Analysis of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

A Tale of Two Cities is an 1859 historical novel by Charles Dickens, set just before and during the French Revolution, the two cities being London and Paris. The story is about the intersecting lives of Doctor Alexandre Manette, his daughter Lucie, and Charles Darnay in France, and Sydney Carton in England.

A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens’s most famous work of historical fiction, and it’s one of the best-selling novels of all time. It has been adapted for film, TV, radio, and the stage, and it continues to influence popular culture.

Here is a link to famous quotes from the novel.

Of all the themes in this novel, the dominant one seems to be duality, expressed in many forms: London/Paris, feudalism/capitalism, light/darkness, Darnay/Carton (two men so fortuitously similar in appearance as to seem twins), Lucie Manette/Madame Defarge (personifications of light and darkness, respectively), and life/death…or death/life, as manifested in symbolic resurrections in the story.

The famous beginning of the novel establishes this theme of duality: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…” The dualistic paradoxes continue with this famous long opening sentence: wisdom/foolishness, belief/incredulity, Light/Darkness, hope/despair, everything/nothing, Heaven/”the other way,” and good/evil.

These juxtaposed opposites represent their dialectical unity, the clash of contradictions. Though the above opposites are of the Hegelian dialectic of ideas, they refer to an epoch famously discussed by Marx as of the historical, materialist dialectic. The novel begins in 1775, just fourteen years before the French Revolution, when the old feudal system would be violently replaced by the capitalist mode of production.

Another duality is seen when Dickens compares the French Revolution to politically radical activity going on in England around the time of the novel’s publication. He fears that a similar bloodbath to that of the Reign of Terror may occur in England, though by the end of the novel, things seem more hopeful for England, even to the point of a tinge of nationalistic pride (recall patriotic Miss Pross‘s defiant words to Madame Defarge: “I am a Briton”–Book Three, Chapter 14, page 407).

The duality of death/life becomes apparent in Book One, Chapter 2, when it is learned that someone has been “RECALLED TO LIFE.” This enigmatic phrase, we later learn, refers to Doctor Manette, who in his 18-year incarceration in the Bastille–a kind of death–has been freed, a kind of resurrection. Other symbolic resurrections, two of them, will occur for Darnay, thanks to his look-alike, Carton.

The trauma of Doctor Manette’s incarceration stays with him after his release, when we find him still making shoes, his work in the Bastille, in the darkness, something he no longer needs to do, but a task he feels psychologically compelled to continue doing. His union with Lucie, the daughter he’s never known and who until now has thought him dead, will bring him back into the light. ‘Lucie‘ literally means ‘light.’

She is so shocked to learn that her father is actually alive that she faints. Symbolically, father and daughter have exchanged the states of life and death, unified opposites like so many others in this story.

Another example of duality is that of two spilled reds: wine, and blood. In Chapter 5 of Book One, a large cask of wine is dropped on the ground by the wine shop of M. Ernest and Mme. Thérese Defarge, in the Faubourg Sainte-Antoine, a suburb of Paris. The poor people of the area rush over to have as much of a drink of the spilled wine as they can. One of them smears BLOOD on a wall with the muddy wine (page 32).

This eagerness of the poor to drink wine off the filthy ground is a reflection of their desperation, want, and hunger. “Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomies in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.” (page 33)

Soon after, Dickens relates Want to violent imagery: “The trade signs (and they were almost as many as the shops) were, all, grim illustrations of Want. The butcher and the porkman painted up only the leanest scrags of meat; the baker, the coarsest of meagre loaves. The people rudely pictured as drinking in the wine-shops, croaked over their scanty measures of thin wine and beer, and were gloweringly confidential together. Nothing was represented in a flourishing condition, save tools and weapons; but, the cutler’s knives and axes were sharp and bright, the smith’s hammers were heavy, and the gun-maker’s stock was murderous.” (Dickens, page 34)

This juxtaposition of red wine and blood with hunger and want, and with references to “sharp and bright” knives and axes, heavy hammers, and with the “murderous” gun-maker’s stock, is altogether a foreshadowing of the violence in the impending revolution, when the poor and hungry will finally have their revenge on the rich.

Later in this chapter, we meet not only the Defarges, but also the three “Jacques.” These revolutionaries name themselves after the Jacquerie, a popular peasant revolt in northern France back in the 14th century. The nobles of the time derided these peasants as “Jacques” for the padded surplice, called “jacques” that they wore. The term jacquerie became synonymous with peasant uprisings in both France and England thereafter.

I don’t know if there’s a direct connection in meaning between the kind of Jacques the French nobility were scorning in the 14th century and the “sly, insinuating Jacks” (I, iii, 53) that Richard III was railing against in Shakespeare’s play, but there’s an interesting association that can be made in the “Jacques” of Dickens’s novel trading positions of power with the 18th century French nobility and the Duke of Gloucester’s contempt for such people of low birth when he famously says, “The world is grown so bad/That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch./Since every Jack became a gentleman/There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.” (I, iii, 70-73).

Meanwhile, Madame Defarge is typically seen knitting (see Book Two, Chapters 15 and 16 in particular). She will be a tricoteuse during the guillotine executions, doing her knitting there. This knitting symbolically suggests an association with the Fates, who in their spinning determined everyone’s life and death. Since Defarge is also seen knitting long before the revolution and its Reign of Terror, this early knitting is a foreshadowing of the violence to come.

She encrypts the names of those to be executed into her knitting, again connecting her with the Fates, but also, in a way, with Penelope, who wove a shroud while waiting ever so patiently for her husband, Odysseus, to come home and kill all of her suitors, who were eating her out of house and home. Madame Defarge, as she knits, is also waiting ever so patiently for the violent overthrow of those who, like Penelope’s suitors, have done violence of one form or another to her home (more on that later).

To jump ahead in Dickens’s story, we encounter the first time Carton saves Darnay, who is on trial for treason against the British Crown, by simply demonstrating to the court his uncanny physical resemblance to the accused. The witnesses, two spies, claim that they could pick Darnay out from any man; but their testimony is undermined by Carton’s likeness to him.

The doubles share more in common than just their looks. They share some sense of shame, Darnay’s by his association with his uncle, the wicked Marquis St. Evrémonde, and Carton by his life as a drunken wastrel. Both men redeem themselves: Darnay, by renouncing his uncle’s family and changing his name from Evrémonde to an Anglicizing of D’Aulnais (his mother’s maiden name); and Carton, by taking Darnay’s name and place in La Force Prison, from which he’s to be taken and guillotined, the former thus sacrificing his life to save that of the latter.

Yet another duality is to be found in the two systems of class oppression portrayed in A Tale of Two Cities–namely, the outgoing feudalist one and the incoming capitalist one. Though the revolutionaries, the left-wingers, were hoping for a genuinely new society based on the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité, this was a bourgeois, not a socialist, revolution. It was good that feudal France was no more, but a new form of class struggle was about to be born.

The despicable decadence of feudal times is personified in the unnamed aristocrat known as “Monseigneur.” In Chapter 7 of Book Two, we learn that he needs no less than four men, in “gorgeous decoration,” to get his morning’s chocolate into his mouth (Dickens, page 114)

The cruelties of feudalism, however, are personified in the marquis, whose carriage runs over a little boy, killing him. The marquis’s reaction to the death he’s caused is beyond insensitive: to compensate Gaspard, the dead boy’s grieving father, the marquis tosses him a gold coin and drives on. Gaspard will kill him in revenge, hide out for a year, then be hanged for murder.

The chateau of the marquis is vividly described in terms of the wickedness of the man who lives in it. The first paragraph of Book Two, Chapter 9, “The Gorgon‘s Head,” repeatedly uses the word “stone” or “stony” to describe so much of the marquis’s property as to suggest that Medusa‘s head had turned everything to stone two hundred years prior. This emphasis on stoniness, of course, reflects the marquis’s stony heart, just as the petrifying ugliness of the Gorgon’s head is a mirror to his moral ugliness.

It is this ugliness of feudal France that is the context in which the ugliness of revolutionary violence must be understood. Dickens’s tone, during his narration of all of the events from the storming of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror, gives the clear impression that he considered the actions of the revolutionaries to be no less evil than those of their former feudal oppressors.

As with A Christmas Carol, the Dickens who was otherwise thoroughly sympathetic to the poor is in this novel showing what we today would call peak liberalism.

For my part, I’m ambivalent about the wrongs the revolutionaries committed. Their main fault resides in ultimately leaving France with a new system of economic exploitation–capitalism–to replace the old system. The Defarges, after all, are the petite bourgeois owners of a wine shop. As for the violence of the revolutionaries, what can I say? Recall Mao’s words: “A revolution is not a dinner party.”

Were there excesses of violence? Undoubtedly. But revolutions are by definition chaotic, bloody, and messy. The oppressing class can’t be voted or legislated away…they can only be violently overthrown, for they will undermine every attempt to tax them or rein in their power over us. French revolutionary violence was, properly understood, a reaction to centuries of violence done to a starving, wretched populace of peasants.

As for Madame Defarge, her violent excesses may be wrong, but they’re perfectly explicable. Her sister was raped by Darnay’s uncle; her brother confronted the uncle about the rape and was run through with the uncle’s sword. Both her brother and sister died after the best, though failed, efforts of Dr. Manette, who was imprisoned for attempting to report the crimes, and who wrote of them in a manuscript in his cell. Having found the manuscript, which denounces the whole Evrémonde family, Madame Defarge uses it to avenge her dead siblings by trying to destroy not only Darnay, but his whole family, too.

She was “imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her.

“It was nothing to her that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them.” (Book Three, Chapter 14, page 402)

One set of excesses tends to lead to an opposing set of excesses, like the teeth of the ouroboros biting into its tail, a symbol of the dialectical relationship between opposites that I’ve used many times. Since we don’t like riots, we should recall MLK’s words: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Similarly, if you don’t like revolutionary bloodshed, you should bear in mind that such bloody excesses are the words of those who have hitherto been silenced by their oppressors, often spoken in gory fashion.

Madame Defarge is motivated by revenge, personified in one of the other revolutionary women, known literally as The Vengeance. She is the “shadow” of Madame Defarge, a darkness within darkness. All of those who have suffered under feudal rule have been in darkness, such as Doctor Manette in his shadowy prison cell, and in the garret of the Defarges’ wine shop where he is found obsessively making shoes (Chapter 5, The Wine Shop). So when the revolutionaries have their revenge, they put men like Darnay in the darkness of cells in La Force, too. Indeed, his second arrest occurs at night.

Lucie’s light is in dialectical contrast to Madame Defarge’s darkness. The former says of the latter, “that dreadful woman seems to throw a shadow on me and on all my hopes.” (Book Three, Chapter 3, The Shadow, page 298) Her light, symbolized by each golden thread of her hair, pulls her father out of the dark. (Book One, Chapter 6, The Shoemaker, pages 47-49)

Elsewhere, we have Jerry Cruncher, the “resurrection man” who raids graves in the darkness, and is thus a dark parody of the real resurrection man, Carton, who by taking on Darnay’s identity recalls him to life, bringing him out of that dark cell and into the light, to be reunited with the light of his life, Lucie.

Thus Jerry, a nasty fellow who abuses his wife early on in the story, is the darkness to Carton’s light. Before he is to be guillotined, Carton compares his fate to that of Christ. He quotes the Gospel according to John: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” (John 11:25) Carton, as a Christ-figure, dies so Darnay can live. In this we see the dialectical relationship between life and death in Dickens’s novel. Recall in this connection another important quote from John: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Though Carton loves Lucie, he knows he can never have her. After all, light doesn’t sit with light, but rather with its dialectical opposite: darkness. Carton will go into the darkness of Darnay’s cell so the latter can go out into Lucie’s light.

And while darkness and light are intertwined, so are life and death. Having approached the guillotine, Carton imagines a future world, one long after his death, in which Darnay and Lucie will name a son after Carton. He can “see the lives for which [he] lay[s] down [his] life,” (Dickens, page 417) and in his prophetic visions, as well as the son, Carton has his own resurrection, his own recalling to life after death.

Speaking of ‘resurrections,’ though, another resurrection can be seen today as compared with what was going on back in Dickens’s day and before: the exacerbated immiseration of the poor. A Tale of Two Shitties: the shittiness of Dickens’s time, and the shittiness of our world ever since the dissolution of the socialist states. In this, we see yet another duality: class conflict then, and class conflict now.

Dickens, sympathetic to the plight of the poor but horrified at revolutionary violence, was using this novel to warn the rich of the danger of aggravating class conflict to the point of provoking such violence. When one considers the extremes of income inequality today, as well as all these unending imperialist wars, climate change, and how fear of disease is a distraction from the contemplation of revolution, one would think the ruling class would be heeding Dickens’s warning.

Instead, would-be leftists virtue signal in such ways as AOC wearing a dress with the message “TAX THE RICH” (of which Dickens would have approved) while ignoring protestors outside the Met Gala. In some photos of that dress, the T in TAX isn’t really showing, a kind of fortuitous prophecy. Then there was that small guillotine set by the front door of Bezos’s mansion.

May the Evrémondes everywhere in the world watch out.

The modern-day Madame Defarge is doing her knitting.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Collins Classics, London, 1859

Analysis of ‘The Passenger’

The Passenger (Italian–Professione: reporter) is a 1975 drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and written by him, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. The film stars Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, with Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, and Steven Berkoff.

The Passenger competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been widely praised for its camerawork and its acting. Roger Ebert originally didn’t like it, but he revised his review in 2005, calling it a perceptive look at identity, alienation, and the human desire to escape oneself.

As of this blog post, the film has a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

One thing I found striking about The Passenger is how it can be compared and contrasted with Last Tango in Paris, and I’m not merely talking about how, in both films, Schneider plays opposite one of the greatest Hollywood male actors, playing his character’s love interest. In Tango, Paul (Brando) is also trying to escape from his painful past, and in a totally unrealistic way, by meeting with Jeanne (Schneider), not wanting to know her name or anything about her life, and her not knowing anything about him or his name.

The apartment in which Paul and Jeanne have their anonymous affair is an oasis from the pain of his past, which included not only the adultery of his wife, Rosa, but also her suicide. In The Passenger, David Locke (Nicholson) has an affair with the girl (Schneider), whose name we never learn, by the way; his wife, Rachel (Runacre), is having an affair with a man named Stephen (Berkoff), yet it is Locke who commits, so to speak, suicide by having the world believe he’s dead while he takes on a dead man’s identity.

Reality and the past catch up with Paul in the end; he is shot and killed. The same happens to Locke. Neither man can sustain his fantasy world for long.

References to French colonialism in Africa are made, if indirectly, in both films: in The Passenger, it is Chad; in Tango, it is Algeria. Related to this is the liberal hypocrisy of Jeanne and her fiancé wanting to name their children after communist revolutionaries (Fidel or Rosa), while she has such a love and admiration for her father–a colonel in Algeria in the 1950s whom revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon would have fought–that she won’t have Paul say anything bad about the colonel. In The Passenger, Locke is a liberal reporter who poses as a gun-runner for a Chadian liberation movement with Marxist leanings (one like FROLINAT), but all he does is take the money, without any concern for making sure that the Chadian rebels get their weapons.

The theme of duality pervades both films; see my analysis of Tango (link above) to find a discussion of duality in that film. In The Passenger, apart from the man/woman duality of the main characters that is also in Tango, there are the dualities of past vs present, the First and Third Worlds, the two Davids (Locke and Robertson, the latter played by Charles Mulvehill), and perhaps the most important duality of all, which is personified by the two Davids: liberal vs revolutionary.

We are meant to understand that Locke and Robertson are sufficiently similar looking for the one man to be possibly confused with the other (even if Nicholson and Mulvehill don’t look all that alike). Perhaps the African staff in their Chadian hotel consider all white men to look the same.

The similarity in these men’s looks is significant when we remember their political affiliations. Just as the identity of one David is swapped for that of the other, and just as one David is confused with the other, so is the liberal far too often confused with the radical leftist revolutionary, and the need to beware of such confusions is the political message that Antonioni was trying to impart here.

While being a ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something (if not much) back in the 1970s, as opposed to the fact that it’s meant absolutely nothing since at least the 1990s (Bernie Sanders, AOC, et al are useless at opposing imperialism, and that’s speaking kindly of them), any real leftist knows that those 70s liberals’ activism was woefully inadequate at best, and at worst, an indirect aid to anticommunism. This is why Mao wrote “Combat Liberalism.” This is why Lenin didn’t trust the liberals. This is what Parenti meant when he distinguished the liberal analysis from that of the radical. And this is why even a moderate leftist like Phil Ochs satirized liberalism.

The real meaning of the film’s title (not the European one, mind you) is fully realized when seen in this political distinction between liberal and leftist. A passenger just sits passively while others do the work of moving. Locke is the (metaphorical) passenger, not the girl riding in his car, as many assume of the renaming of the film. Liberal opportunists are passengers: they go with the flow, blowing to the left…or to the right! depending on which way the political wind of the time happens to be blowing. The radical Marxist revolutionary, on the other hand, is the driver of the car, the steerer of the ship, one of its oarsmen, or the pilot of the airplane. The leftist actively brings about social and political changes; the liberal just goes along for the ride.

Conservatives–either out of stupidity and ignorance, or disingenuously out of a wish to exploit people’s confusion–like to conflate the liberal with the socialist. They’ll make idiotic claims like ‘hippies are communists,’ or assert that Biden and Harris are bringing about ‘toxic socialism,’ when the Democratic Party had already swung over to the political right back during the Clinton years (even Carter, with Brzezinski squirting his anticommunist poison in Carter’s ears, was hardly ‘left-leaning’ in any meaningful sense).

