In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that without the capability to love, a believer, even one martyred for the faith, cannot be a real Christian. “If I give away all I have,” he wrote, “and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” In his 1943 film Day of Wrath, which was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Carl Theodore Dreyer dramatizes Paul’s arguments, demonstrates what happens to Christians who have given up on the idea of love for the idea of control.
Set in the early 17th Century, Day of Wrath is divided into two parts. In the first half, an old woman named Herlof’s Marte is accused of witchcraft, tortured into a confession, and found guilty by a tribunal led by an elderly Pastor named Absalon Pederssøn. In a last ditch effort to save her life, Marte threatens to denounce Pederssøn’s much younger wife Anna, a woman in her 20s played by Lisbeth Movin. Several years before, Pederssøn had intervened in the trial of Anna’s mother, who had also been accused of witchcraft, because he wanted to possess her beautiful young daughter.
Pederssøn, who lives with Anna and Merete, his domineering mother, is probably in his 40s or his 50s, but he appears much older. Indeed, Thorkild Roose, who plays Pederssøn, and Sigrid Neiiendam, who plays Merete, are both in their 70s. His marriage to Anna, which was founded on coercion, not love, has always been barren. They have no children. Anna is timid, glum, takes no joy in her young life. Pederssøn, a well-respected senior clergyman, lacks self-awareness, seems to enjoy nothing more than the power he has, not only over his wife, but their fanatically religious small town. Herlof’s Marte knows he could save her if he wants. He chooses not to.
On the day Herlof’s Marte is burned alive, Pederssøn’s son from an earlier marriage, a handsome young man in his 20s named Martin, returns home to his estranged father. For Anna, who has apparently been immune to all of the other young men in the village, it’s love at first sight. Martin, in a sense, completes his father, rolls back the clock to the days when the old Pastor had the kind of youth and vitality that could have given Anna a happy marriage. In a long monologue Anna speculates about what could have been, a dream of a happy ending that conjures up the image of her as Mary, Martin as Joseph, and the child her elderly husband has been unable to give her.
Dreyer has always denied that Day of Wrath is a political allegory about the persecution of the Jews, but it’s impossible not to see Anna as the kind of person who’s dangerous to a totalitarian government. Anna loves Martin so completely and so passionately that she would have probably become the center of attention at Woodstock, or in San Francisco during The Summer of Love, let alone in the stark, black and white world of Protestant Scandinavia in the 1620s. Yet Dreyer, who was not a religious man himself, takes religion seriously. Anna is not so much a heroine as she a heretic, a young woman who reduces the idea of “love” to the idea of “sex.”
Before she died, Herlof’s Marte had remarked that Anna’s mother had the ability to call up Satan at will and kill a man by wishing him dead. Denying any consolation of religion — she lost her faith and any belief in the afterlife years ago — she reminds Pederssøn that, since Anna has inherited the same ability, he will die a painful death, not at the hands, but at the thoughts of his young wife. She will wish him dead, and he will die, painfully. On the night of a violent storm, while Pederssøn is out administering the last rights to a dying man, Anna begs Martin to swear that if she’s ever accused of witchcraft, he will stand by her side and deny it. Marete, well aware that the two young people have fallen madly in love, hovers over them like the Gestapo, hoping to catch them in an unguarded moment. While Day of Wrath may not be a political oligarchy, it is certainly a powerful dramatization of what it’s like to live in a police state, a social order that transforms youthful sexuality into a death sentence.
Authoritarian governments rarely fall when they’re young and vital, able to stomp out any sign of dissent quickly and efficiently. Like Polish communism in 1980, or Portuguese clerical fascism in the 1970s, they tend to give up the ghost when they grow old and soft, whey they allow the people space to protest and express themselves, when they admit mistakes. When Absolon Pederssøn returns home to his young wife, he is still shaken, not only from having administered the last rights to a dying man before walking home in a violent storm, but because he senses his wife’s hatred, feels his imminent demise. So he apologizes, confesses that he’s never loved her and that he took her youth, not out of any dirty old man’s lust, but out of a desire to repress and control.
For anyone who’s ever felt the kind of uncontrollable rage you feel when your oppressor finally apologizes far too late to make any difference in your life, Anna’s violent reaction will seem all too familiar. The beautiful young Lisbeth Tovin turns into Satan himself, if in fact you could imagine Satan before he rebelled, when he was Lucifer, the bringer of light, the most beautiful angel in heaven. Her answer to her elderly husband, who asks her if she had ever wished him dead, becomes a blasphemous prayer, a rhetorically perfect incantation of hatred pulled out of a dark, Satanic hymnal. Yes, she says, I’ve wished you dead, hundreds of times. I’ve wished you dead when you were away. I’ve wished you dead because you couldn’t even give me a child to hold in my arms. I’ve wished you dead when you were at my side. But never have I wished you dead more than when I realized you denied me the life I could have had with your son. I wish you dead now.
Absalon Pederssøn, who had expected the confession of a guilty woman, not a passionate call to rebellion by an avenging angel, promptly does exactly what she wants, takes one step upstairs to go to bed and tumbles back down, dead of shock. Anna, who knows perfectly well that Merete will denounce her as a witch and that she is going to be burned at the stake, doesn’t care. As long as Martin stands by her side, she will go to a martyr’s death, perishing in the flames as happily as the early Christians, who sang as the Roman lions tore them limb from limb. Alas poor Anna. While she understands bitter, sexless old men, she does not understand young, vital, handsome, but mentally and spiritually weak young men. Martin, not surprisingly, denounces her at her trial. For Anna, her execution will be no different from Herlof’s Marte. She will go to her death only after she’s lost her faith in God, the Love so eloquently evoked by St. Paul in his epistles, but which in her narrow minded point of view, she had heretically reduced to the promise of a good fuck.
I’m not exactly sure how Scandinavians, the most secular people on earth, manage to explore the religious impulse so well in their art, but Day of Wrath is a masterpiece on the level of The Seventh Seal.
The United States is a country of 315 million people, people composed of every race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation in the world. Yet these days all Americans seem to be afraid of a foreign other. Every time Democrats lose an election, or a debate on social media, liberals blame Russia. Conservatives want a militarized border with Mexico. The reason is pretty easy to figure out. Upward mobility in the United States is largely a thing of the past. We’re all competing for a few crumbs the one percent leaves on the plate after they’ve eaten most of the pie.
In the 1930s Hollywood actually was liberal. During Franklin Roosevelt’s second Term, major studios like Warner Brothers released a steady stream of movies that for lack of a better term might be called “propaganda for the New Deal.” Sometimes, like John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, they rose to the level of high art. More often, they were competent, workmanlike productions designed to educate the public about the important social issues of the day. Black Legion, which was inspired by the 1935 murder of a 22-year-old WPA (Works Progress Administration) organizer named Charles Poole, is both.
