Orwell and Films: Another Look

By Richard Lance Keeble

In March we published Professor Peter Davison’s thoughts about George Orwell and film, in which Peter Davison used his experience in the industry to reflect on Orwell’s attitudes. Now Professor Richard Lance Keeble begins an examination of Orwell’s biographers and their treatment of his film work.

 

Orwell, in effect, invented the discipline of cultural studies with his brilliant pieces on such diverse subjects as boys’ weeklies, sexy seaside postcards, pubs, turned-up trouser legs, cups of tea, junk shops and the common toad. But what was his attitude to films? The picture is mixed – perhaps not surprisingly given Orwell’s complex and contradictory personality.

Interestingly, in his award-winning biography, Orwell: The Life (2003), D. J. Taylor records him as being ‘keen’ on Burmese cinema while serving as an Imperial Policeman there between 1922 and 1927 (p. 74). Later, in the early 1930s, joining his family in the Suffolk resort, Southwold, Orwell would accompany his father in one of the old man’s favourite pastimes: watching films in the tiny local cinema in Duke of York’s Road near the common (p. 137). ‘A screening of The Constant Nymph [directed by Basil Dean, in 1933] took him back to his first reading of Margaret Kennedy’s novel years before in Burma. Older and better read, Orwell cheerfully owned up to this lapse of judgement.’

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In 1934, he wrote to his friend, Brenda Salkend: ‘I went to the pictures last week and saw Jack Hulbert in Jack Ahoy which I thought very amusing & a week or two before that there was quite a good crook film which, however, my father ruined for me by insisting on telling me the plot beforehand’ (Complete Works of George Orwell X: 346). And a letter to his friend Rayner Heppenstall in 1935 describes a visit with the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer to see Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina (ibid: 399).

While in Spain, fighting on the Republican side during the civil war in 1937, Orwell even took a boy from the Barcelona slums to the cinema – and plied him with brandy and chocolate – in an attempt to make amends after he had been suspected (wrongly) of stealing from his fellow militiamen (Taylor 2003: 238-239). In Casablanca, on their way back home after a short visit to Morocco just before WWII, Orwell and his wife, Eileen, took the time to go to the cinema where the film was accompanied by a cine-reel demonising Germany. ‘Such propagandising in this out-of-the way corner of the French empire could only mean one thing, Orwell decided: war was certain’ (ibid: 264). Later still, while the Orwells were living in London after he had been appointed literary editor of the leftist journal, Tribune, in 1943, his Dakin nieces and nephews would visit. One recalled that ‘they went to see Chaplin in The Gold Rush, where Orwell laughed louder than anyone else in the cinema’ (ibid: 329).

Intriguingly, this clear fascination for the cinema is not reflected in the early novels and works of reportage where film is only rarely mentioned. Gordon Comstock, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), tries to fight the money god but his inevitable final collapse is prefigured outside a cinema: ‘Gordon halted outside a garish picture-house, under the weary eye of the commissionaire, to examine the photographs. Greta Garbo in The Painted Veil. He yearned to go inside, not for Greta’s sake, but just for the warmth and the softness of the velvet seat. He hated the pictures, of course, seldom went there even when he could afford it. Why encourage the art that is destined to replace literature? But still, there is a kind of soggy attraction about it … after all, it’s the kind of drug we need. The right drug for friendless people’ (Chapter 4).

In The Road to Wigan Pie (1937), the cinema is seen as a ‘favourite refuge’ for the unemployed in the battle to keep warm and may even have helped reduce social unrest: ‘Of course, the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish and chips, art silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate … the movies, the radio and football pools have between them averted revolution’ (Section 1: v).

Orwell actually did a stint as film and theatre reviewer for Time and Tide (the vaguely right-of-centre journal edited by Margaret, Lady Rhondda) between October 1940 and August 1941. But it has tended to draw little attention from his biographers. Bernard Crick, in George Orwell: A Life (1980) dismisses his film reviewing as ‘with few exceptions, hasty, heavy-handed and banal’ (pp 259-260).