Locke personifies what I’ve characterized as the liberal mindset. His id would have him indulge in all kinds of pleasures: taking a huge wad of money (without even trying to supply the weapons he’s being paid for) and traveling around Europe (Munich and Barcelona), buying colourful clothes, and enjoying the charms of the girl. His ego would keep him safe from being found out by his BBC associate, producer Martin Knight (Hendry), Rachel, or the Chadian dictator’s secret police, those who kill him in the end. His superego, however, has him in an existential crisis wherein he’d report on the Chadian civil war in a manner sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, but Knight and the establishment media would have him keep his sense of “detachment,” have him remain ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ (translation: leaving the colonialist status quo unchallenged).

As a passenger, all Locke wants to do is keep moving: it doesn’t matter where he’s going, since he’s directionless, as long as he’s moving. His feeling stuck in “God-forsaken” Chad, his truck stuck in a sand dune, is symbolic of his existential crisis. Where can he go with his life as an establishment liberal reporter? He wants to feel as though he’s going somewhere, making some kind of advancement in his life. Not necessarily really going anywhere in particular, just feeling as if he’s moving. And that’s what makes him different from men like Robertson.

In the hot desert of Chad, he feels himself to be in a hopeless situation. He can’t find the guerrillas he wants to interview, to get a perspective opposing that of the dictator. He has recorded largely only the biased and dishonest point of view of the country’s ruling class; he’d might as well be supporting them. Here we see the existential crisis of the liberal who would be a revolutionary…if only he had the guts.

He feels dead in terms of the meaning of his life; it’s fitting that his truck is stuck in the desert sands. This sand is like the dust from which Adam sprang, and to which Locke will return when he dies (Genesis 3: 19; Ecclesiastes 3:20). All is vanity, the absurdist vanity of living in a meaningless world in which his only end will be death.

So when he finally returns to his hotel, exhausted and crestfallen, and he finds Robertson lying dead on his bed, Locke decides to die himself, by taking on Robertson’s identity. Adios a la pasada for Locke.

Though the past and present are bitterly opposed for Locke, there is nonetheless a link between the two that he can’t break, and this inability of his is foreshadowed in the scene when he’s switching his and Robertson’s passport photos. Locke has recorded a conversation between himself and Robertson, which he plays back while switching the photos.

The tape recording isn’t the only link with the past, though. In one of Antonioni’s famous long takes, we see bare-chested Locke at the table with the passports as the tape plays; he looks over to the side and the camera moves away from him to where the balcony shows a living Robertson and…Locke in a shirt! There is no cut in this camera shot. Antonioni has fused the present with the past in a manner bordering on the surreal; he had experimented with the border between the real and unreal, between certainty and uncertainty, in Blowup. The shot immediately after the balcony one, also without a cut, shows the flashback with Robertson return to the present with bare-chested Locke changing the passport photos. He’d cut himself off from his past, but not even the camera will cut away from it.

Earlier, Locke is sitting on Robertson’s bed, looking at the face of the corpse up close. This dead man, whose life was so different from the dead-end one that Locke wants to escape, is someone he now idealizes. He looks at the face, of this similar-looking man, as one would see oneself in a mirror; recall how Lacan spoke of seeing one’s ideal-I in a mirror, that perfect, unified image one sees, as opposed to the fragmented self one feels oneself to be.

Locke feels just this inadequacy compared to his dead twin; he feels even less alive than Robertson. Soon after, he finds Robertson’s pistol–not only representative of the dead man’s revolutionary leanings, but also a phallic manhood that Locke lacks. This ineffectual liberal now feels all the more inadequate.

But he can fake being a revolutionary, like those liberals who wear Che Guevara T-shirts and vote Democrat?

In trading Robertson’s identity for his own, Locke is establishing a narcissistic False Self and projecting his hated True Self onto Robertson’s corpse. Taking the pistol, Locke no longer feels psychologically castrated. Ironically, Robertson has said he’s in Chad “on business,” as if he were a bourgeois, when it is Locke who is the bourgeois, swapping identities with the revolutionary.

Antonioni’s films give great importance to location, including architecture, and The Passenger is no exception. In this film, we find a recurring motif of architecture, including churches or at least buildings whose names are associated with religion, like the Plaza de la Iglesia and the Hotel de la Gloria. Then, of course, there are the buildings of Gaudí, seen when Locke meets the girl, a student of architecture who knows Gaudí’s work.

Gaudí’s earlier career involved making buildings for bourgeois clients, though religiosity preoccupied his thoughts in his later life, through his focus on the Sagrada Família. The significance of these changes in Gaudí’s work for The Passenger is in how they can be said to parallel the change in Locke’s: his existential crisis, his search for meaning, can find a symbol in Gaudí’s search for God.

Now, none of this is to say that Locke’s search for meaning is anywhere near as noble or lofty as Gaudí’s; but in Locke’s narcissistic imagination, in his False Self as ‘gun-running revolutionary,’ he’d like to think of his search as comparable to a spiritual quest. Linked with this would-be quest is his meeting of the girl, who as a kind of guardian angel to him in her pressing of him to continue showing up for every meeting in Robertson’s little appointment book, is like a reincarnation of Robertson. When one considers Locke’s sexual relationship with the girl, that she can be seen as Robertson come back is in how, when Locke looked at his corpse up close, his face was so close to dead Robertson’s as to imply a wish to kiss him; after all, Robertson is his ideal-I, just as the girl, as his lover, is in a sense his other self.

While wearing that fake moustache in England, symbolic of a mask for his False Self, Locke sees the girl and will later remember her, as if it were fate bringing them together. In Munich, he is paid for papers with gun illustrations, in a church, of all places, one in which one can see the Stations of the Cross in the background. Since The Passenger is, in effect, the film documenting Locke’s life that Knight and the BBC would be making for their ‘deceased’ colleague, all these associations with spirituality and revolutionary heroism would seem to indicate that this ‘documentary film’ is an idealizing of his flawed life, in true narcissistic fashion.

He, of course, isn’t helping any revolutionary cause, nor has he found God. Like Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Locke is being completely irresponsible, throwing away his wife and his past, taking the rebels’ money without providing anything more than pictures of weapons, and having an affair with the girl. Like that fire he burns in his yard in his home in England (one of the flashback scenes) with Rachel wondering what he’s doing, Locke wants only to destroy the old, not build the new. What’s he running away from? Look back with the girl and see the road that Locke’s car has driven on: he’s in constant motion, getting away from the past, but with no discernible future or destination.

He can try to destroy the past, to run away from it, and (like Paul) try to live in a fantasy world, but he won’t succeed. Hitherto unfaithful Rachel becomes guilt-ridden over his ‘death,’ and wants Knight to contact the Robertson she understands to be alive. When Knight fails to find him in Barcelona, Rachel is all the more driven to find this mysterious man.

She isn’t the only one searching for “Robertson.” So are the secret police of the Chadian dictator, who–as Rachel learns at the Chadian embassy when she collects Locke’s things–wants to stop the illegal sale of guns to rebels in his country. Rachel is unwittingly helping these men find “Robertson,” whom she soon learns is really Locke. Incidentally, one of the secret police is a white man, presumably French (we hear him speaking to the girl in French at the Hotel de la Gloria when his associate is off to shoot Locke), strongly implying French neocolonial involvement in the Chadian Civil War, to root out the Marxists.

[As a side note, the Wikipedia article for The Passenger refers to the two men who follow and kill Locke as working with the rebels: on this assumption, the white one beats the crap out of Achebe (played by Ambroise Bia) because the rebels are mad that he gave the money to the wrong man. I disagree with this interpretation. I don’t think the rebels would react that violently to one of their comrades for what was an honest mistake, and would kill the thief of their money rather than angrily demand he give at least what he hasn’t spent back to them…and beat the crap out of him. Agents working for the Chadian dictator, on the other hand, would be that violent. Besides, I have the authority of Theodore Price, whose article on the movie includes references to the complete, uncut script, and who calls the men Chadian secret police.]

The film begins among the sands of Chad, a dictatorship persecuting the leftist resistance within it. The film ends in Spain, at a hotel surrounded in dust. Though Antonioni is too subtle a director to point this out, the viewer who knows his history will be aware that the Spain when The Passenger is set (1973) was also a dictatorship, that of Franco, who had leftists holed up and ‘reeducated’ in concentration camps, and who died the year of the film’s release, after which Spain only slowly crawled back into the realm of liberal democracy. The film thus, like music, has a kind of ABA structure: from dusty dictatorship to pretty democracy, and back again.

Before the penultimate scene with his death, Locke tells the girl a story about a blind man who regained his sight. The man was “elated” at first to be able to see, but he was soon disillusioned when he saw so much “dirt” and “ugliness” in the world. When blind, he easily crossed the road with a walking stick; with his sight, he became afraid even to leave his room. In three years, he killed himself.

This story seems to reflect, though one isn’t sure if Locke realizes it, that through those changes we make in our lives, we think we’re liberating ourselves, but we are only putting ourselves in different chains. Locke thought his trading identities with Robertson would free him from his past, but the pursuits of Knight and Rachel have proven that he’s escaped from nothing.

The girl leaves him in the hotel room and walks around on the dusty ground outside, as if to continue her work as his guardian angel, to be able to return if he needs her. The famous penultimate scene of his death, curious in being a long take largely without him in it, deserves special attention, obviously; I’d also like to give my personal interpretation of it.

Antonioni said that we don’t see Locke when he is killed because he was already dead when he chose no longer to be Locke. I’d like to expand on that idea by saying that, instead of seeing him, we see a POV shot of his spirit, even before the shooting, looking out onto the dusty square where the girl is walking about. His spirit approaches the bars on the window and passes outside; he has freed himself from the prison of a human body. Locke is rid of the lock on the door of his caged existence. Like Gaudí, he has found God, in a way, in the Hotel de la Gloria, its very name suggestive of religiosity.

Just as pious Gaudí was killed by a tram, so have vehicles arriving at Locke’s hotel brought his death: the car of the Chadian secret police, who followed Rachel to find him, her own vehicle with the police arriving too late. Locke is dead lying on the bed of his hotel room, as Robertson was found dead; both men have died thus in countries that are dusty dictatorships–ABA structure.

For dust Locke is, and unto dust shall he return.

His murder by the Chadian secret police is interesting in how he, having only received money, but having never provided weapons to the rebels, is actually innocent of being any kind of danger to the dictator of Chad. Pilate, learning from Jesus that His Kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36), also concluded that the man to be crucified was innocent of any revolutionary crime against the Roman Empire. Locke is thus a Christ figure, his holy spirit, as it were, slowly floating out of that room, through those bars, and out into the dusty square. In this way, Locke’s death is also comparable to that of the mystic architect.

Now, this making of Locke into a Christ figure is to be seen from the point of view of fascist, imperialist dictatorships. Men like Franco justified their authoritarian rule by claiming that they were saving their country from ‘satanic’ Marxism and preserving its Christian traditions. In this way, Christ-like Locke, like a good liberal who only pretends to be a revolutionary, is doing the Lord’s good work, keeping the strongmen in power by doing nothing to threaten their hold on it.

When Rachel finds her husband’s body on that bed with a bullet in him, she says she “never knew him,” echoing Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed (Luke 22:34). This is the perfect ending to Locke’s ‘documentary,’ for in his narcissistic imagination, he’s died a martyr, and yet his spirit will always be with us.

This martyr-like status, of course, is just part and parcel of Locke’s narcissistic False Self. He couldn’t really be Robertson to save his life…literally. Locke deals in “words, images”; Robertson deals in “concrete things,” so the people understand him straightaway. Locke thus personifies Hegelian idealism, while Robertson personifies Marxian materialism.

Locke’s existential search for meaning is just a Camus-like absurdist one: Locke has tried to escape his liberal past by merely posing as a revolutionary; and like Sisyphus’ futile rolling up of that rock, Locke has failed miserably. We defy the Fates and attempt to give our lives value, and we’re happy in the attempt, as Camus says Sisyphus is, and as Locke briefly has been (think of that scene of him in the cable car in Spain, when he pokes his upper half out the window and stretches his arms out over the water…he feels as free as a bird); but the certainty of death assures us of the ultimate futility of our attempt.

So the lesson we must learn from The Passenger is, do we as leftists want to be engagé revolutionaries in the driver’s seat, or do we want to be mere liberal passengers, going along for the ride, hoping to share in the glory, but doing none of the heavy lifting? Certainly, when Antonioni filmed Chung Kuo, Cina, the Chinese Communists hated it, regarding him as a mere liberal, pandering passenger. Deeply hurt by this reaction, he made his 1975 masterpiece in response.

Now, what will we do in today’s neoliberal hell? Shall we try to throw away our pasts and live in a fantasy world, à la Paul and Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris? Shall we carry Robertson’s pistol around, feeling tough with it, but be too scared to use it? Shall we try to take the easy way out and avoid our painful reality? As Robertson warns us, “the world doesn’t work that way.”

Analysis of ‘Rope’

I: Introduction

Rope is a 1948 thriller film produced (with Sidney Bernstein) and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted by Hume Cronyn and with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. It is based on the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play of the same name (called Rope’s End in American productions), the play in turn having been inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924.

The film stars James Stewart, John Dall, and Farley Granger. It’s the first of Hitchcock’s Technicolor films, and is notable for taking place in real time and being edited to seem a single, continuous shot through the use of long takes. It’s also the second, after Lifeboat, of his “limited setting” films, since Rope takes place entirely inside an apartment (the outside showing only during the beginning credits and through windows throughout the rest of the film).

Contemporary reviews of the film were mixed, it did poorly at the box office, and neither Hitchcock nor Stewart were happy with the results of the real time experiment. The film’s reputation has improved over the decades, though, and it has, as of this writing, a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 49 reviews), with this consensus: “As formally audacious as it is narratively brilliant, Rope connects a powerful ensemble in service of a darkly satisfying crime thriller from a master of the genre.”

Quotes from the film can be found here.

II: Getting a Grip on the Rope

The symbolism of rope, and of rope’s end, ought to be discussed first. The continuous length of rope suggests the continuance of life, just like the real time continuity of the film. Still, the rope must come to its end, rather like the thread of life spun by Clotho, of the Fates, and cut by Atropos.

Similarly, though the film tries to simulate the effect of one seamless take of eighty minutes, back in 1948, takes couldn’t be any longer than ten minutes; so such tricks as having actors’ backs, or those of furniture, block the screen to allow unnoticed switches of reels, were necessary. Also, several cuts are unmasked, as at 19:45, 34:34, 51:56, and 1:09:51. So, there’s the continuity of Rope, as well as the Rope’s End cuts.

The symbolism thus is of life juxtaposed against death, for the ‘life’ of the party that carries on through most of the film coincides with the knowledge that there’s a dead man’s body hiding in a large antique wooden chest, on which dinner is served. Rope, of course, is also the murder weapon.

Hamilton’s play is also continuous in action, adhering to the three unities of place (one setting: the apartment), of time (that of the evening’s party, and no other), and of action (only the one plot of the party and the secret murder). Even this continuous action, though, is divided by the curtain fall at the end of each act: Rope‘s continuity is cut at Rope’s End.

Hamilton’s is what one would call a “well-made play,” whose characteristics are combined with the classical unities mentioned above; this form that it’s in is also symbolic of the elitist thinking of the murderers, who fancy themselves ‘well-made men.’ They are Wyndham Brandon and Charles “Granno” Granillo in the play, but respectively renamed Brandon Shaw (Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Granger) in the film.

These well-to-do young men would end a man’s life to clear the way for the lives of “superior” men like themselves. They use rope as an executioner would, and as Rupert Cadell (Stewart in the film) says at the end of the play, they’ll hang (i.e., by rope–perfect karma) for their crime (Stewart’s Cadell says they’ll die).

Apart from the paradoxical life/death symbolism, the rope can also represent a link between words and deeds. As Slavoj Zižek explains, ‘By means of a prohibition of montage, Rope enacts a psychotic passage à l’acte (the “rope” from the title of the film is, of course, ultimately the “rope” connecting “words” and “acts,” i.e., it marks the moment at which the symbolic, so to speak, falls into the real…the homosexual, murderous couple take words “literally,” they pass from them immediately to “deeds,” realizing the professor’s [James Stewart’s] pseudo-Nietzschean theories that concern precisely the absence of prohibition–to “superhumans,” everything is permitted).’ (Ziźek, page 42)

Another symbolism for the rope is to be understood in light of how the murder of David Kentley (played by Dick Hogan; in Hamilton’s play, the victim is named Ronald Kentley) is, metaphorically speaking, an act of gay sex. In this context, Kentley’s head and neck are the phallus, and the rope is–pardon my crudity, Dear Reader–the tightening sphincter.

This all ties in with the next topic of discussion.

III: Of Homosexuals and Homicide

With the prudish Production Code at the height of its authority and power in the late 1940s, one would think it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to include any gay innuendo in a film. Nonetheless, Hitchcock managed to pull it off with Rope, as he would later do in Strangers On a Train.

Though Hitchcock was a bourgeois liberal, he actually had quite a progressive attitude towards homosexuality for people of the time, and he was intrigued with the idea of suggesting that not only the two young killers, but also Cadell, were gay. Hitchcock often pushed the censors as far as he could (recall the kissing scene in Notorious between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and how close we seem to come to seeing Janet Leigh naked in the shower scene in Psycho); so it would have been irresistible to him to drop many, many hints that the two young killers in Rope are a couple.

Not only are the characters gay, but so were the actors: Dall (closeted) and bisexual Granger. In fact, even the scriptwriter, Laurents, was gay…and he often wondered if Stewart knew that the character he was playing was gay. So Hitchcock had no bigotry towards LGBT people (recall that Anthony Perkins was also bisexual).

These characters in the film are gay because Brandon and Granno are hinted at being gay in Hamilton’s play, too. This is so because, in turn, Leopold and Loeb were actually gay lovers. Hamilton was a socialist, as Hitchcock was socially liberal, so both playwright and auteur would have wanted to address homosexuality in their productions of this story.

