Smile though your heart is aching Smile even though it’s breaking When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by If you smile through your fear and sorrow Smile and maybe tomorrow You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Light up your face with gladness Hide every trace of sadness Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying Smile, what’s the use of crying? You’ll find that life is still worthwhile If you just smile
That’s the time you must keep on trying Smile, what’s the use of crying? You’ll find that life is still worthwhile If you just smile
THOUGH IT IN no way endangers the meisterwerk musical status of Dark Side of the Moon (still on the charts nearly seven years after its release), Pink Floyd’s twelfth album, The Wall, is the most startling rhetorical achievement in the group’s singular, thirteen-year career. Stretching his talents over four sides, Floyd bassist Roger Waters, who wrote all the words and a majority of the music here, projects a dark, multilayered vision of post-World War II Western (and especially British) society so unremittingly dismal and acidulous that it makes contemporary gloom-mongers such as Randy Newman or, say, Nico seem like Peter Pan and Tinker Bell.
The Wall is a stunning synthesis of Waters’ by now familiar thematic obsessions: the brutal misanthropy of Pink Floyd’s last LP, Animals; Dark Side of the Moon‘s sour, middle-aged tristesse; the surprisingly shrewd perception that the music business is a microcosm of institutional oppression (Wish You Were Here); and the dread of impending psychoses that runs through all these records — plus a strongly felt antiwar animus that dates way back to 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets. But where Animals, for instance, suffered from self-centered smugness, the even more abject The Wall leaps to life with a relentless lyrical rage that’s clearly genuine and, in its painstaking particularity, ultimately horrifying.
Fashioned as a kind of circular maze (the last words on side four begin a sentence completed by the first words on side one), The Wall offers no exit except madness from a world malevolently bent on crippling its citizens at every level of endeavor. The process — for those of Waters’ generation, at least — begins at birth with the smothering distortions of mother love. Then there are some vaguely remembered upheavals from the wartime Blitz:
Did you ever wonder Why we had to run for shelter When the promise of a brave new world Unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?
In government-run schools, children are methodically tormented and humiliated by teachers whose comeuppance occurs when they go home at night and “their fat and/Psychopathic wives would thrash them/Within inches of their lives.”
As Roger Waters sees it, even the most glittering success later in life — in his case, international rock stardom — is a mockery because of mortality. The halfhearted hope of interpersonal salvation that slightly brightened Animals is gone, too: women are viewed as inscrutable sexual punching bags, and men (their immediate oppressors in a grand scheme of oppression) are inevitably left alone to flail about in increasingly unbearable frustration. This wall of conditioning finally forms a prison. And its pitiful inmate, by now practically catatonic, submits to “The Trial” — a bizarre musical cataclysm out of Gilbert and Sullivan via Brecht and Weill — in which all of his past tormentors converge for the long-awaited kill.
This is very tough stuff, and hardly the hallmark of a hit album. Whether or not The Wall succeeds commercially will probably depend on its musical virtues, of which there are many. Longtime Pink Floyd fans will find the requisite number of bone-crushing riffs and Saturn-bound guitar screams (“In the Flesh”), along with one of the loveliest ballads the band has ever recorded (“Comfortably Numb — “). And the singing throughout is — at last — truly firstrate, clear, impassioned. Listen to the vocals in the frightening “One of My Turns,” in which the deranged rock-star narrator, his shattered synapses misfiring like wet firecrackers, screams at his groupie companion: “Would you like to learn to fly?/Would you like to see me try?”
Problems do arise, however. While The Wall‘s length is certainly justified by the breadth of its thematic concerns, the music is stretched a bit thin. Heavy-metal maestro Bob Ezrin, brought in to coproduce with Roger, Waters and guitarist David Gilmour, adds a certain hard-rock consciousness to a few cuts (especially the nearfunky “Young Lust”) but has generally been unable to match the high sonic gloss that engineer Alan Parsons contributed to Dark Side of the Moon. Even Floydstarved devotees may not be sucked into The Wall‘s relatively flat aural ambiance on first hearing. But when they finally are — and then get a good look at that forbidding lyrical landscape — they may wonder which way is out real fast.
Behind the Meaning of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” by Pink Floyd
In a world of love songs, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” inevitably stands out.
The defiant anthem is a satirical view on formal education, a loud protest against authority, and it became one of Pink Floyd’s most recognizable songs.
Here we’ll dive into the song’s context, composition, and success.
Just one part of the story.
“Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” is as it’s descriptor indicates, only one part of the story. There are three sections of “Another Brick in the Wall” on Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera album, The Wall. All three parts total eight odd minutes of building up emotional walls.
The beginning, “Part 1,” sets the scene with the protagnoist’s first blow from life. His father abandons the narrator, whether that is in death or otherwise, and creates a level of distress. Daddy, what else did you leave for me? / Daddy, what’d ya leave behind for me?
“Part 2,” which we will get to, continues the assembling of emotion. Then, “Part 3” concludes the trilogy with the determination that everyone has simply been just bricks in the wall.
Recording an unexpected beat and children’s choir.
Roger Waters, singer/songwriter and bassist for Pink Floyd, wrote the “Another Brick in the Wall” song series and the band recorded the songs for several months in 1979.
For “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” the underlying beat leans into the themes and sounds of disco. And according guitarist David Gilmour, the band’s producer Bob Ezrin, has suggested this sonic turn. “[Ezrin] said to me, ‘Go to a couple of clubs and listen to what’s happening with disco music,’” Gilmour recalled in a 2009 interview with Guitar World, “so I forced myself out and listened to loud, four-to-the-bar bass drums and stuff and thought, Gawd, awful! Then we went back and tried to turn one of the parts into one of those so it would be catchy.”
Another unique aspect of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” is the children’s choir that sings the second verse of the song. The collection of young singers was composed of 23 children from the Islington Green School in North London. After recording, the childrens’ part was overdubbed 12 times to give the effect of many, many more children singing.
Ezrin explains their decision to use a children’s choir: “[W]e sent [engineer] Nick Griffiths to a school near the Floyd studios [in Islington, North London]. I said, ‘Give me 24 tracks of kids singing this thing. I want Cockney, I want posh, fill ’em up,’ and I put them on the song. I called Roger into the room, and when the kids came in on the second verse there was a total softening of his face, and you just knew that he knew it was going to be an important record.”
Lyrics: Say a lot with little.
The lyrics themselves while not necessarily elaborate, speak volumes.
We don’t need no education We don’t need no thought control No dark sarcasm in the classroom Teacher, leave them kids alone Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!
It’s a pretty glaring critic of the education system, but Waters explained that it wasn’t so much of a blanket statement on education itself, but rather a statement to inspire a sense of individuality.
“Obviously, I care deeply about education. I just wanted to encourage anyone who marches to a different drum to push back against those who try to control their minds rather than to retreat behind emotional walls,” Waters told The Wall Street Journal in 2015.
Further explaining how he arrived at these lyrics, Waters revealed that his own experiences in school left a bad taste in his mouth.
“The lyrics were a reaction to my time at the Cambridgeshire High School for Boys in 1955, when I was 12,” Waters told The Wall Street Journal. “Some of the teachers there were locked into the idea that young boys needed to be controlled with sarcasm and the exercising of brute force to subjugate us to their will. That was their idea of education.”
Success and its haters.
Pink Floyd released “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” as a single, their first single release after “Point Me at the Sky” in 1968. The track topped the charts in 14 different countries, including the United States and the U.K. The song also garnered a Grammy nomination and a spot on Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list in 2010.
Not everyone liked the track, however. The single and the subsequent album were banned in South Africa in 1980 after the lyrics were used by school children to protest their educaiton under apartheid. Prime minster Margaret Thatcher was also reported to have “hated it.”
All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 by de Pink Floyd
We don’t need no education We don’t need no thought control No dark sarcasm in the classroom Teacher, leave them kids alone
Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
We don’t need no education We don’t need no thought control No dark sarcasm in the classroom Teachers, leave them kids alone
Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat? You! Yes, you behind the bike stands Stand still, laddy!
40 years later: Are we still just another brick in the wall?
They tell us we are the next generation. A representation of greatness, a symbol of hope, a future of prosperity. They tell us we have the power to fix all the wrongs in this world, make it a better place for all. And then they throw us into the deep end of the pool, expecting us to stay afloat. They don’t even flinch when we become just another brick in the wall.
Pink Floyd shattered the traditional notion of a song with their album “The Wall,” which is widely regarded as one of the best concept albums ever produced. Its most popular single, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” issued a provocative social statement on the British education system in the 1950’s.
Although Waters wrote “Another Brick in the Wall” about another country and an earlier generation, the song’s lyrics and key concepts stay relevant to our own education system today.
We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control
Our educational institutions have systematically failed to adapt to change. They continue, even during these unprecedented times, to evaluate student performance based solely on rote memorization rather than progress and learning. We are labeled by our grades, which seems like the ultimate determinant of our futures. Our stomachs drop when a teacher hands back a grade, and we realize we underperformed on an exam. But shouldn’t failing be a learning experience rather than a punishment? And who decided that letter grades were supposed to determine what we could achieve in our lives? School is not supposed to be a series of memorized algebraic calculations or properly formatted, multi-paragraphed english essays; it’s intended to help us acquire new knowledge and skills, to teach us to collaborate and, most importantly, to inspire us.
However, Waters paints a bleak, but accurate image of the education system in his lyrics; he explains that education revolved around a set of rigid ideas to which all students were expected to conform and teachers were meant to enforce. Just like Roger Waters and his generation, we are being taught to put our heads down and color inside the lines. But what we truly need is for education to encourage free thinking and critical thought, releasing students and teachers from the confines of the curriculum.
The reality of our current educational system: we don’t need this type of “education.”
No dark sarcasm in the classroom; Hey! Teachers leave those kids alone
During our foundational years, we spend most of our lives in school. Yet, so many of us are scared to speak up in class, talk to our teachers or ask our counselors for help.
More than 40 years ago, Waters felt as though teachers served to chastise students whenever they stepped out of line. He too believed that his teachers simply enforced the “rules” of the classroom, turning his educational experience into one of isolation.
From kindergarten through senior year, the same set of rules are designed to mold us into the “ideal student,” one who displays only acceptable behavior in the classroom.
Don’t speak without raising your hand; don’t go to the bathroom before you ask; don’t talk back to teachers.
Those who do not follow such rules are deemed “bad children” and punished accordingly. In the music video for “Another Brick in the Wall,” the teacher punishes the main character for reading poetry because it did not fall within the classroom’s guidelines.
This is where the real question lies: when did school become more intimidating than inviting? As we sit in our Zoom classes, many are too afraid to unmute themselves. We build psychological walls to protect ourselves. School is still an unfriendly, increasingly isolating environment for many students. It can be terrifying to speak up to a teacher, and often “unacceptable” to voice your opinion when an adult says it’s not right.
The needless rules some teachers impose and the constant fear many students face reinforce Waters’ idea that if teachers cannot create a welcoming learning environment, they really should leave us kids alone.
You’re just another brick in the wall
As kindergarteners, we are eager to be “grown up,” excited about everything the world has to offer and filled with innocence. During our last years in high school, that curiosity has dimmed, replaced by a mask of stress, sleeplessness and cynicism.
Pink Floyd sketched this transformation through their lyrics: “you’re just another brick in the wall, all in all it’s just another brick in the wall.”
The education system is a machine, taking us in at kindergarten and spitting us out in 12th grade, isolated and alone, feeling like just another stitch in the fabric of society. It strips us of our humanity and our individuality as we make our way through the factory; it reminds us at every turn that we are always replaceable.
Yet, we aren’t. We are unique individuals, with passions, motivations and intrinsic drives. We are not clones molded by the education system. We will never be replaceable. We are not “just another brick in the wall.” Let’s stop letting them tell us we are.
Buster Keaton was something of an enigma to his own era. The silent-film star launched himself between rooftops, battled storms and sand dunes, boarded moving vehicles – and frequently trailed behind them, perfectly horizontal and as suspended as our disbelief – all in the name of comedy, and all while seeming unfazed. Film historian Peter Kramer, in his essay The Makings of a Comic Star, contends that Keaton’s «deadpan performance was seen as a highly inappropriate response to the task of creating characters which were rounded and believable». His unrelenting imperturbability was misinterpreted as a lack of emotional expression, or perhaps acting skill.
Nowadays we applaud performances that exhibit this level of restraint, wowed by microscopic gestures that hint at subtext, but refuse to spell it out. As Slate’s movie critic and author Dana Stevens points out in Camera Man, a new biography-meets-cultural-history about Buster Keaton and the birth of the 20th Century, «[Keaton] was ahead of his time in many ways». It is exactly this prescience and timelessness that makes Buster Keaton a figure ripe for reference in contemporary performance. His type of minimalism, stoicism and lyricism transcended the 20th Century, and can be seen on-screen now perhaps more than ever.
