn almost all of those medals and ribbons: a decades-long series of imperialist wars in Latin America and Asia that defined his military career. Far from being an irrelevant detail, that omission goes right to the heart of the filmmakers get wrong about the long-suppressed episode of American history at the movie’s core.
Let’s start at the most basic level. Nearly all the characters in Amsterdam, including the main trio, played by Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, are completely made up—as is the murder of a retired general that sets the plot in action.
There were certainly thousands of people like those characters: veterans who bore the severe mental and physical scars of the “war to end all wars.” Bale and Washington’s characters are portrayed as having fought with the Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment—a real-life all-Black unit of the segregated Army that served under mainly white officers. Nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” the real 369th saw intense combat, and, as the movie correctly portrays, all of that fighting was done under a French colonial command because white American troops refused to fight alongside them. The movie’s murder victim—the regiment’s white commander, Gen. Bill Meekins, played by Ed Begley Jr.—is a fictionalized version of the Hellfighters’ real leader, Col. William Hayward. (Taylor Swift plays his fictional daughter.) But Hayward was never murdered. And he had nothing to do with the real-life conspiracy to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Butler exposed.
Russell changed the name of De Niro’s character to “General Gil Dillenbeck,” and moved his home from an old converted farmhouse in semi-rural Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square to the more suburban Bucks County. But other than that, “Dillenbeck” is just Smedley Butler. The movie hints at Butler’s position as a staunch Prohibition-era “Dry.” (“We don’t keep alcohol in the house,” Mrs. Dillenbeck tells the protagonists). More to the point, De Niro recreates, almost line for line, two of the more famous (and easily Google-able) newsreels from Butler’s life. First, a speech to the 1932 “Bonus March”—World War I veterans who’d come to Washington, D.C., to demand Congress give them their promised back pay, only to have the veterans’ camp burned down by the U.S. Army days later. (The movie incorrectly says Butler led the marchers; in actuality, he was only there in support.)
The second newsreel is more famous, at least on the internet. It comes from 1934, when Butler filmed a speech that publicly outlined his allegations around the conspiracy that the filmmakers use as their jumping-off point for the movie’s climax. In short, Butler said, a representative of a Wall Street financial house, claiming to have the backing of some of the most powerful industrialists in the United States, tried to induce the general to aid in overthrowing President Franklin D. Roosevelt and installing in his place a fascist dictator. To add to the movie’s vibe of verisimilitude, Russell plays Butler’s actual newsreel and De Niro’s recreation side by side during the credits.
As the newsreel testifies, Butler really did allege a Business Plot, as it became known. And there is good reason to think that such a coup—or at least something like it—might really have been in the works. But the reasons for the plot, and how it all went down, get scrambled in the movie, to the point of unrecognizability. Most importantly, the Business Plot had nothing to do with the Nazi Party, or any other European fascist movement. It was entirely homegrown.
In Amsterdam, the veterans (Bale and Washington), with a nurse, Valerie Voze (Robbie), who befriends them after saving their lives, investigate the conspiracy. They keep running into the same scar-faced hired gun and a sinister group called the “Committee of the Five,” whose symbol is, conveniently, a pair of fives crossed into a swastika. After fits and starts (and the horrifying discovery of a forced-sterilization clinic in the suburbs of New York), the trio approach General Dillenbeck with a proposal: He will speak at their upcoming fundraiser for veterans of the 369th, where Voze’s brother Tom (played by an especially arch Rami Malek) will introduce him to the cabal; this will allow him to act as an infiltrator to sniff out what’s really going on.
In his speech at the event, Dillenbeck exposes the plot, survives a clumsy assassination attempt and a brawl on the event space’s floor, and hands Tom Voze and his cloying wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy) over to agents of the FBI and the (anachronistically named) MI6. We learn in a final exposition dump that the industrialists, along with Tom and Libby Voze, are, in fact, in league with Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party. The couple’s fandom extends to the maintenance of a swastika-shaped hedge row in front of their mansion (a shape that—Bale’s narration claims, incorrectly—no one would have recognized at the time). The film ends noting that all involved got away with it, and that Dillenbeck’s career was ruined—he’s court-martialed over a jab he aimed, in his speech, at Benito Mussolini. But, we are told, World War II is put off for another “ten years or so.”