Fascists are not monsters. They’re not even irrelevant “deplorables” who will simply fade away as America, which is “already great,” becomes inevitably more diverse and socially progressive. They’re people just like you and me. In Black Legion, Frank Taylor, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart in his first starring role, is not only a sympathetic every man. He’s actually likeable. A hard working, machinist in his 30s who has finally landed a steady job after years of unemployment, he’s mature, responsible, and devoted to his beautiful wife and his 10-year-old son. He’s well-liked at the factory. When a position as foreman opens up, all of his coworkers assume that the position is his for the asking, but he’s passed over for a younger man, a bookish twentysomething named Joe Dombrowski, the son of a Polish immigrant.
In spite what the film’s leftist screenwriters want us to believe, it’s not immediately obvious that Dombrowski, who’s a bit of an asskisser with no real connection to his fellow machinists, is the better choice for a management position than Joe Taylor. In fact, by choosing the young, Polish American bookworm over the older, WASP everyman, the upper-level management at the factory makes a socially destructive choice. Does a factory foreman really have to be a college graduate and a future mechanical engineer rather than just a a veteran worker with relevant on the job experience? Indeed, if the factory where Taylor and Dombrowski worked had been unionized, Taylor would have had more seniority, more respect, and would have probably not even wanted the position as foreman. What’s more, while the screenplay tells us that we have to like Dombrowski, who’s played by the 6 foot five inch, ridiculously handsome German American actor Henry Brandon, later to be cast as Scar in John Ford’s classic The Searchers, it’s not entirely clear that he has any natural leadership ability. Taylor has a legitimate grievance. Our sympathies are with the plain, ordinary looking Humphrey Bogart, who was not yet even a leading man, let alone “Bogie,” not the tall, dark, handsome Greek god who reads engineering manuals on his lunch hour.
Soon, however, Frank Taylor snaps, not right away, but slowly, steadily, inevitably. It’s a testament to Bogart’s acting ability that Taylor’s transformation from all American dad to fascist murderer is nothing like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Rather, we just start to notice a dark, angry quality we had always been aware of but didn’t think especially important. When Taylor begins to listen to right-wing radio shows — Father Coughlin was one of many Rush Limbaughs of his time — he doesn’t immediately go from nice guy to maniacal, racist monster. He doesn’t jump up and shout “that’s it. The Jews and immigrants are the enemy. Long live 100% Anglo Saxon American patriotism.” Rather, and Bogart expresses this so well it makes it obvious what a huge star he would eventually become, we see a man, frustrated by life, who’s been forced to confront why he’s stuck in a dead end job with little or no chance at promotion, suddenly find an excuse. I won’t say that he suddenly “finds a reason” because Bogart is such an intelligent actor he’s able to express how Taylor really doesn’t hate foreigners. Xenophobia, like a shot of whiskey or a few tablets of Oxycontin, is just the nearest thing available to dull the pain. So Taylor just nods as he sinks further into himself.
After he’s recruited into the Black Legion, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan that was highly active in the Midwest of the 1930s, but which has been largely forgotten by history, Taylor’s inevitable decline from likeable everyman to fascist murderer becomes far more precipitous. We see him at home, playing around with the 38 caliber revolver, which he was required to buy along with the full set of sheets, a man with a new purpose in life, to protect his family from dirty immigrants, the deep connection between anti-immigrant, white supremacist organizations like the KKK and the gun cult obvious in a way that’s since been obscured by NRA propaganda. That night, Taylor, Cliff Moore, the coworker who recruited him into the Black Legion, and a band of black and white-sheeted fascist goons show up at the small farm owned by Dombrowski’s father, burn down their house, kill their chickens, burn their crops, and run the two Polish American immigrants out of town.
Bogart is such a sympathetic actor that in the next scene, when we notice that Taylor has gone on a shopping spree, buying a new car and a vacuum cleaner for his wife, we’re still on his side. Even when we find out that Dombrowski’s death — it’s strongly hinted that he was later murdered — has allowed Taylor to jump into the foreman’s job and get a pay raise, we mainly just breath a sigh of relief that he can now afford the car. Then the film pulls its master stroke. We cut to a group of upper-class man discussing The Black Legion over a few drinks. More specifically, they’re discussing how much money the Black Legion is making. The founders oft the Black Legion, it turns out, aren’t even racists. They’re just grifters. What’s more, the Black Legion, like Amway, is also a pyramid scheme. In order to keep making money, they need to recruit more and more members. So they proclaim a new rule requiring every current Black Legion member to recruit two more. One Hundred Percent Anglo Saxon Americans, it turns out, are not only xenophobic racist assholes. They’re dupes. Soon, Taylor starts to spend so much time at work recruiting new members for the Black Legion that he neglects his job, damages machinery, and gets demoted back down to simple machinist before he’s finally let go.
Joe Taylor’s best friend at the machine shop is a tall, strapping Irish American named Ed Jackson, a newly engaged man who, under the influence of his fiancee, has managed to kick his alcoholism and his taste for loose, slutty woman. Jackson’s life is on an upward trajectory, even was Taylor’s is falling apart. One of the things Black Legion gets right is the relationship of Irish Americans to later immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as older, Anglo Saxon Americans. By the 1930s, Irish Americans had largely been accepted by the WASP majority, and, thus, Jackson and Taylor can still be friends. But Jackson has an innate sense of decency. After his roommate, a first generation Irish American who was given Taylor’s job as foreman after Taylor got fired, is kidnapped and taken out into the woods by the Black Legion for a thinly veiled lynching, Jackson begins to put two and two together, eventually figuring out that his friend had been out all night on the day of Dombrowski’s.
Jackson’s confrontation with the Black Legion is both exhilarating and terrifying. Jackson has little or no fear of the racist thugs, even though they outnumber him ten to one. It’s not that he’s stupid. It’s just that he’s played by Dick Foran, a popular leading man of the day who probably had it in his contract that he’d only play a fearless badass. “What’s the matter,” he says, “afraid to take off your sheets. I guess you’re not the Black Legion but the Yellow Legion.” When he looks at one of the black-sheeted Klansman and says “too bad you can’t put a sheet on your voice Cliff,” we want to stand up and cheer. But Jackson, of course, is doomed, kidnapped and taken into the woods for another thinly veiled lynching. He fights back, runs away, but is gunned down by Taylor, who panics and squeezes off four shots from the 38-caliber revolver we had seen him playing with earlier in the movie. The Chekhov gun, in other words, is fired. Joe Taylor has killed his best friend.
The most astonishing thing about the ending of Black Legion is not that it seems improbable — Taylor takes responsibility for his crimes and brings down the entire organization — but that it’s not fiction. Charles Poole’s murderers eventually did “name names” and bring down the leadership of the Black Legion. Taylor’s decision to defy legal advice, as well as the threats the Black Legion has made against his wife and child, is stagy and over the top — the aesthetics of the film finally can’t keep pace with its message — but it did actually happen in real life. Bogart also manages to redeem whatever credibility to the final scenes lack by his screen presence, delivering his lines with so much passion and authority that in that moment he’s transformed from a miserable racist murderer into an avenging angel of truth. What a great actor he was. Indeed, while Black Legion lacks the romanticism of Casablanca, and while it may have flopped at the box office, sending Bogart back down to supporting roles, it’s by far the better anti-fascist movie. It deserves to be remembered.