It receives no mention at all in Robert Colls’s George Orwell: English Rebel (2013). John Sutherland, in Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography (2016: 1950) simply records: ‘He landed a regular reviewing position with the eccentric Lady Rhonda’s Time and Tide and churned out for the magazine’s meagre readership low-grade pap on literature and film.’ Gordon Bowker mentions his Time and Tide stint only en passant (2003: 268-269): ‘Reviewing plays and films he felt was somehow demeaning and, rather than treating cinema as an art, he wrote about the sociology of the film industry deploring Hollywood escapism and glorification of sadistic violence and “the intellectual contempt which American film producers seem to feel for their audience”. … His great exception was Chaplin, a one-time performer on the London music halls, for which he retained a minor passion, especially for the bawdy patter of performers such as Max Miller …’ D. J. Taylor (2003: 283, 291) also has little to say on the Orwell’s film reviewing.

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Jeffrey Meyers (2000: 201-203) in Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation devotes three pages to the reviews. But he remains very critical of the output. Orwell, he says, was in ‘no mood to appreciate the modest virtues of morale building escapist entertainment’. He loathed One Night in Lisbon (directed by Edward H. Griffith, 1941) and angrily exclaimed: ‘What rot it all is! What sickly enervating rubbish! How dare anyone present the war in these colours when thousands of tanks are battling on the plains of Poland and tired aircraft workers are slinking into the tobacconist’s shop to plead humbly for a small Woodbine.’ According to Meyers, Orwell was ‘not interested in film as an art form and rarely even mentioned the directors’. ‘He was mainly concerned with the political, social and moral content of films, their propaganda value, the way they reflected the progress of the war and the difference between English and American cinema. Orwell mainly reviewed films of poor quality and his reviews were generally short and formulaic: an opening comment, discussion of the plot, snap judgement on the film and remarks on the cast with particular praise for veteran English character actors.’

Orwell was repelled by the gratuitous violence in American culture, which he later discussed in his essay on detective novels, ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’. And, according to Meyers, he failed to recognise a good movie when he saw one: Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941). But Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) ‘challenged Orwell’s prejudice against Hollywood and he was impressed by the way Chaplin presented serious ideas through absurd comedy’.

Michael Shelden, in Orwell: The Authorised Biography (1991: 353-354) devotes three paragraphs to the film reviewing and comments: ‘Orwell liked The Great Dictator so much that he called for the government to subsidise showings of it so that it could be seen by people who could not afford seats in the “three West End picture houses” where the film had opened.’

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Undoubtedly the best appreciation of Orwell’s film reviews was penned by my late friend and University of Lincoln colleague, John Tulloch, in his essay ‘Sceptic in the palace of dreams: Orwell as film reviewer’. It appeared in Orwell Today (pp 79-101) which I edited in 2012. John was an extraordinary polymath: a conversation with him was an education in itself. My tribute to him, ‘John Tulloch: On the Importance of Mischief-Making’ (Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, Vol 12, No. 1, 2015 pp 23-29) is to be included in Journalism Beyond Orwell, a collection of my essays to be published by Routledge next year. John loved Orwell’s writings and in the Introduction to Global Literary Journalism: Exploring the Journalistic Imagination (2012: 10) which we jointly edited, he was at pains to highlight the veracity of Orwell’s voice in his celebrated essay ‘A Hanging’ (1931): ‘Trust in the veracity of the voice (thus eliminating any doubts that Orwell actually witnessed the hanging) derives from accurate, precise observation and an emotional response which remains completely appropriate in relation to the facts of the case. Honesty – and the trust we feel for this voice – is in those details.’

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Of the 45 films reviewed by Orwell, Tulloch notes that 37 were produced in the US while eight were made in the UK (Meyers wrongly states that Orwell composed only 26 film reviews, 2000: 201). Every review is incorporated into a fact-packed, tabulated list taking in the film’s title, director, main actors, date of publication, number of words and a brief comment.

For Orwell, US practice exposes British shortcomings: Unholy War and the Heart of Britain are ‘terrible. What is the use, in the middle of a desperate war, in which propaganda is a major weapon, of wasting time and money on producing this kind of stuff? In particular, he identifies “the dreadful BBC voice … more valuable to Hitler than a dozen new submarines”’ (p. 95).