Now, the film begins with the strangling of (or symbolic sex with) David, who gives off quite an…orgasmic…scream. The lights are off, the curtains drawn in the middle of a sunny day outside; after all, we generally prefer to screw in the dark, don’t we? Especially if it’s in the socially taboo form of gay sex, something especially taboo before the second half of the twentieth century.

Phillip/Granno wants to keep the lights off and the curtains drawn for a while longer, since he’s the weaker-willed of the killers. Brandon fittingly lights a cigarette. Both are panting. They put Kentley’s body in the wooden chest, on which Brandon would proudly have dinner served.

After handling a phallic champagne bottle, Phillip asks Brandon how he felt doing “it,” a euphemism at the time for homosexual sex, but also of course referring to the murder, since the latter sin is symbolic of the former in Rope. Brandon answers that when David’s body went “limp” [!], he felt “tremendously exhilarated.” Now, how should we think about associating gay sex with murder?

The Legion of Decency–a group of Catholics working in association with the Hays Code, and watching every film of the time like a hawk to see if anything even suggestive of lewdness was there, and thus needing to be censored, boycotted, or banned–surely must have sniffed out the homosexual innuendo in Rope. Still, they approved of it. I suspect that they allowed Rope to go past the censors because, in their Catholic bigotry, they were happy to present to the public a film that associates homosexuality with homicide, a morality tale to deter the Christian flock from ever practicing…it.

But surely neither Hitchcock nor Laurents wanted to promote such an idea, did they? This seems to be where the good gay character, Rupert Cadell, comes in. Now, with Jimmy Stewart’s box office draw and charm as a movie star, the homosexuality of his character had to be toned down. The scenes in which Brandon and Cadell discuss “strangling chickens,” though, would be enough of a hint at Cadell being as gay as the killers.

The association of homosexuality with murder also hints, however subtly, that Cadell is either gay or at least philosophically approving of homosexuality. His defence of murder can thus be seen as a code for defending homosexuality. He is a liberal defending something deemed a sin by society; but like many a liberal hypocrite, he’s disgusted and horrified when presented with a graphic presentation of the act, as we see symbolized by Kentley’s murder, at the end of Rope.

The association of homosexuality with murder, in a way, can be seen historically in the homophobic fear–a totally irrational fear given the low percentage of the world’s gay people (as can be seen, for example, in these statistics of LGBT people in the US)–that tolerance of such sexual practices (anal and oral sex, mutual masturbation, or…choking chickens!) would result in a society producing far fewer children than an exclusively heterosexual, monogamous one. Such “murderers of [their] own posterity” as gays and perpetual bachelors were seen to be detrimental to the survival of any society (Farrell, pages 73-74).

Now, empires, in their political strength, have been somewhat more tolerant of homosexuality; but the Abrahamic religions started out as persecuted minorities, in whom a quick population increase was desperately wanted. Hence the homophobic passages unfortunately immortalized in the Bible (Leviticus 20:13) and the Koran (Al-Nisa, verse 16), meant to discourage gay sexuality, or similar scriptural passages condemning any sexual acts that didn’t result in children protected through the institution of heterosexual marriage.

Small wonder the Nazis condemned homosexuality as contributing to ‘race suicide,’ and put gay men in concentration camps. There was, however, Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, and a practicing homosexual. His sexuality was known, and Hitler grudgingly tolerated him for a while, because Röhm was so highly placed in the NSDAP; but when Hitler had come to power and needed to wipe out anyone who was deemed a threat to him, Röhm’s homosexuality was conveniently used as part of the rationale for having him killed.

A discussion of Nazi ‘superiority’ over homosexual ‘inferiority’ thus ties in with the next topic.

IV: From Untermenschen to Übermenschen

One of Hitchcock’s main purposes in making Rope was to discredit the Nazi notion of the ‘superior Aryan.’ We can see an irony in having two gay men, considered ‘inferior’ not only by Nazis but also by conservative society in general, who fancy themselves examples of the Nietzschean Superman. Röhm would have seen himself racially thus, too, as would his gay deputy, Edmund Heines.

[It’s interesting to note in passing that some have speculated that Nietzsche was gay. Also, one should recall how his younger sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, edited his writing to make his notion of the Superman seem proto-Nazi.]

To get back to Hitchcock’s intentions for the film, though, and his commendable use of Rope as a condemnation of Nazi thinking, on the other hand one mustn’t forget his reactionary stance as a bourgeois liberal, who during the late 1940s would naturally have been eager to distance himself from fascism as much as he could. All the same, consider in this connection what Stalin once said about liberals and their ilk: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Nazis are to be crushed, not merely distanced from; and Western liberals were using unpunished ex-Nazis to help them fight the Cold War, starting right around the time that Rope was made.

Connected to all of this is a passage about homosexuals in Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: ‘homosexuals or inverts…are men and women who otherwise have reached an irreproachably high standard of mental growth and development, intellectually and ethically, and are only afflicted with this one fateful peculiarity. Through the mouths of their scientific spokesmen they lay claim to be a special variety of the human race, a “third sex,” as they call it, standing with equal rights alongside the other two. We may perhaps have an opportunity of critically examining these claims. They are not, of course, as they would gladly maintain, the “elect” of mankind; they contain in their ranks at least as many inferior and worthless individuals as are to be found among those differently constituted sexually.’ (Freud, pages 313-314)

I bring up this quote because Hitchcock was known to have been heavily influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis, and gay Brandon’s and Phillip’s preoccupation with Nietzschean ‘superiority’ causes me to wonder if Hitchcock ever read the above-quoted book by Freud, its ideas influencing him in his making of Rope.

In any case, Brandon’s (especially) and Phillip’s/Granno’s sense of superiority doesn’t stem from their homosexuality, but rather from malignant narcissism, in which we see a huge overlapping of extreme narcissistic and psychopathic (ASPD) personality traits. Though the two may have felt narcissistic injury from being regarded by society as ‘sex perverts,’ and therefore wish to assert their ‘superiority’ by displaying the courage to kill, the thrill factor in killing Kentley seems to indicate the psychopathic side to Brandon’s personality, an impatience with boredom.

Now, Phillip/Granno, being the weaker-willed of the two killers, and lacking Brandon’s ability to tolerate stress (even though it is Phillip who does the actual strangling of Kentley!), is racked with guilt and stress throughout the film. While this guilt is surely a factor in his outburst, denying he’s ever strangled a chicken, this denial seems more connected with the implication, as stated above, that he’s gay rather than a killer. In other words, his lie that he’s never strangled a chicken seems to be his narcissistic rage at being implicitly labelled ‘queer.’

The narcissism of the two young killers can be linked to something else, in fact, something far more significant than being gay or wishing to emulate the philosophy of Nietzsche: it’s their elevated social class that gives them a false sense of superiority to most other people.

This ties in with the next point.

V: The Übermenschlichkeit of Capital

Brandon and Phillip/Granno, just like their real-life inspirations, Leopold and Loeb, are spoiled, well-to-do kids from affluent families. They’re preppy students living in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, wearing nice suits, drinking fine champagne, and inviting similarly upper-middle-class friends to their evening party. They also have a servant in their employ, played by Edith Evanson.

Their smug belief in their supposed superiority is therefore symbolic of the narcissism of capital in general. Capitalist imperialists, like those in the British Empire, and now the US, have justified their plundering of the world–killing millions in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia (whether directly or indirectly)–by imagining their stock and civilization to be superior to all the brown people they’ve brutalized. Killing a fellow preppy like Kentley doesn’t deflate my argument, for those white imperialists, the Nazis, killed such whites as Jews and Slavs in their racist hubris, too.

Cadell’s ‘defence’ of murder is meant to be heard as a sardonic take on the hypocrisies of bourgeois society, not as a green light for Brandon and Phillip/Granno to kill. Cadell’s words, like Sade‘s glorification of the most heinous of crimes, are cloaked in irony. Cadell points out, in Hamilton’s play, that war is murder on a mass scale, and thoroughly approved of by patriotic society. Similarly, Hamilton’s Cadell approves of theft because society already condones capitalists’ theft of the poor through their ownership of private property: in this observation, he refers to Proudhon‘s notion that property is theft. Hamilton the socialist would have wanted to make this point to his audience, in the hopes of promoting progressive social change. In these ways, Cadell’s approval of crime is the opposite of capitalist Brandon’s relishing in crime.

…and the notion of narcissistic, bourgeois hypocrisy ties in with the final topic.

VI: Opening the Chest

Another part of narcissism is presenting a False Self to the world, a hiding of one’s True Self. Brandon’s and Phillip’s/Granno’s pretensions to superiority are an example of the False Self, while the concealment of their crime in the chest symbolizes the hiding of the True Self.

Since the crime is also symbolic of gay sex, the two killers are presenting themselves publicly as straight, ‘respectable’ members of society with their innocuous, high-class party. Phillip’s vehement yet dishonest denial of having ever strangled a chicken is an example of such pretending. Cadell, who knows better, and who is growing increasingly suspicious of his two young hosts, cross-examines Phillip, so to speak, while the latter is playing the piano. Cadell has witnessed the…choking of chickens…and knows Phillip has lied in his denial of committing the act. This cross-examination happens while Phillip has been playing, over and over again, the first of Francis Poulenc‘s Trois mouvements perpétuels. (Poulenc, incidentally, was also gay.)

The harmonic construction of the piano piece is a perfect parallel to the growing tension in the movie. It starts off with a pretty, light tune, the ideal sort of musical setting to a party with such people as the father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), girlfriend (played by Joan Chandler), and friend (played by Douglas Dick) of the murder victim, none of whom of course know of the murder. But as the piano piece carries on, it grows–however subtly–more and more dissonant, something paralleled in the unease that the guests are feeling over Kentley’s never showing up for the party. Though Phillip never plays the first movement to the end, anyone who has heard it knows it ends at the height of inconclusive dissonance, just as the film ends at the height of tension and uncertainty for the two killers.

Now, Phillip has been revealing his guilty True Self through such parapraxes as breaking a wine glass in his bloodied hand and letting out nervous outbursts; his heavy drinking is also facilitating his disclosing of guilt. Brandon, on the other hand, enjoys suggesting that he’s guilty of murder, for he fancies himself above the common man’s hypocritical pretences of virtue.

In these ways, just as Rope demonstrates the dialectical relationships between life and death, continuity and breaks in it, ‘inferiority’ and ‘superiority,’ and pride (Brandon) vs. shame (Phillip), so does it demonstrate the dialectical opposition between hiding one’s True Self behind a mask of one’s False Self on the one hand, and on the other, removing the False Self mask to reveal the True Self, be such a removal through parapraxes or through the criminal’s vanity, his proud wish to display his murder to the world.

Just as the murder symbolizes gay sex, so does hiding the body symbolize hiding one’s homosexuality, while Brandon’s unconscious wish to have his mentor, Cadell, know of the crime represents a wish to come out of the closet…or come out of the casket, as is the case here…Brandon’s defiant wish to tell the world that homosexuality is no crime.

In keeping with the gay interpretation, though, we find that liberal Cadell, in his condemnation of the two young men’s symbolic gay sex act, is a hypocrite himself. He has philosophically condoned the act a mere 40 minutes before this condemnation, an unmasking of his own False Self. He thanks Brandon for this unmasking, just as Brandon has wished to be unmasked, too.

At the same time, though, in keeping with the capitalist/imperialist interpretation (particularly in Hamilton’s play), Cadell redeems himself by, first of all, frankly acknowledging his own guilt in killing in war and stealing in his ownership of private property, and second of all, condemning Brandon’s and Granno’s murdering of Kentley (an excess Cadell would never lower himself to), all out of a narcissistic fancying of themselves as superior.

Cadell’s redemption, however, is only partial: for as a liberal (as Hitchcock was), he is symbolically condemning the excesses of fascist delusions of superiority used to justify killing, while maintaining the bourgeois liberal class structure of society out of which fascism arises in times of crisis…just as Cadell’s verbal approval of murder inspired these two bad boys’ achievement of murder.

The rope that links the teacher and his pupils doesn’t end here, doesn’t get cut off, through the difference between word and deed. The continuity between the former and the latter is as smooth as Hitchcock’s deft camera tricks hiding the cuts between long takes.

‘The Last Breath,’ a Poem by Rusty Rebar

‘The Last Breath’ is a poem by Rusty Rebar, a Facebook friend of mine. I gave it a quick read the day before and found it full of meaning, which I’d like to examine below. First, here’s his poem (I’m setting it in italics to distinguish his writing from mine, as always):

the last breath

1.
the way a door slammed
rattles the whole house
or how the wrong word
scorches an open heart
shoes without soles
a torn pair of pants


a moment that breaks
every second after
& you seemingly unable
to put it back together
the terror hidden in
a corner of your fears

like a shy thief lurking
afraid to risk capture
but happy to hurt you
wounds inflicted on
you powerless to stop
what keeps happening

2.
pain an offering then
a solace for all that is
no surprise whatsoever
you sit with your demons
in front of the television
mesmerized by action

quick millionaires running
around in their underwear
tights or pajamas depending
joyful endorphins popping
fulfilling safe anticipations
same play — played night

& day — over & over
spinning endless tomorrows
out of imaginary yesterdays
& what is wrong with that
a world of wonderful rules
& magically infinite chances

bread & circus the holy
flesh of brainwash — firm
faith in the glory of private
property & money as the
measure of all things held
tighter when you have neither

3.
with drugs — the effect
wears off — larger doses
needed to deaden nerves
& block the bad feelings
get back to work before
the rent check comes due

escape from a prison
inside the mind impossible
the illusion of freedom ends
& you find yourself back
in your dark lonely cell
more trapped than ever

luckily — your story also
ends — there is no such thing
as forever & no problem
death cannot solve — best
treasure what you do remember
the last breath of a lost friend

And now, for my analysis.

We have three sets of verses, the first set of which centres around pain, broken or torn things, things with holes in them. The second set centres around forms of escape from the pain: television, the American Dream, bread and circuses, distractions. The third set centres around how the forms of escape, including drugs, don’t work–one cannot escape from one’s prison, since one has to go back to work before the rent is due. Still, there is one last escape…death.

So the three verse sets can be seen as the thesis (pain), negation (escape from the pain), and sublation (return to, and ultimate escape from, the pain). It’s the dialectic, but a very physical one, a materialistic one. Marx is turning Hegel right-side up.

The first set of verses is full of the imagery of violence: slammed doors, verbal abuse, the torn pants and the soleless shoes of a soulless world that doesn’t care for the poor. Moments that break, and you can’t put them back together. Thieves are afraid to get caught, but happy to hurt you: this is a world of alienation. We feel powerless to stop the pain.

The second set of verses deals with what Klein and Winnicott called the manic defence, or any attempt to avoid dealing with the painful, depressive sides of life, and to plunge instead into the manic, or exciting, sides of life (drugs, porn, etc.). One sits a mesmerized zombie in front of the idiot box, following the latest media nonsense, or one tries to identify with the rich, fantasizing that one day, the American Dream will come true for oneself…when of course there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of that ever happening.

One sees millionaires in the media dancing around in their underwear, because only they have the financial freedom to act as inanely as they like. Perhaps they’re wandering about in their pyjamas, like Hef. This empty worship of wealth goes on day after day, a hiding away from one’s secret sorrows. Those sorrows, however unacknowledged, go on “spinning endless tomorrows…”–reminding us of Macbeth‘s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech (Act V, Scene v)–“…out of imaginary yesterdays,” reminding us in turn of Macbeth’s words “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death.”

Life is as meaningless for us today, with our “faith in the glory of private/property” (note the enjambment between the two words, indicating how split a concept that one is, as is so much of our psychological fragmentation, symbolized by all the other examples of enjambment in this poem), as it was for the Scottish tyrant of Shakespeare’s play. One believes in such empty capitalistic concepts especially when one doesn’t benefit from the wealth of the 1%.

The third set of verses deals with the coming down, as it were, from the high one felt in the escape of the second set. One now feels even worse than before, unable to escape the reality one keeps coming back to. Still, there’s one last escape…death. “To die, to sleep,/No more…” (Act III, Scene i) Unlike the Dane, though, we in today’s secular world don’t generally worry about “the dread of something after death, —/The undiscovered country,” so “the last breath of a lost friend,” death, is a soft breeze on our faces, and gives us hope in our despair…the hope of despair.

Rights

The right,
left, and the centre are defined
in terms of their relations to each other.

The right,
were left and shifty centre moved
(along the spectrum, from their proper places)

rightwards,
wouldn’t seem extreme, like its sworn foe,
the oft-forgotten left. The centre, thus

more right,
would seem a milder kind of right,
while what to us seems left is centre. Our rights

fade right
into oblivion. Fascism
is normalized. The left and centre die.

The right
is all there is, and human rights
are all left in the centre of a dungheap.

We’re right
back where we started, when Hitler
was snuffing leftists, making centrists right.

Analysis of ‘Sink the Bismarck!’

I: Introduction

Sink the Bismarck! is a 1960 black-and-white British war film directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Edmund H North, based on The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck (alternatively titled Hunting the Bismarck), a 1959 fictionalized account of the actual WWII naval battles of the German battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen vs. the British Royal Navy, written by CS Forester.

The film stars Kenneth More and Dana Wynter, with Carl Möhner, Laurence Naismith, Karel Stepánek, Esmond Knight, John Stride, Jack Gwillim, and Michael Hordern. The film was praised for its historical accuracy in spite of a number of inconsistencies. It’s to date the only war film to deal with the Bismarck naval battles, and it’s an anomaly in how it focuses much film time on the back-room strategists, as opposed to devoting the film to the combatants themselves.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

The film simplifies and distorts aspects of the battles, particularly those involving HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales. Though the actual man who oversaw the operation to sink the Bismarck was Sir Ralph Edwards (and the film acknowledges him in the ending credits), the film replaces him with the fictional Captain Shepard (More). Another character, WRNS Second Officer Anne Davis (Wynter), was invented with Shepard, their fictional interplay and chemistry adding human depth and emotional interest to the story, as did the fictional characters Forester added to his account (e.g., Dusty and Nobby).