“Finding itself on Julian’s death not only without an Emperor but also — still more important at such a critical moment — without a leader, the Roman army assembled en masse early the following morning to nominate his successor. Their first choice was Sallustius Secundus, the Praetorian Prefect of the East, but he declined absolutely, pleading age and infirmity. Then what seems to have been a relatively small group of soldiers started shouting the name of Jovian, the commander of the imperial guard. Jovian was thirty-two, a bluff genial soldier, popular with his men; he was also, perhaps significantly, a Christian — a persuasion which in no way diminished his well-known penchant for wine and woman. But he was in no sense distinguished, and certainly not of imperial calibre. Why therefore he should have been proposed remains a mystery; and more surprising still is the fact that the cry then should have been taken up by the entire Roman Army — so surprising, indeed, that Ammianus Marcellinus (who was, once again, almost certainly an eye-witness) maintains that the whole thing was a mistake and that most of those present understood the cry to be not ‘Jovianus!’ but ‘Julianus!’ and concluded their former Emperor had unexpectedly recovered and resumed his rank and title. It was only when the tall, prematurely stooping figure of Jovian was paraded before them that they realized what had happened, and gave themselves up to tears and lamentation.”
Anna Karina (real name Hanne Karin Bayer), Jean-Luc Godard’s muse and ex-wife, has died at the age of 79. Her iconic dance number from the movie Bande à part was filmed the year before I was born. I sometimes get the feeling that in a past life I lived in a better world than the one I live in now. But in a way I did. I was a small child in the middle and late 1960s, when American and European culture was cool and innovative. In her later life, Karina became a novelist (like so many French actresses seem to do). Quentin Tarantino was so impressed by the dance scene in Bande à part he not only named his film company “Band of Outsiders” he tried to recreate the dance in his film Pulp Fiction. But somehow Uma Thurman and John Travolta don’t quite match up to Anna Karina and two obscure French guys.
Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, like most American and British films released between 1939 and 1945, end on an optimistic note. Democracy will defeat fascism. One big exception is the 1944 movie Lifeboat. Based on a short story by John Steinbeck and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat asks a provocative question. What if the citizens of a democracy are incapable of governing themselves? What kind of dictator will they choose? What kind of dictator will choose them?
The great French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who would later become a Nazi, once wrote that an unorganized life is a death wish, the passivity of a man who does nothing with himself but wait for the grave. Lifeboat gives Céline’s idea a concrete physical reality, 8 American and British citizens, one of them severely wounded, who find themselves in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in a small, damaged lifeboat with a limited supply of food and water. If they don’t organize themselves quickly, they’re all doing to die.
The problem is that none of them is a trained navel officer. There’s C.J. Rittenhouse, a multimillionaire capitalist well into middle-age, who out of a sense of entitlement, briefly takes control, but who is just as quickly replaced by John Kovac. Kovac is masculine and belligerent, but he’s also pretty much useless, lacking any real skills in navigation or survival. Kovac’s friend Gus Smith, a German American who changed his name from Schmidt out of shame over the Nazi regime, is no more useful than Kovac. Even worse, he has a deep gash in one of his legs, which has already given way to gangrene. Alice MacKenzie, a nurse, has some skill in first aid, but has either the training nor the confidence to perform an amputation. Joe Spencer, a black crewman, is a passive religious man who does manage to save a young Englishwomen and her baby from drowning but is powerless to prevent her from committing suicide after she realizes her newborn has died. Stanley Garrett, an English crew member, is competent and dependable, but only as a follower not a leader.
The two most colorful of Lifeboat’s characters are the first and last to enter the lifeboat. Constance “Connie” Porter, a journalist, is there from the beginning. How she managed to make it into the lifeboat, and then the water, with a full suitcase is never explained, but she’s clearly a stand in for Hitchcock himself, filming their doomed ship as it slips beneath the waves, and taking notes about her fellow survivors as if the whole disaster had been staged for her benefit. She also speaks fluent German, which comes in handy when Willy, the captain of the U-boat that torpedoed their ship and machine gunned all the passengers in the other lifeboats before being blown out of the water by an American air attack, hoists himself over the side.
Kovac, a Czech American with vaguely socialist politics, initially wants to throw Willy over the side, but Connie and Rittenhouse, who represent the capitalist and media elite, get in the way. Rittenhouse believes in “rules,” especially rules against war crimes. Connie on the other hand, who doesn’t quite believe Willy when he protests he wasn’t an officer, but only a crew member, decides that the German may come in handy. Later, after Willy admits that he was not only an office but the captain of the U-boat, she’s proven right. Willy is the enemy, but he’s also a forceful, competent man who who seems to know what he’s doing. After he reveals that he’s not only a naval officer, but a trained surgeon, that decides it. Alice won’t attempt the amputation without Willy’s help. Throwing the German overboard means that Gus will die. In a feat of incredible skill, Willy amputates Gus’s leg without anesthesia during a raging storm, saving his life.
By this point, the 8, now 7 British and American survivors, have decided that Willy is not only their savior, but a veritable superman. Dying of hunger and thirst, they are in awe of the way Willy manages to keep up his strength and row towards what they think is Bermuda and British territory, but which is actually a German supply ship. But Willy is no Aryan superman. He’s not even a hard core German nationalist. As horrifying as it may sound, Willy is probably worse than a Nazi. He’s an amoral sociopath who has secretly horded food and water for himself and who possesses a secret compass he hides from the other survivors, thus allowing him to maintain the illusion that he alone is competent to navigate the boat. Indeed, he seems to enjoy tormenting the German American Gus more than the Slav Kovac or the African American Joe, both of whom would have been considered subhuman under Nazis ideology, but neither of whom seem to interest him personally. When Gus, who’s grown delirious from drinking salt water, discovers Willy’s secret horde of fresh water and attempts to tell Stanley Garrett, nobody believes him, but Willy decides to murder him anyway.
“Just don’t forget that your name is Schmidt and not Smith,” he taunts the simple-minded German American prole before pushing him over the side while the others are asleep.
If Willy is a sociopath who enjoys playing with his fellow passengers as though they were so many insects under a glass, hes also an arrogant and self-destructive sociopath who brings about his own doom. Up until the point he murders Gus, Willy’s plan has gone pretty much according to schedule. He’s successfully piloted the small craft to the meeting place that the U-Boat had arranged with its supply ship. All he really has to do is hold on for a few more hours, and he’d be on his way back to Germany. But he underestimates his victims, especially Alice and Stanley, who manage to figure out that the German has a secret compass and that he’s turned the boat in the wrong direction. After Alice accuses him of pushing Gus over the side, Willy not only admits it. He brags about it. Then brags about how easily he’s managed to gain control of all of them, to make himself dictator of a dysfunctional, multicultural democracy. He hasn’t done it for Germany. He’s done it to manifest his own superiority.
