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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.

Henry Koster’s The Robe (1953)

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Roman Tribune Marcellus (Richard Burton, right), kneels before an offscreen Caligula (Jay Robinson, extreme left) in The Robe.

Henry Koster’s The Robe, the first film released in CinemaScope on September 16, 1953 — the first film made in CinemaScope was How to Marry a Millionaire, which was released November 4, 1953 — has always gotten a bad rap, supposedly for Koster’s flat and uninspired direction, and the primitive use of the ’scope frame in the film. And I admit, I myself was one of the crowd of detractors. But the new Blu-Ray restoration of The Robe brings out qualities that even the 35mm original didn’t fully reveal during the film’s initial theatrical presentation in 1953.

If such a thing is possible, The Robe ultimately emerges as a quiet, thoughtful epic, with a great deal of intelligence behind it, much more successful to my mind than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, William Wyler’s Ben Hur, or even Nicholas Ray’s maverick project King of Kings, all of which have a much higher conventional critical profile.

It isn’t in the same league as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterful The Gospel According to St. Matthew, but then again, that’s arguably the best version of the Christ tale ever brought to the screen. But The Robe has a certain quiet holding power to it, mostly anchored in the understated performances of the entire cast throughout the film, though it doesn’t neglect the visual aspect of the piece, and only occasionally wanders off track into maudlin sentiment.

As the anonymous reviewer for Blu-Ray.com noted, “The Robe dazzles on Blu-ray with its masterful 1080p transfer framed at 2.55:1. This is another high-quality classic catalogue release from Fox, and rarely does the transfer fail to impress. Colors are astounding and are the highlight of the image. The shade of dark red that marks the color of the Roman soldier’s uniforms in particular stands out, but the many colors of the flowing and wonderfully adorned garments worn by both Roman royalty and the populace of Jerusalem sparkle. The color stands out particularly well against the earthen tones of the sandy floors and the numerous gray façades of various buildings.

Fine detail, too, is generally exceptional. The disc reveals textures and fine lines in clothing, armor, weaponry, and the adornments of the luxurious Roman palaces. Some scenes are noticeably soft, lacking in clarity, sharpness, and detail, but such scenes are the exception to the rule. There are also a few instances of dramatic shifts in color one frame to another, but again, such is the exception to the rule. Generally, The Robe looks marvelous on Blu-ray.”

And in a lengthy review in the website DVD Beaver, Leonard Norwitz concurs, stating flatly that “next to the DVD or any video or theatrical presentation in memory, this Blu-ray is a revelation, which is not to say that it is always perfect, but where there are difficulties, I feel comfortable in attributing them to the source.  The image most often has the feel of a painting in motion, which I imagine was the intended effect.  There is an almost pastel quality to the color.

The lighting is deliberately evenhanded most of the time, not natural at all, but in stark contrast to the dramatic material in Palestine that concerns the robe itself: the crucifixion and Marcellus’ crisis most especially. In those scenes, blacks are intense and the color deep and sinister.  Some of the darkly lit interior scenes get oversaturated the point of blurring detail – the result is not subtle, and certainly not intentional.  Artifacts, enhancements or noise reduction do not appear to be visited upon this Blu-ray.”

Diana (Jean Simmons) and Caligula (Jay Robinson) in The Robe

I also think that The Robe has been unjustly maligned over the years as an overblown religious spectacle, and while it certainly indulges in visual excess, the performances are all very finely tuned, particularly a very young Richard Burton in the role that made him a star, as well as Jean Simmons as Diana, Richard Boone as Pontius Pilate, Ernest Thesiger as Emperor Tiberius, Victor Mature as Demetrius, and Michael Rennie as Peter. In contrast, Jay Robinson’s suitably over-the-top Caligula is a fully realized monster, and arguably the performance of his career.

CinemaScope, of course, was 20th Century Fox’s answer to the threat of television, and although the ’scope version is the most widely seen, the film was simultaneously shot in regular academy (flat) ratio to accommodate theaters that couldn’t afford to convert to the CinemaScope screen format. Alfred Newman’s suitably lush score is also a plus. While the film is certainly sentimentalized, it’s really an actor’s film, and a deeply felt one at that, in which the cast never seems overpowered by the pageantry the surrounds them. All in all, The Robe is worth another look, and now it looks better than ever.

This is digital cinema at its best; restoring the classics.

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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