This fictionalized history, in its book and film versions, is meant of course to dramatize the greatness of the British navy in their heroic struggle against Nazi Germany; but speaking of historical inaccuracies here, there is a context that has to be examined in order to understand the true nature of the conflict between England and the Nazis. The film and book would have us believe that Britain and Nazi Germany were on practically opposite ends of the political spectrum, with the UK’s liberal democracy on one side and German fascism on the other; but the political reality of the time revealed them to be not so far apart as it seemed.

II: Some Much-Needed Historical Context

Contrary to the heroic portrayal of him in the media, including this film, Churchill was a dreadful, even despicable, human being. Being a highly-placed man in the British Empire, he was as preoccupied with maintaining and protecting England’s imperialist interests as Hitler was in establishing Lebensraum for Germany. Such preoccupations included a gleeful, even fanatical, support for violence against the Japanese, Indians, Sudanese, Cubans, etc. He was easily as racist, if not more so, than Hitler, looking down on Native Americans, Australian aborigines, etc., as inferior.

Churchill also opposed women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, busting unions and violently suppressing strikes in a way that Hitler would have admired. He only supported Zionism for the sake of Western imperialist interests; like Hitler, he also spoke of the dangers of the “International Jews.”

Apart from the Churchill/Hitler comparison, the crimes of British imperialism are also comparable to those of the Nazis in terms of how horrific they were. Here are just a few examples: Boer War concentration camps, the transatlantic slave trade, the Opium Wars, the Bengal famine (Churchill diverted Indian food to European troops when a bad harvest had already made such food scarce, causing the deaths of millions of Indians), and the brutal repression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

Given this bloody context, we are now ready to see the fighting between England and Germany the right way: it wasn’t ‘democracy vs tyranny,’ it was simply inter-imperialist conflict. And just as the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany (which also had a wider context not so well-known, and one which makes nonsense out of the notion of moral equivalency between fascists and communists), so did the capitalist West have such a pact with the Nazis: Munich, at which appeaser Neville Chamberlain claimed he’d achieved “peace in our time.”

Indeed, not only Churchill but many British conservatives (including the aristocracy) expressed support for fascism, for they knew it was an effective weapon against the rise of socialism. People like Churchill and Chamberlain were hoping, by ceding the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Nazi Germany, Hitler would be encouraged to go further East, invade the USSR, and crush communism.

Hitler, however, started presenting himself as a threat to Western imperial hegemony, and this caused Churchill et al to change their attitude toward this new imperialist challenger, and to regard him as just as much of an enemy as did Stalin, who’d been desperately trying to get the, till then, deaf Western powers to join him in an alliance against Hitler.

So inter-imperialist conflict is the basis of the fighting between Britain and the Nazis. In the particular instance of this movie and Forester’s book, the Nazis started the failed Operation Rheinübung in an attempt to block supplies from reaching England.

III: Pride

The notion of the British as the heroes and the Nazis as the (only) villains is, as I’ve stated above, a liberal bourgeois perspective, given that in actual fact both sides were imperialists vying for a bigger slice of the pie. This notion of one side as good, more civilized, more advanced, and therefore superior to the other is actually an attitude held on both sides of the conflict, and is thus an expression of national pride.

That ‘pride goeth…before a fall‘ is a recurring theme in this film, and it is noted on both sides of the conflict. While the tone of the film would have us believe that the irrational emotion of pride is far more a pronounced fault of the Nazis than of the British, there are a number of indications, including some Freudian slips, if you will, in the writing, that suggest that the chasm separating Nazi pride from that of the British isn’t as far apart as is assumed.

The film begins with a newsreel showing the 1939 launch of the Bismarck, with Hitler among the attendees. This is a moment of Nazi pride, assuming their new battleship has a Titanic-like invincibility.

Then we have a shot of the approaching Captain John Shepard in May 1941, walking in the direction of the Admiralty in London where he is to be the new overseer of strategizing in the War Room underground. As Shepard approaches, we see a statue of a lion to his left, a symbol of the strength of Britain. A huge flock of birds flies off the ground where he is walking, just before we see the film title flash on the screen; it is as if the birds deliberately make way for our great hero. In these visuals we see manifestations of British pride to parallel that shown in the Nazi newsreel.

We next see Edward R Murrow playing himself, CBS London radio correspondent. As an American broadcast journalist discussing the threat the Bismarck presents to England, his sympathy to Britain represents the solidarity felt between those countries that were and are part of Anglo-American imperialism. He says Britain is fighting alone, a claim easily proven false given the aid England got from her dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, all before the US would enter WWII by the end of the year. This ‘Britain fighting alone’ is just another example of the country’s excessive pride.

IV: Stereotypes

Shepard is in many ways as much the ‘stiff upper lip‘ stereotype of the British as the film’s portrayal of Fleet Admiral Günther Lütjens (Stepánek) is of the Nazis. Within a minute of having entered the War Room, Shepard is quick to find annoyance with the informal work atmosphere he sees: a young man isn’t properly wearing his uniform (no jumper); the charms of the beautiful Davis are jocularly overestimated, by Shepard’s predecessor, as crucial to winning the war; Commander Richards (played by Maurice Denham) is eating a sandwich on duty; and a man addresses Davis as ‘Anne,’ which especially irks Shepard.

This stiff upper lip of Shepard’s extends, predictably, to his refusal to show or talk about his emotions. While part of his reason for this refusal is the pain he felt over the death of his wife during an air raid and the sinking of his ship by a German cruiser commanded by Lütjens, another part of the reason, surely, is his pride, especially seen in his stubborn insistence on the virtue of stoicism as against Davis’s argument for the healthy expression of feelings.

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Dudley Pound (Naismith) says he’s been told that Shepard is “as cold as a witch’s heart.” Pound approves of this characterization of Shepard, as much of an exaggeration as it is; he wants a man with no heart or soul, but “just an enormous brain.” Fighting the Nazis in the North Atlantic will be “a grim business,” not to be won with “charm and personality.”

The fact is that inter-imperialist conflict is a grim business, making the British as grim in their dealings as the Nazis are. Hence, Pound wants an agent in southern Norway to make direct contact with the Admiralty, as dangerous as making such a contact will be for the agent. The Norway man will be shot by the Nazis in the middle of sending a message about where the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen are sailing, but Pound considers the sacrifice worth it.

V: A Naval Chess Game

Pound and Shepard learn that the German ships are coming out of the Baltic. The two men are looking at a large map on a table with small models of ships that are moved around like chess pieces. Indeed, the conflict turns out to be a “chess game” of sorts between Shepard and Lütjens: who will outsmart whom?

Pound notes the British ships available at Scapa Flow that could engage the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen : HMS King George V, HMS Prince of Wales, and HMS Hood. Pound contacts Admiral Sir John Tovey (Hordern, who actually served as a lieutenant commander in HMS Illustrious during the war) of King George V about the incomplete message from the agent in Norway who was killed: Prinz Eugen was spotted, and one must assume the worst, that the Bismarck is sailing with her.

As other players of this “chess game,” the men on King George V have to anticipate which way the German ships are going in order to intercept them: will they go through the Denmark Strait, will they sail south of Iceland, or through the Faeroes/Shetland passage?

Shepard wants to reinforce the Home Fleet, taking ships away from other duty. He considers taking HMS Victorious and HMS Repulse off escort duty, which would give the commander-in-chief an aircraft carrier and another battle cruiser. 20,000 men’s lives would be risked; Shepard doesn’t consider their lives a gamble, but a calculated risk. Pound approves of his decision.

Defending empire is, indeed, a grim business.

Now that King George V has Victorious and Repulse, Tovey wants the Hood and Prince of Wales in the Greenland area, while the Home Fleet sail from the Scapa Flow area, then south of the Faeroes and Iceland, to be ready to engage the Bismarck south of Greenland if the Hood and Prince of Wales fail…

…which, of course, they will.

Bad weather reinforces the British Navy’s difficulties, making the German ships virtually invisible. Lütjens speaks of the “chess game” he is playing with the British, and he proudly imagines himself able to win. Note the comparison between the stereotypical British vs German forms of pride, the ‘stiff upper lip’ of the former, and the boastful, ‘superior Aryan pride’ of the latter.

VI: Lütjens

Lütjens is, of course, portrayed as a stereotypical Nazi. The historical Lütjens, however, was nothing like this film portrayal, which should help us see that British and German pride aren’t as far apart from each other as is assumed.

The Lütjens of Forester’s book is somewhat prouder, but not as much as he is in the film. The film Lütjens complains of not receiving the recognition due to him in WWI; he is also fanatical in his belief that the Bismarck is unsinkable.

The Lütjens of history, however, was a very different man. He did not agree with Nazi policies: he was one of only a few navy commanders who publicly protested against the brutal mistreatment of the Jews during Kristallnacht. Also, he was one of the few officers to refuse to give Hitler the Nazi salute when the Führer visited the Bismarck on its first and final mission. Such rebellious actions would have taken uncommon courage; it was also in marked contrast to the film’s portrayal of a committed Nazi who’d have us never forget he is a Nazi and a German, and who passionately shouts, “Heil Hitler!

So, this contrast between the stoic Shepard and the crazed Nazi Lütjens is meant to make the former look like the more reasonable man by far. In effect, it’s to make the British seem superior to the Nazis, when as I indicated above, the crimes of British imperialism make England no more guiltless than Germany. Indeed, it is the role of fascism to be the ‘bad cop’ to the ‘good cop’ of the liberal bourgeoisie, when in reality, all cops are bastards.

VII: Shepard’s Mask of Ice

Shepard’s outer shell of stoicism is shown again when he’s asked about his son, Tom (Stride), an air gunner in Ark Royal‘s Swordfish squadron. One assumes the boy’s father would be glad to know he’s (for the moment, actually) far away from the danger of facing the Bismarck, but Shepard says his son must take his chances like everyone else. This would seem a brave, self-sacrificing attitude, but some might think it callous. In any case, the attitude Shepard presents here is fake; he’s just being too proud to admit to his feelings and emotional vulnerability. We’ll know his real feelings for Tom soon enough.

Shepard is again cold to his staff when he learns a young officer named Dexter is late for duty, though only a little. Commander Richards, the man to be relieved by Dexter, doesn’t mind the lateness, but Shepard does. He punishes the boy by requiring him for duty the next three nights. Richards pleads for Dexter, saying the boy wishes to have some time to spend with his girl, an army nurse, before she’s sent off from Portsmouth to go overseas; but Shepard won’t make an exception.

Shepard’s insistence on this punishment happens during a scene when Davis has discussed with him the loss of the man she loved, a “wonderful man” who was missing in action at Dunkirk the previous year. She has argued how good it is to talk about one’s feelings, while Shepard of course doesn’t think so. He similarly shows no warmth or pity to Dexter’s now being unable to be with his girl.

The reality of imperialism, as a modern extension of capitalism, is that it causes alienation to metastasize. We see this intensified alienation in Shepard, as the Director of Operations for the imperialist British fleet, in his callous attitude toward such young people in love as Dexter. While he shows a modicum of sympathy for Davis (presumably because of her elegant beauty), he still won’t concede any validity to her belief in the goodness of showing feelings.

Another provocation, happening by the end of that same scene, challenges an uncovering of Shepard’s outer mask of stoicism: he learns that Lütjens, who sank his ship, is commanding the Bismarck. Since he’s dealt with Lüjens before, though, Shepard will be able to get good hunches about what his nemesis plans to do.

VIII: Bismarck vs Hood

The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen are spotted sailing in the Denmark Strait, so the Hood and Prince of Wales (the latter of which has civilian workers aboard) will have to confront them the next morning. Captain Leach (Knight, who actually served as a gunnery officer on board the Prince of Wales, where he was seriously injured and blinded during the battle with the Bismarck) tells his men to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the coming battle.

To get back to the theme of pride before a fall, the Hood is the pride of the British navy. When the men in the War Room know the Hood is about to face the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (played by Geoffrey Keen) proudly says, “Good old Hood; she’ll get them.”

The problem is, of course, that she won’t get them. Instead, the Bismarck first hits the Hood, only slightly damaging her, then after another salvo, the first three shells of which hit the water near the Hood, the fourth hits just below its main mast, penetrating the deck armour, and the Hood‘s deck explodes. Both the British and German sides are shocked at the destruction of this once great ship. What’s left of it is covered in smoke. The destruction of the Hood is thus a parallel of the upcoming destruction of the Bismarck, indicating a parallel of British imperialist pride with that of the Nazis.

IX: Parallels

There are enough parallels, or doublings, of so many aspects of the British and German sides in this film, revealed in a more or less Freudian slip-like fashion (i.e., not consciously expressed as doubles or parallels), as to justify–along with the British imperialist crimes mentioned above–the near moral equivalency of the British and the Nazis.

As noted above, the Hood and Bismarck are parallels, the pride of their respective countries’ navies, and they will both meet their demises. Shepard and Lütjens are doubles. Both are embittered from misfortunes of one kind or another from their pasts. The pride of Shepard and Lütjens will, in one sense or another, fall: the former will have to own up to his emotions, and the latter will face the consequences of his overconfidence.

Recall the difference, however, between the film’s portrayal of Lütjens and the historical man, who far from being overconfident, was actually pessimistic about the Bismarck‘s chances of a successful mission. In the film, Captain Ernst Lindemann (Möhner)–who is a parallel to Shepard’s Davis in being a soft-spoken voice of reason trying to temper the stubborn pride of his superior–is ordered by Lütjens to fire on the Hood; while the Lütjens of history ordered Lindemann not to engage the Hood, with Lindemann attacking despite his superior’s orders. And if the Lütjens of the film takes reckless chances, so does Shepard in his giving the Home Fleet Victorious and Repulse, risking the lives of 20,000 men.

The only reason we in the Anglo-American world consider the British in the film to be bold and daring in their risks, while considering the Nazis to be reckless in theirs, is because we have been culturally conditioned to sympathize with the former imperialists and not with the latter. In reality, neither side should have been sympathized with.

Another parallel, or doubling, in the film is the phone call from Churchill to the Admiralty and the telegram from Hitler to the Bismarck. We all know Hitler was a warmonger, but in Forester’s account (page 77 of this pdf), Hitler calls Churchill a warmonger (which he was, technically).

X: Damaging the Prince of Wales

To get back to the story, though, with the Hood gone, it’s up to the Prince of Wales to fight the Bismarck. The British ship hits the Bismarck on the bow, then the latter hits the former on the bridge, killing all but two men there. Hit several more times, the Prince of Wales has to retreat.

Directly below the flaming wreckage of what once was the bridge is the chart room, where the navigating officer sees blood dripping from the voice pipe onto his chart. This scene is in Forester’s account (page 55 of the pdf), and it is reproduced in the film.

Proud of his victory over the Hood and the Prince of Wales, Lütjens wants to continue sailing in the Atlantic in search of more opportunities of Nazi glory. (His pride is shown in both the book [pdf pages 61-64] and the film.) Damage to the Bismarck, however, has caused an oil leak, and Lindemann wants to return to Germany for refuelling and repairs. Proud Lütjens won’t have it, though, and he’ll have news of his victory sent to Berlin; repairs and refuelling can be done in Nazi-occupied Brest instead.

Sad news of the destruction of the Hood is disseminated throughout the Allied press, including Murrow’s sombre report, contrasting with the proud, jubilant news of the same thing in the Nazi reporting. The film and book–the latter dramatizing the loss through the grieving mother of a seaman named Nobby (pdf page 59)–would have us commiserating with the British, and looking with sober eyes at the Nazi gloating; but since, as I’ve said above, it’s just one criminal empire fighting a criminal would-be empire, the opposition between both sides should be seen as a dialectical sublation, not a Manichaean dualism.

XI: Airplanes

Prinz Eugen breaks away, heading to Brest. Shepard is aware that his son, Tom, is going to be exposed to the danger because Force H, the Ark Royal and its Swordfish planes are being deployed to hunt the Bismarck. Shepard’s efforts to contain his emotions are being tested once again.

After evading the radar of the Suffolk and Norfolk, the Bismarck (located by Catalina flying boats) is to be slowed down by an air strike from the Swordfish torpedo bombers. Another fall of British pride comes when, not only do the airplanes mistakenly attack the Sheffield, thinking she’s the Bismarck, but also the torpedoes used have an unreliable magnetic detonator that tends to cause them to explode just after being dropped in the water (pdf page 107). If my lip-reading is at all reliable, the captain of the Sheffield (played by John Horsley), in annoyance with the friendly fire incident, seems to be saying, “Stupid fucking bastards,” the audio being out for obvious reasons.

Later, the Swordfish return with conventional contact exploders, and one of their torpedoes detonates near the stern, jamming the Bismarck‘s rudder, slowing her down, and making manoeuvring impossible. Undaunted in his stubborn pride, Lütjens tells his men (who in Forester’s book haven’t properly slept in days…no rest for the wicked!) not to lose heart, for U-boats will be coming to help soon (the Luftwaffe will come, too), and of course the Bismarck is, apparently, unsinkable. His pride is about to come crashing down with his ship.

Tom Shepard participates in the earlier airstrikes, and with them comes news of his momentary disappearance. Naturally, the boy’s father is shaken upon hearing the news, desperately trying to contain himself with that mask of stoicism. Shepard has been warming up to Davis, though, little by little; and he follows her advice about talking about his feelings.

XII: Feelings

He tells her his reason for refusing to acknowledge them: the death of his wife has made him believe the disavowal of his feelings will shield him from future hurt. But he forgot about his strong love for his son. Another strong feeling of his, pride, has been thwarted in his forced confrontation with that love.