Willy’s boasting is too much for Alice, up until then the kindest, most gentle of the 7 remaining survivors, who goes berserk and leads a mob attack against the German, who winds up getting getting tossed over the side after getting his face bashed in by Stanley and Rittenhouse. It’s not a happy ending. Without their German dictator the English and American survivors are back where they started, an incompetent mob with no clue how to survive. Indeed, they all seem resigned to perishing at sea, with only Connie the artist and intellectual having any fight left. “I’ll carve this on your tombstone,” she says to Rittenhouse. “Ritt. He quit.” She then offers her expensive diamond bracelet up as bait, and the survivors manage to catch a fish, a source of food and moisture that might keep them alive for a day or two more. They still have Willy’s compass, but there’s no guarantee they’ll ever make it to Bermuda.
“When we killed the German,” Connie says, “we killed our motor.”
Just then Hitchcock executes a dazzling, double Deus Ex Machina. As they attempt to pull the fish on board, they spot the German supply ship steaming in their direction. “Oh well, Connie says, at least they’ll have food. Some of my best friends are in concentration camps,” she adds, admitting that Willy was probably right, that the confused citizens of decadent British and American capitalist democracy need German leadership in order to survive. As a launch full of German crewman row in their direction, however, an American warship appears over the horizon and blows the German supply ship out of the water.
The survivors, in other words, are saved, but by an outside intervention, the United States Navy, not through any effort of their own. Indeed, as they wait for the American warship to pick them up, they almost immediately revert back to the identities they had back home. Connie needs to put on lipstick. Novak shakes Rittenhouse down for money. Stanley and Alice, who have fallen in love during the ordeal, make plans to get married. The war against fascism, Hitchcock seems to be saying, did not make the American or British people any better at governing themselves. It just froze things in place while the superior brute force of the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire crushed the German upstarts. The American and British people remain passive and incompetent, ripe for another dictator.
Let’s hope Trump and Boris Johnson prove to be more benevolent than Willy.
Little known outside of Canada, the Battle of St. Lawrence took place between May of 1942 and November of 1944. For over two years, the Kriegsmarine waged a major operation against Canadian and British shipping. When the last German U-boat finally surrendered in 1945, the Canadians had lost 23 merchant ships and 4 warships.
It’s not like the British filmmaker Michael Powell didn’t warn them.
In some ways, 49th Parallel is straight up propaganda designed to galvanize the North American public into the supporting war against Germany. Featuring performances by Lawrence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, and Eric Portman, it’s also an effective film in its own right that holds up today. Foreshadowing the later Battle of St. Lawrence, 49th Parallel begins with a German U-boat sinking a Canadian oil tanker at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, then slipping into Hudson Bay to evade an attack by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Shortly after they surface near Churchill in Northern Manitoba, and a reconnaissance party sets off in a launch to search for food and supplies, another Canadian air attack destroys the submarine and leaves the captain, and eight other crewman stranded in Canada, their only chance at escape the 49th Parallel, the demilitarized border with the then neutral United States.
Unlike Captain Langsdorff in Powell’s later film The Battle of the River Plate, a straight, bourgeois navel officer who obeys the rules of war, Captain Hirth and his crew are hard core Nazis, stone cold true believers in the fascist cause. Being stranded in Canada, which they see as a a soft, decadent, multicultural democracy ripe for the picking, is an opportunity. It’s 8 Aryan superman against 11 million multicultural democrats. They will steal what they need at gunpoint, shoot anybody who resists, and pick up as many converts to the cause of National Socialism as they can find. When they get back to Germany, Hitler will pin the Iron Cross on Hirth, and they will all receive a hero’s welcome.
For Michael Powell, Captain Hirth and his crew’s trek across Canada is a test. How will citizens of a democracy act when their comfortable lives are interrupted by actual Nazis staring down at them from the barrel of a gun? Not surprisingly they all come through test fairly well. The last thing a British filmmaker was going to do in 1941 was insult Canadians or Americans. So we are treated to a series of vignettes where democracy successfully resists fascism. The devil, nevertheless, is in the details. If 49th Parallel were only a rousing call to arms against Hitler, it might no longer be relevant. But it’s something much more, a complex, nuanced affirmation of a democracy that we, perhaps, no longer have. In some ways, 49th Parallel is a message in the bottle to a future North America, a North America that might not resist fascism quite as well as it did in 1941.
The first Canadians Hirth and his crew run into are Johnny, a French Canadian trapper played by Lawrence Olivier, Nick, his Inuit sidekick, and a storekeeper played by the Scottish actor Finlay Currie. In other words, it’s a pretty good ethnic cross section of old Canada. The segment was also heavily censored when 49th Parallel was released in the United States in order to avoid alienating Southern Democrats. After Nick leaps to Johnny’s defense and is rewarded by having his skull split open by Nazi rifle butts, Captain Hirth explains to his remaining white, French and Scottish, hostages that Eskimos are an inferior race, “one step below Jews and only one step about Negroes.” Apparently the United States was ready for an anti-fascist, but not an anti-racist movie. Hirsch then tries to recruit Johnny, showing him a copy of Mein Kampf and explaining to him how Germany was ready to liberate French Canadians from their Anglo Saxon oppressors. Help the Germans invade Canada and French Canada will once again be able to have their own culture, their own schools, their own religion.
Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal of a French Canadian frontiersman has been criticized for being silly and over the top, but that’s ridiculous. As someone who’s spent time in a remote Alaskan fishing town, I find Johnny a very familiar type. Everything about Olivier’s performance, his expansive, insolent body language, his expressive yet ungrammatical way of speaking, his uneducated, yet quick, intuitive way of speaking gets at the heart of what a genuinely free man is like. Having spent the past year in the woods trapping animals and collecting firs, not having seen a newspaper for months, Johnny has no idea Canada is at war with Germany. When he reads about German war crimes in Poland, he doesn’t believe it. He wouldn’t do anything like that, so why would people in Germany? Besides, he tells the store owner, all governments are pretty much alike anyway, corrupt institutions best avoided. The war doesn’t doesn’t concern him. “Why should Canada go to war for a bunch of Poles.”
Five minutes later he’s face to face with an actual Nazi.
