Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
George Orwell's 1948 novel 1984 is probably the most important political book of the last
century. A story of a very possible dystopia, it outlined a totalitarian society's ability, through
modern technology, to completely control the actions of a captive population, and their thoughts as
well. Orwell meant it not as a tract specifically against Communism, as we were taught in school, but about
Socialism, specifically the 'creeping socialism' feared by political scientists in post-war England.
This film version stars an excellent John Hurt, features Richard Burton in his last role, and has a
lot to recommend it, even if it fails to deeply move us. Orwell's thin book is a riveting read that
had us checking behind wall decorations for hidden Viewscreens - this version gets the letter
of the book's descriptions, and reproduces a lot of its dialogue, but it doesn't capture the
novel's baleful horror.
In the totalitarian state of Oceania, a lowly outer party functionary,
Winston Smith (John Hurt), toils at his job rewriting bits of history, while secretly nurturing
his own petty rebellion against conformism. There's no escaping the ever-present Viewscreens
installed in every room, that allow the thought-police to watch every citizen - hence the sinister
motto, Big Brother is Watching You. With a female co-rebel named Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), Winston
finds a rented room without a Viewscreen. They meet there for forbidden sex, and
wonder if there really is a resistance movement somewhere, that they might join. As Thought
Criminals like themselves are always caught, Julia and Winston consider themselves doomed, but
swear to retain their human dignity by never betraying one another. Unfortunately, Smith's inner
party contact O'Brien (Richard Burton) turns out to be his inquisitor, and he knows exactly how
to crush Winston's will ...
In the 1950s, there were two versions of this tale. A 1954 BBC television production was written
by Nigel Kneale (of
Quatermass fame) and starred Peter
Cushing. It was a huge success and gave both talents a big lift. A 1956 film
version directed by Michael Anderson became unavailable in the 1970s because the Orwell estate
disapproved of it - an ironic echo of the historical revisionism done by Winston
Smith in the story itself. Starring Edmond O'Brien and Jan Sterling, it had the gall to be
released with two endings - one of which showed Smith and Julia rebelling against Big Brother and
being shot down for their trouble. Of yet, critics haven't demanded its revival.
Michael Radford's version was, as its trailer proudly boasts, shot in April of 1984. It's an
accurate but limited interpretation that has less impact than it should, if only because most of
the original novel's ideas were long ago employed for science fiction and spy
movies. In dystopian thrillers, the concept of televisions that monitor citizens and rob
them of their privacy is now a given. The onslaught of state propaganda screaming out lies from every direction,
is the modern world of advertising simply turned political. The shrill, authoritarian cadence of
1984's war news, with its inducements to rage and carefully-selected 'human interest' stories,
have also certainly come to pass. 1
Looking like a bombed England immediately after the war, the fictional land of Oceania is a
blighted place that isn't even trying to recover - poverty and despair help keep Big Brother
in power. Like America, Oceania is perpetually at war, with enemies that
seem to be arbitrary. Constantly striving to keep up production, and fueled by lies and fantasies
hurled at them 24 hours a day, the citizens of Oceania live in a constant state of terror.
Thanks to its ability to monitor the activities of each individual, and its Stalinist culture of
denouncement and betrayal, the all-powerful government in Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot be
opposed or avoided. Constant intimidation keeps everyone on their best behavior, as the neighbor's
kid might turn one in at any time. With each individual striving to appear to be
faithful to the party, knowing that he might be unfairly denounced at any moment, resistance has no
chance to even get a foothold. The party has a surfeit of candidates confessing to fictional crimes,
displayed in televised daily show trials. Open questioning of anything, even a detail
like the quality of the food in the cafeterias, is extremely risky. The party demands that its
citizens cease to function as people (no sex, no marriages, no families) and devote themselves
100% to the state.
Winston Smith's dilemma is that he hasn't shaken his personal identity, and he can't avoid seeing
the implications of the lies on the Viewscreens - some of which he manufactures himself at his
Radford's Nineteen Eighty-Four can't match the poetry of Orwell's verse, or accurately depict
the full depth of Winston Smith's paranoid state of terror. The rubble-strewn alleys and bedraggled
citizens are made of the same generic stuff as dozens of post-apocalyptic thrillers (there's a
passing mention of atomic wars). Cinematically, the next year's Brazil far outdistanced this
film by turning Orwell's world into a fantastic freak show. It retained the pre-computer
bureaucratic ugliness of Winston's work life, but added an irresistable element of macabre humor.
Radford contributes only a couple of simple but effective conceits of his own, specifically
a vision of a doorway to peace and contentment on a grassy hill. It works well enough as an
emotional contrast to the colorless cold and pain of Winston's confinement.
