Horatio Alger and The Queen’s Gambit

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The Netflix’s series The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis novel. which is part of a long tradition of Horatio Alger characters.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The Queen’s Gambit released by Netflix looks to be an ultra-modern series with state of the art set design and touching on a whole set of current issues – such as drug addiction and feminism. Yet the story is a particularly old fashioned Horatio Alger style tale, which is almost the quintessential American myth. Alger was a Nineteenth-Century writer whose central characters rise through meticulousness and industry to become a respected society member.[1] In many ways, the central character Beth Harmon, played with style by Anya Taylor-Joy, represents the traditional Alger protagonist. A creature of the 19th century, Horatio Alger’s characters were invariably young men. Despite the difference in gender, Harmon resembles one of his characters perfectly. Beth comes from the humblest of origins. Harmon worked hard at her craft – which in this case is chess. She succeeds through a combination of hard work and the astonishing mental gifts bestowed on her. Her gender is a barrier, and she still has to break into the chess world, but the doors were open to her through the vastly superior American system.

Alger’s central characters are usually young, white men living in big cities with low-paying jobs. Published in 1868, Alger’s first major work Ragged Dick followed the story of a young boy working as a shoeshine on New York streets. Dick befriends a customer who gives him five dollars for a service. The protagonist then uses that small sum to create a small fortune through being frugal and mostly through hard work. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth is also given five dollars to play in a state chess tournament by a kindly janitor who taught her how to play chess. She wins the tournament and moves onto becoming US champion, before taking on the world.

In contrast, the Soviet system is no place for genius, but it allows a player such as her rival Bogrov to succeed. He is a machine, who shows no flashes of brilliance, but can crush any opponent in the end game. In the Soviet system, players with ability are hand picked by the Soviet bureaucracy, and drilled to play at their best. The state provides every assistance, and the players are a team who help each other, planning how to beat their foreign opponents.

The show depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other, which is a departure from the Alger myth. Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, an United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972.[2] The show does not mention that the Soviet Union dominated chess from 1948 until Fischer loosened their grip in 1972. While one of the greatest players in chess history, Fischer was only a blip to Soviet domination. It is rarely mentioned that the Soviets retook and retained command of the sport until 1990 when the Soviet Union fell apart. Russia retained its grip for a while, and it still has two players in the top ten.

Fischer and Harmon have similar traits, such as learning Russian, and both are outsiders who are obsessed with chess. In the 21st century version of the Alger myth, the protagonist must fight both external forces and internal demons. Beth Harmon must deal with her parent’s separation, her mother’s death, being an unwanted orphan in a dreadful school, a remote stepfather, a loving but crushed stepmother coupled with a drug and alcohol problem. Beth is also compared to Paul Morphy of the 19th century, one of the finest players of the era, who dazzled the world with his brilliant attacking play, then went mad after being compelled to stop. 

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A distant ancestor of Beth Harmon is Harold Lloyd, who triumphs against adversity. While Harmon had to conquer a Russian giant in chess, Lloyd had to conquer a building in Safety Last. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Horatio Alger provided the basis for many cinematic heroes. In the silent period, Harold Lloyd was the personification of the Horatio Alger myth. With his get up and go, the Lloyd character conquered massive obstacles to his ambition, of which the climb up the side of the multi-storey building in Safety Last was the most famous. Despite his glasses, his tenacity would win over the biggest obstacle and strongest opponent.

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Horatio Alger in boxing: Rocky Balboa triumphed in boxing against the USSR in Rocky IV. Beth Harmon’s triumph is far more dignified. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In more recent times, the boxer depicted in Rocky is a prime example. A loser Rocky Balboa is given one chance to fight the world champion. He trains hard and then comes close to beating Apollo Creed. In later sequels, like The Queen’s Gambit, it developed a cold war edge with Rocky going up against an inhuman Soviet Goliath and triumphing. In contrast, Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but also courteous and dignified. This a post-Cold War series and we are allowed to see the Russians as human. While Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph.

At the time of writing, The Queen’s Gambit, is the most popular TV show on Netflix. The success of TV series shows how underlying Horatio Alger myths retain a stranglehold on the American imagination. The story may shift from a young man to a woman. It may shift from commerce to boxing to chess, but the myth remains in firmly in place.

[1] For a discussion  on  Horatio Alger see Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success : From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

[2] Edmonds, David & John Eidinow. Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time  provides an excellent account of the 1972 world championship.

Legacies of Buster Keaton: Jackie Chan and Malcolm (1986)

Keaton wrestles and overcomes massive objects in his films. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton,

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

In almost every Buster Keaton film, there is a scene where the audience gasps at the actor’s astonishing athleticism. It can be when Keaton wrestles with huge pieces of wood on his steam engine, The General or when a building collapses on him.In an era, well before CGI, Keaton does make that leap or have a house fall on him. Keaton’s career peaked in the 1920s but then declined with the introduction of sound. Interest in the comic actor rose from the 1940s but then declined from about 2000.[1] While Keaton’s career descended from the 1920s great matinée idol to cameos on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950shis legacy has lived on. His films are now considered some of the greatest in the period, and many would argue that they are the greatest of all.

The legacy of Keaton’s great directorial skills can be seen in two unrelated from different countries producing two vastly diverse films. Malcolm (1986) was an Australian comedy, written by the husband-and-wife team of David Parker and Nadia Tass, who directed the film. The film stars Colin Friels as Malcolm, a tram enthusiast who becomes involved with a pair of would-be bank robbers. The film has a lot of nods to silent cinema. But if there is one clear predecessor to Malcolm’s character, it is Buster Keaton in The General (1926). In this film, Keaton plays a Southern railway engineer, just before the civil war breaks out, who loves his locomotive called The General and a young woman. It is easy to speculate that the train probably comes first. Keaton’s character is devoted to the railway engine, just as Malcolm surrounds himself with trams and is devoted to their upkeep.

Colin Friels plays a character who is obsessed with trams and other vehicles in Malcolm (1986).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Keaton, who directed The General, Tass does use the overacted double-take employed by many other silent comedians. Keaton played it with his “stone face,” while Colin Friels employs a boyish smile in response to whatever is happening.[2] It is a similar space to Keaton, who shows little or no emotion. While he is ostracised by the Confederate Army, Keaton employs all sorts of inventiveness to defeat the Union forces who stole his train. Like Keaton, Malcolm is an outsider who triumphs. While the Keaton character loved trains, Malcolm is entranced with Melbourne’s trams. Through his ingenuity, he triumphs.

Consciously or unconsciously, the film also echoed some other characters of silent cinema. Despite their modern uniforms, the police are almost direct descendants of the Keystone Cops. This group of highly incompetent officers made shorts for Mark Sennett. Their only purpose was to chase the central characters, with their batons waving in their air, only to lose the chase, with various pratfalls and explosions. The police depicted in Malcolm hark back to the silent period of cinema.