Stevens cites Keaton’s «self-contained stillness» as his «secret weapon», and we can see its weaponisation in the opening sequence of The Cameraman (1928) in which Buster aspires to be a newsreel cameraman in order to impress a girl. As an excited crowd gathers, yelling and gesticulating, to celebrate and capture the marriage of two famous individuals, Buster is caught in the melee and squashed against the woman who will claim his heart. He is a picture of enraptured calm amid the clamour.
That calmness or stoicism, despite deep inner turmoil, is something that can also be located in Oscar Isaac’s critically-acclaimed performance in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Speaking to Scott Feinberg on the Awards Chatter podcast, Isaac reveals that the starting point for his singer-songwriter character Llewyn in The Coen Brothers’ folk music odyssey was indeed Buster Keaton. «I thought that was a great inspiration for me», says Isaac, who wanted to tap into what he calls a «comedy of resilience» and to adopt a facial expression that «doesn’t really change but has a melancholy to it». And so Isaac subtracted smiling from his arsenal of expressions to birth a character who is frustrated with the world and everyone in it.
But stillness isn’t blankness. As both Keaton and Isaac convey, a limited palette can still paint many colours. There is one scene in Inside Llewyn Davis during which Isaac’s sardonic melancholia feels particularly Keatonesque – although the entire sequence where he carries a cat onto the subway, his face glazed in faint irritation, before having to lurch after said feline on a crowded carriage, could be a silent comedy – and that’s the car ride with John Goodman’s Roland Turner. Llewyn rides up front with beat poet and valet Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund) and Goodman’s cocky, cane-toting jazz musician reclines in the backseat. Upon snoring himself awake he begins to prod Llewyn with both questions and cane. When he discovers that Llewyn is a Welsh name, and launches into a long and uninteresting story, Isaac’s face remains placid. But there is a perceptible smirk, a lick of the lips and a glance out the window that says: «this guy is unbelievable». Down the road and more deeply exasperated, Llewyn reveals that he’s a solo act «now» because his partner Mike «threw himself off the George Washington Bridge». There is barely a glimmer of grief, just a stony stare into the middle distance as Isaac’s big brown eyes concentrate on the road ahead, but still betray the sadness within.
That stare undeniably shares heritage with Keaton. In the book The Look of Buster Keaton, French film critic Robert Benayoun offers a series of insightful essays alongside strikingly rendered images of Keaton’s face, in which his solemnity is on full display. Benayoun posits that «the aim of every close-up» in a Keaton film was to «confront us with [his] gaze. When Buster stares at some unexpected obstacle, in the offscreen space overhead, his gaze makes that obstacle, surprise or danger, or marvel visible… Keaton was the comedian of deliberate attention, intense and dynamic reflection; we can see him thinking» – just as we can see Llewyn contemplating Mike in that car.
Isaac isn’t alone in exhibiting this trend towards minimalist acting, or what Shonni Enelow, an academic and author called «recessive aesthetics» in a 2016 article for Film Comment. Compared to Method performances, which functioned within a framework of «tension and release» and generated performances that were «feverish, agitated [and] on the edge of eruption», a remote performance is marked by tiny expressions, contained intensity and «a refusal of big reactions or loud moments». Enelow points to Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Rooney Mara in Carol and Michael B Jordan in Fruitvale Station, and offers up a reading of their «emotional withdrawal in these performances as a response to a violent or chaotic environment».
Keaton might have done it for laughs more than integrity, but he too saw the value in responding to unpredictable and dangerous events with a stoic shrug or exhalation. This minimalism is also surely part of the reason he’s endured. Critic and film historian Imogen Sara Smith points out that «the coolness and subtlety of his style [is] very cinematic in terms of recognising that the camera can pick up very, very small effects». That contemporary acting has become much more internalised and naturalised could be «the reason why he translates more [than other stars of his era] in terms of style of performance», posits Smith.
This recessive melancholy is equally visible in Awkwafina’s performance in Lulu Wang’s 2019 tragicomedy The Farewell. As The New Yorker observed, «[Awkwafina] gives a master class in hangdoggery«, as Chinese-born, US-raised Billi, who returns to Changchun after discovering that her grandma Nai-Nai has weeks to live. After Billi’s family decide not to tell Nai-Nai she’s dying, she is forced into a mode of repression. The contrivance of that composure can be seen in the fact that prior to and upon learning of Nai-Nai’s fate she is humorous, sassy and indignant. The shock of this news is etched all over her face, which doesn’t go unnoticed by her mother: «Look at you, you can’t hide your emotions». For the sake of her grandma, she learns how. As such, it differs from Keaton and Isaac’s mode of performance which is grounded in immutability.
However, Billi’s alienation in a culture that is both hers and not hers chimes with the way Keaton is often seen to be performing social conventions. Billi’s Uncle Haibin explains, «We’re not telling Nai-Nai because it’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her», and he chastises Billi and her father’s westernised desire to tell the truth. Billi finds herself having to adapt to eastern values, no matter how uncomfortable they make her. Likewise, Keaton frequently played into the «innocent abroad» archetype; naive in the ways of life and love. In Sherlock Jr (1924) he studies a manual How To Be a Detective, shadows a man and in doing so replicates his walk, and finally, when he gets a moment alone with his love interest in the projection room of a cinema, must look towards the actors on screen to figure out how to kiss her. There is an awareness of performance in Keaton’s persona and Sherlock Jr is just one instance where you see him modifying it according to what might be expected of him.
Similarly, Awkwafina moves between performance styles according to what is required of Billi, and there are moments of emotional release where she pivots into Method acting, as when Billi admits to her mother that as a child she was often «confused and scared because [her parents] never told [her] what was going on». But then she recedes and gives herself over to «hangdoggery». Keaton too gave a masterclass in that.
A less disputed element of Keaton’s performance style was his sheer athleticism or what Stevens describes as his «signature kineticism». Which brings me on to Adam Driver. I could point to his thoughtful repose in Paterson, his slapstick humour in Marriage Story or his deadpan delivery in The Dead Don’t Die as indicative of a Keaton-ness. However it was in last year’s macabre rock opera Annette, directed by Leos Carax, that Driver demonstrated a «full-bodied enthusiasm and physicality», as Little White Lies’ Hannah Strong put it, that more forcefully summoned the spirit of Keaton.
That skittish, unpredictable physicality is first apparent in Driver’s Henry McHenry, an aggressively macho comedian with a reputation for «mildly offensive» jokes, when he stalks on to stage (having just eaten a banana) to rapturous applause. Before long he has burst into song and is leaping and frolicking about with what IndieWire called «balletic precision», in a manner that resembles both Denis Lavant in Mauvais Sang (1986) and Keaton in Grand Slam Opera (a low-budget short he co-wrote and starred in for Educational Pictures in 1936).
Lucidity and precision
«The other thing that’s really distinctive about [Keaton],» explains Smith, «is this lucidity and precision». Although he was not a formally trained dancer, his acrobatics are full of the kind of rigour, lyricism and rhythm that any dancer would kill for. «Every little movement that he makes with his face or his body is very clear, but in a way that doesn’t feel mechanical,» continues Smith. «He had incredible control over everything he did.» It is unsurprising then, that there are several actor-dancers (including Lavant) who also simulate Keaton with their level of control.
The first person who comes to mind is Miranda July, who The New Yorker once described as having «the steely fragility of Buster Keaton», and who performs an abstract dance sequence in her 2011 sophomore feature The Future. The performance – made up of precise and sometimes melancholic bodily contortions – shares a lineage with the American dance company Pilobolus (I cannot claim to be the first to notice this) who take their name from a fungus that «propels itself with extraordinary strength, speed and accuracy».
The second person is Ariane Labed, a Greek-French actress for whom dance is a recurring feature: she was cast as a synchronised swimmer in the 2020 TV series Trigonometry, had the best moves in The Lobster’s silent disco, and schools us in the art of synchronised gesture during Attenberg’s semi-dance sequences. The director of the latter film, Athina Rachel Tsangari, unsurprisingly singled Keaton out, in an interview with Culture Whisper, as an inspiring «composer of human movement».
In Annette, there is a pivotal scene onboard a ship in which the narrative reaches an emotional crescendo. There is a storm brewing, and a drunken Henry (Driver) attempts to waltz with his wife Ann (played by Marion Cotillard) across the stern. Driver’s body now mirrors Keaton’s in its perpetual motion. Despite their difference in stature they are both industrious and powerful, and more than just the specificity of their movement, its effect is such that you are never quite sure what will happen next, or what they’re capable of. Moreover, they exert their physicality in a way that displays a tendency towards possessiveness and machismo. In The Cameraman (1928), Keaton kicks another man into a swimming pool for talking to his date. This anticipates a scene in which Henry wrestles a man known only as The Accompanist into his pool, having had suspicions that he posed a threat to the titular baby Annette.
The other aspect of physicality that Keaton and Driver share is their sex appeal. Returning to the words of Benayoun, he observes a sense of «the sublime in Keaton… He’s glamorous. He’s gorgeous. [He has a] sculptural sexiness». Not to gush too freely, but Driver is another such sublime specimen; a figure of extreme masculinity and muscularity. And what could be more glamorous than Henry McHenry riding his motorcycle, before kissing Ann with his helmet still on? Keaton and Driver have a commanding presence in common, and when they are on screen, you simply cannot take your eyes off them.
Keaton’s performance style is known for its deadpan execution. No matter the ridiculousness of the gag – he liked a banana skin as much as any comedian – his face remains a picture of steadfast seriousness. As Smith points out, it is this contrast between his «deadpan serenity [and] his body constantly [being] subjected to all these indignities [that is] the essence of him as a performer».
Filmmaker and comedian Richard Ayoade frequently channels Keatons deadpan-ness, and often cites him as a point of reference when working with actors. In a 2014 interview, Ayoade reveals that he had Jesse Eisenberg watch Buster Keaton’s films before starring in his sophomore feature The Double, feeling that they could demonstrate a «sense of someone acknowledging that everything bad that happens to them shouldn’t come as a surprise».
Deadpan delivery and that lack of surprise are also notable in Donald Glover’s acting. In Atlanta, the Emmy-winning comedy TV series about two cousins trying to work their way up in Georgia’s music industry, Glover (who created and co-writes the show) stars as Earn Marks, an aspiring talent manager who approaches life with a stone-cold sobriety. «Van’s dating other people, she’s going to kick me out of the house [and] I’m also broke,» sighs Earn in the pilot episode, as he explains his current situation with his baby’s mother to a colleague, with a subdued weariness.
Earn’s expressionlessness doesn’t mean that he’s devoid of emotion; when he hears his cousin Paper Boi’s new track on the radio – having got it into the hands of a producer – he breaks out into a genuine smile. Rather, it serves to underscore the absurdity of modern existence. He is no longer outraged or surprised when setbacks come his way. In the pilot, the biggest reaction he can muster when a white acquaintance drops «the n word» twice in conversation is mild offence. No matter what happens, be it a man on a bus feeding Earn a nutella sandwich or a pet alligator strolling out of his Uncle Willy’s house, there is a level of apathy to Earn’s deadpan response because on some level, he’s seen it all before. And like Keaton, he’s just trying to survive.
Keaton’s films have likewise been considered a response to the absurdity of modern existence. His characters endlessly invite and contend with calamity, existing in a world where structures – both mechanical and architectural – are in a constant state of precarity, and where the elements themselves (he is perpetually battling wind and rain) have turned against him. In the 1920 two-reel comedy One Week, Keaton and his new wife attempt to build a DIY house. They fail miserably. As Dana Stevens notes in Camera Man, «the resulting structure makes the cabinet of Dr Caligari look Grecian in its symmetry». After a freight train crashes through the building, they stick a «For Sale» sign in the rubble, and head for new pastures. You could just as easily see Keaton describing this character as homeless but «not real homeless» as when Earn defends his peripatetic living situation.
That said, there are of course other authors of this deadpan mode of expression who may well have influenced performers such as Glover. As Tina Post – an assistant professor at the University of Chicago specialising in racial performativity and deadpan aesthetics – asserts «the term [deadpan] precedes Buster Keaton or is coterminous with his rise». Post also points out that «the way that Keaton couples a blank expression with a bodily endurability is very much in line with American constructions of blackness.» Post is quick to point out that expanding the definition or lineage of deadpan isn’t a condemnation of Keaton himself, but rather a consideration of «the ways performatives move through American culture». Much as in the way the 20th Century’s benighted use of blackface has evolved to allow for its memorable subversion, or rather inversion, in the Teddy Perkins episode of Atlanta.
This chimes with the way Keaton himself has migrated through screen culture, ever accessible and influential, with aspects of his performance style being adopted, reacted to and modified in order to suit a range of bodies, genres and purposes. There is still no-one quite like Keaton: the tension and contradiction in his comedy is as unique now as it was in the 1920s. However, it feels safe to say that the restraint as well as the commitment present in these acclaimed, 21st-Century performances owe a debt to a filmmaker and performer who figured out not just how to take a camera apart and put it back together again, but what it was capable of capturing and expressing.