Johnny’s ability to see through Hirth’s propaganda is a great example of how an intelligent, apolitical man comes to terms with a political reality he can no longer avoid. He finds Hirth’s proposal laughable. Why should he join the Nazis? The Anglo Canadians may be the dominant ethnicity in Canada, but French Canadians already get to keep their own schools, their own church, their own way of life. Why do they need a bunch of Germans to give them what they already have? And how about the Poles, he asks, do they get to run their own country? When Hirsch explains that “well that’s different. It’s the new German world order,” Johnny just laughs. “Maybe your Mister Hitler isn’t too smart,” he says. All the while, of course, Johnny, who is seething with rage over the way the Germans murdered Nick — “you call Eskimos animals but I never treat my huskies the way you treated Nick so maybe you the animals” — is looking for an opportunity to strike back. But it’s useless. It’s Johnny and one old man versus eight heavily armed German invaders. He ends up lying on the bed, shot through the head, and denied his rosary or the last rights by a German guard who sneers at Christianity. So much for the French in Canada being allowed to keep their religion.
One of the Germans, however, a crewman named Vogel, crosses himself and gives Johnny the rosary just before Johnny dies. He becomes the focus of the next segment of 49th Parallel. Can a man who’s lived under a fascist government for 8 years be redeemed? Can a nation fallen under the spell of Hitler be saved? Vogel is a deeply conflicted man. Just before the 8 men continue south on their journey to the American border, and after Vogel gives Johnny his rosary, he furiously scratches swastikas all over the walls of the remote outpost, almost as if he wants to apologize to the Fuhrer for his brief relapse into the decadent Christian religion and the decadent concept of mercy.
Nevertheless, when the 8 Germans, now six after an Inuit sniper picks off one of the Aryan supermen and a second dies when they crash a stolen float plane, come upon a colony of German “Hutterite” immigrants, a radical Christian sect similar to the Mennonites, Vogel realizes how much he hates living under the Nazi government. At first, Vogel quite literally can’t understand democratic government. “Who’s your leader?” he asks He’s astonished when that leader, a man named Peter played by the Austrian actor Anton Walbrook, has no power to order people around, that he’s simply an elder, a spiritual guide for people who, in the end, are free to do whatever they choose, to follow whatever profession they like, to come and go as they please. When Peter is called on to speak, however, he proves that he is indeed a “leader,” denouncing fascism and militarism as a plague, and defending freedom and multiculturalism. He also offers Vogel a way out. Surrender to the Canadian authorities, spend a few years in a prisoner of war camp, and then return to the commune as their baker, a profession he followed before the Nazis came to power and to which he desires to return. Sadly Vogel, who gladly accepts their offer, is murder by Hirth, who brands him a deserter and carries out a summary execution.
Vogel’s death is the climax of 49th Parallel, which never again quite reaches the dramatic heights of Peter’s fiery speech against tyranny. There’s a rather silly episode with Leslie Howard as a pompous intellectual, who finds himself able to resist only after the Nazis callously destroy his paintings and his books, and another equally silly episode with Raymond Massey as a Canadian soldier gone AWOL who challenges Hirth to a fist fight after he learns who he is. “Put em up” the Canadian says to the Nazi, who, like any slave, can’t imagine an honest fight man to man and raises his hands as if he’s under arrest. Nevertheless, even though it falls apart dramatic after Vogel’s death, 49th Parallel remains an astonishing travelogue, showcasing the sublimely beautiful landscapes around Banff. So that’s what Canada looked like in 1941? Surely it was something worth fighting for.
In 1905, a Hungarian-born, British novelist named Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála “Emmuska” Orczy de Orci, usually shortened to Emma Orczy, invented the “superhero.” Half a century before Batman, Sir Percy Blakeney, by day a wealthy English fop, assumed the “secret identity” of the Scarlett Pimpernel, a dashing swordsman and master of disguise who rescued French aristocrats from the guillotine. Emma Orczy made no secret of her reactionary politics. She hated democracy, and was a firm believer in British imperialism. During the First World War, she formed a society of upper-class British women dedicated to shame young Englishmen into dying in the trenches. She was also a rabid anticommunist and antisemite.
It made perfect sense, therefore, for Emma Orczy to cast Robespierre and the Jacobins as the villains of her novel, the Scarlet Pimpernel. “Scientific” racism, radical antisemitism, and fascism all have their source, ultimately, in the right-wing reaction against the French Revolution. With the idea of a feudal hierarchy no longer viable, it was replaced by the idea of a racial hierarchy. Instead of lords and ladies ruling over ignorant peasants, we now had the British and French ruling over people Rudyard Kipling called “new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child.” Instead of Louis XIV or Charles I ruling as “Gods anointed” we had blond, blue-eyed Aryans taking up the “white man’s burden” as history’s anointed.
It also makes sense that in the Hollywood of the 2010s the superhero replaced the gangster and the cowboy. John Wayne may have represented the American empire at its height and Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano the American empire in its post-Vietnam decline, but cowboys and gangsters are working-class figures, ordinary men capable of extraordinary violence out of moral necessity or moral depravity. The superhero, on the other hand, is an aristocrat. Whether a superhuman alien like Superman or a supercharged mutant like Spider-Man, he rises as far above his fellow Americans as Kipling’s Anglo Saxon elite rose above the dark, sullen masses of Egypt and India. Batman, the most reactionary, openly fascist super-hero, is just some dude with more money, the perfect symbol of an America that had replaced any pretense of democracy with the rule of an oligarchy chosen by Wall Street.
In the 1930s, after the United States elected an elegant Harvard graduate as its first social democratic President, and then reelected him three times, and France came close to democratic socialism under Léon Blum’s Popular Front, French and American cinema began to feature a type of leading man who reflected the ideals of the New Deal, a sensitive, romantic hero from an upper-class background ready to fight for the people. Ronald Coleman, who played Sidney Carton in Jack Conway’s classic 1935 dramatization of Tale of Two Cities, Pierre Fresnay, who starred in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion as a French aristocrat who was not only willing to admit democracy was inevitable, but to die in order to help a Jewish and a working class comrade escape a German prisoner of war camp, and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, were all decisive men of action, but they had no love of violence for the sake of violence. They were gentlemen with the emphasis on “gentle,” heroes who did what they had to do to save their loved ones from the bad guys, but who would have much rather been engaging in witty repartee with some eligible lady in a Jane Austen novel.
Leslie Howard, who was so disappointing as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, largely because he had nothing to do, was the ideal romantic hero, and, therefore, the ideal Scarlett Pimpernel. Blond, blue-eyed, slim, graceful, and with a voice that almost seemed designed by God to read Keats and Shakespeare out loud, he was exactly the kind of Englishman American girls dreamed about whenever the boy next door seemed just a little too coarse and ordinary.