Like Keaton, Chan does not use a stuntman and he makes sure that audiences know it.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Tass, the police officers in Chan’s films are nothing more than Keystone cops, who wave around guns, and are just useless. The martial arts actor Jackie Chan comes from a different cinematic tradition than Tass. He has been in many films, but one film clearly shows his relationship to Keaton. Rumble in the Bronx (1995) was directed by Stanley Tong, with the stunts developed by Chan and Tong. Released in Hong Kong in 1995, Rumble in the Bronx had a successful worldwide run, and the film announced Jackie Chan’s arrival to United States audiences. As a result of this film and many others, Chan is now one of the most successful actors on the world stage.

Like Keaton, Chan does his own stunts, including a leap from one building to another. It is the type of stunt that Keaton did routinely. Chan did it without wires, and it is astonishing viewing. THe film has a strong link back to The General, with a climax involving a preposterous use of a hovercraft. Chan does a series of stunts around the hovercraft that are more than a nod to Keaton’s theatrics with a railway engine. Chan injured his foot so badly in this film; he required a moon boot for the rest of the film. Chan continued to work, even engaging in water-skiing without skis. Keaton’s similarities to Chan are obvious: he once broke his neck in a film and continued working. Chan is worthy successor to Buster Keaton.

This is a common observation. Many critics have often equated Jackie Chan to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, who was Keaton’s central rival in the action-comedy – of course, Charlie Chaplin overshadowed both. Jackie Chan has even stated: “I wanted to be like a Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but all the martial arts directors I worked with wanted me to copy Bruce Lee,” he said. “So after I got famous, I started to change a lot of things. When I was filming ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow’ in the late 1970s, I sat down with the director and watched a Bruce Lee film. I decided, when Bruce Lee kicked high, I’d kick low. When Bruce Lee yowled, I’d punch doing a funny face like it hurt. Whatever Bruce Lee did, I’d do the opposite.”[3] Like Tass, the police officers are nothing more than Keystone cops, who wave around guns, and are just useless.

The conscious or unconscious tributes in Malcolm and Jackie Chan show that one of the cinema’s original masters still influences a new generation of directors. When we see Tom Cruise jump out of a building or any other action-adventure figures, we are looking at one of the descendants of Keaton and Lloyd, who opened the door for a whole branch of cinema.

A pebble dropped in a pond will create waves that ripple out forever. Keaton’s influence is still very much with us.

[1] Figures based on https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=buster+keaton&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&case_insensitive=true

[2] The film was dedicated to John Tassopoulos, Nadia Tass’s younger brother who died after being struck by a car. When interviewed by from The New York Times, Nadia Tass said the central character reflected her brother a great deal. “Basically, he was very similar to Malcolm, who was withdrawn, and socially inept. He had a very difficult time being accepted in society because of his inability to communicate verbally. However, he was a very clever person.” Lawrence Van Gelder,  “At The Movies,” New York Times, 18 July 1986.

[3] Strauss, Neil. “Faster than a Speeding Bullet, but also Humanly Fallible: [Biography].” New York Times, Jan 30, 1995, Late Edition (East Coast). http://ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/docview/429993898?accountid=12001.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946): The Post War Good Place

THE GOOD PLACE — The TV show is part of a long tradition of after-worlds that link back to the Second World War.
Colleen Hayes/NBC | 2019 NBCUniversal Media, LLC.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Aside from some deplorable Australian accents, the TV series The Good Place has been a highly inventive and entertaining show on the afterlife.[1] It features four pretty ordinary and flawed people who die and are sent to the Good place – a type of heaven. They know they do not deserve the good place, and the place becomes a type of hell for them – a bad place. The Good Place has developed its theological setting with no real mention of a Christian or any other religion. The after-world contains an overarching bureaucracy that processes people with points for good deeds and negative results for bad deeds.

A management vision of the afterlife is nothing new. The 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the United States) also featured an after-world where a heaven-based management system was depicted. After a Second World war bombing raid, Squadron Leader Peter Carter, played by David Niven, falls from a burning aircraft, but it is not picked up by the angels sent to catch him and escapes death – or at least heaven for a time. His unplanned release back to earth becomes more complex when he falls in love with Kim Hunter. The theological, medical, legalistic and managerial worlds collide to decide the fate of the couple.

The 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the United States) also featured an after-world where a heaven-based management system was depicted. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The context for A Matter of Life and Death was the Second World War when death was a constant partner in people’s lives. It contained a reassuring images of healthy soldiers going to heaven. Of course, it is only Allied soldiers who can make the journey as the picture certainly aimed to console British and American audiences. German and Japanese soldiers are notably absent as the post-war audience would have bristled at the suggestion that enemy soldiers would have gone to heaven as well.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) was released before the United States entered the Second World War. It reflected the growing fear that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Those fears had eased a little when A Matter of Life and Death was released shortly after the war’s close, but the emotions concerning many people’s deaths were still raw.[2] The idea of a bungled celestial bureaucracy almost certainly has its roots in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941),directed by Alexander Hall, where an angel rescues a boxer before he dies in a plane crash. The records show that he still had 50 years to live, and he was retrieved by accident. Here Comes Mr. Jordan was released before the United States entered the Second World War, but it reflected the growing sense that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time was due. In a different way, Heaven Can Wait (1943) reassured on a different level showing a man who thought he was bad, knocking on the door of hell demanding entry – to find out he should really be in heaven. Some ideas were also contained in A Guy Named Joe (1943), where a pilot who returns to earth after dying to set things right.  Both films had a reassuring message about death that would have been gratefully received in those troubled times.

Some ideas were also contained in A Guy Named Joe (1943), where a pilot who returns to earth after dying to set things right.  Both films had a reassuring message about death that would have been gratefully received in those troubled times. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The story about the pilot In A Matter of Life and Death was not the main message developed by directors Powell and Pressburger, who wanted to strengthen post-Second World War relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. The political message that drove the film’s production is now redundant – particularly after 70 years of the special relationship – the afterlife’s central message is now the film’s underlying strength.

The story about the pilot in A Matter of Life and Death was not the main message developed by directors Powell and Pressburger, who wanted to strengthen post-Second World War relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The most recognised film which looked into the afterlife was It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, facing ruin and humiliation in his small hometown of Bedford Falls, feels his existence is meaningless and contemplates suicide. Again an angel is involved; Clarence, played by Henry Travers, comes down to demonstrate to a suicidal Bailey the profound difference he made to the town and people of Bedford Falls throughout his life. Again it is benign after-world, looking after the interests of an individual in distress. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and Down to Earth (1947) also have similar benign after-worlds. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death is a releases and it revitalises her and people continue on.

Another example of a benign post war afterworld is The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, which shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death revitalises her soul and people continue on. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The after worlds of The Good Place and A Matter of Life and Death have some similarities – even a judge. In A Matter of Life and Death, it is a serious British judge, while in the American TV show, it is a goofball American woman who binge-watches TV. God is not seen or even hinted at. Indeed, all these after-worlds contain ideas from various religions, but none suggests that any formal religion is correct. Each of these after-worlds is a relatively benign place, as the films were created to ease tensions in wartime audiences.  

