We have finally arrived my friends at the final “official” film for this project. I saw nearly eighty films in 1984 that I have posted on so far. There are several more films from that year which I saw in the next year or subsequently on home video, and those will be added as the opportunity arises. This however, completes my planned list for the project. The film version of George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare arrived late in the year and I deliberately put it off to the end to serve as a capstone to my favorite movie year. There is a rarely seen version from 1956 that starred Edmond O’Brien, but the Michael Radford directed version is definitive, at least up to this point.
My experience with the film came in a screening in Westwood California on a bleak day in December. In an exclusive location in order to qualify for awards season. I trekked over to that side of town on my own because I was a fan of the book and the music for the film was to be supplied by a contemporary act that I was quite enamored of. It turns out that the music was one of the most controversial elements of the film, but more on that later.
Almost all American High School students are familiar with the themes of the story, as it is a standard novel for English classes around the country. I first read it in High School as well, although it was not a required text in my class. I remember laying on the floor of my family’s living room and reading ten to twenty pages at a time before I dozed off. It was not that the material was boring, but there were often dense passages and long paragraphs that prompted deep thought, and in the afternoons, when it was warm, deep thought was an invitation to nap for a fifteen year old kid, even if the story did feature sex as a key component.
John Hurt is our hero Winston Smith, a drone worker in the outer party, who has the task of mending history to fit contemporary situations. In other words, he edits out inconvenient truths and replaces them with more acceptable material to the ruling oligarchy.
Disgraced party members are replaced in old newspapers and history records, with nondescript alternatives. Projections of production are backwards engineered to reflect the actual numbers, so that “Big Brother” and the party he rules are seen as always being correct. Hurt is an excellent actor who has appeared in some of my favorite films over the years. Younger audiences will recognize him as Mr. Ollivander, the Wand Maker in the Harry Potter films, but I first saw him in “Alien” as the incubator Kane. His thin frame and haggard drawn face, are perfect for the character he portrays in this film. Smith is a beaten down member of an oppressed society who is moving in meaningless synchronicity with the thousands of other grey men and women of the culture.
The film starts with a rally, The Two Minutes of Hate, at which he notices two other people in the crowd. One is an inner party member named O’Brien, who becomes a key part of the story later. The other appears to be a fervent member of the anti-sex league. The young woman wears the red sash of that sect and responds to the hate propaganda displayed on a giant video screen with greater fervor than anyone else in the crowd.
These three figures are the main players in the story. The world they live in seems battered by years of war and neglect. Orwell imagined the burnt out sections of London and other parts of Europe after WWII as his location for this totalitarian society. The idea that any hope might exist at all is a miracle. Winston walks as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders. When Hurt rises out of bed at the command of the video calisthenic instructor, he wheezes into a sitting position. In casual conversation with his neighbor, they both are falsely indifferent to their inability to acquire a fresh razor blade. Smith is a pale, worn out part of the infrastructure who moves on instinct rather than need.
It takes a large portion of the nearly three hundred pages of the novel, to explain the social strata in the world of Oceania. The idea of “thought-crime” and it’s ultimate solution “Newspeak” are central to the written text but are not the main focus in the film. Visualizing a totalitarian society where the oppressed voluntarily participate in their own subjugation requires a visual aesthetic not a narrative track. The poverty and abandonment of the “proles” or non-party members of the culture are portrayed in exceptionally depressing ways in the film. There is a morbidly disgusting scene where Winston recalls visiting a prostitute in the prole areas of the city. The visualization is nearly enough to make you want to join the Anti-Sex League yourself. The flashbacks to Winston’s youth and then the contemporary abandoned children, mulling around in the mud at night are also very disquieting. Director Radford and his brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, had another trick up their sleeves. The film was treated in a chemical process after printing rather than color correction before print, to achieve a washed out silver toned look.
In some DVD releases, instead of the bleached colors, the screen seems almost blue and very dark.
The goal originally was to give an impression that the grey world around them is oppressive and overwhelming. When Winston and Julia find refuge outside of the city in the countryside for a period of time, the green and blues pop out dramatically from the duller shades that are seen in most of the movie. That vibrant look also foretells some harsher outcomes in the future, despite the brief moments of loveliness.
Winston and Julia become lovers and their despair of the world they find themselves in is relieved through a forbidden sexual relationship that require the cooperation of a quirky old man who rents them a room in the prole areas for their assignations. In this dank little room they share their fears with one another and also some small pleasures, such as real coffee and sugar obtained by Julia from Inner Party members. The philosophical discussions are tainted with anticipate doom as they know they will eventually be caught. Before that happens however, Winston encounters O’Brien and believes he has discovered a similarly dissatisfied soul within the inner party.