Critics like to create causes. If a pair of new Grover Cleveland biographies appears, we say that, with the prospect of a President returning to win a second term after having been defeated at the end of his first, who else would interest us more than the only President who has? In reality, the biographers started their work back when, and now is when the biographies just happen to be ready. And so it is with the appearance of two significant new books about the silent-film comedian Buster Keaton. We start to search for his contemporary relevance—the influence of silent-comedy short subjects on TikTok?—when the reason is that two good writers began writing on the subject a while ago, and now their books are here.
The truth is that Keaton’s prominence has receded, probably irretrievably, from where it stood half a century ago—a time when, if you were passionate about movies, you wore either the white rose of Keaton or the red rose of Chaplin and quarrelled fiercely with anyone on the other side. In Bertolucci’s wonderful movie about the Paris revolt of May, 1968, “The Dreamers,” two student radicals, French and American, nearly come to blows over the relative merits of Charlie and Buster: “Keaton is a real filmmaker. Chaplin, all he cares about is his own performance, his own ego!” “That’s bullshit!” “That’s not bullshit!” Meanwhile, Janis Joplin growls on the stereo behind them.
In a weird way, the terms of the quarrel derived from the German Enlightenment philosopher Gotthold Lessing’s search for the “essence” of each art form: poetry does time, sculpture does space, and so on. To the Keaton lovers, Chaplin was staginess, and therefore sentimentality, while Keaton was cinema—he moved like the moving pictures. Chaplin’s set pieces could easily fit onto a music-hall stage: the dance of the dinner rolls in “The Gold Rush” and the boxing match in “City Lights” were both born there imaginatively, and could have been transposed there. But Keaton’s set pieces could be made only with a camera. When he employs a vast and empty Yankee Stadium as a background for the private pantomime of a ballgame, in “The Cameraman,” or when he plays every part in a vaudeville theatre (including the testy society wives, the orchestra members, and the stagehands), in “The Play House,” these things could not even be imagined without the movies to imagine them in. The Keaton who created the shipboard bits in “The Navigator” or the dream scene in “Sherlock Jr.” was a true filmmaker rather than a film-taker, a molder of moving sequences rather than someone who pointed the camera at a stage set. (One could make similar claims for the superior cinematic instincts of Harold Lloyd, who tended to get dragged into these arguments in much the same way that the Kinks get dragged into arguments about the Beatles and the Stones—though Lloyd, like Ray Davies, was such a specialized taste that he could only extend, not end, an argument over the virtues of the other two.)
Take the long sequence toward the end of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928), in which Keaton, playing an effete, Boston-educated heir who rejoins his father, a short-tempered Southern steamboat captain, gets caught in a cyclone that pulverizes a small town. The episode is breathtaking in its audacity and poetry, an unexampled work of pure special-effects ballet. The houses explode, in a thousand shards of wood, as Keaton wanders among them. The moment when the façade of a house falls on Keaton, who is saved by a well-placed attic window, has been “memed” as the very image of a narrow escape. But it is merely an incident in a longer sequence that begins when the roof and walls of a hospital building are whisked away like a magician’s napkin; then a much bigger house falls on Keaton, who, accepting it neutrally, grabs a tree trunk and holds tight as it flies across town and into the river. Nothing like it had ever been seen in a theatre, or even imagined in a book, so specific are its syntax and realization to moving pictures.
How are we to share these glories in 2022? Fortunately, Cohen Films has produced mint-quality restorations of all the great movies, and Peter Bogdanovich’s last work, the 2018 documentary “The Great Buster,” is a terrific anthology of highlights. Even more fortunately, those two new books, each excellent in its way, are weirdly complementary in their completeness. James Curtis’s “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life” (Knopf) is an immense year-by-year, sometimes week-by-week, account of Keaton as an artist and a man. Every detail of his life and work is here, starting with his birth, in 1895, as Curtis painstakingly clarifies which of two potential midwives attended to the matter. (Mrs. Theresa Ullrich rather than Mrs. Barbara Haen, for the record.) His perpetually touring and performing parents, Joe and Myra, had been on the road when it happened, in the one-horse town of Piqua, Kansas. Curtis takes us through the progress of the brutal comedy act that Joe Keaton raised his son to star in; things were so hard at the turn of the century that at one point Harry Houdini, with whom the three Keatons shared a show, had to pretend to be the kind of psychic he despised in order to draw the rubes into the theatre. We even hear about gags that Buster Keaton helped invent for Abbott and Costello in his later, seemingly fallow, years.
Dana Stevens, in “Camera Man” (Atria), takes an original and, in a way, more distanced approach to Keaton. In place of a standard social history of silent comedy, much less a standard biography, Stevens offers a series of pas de deux between Keaton and other personages of his time, who shared one or another of his preoccupations or projects. It’s a new kind of history, making more of overlapping horizontal “frames” than of direct chronological history, and Stevens does it extraordinarily well.
Some of these pairings, to be sure, are more graceful than others. The comedienne Mabel Normand appears for the somewhat remote reason that Chaplin refused, early in his career, to be directed by her, a fact that’s taken as an index of the misogyny that reigned in the world of silent comedy. (The truth is that Chaplin, a once-in-a-century talent, routinely bullied anyone who tried to tell him what to do.) On the other hand, a chapter on Robert Sherwood and Keaton is genuinely illuminating. Sherwood, now forgotten despite four Pulitzers and an Oscar, was one of those writers whose lives reveal more about their time than do the lives of those writers gifted enough to exist outside their time. The author of well-made, well-meaning plays advancing progressive causes—he ended up as one of F.D.R.’s chief speechwriters—he championed Keaton, notably in the pages of Life, with acute discernment, a reminder that the categories of popular culture and serious art were remarkably permeable in the twenties. Just as Hart Crane was writing poetry about Chaplin when Chaplin was still only very partly formed, Sherwood recognized Keaton’s greatness almost before it seemed completely manifest. Writing about Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton in the early twenties, he maintained that their efforts “approximate art more closely than anything else that the movies have offered.” Sherwood even wrote a feature for Keaton, which, like James Agee’s attempt at writing a movie for Chaplin, proved unmakeable. Sherwood’s script got Keaton marooned high up in a skyscraper but couldn’t find a way of getting him down. When Keaton and Sherwood saw each other in later years, Sherwood promised to get him down, but never did.
Keaton seems to have been one of those comic geniuses who, when not working, never felt entirely alive. He fulfilled the Flaubertian idea of the artist as someone whose whole existence is poured into his art: the word “dull” crops up often as people remember him. Curtis is particularly good on the early years. Joseph Frank Keaton spent his youth in his parents’ knockabout vaudeville act; by the time he was eight, it basically consisted of his father, Joe, picking him up and throwing him against the set wall. Joe would announce, “It just breaks a father’s heart to be rough,” and he’d hurl Buster—already called this because of his stoicism—across the stage. “Once, during a matinee performance,” Curtis recounts, “he innocently slammed the boy into scenery that had a brick wall directly behind it.” That “innocently” is doing a lot of work, but all this brutality certainly conveyed a basic tenet of comedy: treating raw physical acts, like a kick in the pants, in a cerebral way is funny. “I wait five seconds—count up to ten slow—grab the seat of my pants, holler bloody murder, and the audience is rolling in the aisles,” Keaton later recalled. “It was The Slow Thinker. Audiences love The Slow Thinker.”
A quick mind impersonating the Slow Thinker: that was key to his comic invention. The slowness was a sign of a cautious, calculating inner life. Detachment in the face of disorder remained his touchstone. Of course, stoicism is one of the easier virtues to aspire to when your father has actually put a handle on your pants in order to ease the act of throwing you across a vaudeville proscenium, and it’s easy to see the brutality as the wound that drew the bow of art. But in this case the wound was the art; Keaton minded less the rough play than his increasingly drunken father’s refusal to let him out of the act long enough to go to school. He seems to have had exactly one day of public education.
In New York, the Keatons found themselves at war with city reformers who were evidently more passionate about keeping children off the vaudeville stage than about keeping them out of the sweatshop; arrests and court appearances ensued. After that, the family largely avoided New York, often retreating to the backwoods resort town of Muskegon, Michigan, the nearest thing young Buster ever had to a home. It was only when Joe started drinking too hard and got sloppy onstage that, in 1917, the fastidious Buster left him and went out on his own. It was the abuse of the art form that seemed to offend him.
In those days, young comedians were being swept off the stage and into the movies more or less the same way that garage bands were swept out of high-school gyms and into recording studios in the nineteen-sixties. Keaton fell in with Joseph Schenck, then a novice movie producer, who paired him with Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle in the equivalent of the John Belushi–Dan Aykroyd teaming, a “natural” comedian with a technical one. The partnership was an immediate success, starting with the two-reel short “The Butcher Boy” (1917), and was only briefly interrupted when Keaton was drafted and spent part of 1918 in France, having a good time serving in the Great War.
Keaton often credited Arbuckle with showing him how movies worked. But Schenck’s role was just as important. Anita Loos recalled him as someone who brings “forth the aroma of a special sort of smoked sturgeon that came from Barney Greengrass’s delicatessen”; and he and his brother, Nick, who later ran M-G-M, were cynosures among the generation of Russian Jews who dominated Hollywood for the next half century. Joseph Schenck was married to the film star Norma Talmadge; many dry-eyed observers thought that he was the trophy, and that Talmadge married him to keep the producer in her pocket.
Keaton’s early entry into the movies, after his almost complete isolation from a normal childhood, meant that he was really at home only within the world of his own invention. One gets the impression that he mainly lived for the choreography of movie moments, or “gags,” as they were unpretentiously called, though they were rather like Balanchine’s work, with scene and movement and story pressed together in one swoop of action. Keaton was not a reader, unlike Chaplin, who fell on Roget’s Thesaurus with the appetite of his own Tramp eating the shoe. Sex was of absent-minded importance for Keaton; his marriage to Norma Talmadge’s sister Natalie, in 1921, was apparently ceremonial and, after two children were born, celibate, at her mother’s insistence. Nor was he a family man; after they divorced, he hated losing custody of his kids, but it isn’t clear if he saw them much when he had them.
Around 1921, when false charges of rape and murder devastated Arbuckle’s career, Keaton was sympathetic, and then smoothly moved on, making solo movies. “He lives inside the camera,” as Arbuckle observed. Being anti-sentimental to the point of seeming coldhearted was at the core of his art. “In our early successes, we had to get sympathy to make any story stand up,” he said once, in a rare moment of reflection. “But the one thing that I made sure—that I didn’t ask for it. If the audience wanted to feel sorry for me, that was up to them. I didn’t ask for it in action.” Life dished it out, and Keaton’s character just had to take it.
Critics have drawn a connection between the Arbuckle scandal and Keaton’s short comedy “Cops” (1922), made between Arbuckle’s trials, in which Keaton, having been caught accidentally tossing an anarchist bomb, is chased across Los Angeles by hundreds of police officers. This is the kind of conjecture that shows little understanding of the way that artists work, rather like the belief that Picasso’s barbed-wire portraits of Dora Maar, in the nineteen-forties, are protests against the Occupation, rather than a product of his own obsessive imagery. “Cops” is not about false accusation; it’s about the massed comic power of regimented men in motion, uniform action in every sense. Pure artists like Keaton work from their own obsessions, with editorials attached awkwardly afterward.
His first feature, no surprise, was a movie about a movie, an ambitious parody of D. W. Griffith’s legendary epic “Intolerance” (1916), in which Keaton’s sister-in-law Constance Talmadge had appeared. His “Three Ages,” seven years later, stowed together three parallel stories—one Stone Age, one Roman, and one modern—and mocked both Griffith’s cosmic ambitions and his cross-century editing scheme. The caveman comedy is the same as all caveman comedies (Keaton has a calling card inscribed on a stone, etc.), but the Roman sequences are done with even more panache than Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, Part I.” Soon, Keaton was earning a thousand dollars a week, and becoming so rich that he, the boy who never had a home, built his wife a wildly extravagant faux Italian villa.
Dana Stevens takes up the really big question: What made Keaton’s solo work seem so modern? Just as “Cops” can be fairly called Kafkaesque in its juxtaposition of the unfairly pursued hero and the implacable faceless forces of authority, there are moments throughout “Sherlock Jr.” (1924) when Keaton achieves the Surrealist ambition to realize dreams as living action. Sequences like the one in which Keaton seems to step directly into the movie-house screen, and leaps from scene to scene within the projection in perfectly edited non sequiturs, make the Surrealist cinema of Buñuel and Maya Deren seem studied and gelatinous.