If Harold Young’s 1934 production of The Scarlett Pimpernel still holds up today, it suffers from the way the screenplay had to work around Baroness Orczy’s reactionary politics and not so subtle antisemitism. You could make an entertaining film by portraying Robespierre and the Jacobins as proto-Nazis and the court of King George III as an enlightened, liberal refuge from the chaos of the French Revolution, but there were just too many historical inaccuracies and dramatic contradictions for the film to rise above mildly entertaining escapism. In 1792, would one of the richest men in England really have married a former French actress and prostitute? Jane Austen forbid. He would have simply kept her as his mistress. Would the French ambassador in England have risked his diplomatic status in order to lure more aristocrats, who are all portrayed as wonderful, sympathetic people, back to Paris to have their heads chopped off? That’s not the way it worked. The red terror of 1792 and 1793 did at times get out of hand, but it was hardly an international conspiracy dedicated to wiping every lady and gentleman in London who knew how to chose a good bottle of wine and a finely tailored suit out of existence. As much as the English and American cultural elite would like us to believe, the French Revolutionary Terror was not fascism. The Jacobins were not Nazis and Robespierre was not Hitler.
Has there ever been a positive portrayal of the French Revolution in the English speaking world? I can’t think of one. Mark Twain says a few nice things about the guillotine in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but I can’t thin of a singe Hollywood movie that portrays the heroic French working class of 1789 as the progressive revolutionary force they were. Conway’s 1935 Tale of Two Cities does at times come close but in the end, the only people we see go to the guillotine are sympathetic, wonderful people who would have been all for democracy, if only it hadn’t gone so crazy and if only it hadn’t had so many scary working class feminists like Madame DeFarge.
In 1940 at the darkest moment of the Second World War, Leslie Howard starred in and directed Pimpernel Smith, an anti-fascist reboot of the Scarlett Pimpernel set in 1939 on the eve of the German invasion of Poland. Howard, the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, was putting his life in danger. With its scathing depiction of a fat, boorish Gestapo General obviously meant to be fictionalized Herman Goering, and a hilariously stupid minister of propaganda, just as obviously intended to mock Joseph Goebbels, a successful German invasion of England or a coup by a pro-Nazi faction of the British ruling class surely would have shipped Howard right off to a concentration camp. To be honest, Howard is such a fervent English patriot, I don’t think he would have admitted the possibility. A fascist England? Never.
The amazing thing about Pimpernel Smith is that while it jettisons Emma Orczy’s antisemitism, and while it gets at the heart of what makes fascism fascism as well as any movie I’ve ever seen, Howard retains the Scarlet Pimpernel’s elitism and sympathy for aristocratic rule. Pimpernel Smith is a great anti-fascist movie, but it is not a leftist, democratic, or even a liberal movie. For Lesie Howard, who plays Horatio Smith, an absent minded professor of archeology in England, and an anti-Nazi superhero in Germany, the real cause of fascism isn’t political or economic. It’s spiritual. Germany has fallen under the rule of thugs who don’t deserve to govern, violent coarse, humorless men who love violence for the sake of violence, power for the sake of power.
Indeed, while nobody in 1941 quite knew just how bad the Nazi concentration camps were — the American and Soviet armies only discovered the death camps in 1945 — there is a terrific scene early in the film set in one of Hitler’s camps for liberal and leftist political prisoners. As the prisoners, cultivated, intellectuals and artists, talk about their chances of ever seeing the outside, one of the guards, a brutal thug with a coarse, working-class accent, picks up a rifle and points it in their direction. You can see the evil gleam in his eyes as he realizes how much power he has over the men under his control, the almost sexual joy of an inferior man when he realizes he can terrify his betters.
As Leslie Howard quite prophetically depicted, however, low-class thugs like this are “doomed,” not only because they have no hope of understanding British culture, Shakespeare, P.G. Wodehouse, Louis Carroll and Rupert Brooke, but because they have no sense of humor. Humorless, joyless men who live only for a sense of power and domination are addicts who will never get enough. If Howard fails to predict that it would ultimately be the Russian working class who would beat Hitler he really doesn’t have to. He knew deep in his bones that that Nazis would eventually do something as stupid as hoping for a quick victory over Stalin or declaring war on the United States the day after Pearl Harbor. The beefy Gestapo agent dumb enough to fall for the willowy Englishman trolling him with conspiracy theories about the Earl of Oxford writing Shakespeare’s plays may have state power, guns, the ability to kill without consequences, but in the end he’s basically just a heroin addict looking for his next fix, easily manipulated by a superior intellect.
Pimpernel Smith in fact holds up so well that it’s tempting to apply Leslie Howard’s lessons to the American ruling class today. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton are addicted to money, not violence for its own sake, but they are addicted nonetheless. Are they doomed? The American ruling class in the 1930s was smart enough to allow themselves to be led by Franklin Roosevelt, to kick back some of their wealth to a working class suffering under the Great Depression. Today’s ruling class, on the other hand doesn’t seemed inclined to give an inch. Bernie Sanders, like Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s, is giving them the way out, a chance to save capitalism. They can easily buy us off with Medicare for All, free college, and a few minor reforms, but they seem determined, not only to hold the line against social democratic reforms, but to extract even more money from the miserable, opiate addicted, unemployed proletariat. They want it all.
Before venturing on a discussion about Gone with the Wind, it’s important to remember a few things. Classic Hollywood was great cinema, but terrible history. Michael Curtiz in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Cecil B. DeMille in The Crusades had as much concern for historical accuracy as Quentin Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Until the 1960s, American cinema was tightly censored, the Production Code implemented in 1933 having given the Catholic Church the final decision over which films got released, and which ones didn’t. And yes you read that right. By 1939, not only had the Confederate “Lost Cause” won the propaganda war, most liberals and leftists, especially East European Jewish immigrants in Hollywood, wanted to help Franklin Roosevelt keep the Southern Democratic vote, especially as it became more and more inevitable that the United States would go to war with Germany. Finally, the United States had just come out of the Great Depression, which remains, along with the Civil War, the single most traumatic event in American history.
Almost no actual Southerners were involved in making Gone With the Wind. David O. Selznick, its producer and driving force, was the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants from Pittsburgh. The screenwriter Sidney Howard was from Oakland, California. The director Victor Fleming was from Los Angeles. Max Steiner, an Austrian Jew, wrote the score. The cinematographer Ernest Haller was a German American from Southern California. The cast was equally of “Yankee” or European stock. Vivian Leigh was British. Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, Japan, the daughter of British and French expatriates. Thomas Mitchell, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s father, was an Irish American from my own hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. While a few of the black actors were from southern border states like Arkansas and Texas, Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress, was from Witchita, Kansas. Clark Gable, who played the most famous southern romantic hero in all of American cinema, didn’t even try to affect a southern accent. He was from Cadiz, Ohio, also the hometown of Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s fiercely abolitionist Secretary of War. In fact, just about the only real southerner in the cast of Gone With the Wind is Alicia Rhett, who played India Wilkes, and had originally auditioned for the part of Scarlett O’Hara. After Gone With the Wind, she never acted in another film.
So why did all of these Yankees, East European Jewish and English immigrants, and yes, African Americans, come together to make a film romanticizing slavery?