Made 70 years later and for a vastly different medium, The Good Place has a darker edge, saying that bad people will be brutally punished for eternity – not a comfortable thought. The Second World War was not place for such thoughts. The Good Place had four seasons, and its final show was on 20 January 2020, just before the COVID-19 virus devastated the United States and has killed more than 200,000 people over eight months. The impact of COVID is more than comparable to the Second World War’s death rates when the United States suffered 416,000 casualties over five years. It is entirely likely that deaths from the disease will surpass those of the Second World War. While the program was well-received on its release, it will be interesting to see how The Good Place is considered in the COVID period and after, when the prospect of death is far more immediate. It may be that future programs of its kind are more like A Matter of Life and Death, with reassuring messages, similar to the films from the Second World War. [3]

[1] Actors from the United States struggle with the Australia accent. For Australian viewers, their attempts are just painful. When Ted Danson’s character announces he nailed the accent, I wanted to throw a brick at him. His accent is so poor, I can only assume the line was a joke. Danson is by no means the worst offender in cinematic history- but he is now on the honour roll. As bad as Danson projects his Australian accent, Kirby Howell-Baptiste in the same program is just abysmal. It is possible that the accents are just jokes, but that does not let the actors off the hook. Many Australian actors work in the United States and the United Kingdom and manage to cope with American accents. See https://www.eonline.com/au/news/983011/the-good-place-creator-michael-schur-debunks-all-those-australian-accent-theories.[3]

[2] Some ideas are contained in Jim McDonald, Maybe angels: glimpses of spirituality in popular culture, 199 – 209. In G Mazza, J Srampickal, et al. Cross Connections: Interdisciplinary Communications Studies At The Gregorian University 2006.

[3] For a broader discussion see Christie, Ian, and British Film Institute. A Matter of Life and Death. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI Pub., 2000, . Brian McFarlane reviews the book well “Ian Christie A Matter of Life and Death.” Metro Magazine, no. 139 (2004): 194.

Chariots of Fire (1981) and Thatcher

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. [1]

Chariots of Fire was a commercial hit across the world. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

With such a biblical reference for the title, you may think the film Chariots of Fire was a religious film. The film’s title was inspired by the line, “Bring me my Chariot of fire!” from the William Blake  poem, which derived from the above biblical quote from the second book of kings (above). This poem was also adapted into the British hymn Jerusalem which is heard at the end of the film, when people walk away from the funeral. 

Bring me my bow of burning gold;

Bring me my arrows of desire;

Bring me my spear; O clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire I will not cease from mental fight;

 Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand;

 Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.

William Blake

The film certainly does mention religion, but that is not its central focus. Chariots of Fire (1981) has come to represent the Thatcher era for many commentators.[2] One critic placed in a set of films that defined the Thatcher era. Andrew Pulver of The Guardian believed: “All the optimism of the early years of Thatcher’s premiership can be found in this unashamedly patriotic, and undeniably stirring, epic. By connecting the experiences of Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams and Scottish flier Eric Liddell, Chariots rather brilliantly manages to position itself as an outsider-against-the-establishment story – the real villain here is the complacent Prince of Wales (Edward VIII to be): the film’s anti-aristocrat sentiment was right up Thatcher’s street.” [3] The film would be used as a fundraiser by conservatives.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. It is not a particularly accurate account of the two men’s participation in the games. The errors are for all to see. To name a few: Harold Abrahams did not court the singer court Sybil Evers until well after the Olympics, and he did not win the college dash, it was Lord Burghley. Abrahams was also known for his long jumping, and this is not mentioned. Liddell also introduced Abrahams to the professional sports coach Sam Mussabini.[4] The list of errors is quite extensive, but it simply does not matter. Like all good historical fiction, the underlying events are only a platform for an engaging story. The two characters are quite sympathetic. Both are outsiders. Liddell is the son of missionaries in China, as well as being a Scot, and Abrahams is a Jew whose father is an immigrant from Lithuania. Abrahams is trying to break into the establishment by doing brilliantly in the Olympics. Liddell runs for God’s pleasure and as a vehicle to deliver sermons to people. Abrahams is intense and driven, but he has a gift for friendship, as well as enjoying Gilbert and Sullivan. In contrast, Liddell likes people’s company and has a modest nature.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The message of competition between these fine athletes was one that resonated with the times. Thatcher was elected in 1979, with a strong commitment to private enterprise. Chariots of Fire, like many other films about sport, extolled competition as bringing out the best in people. Losing was a shattering event, but it made all who participate stronger. The messages of the benefits of the competition were certainly topical at the time. The first term of the Thatcher Government was not a pleasant one, and her government was deeply unpopular. The privatisation, deregulation of the commercial sector and austerity measures had caused the economy to stall. The success of the Falklands invasion in 1982 pulled the government out of a slump, and it rode an economic recovery to become one of the most successful in the United Kingdom’s history. In doing so, Thatcher reversed reforms that dated back to the Attlee Government in 1948. It caused massive upheaval and disruption as the public sector was wound back.

The second theme in the film was patriotism or less kindly, nationalism. The film is filled with English flags, and it is literally – and metaphorically – a flag-waver. Yet it is not competition or nationalism at its heart, but ambivalence about British history and class system. The film is set in the run-up to the 1924 Olympics, the shadow of the First World War looms over this film. A scene in the University where the lecturer looks at the names on the wall, and laments that they all had promise. A generation had been lost, and now the United Kingdom had to stagger into the future. The slaughter caused by nationalism is in the background of this film – it is not exalted. It does praise a benign form of patriotism exemplified by supporting your team at the Olympics by – well – waving flags.

Abrahams works with a profession coach to win, putting hi mat odds with the amateur ideal of the upper classes. Image courtesy of EMoviePoster.

When the director Lindsay Anderson was asked about his role in the film, he said it was fine to bask in the past, provided it was sentimental. Lindsay’s film about the London class system was the fire breathing If (1968).  Lindsay would later say that he enjoyed the sentimentalism of Chariots of Fire. While Anderson’s actors in his cinema want to break down the class system, in Chariots of Fire, one man, Norman Abrahams, wants to break into the establishment and feels hampered by his Jewish background – although he remains proud of it. The other, a Scottish missionary, has no interest in the establishment or its rules, and only wishes to serve God. He runs to feel God’s pleasure.

Directly or indirectly, the film represented some of the Thatcher era’s values, with its themes of careers open to talent, individual effort, and strong competition. Abrahams uses sport to break into British society, by excelling at running. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In this new class system, talent will provide entry to the upper echelons.While not as flexible as American or Australian society, the British establishment was not rigid.  The British could always absorb talent into its hierarchy, regardless of origins. Benjamin Disraeli, who became a Prime Minister twice, was from a Jewish family. The current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a tobacconist, and a woman and the system absorbed her talent, and she rose to the top. Such flexibility has always been an aspect of the British system. When it is announced at the end of the film that Abrahams became the elder statesman of British athletics, it should have come as no surprise.

Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period where the message is– there is no such thing as society. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But the figure of Liddell is a counterweight against these Thatcherite messages. Liddell feels “God’s pleasure” when he runs. He does not run for some “tin cups” and gains more joy from distributing prices at a charity race to children. Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period – with its message of “there is no such thing as society.” Most of the film’s political critics focus on Abrahams, but a counter message is there. This film is also about a man who will stare down the British establishment to address his moral concerns. By only examining one part of the film, critics have overlooked some strong messages about working for the community and less fortunate. Chariots of Fire is a complex and multifaceted film. Just looking at it with a political lens limits the appreciation of it.

[1] 2 Kings 2:11 King James Edition.

[2] Ellis Cashmore (2008) Chariots of Fire: bigotry, manhood and moral certitude in an age of individualism, Sport in Society, 11:2-3, 159-173, DOI: 10.1080/17430430701823406. Other views are contained in Claire Monk. “The British ‘heritage Film’ and Its Critics.” Critical Survey 7, no. 2 (1995): 116-24. Accessed October 2, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41555905.

[3] Andrew Pulver, “The films that defined the Thatcher era,” The Guardian, 9 April 2013, accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/apr/08/margaret-thatcher-films-defined-era on 2 October 2020.

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/sportscotland/asportingnation/article/0019/


Ngram charting the rise and fall of directors

The Ngram shows references to DeMille. His reputation dives after his death and suffers a fall in the 1980s, before beginning a steady increase

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Charting how a reputation rises and falls is always a challenge. It is a difficult research project to shift through the various sources. However, a recent Google tool may provide some answers.

In 2010, Google released some searchable data derived from its book scanning. The book scanning project has now encompassed 25 million books. While the project has been controversial because of copyright issues, and other legal matters, it has one useful tool that could assist researchers in reputation.

According to Wikipedia, “In the fields of computational linguistics and probability, an n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sample of text or speech. The items can be phonemessyllablesletterswords or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text.” Basically, what the ngram viewer does is show how many times a certain expression is repeated across the books surveyed.

Now it is always going to be a rough and ready tool, but looking at an individual, we can start to see the shape of their reputation. Taking the director and producer Cecil. B DeMille as an example, the data shows considerable shifts in his reputation over time.[1]

The references begin in 1915, which is when Cecil B. DeMille would have come to attention, when he directed The Squaw Man with Oscar C. Apfel, and starring Dustin Farnum. It was DeMille’s first film and it was also the first feature film in Hollywood. DeMille’s reputation shows a steady increase until about 1923, when it flattens for a decade. DeMille was a highly prominent film director at this time.

Around 1930, the charts takes another jump forward and rises sharply. This coincides with DeMille’s return to Paramount in the early 1930s, and then a strong success story through the sound period. This trend continues up to 1956, when DeMille directed The Ten Commandments.

The number of mentions dips after his death, and reaches a low point in 1964. In the early 1960s, Andrew Sarris placed DeMille in the second rank of directorial hierarchy, and interest appeared to rise until 1974.

DeMille directing The Ten Commandments. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

During the late 1970s, when Joseph Mankiewcz started being interviewed about the Screen Directors Meeting in 1950, mentions of DeMille began to fall. [2] However, in 1980, his reputation turned a corner and he began a steady and unspectacular rise. This continued until 2005, when his mentions started to decline.

DeMille’s decline from 2007 is reflected in basically all other directors from the same period. It simply could be that interest in shifting from the era as a whole. The Ngram open up some interesting lines of inquiry for reputational inquiry.


[1] https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?corpus=26&smoothing=3&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=Cecil+B.+DeMille&direct_url=t1%3B%2CCecil%20B.%20DeMille%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2CCecil%20B.%20DeMille%3B%2Cc0

[2] Brianton, Kevin. Hollywood Divided : The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. Screen Classics. 2017.

Interiors and exteriors in the Leopard

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

According to the highly influential critic Roger Ebert, ‘“The Leopard” was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.’ Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Taking an iconic novel and putting it on the screen is always a dangerous step. Many great novels have made mediocre or even poor films. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby may be one of the highpoints of American literature, which seems to be a novel that defies translation onto the screen. Gatsby has had four film adaptations, with two especially big-budget, well-known movies: the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and the 2013 film with Leonardo DiCaprio. A silent film was made in 1926, but only a short trailer can be accessed. Despite the large budgets for the Redford and DiCaprio versions, the best of the three adaptations, to my mind, appears to be the low budget version in 1949, directed by Elliott Nugent, with Alan Ladd in the title role – but the internet review site rotten tomatoes gives it 41 per cent: the Redford version came in at 27 percent: and the DiCaprio version is the most popular at 67 per cent. Based on contemporary reviews, the 1926 version gained 44 per cent. [1]  None can be deemed a great film, even though the novel is an American classic.[2]

The surprising choice of Burt Lancaster for the role of the Prince seems to be perfect now. Yet, he was chosen after Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, and Nikolay Cherkasov were not available. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The standards for such a translation from a piece of literature to the screen are high, much higher than an original script. So it is a brave director who takes on a classic, as few can rival the impact of the novel. Yet some have done so. Described as one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, The Leopard tells the story of the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution. The Prince of Salina, Fabrizio, still ruled over a vast estate in Sicily in 1860. The symbol for his family is the Leopard – hence the title. When Garibaldi’s troops land, he must decide between the growing new forces of republicanism and the old regime. The director, Luchino Visconti, may have been attracted to the book because he also came from an aristocratic family, and he almost certainly felt some connection to the title character.

Claudia Cardinale spoke Italian – or more likely in a Sicilian dialect or French when she worked with Alain Delon. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

According to the highly influential critic Roger Ebert, ‘“The Leopard” was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.’[3] Yet the casting was, in many ways, a happy accident. The surprising choice of Burt Lancaster for the role of the Prince seems to be perfect now. Yet, he was chosen after Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, and Nikolay Cherkasov were not available.[4] It was very much an international production designed to appeal to audiences across the world; hence it also stars Alain Delon from France and Claudia Cardinale, nominally from Italy – she was Italian Tunisian. Even though Lancaster comes from a Northern Ireland origin, he passes well as an Italian. It was filmed without sound. Lancaster spoke his lines in English, Cardinale spoke Italian – or more likely in a Sicilian dialect or French when she worked with Delon. Only later was the film dubbed into Italian.

The film falls in one key area, which is the interior monologues of the Leopard. It is not something that can easily translate from the interior to the exterior. In theatre, you can directly address the audience, talking the character out of time and space. In the film, this technique is far more difficult. A director might show a shot of the actor staring into space, and then run a voice-over showing the countryside that they are looking at in the distance. In The Leopard, who strives for naturalism, cannot do that. We cannot look inside a character’s head and read their thoughts, just as we cannot do it in real life.