There’s a lot to unpack. First of all, there was no public speech exposing the actual Business Plot. Butler made his allegations behind closed doors, in testimony before Congress (the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities, to be exact), as well in as a newspaper article he commissioned that ran in the New York Post and Philadelphia Record, written by the reporter Paul Comly French. No fights broke out. No one tried to assassinate him at the witness table. (The newsreel was filmed sometime after his testimony, in his private study, inside his home.)
The fake fundraiser/rally seen in the movie is modeled, design-wise, on a totally separate event, held five years after the Business Plot was exposed, and in which Butler was in no way involved: the Feb. 20, 1939, rally of the Nazi-affiliated German-American Bund at Madison Square Garden. Russell’s production team clearly drew design elements from the short documentary A Night at the Garden, which was nominated for a 2019 Academy Award, and featured the enormous George Washington backdrop and Hitler Youth-style uniforms seen in Amsterdam. Historians of American fascism have long noted that the Bund was markedly unsuccessful specifically because of its overt German ties and Nazi aesthetic. More influential authoritarian groups, such as the Second Ku Klux Klan and fascist Silver Legion of America, sold themselves as down-home American movements that championed a Christian nationalist brand of fascism, rather than foreign allegiances. The Business Plotters, however many of them there were, surely took note.
There also wasn’t a “Committee of the Five”—or any secret organization skulking around the darkened streets of New York. I assume the filmmakers based it extremely loosely on the organization that Butler suspected was behind this planned putsch: the American Liberty League. That was a consortium of powerful industrialists, led by Irénée du Pont—of DuPont, the synthetics and explosives giant. (One of the conspirators is pseudonymized in the film as “Mr. Belport of Belport Chemicals.”) The Liberty League also included Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors, who, like the movie’s fictional “Mr. Thomlinson,” had a plant in Nazi Germany. (That character, who is referenced but not seen, may also be a nod to the far more Nazi-aligned and antisemitic Henry Ford, who was not part of the Liberty League.)
But beyond changing the names (possibly for legal reasons—descendants of DuPont, General Motors, J.P. Morgan, General Foods, the McCann-Erickson agency and the other companies whose chiefs made up the Liberty League are still very much around), the filmmakers also change the nature of the organization entirely. Unlike the fake “Committee of the Five” (whose name I assume was borrowed from a totally separate era of American history), the Liberty League wasn’t hidden at all. It was an extremely public organization, whose founding was announced on the front page of the New York Times. It was dedicated to the business leaders’ real goal—the goal that perhaps led some of them to back a violent putsch: stopping FDR’s New Deal, its constraints on their fortunes, and the descent into socialism they believed it portended.
The movie does get one name close to right: Gerald C. MacGuire (listed in the credits as simply “Maguire”), who is briefly seen hanging around the “Dillenbecks’” foyer holding a briefcase. In real life, MacGuire was a bond salesman and war veteran, who first tried to entice Butler into denouncing Roosevelt for taking the dollar off the gold standard (a phase alluded to by the appearance of a “Committee for a Sound Dollar” pamphlet in the film), then attempted to bribe him into leading the plot by offering him a wad of $18,000 in cash. (Russell alludes to that episode by stating that is the amount in “Maguire’s” briefcase.)
MacGuire was the one who ultimately asked Butler to lead a column of half a million veterans—to be supplied by the American Legion—into Washington, D.C., for the purposes of intimidating Franklin Roosevelt into stepping aside or resigning in favor of a cabinet secretary whom the plotters would name. (It was not clear, contrary to the film, if Butler was to be that secretary-turned-de facto dictator, or if he was to step aside in favor of someone else.) MacGuire was, in turn, employed by the Wall Street financier Grayson M.P. Murphy—an ex-Army military intelligence officer whose extensive network of contacts on both sides of the Atlantic lead me to believe that he, if no one else allegedly involved, was capable of planning such a coup. Murphy was also the treasurer for the American Liberty League.