When he finally learns that his son is alive and well from a phone call, he freezes and cannot answer. He is suspended between the stoic front he always puts on and the awesome wave of relief that has washed all over him. He steps out back to shed a few embarrassing tears, and Davis has noticed; but she’s too elegant a lady to let him know she’s seen him in such a vulnerable state. The film’s sympathy to Britain softens this fall of pride.

XIII: Sinking the Bismarck

The most brutal fall of pride, of course, is reserved for the men of the Bismarck, since it is the filmmaker’s (and Forester’s) intent to maximize the contrast between the UK and the Nazis, and therefore their respective falls of pride. Lütjens has received a telegram from Hitler saying that all of Germany is waiting to welcome him as their great hero. They, of course, will never receive him, since he will die, ironically, with the telegram on him.

The destruction and sinking of the Bismarck (finished off by Dorsetshire) is shown in all its brutality, with salvo after salvo hitting her and penetrating that thick armour, a man from King Charles V saying, “Shoot!” over and over again. We see Germans trying to rescue their wounded on a stretcher, then a shell hits the ship, throwing the men and making them drop the wounded. Men down below race in the rising, flooding water, trying to escape a drowning. Men open a top hatch only to find flames preventing their escape.

Now, Admiral Tovey is gracious enough to have the Dorsetshire rescue the German survivors, but one controversial historical detail left out of the film is how this ship quickly left after rescuing only 110 Germans, because a U-boat was suspected to have been in the area. The film must do all in its power to portray the British as well as possible, while doing a caricature of Nazi evil.

XIV: Shepard and Davis

The potential for a romance between widowed Shepard and Davis has been kindled in her preference to work for him over a job offer in the US. He asks her out to dinner, thinking it’s evening, when in fact it’s the morning, so they leave the Admiralty to have breakfast together instead. This minimizing of any romantic chemistry between them seems another example of stereotypical British stoicism, the affectation of virtuous self-control.

Shepard and Davis walk away in that same shot that introduced him, with the lion statue on the left and the flock of birds flying off to make way again for the hero who now gets the girl. It’s pride in would-be British superiority on display once again, in contrast to the Nazi pride that the imperialist British navy felt they had a right to judge.

XV: Conclusion

My point is that while Nazi Germany’s racism, brutality, and imperialism were blatant and obvious, the British version of these vices has been obscured in a cloak of ‘civilization.’ The conventional capitalism of the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. is perceived by many as innocuous (thanks in large part to the propaganda of films like Sink the Bismarck!, which aim to glorify these countries), while only the authoritarianism of fascism is seen as cruel and barbaric.

Mainstream Western capitalism is, however, on a continuum with fascism, the latter not emerging until the hegemony of the former is threatened by socialism, the true opposite of both ideologies. The bourgeois liberal would have you believe that not only is his ideology opposed to Naziism, but that…an obscene comparison!…fascism and communism are somehow sister ideologies. The fighting between the British and Nazi navies in this film is supposed to represent the opposition between mainstream capitalism and fascism, when really the fighting only represents a competition between the imperialism of two countries. After all, competition is part of the core of capitalism, so inter-imperialist conflict is to be expected.

As for the absurd comparison of fascism and communism, a study of the far more significant fighting of WWII–that on the Eastern front, between the Nazis and Soviets, a bitter struggle that dwarfs that of the Western front–should clear up any confusion about where those two ideologies truly stand in relation to each other.

And as for the actual comparability of bourgeois liberal ‘democracy’ and fascism, consider a few quotes from the ever-maligned Stalin: “Social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” (And social democracy is the most leftward-leaning of bourgeois liberalism; consider, therefore, how much closer to fascism the ‘centrism’ of the Clintons, Blair, Obama, Biden, and Macron are!)

To clarify the meaning of the above Stalin quote, consider this other one of his: “What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.” The depredations of thirty years of post-Soviet neoliberalism have proven Stalin to have been prescient.

In sum, England’s defeat of the Nazi threat to her shipping routes was heroic and salvific only to her, not to the preservation of ‘democracy.’ It’s only natural that, when two empires collide, they fight. The British saw themselves as trying to better the lives of their own people; so did the Nazis with respect to Germany. None of this, however, is to the betterment of humanity in a global sense.

Indeed, the oppressed peoples outside of the Anglo-American world see the political situation quite differently. One doesn’t fight empire with empire (consider Operation Paperclip and the tensions that led to the building of the Berlin Wall to see how ex-Nazis continued to collude with the capitalist West); one fights–and defeats–it with anti-imperialism.

Analysis of ‘Marathon Man’

Marathon Man is a 1976 thriller film directed by John Schlesinger and written by William Goldman, an adaptation of his 1974 novel. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and costars Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane, and Marthe Keller.

Olivier was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the antagonist, Dr. Christian Szell, who was ranked #34 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list. The line “Is it safe?” ranked #70 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes. The film was a critical and commercial success, though a number of changes from Goldman’s original intentions–the removal of scenes deemed excessively violent, and how Szell dies at the end of the film–brought the film down a few notches…in Goldman’s own assessment, too.

Still, I consider the story worth analyzing because of its depiction of the relationship between German Naziism (as personified by Szell and his older brother) and American capitalism (as personified by Szell’s American associates and couriers)–that is, the love/hate relationship between the US and fascism.

Here is a link to famous quotes from the film and novel, and here’s a link to a BBC radio play of it.

Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy (Hoffman) is a history PhD student in New York writing a dissertation on tyranny in American politics. He’s named after Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British Whig historian deemed progressive by 19th century standards, but who by today’s standards would be deemed insufferably elitist. Macaulay was known for writing a dramatized version of history, celebrating those he agreed with and vilifying those he disagreed with; similarly, Professor Biesenthal (played by Fritz Weaver) warns Babe not to get too emotional when researching the McCarthyism that destroyed his father. His doctoral thesis “mustn’t be turned into a hysterical crusade.”

Marx deemed Macaulay a “systematic falsifier of history.” By deeming his father innocent of the accusation of communist sympathies–rather than doing the brave thing and saying it shouldn’t matter whether his father was or wasn’t a ‘commie’ (i.e., there’s nothing to be ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ of), Babe is showing his reactionary, liberal tendencies (in a way, rather like those of Macaulay). This babyish political naïveté of Babe’s is something he’ll have to outgrow if he’s going to confront the fascists in his midst.

Apart from his historical/political leanings, Babe is also an aspiring marathon runner, hence the story’s name, and hence his nickname, after Babe Ruth, who we can visualize running past the three bases to home plate after hitting his many home runs. How should we interpret the meaning of Babe’s running? Firstly, he is accepting his place in the competitive world of capitalism, running with the others in an attempt to win the (rat) race, or World Series, of life. Second, as his successful running away from his captors, those working for Szell, indicates, Babe’s running represents his lifelong attempt to run away from his problems, instead of confronting them, as he finally does at the end.

Babe’s older brother is Henry David Levy (Scheider), known as “Hank,” or as “Doc” by Babe, or by his Division code name, “Scylla.” He is named after Henry David Thoreau, for reasons that, frankly, don’t make any sense to me at all, given Doc’s total conformity to the social and political establishment, the diametric opposite of Thoreau’s proto-environmentalist, anti-government stances. (Was the Levy brothers’ father hoping for Doc to have such a personality, or was this naming irony on Goldman’s part? Anybody who has read the novel, please inform me in the comments; I’ll be extremely grateful, and I’ll make the appropriate changes to this analysis then.)

Doc’s other name, Scylla, is more explicable. As a spy secretly working for the American government, and as a courier for Szell’s diamonds (in exchange for Szell’s betraying of his fellow Nazis), Doc is, symbolically speaking, vying for a Scylla and Charybdis kind of lesser evil status, rather like the US vis-à-vis Naziism. Though he’s a Jew (and a closeted gay), Doc has an American-style conservatism and violent manner (cut out of the film) that shows him to have a much more flawed character than meets the eye, an unpleasantness almost comparable to that of Szell.

Christian Szell’s older brother, Klaus, has been watching over Szell’s diamonds (which he’d extorted from prisoners in Auschwitz) in a New York bank while Szell hides away in Uruguay (Paraguay in the novel). If Szell needs money, Klaus takes out some diamonds and has these converted into cash. But one unlucky day, Klaus gets mixed up in a road rage incident that gets him and the other driver killed.

The other driver is a hot-tempered, middle-aged Jew, and Klaus is as much a Nazi sympathizer as Christian is. The mutual hate that both drivers feel, knowing each other’s ethnicity (Klaus: “You are a Jude!…[in German>>] Lick my arse!”//The Jewish driver: “You antisemitic bastard, you!”), causes their road rage to spiral out of control, leading to them crashing into an oil truck, killing both of them.

It’s easy to see the destructiveness of racial hatred in this scene, and to focus on the evil of antisemitism. But to get at the root of fascism, we have to look at its economic foundations. Szell, having lost his brother in the accident, no longer has anyone he can trust to watch over his diamonds, so he must come out of hiding and (or so he believes) kill the couriers before they have a chance to rob him of his diamonds.

This fear of losing one’s wealth is what drives the violence of fascism. When communist revolutions shook up Europe in the late 1910s, the beginning of the 1920s, and in the mid-1930s, regardless of whether they succeeded or failed, the capitalist class was scared, and the fascism of Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, et al was used either to beat down the working class or to lead them astray, making them think that foreigners were their enemy, rather than the rich. Szell’s paranoia and violence are symbolic of this reactionary use of fascism; note how, early in the film, there are numerous references to strikes and environmental protests.

Recall what Henry A. Wallace had to say about fascism: “A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.” Here’s another quote: “If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States.” And yet another: “Still another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.” Note Wallace’s recurring theme of the fascist’s lust for money.

While the racism, xenophobia, and national chauvinism of fascism are problems not to be trivialized, fascists at their core are capitalists, and their function is ultimately to preserve and protect the class structure of society. This is why we see Szell’s constant preoccupation with his diamonds. Though he’s surely no Jew-lover, we never hear him utter an antisemitic slur against Doc or Babe.

We mustn’t let ourselves be confused whenever people, conservatives such as Jonah Goldberg in particular, claim that men like Mussolini or Hitler were a ‘different kind’ of leftist. To say that the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was a socialist one is like saying the Democratic Party is democratic. The names of the parties mean nothing if their actions don’t replicate them. To reassure his big business donors, Hitler purged the Nazi party of all left-leaning members (Röhm, the Strassers, etc.) as soon as he came to power.

The point is that we don’t solve the problem of Nazi sympathizers by merely calling out people who make racist comments on social media, etc. We must get to the bottom of the fascist problem by dealing with its roots in class conflict. Hitler’s dream of lebensraum was inspired by the American takeover of land from the aboriginals. Imperialism in its modern form grew out of capitalism, a reaction to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Markets must expand to other countries to keep the profits flowing.

Similarly, Szell must leave South America and go to the Jewish-dominated diamond district of New York to retrieve the diamonds he stole from Jews in Auschwitz. He is the personification of an imperialist going into another country to plunder it, provoking the ire of those who live there.

Szell’s original hiding away in Uruguay/Paraguay, him a wealthy bourgeois with South American servants, reminds us of Dr. Josef Mengele (Todesengel, “Angel of Death”), of whom Szell (der weiße Engel, “the White Angel”) is the protégé and his double for the purposes of this story. Recall that Mengele–played by Gregory Peck–is the antagonist in The Boys From Brazil, in which Olivier also starred, playing a Jewish Nazi-hunter. Both of these films share as subject matter the fear of a resurgence of fascism.

Indeed, Marathon Man can be seen as a kind of allegory of the revival of fascism, in that Szell’s paranoia about being robbed of his diamonds (like Nazi paranoia of ‘Jewish world domination’) symbolizes the ruling class’s fear of losing their wealth and power from socialist revolution, as symbolized by the leftist references to such strikes as one of bakery workers and one of airport baggage handlers, as well as anti-pollution protests in Paris during Doc’s visit there.

Christian Szell–whose…Christian…name distinguishes him as a Gentile bourgeois from such Jewish bourgeois as Doc and all the New York diamond-dealers whose appraisals of Szell’s diamonds he needs, and whose surname (apart from its having been inspired by, oddly, George Szell) can be seen as a pun on sell, that is, to sell his diamonds for cash–must infiltrate another country, like an imperialist, and do violence against anyone who stands in his way, like a Nazi.

Szell’s American counterparts, Doc (or Scylla, recall) and Peter “Janey” Janeway (Devane), represent the Nazis’ American imperialist frienemies. They have to do business with Szell, for the sake of–in my allegory–maintaining the capitalist status quo, but Scylla, as a gay Jew, and Janey as his closet gay lover, certainly don’t like doing business with him.

The gay relationship between Scylla and Janey is only slightly hinted at in the film, in a scene in Scylla’s Paris hotel room, when he phones Janey, tells him he misses him, and wants him to “get [his] ass over [t]here.” Janey has worries about “appearances” (i.e., two men sharing a hotel room), but Scylla doesn’t care if their being together looks indiscreet. In the BBC radio drama (just after 38:00), Janey tells Babe there’s nothing he can say about Doc that won’t shock him, including his homosexuality (which would surely shock Babe to know). Goldman’s novel is even more open about Scylla’s and Janey’s gay relationship.

Now, these two men may be gay, but they’re also very much part of the conservative American political establishment. Doc is unsympathetic to Babe’s research on their father, a liberal who committed suicide because McCarthyist smears destroyed his reputation. Doc, as Scylla, may despise Szell, but he still chooses to work as a courier for him. Janey is a double agent pretending to oppose Szell by temporarily rescuing Babe from the dentist torture, but he wants the diamonds, too, and he gives Babe back to Szell when he realizes he can’t get any information from him.

What we see in these scenes between Szell, Scylla, and Janey is an allegorizing of the two-faced relationship that the US has always had with fascists. On the surface, the US appears to be opposed to Nazis (as we see dramatized in films like Saving Private Ryan), but secretly…or, not-so-secretly…American businessmen worked with Nazis, then after WWII, ex-Nazis were given jobs in the US government.

A thin veneer of liberalism and progressivism (as personified in Doc and Janey, in their gay relationship) hides American fascist sympathies. Recall how New Dealer FDR put Japanese Americans in internment camps. And during the 1950s, when there were higher taxes on the rich (high enough, in fact, to preclude the very existence of the kind of super-rich we see today), strong unions, and the welfare state, McCarthy’s witch hunt for communists and communist sympathizers was in full swing.

This last issue is of great concern to Babe, since it destroyed his and Doc’s father. Their father was a left-leaning liberal, left-leaning enough to make him want to ‘disown’ Doc, in Babe’s estimation, had their father lived long enough to see Doc become what Babe is led into believing is a successful oil businessman…and had their father known Doc is Scylla, a US government spy, he’d have disowned Doc all the more.

Still, this left-leaning doesn’t lean anywhere near Marxism-Leninism, which is what is truly threatening to American capitalism, the danger of a theft of the diamonds, so to speak, of the bourgeoisie. All the same, McCarthyism had that Szell-like paranoia of anyone even remotely connected to communist ideology; hence, such people, like the Levy brothers’ father, were destroyed.

This overwrought paranoia is emblematic of what links the American right with fascism. To those on the far right, anyone even a few millimetres to their left is by that fact alone a communist. Members of the Democratic Party are communists, apparently, even people like the Clintons, Obama, and Biden, who either enacted or endorsed very right-wing legislation. I know an American supporter of Trump who thinks this of the Democrats, and who holds the delusion that Justin Trudeau and hippies are communists. These far right-wing types actually reach that level of paranoid absurdity.

Similarly, Szell doesn’t trust any of his couriers with his diamonds, hence he has Chen, an Asian assassin, make several attempts on Scylla’s life. Scylla is plenty conservative as noted above, despite his closeted homosexuality; in fact, Doc’s code name is practically a pun on Szell. Still, none of this is good enough for the ex-Nazi dentist, so he kills Scylla with the blade hidden in his sleeve…just as Nazi Germany would eventually fight the US, the very country that inspired their imperialist lebensraum, in WWII.

Babe is smitten with a “Swiss” woman named Elsa Opel (Keller), though she is actually working with the same people associated with Szell. Small wonder Doc is quickly able to figure out that she is a phoney during lunch with her and Babe in a fancy restaurant. The two lovers have been mugged in Central Park by two men hired by Szell, the same two men who later abduct Babe in his apartment so Szell can do his sadistic dentistry on him. The two men’s German names are Erhardt (played by Marc Lawrence) and Karl (played by Richard Bright, who would have been easily remembered by mid-70s moviegoers as Al Neri in the two Godfather movies released just a few years before Marathon Man, thus making the link between Nazi Germany and mafia-like America all the surer).

So, Szell’s paranoia about having his diamonds stolen leads to his violence against his couriers, especially Scylla, then to Elsa and Babe…just as the capitalist class’s fear of losing their financial power led to the rise of fascism and its inherently violent nature. There is violence against Jews (in the film and in history, of course), let there be no trivializing of that fact; but at its core, the scourge of fascism is financial in nature.

So after Karl and Erhardt abduct Babe and tie him to a chair for Szell, we see an allegory of how fascist violence is provoked by a fear of the capitalist class losing its money. Though Babe is a Jew, and one would imagine ex-Nazi Szell hurling one antisemitic slur after another at him, instead, his one concern remains simply, “Is it safe?”

He won’t tell Babe what the “it” specifically refers to, so Babe has no way of being able to answer the question. Of course, what Szell means is to say, ‘Is it safe for me to go to the bank and retrieve my diamonds?’ Are his diamonds safe, or will he be robbed of them and killed? That this is a mystery to Babe is allegorical of how the common man is ignorant of the machinations of the ruling class.