Stevens argues that Keaton’s art was informed by the same social revolutions as the European avant-garde: “The pervasive sense of anxiety and dislocation, of the need to reinvent the world from the ground up, that groups like the Surrealists or the Bloomsbury authors sought to express in images and words, the human mop-turned-filmmaker expressed in the comic movement of his body.” But Keaton also looks surreal because the Surrealists were feeding off the same sources as Keaton was, in circus and vaudeville and the music hall and stage magic. The Cubists, the Dadaists, and the Surrealists all had the sense that, as bourgeois pieties had grown increasingly meaningless, the only grammar from which one could construct a credible art was that of farce. So those clowns and comic artists who held down the tradition of burlesque and nonsense comedy were, willy-nilly, the modernist’s dream brothers.
And then, in a modernist way, Keaton’s movies very often are about the movies, which was a natural outgrowth of his single-minded absorption in his chosen medium. In “Sherlock Jr.,” he plays a dreamy projectionist who falls into his own films, and in “The Cameraman” (1928) the joke is that Keaton’s character accidentally makes newsreels filled with camera tricks, double exposures, speeded-up time, and backward movement. Even that great cyclone scene in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is meant not to provide an illusion of reality but to show off the possibilities of artifice.
Keaton’s subject, in a larger sense, is the growth of technology and the American effort to tame it. There is scarcely a classic Keaton film of the twenties that doesn’t involve his facing, with affection or respect more often than terror, one or another modern machine: the movie camera, the submarine, the open roadster. Throughout “The Navigator” (1924), he looks uncannily like Wilbur Wright in the Lartigue portrait. Keaton seems, in the combined integrity and opportunism of his persona, to explain how those alarming machines emerge from an older American culture of tinkerers and bicycle repairmen.
Keaton’s greatest work was made in the five years between “Three Ages” (1923) and “The Cameraman.” “The General” (1926), the first of Keaton’s features to enter the National Film Registry, was—surprisingly, to those who think of it as Keaton’s acknowledged masterpiece—a critical flop. A carefully plotted Civil War tale, more adventure story than comic spoof, it shared the typical fate of such passion projects: at first a baffling failure, for which everyone blames the artist, and which does him or her immense professional damage, it then gets rediscovered when the passion is all that’s evident and the financial perils of the project don’t matter anymore. Nobody questioned Keaton’s decision to make it, since the movies he had made in the same system had all been profitable. But businessmen, understandably, hate trusting artists and waiting for the product, and are always looking for an excuse to impose a discipline the artists lack. It takes only one bomb to bring the accountants down on the head of the comedian. Stevens, comparing the film to Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” writes, “The General was less a cause than a symptom of the end of a certain way of making movies. The independent production model that for ten years had allowed Buster the freedom to make exactly the movies he wanted . . . was collapsing under its own weight.” The thing that baffled its detractors (even Sherwood didn’t like it) and, at first, repelled audiences was the thing that seems to us now daring and audacious: the seamless mixture of Keaton’s comedy with its soberly realistic rendering of the period. No American movie gives such a memorable evocation of the Civil War landscape, all smoky Southern mornings and austere encampments—a real triumph of art, since it was shot in Oregon. Many of the images, like one of a short-barrelled cannon rolling alone on the railroad, put one in mind of Winslow Homer.
Two years later, in a studio sleight of hand so sneaky that Curtis spends a page and a half figuring out what the hell happened, Keaton became the subject of a baseball-style trade, in which Joe Schenck had Keaton transferred from United Artists to his brother Nick, at M-G-M. That gave M-G-M a cleanup-hitter comedian—United Artists already had Chaplin—while making sure that, post-“General,” Keaton would be more closely supervised by M-G-M’s boy genius, Irving Thalberg. Chaplin tried to warn Keaton off M-G-M. “Don’t let them do it to you, Buster,” he said. “It’s not that they haven’t smart showmen there. They have some of the country’s best. But there are too many of them, and they’ll all try to tell you how to make your comedies.” Keaton’s passivity made him reluctant to heed the warning, and off he went, Schenck to Schenck.
The mostly disastrous years that Keaton spent at M-G-M are the real subject of Stevens’s chapter on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Thalberg will always have his defenders, but once one gets past the “quality” films he sponsored, it becomes clear what a con artist he was. He sold one observer after another—including Fitzgerald, who took him as the model for his idealized “last tycoon,” Monroe Stahr—on the subtlety of his intellect, while everything he did revealed him to be the most ruthless kind of commercial-minded cynic. Thalberg robbed the Marx Brothers of their anarchy and Keaton of his elegance, turning him, as Stevens complains, into a mere stock rube figure. The Thalberg system tended to work well for an artist just once—as in both the Marxes’ and Keaton’s first films for M-G-M, “A Night at the Opera” and “The Cameraman.” But Thalberg didn’t grasp what had actually worked: the expensive style of the production, pitting the Marxes against the pomposity of opera, and placing Keaton against a full-scale location shoot in New York City. What Thalberg thought worked was schlock imposed on genius: big production numbers for the Marxes and unrequited-love rube comedy for Keaton. In many subsequent movies, at M-G-M and elsewhere, his character was named Elmer (and once even Elmer Gantry), to typify him as a backwoods yokel.
The M-G-M comedies did decently at the box office, but Keaton, an artist injured by the persistent insults to his artistic intelligence, started to drink hard, and soon the drinking drowned out that intelligence. The actress Louise Brooks recalls him driving drunk to the studio, where he silently destroyed a room full of glass bookshelves with a baseball bat. She sensed his message: “I am ruined, I am trapped.” In 1933, he was fired by Louis B. Mayer, essentially for being too smashed, on and off the set, to work. Keaton’s M-G-M experience, despite various efforts by Thalberg and others to keep his career alive as a gag writer, ruined his art. The next decades are truly painful to read about, as Keaton went in and out of hospitals and clinics, falling off the wagon and then sobering up again. His brother-in-law, the cartoonist Walt Kelly, recalls that “nobody really wanted to put him under control because he was a lot of fun.” What we perhaps miss, in accounts of the boozers of yore, is an adequate sense of how much fun they all thought they were having. Drunks of that period could not be shaken from the conviction that they were having a good time until they were hauled off to the hospital.
As Curtis establishes, when Keaton did dry out, by the nineteen-fifties, he had much better later years than the public image suggests. That image persists; a recent, impassioned French documentary titled “Buster Keaton: The Genius Destroyed by Hollywood” maintains that “in just a few years he went from being a worldwide star to a washed-up artist with no future.” Curtis makes it clear that this assertion is wildly exaggerated. Keaton did as well as could have been hoped. But the notion that sound killed off the silent comedians is one of those ideas which, seeming too simple to be true, are simply true. Chaplin endured because he had money and independence, but even he made only two more comedies in the thirties; Harry Langdon was ruined and Harold Lloyd kept his money and withdrew.
Keaton did have to undergo a certain amount of whatever-happened-to humiliation; he is one of Gloria Swanson’s bridge party of silent has-beens in “Sunset Boulevard.” In tribute after tribute, he was condescendingly associated with custard-pie-throwing comedies of a kind he had almost never made. But he was properly valued in France, had successful seasons at the Medrano Circus, and worked ceaselessly as a gag man, even inventing an entire routine for Lucille Ball that became part of the pilot for “I Love Lucy.”
His most famous late appearance was alongside Chaplin in “Limelight” (1952), Chaplin’s last interesting movie, in which they play two down-on-their-luck vaudevillians. Claire Bloom, who played the ingénue, recalls that, in twenty-one days of shooting, Keaton spoke to her exactly once, when showing her a tourist-type photograph of a beautiful Beverly Hills house. He told her that it had once been his home, then fell silent. This seems sad, but Curtis also evokes him watching the camerawork and helping direct Chaplin: “It’s okay, Charlie. You’re right in the center of the shot. Yeah, you’re fine, Charlie. It’s perfect.” Even when he was too frail to run or move much, as in the 1966 film “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” made a year before his death, and directed by his idolater Richard Lester, his face was a beacon not merely of endurance but of a kind of lost American integrity, the integrity of the engineer and the artisan and the old-style vaudeville performer.
Two kinds of American comedy made themselves felt in the first half of the twentieth century: the comedy of invasion and the comedy of resistance. The first was the immigrant comedy of energy, enterprise, mischief, and mayhem. The Marx Brothers are supreme here, but Chaplin, who, although an immigrant of the Cockney rather than the Cossacks-fleeing variety, could play the Jewish arrival brilliantly, and the immigrant-comedy vein runs right up to Phil Silvers’s Sergeant Bilko, swindling the simpleton officers at the Army base. In response comes the comedy of old-American resistance to all that explosive energy, struggling to hold on to order and decency and gallantry. It’s exemplified by W. C. Fields’s efforts to sleep on his sleeping porch in “It’s a Gift,” while the neighborhood around him refuses to quiet down. The division extends even to the written humor of the period, with S. J. Perelman the cynical navigator and commercial participant in the endless ocean of American vulgarity, and James Thurber wistfully watching from Manhattan as the old values of the republic pass away in Columbus.
Keaton is the stoical hero of the comedy of resistance, the uncomplaining man of character who sees the world of order dissolving around him and endures it as best he can. (In “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” it’s the nostalgic world of the river steamboat; in “The General,” it is, for good or ill, the Old South.) Keaton’s characters have character. They never do anything remotely conniving. And the one thing Keaton never does is mug. There are moments in all his best features, in fact, that anticipate the kind of Method acting that didn’t come into fashion for another generation, as when he impassively slips to the ground beside the girl in the beginning of “The Cameraman,” registering the act of falling in love by the tiniest of increments. The best thing in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” might be a bit of acting so subtle that one wonders whether people got it at the time. Under suspicion of sexual instability—“If you say what you’re thinking I’ll strangle you!” the title card has the captain saying bluntly to a friend, after watching his son caper with his ukulele—Bill, Jr., is compelled by his father to throw away his Frenchified beret, and try on a sequence of American hats. Keaton doesn’t attempt, as Chaplin might have, to adopt a distinct persona in each hat but actually does what we do in front of a clothing-store mirror: he wears his trying-on face, testing a daring expression, sampling the aesthetic effect of each hat for the sake of his vanity while trying not to offend his father by seeming too much the hat aesthete. Somehow he is both preening and hiding. It’s an amazing moment of pure performance, and every bit as “cinematic”—showing what extreme closeups can do—as the big special-effects sequences.
“Though there is a hurricane eternally raging about him, and though he is often fully caught up in it, Keaton’s constant drift is toward the quiet at the hurricane’s eye,” the critic Walter Kerr observed of Keaton. What remains most in one’s memory after an immersion in Keaton are the quiet, uncanny shots of him in seclusion, his sensitive face registering his own inwardness. In this way, maybe there is some relevance in a Keaton revival today. Critics may invent their causes, but sometimes a good critical book, or two, can create a cause that counts. Chaplin is a theatrical master and needs a theatre to make his mark. His movies play much, much better with an audience present. Keaton can be a solitary entertainment, seen with as much delight on a computer screen as in a movie palace—rather as our taste for the great humanist sacrament of the symphony depends in some part on having open concert halls, while chamber music has whispered right throughout the pandemic. Keaton is the chamber-music master of comedy, with the counterpoint clear and unmuddied by extraneous emotion. It may be that our new claustrophobia is mirrored in his old comedy. The hospital has blown away, and that house has fallen on us all.
Best known for his tragicomic character «The Little Tramp,» Charlie Chaplin revolutionized cinema, both during the silent era and the talkies. Almost a century later, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Kid, and The Great Dictator are still considered essential cinematic works. His writing, producing, directing, acting, and scoring of his own films received just as much attention as his controversial personal life. The London-born Chaplin had a penchant for marrying teenage women, and ended up fathering 11 children. Though his outspoken political views would eventually force him out of America for good in 1952, Chaplin’s Hollywood legacy still burns brightly. Here are 10 facts about the legendary filmmaker, who was born on this day in 1889.
1. HE COLLABORATED WITH A FEMALE FILMMAKER (WHICH WAS A RARITY IN THOSE DAYS).
Mabel Normand was a silent film actress as well as a writer, producer, and director—which was unusual for the mid-1900s. She starred in 12 films with Charlie Chaplin, including 1914’s Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which marked the onscreen debut of Chaplin’s The Tramp character (though Mabel’s Strange Predicament was filmed first and technically was his first Tramp appearance, it was released two days after Kid Auto Races at Venice, the actual film debut of the character). She also directed Chaplin in 1914’s Caught in a Cabaret and the pair co-directed and starred in Her Friend the Bandit, which was released the same year.
2. HE CO-FOUNDED A BIG-TIME MOVIE STUDIO.
In 1919, Chaplin and fellow filmmakers Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith formed United Artists as a means to finance their own movies so that they could retain creative control. The first film released under the new studio was 1919’s His Majesty, the American, starring Fairbanks. The studio took off and eventually branched out to build a chain of movie theaters. But in 1955, with movie attendance at a new low, Chaplin sold his shares. UA released the first James Bond movie in 1963. Today, MGM is UA’s parent company.