One plus for this newer version has is that it alludes to some interesting unseen truths of Winston
Smith's society, which manufactures Big Lies to delude its citizens. Although the propaganda drones on
with reports of a traitorous resistance movement, there is none, only passive noncompliance with Big
Brother's edicts. The constant hyping of traitors and terrorists is used to keep the population in
line. The possibly fictional Big Brother has a probably fictional enemy counterpart, an
intellectual with a Jewish-sounding name. The war may actually be real - Oceania is certainly aggressive
enough to have trouble with its neighbors - but its true
nature is difficult to assess. We see no soldiers on leave, but in a society without
families, who needs leave? The real war of Nineteen Eighty-Four is being waged by a
government on its own citizens, where the leaders frame the issues in simple lies: 'freedom, victory,
righteousness' and create villains and enemies upon which a frustrated citizenry can vent its rage
in organized Hate rallies. With enough propaganda weaponry, the leaders can fabricate an entire
fantasy of lies, and force the population to believe them.
John Hurt makes a fine Winston Smith, small and ineffectual but showing a dangerous spark of
independence in his sad eyes. Richard Burton is less apt as his tormentor O'Brien, and most of his
dialogue seems to be verbatim catchphrases from the novel. Suzanna Hamilton makes Julia
the perfect female thought criminal. All she wants to do is behave in a human manner, but the state
wants behavior and thought controlled to the point where people no longer own their own bodies.
The vague hopelessness of the lovers' quiet rebellion is thrilling and depressing at the same time.
Cyril Cusack is a nice reminder of the derivative Fahrenheit 451, but hasn't much to do.
The smaller part of a downtrodden citizen named Parsons is well-played by Gregor Fisher. Excellent extra
casting pegs Oceania's average citizens with chilling accuracy - these people really do look and act like
lumpen proles manipulated by fear.
The recreation of the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is accurate, but, as I said before,
familiar from the borrowings of other films. Radford's flashbacks to Smith's youth are less
successful; the most wrenching book passages for Savant were those with Smith and his mother and
sister, living in wretched, hopeless misery. 2
The terror scenes of Winston Smith's torture, one of the first widely-circulated accounts of what has
become a standard tool in modern politics, are rather dry and unmoving. Poor Smith's prognosis is so
hopeless, there's little room for involvement. We certainly see why he would break his pact and
denounce Julia, but we don't quite experience the breaking of his spirit, which is the true purpose
of the torture sessions. It's an aesthetic problem - externalizing Smith's emotional convulsions with
more theatrics (as Edmond O'Brien certainly did) might defeat the sombre tone the director has carefully
built up. Curiously, Terry Gilliam's
Brazil, cloaking its terror behind a smokescreen of black humor, reinterprets 1984
more effectively than Radford's more accurate retelling. Michael Palin's torture scenes in the
giant, Quatermass-like dome are funny and appalling at the same time.
MGM's DVD of Nineteen Eighty-Four has met with a mini-controversy on the web; its
nicely-transferred image is reportedly much brighter and colorful than the original theatrical prints,
which enforced an even darker and oppressive look onto the picture. Other than that major
aesthetic shift away from the director's intentions (!), there's nothing
to complain about, as the print and the track are in fine shape. The only extra is a trailer
that makes an effort to educate audiences about the relevance of Orwell.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Nineteen Eighty-Four rates:
Video: Excellent, but showing sinister traces of Orwellian filmic revisionism (see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 6, 2003
1. 1984's waters run deep in film culture, in movies
big and small. Fritz Lang's
The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, with its spy
hotel wired with hundreds of television cameras, remains the ultimate statement on surveillance
and techno-voyeurism. Dozens of dystopian futures owe Orwell everything, from Logan's Run to
Scream and Scream Again, to George Lucas'
THX 1138. Strain somewhat, and James Bond can be seen as a royalist backlash against socialist
gangsters and their techological conspiracies. England's socialist tendencies prove to be a perfect
target for outerspace invaders in
Quatermass 2: the aliens find the regimented,
secrecy-obsessed bureaucracy easy to infiltrate, and mimic it with their own totalitarian regime.
2. the book was an eye-opener to the true nature of the world, when I,
a protected middle-class kid of the early 60s, first read it in the 5th grade. The horror of
a newsreel inviting us to cheer as refugee boats of women and children are machine-gunned from the air ...
1984 may have coined the use of helicopters as the weapon of choice in science fiction -
sinister metal dragonflies that can harass and dog helpless individuals on the ground. A
hovering helicopter's movement isn't fluid, but instead directly reflects its pilot's slightest
guidance ... it's a faceless technical amplification of his will.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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