O’Brien is played by the great Richard Burton in what would be his final role. Burton also looks world weary and beaten down, and some of that was provided by his lifestyle. For thirty years he was cast as the next Olivier, a Shakespearean actor of marvelous gifts include a sonorous baritone voice. His celebrity was magnified by his affair with and two marriages to Elizabeth Taylor and he was afflicted with the dark disease of the Scot, Irish and Welsh, he was an alcoholic.
He had not appeared in a film that had been released for almost five years before this was shot. His three weeks on the project were apparently filled with multiple takes because he could not remember his lines. In spite of these obstacles, he manages to give a tremendous performance based on quiet subtlety and small gestures. Burton was fifty eight when he made this movie and died a few weeks after completing photography. That is the same age I am right now, and while I might not be a specimen of health, Burton looked at least ten years older than his actual age.
O’Brien turns out to not be a fellow traveler, but a malevolent agent of the state, who has trapped the hapless couple with their delusions of hope. It is his job to turn them into acolytes for Big Brother before they are finally disposed of. The sequences involving the torture of Winston and his confronting the inevitability of Big Brother are hard to watch, but they are done in a very interesting style, preeminent of films from the early seventies. Flashbacks and flash forward scenes are intercut with the dialogue as a seamless series of images. Some are comforting and some are horrifying. Smith and O’Brien are together in some scenes and Winston is shown both as he imagines himself in the scene and as he appears in the torture room he is strapped down in. As viewers we are jarringly pulled from one moment to the next, never sure when the reality and fantasy are going to change, and understanding that the whole point is to confuse Winston so much that he will accept anything that is told to him. When he is on the brink of collapse, O’Brien will take him to Room 101, where the worst thing in the world awaits him.
In contrast to the excessive shouting and screaming we were served in the opening of the film, the totalitarian state of Oceania responds to the thought crimes of Julia and Winston in the most mundane voices you can imagine. The scolding P.E. teacher on the video doesn’t shout but sternly warns in a calm voice about the perils of sloth and guilt’s the audience into responding appropriately.
The hidden screen that is uncovered when Julia and Winston are betrayed, mocks them by repeating their own words back to them in a mildly upbeat voice. While it is stern, it never sounds angry or perturbed. Instead it is disconcertingly indifferent, as is O’Brien, who tells Smith during one of the torture sequences:
“If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”
It is not said with malice or glee, but rather as an observation that is ordained. Burton uses his authoritative voice to create credibility not fear.
Let’s now return to the subject of the music in the film. As it was released in America, the English band the Eurythmics provided an electronic score. British Composer Dominic Muldowney wrote source music for the film, including the Oceania anthem and some songs sung by proles in their daily routines. Virgin studios, the backers of the film wanted a commercially viable music product to help defray costs and the band was on their label. Director Radford had planned on using a score written by Muldowney, and claimed to have had Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox “foisted” upon him. Radford in retaliation, refused to submit the film for consideration at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA). When it was named Best British Film of the Year by The Evening Standard Awards, in a ceremony broadcast nationwide in Britain, in his acceptance speech, Radford denounced the Eurythmics involvement. The band had largely stayed out of the controversy until that moment. It was after that tirade from Radford that they released a statement that they would have refused the commission without the director’s consent. In later interviews both Dave and Annie said that they had consulted with Radford during their work and had submitted their music cues as part of the editing process for him to review. The idea that their work was unwanted had never been expressed and the band believes the producer and director are two faced in complaining about the music.
When I first saw this film, it was definitely the Eurythimics score that played on the soundtrack. An extended version of the song “Julia” played over the closing credits and lasted several minutes after the screen went dark. It was a dramatic use of music in the physical ambience of a theater, the likes of which you rarely hear today.
You can listen for yourself in the above video. The “Twilight Time” edition of the film I purchased to complete this project includes both scores. The Muldowney score was in a 2003 DVD release but that is out of print. I listened to the film with the classical score from Muldowney and it is fine, but I’d say the electronic score feels more haunting and is interestingly enough more fitting for the bleakness of the film.
The themes of the movie and the book are as alive today as ever. With the proliferation of social media, the accuracy of news events becomes more uncertain. The language police want to alter the pronouns that we use to avoid distinguishing between genders and gender identity. Surveillance technology surrounds us and collects data on our purchases, reading habits and movements. The totalitarian collectivist approach to thought is everywhere in the political field where disagreement is not viewed as a part of normal discourse but rather as a constant state of war between our side and whoever differs with us. Yesterday’s allies become today’s opponents and they must be castigated for having a different perspective. If only our language could correct them out of their delusional belief that the world should be as they think it would be best, rather than our own perspective.
This is a powerful film, but it is a tough one to endure. It is my hope that this project will bring some attention to all the films I have covered. Some of them deserve to be mocked, but many should be embraced. What should not happen however is that they disappear from history.