3. HE COMPOSED THE MUSIC FOR MANY OF HIS FILMS.
Beginning with 1931’s City Lights, Chaplin composed scores for his films’ soundtracks. His song “Smile,” used in Modern Times, became a classic. In 1954, Nat King Cole’s version—now with lyrics—peaked at number 10 on the Billboard charts. Michael Jackson also recorded a cover. Chaplin won his only competitive Oscar in 1973 for composing the theme to his 1952 film Limelight(the film wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1972).
4. HE WAS A PERFECTIONIST.
There was a reason Chaplin did everything himself: perfectionism. When he worked on his short film The Immigrant, Chaplin shot 40,000 feet of film, which was a lot for a 20-minute short. Chaplin cast actress Virginia Cherrill in City Lights to say just two words, “Flower, sir,” but he forced her to repeat them for 342 takes. “He knew exactly what he wanted and he would have preferred not to have any other actors in his films—he even tried making a film once where he was the only person in it,” Hooman Mehran, author of Chaplin’s Limelight and the Music Hall Tradition, told CNN.
5. HE WAS EMBROILED IN A NASTY—AND GROUNDBREAKING—PATERNITY SUIT.
In the 1940s, actress Joan Berry was allegedly having an affair with Chaplin. At one point, he invited Berry to travel from L.A. to New York City. While in New York, she spent time with Chaplin and claimed that the director “made her available to other individuals for immoral purposes.” This violated the Mann Act, in which a person isn’t allowed to cross state lines for depraved behavior.
When, in 1943, Berry gave birth to a daughter, she stated that Chaplin was the father—a charge he adamantly denied. Though blood tests confirmed that Chaplin was not the father, because the tests weren’t admissible in California courts, he had to endure two separate trials. Despite the blood evidence saying otherwise, the jury concluded that Chaplin was the father. Not only was his reputation ruined, but he also had to pay child support. On the bright side, the ruling helped reform state paternity laws.
6. HE ACCEPTED HIS 1972 HONORARY OSCAR IN PERSON.
In 1952, because of his alleged Communist politics, the U.S. denied Chaplin re-entry to the United States after he traveled to London for the premiere of his film Limelight. Incensed, he moved his family to Switzerland and vowed he’d never return to Hollywood. But 20 years later, possibly to make up for his exile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored the 82-year-old Chaplin with an honorary Oscar (his second of three). Chaplin attended the ceremony and received an enthusiastic standing ovation. When he finally spoke, he said, “Thank you for the honor of inviting me here. You’re all wonderful, sweet people.”
7. A RUSSIAN NAMED A MINOR PLANET AFTER HIM.
In 1981, Russian astronomer Lyudmila Georgievna Karachkina, who has discovered more than 100 minor planets, named one of them after the legendary director: 3623 Chaplin.
8. THERE’S AN ANNUAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN FILM FESTIVAL.
In the 1960s, Chaplin and his family enjoyed spending summers in the village of Waterville, located on the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. In 2011 the town founded the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival, which is held each August. (A bronze statue of him resides in town.) The festival features a short film competition with categories like Chaplins of the Future. Last year the fest tried to break the Guinness World Record of the largest gathering of people dressed as Chaplin.
9. HIS FORMER HOME IN SWITZERLAND WAS CONVERTED INTO A MUSEUM.
On April 16, 2016—what would’ve been his 127th birthday—Chaplin’s World, a museum dedicated to the filmmaker’s life and work, opened in his former home in Switzerland. The museum has welcomed around 300,000 visitors in its first year. Visitors can see his home, the Manoir de Ban, at Corsier-sur-Vevey, by Lake Geneva. The estate also houses a studio where his movies are screened, wax figures, recreations of some of his film set pieces, and a restaurant named The Tramp.
10. THIEVES GRAVE-ROBBED CHAPLIN’S BODY AND HELD IT FOR RANSOM.
Even in death, Chaplin created controversy. Chaplin died on Christmas Day 1977 and was interred near his home in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. Almost three months after his death, on March 2, 1978, his widow, Oona Chaplin, received a call from the police saying, “somebody dug up the grave and he’s gone,” Eugene Chaplin told The Independent.
The thieves demanded $600,000 to return the body. Oona tapped the phone lines, which led authorities to the two men, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev. They confessed to the crime and showed the police Chaplin’s body, which they buried in a cornfield near his original gravesite. The men went to jail, but not before writing “I’m sorry” letters to Oona, who forgave them.
It’s hardly surprising that Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was banned in Germany, and in every country occupied by Germany, in 1940. A film that mocked Adolf Hitler was never going to be the Nazi High Command’s first choice of Friday night entertainment. The more surprising thing, from today’s perspective, is that Chaplin was warned that it might not be shown in Britain or the US, either. Britain’s appeasement policy kept going until March 1939, and the US didn’t enter World War Two until December 1941, a year after The Great Dictator was released, so when Chaplin was scripting and shooting the film – his first proper talkie – colleagues at the studio he co-owned were afraid that no government would let it be seen.
«I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists,» he wrote in his autobiography. «They had been advised… that I would run into censorship trouble. Also the English office was very concerned about an anti-Hitler picture and doubted whether it could be shown in Britain. More worrying letters came from the New York office imploring me not to make the film, declaring it would never be shown in England or America.»
But Chaplin wouldn’t be dissuaded. He knew that The Great Dictator was worth making, and, sure enough, it was a box office smash: 1941’s second biggest hit in the US. On the 80th anniversary of the film’s release, Chaplin’s prescience is even more startling. The Great Dictator is a masterpiece that isn’t just a delightful comedy and a grim agitprop drama, but a spookily accurate insight into Hitler’s psychology. «He was a visionary,» said Costa-Gavras, the Greek-French doyen of political cinema, in a making-of documentary. «He saw the future while the leaders of the world couldn’t see it, and remained on Hitler’s side.»
What’s even more remarkable is that Chaplin didn’t just capture Hitler, but every dictator who has followed in his goose steps. «It resonated at the time, and it continues to resonate,» says Simon Louvish, the author of Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey. If you want to see a crystalline reflection of the 21st Century’s despots, you’ll find it in a film that came out 80 years ago.
A serious message
By the time Chaplin made The Great Dictator, he had long despised the Nazis, and vice versa. A German propaganda film denounced him as one of «the foreign Jews who come to Germany» – never mind that he wasn’t Jewish – while the US press nicknamed him «The 20th-Century Moses» because he funded the escape of thousands of Jewish refugees. When he started work on the film initially titled «The Dictator», he was «a man on a mission», says Louvish. «Some of his contemporaries, like Laurel and Hardy, just wanted to make funny movies and make money. But Chaplin was very serious about what he wanted to say. The Great Dictator wasn’t just a film. It really was something that was required.»
Still, Chaplin was motivated by more than humanitarianism. He was also fascinated by his uncanny connections to Hitler, who was born in the same week as he was in April 1889. A comic song about the Führer, recorded by Tommy Handley in 1939, was entitled «Who Is That Man…? (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin)». An editorial in The Spectator magazine, marking the men’s 50th birthdays, explored the theme in more depth: «Providence was in an ironical mood when… it was ordained that Charles Chaplin and Adolf Hitler should make their entry into the world within four days of each other… The date of their birth and the identical little moustache (grotesque intentionally in Mr Chaplin) they wear might have been fixed by nature to betray the common origin of their genius. For genius each of them undeniably possesses. Each has mirrored the same reality – the predicament of the ‘little man’ in modern society. Each is a distorting mirror, the one for good, the other for untold evil.»
It was Alexander Korda, the Hungarian-born British producer, who suggested that Chaplin should capitalise on the similarity, but it was obvious that an entire film of the former «Little Tramp» as a frothing tyrant would be too much for audiences to take, and so Chaplin opted to play two roles. He would be Adenoid Hynkel, the autocratic ruler of Tomainia, and he would be a humble, amnesiac, unnamed «Jewish Barber». An opening caption announces: «Any Resemblance Between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish Barber is Purely Co-Incidental.»
Inevitably, this coincidental resemblance results in the two men being mistaken for one another, but not until the film’s climax. The Barber is hustled onto a stage where his doppelganger was due to make a speech, and Chaplin delivers a sincere five-minute plea for decency and brotherhood that either spoils the film (in the view of the Pulitzer-winning critic Roger Ebert) or elevates it further still: «More than machinery, we need humanity! More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness!» For most of the running time, though, Chaplin cuts between the two characters’ separate storylines, so that we can never forget either the victims of Nazi persecution or the man responsible for it. In the ghetto, the gentle Barber romances a defiant washerwoman, Hannah, who is played by Chaplin’s wife at the time, Paulette Godard. (The scene in which Storm Troopers pelt Hannah with the tomatoes they have just stolen from a grocer’s shop is the most infuriating portrait of cowardly bullying imaginable.) Meanwhile, in his palace, Hynkel – aka the Phooey rather than the Führer – frets about how to outmanoeuvre his Mussolini-like rival, Benzino Napaloni.
Both strands are so bold that they make most big-screen satire seem feeble in comparison. In Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, which came out in 1942, the word «Jew» is never spoken. Chaplin isn’t so coy. Central to the ghetto scenes is the fact that «Jew» has been daubed on all of the windows in capital letters. When the Barber tries to wipe off the paint, he is chased by Storm Troopers in sequences that recall Buster Keaton dodging crowds of policemen in Cops. But in this case, one such sequence concludes with the Storm Troopers throwing a noose around the Barber’s neck and hanging him from a lamp post. He is saved at the last second, but still, the speed with which Chaplin flips between slapstick and horror is breathtaking. It’s also worth noting that the Storm Troopers don’t have German accents – or even upper-crust English accents, as so many Nazis would in later Hollywood films. Most of them sound American.
In Hynkel’s palace, the comedy is lighter and more farcical. Chaplin sketches a caricature of European political shenanigans in the zany tradition of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. (Jack Oakie’s Napaloni is the kind of hearty Italian wise guy played by Chico Marx.) The dictator’s crimes aren’t ignored: on a whim, Hynkel orders 3000 protesters to be executed. But Chaplin concentrates on the character’s vanity, stupidity and childishness. In one throwaway visual gag, the towering filing cabinet behind his desk is shown to have no drawers at all, but several concealed mirrors instead. When Napaloni pays a state visit from the neighbouring country of Bacteria, the two men compete to have the higher chair while they are being shaved, and to have the more flattering position when they are being photographed.
The message is that Hynkel is not a brilliant strategist or a mighty leader. He is an overgrown adolescent – as demonstrated in the sublime set piece in which he dances with an inflatable globe, dreaming of being «emperor of the world». He is an insecure buffoon who bluffs, cheats, obsesses over his public image, manhandles his secretaries, revels in the luxury of his extravagant quarters, and reverses his own key policies in order to buy himself more time in power. «To me, the funniest thing in the world is to ridicule impostors,» wrote Chaplin in his autobiography, «and it would be hard to find a bigger impostor than Hitler.»
Hynkel’s anti-Semitic rants (consisting of cod-German punctuated by shouts of «Juden») are terrifying, but there is no conviction behind them, just a desperate need to distract the Tomainians from his economic failures. As his urbane sidekick and Goebbels substitute, Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), says: «Violence against the Jews might take the public’s mind off its stomach.»
The film has been accused of trivialising Nazi atrocities. Chaplin himself said, in his autobiography, «Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.» But he isn’t just making fun of Hitler – as Mel Brooks did in The Producers in 1967 – he is making an astute point about the fragile egos of male world leaders.
Think of today’s dictators and would-be dictators, in any country, and you can spot all the juvenile qualities that Chaplin identified: the fetish for photo opportunities, the lavish lifestyles, the policy flip-flops and the crackpot schemes, the self-aggrandising parades and the chests full of medals: Billy Gilbert’s Herring, ie. Göring, has so many medals pinned to his uniform that Hynkel has to turn him sideways to find room for the latest addition. Hitler was at the peak of his power when The Great Dictator was being made, but Chaplin had already recognised that, as with every subsequent dictator, his villainy was bound up with his immaturity.
According to biographer Jürgen Trimborn, much of the film was inspired by a screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Hitler documentary, Triumph of the Will, at the New York Museum of Modern Art. While other viewers were appalled, Chaplin roared with laughter at the ridiculous spectacle. This attitude sustained him when he was urged to abandon The Great Dictator. «I was determined to go ahead,» he wrote in his autobiography, «for Hitler must be laughed at.»
What Charlie Chaplin Got Right About Satirizing Hitler
The Great Dictator—Charlie Chaplin’s masterful satire of Adolf Hitler—began filming in September 1939, right at the start of World War II. By the time it was released in 1940, the Axis had been formed, and Nazis were already occupying much of France. The threat was not at all abstract: critic Michael Wood notes that the movie premiered that December, in London, amid German air raids. The following December, of 1941, would yield its own devastating threats from the air—this time on American soil, which would clarify for Americans the realness of this war by bringing it home.
