The Fountainhead (1949) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

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.

Things to Come – An OCF Classic Movie Review

It’s been a few years since I last saw this old science fiction film.  The screenplay was written by H. G. Wells based on his story of the same name.  And it has some distinguished British Shakespearean actors in the persons of Ralph Richardson and Cedric Hardwicke.  But it also has Raymond Massey who can chew up scenery with the best of them.

The plot is remarkably realistic at the start.  A Second World War begins in 1940 (this was made in 1935) and goes on for decades killing off most of humanity.  Then a plague finishes off the majority of the survivors and throws humanity into a virtual dark age where isolated communities battle for the meager resources that remain in what is practically a pre-industrial age.  In a section of England Ralph Richardson portrays a “Chief” who controls his villages as a rough and ready princeling battling the surrounding mini-states for control of the food and other resources.  Suddenly an advanced airplane lands and Raymond Massey reveals that a scientific community has survived the war and is re-establishing civilization and putting an end to nation-states.  He is taken prisoner by the chief but the writing is on the wall and eventually Massey’s friends show up with aircraft that looks like something out of a Buck Rogers serial.  They use the “gas of peace” to knock out the population and shepherd them into the Global Socialist Future complete with “science.”  We are then regaled with the wonderful futuristic science and engineering marvels that allow the world to be converted into a paradise on earth.

Flash forward fifty years and everyone lives underground and the world is a garden of delights where no one seems to work very hard or gets sick and everyone is happy, sort of like San Francisco but without the human feces everywhere.  The descendant of Raymond Massey, who looks remarkably like Raymond Massey, is working on the Space Gun that will shoot a space capsule around the Moon.  But Cedric Hardwicke won’t have it.  He rallies the non-scientists (actors and hair stylists) to attack the Space Gun and destroy it with their own soft and well-manicured hands.  Raymond Massey takes his helicopter and races the mob to the Space Gun and loads his daughter and her boyfriend into the bullet just in time to fire them into space and coincidentally allow the shockwave from the firing of the gun to murder all the raging doofuses attempting to stop him.

Then Massey gives a monologue that goes on and on.  It’s a panegyric to progress.  We’ll go to the Moon and colonize it and out to the planets and then onto the stars.  We’ll never stop.  It’s all or nothing.  There’s even a choir at the end.  I think they were repeating “all or nothing.”  For someone who is a big fan of the space program he managed to make it sound unhinged even to me.

Here’s my take.  The beginning of the movie is frighteningly prescient.  He saw the rest of the twentieth century coming.  That was right on the nose.  But Wells was a socialist.  Basically he might as well have been doing forward work for Stalin.  All that was missing was the hammer and sickle.  His belief that the socialists would build some kind of scientific utopia was laughably misguided.  And the smugness of the Massey character made me immediately think of Barack Obama.  All he needed to do to make the effect perfect would have been to say a couple of times “it’s not who we are.”  Honestly, I was solidly behind the “Chief” character and would gladly have put up with the lice and dysentery to avoid having to hear the speeches about “science.”

This really is a period piece and worth seeing just to get a flavor for what the British socialists thought the future should be.  It’s very enlightening.  And the histrionics by Massey are so over the top that they’re really quite funny to see and hear.