Orwell sees American film as representative of US civilisation. ‘Apart from the cultural degradation of the masses, the US shared with Britain the weaknesses of capitalist democracy which Orwell diagnosed as an inability to create a willing consensus and rationally organise its resources to defeat Fascism’ (ibid). US products for Orwell display greater production skills. But technique merely serves to conceal the persistent vices of escapism: ‘a lack of realism, implausibility and a failure to engage with the needs of their audience’ (p. 96). Also noteworthy is Hollywood’s lack of respect for film-goers. ‘Reviewing The Lady in Question, a Hollywood remake of a French movie and a vehicle for Rita Hayworth, Orwell discerns through the “coarse meshes of the American film … the intellectual contempt which American film producers seem to feel for their audience”’ (ibid).

Tulloch goes on to argue that even where an American film is powerful, Orwell’s ‘judgement is heavily qualified by contempt for what he presents as its materialist values’ (p. 97). High Sierra is dismissed as ‘the ne plus ultra of sadism, bully-worship, gun-play, socks on the jaw and gangster atmosphere generally’ although he concedes that ‘the direction is competent and the acting distinctly good’ (ibid). Orwell even begins to develop a theory about the western and the need for action-based, escapist yarns in the middle of a war, in his respectful review of Fritz Lang’s Western Union (1941): ‘The reason must be the fantasy of individual adventure – the lonely traveller on his horse, with no protection save his revolver and his skill in using it – supplies a psychological need in a world which grows constantly more dangerous but also more regimented’ (ibid).

On a few occasions, Orwell reports audience reaction, in the form of ‘allegedly’ overheard conversations, such as during his mainly contemptuous review of Waterloo Bridge (starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, 1940) (p. 85).

Tulloch concludes even-handedly (p. 98): ‘He shared in many of the standard prejudices of the Thirties intellectual against film – it was a mass art, machine-made by capitalism, producing low-grade rubbish for working class consumption. … Nevertheless, the reviews contain some valuable insights and embody a developing vision of the possibilities of film, both in its degraded form as a mass-produced mechanism for propaganda and escapism and an agency through which contrary, humane perceptions can be articulated. Orwell made heroic efforts to overcome his inbuilt class prejudices, and cultivated a belief in the innate human values of ordinary people and their capacity to remake society.’

Yet Orwell professed a rather dim view of film reviewing. In his Tribune essay ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’ (of 3 May 1946), he damns book reviewing as a ‘quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job’. But there was one activity even worse: ‘…. I must say that the book reviewer is better off than the film critic who cannot even do his work at home but has to attend trade show at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honour for a glass of inferior sherry.’

All that said, Orwell’s undoubted fascination with film culminated in his representation of the Big Brother society in his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, where screens and films are ever-present. Two-way surveillance telescreens follow the individual’s every action while the Two Minutes Hate (memorably captured in Michael Radford’s film of 1984) is conducted in front of massive screens displaying the ultimate Enemy of the People: Emmanuel Goldstein.

And near the start of the novel, the anti-hero Winston Smith begins his diary on April 4th 1984 with this entry: ‘Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him…’

Orwell is not well-known as a film reviewer. Yet this essay has attempted to highlight his personal fascination with the medium, the often original insights in his film reviews (as highlighted in John Tulloch’s essay), his awareness of its possibilities as both an art form and propaganda tool – and its potential for remaking the way we understand the world. As Orwell wrote: ‘Everyone must have noted the extraordinary powers that are latent in the film – the powers of distortion, of fantasy, in general of escaping the restrictions of the physical world. I suppose it is only from commercial necessity that the film has been used chiefly for silly imitations of stage plays, instead of concentrating as it ought on things that are beyond the stage. Properly used, the film is the one possible medium for conveying mental processes’ (Complete Works of George Orwell XII: 134).

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Richard Lance Keeble is chair of The Orwell Society. His next book (jointly edited with Sue Joseph) is Sex and Journalism: Critical Global Perspectives

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