It was, in other words, a strange moment to be making a comedy about Adolf Hitler—even a satire holding him to account, and even one in which Chaplin himself, who was at that point one of the most famous movie stars in the world, famous for playing the ambling, lovable Little Tramp, took on the role of Hitler. In 1940, Germany and the US had yet to become enemies; feathers, it was worried, would be ruffled by a movie like this. But Chaplin was already unwittingly bound up in the era’s iconographies of evil. His likeness, the Little Tramp, with that curt mustache and oddly compact face of his, had already become a visual reference for cartoonists lampooning Hitler in the press. And he was already on the Nazis’ radar: the 1934 Nazi volume The Jews Are Looking At You referred to him as «a disgusting Jewish acrobat.» Chaplin wasn’t Jewish. But he was frequently rumored to be. And when he visited Berlin in 1931, he was mobbed by German fans, proving that his popularity could surpass even the growing ideological boundaries of a nascent Nazi Germany—hence their hatred.
Chaplin was aware of all of this—and of the fact that he and Hitler were born only four days apart, in April of 1889, that they had both risen out of poverty, and that they had enough points of biographical comparison, overall, to spook any sane person. Let’s not overstate their similarities: One of these men would go on to make the world laugh, and the other would go on to start a world war and facilitate the Holocaust. Humorously, that split would come to be echoed in The Great Dictator. Chaplin does double duty, playing the movie’s two central roles. One, the character of Adenoid Hynkel, is a Hitler spoof by way of a short-tempered and preposterously powerful personality, a dictator of the fictional country Tomainia. And in the opposing corner, Chaplin offers us a variation on his classic Little Tramp, a Jewish barber who saves a high-ranking officer’s life in World War I and, after a plane accident and years of recovery in the hospital, wakes up to the seeds of World War II being sewn in his country.
The Great Dictator is a classic for a reason. It’s startling in its depictions of violence, which stand out less for their outright brutality than for how memorably they depict the Nazis’ betrayal of everyday humanity. And it’s renowned as well as for its resourceful and original humor, which combines Chaplin at his most incisive and balletic with raucous displays of verbal wit. This was Chaplin’s first sound film; his previous feature, the 1936 masterpiece Modern Times, was by the time of its release considered almost anachronistic for being a silent film in a sound era. Dictator avails itself of this technological progress, making perhaps its most successful bit out of the way Hitler speaks, the melange of rough sounds and brutish insinuations that have long made footage from his rallies as fascinating as they are frightening.
The Great Dictator understands Hitler as a performer, as an orator wielding language like the unifying, galvanizing power that it is. But it also understands him as a psyche. This of course means it’s full of what feel like sophomoric jokes, gags in which Hitler’s insecurities, his thirst for influence, his ideological inconsistencies (an Aryan revolution led by a brunette?) and zealous dependency on loyalty come under fire. It isn’t a psychological portrait, but nor is it so simple as a funhouse treatment of the coming war, all punchline and distortion.
It’s all a bit richer than that, which might be why The Great Dictator is on my mind this week, as we greet the release of Taiki Waititi’sJojo Rabbit, a movie in which Waititi himself plays Adolf Hitler, not quite in the flesh, but rather as imagined by a little Nazi boy who’s fashioned him into an imaginary friend. I’m not crazy about Waititi’s movie, which is less a satire than a vehicle for unchallenged moral goodness in the face of only barely-confronted evil. But it does, like Chaplin’s film, nosedive into the same problems of representation and comedy that have plagued movies since early in Hitler’s reign. Should we satirize genocidal maniacs? Can we laugh at that? And if so, can the line we usually toe between comedic pleasure and moral outrage—a mix that comes easily to comedy, in the best of cases—withstand something so inconceivable a mass atrocity?
That Chaplin’s movie succeeds where Waititi’s fails is a fair enough point, but comparing most comedians’ work to Chaplin’s more often than not results in an unfair fight. What matters are the things we can all still learn from Chaplin’s work, down to the fact that it so completely and unabashedly honors and toys with the public’s sense of who he is. This wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a movie if the Jewish barber hadn’t so readily recalled the Little Tramp. But because of this familiarity, The Great Dictator feels much the way movies like Modern Times did: like a story about the travails of an every-man who’s suddenly, with no preparation, launched headlong into machinery too great, too complex, too utterly beyond him, for it not to result in comic hi-jinks.
That’s the how barber’s first scenes out of the hospital, as beautifully staged and timed by Chaplin, feel: like watching the Little Tramp turn a corner and walk, completely unaware, into a world war. He sees «Jew» written on his barbershop, for example, but because he’s an amnesiac just released from the hospital, he has no idea why it’s there, and starts to wash it away. This is illegal, of course, and when the Nazis try to tell them so, he, thinking they’re run-of-the-mill brutish anti-Semites, douses them with paint and runs away. Much of the humor, at least in the clearly-marked «Ghetto,» where the Barber lives, plays out this way: a terrifying game of comic irony in which what the Barber doesn’t know both empowers and threatens to kill him.
The Hitler scenes, by contrast, are a ballet—at times almost literally—of alliances and petty tasks. The highlight must of course be a scene of Hitler alone, having just renewed his faith in his plan to take over the world, dancing with an inflated globe of the planet, bouncing it off his bum, posing like a pin-up on his desk as the globe floats airlessly skyward. You can’t help but laugh. But that laughter doesn’t mute the brooding danger of it. You see the globe, the ease with which he lifts it up, manipulates it, makes a game of it, and realize that this is precisely what a dictator wants. It’s a guileless and child-like vision, from his perspective, of his own power.
The Great Dictator’s famous climax finds these two men merging, somewhat, into one. It’s a rousing speech ostensibly delivered by the Jewish barber, who (for reasons best left to the movie to explain) has been confused for Hynkel by the Nazis and is called upon to speak to the masses. And then he opens his mouth—and the man that emerges is Chaplin himself, creeping beyond the boundaries of character, satire, or even the artificial construct of a «movie,» as such.
The speech makes a case for humanity in the face of grave evil. «We think too much and feel too little,» Chaplin says. «More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.» You’ll recognize this theme—»more than machinery we need humanity»—throughout Chaplin’s work, and it rings especially true here. Chaplin emerges, fully human, as himself, breaking free of the film’s satirical trappings, to deliver one from the heart.
It’s a scene that plays well on its own, as a standalone speech. For a long while, it was hard to find a version online that hadn’t been modified with dramatic «movie speech» music by way of Hans Zimmer. Youtube comments imply a recent upswing in activity, of people finding the speech anew in the Trump era, and that makes sense. But the scene plays even more strangely, more powerfully, in context, where it’s less easily lent to meme-able political messaging, where it has to brush up against everything else in the movie that’s come before.
It’s startling, frankly. The Great Dictator’s tone to this point never feels so earnest. How could it, what with its balletic Hitler and its foreign dictatorships with names like Bacteria. From the vantage of 1940, Chaplin couldn’t quite see where the war would take us, and it remains the case that some of the film plays oddly—but all the more insightfully for it—today. What’s clear from its final moments, to say nothing of much of the rest, is the power in this tension. Insofar as it can sense but not see the future, you could say that The Great Dictator is a film made in a cloud of relative ignorance. Yet look at how much it says, how far it goes. It makes it hard to make excuses for films made since, which often have the benefit of hindsight yet little of substance to say about what they see in the rear view. We know more, much more, about Hitler today than we did in 1940. Why should we let anyone get away with saying less?
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish…
Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
Is Cast Away by Robert Zemeckis Based On A True Story?
It might be a work of fiction, but real-life events and survival stories inspired the Tom Hanks survival drama Cast Away – so, is Cast Away a true story adaptation? While it may not be inspired by one particular individual, the film is based on many real-life experiences. The movie was written by William Boyles Jr., and directed by Back To The Future‘s Robert Zemeckis. It follows a FedEx executive, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), after he’s stranded on a deserted island in the middle of the South Pacific by a plane crash. Isolated for four years, Noland struggles to survive and stay sane, with his only company being Wilson, a volleyball that was part of the plane’s cargo that has a face painted using Noland’s own bloody handprint.
Noland braved the elements and managed to survive for years, eventually being able to return home. While researching and writing the script for Cast Away, Broyles consulted professional survival experts before taking the significant step of deliberately isolating himself on an island in the Gulf of California, intending to put himself in the shoes of his main character. Broyles’ experiences on the island informed many of the critical moments portrayed in Cast Away.
Broyles discussed his time in isolation and how it later inspired the screenplay in an interview with The Austin Chronicle. Broyles speared and ate stingrays on the island, drank coconut juice, built a tent out of bamboo and palm leaves, and struggled to make his own fire. Recalling his loneliness during his days on the island, Broyles explained how the experience gave him an understanding of “what it means to be truly alone.” When Broyles found a deserted volleyball on the beach one day, he named it Wilson, which served as inspiration for Noland’s only friend during his four years on the island. While the experiences were forged from reality, is Cast Away a true story in the wider narrative sense?
Is Cast Away Based On A True Story?
Cast Away was initially inspired by Robinson Crusoe, and Elvis actor Tom Hanks had the idea to do a modern-day version of Daniel Defoe’s classic adventure story. Hanks told The Hollywood Reporter that he was inspired by a news article about FedEx. “I realized that 747s filled with packages fly across the Pacific three times a day,” said Hanks. He wondered, “what happens if (the plane) goes down?” This question sparked the idea that would evolve into Cast Away. Like Defoe’s historical fiction, Cast Away was inspired by the lives of real-world explorers. Alexander Selkirk is thought to have been the biggest inspiration behind Defoe’s novel, and he was a Scottish castaway who spent four years on a Pacific island in the early 1700s. After being rescued by an English expedition in 1709, Edward Cooke, who was part of the rescue team, wrote about Selkirk in his book, A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World.
So, technically speaking, is Cast Away a true story? Sort of. A range of other real-life castaways inspired some of literature’s most famous stories, including Spanish sailor Pedro Serrano, who was reportedly shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Nicaragua in the first half of the 16th century. Ada Blackjack was another, sometimes referred to as a «female Crusoe» – she was a seamstress who became stranded on an island near Siberia in 1921 but was only rescued two years later. These explorers and others like them helped to inspire Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland and his experiences in his island location in Cast Away.
Is Cast Away a true story? The real-life tales of survival that inspired the Tom Hanks movie
What is Cast Away about?
Tom Hanks stars in the movie as a FedEx worker Chuck Noland, who washes up on a desert island after his plane crash lands.
As he adapts to life alone in the uninhabited spot, he uses what he has around him to stay alive for the next four years.
Key moments include him turning a volleyball into a “friend” he calls Wilson, which becomes the only thing Hanks’ character can talk to.
While the film is primarily centred on Hanks, whose performance won him a Golden Globe award, other cast members include Helen Hunt, Paul Sanchez and Nick Searcy.
It was directed by Robert Zemeckis.
How did the film’s makers research Cast Away?
In the creation of the film, screenwriter William Broyles Jr spent a few days alone on an isolated beach near Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, to get an idea of what it was like.
According to reports in The Austin Chronicle from 2000, the experience taught Broyles more about what it really means to be lonely.
“I realized it wasn’t just a physical challenge. It was going to be an emotional, spiritual one as well,” he told the publication
While there, he made himself find his own food, water, which included breaking open coconuts and eating speared stingrays, and building shelter made of bamboo and palm leaves.
It was during this time, that he also came up with the idea for Wilson the volleyball companion, as a ball washed up on the beach he was staying on and he began to talk to it. The name was Wilson was simply the brand of the ball.
Is is based on a true story?
While the exact story of Cast Away is not thought to be a true story, there are several real-life accounts of people who spent time on uninhabited lands that may have provided inspiration.
Among the most famous is the story of Alexander Selkirk, who is known by some as a real-life Robinson Crusoe, inspiring the Daniel Defoe novel.
Selkirk travelled around the South Pacific in the early 1700s, taking part in buccaneering pursuits.
He chose to be left on the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago near Chile, as he feared the ship he had travelled on was too dangerous to continue the journey.
He took a few items with him from the ship, including a knife, bedding and a Bible, and was left to hunt for his own food which included lobsters and feral goats.
The story goes, that he was forced from the shores of the island further inland after masses of sea lions came to the beaches for mating season.
It was not an easy existence, and his time on the deserted land was full of loneliness and remorse, as well as physical challenges such as attacks from rats – though feral cats proved useful in keeping the rodents at bay.
He built huts out of materials he found on the islands, made his own clothes from animal skins and chased prey.
He was eventually rescued in 1709, four years after his arrival, when a ship came by and took him aboard.
He later spent more time at sea, continuing his privateering voyages and returned to London for some time, where his story became well known.
Accounts of Selkirk’s experiences were later published in newspaper articles of the times and in books by his former shipmate Edward Cooke and the leader of the expedition on the ship that had rescued him, Woodes Rogers.
What other real life castaways were there?
There were several more real life castaways over the years, some of whom had ended up in isolation by force, and others of their own accord.
They include Ada Blackjack who was stranded on Wrangel Island near Siberia in 1921 after a mission aboard a ship where she was a seamstress, went wrong.