I suppose for Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, the answer is easy. There were few, if any, roles for African American women. The viciously racist Birth of a Nation 20 years earlier had not only portrayed African Americans as rapists obsessed with white women, it had no African American actors in the cast. Almost every good actor will take a badly written part in a movie with horrible politics, the idea being that you can inject enough of your own humanity into the character to override the intentions of the screenwriter. What’s more, none of the black characters in Gone with the Wind present any threat to white, southern women. Big Sam, played by Everett Brown, actually saves Scarlett O’Hara from being raped by a gang of white ruffians. Clark Gable, who was good friends with Hattie McDaniel demanded that the sets on Gone with the Wind be desegregated, refusing to act in the film if the toilets were marked “white” and “colored.” Sadly, and it says more about the United States than it does about Gone with the Wind, the studio that made Gone with the Wind was relatively enlightened for its time.
If Margaret Mitchell’s novel, published in 1936, had been a massive best seller, it hadn’t necessarily been nostalgia for the “Lost Cause.” Unlike the film, which had to pass the Catholic Church’s board of censors put into power by the Production Code, the novel is frank about sexuality. Katie Scarlett O’Hara is a feminist heroine, the kind of liberated women who came to prominence in the 1920s. While far more viciously racist than the movie, the novel is also one of the few best selling accounts of Americans living under a military occupation, told from the point of view of a young woman trying to come to terms with her own sexuality as civilization is crashing down around her. Scarlett O’Hara not only comes through the Civil War and the destruction of the old planter class, she becomes immensely wealthy, far richer than her father ever was, even at the height of slavery. Women, who buy novels, especially romance novels, at a greater rate than men, and who had just come through the Great Depression, which, once again, is along with the Civil War, by far the most traumatic event in American history, surely found her an appealing, even revolutionary character.
Neither the novel nor the film Gone With the Wind is sympathetic to the “Lost Cause.” Man for man, the Army of Northern Virginia was as tough, and brave, as any army that’s ever taken the field. For over 4 years, they fought one of the word’s great industrial powers to a draw, a draw that was only broken when Lincoln decided to let Phillip Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman wage total, economic warfare on the southern people. Yet early in Gone With the Wind, when Rhett Butler explains to a gathering of aristocratic planters at Twelve Oakes, the estate owned by Ashley Wilkes and his family, that the south has no chance of winning the war, young, aristocratic southern men are portrayed, not only as foolish hotheads, but as outright babies. Rand Brooks, who plays Melanie Wilkes younger brother Charles, and who foolishly challenges Rhett Butler to a duel, has soft, dough like features. It’s clear that had Butler actually accepted his challenge, it would have been murder, not a contest of honor between gentlemen. Hamilton enlists in the Confederate Army, but he’s not cut down by Yankee gunfire while leading a charge at Gettysburg. He dies of the measles. During the siege of Atlanta, Confederate soldiers are not the formidable warriors who terrorized Yankee troops with the rebel yell. They’re little boys who cry out in pain for their mommies or broken down old men who can barely limp along the road in retreat from Sherman’s juggernaut.
Women in Gone with the Wind are another story. From Scarlett herself, to Melanie Wilkes, who hides a will of iron beneath her angelic exterior, to Belle Watling, the sex worker more honorable and devoted to the southern cause than any of the film’s “respectable” women, to Mammy, the only person with the ability to stand up to Scarlett, a black woman essential to keeping a white, slave-owning family from going to pieces during Reconstruction, the women of Gone with the Wind are better soldiers than the men. Indeed, the only time we see any southerner in Gone With the Wind kill a Yankee is when Scarlett O’Hara shoots a would be rapist in the face. With the exception of Rhett Butler, men in Gone With the Wind are soft, romantic, and incompetent. Ashley Wilkes would be far more believable as an English professor teaching Shakespeare at a women’s college in New England than he is as a man who came through the ghastly Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and a Yankee prisoner of war camp. Scarlett, in turn, is more believable pining over Ashley early in the film than she is as a fully mature adult after she eats a uncooked radish from the ground and declares “as God as my witness I’ll never be hungry again.” At that point, her unrequited love for the sad Mr. Wilkes just seems baffling and self-destructive, which is, of course, exactly the point. Katie Scarlett O’Hara is now a successful lady capitalist profiting far more by using convict (slave) labor than her father ever profited using chattel (slave) laborer. We want her to forget about Ashley and live happily ever after with Rhett Butler, her soulmate.
If Rhett Butler is the only genuinely masculine male character in Gone with the Wind, it’s largely because he’s a self-interested capitalist and not a romantic aristocrat pining over the “Lost Cause.” Supposedly he’s from Charleston, but his accent is pure Mid-Atlantic bourgeois by way of California the Midwest. He does in fact do more for the Southern cause than poor little Charles Hamilton, spending most of the war as a blockade runner, then enlisting in the Confederate Army after the Battle of Atlanta, but in both cases it’s purely out of self-interest. Blockade running is profitable. A brief tour with Joseph E. Johnston’s Army against the hated Sherman and the rank of Captain were handy status symbols after the restoration of White Supremacy and the Southern Democrats in 1876. If Ashley and Melanie Wilkes represent the romantic “Lost Cause” than Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara represent the new capitalist south that emerged in the late 19th Century, the old south with a new and improved economy but with its old racial and class hierarchies largely intact. As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said in The Leopard, his famous novel about the unification of Italy, “if everything is to stay the same, than everything has to change.” Rhett and Scarlett are the ideal conservatives, wealthy, upper-class aristocrats who can change with the times and subvert any attempts of the working class to rise to power. This also opened the door for the successful children of Jewish immigrants like Selznick. Gone with the Wind romanticized an aristocracy, but not, it must be stressed, the “old” aristocracy. Indeed, old aristocratic WASP Americans like Ashley Wilkes would give way to a new, better, brighter, stronger elite, men like David O. Selznick, or women like Katie Scarlett O’Hara, also a first generation American.
Gone with the Wind, therefore, while not “Lost Cause” propaganda, is poisonously reactionary propaganda. Released in 1939, after capitalism came close to utter collapse during the Great Depression, and was saved by the aristocratic Franklin Roosevelt, the film says “there is a natural hierarchy. Whether under slavery or free market capitalism, aristocrats like Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Franklin Roosevelt deserve to rule. Keep your place and it will all work out for the best.” In contrast to the noble and sympathetic black characters of Gone with the Wind, the Big Sams and Mammys, who remain passive, upwardly mobile “white trash” like the O’Hara’s old overseer Jonas Wilkerson and his wife Emmy Slattery, are invariably vicious and spiteful. Gone With the Wind is a racist film, if only because it centers the sufferings of the white planter aristocracy and not the epic struggle of the African American freemen to resist the violence of slavery and the Klan, but the screenplay reserves most of its true hate for low class whites who take advantage of the collapse of the old order, either to elevate themselves, or to elevate the ex-slaves. One ludicrous scene of a carpet bagger promising ex slaves “40 Acres and a Mule” consciously distorts history. It wasn’t the carpet baggers who proposed giving the ex-slaves 40 Acres and a Mule. It was William Tecumseh Sherman and the Union Army, a promise the federal government ultimately reneged on.