Babe is terrorized and tortured by Szell and his tools of dentistry, just as the victims of fascism are terrorized and tortured; and just as Babe has no idea what Szell wants, those victimized by fascism usually don’t know what their far right-wing agenda is fuelled by. The common people assume that that agenda is limited to racial hatred, xenophobia, and extreme nationalism, when these three evils are just by-products of the agenda, which is to divert the working class from revolutionary intent, and to use violence to suppress socialist revolution during a time of capitalist crisis…to ensure that capitalism is safe.

Now, Babe is generally a rather weak, ineffectual man…a true Babe, hence Doc’s many taunts of him. The brothers’ reaction to the trauma of their father’s suicide has been to go in opposing directions, Doc a conservative, Babe a liberal. Doc’s trauma response is fight; Babe’s is flight. Babe screams for help like a damsel in distress when Karl and Erhardt break into his apartment. Symbolic of this weakness is a cavity he’s had throughout the story. Szell attacks the cavity with his dental tools, getting screams out of Babe. Then Szell finds a healthy tooth, honing in on a nerve, the pulp, the contacting of which is even more agonizing for Babe.

I have argued in other film analyses that the loss, or mutilation, of teeth (be they literal teeth or symbolic ones) is symbolic castration, in the Lacanian sense that any bodily mutilation represents a castration-like lack that gives rise to desire. The cutting-away at Babe’s healthy tooth is a trauma that, combined with those of the mugging and the witnessing of his brother’s bloody death, will push him over the edge and transform him from a meek man to a strong, revengeful man. His desire will be to have Szell recognize him and the hurt he’s caused, then to receive a return of that hurt.

After the mugging, Babe has admitted to a desire to use his pistol (which had been his father’s, used in his suicide) to shoot the muggers. Now he’ll want to use it all the more.

He manages to get away from his captors (when Szell finally acknowledges that Babe really doesn’t know anything about the diamonds), and he uses his running skills to evade them even while chasing him in a car. When he finally gets his hands on that gun from his apartment, that phallic gun, he finds his strength. Fear has been replaced with rage, just like that of the Jewish road rager at the beginning of the film…though Babe isn’t going to be rash and impulsive with his revenge on Nazis.

Elsa takes Babe to the house of Szell’s brother Klaus, and by now Babe is on to her. A final confrontation with her, Karl, Erhardt, and Janey ensues after finding out where Szell is going to be (his New York bank), and everyone except Babe is killed. Now Babe can go after Szell.

Szell has already been feeling the effects of his bad karma on the streets of the diamond district of New York. In spite of his having shaved himself to imitate male pattern baldness, so he wouldn’t be recognized by his weiße Engel mane of snowy hair, two middle-aged Jewish Holocaust survivors know who he is.

Pauline Kael called Marathon Man a “Jewish revenge fantasy,” but I’d like to extend that idea to a film about karmic retribution on fascists in general, in which Jews can be seen as a metonym for the working class. What we must remember is that while the Nazis murdered six million Jews, they also murdered five million non-Jews, including leftists, who represent the working class, and who were the first to be put in concentration camps. Jews and communists were the two main scapegoats on whom Nazis blamed the problems of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, Hitler conceived of communism as a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

So the two middle-aged Jews who recognize Szell, and later, Babe getting his revenge on Szell, can be seen to represent a leftist retaliation against fascism. After all, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, and while the Wehrmacht was succeeding at first at doing violence against the Soviets (just as Szell has terrorized Babe with his dental instruments), eventually the Red Army turned things around and, surrounding the Nazis in Russian territory as Szell is surrounded in the Jewish diamond district, the Nazis retreated like Szell. Finally, when all was lost, Hitler killed himself, as Szell stabs himself with the blade in his sleeve.

Now, at this point, we must discuss the difference between the ending of the film and that of the novel, the latter of which I consider much better. The BBC radio drama (link above) dramatizes the novel’s ending, and the Goodreads quotes of the novel (again, link above) give lengthy sections of Babe’s lecturing words as he fills Szell with bullets.

The film’s ending–in which Babe doesn’t kill Szell, but merely points his gun at him, tells him to swallow his diamonds, and throws the case of them into the water of a water-treatment facility, making Szell race down stairs after the case, fall, and stab himself with his sleeve-blade–comes across as liberal soft-heartedness. Punish fascists, have them destroy themselves, but dear God, for the sake of humanity, don’t kill the poor little Nazis.

Say whatever you want about the morality of Babe shooting Szell in cold blood; he has every motive in the world not only to settle the score for all the torture he’s suffered from Szell, but also to avenge his brother’s murder. Similarly, we leftists have every motive in the world to meet fascist violence with violence of our own.

Babe once “was a scholar and a marathon man, but that fella’s gone now.” Recall how I said above that Babe’s marathon running is symbolic of his running away from his problems. He’s acknowledged, after the mugging, that Doc would say Babe’s never confronts anything. Well, “that fella’s gone now”: Babe doesn’t run away anymore. He faces his problems now. He fights back.

Babe says, “if you don’t learn the mistakes of the past, you’ll be doomed to repeat them.” We leftists must learn from the mistakes of the past, too. We can’t afford to be soft on fascists, because they’ll never show us that courtesy if they rise to power again…and recently, there have been many examples of resurgences of fascism, in their traditional, national chauvinist forms, and in other authoritarian forms.

Babe says to Szell, “we’d have a nice peaceful place here if all you warmakers knew you better not start something because if you lost, agony was just around the bed.” We won’t have peace in the world by strumming guitars, smoking pot, and naïvely wishing for an end to war. Warmongers will be stopped only through revolutionary action: power must be seized by force; the imperialist bourgeoisie must be violently overthrown, and this is what Babe’s bullet-ridden revenge on Szell represents.

We, the proletariat, cannot solve our problems by running away from them. We must arm ourselves and fight back; for if we don’t, the far greater, gun-laden violence will continue in the forms of war and police shootings, income inequality will continue, our civil rights will continue to erode, and our ability to live on this earth will be gone forever.

Only when the Szells of the world are removed, will it be safe.

Analysis of ‘The Wizard of Oz’

I: Introduction

The Wizard of Oz is a 1939 children’s fantasy musical movie produced by MGM and written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the 1900 children’s fantasy story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. The film stars Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Margaret Hamilton; it costars Frank Morgan and Billie Burke.

Considered one of the greatest films of all time, The Wizard of Oz features Garland’s immortal performance of “Over the Rainbow,” which one the Oscar for Best Original Song, and the film is characterized by its use of Technicolor (in Oz), which contrasts sharply with the black-and-white beginning and ending (in Kansas).

A link to famous quotes from the film can be found here. Here’s a link to a PDF of Baum’s book. I’ll be comparing the film with the book throughout. [NOTE: whenever I cite or quote from Baum or cite other PDFs here, I’m using the page numbers from the ‘paper’ copied in the PDFs, not the PDF page numberings.]

II: Preliminary Remarks

What is particularly interesting about the film and Baum’s book is how one can find political allegories in it, even though Baum never indicated any allegorical intent in his story; he insisted that it was meant just to entertain children. Still, a number of attempts have been made over the years to find an allegory in it.

One well-known allegory is that of historian Henry Littlefield, who saw in such things as Dorothy‘s silver shoes a symbol of bimetallism and the freeing of silver from what was felt by some in the US in the 1890s as the tyranny of the gold standard. Certainly this was the feeling of William Jennings Bryan, who famously spoke of the issue in his rousing “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 DNC. According to this allegory, the Cowardly Lion is supposed to be a satiric take on Bryan, since Baum didn’t sympathize with his position; though I see at best a tenuous connection between the character and the politician, and this is after reading Baum’s book, Littlefield’s allegory, and Bryan’s speech from beginning to end.

Indeed, though Littlefield’s allegory has its supporters, it’s far from universally accepted. While I agree that the Scarecrow represents the American farmer, or perhaps more generally peasant farmers (as does the sickle), and the Tin Woodman represents the industrial proletariat (as does the hammer), having the Lion represent Bryan seems wildly inconsistent in relation to the previous two. Surely the Lion should represent something properly paralleling them (more on that later).

In any case, however one judges the validity of Littlefield’s allegory, surely people today, as well as those who saw the film’s premiere in 1939, will find the bimetallist allegory not something they can identify with. People in the late thirties surely were more concerned with the Great Depression and the rise of fascism than they were with ‘freeing silver.’ And I think people today are more worried about the current economic crisis and resurgence of fascism than they are with bimetallism.

So, what can the film and book mean for us today, regardless of whether or not Baum and the film’s screenwriters consciously intended such a meaning? I’d like to propose such an allegory.

I see The Wizard of Oz, in its book and movie forms, as an allegory of class struggle. In fact, the bimetallism allegory, especially as advocated by Bryan in his “Cross of Gold” speech, dovetails with my interpretation beautifully (though not in the ironic, satirical sense in which Littlefield imagines Baum’s meaning), because for Bryan, the freeing of silver coinage was for the benefit of American farmers (i.e., helping them pay off their debts), and for the good of the common man. Bryan was known for his sympathy for the common worker, and in his speech, he spoke of the wage-earner as being “as much a businessman as his employer.”

Now, Baum vigorously supported the suffragette movement, and he was pro-worker, as seen in the sympathetic portrayal of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, and in his vivid description of the plight of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em in their harsh farming life at the beginning of the story, representative of the harsh life of American farmers that Baum saw all around him in the Midwest in the late 19th century. One despicable thing about Baum, though, is how he advocated, in two editorials, the extermination of the Native Americans; but apart from this one egregious blot on him, Baum could be deemed to have been sufficiently progressive for his time to justify my interpretation of his story.

III: Grey Kansas

The filming of Kansas in sepia-toned black and white is appropriate, given Baum’s description of the farm of Dorothy Gale (Garland) as predominantly grey. Baum’s story introduces the cyclone almost immediately after a brief description of the dull, grey, and difficult farm life, and how such difficulties have dulled even the original beauty of her Auntie Em (played by Clara Blandick), and made her Uncle Henry (played by Charley Grapewin) never laugh, as Auntie Em never smiled.

The film, however, expands the opening Kansas sequence to include characters who are doubles of many of those we later see in Oz: Miss Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton), Hunk/the Scarecrow (Bolger), Hickory/the Tin Woodman (Haley), Zeke/the Cowardly Lion (Lahr), and Professor Marvel/Gatekeeper/Carriage Driver/Guard/Wizard of Oz (Morgan).

The fact that the three farmhands–three workers in the employ of Dorothy’s aunt and uncle–are doubles of her three “comrades” (Baum’s word) reinforce my interpretation that these three all represent members of the working poor…including the Lion.

Dorothy complains to her aunt and uncle about Miss Gulch wanting to take away her dog, Toto (played by Terry), and have him killed. Her aunt and uncle, too busy and stressed with their work on the farm, don’t have time to deal with her problems. When she tries to talk about Miss Gulch and Toto with the three farmhands, they have little time to listen, either. In this poor communication, due to the urgency of work, we see an example of alienation, which divides not only workers, but also families.

As so many of us do in the capitalist world, Dorothy dreams of the possibility of a better world, one “Over the Rainbow.” The lyrics of the song were written by socialist Yip Harburg, who got blacklisted even though he was no member of a communist party.

When mean Miss Gulch comes to the farm and demands to have Toto, having the law behind her, we learn also that she owns quite a stretch of land (Auntie Em says Gulch owns “half the county”). Her ownership of private property thus makes her a capitalist; since she’s a double of the Wicked Witch of the West, Gulch thus reinforces the witch’s tyranny over the Winkies as symbolic of capitalist imperialism, something by extension seen in the witch’s sister (according to the film), the Wicked Witch of the East, and her imperialist oppression of the Munchkins.

Gulch takes Toto away in a basket on her bicycle, but the dog jumps out and returns to Dorothy. To protect Toto, she feels she must run away. She meets Professor Marvel, a fortune teller who has apparently been to all kinds of wonderful places in the world; she’d love to accompany him on his travels.

He uses his crystal ball to make her believe that her Auntie Em is heartbroken over her running away, so she decides to go back. She manages to get back home by the time the cyclone comes. The cyclone represents the turbulent winds of revolution, which tear up the old order to make way for a new one. Back in the house and carried up in the eye of the cyclone, Dorothy is knocked unconscious and begins to dream.

IV: Landing in Oz

Since dreams are, as Freud noted, a royal road (a yellow-brick one, by chance?) to an understanding of the unconscious, we can see her experience of the Land of Oz as, on one level, symbolic of the experience of the world as felt by the unconscious mind, which tends to mishmash things together (for example, Melanie Klein, in The Psychoanalysis of Children, wrote of how a baby’s unconscious will think of milk, urine, and other liquids as identical). Hence, Miss Gulch is the Wicked Witch of the West, and the three farmhands are the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion.

Oz, too, is of course a fantastical version of the real world Dorothy and Toto have come from. It may be bright, colourful, and beautiful, but Oz is far from utopian…at least in Baum’s first Oz book. The Munchkins and Winkies are enslaved and oppressed by the wicked witches, and “the wonderful wizard of Oz” is no less a phoney than your average politician.

When Dorothy steps out of her house and into the colourful Land of Oz, she may have a feeling she’s not in Kansas anymore, but her going “over the rainbow” hasn’t landed her in an ideal world. Her house’s having dropped on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East, freeing the Munchkins and giving them cause to celebrate through the song “Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead,” is only the beginning of the revolutionary change needed to liberate all of Oz. Crushing the old, oppressive institutions isn’t enough; one has to build new ones.

Who does the Wicked Witch of the East represent? Baum, having published his story in 1900, obviously never intended her to represent the evils of Eastern feudalism in, say, tsarist Russia or pre-republican China, which weren’t to end until one to two decades afterward. But the 1939 film was made long after those revolutionary changes, and in any case, we today can think of her as, on one level, symbolizing such old forms of tyranny if we wish, since such a retrospective interpretation will resonate far better with our generations than a preoccupation with free silver.

Art isn’t mathematics, in which an equation has only one correct answer and an infinitude of wrong answers. Meaning in art and literature is much more fluid, allowing a multiplicity of possible interpretations, however idiosyncratic some of them may be. When interpreting the meaning of a film, a book, a poem, or a myth, insisting on only one ‘correct’ meaning ruins the enjoyment of that art form, because such an insistence ossifies that art form. If the ‘correct’ interpretation has been established, why interpret that work of art any further? Just stick with Littlefield et al, and inquire no further. Now, if you like those old opinions of what Baum’s book means, you’re entitled to your opinion, and that’s fine. But please allow others to look at it in other ways if they wish; as long as a reasonable case can be made to support one’s interpretation, however eccentric it may be, it can be deemed ‘correct’ enough.

V: The Witches

As for the witches–who represent heads of state, or in the case of the wicked ones, represent colonizers and imperial rulers of the lands of others–Baum doesn’t develop them much in this first Oz book. We briefly see the Good Witch of the North among the Munchkins, the Wicked Witch of the West is encountered only when Dorothy et al enter the land of the Winkies, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, is seen only towards the end of the story.

To unify the story more in the film version, the Good Witch of the North (Burke) is a composite of the northern and southern witches; hence, she’s Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. And the Wicked Witch of the West is introduced in the land of the Munchkins, being the sister of the dead Witch of the East; we see much more of her in the film, too, since she’s the central villain.

Since the Glinda of the film combines the witches of the north and south, we naturally see more of her, too. An interesting theory about the film Glinda suggests she isn’t as good as she seems to be. Why doesn’t she simply tell Dorothy she can go home with the now-ruby slippers? At the end of the film, she says that Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her if she’d told her at the beginning, and that the little girl must learn for her self that she’s always had the power to use them to take her home…only Dorothy doesn’t learn it for herself. Glinda tells her at the end just as much as she could have told her earlier, and why would Dorothy believe her any more now than at the beginning?

It could be that Glinda’s all-too-saccharine, grinning goodness, bordering on–if not lapsing into–artificiality, is actually a cunning disguise meant to manipulate Dorothy into destroying the Wicked Witch of the West and getting rid of the Wizard of Oz. Since the Witch of the East is already killed, and the film’s Glinda is both the northern and southern witches, the success of her cunning plan would leave her the only one to rule all of Oz.

VI: Oz in Ounces

The only reason Oz seems to be such a sweet and beautiful place is because it is seen as such through the innocent eyes of a naïve little girl. But a world ruled by imperialistic witches, where people have a preoccupation with precious materials like gold (symbolized by the yellow brick road; then there’s the golden cap that commands the Winged Monkeys), silver and/or rubies (Dorothy’s shoes), and emeralds, is obviously a world symbolic of capitalism. Indeed, “Oz” has been interpreted to mean ounces (i.e., oz. of gold or silver).

To many Americans, whose political naïveté is comparable to ingenue Dorothy, “capitalism is freedom” (please refer to my many a debunking of the myth of the “free market”). Dorothy’s silver/ruby slippers taking her back to dreary, grey Kansas can be seen to reflect the disillusion one has when one wakes up from the slumber of the “American dream,” that if one works hard enough, one can become a millionaire, instead of realizing that one tends to stay in one’s social class of birth. Though she’s genuinely happy to be with her family again (which is ultimately what matters), her loss of the shoes during the trip back is symbolic of how the dream of striking it rich is an illusion.

So Dorothy, wearing silver or ruby slippers and travelling down a yellow brick road (yellow being symbolic of gold, as I mentioned above) towards the Emerald City can be seen to represent the dreams of the petite bourgeoisie of finding wealth and financial success. If, in my interpretation, the death of the Wicked Witch of the East represents the end of feudalism (i.e., such upheavals as the French Revolution, a western revolution, but east enough relative to the US), then the appearance of the Witch of the West among the Munchkins, with her coveting of now-Dorothy’s ruby slippers, can represent the advent of capitalism, and the imperialism that has grown from it.