Unlike Tom Hanks in the film, she was left trying to survive in cold climates, with just a cat who had been aboard the ship for company.
The animals in the area included seals, arctic foxes and polar bears, which would have been all she had to hunt after rations from the ship ran out.
She was eventually rescued in 1923 and became known in some accounts as the female Robinson Crusoe.
Another castaway was a French woman Marguerite de La Rocque, who in 1542 was made to stay on an island near Quebec, Île des Démons, after her uncle caught her sleeping with a man aboard their ship and left them both on the uninhabited land.
According to The Mirror,their time on the island was not a happy one, as while there, the young woman became pregnant but both her child and her partner died.
She was eventually rescued by a boat and returned to France, after roughly two years.
Other people who experienced life as castaways in various ways and may have provided some inspiration for the film, include Tom Neale, a New Zealand bushcraft and survival enthusiast who spent much of his life in the Cook Islands, and a total of 16 years – in three sessions – living alone on the island of Anchorage in the Suwarrow atoll, which was the basis of his popular autobiography An Island To Oneself; Leendert Hasenbosch who was an employee of the Dutch East India Company marooned on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean as a punishment for sodomy and Narcisse Pelletier, born in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in the Vendée who was a French sailor. Pelletier was abandoned in 1858 at the age of 14 on the Cape York Peninsula, in Australia, during the dry season.
Golden leaves falling from the trees Covering the streets I’m walking with my restless feet Empty seats, fancy deficiency There’s so much I need
Fucking wish to being overseas Wish your head is lying on my knees Remembering a summer breeze Fucking wish to being overseas Wish your head is lying on my knees Like it used to be
And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And our love will last
Like the storms and the spray of the sea Like the roots of the highest trees Like apologies and it will grow Like the strongest of all the seeds And it will feed our mouth And breath in a summer breeze Our hearts in a steady beat ‘Cause how could I sleep While the storm chops down all the trees Tell me, what are you doing to me? Tell me, what are you doing to me?
And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And our love will last
Like Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last
Message in a Bottle by The Police
Message in a Bottle by The Police
ust a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh Another lonely day, with no one here but me, oh More loneliness than any man could bear Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh
I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah
A year has passed since I wrote my note I should have known this right from the start Only hope can keep me together Love can mend your life Or love can break your heart
I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah Oh, message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah
Walked out this morning, I don’t believe what I saw Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore Seems I’m not alone at being alone Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home
I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, oh Message in a bottle, yeah
Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S
I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S
I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in English literature, was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was a chronic alcoholic, while his mother, Mary, passed her gift for storytelling to her son. Arthur recalled his mother’s habit of “sinking her voice to a horror-stricken whisper” as she reached the climax of a tale. Her stories overshadowed the hardships of a home with little money and an erratic father. “In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all,” Arthur said, “the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.”
Any innocence that was salvaged from that childhood ended during Arthur’s early education. Beginning at age nine, wealthier Doyle family members paid his way through the Jesuit boarding school Hodder Place, where he spent seven unhappy years in Stonyhurst, England, plagued by bigotry in academic subjects and the brutal corporal punishment common to such schools of the period. His only relief came in corresponding with his mother and practicing sports, mainly cricket, at which he excelled. He also discovered his own aptitude for storytelling during these years, drawing upon his innate sense of humor to delight younger students, who would crowd around to listen.
After graduating in 1876, Arthur returned to Scotland, determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps. “Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard, for I was wild, full blooded and a trifle reckless. But the situation called for energy and application so that one was bound to try to meet it. My mother had been so splendid that I could not fail her,” he wrote years later. The first necessary action was to co-sign the committal papers of his father, who was by then seriously demented, to a lunatic asylum.
Aside from Charles, the Doyle family held a prominent position in the world of art, and it would have been natural for Arthur to have immediately carried on in that tradition. But he chose medicine instead, attending the University of Edinburgh to complete his training. At the university he met several fellow students who would later become major British authors, including James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. But the man with the greatest influence over seventeen-year-old Arthur was a teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, who ultimately inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes. One can clearly see the qualities Arthur most admired in Dr. Bell in the detective. “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes,” he wrote the doctor. “…[R]ound the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.”
Holmes would not appear for several years, but it was during medical school that Arthur began to write short stories. The first piece, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley, was reminiscent of his favorite authors, Edgar Alan Poe and Bret Harte, and was accepted for publication in Chamber’s Journal, an Edinburgh magazine. The next story, The American Tale, was published the same year in London Society. “It was in this year,” he wrote later, “that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials.”
At the age of twenty and in his third year of medical school, Arthur boarded the whaling boat Hope as the ship’s surgeon, traveling to the shores of Greenland for the crew’s seal and whale hunts. “I went on board the whaler a big straggling youth. I came off a powerful well-grown man,” he reflected. The trip had “awakened the soul of a born wanderer.” He returned to school in 1880, and while he struggled with his medical studies after his Arctic adventure, he nevertheless completed his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree a year later, officially becoming Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle.
The new doctor opened his first private practice in Portsmouth. Although it is said he only had £10 to his name when he began, by the end of three years he was starting to make a living for himself. In 1885 he married Louisa Hawkins, a “gentle and amiable” young woman. In the midst of his medical practice and new marriage, he also spent time developing his writing career. In 1886 he began A Tangled Skein, a novel featuring characters named Sheridan Hope and Ormond Stacker. When it was published two years later in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, he had changed the title to A Study in Scarlet and now introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.
Sherlock Holmes quickly became world famous, and so began a dichotomy in Conan Doyle’s life. He struggled between the commercial success of the Holmes stories and his preference for writing historical novels, poems, and plays, which he believed would bring him recognition as a serious author. Another disparity arose between Conan Doyle’s brilliant use of logic and deduction, on one hand, and his fascination with the paranormal and spiritualism, a practice to which he became devoted later in life, on the other.
By the late 1880s, Conan Doyle was better known in the United States than in England. But in 1889 the publisher of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in Philadelphia came to London to create a British edition of the magazine. He arranged a dinner with Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. The two writers got along famously. (“It was indeed a golden evening for me,” Conan Doyle wrote), and the publisher commissioned a short novel from Conan Doyle, which was published in 1890 in both England and the U.S. This story, The Sign of Four, played a significant role in elevating the profile of Sherlock Holmes and his creator in literary history.
In order to write The Sign of the Four, however, the young author had to put aside an historical novel on which he had been working, The White Company. As this was the type of literature he most enjoyed writing, he felt he would never find as much satisfaction in or accomplishment in the Holmes series. “I was young and full of the first joy of life and action,” he remarked about writing The White Company, “and I think I got some of it into my pages. When I wrote the last line, I remember that I cried: ‘Well, I’ll never beat that’ and threw the inky pen at the opposite wall.”
After a brief move to Austria, Conan Doyle relocated to London, opening an ophthalmology practice in Upper Wimpole Street. Lacking any patients, however, he had plenty of time to contemplate the next step in his career. He decided to write a series of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. It turned out to be the most profitable decision of his life. His agent made a deal with The Strand Magazine to publish the stories, and the visual likeness of Holmes was immortalized by illustrator Sidney Paget, who used his brother Walter as a model. The artistic collaboration between Conan Doyle and Paget would last for many decades, branding both the persona and the image of Sherlock Holmes worldwide.
Conan Doyle’s medical career came to an end after a near-death bout of influenza in 1891, which helped to clarify his priorities. “With a rush of joy” he chose to step away from his medical career. “I remember in my delight taking the handkerchief which lay upon the coverlet in my enfeebled hand, and tossing it up to the ceiling in my exultation,” he recalled. “I should at last be my own master.”
Being his own master, however, involved making artistic choices that did not always meet with public approval. Conan Doyle felt burdened by Sherlock Holmes. In November 1891 he wrote to his mother,
“I think of slaying Holmes…and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” In December 1893 he did the deed, killing off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem by sending the detective and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, plummeting to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls. The author was now free of the character that had eclipsed what he considered his better work. But his mother had warned him, “You may do what you deem fit, but the crowds will not take this lightheartedly,” and indeed, twenty thousand readers expressed their disapproval by cancelling their subscriptions to The Strand Magazine.
The Hound of Baskervilles, serialized in The Strand Magazine beginning in 1901, was inspired by a stay on the Devonshire moors in southwest England. The real-life Fox Tor Mires were supposedly the inspiration for the novel’s great Grimpen Mire, the prison at Dartmoor contributed to the idea of an escaped convict – Slasher Seldon – on the loose, and folklore lent the spectral hound to the story. At some point, however, Conan Doyle realized his tale lacked a hero. He’s quoted as having said, “Why should I invent such a character, when I already have him in the form of Sherlock Holmes?” Since he had killed off Sherlock in The Final Problem, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles as if it was a previously untold Holmes caper. In subsequent Holmes stories Conan Doyle brought the detective back, explaining that he had not actually died along with Professor Moriarty but had arranged to be temporarily “dead” to evade his other dangerous enemies.
In his personal life, Conan Doyle was dealing with weighty issues. Louisa had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in the 1890s. The prognosis was dire, but Conan Doyle was able to nurse her years beyond her doctors’ expectations. He also, however, fell in love with another woman during that time. When Louisa died in his arms in 1906, he had been involved in a clandestine, although platonic, courtship with Jean Elizabeth Leckie for nine years. Conan Doyle fought a deep depression for several months after Louisa’s death, but roused himself by helping to exonerate a young man who had been accused of vicious crimes that the former doctor realized the man wasn’t capable of committing. The next year, Jean Leckie became Lady Conan Doyle.
The young man was the first of several individuals on whose behalf Conan Doyle intervened in the courts. He was deeply committed to justice and public service and used his instincts and training to further those causes. Turned down for military service in both the Boer War and World War I due to his age, he nevertheless volunteered as a medical doctor in South Africa during the Boer War. In 1902 he was knighted by King Edward VII for his service to the Crown. He also twice ran for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist, earning respectable votes but neither time winning the election.
Conan Doyle had five children – a daughter and a son with Louisa and two sons and a daughter with Jean – and lost five men in his family – his first son, brother, two brothers-in-law, and two nephews – in World War I. After his marriage to Jean, the pace of his writing subsided considerably. He did, however, give playwriting further attention. 1912’s The Speckled Band, was based on a well-known Holmes story. It proved both a critical and commercial success on the stage, unlike some of his earlier plays. Before too long, though, Conan Doyle decided to retire from theatrical work, “Not because it doesn’t interest me, but because it interests me too much.”
He may be best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger series, which began with The Lost World in 1912, was also highly successful and made a profound mark on the as-yet-unnamed “science fiction” genre. Increasingly, the celebrated author retreated into this world of science fiction, and also into spiritualism. He and his family traveled to three continents on psychic crusades. He spent over £250,000 on his religious pursuits and wrote primarily about spiritualism for a period, until the financial toll drove him back to writing fiction. First came three more Professor Challenger books, followed by a compilation of Sherlock Holmes adventures in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1927.
Near the end of his life, Conan Doyle was diagnosed with angina pectoris, commonly caused by coronary heart disease. Pushing himself to the end, he took one final psychic tour of northern Europe in late 1929, after which he was bedridden for the rest of his days. He died on July 7, 1930, surrounded by his family, whispering his last words to Jean: “You are wonderful.” The epitaph on his gravestone in the churchyard at Minstead in the New Forest, Hampshire, reads, “Steel True/Blade Straight/Arthur Conan Doyle/Knight/Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters.” A statue honors him in Crowborough, East Sussex, England. And back in Edinburgh, close to the house in which the beloved writer was born, stands a statue of Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes, led a robust life worthy of the pages of his fiction. He embarked on daring journeys to the Arctic and the Alps, investigated crimes and—though his most famous character is the paragon of rational thinking—staunchly believed in fairies and spirits. Here are 11 facts about this fascinating, complicated author.
1. Arthur Conan Doyle grew up in poverty.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859, Conan Doyle was the second of seven surviving children. His father, the artist Charles Doyle, struggled with alcoholism and even stole from his children’s money boxes to fund his addiction. The family’s finances were chronically strained: “We lived in the hardy and bracing atmosphere of poverty,” Conan Doyle wrote in his autobiography. Charles was ultimately committed to an asylum due to his erratic behavior [PDF].
Throughout this domestic turbulence, the author’s mother, Mary Foley Doyle, was a stabilizing force. Conan Doyle credited her with kindling his imagination and flair for storytelling. «In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories which she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life,” he recalled. “I am sure, looking back, that it was in attempting to emulate these stories of my childhood that I first began weaving dreams myself.»
2. Arthur Conan Doyle trained as a medical doctor.
When he was 17 years old, Conan Doyle began his studies at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, graduating with Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees in 1881. Four years later, he completed his thesis on tabes dorsalis, a degenerative neurological disease, and earned his M.D. He later traveled to Vienna to study ophthalmology [PDF].