In some scenes such as the arrival of Claudia Cardinale, the battle of Palermo, and the final ball, Visconti seems to reach a different level in film making. Images courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Yet the internal monologues of the Prince as he ruminates on death and the changing situation of the times, are the brilliant backbone of a great novel. It is where the novel takes off, and the film flounders. Occasionally, Visconti allows the Prince to state these thoughts, but he never delivers the full weight of them. This approach probably says more about the limits of cinema as an art form.

While the film flounders with the internal dialogues, the book does not convey the beauty of the palaces or the visual splendour of Sicily. It is a film of exteriors. In some scenes such as the arrival of Claudia Cardinale, the battle of Palermo, and the final ball, Visconti seems to reach a different level in film making. While some find Visconti slow, I find the detail of each scene so interesting that I want more time.

In short,  The Leopard (1963) is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and it is to Criterion’s credit that they have given it a treatment that it deserves. The Criterion disc set is the best way to watch the film outside of a cinema. It has the full 185-minute version – the first release was shortened by 25 minutes – but in either the directorial version, the film is a swirl of brilliant performances and directorial finesse. To my mind, the extended version does not add a great deal to the overall impact of the film, but it interesting to see it. The set has an outstanding commentary by film historian Peter Cowie who completes an excellent presentation of the film. The attached documentary is of little interest. Overall, a beautiful set in homage to one of the finest films ever made – certainly Visconti’s masterpiece.

[1] The Great Gatsby (1926) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_great_gatsby; The Great Gatsby (1949) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1102658-great_gatsby; The Great Gatsby (1972) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1102658-great_gatsby; The Great Gatsby (2016) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_great_gatsby_2013 on 18 September 2020.

[2]  Dr. Anna Wulick, ‘Every Great Gatsby Movie, Compared: 2013, 1974, 1949,’ 4 November 2018 accessed at https://blog.prepscholar.com/the-great-gatsby-movies on 18 September 2020.

[3] Roger Ebert, The Leopard, Chicago Sun-Times 1 October 2003, accessed at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-leopard-196 on 18 September 2020.

[4] Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2000.

The Godfather in the time of Trump

The opening sequence has a middle aged Italian man talking to the Godfather Vito Corleone, seeking the murder of two men who attempted to rape his daughter. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

The Godfather was released on 24 March 1972, and it has become one of the iconic films of the twentieth century. It is often voted in the top ten films of all time. Expressions such as “Make him an offer he cannot refuse,” are common place. Even the adlibbed line such as “don’t forget the cannoli” is now on T-shirts. The fascination with the series shows no sign of diminishing, with even the weakest of the sequels, Godfather part III, to be re-edited with new ending.[1]

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, which was never more than an enjoyable read, director Frances Ford Coppola managed to create one of the great family sagas of all time. It combined the gangster film with distinct resonances of the power struggles of the Borgias – who even get a mention in Godfather Part III. At times, Coppola also looks at reworking Shakespeare’s King Lear. Overall, he is remodelling some of the great family dynasty epics. Can it be that one of the most successful TV shows in British Television History was I, Claudius, where the naked ambition of the Julio-Claudian family, is laid bare. The show was released in the wake of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Its slogan was: “All Rome thought him a fool, but his genius was survival.”

I, Claudius, where the naked ambition of the Julio-Claudian family, is laid bare. The show was released in the wake of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Its slogan was: “All Rome thought him a fool, but his genius was survival.” Poster in author’s collection

The opening sequence has a middle aged Italian man talking to the Godfather Vito Corleone, seeking the murder of two men who attempted to rape his daughter. He says: I believe in America. America has made my fortune, and I raised my daughter in the American fashion.” Right from the start, there is a clear distinction between traditional values and the Corleone family. The legal system – the tool of the moneyed white classes – had failed the Italian community, “for justice, you need to go to Don Corleone. We never see what happens to the young men, but we can safely assume it is not pleasant. (In the book, they are beaten with professional restraint – they are not murdered.)

Filmed in glorious rich colors by Vittorio Storaro, the film takes its time to introduce its cast through a favors session with Don Corleone and then an extensive wedding scene. The camera shows little sections of each of the major characters, giving an idea of each character. The wedding is a formal Italian family wedding, but the undertones are there from the beginning. The wedding gives way to full scale intimidation of a Hollywood producer who will not yield to a small Corleone request. The film switches gear and we realise that these ‘salt of the earth’ Italians can and will flick any violent switch to get what they want.

Marlon Brando revived a stagnant film career with his performance as Don Corleone. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The Godfather was produced when the Pentagon papers were being released, and massive protests against the Vietnam War were being held across the United States. The period reflected the breaking of trust between the US Government and the American people. The Pentagon Papers detailed the history of the United States’ political and military involvement in IndoChina from 1945 to 1967. The papers had demonstrated, among other things, that the various administrations misrepresented the situation in Vietnam to the American people.

The initial context of the film has been lost over the passage of time. The original Godfather was released at the time of the Nixon administration, particularly when the Watergate scandal was about to reach its conclusion. From 1972 to 1974, the United States had been preoccupied with the Watergate scandal, which led to the impeachment process of President Nixon, eventually forcing his resignation. In many ways, the Nixon administration reflected the world of the Corleone’s.  On the surface, it spoke of traditional virtues such as family, honor and tradition, while underneath, it was unlawful. Whatever trust remained, was lost when the Watergate scandal broke, and it has never been recovered.

The successful leader is a gangster. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

For a new generation, the Trump administration has provided some renewed interest in the film. One academic has even managed to draw some weak links between the Trump Administration and The Godfather. [2]  Certainly cartoonists. T-shirt designers  and political commentators have not shied away from the analogy.[3]

Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote: “for the Corleones, the land of opportunity is America the Ugly, in which almost everyone who is not Sicilian or, more narrowly, not a Corleone, is a potential enemy. Mr. Coppola captures this feeling of remoteness through the physical look of place and period, and through the narrative’s point of view. “The Godfather” seems to take place entirely inside a huge smoky plastic dome, through which the Corleone’s see our real world only dimly.”

The Trump administration certainly does contain a lot of relatives. The Republican National Congress demonstrated their the family connections. The Trumps do convey a them against the world attitude.

Trump also rode a wave of disquiet at elites to get to the White House. The disquiet may have begun with the left, but it has spread to the right. Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp” of American politics, resonated with a disaffected electorate. His election represented a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and the American presidency. The disquiet which The Godfather reflected in 1972 is now the political mainstream.

[1] https://sanduskyregister.com/news/276239/godfather-part-iii-gets-new-ending/

[2] https://theconversation.com/whos-who-in-the-godfather-version-of-trumps-white-house-81051.  

[3] https://www.ibtimes.com/trump-godfather-cnns-cooper-compares-ukraine-phone-call-mafia-movie-2833573.

