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The 1956 Film Version of George Orwell’s 1984

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Lately, 1984 has been a very popular novel – but the best movie version was made in 1956.

When George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) finished his novel 1984 in 1948, after thinking about it since 1944, he was trying to warn his audience that unchecked totalitarianism could easily destroy democracy. Since then, there have been several film and television versions; the 1954 BBC version starring Peter Cushing; the 1956 version starring Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling; and the 1984 version – yes, that’s right – starring the late John Hurt as the hapless Winston Smith, and Richard Burton as his nemesis O’Brien, in what would prove to be his final screen role.

All the various versions have their adherents, but for me, the 1956 version comes closest to the mark. The 1954 version survives only on a battered Kinescope, and as much as I am fond of Peter Cushing as an actor (as readers of this blog no doubt know), he makes a very indifferent Winston Smith, one of the “proles” singled out for punishment and “rehabilitation” by the minions of Big Brother. He would have been much more effective in the O’Brien role, just as he’s superlatively evil as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977).

The 1984 version has strong performances by both Burton and Hurt, but is ruined – really ruined - by a terrible pop score by The Eurythmics. There was one 2003 US DVD release with the original symphonic score by Dominic Muldowney, but most versions have the Eurythmics track, which so offended Michael Radford, the director of the film, that he publicly disowned the film. So . . .

That leaves the 1956 version, which although it has its flaws, is easily the most effective version of the novel, at least for me. Yes, one of the central problems is the casting of Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling in the leading roles of Winston Smith and Julia. Both were put in the film to increase the chances at the box-office in the United States – which didn’t work, despite a sensationalistic advertising campaign – and while O’Brien is much better than Sterling, they’re not ideally cast for the film.

But as General O’Connor (O’Brien in the book; the name change was to avoid confusion with the Edmond O’Brien’s credit), Sir Michael Redgave is absolutely immaculate – savage, smooth, duplicitous and unforgiving. The film’s narrative, which the title credits admit was “freely adapted” from Orwell’s novel, nevertheless touches all the important bases – cultural repression, institutionalized misinformation, social inequity, and a ruling class that cares nothing about the “proles” below.

Unfortunately, the film has existed in limbo for quite some time, and never got a real DVD release, except in England, and of course, being shot in 1956, it’s in black and white, modestly budgeted at a mere £80,073, or roughly $200,000 US dollars at the time. It’s yet another one of the many films that could use a proper DVD release.

The sets are minimal and coolly stylized, the effects are resolutely pre-digital, and there is even an alternate “happy ending” – thankfully, I have never seen it – tacked on to some prints. But in most surviving versions, the film ends with Smith, brutally tortured and now brainwashed into blindly accepting authority, leading a mob of citizens in a chant of “long live Big Brother” – the anonymous, and perhaps non-existent dictator of the future totalitarian state.

The director of the film was Michael Anderson, who directed Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) the same year – a much more crowd pleasing film – and would later go on to direct the almost equally Dystopian Logan’s Run (1976). The 1956 version of 1984, then, is certainly worth a look, if you can find it – and see how a group of talented people almost got it right.

You can see the entire film online by clicking here, or on the image above.

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Click on the image above for the trailer for Melancholia.

I’m not a Lars von Trier cultist by any stretch of the imagination — his previous work strikes me as empty and pretentious — and I say this only because with Melancholia, easily the best film of his career, he has created one of the the most heartbreaking, elegiac, complex and accomplished films in cinema history — in short, it’s a stop at nothing masterpiece, and instantly joins the pantheon of truly remarkable films, evoking everything from Dreyer to Bresson to Resnais and all the stops in-between.

The plot of the film is no secret; Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a deeply depressed young woman whom we meet on her wedding day, afflicted with melancholia, the disease; at the same time, a huge planet, also named Melancholia, is hurtling towards earth at terrific speed, destined to utterly destroy the planet. All of this is revealed in the first five minutes, in a super-slow-motion montage reminiscent of the video gallery pieces of Bill Viola, culminating in the moment that Melancholia collides with Earth, as seen from distant space.

But after this opening, wordless sequence, scored to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the film leaves the apocalypse plot aside for a close-up examination of Justine’s disastrous and ruinously expensive wedding, during which Justine bit by bit collapses into a state of almost complete catatonia. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to help her through the day-long ordeal, but to no avail. By the end of the day, Claire’s husband deserts her, she’s fired from her job for telling off her obnoxious boss, and her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) stands up during a toast and tells the entire room that she hates the very idea of marriage, even as the forced festivities continue.

That’s the first half of the film, aptly entitled Justine, but when Claire takes over the eponymous second half of Melancholia, the film deepens into a doleful meditation on mortality, the worthlessness of property and money, the fickle stability of family relationships, and because the end of the film is predestined — we know from the opening moments that everyone in the film will die, as well as every other person on the earth — the tragedy becomes almost unbearably intense, as Justine pulls out of her depression, embraces the inevitability of death, and becomes, against all odds, the most courageous member of the group in the film’s final moments.

More than that I cannot and should not say; this is a film that simply must be experienced, preferably on a large screen for full visual and emotional impact. This is the sort of apocalyptic thriller that only an artist can pull off; it’s absolutely pitch-perfect for its entire two hour and fifteen minute running time, and like the rogue planet that dominates Melancholia from first frame to last, the film inexorably gathers velocity and resonance as it hurtles towards its horrific and yet transcendant climax. The entire cast is superb — Dunst gives the performance of her career in the film — and John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and all the rest of the ensemble are equally brilliant.

I spend so much of my time watching junk, which is all the Hollywood makes now, so when something as good as this, or Margin Call, comes along, I want to celebrate. It’s as Ingmar Bergman said near the end of his life; you see so many bad movies, that after a while, you don’t expect anything more. Then something like this comes along. Melancholia is an astonishing, absolutely remarkable film that succeeds on every level — as human drama, as science fiction fantasy, as social parable, as purely visual filmmaking. See it at once.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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