Dorothy’s travels down the yellow brick road, crossing farmlands with lots of rich crops and food (Baum, chapter 3, page 33), are a sharp contrast with the grey farmland of Kansas and the struggles Henry and Em are having, a major issue with late 19th century American farmers. Still, this abundance of food is only one part of Oz; later on, Dorothy will find it difficult to find food (Baum, chapter 4, page 44; chapter 5, pages 54 and 61; chapter 7, page 75). Baum’s Oz is a kind of Spenserian bower of bliss, where what initially seems pleasurable is hiding potent evils to be discovered soon enough. The film’s use of studio sets and matte paintings are useful in reinforcing the sense of unreality in Oz.

VII: The Scarecrow and the Tin Man

Soon, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, and learns that because his head is stuffed with straw, he must be lacking a brain. In Baum’s story, he says he doesn’t know anything (chapter 3, page 38)…but how does he know that he doesn’t know anything? He has a brain…he just doesn’t realize that he has one.

He represents the rural, uneducated farmer; I’d expand that by saying he also represents peasants. Such people are often perceived to be the ‘country bumpkin.’ Half of the problem of how to improve the lives of these impoverished people is to get them to see how capable they really are, something the ruling class doesn’t want them to see. They need confidence in their abilities.

Mao Zedong had great faith in the Chinese peasants, and he gave them the confidence they needed to help him fight the Japanese imperialists during their protracted war in the 1930s. When the CPC took control of China, they went through some rough moments, to be sure (though nowhere near as bad as the right-wing propagandists have portrayed those problems); but now China has grown from a Third World country to an economic rival of the US…all in a mere forty years.

The Scarecrow will go with Dorothy to ask the Wizard of Oz, who represents the consummate politician who is all talk and promises that are rarely kept, for a brain. The two continue down the yellow brick road and into a forest where they find the Tin Woodman, all rusted from head to foot after a rainfall. They use his oilcan to oil his joints so he can move again. We learn he hasn’t got a heart…though he’s sensitive enough to have three.

His body is made of tin, as we learn from Baum’s book (chapter 5, page 59), because the Witch of the East cursed his axe. Whenever he swung it to chop wood, he’d chop off a body part, which the local tinsmith would replace with one of tin; but none of these replaced body parts, now comprising all of him, would include a heart, or so the Tin Man imagines.

He represents the industrial worker, especially that of the eastern United States of the late 19th century, since it’s the Witch of the East, here representing the ruling class of the American east, who has cursed him with endless workplace injuries and a sense of dehumanization, resulting in his belief that he has lost his heart. He’ll join the others on their trip to see the wizard.

VIII: The Cowardly Lion

Deeper into the forest, into a darker and scarier part of it, they run into the Lion, who attacks the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. When the Lion tries to attack Toto, Dorothy slaps him and shames him for his bullying. The Lion weeps like a baby, and we learn that he, apparently, lacks courage…though how could a cowardly lion have the guts to attack two men, one of them holding an axe?

As those of us familiar with the usual allegorizing of this story know, the Cowardly Lion is supposed to represent William Jennings Bryan. I must respectfully disagree with this interpretation, as I see the connection between the two to be far too vague to be convincing. Littlefield (pages 53-54), whose use of the story material is rather selective, bases much of his interpretation on this passage (chapter 6, page 66): “With one blow of his paw he sent the Scarecrow spinning over and over to the edge of the road, and then he struck at the Tin Woodman with his sharp claws. But, to the Lion’s surprise, he could make no impression on the tin, although the Woodman fell over in the road and lay still.”

The Lion’s claws’ failure to make an impression on the Woodman’s tin, according to Littlefield, represents Bryan’s failure (i.e., his 1896 loss to McKinley) to make an impression on the industrial labourers of the eastern US, whom the Tin Man represents in Littlefield’s allegory (i.e., the Witch of the East’s curse on him, or the workers of the East pressured into voting for McKinley and the gold standard by their bosses). Now, I can see how the above quote can represent Bryan’s failure to gain the votes of eastern workers…but must it represent this?

Furthermore, aspects of this passage, among others, can be seen to run counter to Littlefield’s interpretation. The Lion attacks the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman: did Bryan attack farmers and industrial labourers during the 1896 election campaign? What’s more, did Bryan mistakenly believe himself to be a coward? Many pro-imperialists might have mistaken Bryan’s pacifism and anti-imperialism for cowardice, but that doesn’t necessitate his own confusion of his virtues with being craven.

Later in Baum‘s story, on the way to visit the Good Witch of the South, Dorothy, Toto, and her three comrades enter a forest where the Lion has to rescue the local animals from a giant, spider-like monster (chapter 21, page 239). As a reward for killing the monster, the Lion is made King of the Forest, which Littlefield interprets as Bryan ruling over “lesser politicians” (page 58–lesser, that is, in relation to the greater kingdoms of the Emerald City, ruled by the Scarecrow after the wizard leaves, and of the Winkies, ruled by the Tin Woodman after the killing of the Witch of the West).

Bryan lost three presidential elections, twice to McKinley in 1896 and 1900, and once to Taft in 1908; eventually, Bryan would be Secretary of State to Wilson in 1912, from which he, as a pacifist and anti-imperialist, would resign in 1915 in protest against the prospect of American involvement in WWI. Who were these “lesser politicians” that never-elected Bryan ruled over? Are the animals the Lion is ruling over “lesser” just because they’re animals? The people of the Emerald City and the Winkies are ruled over by men (of sorts, anyway); the animals are ruled over by an animal. Proportionally speaking, there are no ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ politicians. If the Lion, based on Littlefield’s reasoning, is Bryan, is the Scarecrow, ruler of ‘greater’ politicians, McKinley?

My point is that we can accept Littlefield’s interpretation if we want to; but we are by no means compelled to. If you want to find a work of literature with a character indubitably representing Bryan, look no further than Inherit the Wind (i.e., Matthew Harrison Brady), which is an explicitly fictionalized account of the Scopes monkey trial.

IX: An Alternative Interpretation of the Lion

I just find it out of place that three clearly paralleled characters don’t have equally paralleled symbolisms. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion: the first two represent different sections of the working class, while the third apparently doesn’t represent workers, but rather a politician. To be sure, Bryan championed the working class, but originally trained as a lawyer, he wasn’t one of them.

I find it more fitting to see the Lion, as lacking in confidence in his abilities as the other two, as also representing workers. Now, the Scarecrow represents the farmers and peasants, and the Tin Woodman represents the industrial proletariat: which workers, then, would the Lion represent?

I see the Lion as, dialectically, a synthesis, or sublation, of the former two. The Scarecrow lacks a brain (supposedly), and the Tin Woodman lacks a heart (supposedly). The two have a brief debate (chapter 5, page 61) over which organ is more valuable: the brain (reason) and the heart (emotions) are often seen as dialectical opposites (thesis and antithesis). Courage requires both brains and a heart.

Having the heart to run into danger without the brains to determine if it’s wise to face that danger doesn’t make one brave–it makes one stupid and reckless. Having the brains to recognize a danger without the heart to face it doesn’t make one a coward–it makes one wise and cautious. Sometimes people are too afraid to face danger because they have acquired the freeze trauma response.

Lacking both the brains and the heart to face dangers could be interpreted as cowardice in the sense that one has neither the heart to be brave nor the brains (i.e., the common sense) to tell the difference between dangers worth facing and those not worth facing. The lack of brains factor could also be interpreted as a lacking of the mental willpower needed to control one’s fear, since such a control is what courage is all about.

More important than any of the above, however, is the fact that, of course, none of these three characters lacks the virtue he thinks he lacks. The Scarecrow simply lacks confidence in his intellectual abilities; the Tin Woodman lacks confidence in his sensitivity and ability to be kind and loving; and the Lion lacks confidence in his…confidence!

After all, cowardice at its core is caused by a lack of self-confidence; and this is why the Lion is best understood as a combination of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. He embodies being scared when he doesn’t need to be. Like the other two, his real lack is that of confidence, hence as an embodiment of the lack of self-confidence, the Lion is the synthesis of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. And since all three of them, in my interpretation, represent the urban and rural working class, their central problem is their lack of self-confidence; having this confidence is what they need to overthrow the bourgeoisie.

The Lion also combines other aspects of the first two. Like the Scarecrow, he’s supposed to be scary, but feels he can’t be. Like the Tin Woodman with his sharp axe, the Lion has sharp claws and teeth.

His attacking of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman makes sense in a way that Littlefield’s allegorizing of him doesn’t: as a symbol of another worker, the Lion attacks the other two symbols of workers because of a problem that’s common in the capitalist world–worker alienation leading to a lack of solidarity. Soon enough, though, the Lion will become a friend to Dorothy et al, and their new solidarity will lead to their ultimately getting what they want…the same way worker solidarity will lead to the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie.

X: The Poppy Field and the Emerald City

They get out of the forest, and in the film, they can see the Emerald City (fittingly, a matte painting that as such emphasizes the city’s illusory, fake nature) in the distance. A field of poppies, the scent of which puts the smeller to sleep, lies in their way.

They all run through the field, only to find Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion falling asleep. Now, the Emerald City can be seen to represent America, “the land of opportunity,” or by extension, the First World, as opposed to the forest they’ve just come out of, which in its scarcity of food for Dorothy and Toto, can be seen to symbolize the Third World.

Seeing the Emerald City, and believing that, being there, one can realize one’s hopes and aspirations, is to dream the American dream: one has to be asleep to believe it, as George Carlin once said. Hence, the poppies. Such frustrated hopes would have been as true of late 19th century American farmers as they are of most of us today.

If one wishes to make one’s allegory of Baum’s story specific to late 19th century America, one needn’t be preoccupied solely with the gold vs. silver controversies of the 1890s. One need simply consider the wealth inequality of the Gilded Age: an outer patina of economic prosperity (the Emerald City) hiding abject poverty (the want of food in the forest for Dorothy and Toto).

In Baum’s story, Dorothy et al must wear glasses to protect their eyes from the blinding gleam of the ubiquitous emeralds of the city (chapter 11, page 121). We later learn that the glasses make them see green and emeralds everywhere, when in fact there is none of either (chapter 15, pages 187-188). These glasses are the reverse of those worn by Nada (Roddy Piper) in They Live. Instead of revealing that our normal lives are a capitalist illusion, the green glasses provide that illusion.

The illusion of shiny, green emeralds is symbolic of American greenbacks, the illusion of money as an exchange-value for other commodities. The Wizard of Oz, representing the politician whose promises are never kept, and who represents the interests of capital, has fittingly had the Emerald City built for him to hide in, protected from the witches, protected from his own people, and protected from reality.

XI: The Wizard

In the film, we see Dorothy et al merrily prettied up to see the wizard; this beautifying is symbolic of how all of us in society must falsify our appearance to be ‘presentable,’ just as the wizard falsifies his own image. Frank Morgan plays not only the wizard, but the gatekeeper, the guard, and the carriage driver: it’s as if we were already aware that the wizard is no wizard, but is just an ordinary man.

The merry song of Dorothy et al getting prettied up, then being interrupted by the threat of the Wicked Witch of the West, who represents Western capitalism, indicates perfectly how the Gilded Age, as symbolized by the Emerald City, is at first all deceptively merry, then the ugly truth displays itself…in a form equally green (i.e., the witch’s skin), the ugly side of money.

When Dorothy et al finally meet the wizard, he presents phoney images of himself to trick them into thinking he’s far more powerful than he really is, just as all politicians deceive the people into thinking they are far more capable that they really are. In Baum’s story, Dorothy sees a huge head (chapter 11, page 127); the Scarecrow sees a beautiful woman (page 130); the Tin Woodman sees a terrible beast (page 132); and the Lion sees a ball of fire, which, when he gets too close, singes his whiskers (page 134). This last apparition, and the Lion’s reaction to it, are again related to Bryan by Littlefield (pages 54-55) in a way that, to my eyes, isn’t backed up with any evidence.

In the film, all of them see the wizard together, and the apparition is essentially a combination of what Baum has Dorothy and the Lion see. In any case, as we all find out at the end, these apparitions are all fake, and the real “wizard” is just a “humbug”…just as your average politician is.

XII: Killing the Witch

The Wicked Witch of the West’s enslavement of the Winkies and of the Winged Monkeys, just as is the case with the Witch of the East’s former enslavement of the Munchkins, can be seen to represent class conflict in general, be it in the ancient form of master vs. slave, of feudal lord vs. serf, or of bourgeoisie vs. proletariat. Slavery is slavery, regardless of if it’s the explicit ancient form of slaves sold on a market, feudal servitude, or the wage slavery of today.

What we shouldn’t forget is that slavery never died: it’s alive and well, and existing in many forms in the Third World. Many impoverished families find themselves in debt, and the only way out of that debt is to perform years of servitude to their creditors. There are literal slave markets in Libya, which used to be a prosperous country under Gaddafi’s benevolent dictatorship before the NATO intervention and his brutal murder.

To relate Baum’s story more directly with the political issues of the US in the late 19th century, one can consider how, though the black American slaves were freed, a clause in the 13th constitutional amendment has allowed for the continued enslavement of the incarcerated; and with the prison-industrial-complex of today, in which corporations can make prisoners toil away for long hours and for next to nothing in money, we can see how slavery in its more or less pure form still exists in the US.

As Dorothy et al are on their way to the witch’s castle, the witch commands her flying monkeys to fetch Dorothy and Toto. The contemporary use of the term ‘flying monkeys‘ has deep resonance when retrospectively used on the Winged Monkeys of Baum’s story and the 1939 film. The notion of blindly obedient servants to an evil master can vividly describe the American military, slaves of Western imperialism.

In Baum’s story, this symbolic servitude to capitalist imperialism is made even more explicit in the use of a golden cap (chapter 12, page 146), which is worn to command the monkeys three times. The witch has used it to have the monkeys help her enslave the Winkies, and she’s used it to drive away the wizard from the West; now she wants to use it to get Dorothy so she can get her hands on those shoes. Like the monkeys, we’re all slaves to wealth and power, be it in the form of the gold standard or other forms.

When the witch has Dorothy in her clutches, it’s only natural that the hag covets the silver/ruby slippers. This covetousness is representative of the greed of capitalists, who–no matter how rich and powerful they may already be–they always want more.

In Baum’s story, the witch makes Dorothy her slave and has the Lion her captive (chapter 12, pages 149-150). In the film, the Lion is with the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman; looking at the witch’s castle, the Scarecrow has a plan. How can he have a plan without a brain? The Tin Woodman can’t bear to think of captive Dorothy’s suffering; how can he feel that way without a heart? The Lion goes in with the other two to rescue her: how can he do that without courage? As I mentioned above, their only real lack is self-confidence, something they can acquire through solidarity and mutual aid.

When the witch corners all of them, the witch threatens the Scarecrow with fire, symbolic of her evil passions, and so, something that needs to be quenched, extinguished. The Scarecrow, being representative of the rational element of Dorothy’s group (despite his belief that he lacks brains), is the opposite of the witch’s fiery passions…and thus, he’s afraid of “a lighted match.” Similarly, the water that quenches fire, and is thus symbolic of the extinguishment of the passions, and of a oneness with everything, is an opposing force that the witch fears. (Water may rust the Tin Man, but at least he can be oiled back to normal.)

Dorothy’s splashing of water on the witch–be it to extinguish the flame on the Scarecrow’s arm, as in the film, or to express her outrage to the witch for taking one of her silver shoes, as in Baum’s story (chapter 12, pages 153-154)–kills the witch by melting her because her evil is based on egoistic individualism, a defining symptom of capitalism, as opposed to the formlessness of water, a symbol often used to express the non-egoistic unity of the cosmos. The witch’s death by melting is thus symbolic of a death of the ego.

XIII: The Humbug of Oz

Dorothy’s second killing, however unintended, of a witch represents another revolutionary victory of the poor peasant farmers (recall that she’s from a family of farmers) and urban workers against the ruling class, be they slaveowners, feudal lords, or capitalists. She and her comrades now imagine they can return to the wizard and get what they wish of him.

His procrastinating on fulfilling his part of the bargain, a typical problem with politicians, angers Dorothy et al. Then Toto exposes where the wizard is hiding, and we see that the wizard is a bald little man (in Baum’s story, chapter 15, page 183), or an old man, played by Frank Morgan, as he played other men in the Emerald City. The wizard, like most politicians, is a fake…just an ordinary man, like any other.

He has no real powers, only a talent at creating clever illusions. We all know about this illusory quality of politicians, but we keep believing in them and hoping for the best of them all the same. Hence, when the wizard puts bran in the Scarecrow’s head (chapter 16, page 196), gives the Tin Woodman a heart “made entirely of silk and stuffed with sawdust” (page 197), and gives the Lion a drink (pages 198-199) that supposedly will fill him with courage, all three believe they’ve really been given what they need, though they’ve always had what they wanted from the start. The same goes for when, in the film, the Scarecrow gets a diploma, the Tin Woodman a testimonial in the shape of a heart, and the Lion, a medal for heroism.

As for Dorothy, the wizard says he’ll take her to Kansas himself, though he’s from Omaha (chapter 15, page 186), and he hasn’t “the faintest notion which way [Kansas] lies.” (chapter 17, page 204) He entrusts the rule of the Emerald City to the Scarecrow by virtue of his great brain (chapter 17, page 206); in the film, the wizard has the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion rule together in his stead, whereas in Baum’s story, the Tin Woodman will rule over the Winkies now that they’re freed of the witch, and as we know, the Lion will rule over that forest.

Either way, the new rule of Dorothy’s three comrades over these sections of Oz–since all three, in my allegory, in turn represent the peasant farmers and industrial workers–represents the dictatorship of the proletariat, now that the oppressive rule of the wicked witches and fraudulent rule of the wizard are over. The notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat was already known in the late 19th century through the writings of Marx and Engels, as well as through the example of the short-lived Paris Commune.