Feydeau to Marx to Spike to Python

Occupe toi d’Amelie (1948) a film adaptation of Feydeau’s work . The poster is a fine example of Cromiere’s artwork. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

The streaming services are reviving interest in one of the excellent comedy writing teams of all time: Monty Python, a British team that dominated comedy on television and film from the late 1960s through to the 1980s. It is a pleasure to see the fish slapping scene and the brilliance of the dead parrot sketch. The pythons openly acknowledge their debt to Spike Milligan, and Milligan is clear that the Marx Brothers influenced him. This transatlantic comedic cross-fertilization has produced some astonishing results, and we are all the richer for it.

But possibly, there is a distant French relative to this family tree. Georges Feydeau was France’s leading writer of farces  – which he referred to as “vaudevilles” – since the early 1890s. He wrote about 40. Many critics have noted the similarities between the Marx Brothers and Feydeau.

The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote: “Some people like to talk rather weightily about the similarity in the lunatic logic that dominates the best of the Marx Brothers movies and Georges Feydeau’s elaborate French farces. For Canby, the Marx Brothers movies were collections of brilliant individual routines, almost like a machine gun popping off with no routine running into the other. “While each Feydeau play is a single, breathless routine in itself, designed to be framed by a proscenium arch for a spectator who, sitting in a fixed position, can appreciate the comedy of simultaneous actions and reactions. Canby argued that turning a movie camera on a Feydeau play would destroy its structure.[1]

Canby is relatively dismissive of A Flea In Her Ear (1968), which is a play by Georges Feydeau written in 1907, at the height of the Belle Époque, adapted by John Mortimer and directed by Jacques Charon. Canby’s criticism is valid to a certain extent, but Occupe-toi d’Amelie or “Keep an Eye on Amelie,” directed by Claude Autant-Lara, may give him pause. As Leslie Halliwell noted in his book Halliwell’s Hundred, it begins outside the cinema and does not pause for breath for its entire length. It begins with a running man, and the pace does not slacken for a moment.[2]

In 1948, after the revival of the play Occupe-toi d’Amelie, Autant-Lara began adapting the famous play by Feydeau, in collaboration with Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. The authors decided to develop the characters in a contemporary context, rather than the turn of the century. It was located at the Palais-Royal theater. In the film, Parisian cocotte (Danielle Darrieux) agrees to a mock marriage ceremony, and in turn, is deceived by an actual ceremony, but manages to outwit a fate worse than death – middle-class respectability. Claude Autant-Lara’s direction is very fast, a surprising change of pace from his other work, such as The Red and Black, which also starredDanielle Darrieux.

It is hard to know if the Marx Brothers were aware of the Feydeau farces. They all appeared in Vaudeville for many years and moved to the theatre. The door to Hollywood opened when sound was introduced. It is hard to imagine the Marx Brothers without sound. So it is entirely possible that they were aware of the plays. Feydeau’s The Girl from Maxim’s was in Broadway in 1899, when the Marx Brother were infants. But The Girl from Montmartre ran from August 1912 to April 1913, and Breakfast in Bed had appeared on Broadway in 1920. In 1924, the Marx Brothers appeared on Broadway, but Feydeau’s plays could have been an influence, as they had been in Vaudeville since 1905.[3]

What is certain is that they both draw from the same well of anarchic comedy. There is one scene where lines between the play and the audience are blurred and then erased. The same idea would appear in the Marx Brothers, Spike Milligan and eventually Monty Python. Maybe a long bow, but who knows.

People interested in Occupe Toi Amelie can easily find the DVD, but like many French films, it isn’t easy to source it with English subtitles.

[1] Vincent, Canby, “Screen: ‘Flea in Her Ear’: Charon Directs Movie of a Play by Feydeau,” New York Times, 28 November, 1968.

[2] Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell’s Hundred : A Nostalgic Choice of Films from the Golden Age. London ; New York: Granada, 1982, 243- 246.

[3] Internet Broadway database, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/georges-feydeau-5878, accessed on 4 September 2020.

Kobal, John. The Lost World of DeMille. USA: University of Mississippi Press, 2019.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Cinematic reputations rise and fall. None more so than Cecil B. DeMille who is the only film director to dominate Hollywood from the 1910s, through the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and well into the 1950s. DeMille is simply without peer throughout the studio era. His only possible directorial rival was John Ford, who had been in Hollywood since 1913 as an actor, but even he did begin his directorial career until 1917. Ford did not have a major directorial success until 1924 with The Iron Horse, at which stage DeMille had been a key director for close to a decade, with his first film The Squaw Man co-directed by Oscar Apfel in 1914. Aside from being a director, he had helped found Paramount Studios. In one form or another, he would dominate Hollywood for close to 40 years, culminating in The Ten Commandments in 1956, one of the most successful films of the era.

Despite his success, DeMille’s reputation would be dragged through the mud for various cultural and political sins. From the early 1980s, DeMille would be depicted as a McCarthyite figure with an anti-Semitic edge, and his films were dismissed for their commercial crassness. Sumiko Higashi’s book Cecil B. DeMille: A Guide to References and Resources published in 1985 shows the coverage of the director had declined to the point of oblivion at the time of publication. One of the final items in the bibliography was an unpublished biography by John Kobal called DeMille and his Artists.

Kobal was five years into the research and writing of the book at this point. He had already written 30 books on film and photography, and this was to be his masterwork. Even though Kobal had chosen an unpopular subject, with his profile, publishing record, and contacts, he would have almost certainly had the book published. Yet people interested in DeMille could only speculate what the book contained, because, until now, that entry in the bibliography was as close as people got to it.

The chances of having his book published crashed when Kobal contracted HIV and died at the age of 51 in 1991. Anecdotally, he had completed the book a few weeks before his death. Despite a decade of work, an 1832-page manuscript of a then unpopular film director would have been a hard sell. Despite Kobal’s obvious writing talent, pulling together a major biography while seriously ill proved impossible. People who had seen the original manuscript doubted if anyone could make anything out of it, and for close to 30 years, that was certainly the case. The manuscript was left to languish until Kobal’s younger sister Monika negotiated its release and then approached the University of Mississippi Press.

After some strenuous structural edits by Graham Coster, which reduced it to a more modest 420 pages, the newly-released book retains Kobal’s focus on Hollywood’s classical era. He dedicated his life to celebrating the visual beauty of its cinema – particularly its photography, eventually establishing a major photo archive of the film industry. DeMille’s almost inexhaustible visual imagination, splendour and the spectacle clearly drew Kobal to his subject. DeMille was essentially a visual director, and many critics regard his silent films as superior to his cinema of the sound era – partly for this reason.

Even DeMille’s sound films were essentially cinematic. If anyone thinks of the director, it is usually in terms of images, and rarely because of the film’s dialogue. His signature scene is where the actor Charlton Heston plays Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). This image has seared itself onto the popular imagination. Anyone interested in American cinema would immediately identify it –and it would be recognised by millions. Few directors of any stature can claim to have made such a visual impact. Kobal brings an intelligent enthusiast’s energy to his treatment of the director. Scenes in the films are described brilliantly by Kobal,  such as a battle in DeMille’s first historical drama Joan the Woman (1916). Not surprisingly, the book has excellent photographs from the Kobal collection that reinforce the astonishing visual quality of DeMille’s cinema.