What’s more, Gone with the Wind is an antiwar film at exactly the time an antiwar film was most dangerous. The United States in 1939 had a powerful “America First” movement led by the openly fascist Charles Lindbergh that prevented Roosevelt from declaring war on either Germany or Japan until the Japanese actually bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on us. A film in which both romantic leading men hate the idea of war for different reasons, Ashley Wilkes because it would destroy the old South and Rhett Butler because it would destroy wealth, and which vividly depicted Southern “boys,” boys not men, crying for their mommies as their legs were sawed off without anesthesia, was rank “America First” propaganda. David O. Selznick, while Jewish, was strongly suggesting that a war against Hitler might just not be worth it. Let those Europeans take care of their own problems. We’ve already had our apocalyptic battles at Gettysburg and Atlanta. Why get American boys killed to save Poles, Frenchmen, Russians and East European Jews? Why upset a capitalist social order that had just been saved by a honey voiced Democratic Party aristocrat?
Hitler and the Nazis, of course, loved Gone with the Wind. How could they not love a film so firmly on the side of an aristocratic racial hierarchy? Ironically, while we never see Vivian Leigh and Leslie Howard kiss in Gone with the Wind –Ashley has Scarlett solidly in the “friend zone,” stringing her along for his own ego — it would have meant the death penalty in Nazi Germany. Leslie Howard, born Leslie Howard Steiner, was a Hungarian Jew from London, and sexual, or even platonic, romantic relations between Jews and Aryans had been outlawed in 1935 by the Nuremberg Laws. Perhaps that’s why Hitler’s air force found Howard’s DC-3 flying in 1943 flying over the Bay of Biscay and shot it down. It wasn’t the Yankees who killed Ashley Wilkes. It was the Nazis.
News of the air disaster rocked Britain, and delighted the Nazi propaganda minister, Dr Goebbels. Leslie Howard, while at the pinnacle of Hollywood success as the star of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind, had sacrificed his royalties, bought himself out of his contract, and returned to Britain in 1939, to work for the war effort. He made propaganda films for the Ministry of Information, and on his own initiative directed and starred in two films that had irritated Goebbels: Pimpernel Smith, about freeing young Jewish refugees from the Nazis, and The First Of The Few, about the designer of the Spitfire, which bolstered morale during the Battle of Britain. He broadcast letters to America designed to bring neutral USA onside, and had visited Ireland on a bridge-building mission to the anti-British premier Eamon de Valera.
It’s that time again. Even though it feels as if the 2020 Presidential election has already been going on forever, we’re a few months away from the Democratic Party primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. Young, left-wing activists are solidly behind Bernie Sanders, who appears to have taken the lead in New Hampshire. Affluent, middle-aged liberals are shopping around for a standard bearer to replace Hillary Clinton. With the implosion of Kamala Harris, and the rapidly fading campaign of Elizabeth Warren, they’ve settle on Pete Buttigieg, the young, polylingual mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Not only is he surging in Iowa, but he is also polling as a strong fourth place contender in New Hampshire.
All of this, of course, ignores the elephant in the room, namely Vice President Joseph Biden, who arrived in Washington in 1972 as a 29-year-old Senator elect, and who has a commanding lead in the South Carolina primary and among older, black voters in the south. While Sanders, along with Andrew Yang, has shown a formidable ability to raise funds over the Internet, the odds of his being able to secure the Democratic nomination seem daunting. Not only will rich Boomers easily shift their loyalty over to Joe Biden after Pete Buttigieg’s campaign inevitably flickers out, the institutional constraints the Democratic Party elite set up after the disastrous Democratic Party Convention in 1968 and George McGovern’s crushing loss in 1972 remain in place. There’s a reason small, conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina, where the Democratic nominee has little chance of winning the general election, so outweigh states like Massachusetts and California, to prevent another George McGovern, another leftist, from getting the nomination.
While leftists correctly point out that both the Democratic and Republican parties are designed to protect, not the American people, but the ruling class and the big corporations, they miss one important difference. The Democratic Party is schizophrenic. The Republican Party is not. The Republican Party primaries are also far more democratic than the Democratic Party primaries. If Donald Trump was able to defeat the ruling class Jeb Bush and the mainstream media darling Marco Rubio in 2016, it was largely because the Republican Party elite doesn’t fear their own rank and file.
Republican Party voters are uniformly pro-business, socially conservative, and pro-military. The Republican Party is basically one big happy Klan meeting. The guy wearing the cheapest set of sheets from Walmart believes pretty much the same things as the guy who buys his white robes from Lord and Taylor. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, looks a bit more like the British Raj. It’s a tiny right-wing elite ruling over a much larger, and much more left-wing rank and file. The Republican billionaire on Wall Street doesn’t sit up at night worrying that the yokel in the trailer park with his “freedom isn’t free” sticker on his 20-year-old Ford F-150 is suddenly going to decide that we should spend more money helping single mother in Flint Michigan than killing people in the Middle East. Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama, on the other hand, have to walk a fine line between their wealthy donors and those young Bernie Sanders supporters stocking up on pitchforks and torches and sharpening the guillotines. It’s part of the reason elite liberals put so much emphasis on identity politics. Declaring your pronouns, calling for more diversity in Marvel comic book and Disney movies, or voting for the first black President are things that will appeal to millionaires as well as people working a double shift in an Amazon warehouse. Demanding a higher minimum wage, on the other hand, or Medicare for All threatens to take money and power away from people like the man who owns both that Amazon warehouse and the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos.
Joe Biden, therefore, is already starting to look Presidential. It doesn’t matter if he’s a long time supporter of white supremacists like Strom Thurmond, if he humiliated Anita Hill — see anything about that on MSNBC lately — or if he opposed busing in the 1970s, if he wins the Democratic nomination and winds up beating Donald Trump, he will keep the Democratic Party rank and file in line. He will stop Medicare for All. He will continue to fund the military industrial complex, and more likely than not violently ratchet up tensions with Russia and China. Vote Blue no Matter Who, even if he’s an obviously senile old reactionary. Plan on hearing that a lot in the coming year. What’s more, the Republican Party elites are unlikely to object to the coming “grand bargain” between Biden, Pelosi, and Mitch McConnell designed to cut social security and other “entitlements.” Hell, it’s what they want anyway. Why not let the Democrats take the blame for it?
Will I be voting blue no matter who? Will I vote for Biden over Trump? Ah, who knows. But since I live in a deeply blue state where the Republicans haven’t won since 1988, my vote doesn’t count anyway so I’ll probably just do what I did in 2016. I’ll vote for the Workers World Party. The first vote I ever cast was in 1984 for Mondale and Ferraro. I still regret not having voted for Gus Hall and Angela Davis.