Now, if the above speculation about the film’s Glinda is true–that is, that she is secretly trying to dominate all of Oz by removing the other witches and the wizard–then the worker rule symbolized by the triumvirate of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion will have the same challenge, symbolically speaking, that the socialist states of the 20th century had in dealing with reactionaries and capitalist encirclement.

XIV: No Place Like Home

But with the mishap of Toto running off to chase a cat, and the wizard’s balloon taking off without her, Dorothy thinks she’s lost her last hope of getting back to Kansas. Then Glinda comes (or, as in the book, Dorothy goes to Glinda) to tell her she’s always had the power, in those shoes, to go home herself, as her comrades have always had what they’ve thought they lacked.

In a sense, Dorothy’s discovery is like that of the Buddhist prodigal son, who returns home to do menial labour for years, only to learn he’d already had his father’s love and forgiveness from the beginning, but would never have believed it had he been told before. We the people are also fooled into thinking we need some charismatic leader to guide us to what we need, when we have the power to get what we want ourselves…we just need to band together, as Dorothy and her comrades have done.

The spirit of working together, mutual aid, and solidarity will help us defeat the wicked witches of the ruling class, not reliance on the fraudulent wizardry of politicians. We already have the basic building blocks to organize a revolution: we have the brains, the heart, and the courage, though we may not believe we do. We just need the self-confidence and camaraderie to pull it off.

So when Dorothy gets home–whether it’s her running to her Auntie Em in stocking feet, as in Baum’s story (chapter 24, page 261), or it’s her waking up to see her aunt, uncle, the three farmhands, and Professor Marvel, as in the film–she may no longer have the valuable shoes, but she has the love of all those around her. Together, they all can bring about the revolutionary change needed to end the harshness of their rural life, a real revolution to parallel the wish-fulfillment revolution of Dorothy’s Oz-dream…a true homecoming, to a better life that they’ve deserved from the beginning.

Analysis of ‘Network’

Network is a 1976 satirical black comedy written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. It stars Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall; it costars Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, and Wesley Addy.

Finch won a posthumous Best Actor Oscar, Dunaway won Best Actress, Chayefsky won Best Original Screenplay, and Straight won Best Supporting Actress. Network is ranked #64 among the 100 greatest American films according to the AFI, and it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In 2005, Chayefsky’s script was voted by the two Writers Guilds of America one of the 10 greatest screenplays in the history of cinema.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

The opening and closing credits remind one of those of 1970s TV shows. The narrator (Lee Richardson‘s voice) fittingly sounds like an anchorman.

The essential point to the satire in the film is how the news media is reflective of the profit motive. Lower ratings for a news program, or any other TV show, mean lower profits, and this can’t be tolerated.

Longstanding United Broadcasting Systems (UBS) anchorman Howard Beale (Finch) is to be fired because his ratings have gone unacceptably low. This, among other personal problems in his life, which have arisen over the past six years or so (the death of his wife in 1970, his alcoholism), has driven him to contemplate suicide. Here we see how, under capitalism, human life is less important than profit.

Beale announces his plan, on his last TV appearance, to “blow his brains out” on live TV, shocking everybody. He is pulled out of his chair while he angrily protests with foul language and even punching someone among the crew…behaviour that’s in satirical contrast with the stereotypically calm, unemotional anchorman (in fact, soon after this incident we see a number of anchormen on TV screens discussing this sensational breaking news with the usual calm objectivity).

His announcement of his plan to kill himself on live TV has also done something that hasn’t happened to him in years: it has raised his ratings. Again, death is often more profitable than life.

His friend and fellow TV veteran, UBS news division president Max Schumacher (Holden), cares about him and wants him to have a dignified last moment on the air. Schumacher is also infuriated that Frank Hackett (Duvall), who works for the Communications Corporation of America (CCA), has made him lose face during a speech to stockholders with the CCA and UBS, planning to take over his division without having consulted him. So Schumacher’s putting Beale back on the air, instead of firing him outright, is also meant as a big “go fuck himself” to Hackett (as Schumacher explicitly says).

Again on live TV, Beale carries his newfound notoriety further and says his reason for claiming he’s intended to kill himself is because he’s run “out of bullshit.” He keeps saying “bullshit” over and over again during the broadcast, shocking some and amusing others. UBS’s ratings soar, and now we go from capitalism favouring death over life, to capitalism favouring vulgarity over “respectable broadcasting.”

Indeed, Diana Christensen (Dunaway), the ambitious new head of the network’s programming department, is thrilled with how Beale’s capricious and eyebrow-raising antics are pulling UBS out of its ratings slump by, paradoxically, dumping it into the gutter, so to speak. She wants “angry shows” that will allow the common people to vent their frustrations–not out of any sympathy for their problems, of course, but out of a wish to exploit them to make more money for UBS.

This wish of the media’s to exploit public discontent is paralleled in today’s world, where people can share all the memes, videos, and newspaper articles they want on Facebook, Twitter, etc., content that exposes all the injustices of the world, and vent all the people’s anger at those injustices…

…but nobody ever does anything about them.

Social media is more than willing to allow us to vent our anger (violations of “community standards” notwithstanding, of course), for our continued use of Facebook, Twitter, etc. ensures the continued making of profits. Christensen would have UBS do the same thing with Beale.

She manages to convince Hackett to go along with her plans, since he sees things only in terms of dollars and cents. Schumacher, who doesn’t want to see his troubled friend exploited for profit, doesn’t agree with her. Be that as it may, though, he is charmed by her beauty, and flattered by her claim to have had a crush on him when he once lectured at the University of Missouri. The two of them will begin an affair.

His infatuation with her, a narcissistic woman driven only by ambition and caring little about people or human relationships, is allegorical of our infatuation with TV, pop culture, movies, and the media in general (and in today’s world, we can expand all of this to an obsession with our relationship with social media). As Schumacher himself says to her when he finally comes to his senses and ends their affair: she’s “television incarnate.”

One of Christensen’s angry, radical targets for exploitation is a far-left terrorist organization called the Ecumenical Liberation Army (ELA). She sets up a TV show for them called “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.” One member of the ELA, Laurene Hobbs (played by Marlene Warfield), who calls herself “a bad-ass commie nigger,” finds herself deeply invested in the financial success of the show, always harping on angrily about her “distribution charges.”

In this satirical take we can see how even once-dedicated Marxists can sell their souls to capitalism. Consider the individuals and governments that have compromised with the market or to imperialism. Consider the Che Guevara T-shirts sold, and the Marxist books sold by eager capitalists who couldn’t care less how many people get radicalized by them…as long as the sellers are making a lot of money. Christensen, like capitalism, poisons everything she touches.

To get back to Beale, we find him having what would seem to be divine inspiration…of course, he’s simply losing his mind when hearing voices in bed, but it’s amusing to entertain the thought that he’s gone from suicidal alcoholic to the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” who is “denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.” In this way, we’re rather like mad King Lear who thought of Tom o’ Bedlam as a “noble philosopher.”

This merging of a news media man with a prophet is a satirical masterstroke for Chayefsky. The paradox of juxtaposing the lying corporate media with a ‘truth teller’ who has been ‘touched by God’ is coupled with the equivalency made between two messengers that are slavishly, uncritically followed by the masses.

This hilarious mixing of contradictory…and not-so-contradictory…elements is intensified and symbolized by Beale’s sudden fainting spells. When we first see him swoon, it’s brought on by extreme stress and his growing mental instability. Every time after that, as we see on “The Howard Beale Show,” it comes across as his divinely inspired ἐνθουσιασμός.

Before the show is set up, he’s already getting followers. Hackett and Christensen are thrilled, though Schumacher is trying to stop them from exploiting Beale. Hackett calls the mad anchorman’s rantings and ravings “a big-titted hit,” commodifying Beale as one would commodify the large breasts of a porn star. In this way, Hackett is demonstrating a character orientation that Erich Fromm called “the marketing character,” someone who uses people as commodities to profit from.

Fromm explains: “For the marketing character everything is transformed into a commodity–not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles. This character type is a historically new phenomenon because it is the product of a fully developed capitalism that is centered around the market–the commodity market, the labor market, and the personality market–and whose principle it is to make a profit by favorable exchange.” (Fromm, page 388)

Fromm elaborated on this elsewhere: “In the marketing orientation man encounters his own powers as commodities alienated from him…The way one experiences others is not different from the way one experiences oneself. Others are experienced as commodities like oneself; they too do not present themselves but their salable part.” (Fromm, page 53) Hackett sees himself, as a slave and hatchet-man for CCA, as a commodity; he also sees Beale as a commodity.

Everyone is worried about where Beale is, since he has unaccountably wandered off in the rain, like a wild, inspired prophet. Schumacher is worried about his friend; Hackett and Christensen are worried about their ‘product.’

Finally, Beale shows up at UBS for his next live broadcast, soaked in rain and in a coat and his pyjamas. He looks in the camera and says the famous line: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” This is his command to his followers, who are to shout it from their windows. Of course, people all over the US are shouting the line, and Christensen is thrilled that Beale is stirring up all this emotion.

Again, though, it’s just a meaningless channeling of popular rage; it achieves nothing but an improvement in UBS’s ratings. The “not gonna take this anymore” isn’t any more conducive to revolution than “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.”

The death of Edward Ruddy (played by William Prince), one of the old guard of UBS and someone sympathetic to Schumacher’s idea of how to run the news honestly, is the subject of Beale’s first appearance on his new show, a farce of TV commercialism including other shows of the ‘prophecy/fortune-telling’ theme that Christensen has concocted. His show begins with the studio audience chanting, like obedient automatons, Beale’s “mad as hell…” catchphrase.

What Beale has to say is, in all irony, utterly true: the replacement of Ruddy–and the decent, respectable journalism that he and Schumacher represent–by Hackett, Christensen, and their for-profit news as entertainment is an abomination and growing social evil, a prophecy we can see as very real in our media world today. Still, Beale’s audience is interested only in the spectacle he puts on, not the content of his message. This is an all-too-true observation of our experience of the media today.

Beale tells them that everything they see and hear on the TV is fake…a perfectly true judgement, but this truth doesn’t move his riveted audience one bit. They want to be amused, not informed. They want to be led by him, not to think for themselves. They listen to him not to be enlightened; they listen to him for the mere sake of listening to him.

So when he tells them, like a good prophet, to go to God, go to their guru, go to themselves…they’d rather just stay rapt watching him and not move a muscle without him. He tells them to turn off their TVs, as they of course should do, turn it off right in the middle of the sentence he’s speaking…but of course, they won’t.

He is the true and false prophet, all rolled into one.

His ecstatic fainting seems staged, but that’s OK with his audience.

So, why all of this hero worship of Beale, with the entertainment gained from watching his wild antics, without listening to his message or taking it seriously?

The psychological state of his followers can be described in terms of a combination of the ideas of Lacan and Kohut. The TV screen, on which Beale is seen, is a symbolic mirror for his viewers. In admiring “the grand old man of news,” his audience is transferring their idealized parental imago onto him. This one-on-one staring at the image on the screen thus puts them in the Imaginary Order.

Now, this transferred ideal parental imago is an internal object his audience has of their fathers; it’s also an ideal-I seen originally in the mirror reflection, but now moved onto the TV screen. So in worshipping Beale, his audience is actually projecting their unattainable ideal, the narcissistic version of themselves, onto him.

Such narcissistic projection onto TV celebrities is the satirical basis of Network. Instead of us communicating with each other, listening to the words of others and sharing our own words with them, we’d rather just gaze in awe at images on a TV screen (or, in today’s world, images on a phone or computer monitor). Instead of maturing and integrating with society and culture (the Symbolic Order), we’d rather have a one-on-one relationship with a face on a screen that only seems to be looking back at us like the specular image of a mirror–a regression back to the Imaginary.

Though Schumacher would protect his friend from Hackett’s and Christensen’s exploitation of him, and though he wants to preserve an ethical way of presenting the news, he is nonetheless infatuated with Christensen, the film’s beautiful personification of the charms of TV. Because she is “television incarnate,” his looking at her face is like looking at a TV screen with mesmerized eyes. He is as drawn to the allure of television, in a symbolic way, as Beale’s audience literally is to him.

Schumacher’s infatuation with Christensen has devastated his wife, Louise (Straight, whose brief scene expressing her hurt rage was all that was needed to win her an Oscar). We see, in the scene of his confession of his adultery to her, how the media destroys human relationships–a fake one-on-one relationship replaces real relationships.

So indeed, as good as Schumacher is, he too is lured into the seductive trap of the media. For even the best of us can be sucked into staring stupidly at a screen. Christensen’s beauty and charms are a narcissistic mirror of how he’d like to see himself. His relationship with her, therefore, parallels Beale’s relationship with his idolatrous audience.

Now, Beale starts out at the lowest of the low in his life, as an alcoholic widower facing the loss of his job and contemplating suicide. Then, it’s the very wild antics of his, those that were merely his reaction to his low point, that have pushed him over the edge of that low and raised him, paradoxically, to the top.

In a number of posts, I have compared the dialectical relationship between opposites to the head and tail of the ouroboros. In Network, Beale’s suicidal ideation is the serpent’s bitten tail; his meteoric rise to fame is a move from that tail to the serpent’s biting head.

Of course, Beale carries his newfound fame and influence too far for CCA’s comfort. On one show, he discusses a plan that the conglomerate has to allow an Arab takeover of it in exchange for some much-needed money. This time, his audience does listen to him, and they do his bidding to petition the US government to stop the Arab takeover. Hackett, Christensen, and especially, CCA head Arthur Jensen (Beatty) are most upset with Beale.

Beale is taken to meet Mr. Jensen, who curiously is dressed like a man from the late nineteenth century. One is thus reminded, by his choice of clothes, of the robber barons of the era.

He takes Beale into a large conference room, where all the CCA big brass make their decisions. He dims the lights for the right dramatic effect (the scene’s darkness also parallels Beale’s scene in bed when ‘divinely inspired’ for the first time). Then Jensen rebukes Beale for having “meddled with the primal forces of nature” (i.e., stopping the CCA deal with the Arabs).

Jensen gives a long speech about how, apparently, capitalism is the Guiding Force, the pantheistic Essence, of the entire cosmos. The universal Oneness of money pervades all, it would seem. There are no nations or peoples; there is only the global, cosmic market, which permeates every atom of existence.

This equating of capitalism with God is yet another satirical masterstroke of Chayefsky, for not only does it comment on the universal worship of the Almighty Dollar, paralleling our worship of TV, computer, and smartphone screens, and of the media in general, but it also prophesies the neoliberalism that was only nascent in the mid-1970s, and is ubiquitous and in full flower now…une fleur du mal. More than even that, it links the authoritarianism of religion with capital.

Everything that people were “as mad as hell” about in the early-to-mid 1970s–the bad economy, crime, etc.–can be connected to the oil crisis of 1973, which ended the prominence of the Keynesian economics of 1945-1973 and saw the beginning of the end of the welfare capitalism of the time. OAPEC brought about an oil embargo in response to the West’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, a move that in turn raised the price of oil and caused the first of two oil shocks.

This move of OAPEC is why Beale doesn’t want the Arabs to take over CCA and UBS. Jensen will not, however, have Beale stand in the way of fulfilling the neoliberal prophecy. In fact, he’d have Beale evangelize it on his TV show.

Jensen is now the new god inspiring Beale, it would seem.

Fittingly, when Beale does his next show, instead of giving rousing speeches that galvanize his followers, he talks about the gradual decline of Western democracy. Our lives, he says, will become increasingly meaningless and valueless.

Now, such a prophecy, starting in the mid-1970s and continuing until now, in the 2020s, has been perfectly accurate. First, there was Reagan’s union-busting in the early 1980s. Then, his and Thatcher’s deregulating and tax cuts for the rich allowed millionaires to become billionaires who could control the government all the better.

Next, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc (recall Beale’s prophecy that communism is finished even as of the 1970s), along with the reintroduction of the market in China and Vietnam in the 1980s, meant the Western governments no longer needed to provide welfare capitalism to appease the working class and stave off socialist revolution. The imperialist capitalist class could do anything to anybody, and with impunity. (Indeed, as Beale says, the US is as strong as ever, and will continue to be.)

Hence, Clinton’s gutting of welfare in the mid-1990s, the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, the allowing of mergers and acquisitions in the American media (aptly prophesied in Network, in CCA’s takeover of UBS), and the first “humanitarian war” in Kosovo in 1999. The Patriot Act, as part of the global “war on terror,” would continue to erode Americans’ democratic freedoms, and would be re-authorized by Obama, with the NSA surveillance of emails and smartphone messages that was exposed by Snowden.

Assange‘s Wikileaks exposure of American military abuses in Iraq (via Chelsea Manning) has unleashed the wrath of the Western political establishment, and his shameful incarceration and persecution have jeopardized the future of journalistic freedom. Now, thanks to the not-so-benign agenda of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, fear of a disease with a survival rate of about 99% has goaded people into taking dubious, hastily-produced vaccines.

Beale is right: we’ve lost a huge amount of democratic freedom thanks to the rise of neoliberalism, and our lives have become meaningless and valueless. It’s the truth, but it’s a depressing truth. Accordingly, the ratings for “The Howard Beale Show” are dropping. Naturally, CCA wants to get rid of Beale, but because Jensen likes the message Beale is preaching, he wants him to stay on the air in spite of the drop in profits. Hackett, Christensen, et al thus decide to have Beale assassinated on his show by members of the ELA.

Beale, thus, has come full circle: he has gone from wanting to kill himself over poor ratings to being killed by others over poor ratings. He has gone from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, then down the serpent’s coiled length (which symbolizes a circular continuum between the extremes) back to the tail.

It is fitting that the film ends with TV screens showing not only his bloodied body, but also commercials like the classic, “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” Life Cereal ad. Beale is as much a commodity as a cereal is.

Network is more than a film. It is a prophecy of our times.