Kobal’s critical discussion of DeMille’s cinema is interesting and thought provoking. His section on the Whispering Chorus (1918) is a fascinating one, highlighting the tension between artistic and commercial pressures. The film contains a great sequence when DeMille shows a man wrestling with his conscience in a prison cell. The whispering chorus of voices talking to the central character was an artistic and technical triumph. Kobal provides a sound argument why DeMille moved away from the artistic path. Clearly, Kobal is wrestling with the early criticism of Kevin Brownlow, – with whom Kobal co-wrote books – who believed that DeMille had lost his artistic credibility from this point. It would have strengthened his book if he identified to whom he was directing his comments. Kobal points out that the film was both an artistic and commercial success, undercutting Brownlow’s view that DeMille abandoned artistic cinema in favour of commerce.

Using his extensive contacts within the film industry, Kobal interviewed many people, to gain some great perspectives on the veteran director. The interview with his employee Gordon Mounts in which he talks about DeMille’s closest advisor Daniel Hayne’s sexuality and religion is a revelation. Hayne would complete DeMille’s auto-biography and the professional relationship between the two men is a fascinating one.  Kobal’s interview with his lawyer Neil McCarthy also open windows onto his little-known roles in setting up a commercial aviation company in the 1920s. Indeed, his interviews are the most important contribution of the book.

The interviews are also one of the book’s key weaknesses. Often Kobal is guilty of repeating Chinese whispers. DeMille set up a foundation to tackle union closed shops in 1945. Kobal argues that the violent strike breaker Tom Gerbich of Republic Steel led his DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom. (p. 372) This was a claim made by Joseph Mankiewicz in 1978 to his biographer Kenneth Geist – who called him Tom Gerdler. It is uncertain where the information originated. In fact, Tom Girdler was the actual name of the Republic Steel head. According to the foundation records, to which Kobal had access, Girdler donated $500 to DeMille’s foundation in 1945, and DeMille thanked him for his “generous help” in 1955. Girdler was an occasional correspondent over the years but appeared to have played no formal role.

In addition, Kobal talks about DeMille supplying information to Joseph McCarthy and HUAC. These allegations were again smears from DeMille’s political opponents, and there is no documented evidence for these claims. DeMille was an FBI informant, but had no role with HUAC. Kobal simply repeats the accusations as facts. Such errors show Kobal was often quickly collating material and often did not check his oral or written sources. Even so, Kobal’s coverage of the controversial 1950 Screen Directors Meeting is far better than many historians who followed him. Kobal made good use of the court transcript and provided a solid description of the meeting. Kobal does not excuse DeMille, for his attack on Joseph Mankiewicz, but he does put his actions in context.

Kobal has not written a critical biography, but it is not hagiography. It is a polite retelling of the life of a director, and the author is a clear fan who knows and enjoys DeMille’s films. The publication of The Lost World of DeMille feeds into a positive reassessment of DeMille that began with Kevin Brownlow’s documentary American Epic in 2004, and it has gathered pace from that point. In many ways, Kobal’s biography compares well to Scott Eyman’s authorised account of 2010, and it is far better than Simon Louvish’s work of 2008. It is a notable addition to the commentary of an important and still over-looked film director.

Originally published at Brianton, Kevin. Review of The Lost World of DeMille, by John Kobal. Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal 50, no. 1 (2020): 88-89. muse.jhu.edu/article/763291.

The reaction to the Ten Commandments

DeMille’s Ten Commandments raised issues about the cold war. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In most cases, it is difficult to determine the precise reaction of the audience to a film.  However, The Ten Commandments made such a huge impact in the United States and DeMille was such a compulsive collector of every reaction to his films that it is possible by examining his archives to gauge its influence.  DeMille’s opening statement was quoted in many film reviews across the United States.[1]  Certainly his ideas about the struggle having modern resonances were well received.  For example, the Memphis Press Scimitar wrote:

In freeing the Israelites from Egyptian oppression and he establishment of government by law as embodied in the 10 commandments veteran Producer, Director Cecil B. DeMille has seen a parallel to the great 20th Century struggles between tyranny and freedom.[2]

The Houston Texas Press noted:

The timelessness of this picture in out world where men have scaled the lengths at the same time producing our modern Pharaohs and their slaves is a lesson in faith.  It shrinks the doctorial world planners down to actual size and renews our appreciation of liberty.[3]

The Boston Independent said:

As the Israeli – Egyptian impasse invites the wisdom of Solomon to resolve it and refugees flee Soviet policed Hungary, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments which recalls the genesis of the conflict and man’s earliest struggle for freedom … It is doubtful if there could be a more apropos commentary on the world situation than the final lines spoken by Moses. ‘Go proclaim liberty, throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof.’[4]

The film was also discussed in newspaper editorials, where the Los Angeles Express saw its cold war undertones:

As a story of the downfall of tyranny and of the triumph of religious faith, it also may be source of inspiration to an anxious world.

The newspaper’s reviewer saw it in a similar vein:

It is really the story of man’s search for freedom from tyranny – which could apply right now to the cause of the Hungarians vs. the Russians.[5]

The theme of freedom triumphing over tyranny was repeated in hundreds of reviews and articles across the United States.[6]

The Ten Commandments had a tremendous impact on religious leaders across the United States.  It was released at the time of the Suez crisis and many Jewish leaders saw it as a vindication of the Israeli position.  But even Jewish religious leaders saw its cold war message of salvation.  Rabbi Irving Lehrman gave a sermon on ‘Moses – Hollywood’s Newest Hero’.  He said the spirit of Moses was needed today.

That spirit – of freedom and peace – is needed in Poland and Hungary whenever people are enslaved so that the world can be led back to the Ten Commandments and break the shackles of tyranny.

While Moses is dead his spirit lives on.  That spirit is needed today in London, Paris and Washington, so that the people of Israel battling the modern Pharaoh will have more faith and will be led from Egypt to the promised land of freedom and peace.[7]

William Lindsay Young of the National Conference of Christians and Jews wrote to producer Henry Wilcoxon:

It may well be that Cecil B. DeMille, through the production of the Ten Commandments, will stand out as one of the great prophets of the 20th century.  From out of the Judeo-Christian revelation he has drawn a clear and compelling picture of the relevance of this heritage for our day.  One sees, as in the brightness of noon, that when the spirit of freedom burns in the souls of men, no material force, no tyrant, can keep them in bondage.  In this beautiful screen production Mr DeMille has given us a lethal spiritual weapon that will have telling effect in the current worldwide struggle for the preservation of freedom.[8]

Christian leaders also saw the film’s political message.  Director of the Communications Division of the American Baptist Convention, R. Dean Goodwin, wrote to Ann Del Valle of Paramount Studios about the film’s probable reception in the USSR.  He wrote:

