The Fountainhead is a novel by Ayn Rand about an architect named Howard Roark who embodies Rand’s ideal of the individualist. It was made into a movie with Rand providing the screen play.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
Gary Cooper is Howard Roark, a young man who wants to build buildings where the form corresponds to the function of the building and the materials it is made from. But the architectural profession demands that only the established patterns, like classical columns and facades be used. Unwilling to compromise on these points he is scorned by his profession and denied any commissions by the corporate establishment and is forced to get work wherever he can find; a gas station here, a factory there. But slowly he gains a reputation as an innovator who can build modern buildings that are structurally sound and gracefully beautiful.
During these years he meets friends and enemies that help or hinder his career and he meets his soul mate; Dominique Francon (played by Patricia Neal) who is the daughter of a prominent architect and is the first to recognize Roark’s great talent and integrity. But because she sees that the world will try to destroy him, she leaves him to spare herself the agony of watching it happen. He meets Gail Wynand (played by Raymond Massey) the owner of the New York Banner, a tabloid newspaper that profits from yellow journalism. He is also Dominique Francon’s new husband. Wynand recognizes Roark’s talent and hires him to build a mansion for him in the country where he will live with his wife. Neither Dominique nor Roark keep their former relationship from Wynand and in fact Roark and Wynand become close friends.
Working for Wynand at the Banner is Ellsworth M. Toohey, the newspaper’s architectural critic (if you can imagine such a thing). He is also Ayn Rand’s mouthpiece for the collectivist ideology. He believes that individualists like Roark are criminals for defying the will of the majority and should be treated as such.
Eventually we reach a crisis when Roark agrees to design a low-income housing project on the condition that his design would be adhered to completely. When the powers that be betray him and change his designs, he dynamites the buildings before they are completed and is put on trial. Wynand attempts to defend Roark in the Banner but Toohey organizes a boycott of the paper and Wynand is defeated and must recant his defense of Roark.
In the climax of the picture Roark gives a summation speech to the jury defending every man’s right to the fruits of his labor, in his case the design of his buildings and the agreement that they would not be altered. And of course, he is found not guilty. Wynand sells the Banner and uses the funds to commission Roark to build the tallest building in the world and then shoots himself. The movie ends with Dominique Roark taking a construction elevator to the top of the million story Wynand Building tower with Howard Roark standing there with his hands on his hips while the wind whips his shirt.
O good grief. Where to start? Ayn Rand was a novelist and social critic who proposed a theory of human values that she called “objectivism.” It seems to be a justification for a libertarian view of human interaction. It espouses individualism and the right of everyone to live life according to the individual’s free will without constraint as long as no one else’s existence is constrained by this behavior. For Rand, the antithesis of objectivism and the epitome of evil is communism. Since Rand had grown up under the Soviet regime, she knew something about how communism worked. She was also a novelist and her books reflected her philosophy. And Howard Roark was one of the exemplars of her philosophy. And the book is a very interesting read in some respects. But subtlety was not one of her attributes. There are no shades of gray. Howard Roark and Dominque Francon are demigods of individualist virtue and Ellsworth M. Toohey is a communist slug dripping slime wherever he goes. But even this would be a starting point for a movie. What is missing though is anything like actual human behavior. The characters are there more or less only to mouth talking points and diatribes for their particular points of view. Even the romantic entanglements are presented as examples of how these mythical objectivist supermen and women would behave. At no point can you find yourself suspending disbelief and becoming immersed in the characters. It’s more like one of those public service film documentaries from the fifties where you are told about how the air raid shelter will allow us to survive World War III and get on with our lives in the glorious future that awaits us. I enjoy watching the movie as a lark. But except as a philosophical treatise on Ayn Rand and objectivism I don’t think it can be recommended for entertainment value.