It was also true that MacGuire traveled through Europe in 1934, taking notes and inspiration from the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Berlin. But he specifically rejected the idea of modeling the movement on Hitler or Mussolini’s organizations. (“…That set-up would not suit us at all,” Butler testified that MacGuire told him.) Instead, MacGuire proposed loosely modeling the American coup on the French anti-parliamentary riots of Feb. 6 of that year—a chaotic event involving a dozen or so competing far-right and fascist groups who were trying to halt a transition of power. (In that way, the French six février presaged the Capitol siege of Jan. 6, 2021.)
But even then, MacGuire—and Murphy—were not proposing a French-style coup. They were trying to recruit Butler into an American coup, built on a distinctly American kind of authoritarianism.
Which brings me to the real point: The thesis underlying Amsterdam is that some sinister outside influence—German Nazis, “un-American” industrialists—is needed for fascism to take root on American soil. What Butler knew first-hand was how good Americans were at destroying democracy, without anyone’s help, because he had done that himself, all over the world. Those ribbons on his uniform represented the decades of repression he and his fellow Marines had visited on places like the Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. Those two Medals of Honor were earned crushing resistance to an illegal and avaricious U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1915, and killing women and children who tried to stop the Marines from coming ashore in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914. It is the habit of such imperial violence, as writers like Aimé-Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Hannah Arendt have written, that makes fascism thinkable, and even seem preferable, to those with a certain kind of mind.
Russell implies that the sterilization clinic that Washington and Robbie stumble upon is part of a Nazi plot. To do that he blows past (save for an earlier, out-of-place, and hard-to-follow aside about Washington’s character’s childhood in Texas) the extensive history of forced sterilization—not only in the Jim Crow South but across the United States and its colonies, especially Puerto Rico. The movie notes (again, without naming names) the support of U.S. industrialists for Hitler, but doesn’t note the degree to which U.S. race policy directly inspired the Nuremberg Laws. It deals with American racism, and to a lesser extent WASP antisemitism, but never seems to ask itself how the structures that it fosters might do more than a couple of glass-clinking plutocrats to bring representative democracy to its knees.
Amsterdam’s ultimate resolution is somewhat like what really happened: Butler was mocked for his allegations, especially by the corporate press—though, contrary to the movie, the publishers of the New York Times and other major newspapers were not part of the conspiracy itself. (Class interest alone enough to bring them in on the side of the accused.) The specifics are wrong, though: Butler’s court-martial for insulting Benito Mussolini happened three years before his Business Plot testimony. What really cast Butler into the mists of American historical memory was not his testimony about the conspiracy, but our forgetting of the wars in which he fought, and the strong antiwar and anti-imperialist stance he took in the years leading up to World War II—years in which he wrote the pamphlet War is a Racket, and denounced himself as having been “a racketeer for capitalism.”
The real-life congressional committee, for its part, did ultimately, if somewhat tepidly, endorse Butler’s conclusion “that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.” And it is also true that no one was ever held accountable. MacGuire did, as the movie portrays, die a year after Butler’s testimony, at the age of 37—of pneumonia, his doctor said. (Neither Butler nor anyone else that I’m aware of alleged foul play at the time.) Ultimately, it was not a conspiracy of bankers or munitions-makers that launched the United States into World War II, but the rise of fascism in Europe and decades of imperial entanglement, especially in the Pacific, that Smedley Butler helped foster—then spent the last decade of his life unsuccessfully trying to undo.
Midway through Amsterdam, Bale’s character Burt Berendsen gets into an argument with a cop over one of Voze’s art pieces—a tea set redecorated in shrapnel recovered from soldiers’ bodies when she was a nurse. The detective asks Berendsen why someone would turn “a tea set into an instrument of violence.” Berendsen responds: “That is possibly the question of the century.” That may be the question of our century as well. But it’s a question with readier answers than Russell’s film would prefer to admit.