We who have lived all our lives within the framework of the Christian tradition and who believe in freedom and the dignity of man, and who believe in a moral code that is sanctioned by a Diving Being find it to understand a society which rejects all of this.  The governing powers in the Soviet Union could not afford to have a film viewed by Russian people in which one person stands on his God-given rights before the king, and in the name of God demands his rights and leads his people to freedom.  I found enough people in the Soviet Union who want such freedom that I must admit it would be dangerous to the established authorities to show “The Ten Commandments” anywhere in the Soviet Union.[9]

Other religious leaders saw it in a similar fashion.  Herschel Hedgpath of the Methodist Church wrote to Paramount executive Frank Freeman saying;

I believe that Paramount studios and Mr DeMille have made a lasting contribution to the thinking of our time … We need to come to grips with an understanding of the true nature of the basic Communist ideology and I think the picture in its clear analysis of the basic nature of dictatorship and freedom as opposing ideas in the rule of man does this clarification vey nicely.[10]

The comment which pleased DeMille the most was from the statesman Bernard Baruch who wrote a not to DeMille saying: ‘In the materialism of today, the production I was privileged to see last night is a spiritual uplift to those who yearn for liberty against tyrants.’  DeMille sought and got permission to use the quote in newspaper advertisements across the country.[11]

While The Ten Commandments may have been the most direct of the biblical epics in its anti-communism, the themes can be traced directly back to Samson and Delilah.  And the public did get the message.  A fan, Mrs R. M. King of Florida, wrote to Cecil B. DeMille saying:

What we Americans need is more religious pictures.  Such faith as Samson and Delilah would cause God to backfire Russia’s bomb and to rust the ‘iron curtain’.[12]

The major thrust of all these films was that an immoral empire would crumble into dust when faced with true religious determination.

Despite his ultra-conservative leanings, the political message of DeMille’s biblical films was far more subtle than the overt anti-communist films of the time.  He did not use them as vehicles for straight out anti-communist propaganda and their message of religious salvation against tyranny was eagerly accepted by the American people.  The popularity of biblical epics cannot possibly be attributed entirely to their anti-communist message.  Yet they did provide reassurance that God would protect his people in times of adversity.  Perhaps at the deepest level possible, these films reassured a worried American public.  If there was no physical defence to the threat of nuclear war and the communist hordes, then there was a spiritual defence.

The biblical epics provided a cultural mythology that assured the destruction of the communist empires.  The American people needed to be reassured that this growing threat would inevitable crumble.  While the anti-communist films had merely heightened fear and tension and created the impression that the communists were an implacable enemy, the biblical epics of the 1950s provided another depiction which showed them vulnerable to resistance based on spiritual values.  Empires without a moral basis may flourish for a while but they would wither in time because of its absence.  The image that communism was doomed, or damned, was highly reassuring to audiences.  These films advocated views which were remarkably similar to those held by the State Department Secretary John Foster Dulles and many other conservative political leaders.  The unrivalled popularity of these films in the 1950s shows that Dulles’s ideas were deeply ingrained throughout the United States.

[1] Some examples include Galveston Texas News, 7 March 1957, New York Herald Tribune, 2 October 1956, New York Journal American, 30 September 1956, Buffalo Evening News, 10 January 1957, Arizona Republican, 24 February 1957, Press-Telegram, 1 August 1957, Livermore (Calif) News, 24 December 1957, The Sunday Denver Post, 27 January 1957, 7 February 1957, Daytona Beach Morning Journal 6 February 1957, Chicago American, 20 October 1956, Indianapolis Star, 30 January 1957, Baltimore Sun, 20 October 1956, Michigan Battle Creek Enquirer and News, 10 October 1957, Detroit Independent, 25 October 1957, Tell City Independent News, 18 January 1956, The Witness, (Dubuge, Iowa), 2 January 1956, New Beacon (Mass), 16 April 1958.  Scrapbooks 171 – 188 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[2] Memphis Press Scimitar, 7 March 1957, Scrapbook 218, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[3] Houston Texas Press, 8 February 1957, ibid.

[4] Independent Boston, 21 November 1957, Scrapbook 216.

[5] Los Angeles Express, 15 November 1957, Scrapbook 214.

[6] Among other newspaper articles with similar themes were the Houston Chronicle, 7 February 1957, Houston Post, 3 February 1957, 10 February 1957, Texas Gazette, 16 July 1957, Omaha World Herald, 1 March 1957, Attica NY News, 20 December 1956, New York Herald Tribune, 4 November 1956, NY News, 11 November 1956, New York Morning Telegraph, 9 November 1956, NY Times, 11 November 1956, NY World Telegraph and Sun, 9 November 1956, Buffalo Evening News, 12 December 1956, Buffalo Courier Express, 23 October 1956, Buffalo Jewish Review, 21 December 1956, Jamestown (NY) News, 18 April 1957, Cincinnati Time-Star, 21 December 1956, Columbus Dispatch, 7 March 1957, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 26 November 1956, Newark Advocate, 14 July 1957, Bisbee Daily Review, 26 March 1958, Arizona Daily Star, 3 March 1957, Phoenix Gazette, 6 March 1957, Arkansas Gazette, 10 February 1957, LA Herald Express, 25 October 1957, LA Valley Times, 28 October 1956, Telegraph Tribune, 1 August 1957, Los Angeles Times, 5 January 1957, Los Angeles Herald Express, 15 November 1956, Datona Beach Morning Journal, 6 February 1956, Miami Herald, 16 December 1956, Florida Times-Union, 6 February 1957, Orlando Sentintal, 29 January 1957, St Petersburg Times, 26 January 1957, Pensacola Standard, 7 February 1957, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 20 January 1957, Chicago American, 21 November 1957, Evansville Courier, 26 June 1957, Indianapolis Star, 30 January 1957, Boston Sunday Herald, 12 August 1956, Christian Science Monitor, 13 November 1956, Detroit Times, 22 November 1956, Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, 25 October 1957,Kansas City Star, 14 February 1957, Monroe Morning World, 4 July 1952, Boston Daily Record, 4 May 1957, New Beacon (Mass), 16 April 1958, Malden Press, 2 May 1958, Birmingham News 7 October 1956, Phoenix Gazette, 9 October 1956, and St Petersburg Times, 26 January 1957.  Derived scrapbooks in the Cecil B. DeMille archives. 

[7] Miami Herald, 16 December 1956, Box 724, Folder 21, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[8] William Lindsay Young to Henry Wilcoxon, 27 September 1956, Box 720, Folder 3, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[9] R. Dean Goodwin to Ann Del Valle, 24 October 1958, Box 720, Folder 3, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[10] Herchel H. Hedgpath to Frank Freeman, 11 January 1957, Box 720, Folder 30, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[11] Bernard M. Baruch to Cecil B. DeMille, 6 October 1956, Box 214, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.  The advertisement appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 12 November 1956 and across the United States.

[12] R.M.King to Cecil B. DeMille, 10 March 1950, Box 632, Folder 4, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.