Conan Doyle established a medical practice in the English city of Portsmouth, where he also wrote his first two Sherlock Holmes novels: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Holmes was based in part on one of his professors at medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, known for his ability to deduce facts about his patients through close observation.
In 1891, Conan Doyle relocated to London to work as an ophthalmologist. The venture was not a resounding success; he would later joke that his rented offices had two waiting rooms: “I waited in the consulting room, and no one waited in the waiting room.” But that left Conan Doyle with ample time to devote to his budding literary career. He soon gave up medicine in favor of writing—a decision that he called “one of the great moments of exultation” in his life.
3. Arthur Conan Doyle traveled to the Arctic on a whaling expedition.
While in the midst of his medical studies, Conan Doyle accepted a position as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler headed to the Arctic Circle. A hardy young man with an adventurous spirit, he joined his shipmates in hunting seals, not at all deterred by his lack of experience on the ice and frequent tumbles into the freezing waters. Conan Doyle did have some qualms about the slaughter, writing that “those glaring crimson pools upon the dazzling white of the ice fields … did seem a horrible intrusion.” Nevertheless, he found the journey—particularly the whale hunts—exhilarating. “No man who has not experienced it,” Conan Doyle opined, “can imagine the intense excitement of whale fishing.”
4. Arthur Conan Doyle got sick of Sherlock Holmes.
The popularity of Sherlock Holmes skyrocketed after Conan Doyle struck a deal with the Strand Magazine to publish a series of short stories featuring the mastermind detective. Readers would line up at newsagents on the days that new issues dropped, and Conan Doyle eventually became one of the highest-paid writers of his day. But he grew exasperated by the public’s love for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle also wrote historical novels, plays, and poetry, and he felt that his detective fiction overshadowed these other, more serious works. “I have had such an overdose of [Holmes] that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day,» the author quipped.
In the 1893 story “The Final Problem,” Conan Doyle killed off Holmes, sending him plunging to his death over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Fans were devastated; more than 20,000 of them canceled their subscriptions to the Strand in protest. Conan Doyle did not publish another Holmes story for eight years, ending his strike with The Hound of the Baskervilles, which takes place before Holmes’s death. In 1903, prompted by a tremendous offer from British and American publishers, Conan Doyle decided to resurrect his much-loved sleuth. Over the course of his career, he featured Holmes in 56 stories and four novels—now known to fans as the “Canon.”
5. Arthur Conan Doyle helped popularize Switzerland as a skiing destination.
In 1893, Conan Doyle’s first wife, Louisa, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The couple decided to head to Davos, in the Swiss Alps, hoping that the crisp, clear air would be beneficial to Louisa. Her health did improve, for a time, and Conan Doyle decided to take up skiing, a Norwegian sport that was new to Switzerland and virtually unknown in Britain. He wrote a humorous article in the Strand about his attempts to master skiing and his daring journey over the Furka Pass, which soars 8000 feet above sea level. The article was republished multiple times and drew attention to the Swiss Alps as a skiing destination. Today, a plaque in Davos honors Conan Doyle for “bringing this new sport and the attractions of the Swiss Alps in winter to the world.”
6. Arthur Conan Doyle believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.
Conan Doyle began exploring mystical ideas about spirits and the afterlife as a young doctor. In later life, he became one of the world’s most prominent advocates of Spiritualism, a movement rooted in the belief that the souls of the dead can communicate with the living, usually through a medium. Spiritualism took root in Britain during the Victorian era and continued to flourish in the years after WWI, when many families were eager to connect with lost loved ones. Conan Doyle’s own brother and son died during the influenza pandemic that swept the world in the wake of the Great War, and the author believed that they reached out to him during séances.
He wrote books on Spiritualism, debated the subject with skeptics and traveled the world delivering lectures on the Spiritualist cause, which he described as the “most important thing in the world, and the particular thing which the human race in its present state of development needs more than anything else.”
7. Arthur Conan Doyle also believed in fairies.
In 1920, a pair of startling photographs came to Conan Doyle’s attention. The images appeared to show two schoolgirls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, posing with fairies by a stream in the English village of Cottingley. After conducting what he believed to be a thorough investigation, Conan Doyle became convinced that the photographs were genuine, and wrote two articles and a book on the “Cottingley Fairies.” With a renowned author championing them, the photos became a sensation. Conan Doyle was widely ridiculed by those who believed the images were fake, but he remained steadfast; he hoped that the photographs would propel an incredulous public to “admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life” and, by extension, to accept the “spiritual message” that he worked tirelessly to promote.
In 1983, Wright and Griffiths finally confessed that the photographs were a hoax. The “fairies” were simply paper cutouts, copied from a children’s book, and propped up with hat pins. They had only meant to trick their parents; Wright later said that she and Griffiths were too embarrassed to admit the truth once their story was believed by the famous Conan Doyle.
8. Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle had a fraught friendship.
Conan Doyle met Harry Houdini in 1920, while the famed magician was visiting England. They bonded over Spiritualism; Houdini, though fairly certain that mediums were tricksters and frauds, was at that time willing to be convinced otherwise. For his part, Conan Doyle believed that Houdini possessed psychic powers.
When Conan Doyle traveled to America in 1922, the friends met up in Atlantic City. Houdini agreed to participate in a séance with Conan Doyle and his second wife, Jean, who claimed she could channel the spirits of the dead. But Houdini quickly came to suspect that the séance was a sham. Jean filled multiple pages with automatic writing that she said came from Houdini’s deceased mother—though his mother could barely speak English. Houdini also found it curious that Jean’s automatic writing included the sign of a cross, considering that his mother was Jewish. The episode caused a rift between the friends, and they argued both privately and publicly over the legitimacy of medium cases.
9. Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted for his support of the Boer War.
Fueled by a sense of patriotism after the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Conan Doyle traveled to Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1900 to volunteer as a doctor in a field hospital. There he encountered a grim scene; Bloemfontein was in the grips of a typhoid epidemic, the hospital was overwhelmed with sick and dying patients, and sanitary conditions were abysmal [PDF]. But his conviction in the war did not flag, even as the conflict dragged on, became increasingly brutal, and began to lose support in Britain and beyond. Indignant over reports of British atrocities, Conan Doyle published a pamphlet defending his country’s actions in South Africa. He was knighted by King Edward VII in 1902, largely in honor of this influential work.
10. Arthur Conan Doyle came to the defense of two wrongfully accused men.
In 1903, a solicitor named George Edalji was found guilty of mutilating a horse and writing a series of menacing anonymous letters in a rural parish. The evidence against him was unconvincing—the letters had been sent to his own family, for one thing—and three years later he was released from prison, without a pardon. Edalji wrote to Conan Doyle, hoping the creator of Sherlock Holmes would help clear his name. Conan Doyle visited the scene of the crimes, met with Edalji, and was certain of his innocence.
He noted, among other things, that Edalji was so near-sighted that it would have been impossible for him to sneak across the countryside, attacking livestock in the dead of night. And he recognized that racial prejudice was likely at play; Edalji, whose father was of Parsee origin, “must assuredly have [seemed] a very queer man to the eyes of an English village,” the author wrote in an article arguing that Edalji had been wrongfully accused. Conan Doyle also sent a barrage of letters to the chief constable in charge of the case, proffering new evidence and theories of other suspects. Edalji was ultimately pardoned, but was not given financial compensation for the miscarriage of justice against him.
Conan Doyle also campaigned on behalf of Oscar Slater, a German-Jewish bookmaker who was convicted of murdering a wealthy woman in Glasgow. Though Slater had an alibi, police homed in on him as the culprit, and it would later emerge that key evidence was withheld during the trial. Conan Doyle was a vocal participant in the campaign advocating for Slater’s release from prison; in 1912, he published The Case of Oscar Slater, which highlighted grave flaws in the investigation and prosecution. His plea failed to sway the authorities, but Conan Doyle continued to pressure politicians and even pay for Slater’s legal fees. Slater was set free in 1927, having served more than 18 years in prison.
11. Family members celebrated at Arthur Conan Doyle’s funeral.
Conan Doyle died of a heart attack on July 7, 1930, at the age of 71. Three hundred people attended the funeral at his country home, and the atmosphere was uplifting, rather than somber. The mourners did not wear black and the blinds of the house were not drawn. “We know that it is only the natural body that we are committing to the ground,” his wife Jean told friends. On July 13, thousands of people packed into the Royal Albert Hall in London for a memorial service. During the ceremony, Estelle Roberts, one of Conan Doyle’s favorite mediums, gazed at a chair reserved for the writer and proclaimed: “He is here.”
«The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,» by Alan Sillitoe, was first published in 1959. It is a first-person monologue spoken by a 17-year-old inmate of an English Borstal, or reform school. Smith, the only name this character receives, has received a two-year prison sentence for breaking into a local bakery, but he has discovered a way to improve the conditions of his stay in jail. The warden of the reformatory has his heart set on the winning of the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long-Distance Cross-Country Running (All England), and Smith, the fastest runner in the institution, needs to do nothing but train for the race. He can trade his daily chores for the mitigated freedom of early morning runs in the countryside around the reformatory.
Yet things are not quite as simple as they seem, and the nature of the monologue, crude and colloquial in language and tone, underlines the tremendous class distinction between what the narrator Smith terms the «in-laws» and the «out-laws.» People like the warden and his cronies speak Oxford English and support and perpetuate the system, while the residents of the Borstal are denizens of the working class who have nothing to lose. It might seem that Smith would have little choice or desire not to play along with the powers that be, but during his stay in prison he has developed his own personal and idiosyncratic sense of morality. For him, to win the race would be tacitly to accept the premises of a self-serving establishment, and his own sense of defiance and self-worth can only be maintained by his individual conception of honesty. As he says, «It’s a good life, I’m saying to myself, if you don’t give in to coppers and Borstal-bosses and the rest of them bastard faced in-laws.»
While it might appear that Sillitoe is simply delineating a social and economic struggle between the classes in postwar England, the situation is much more complicated. In Smith’s world of the underclass there is no such thing as solidarity and brotherhood. In a series of flashbacks that illuminate his early life and the robbery that got him into his immediate trouble, we find that he has always been alone. Smith and his pal Mike are clever enough to hide their loot so that the police will not catch on to two teenagers who have suddenly become relatively wealthy, but the boys are even more wary of their own neighbors, who will turn them in out of spite and jealousy. Loyalty is something that simply does not exist in these circumstances, and trust is a silly idea for fools. In the end a person can be true only to himself, a self that can make mistakes but will never let him down. Loneliness becomes a natural condition. As Smith says, «I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.»
Smith’s experience with his family bears out his conclusions, for his father died a horrible death of stomach cancer after a lifetime of slaving in a factory, while his mother was constantly unfaithful to her husband. The death benefit of 500 pounds is quickly spent on clothes, cream cakes, a television set, and a new mattress for his mother and her «fancyman,» and things are immediately back where they began. Thievery is all the boy knows, and even the army can provide no outlet. As far as Smith is concerned, patriotism is another false idea concocted by the government to protect its own advantage, and life in the army is little different from life in prison. In declaring himself a robber and an outlaw, Smith is at least acknowledging the state of warfare that exists between people like him and the people in power, landowners and the politicians who look like fish gasping for breath when the sound is suddenly turned down in the middle of their speeches on television.
Powerless as he may be in an England that views him as only another cog in the economic machine that grinds out more comfort for the rich, Smith seizes on the moment to shake his fist in the faces of the «in-laws» as he turns toward home in the Borstal race. Though he is far ahead of his nearest competitor, he slows down and then stops before the finish line, allowing his rival enough time to catch up and to win the race. Smith’s gesture is meaningless to everyone but himself: «The governor at Borstal proved me right; he didn’t respect my honesty at all; not that I expected him to, or tried to explain it to him, but if he’s supposed to be educated then he should have more or less twigged it.» But, if nothing else, the long-distance runner has remained true to himself; he has not been duped into believing the false promises that would only enslave him even further. There is virtually no hope of social change in the bleak universe that Sillitoe has created, but there does remain comfort in the affirmation of the individual human spirit that will not be broken. If truth and honesty can exist anywhere, Sillitoe asserts, they survive in the ability to look squarely at oneself in the face of all the odds. Paradoxically, honesty may reside in recognizing and accepting the dishonesty of contemporary existence.
Chariots of Fire is a British film released in 1981. Written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson, it is based on the true story of British athletes preparing for and competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture.
The movie is based on the true story of two British athletes competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Englishman Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who is Jewish, overcomes anti-Semitism and class prejudice in order to compete against the «Flying Scotsman», Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), in the 100-meter race.
In 1919, Abrahams enters Cambridge University. He attempts and succeeds at the Trinity Great Court run, which involves running around the court before the clock finishes striking 12. Meanwhile, Liddell sees running as a way of glorifying God before traveling to China to work as a missionary. He represents Scotland against Ireland, and preaches a sermon on «Life as a race» afterwards.
At their first meeting, Liddell shakes Abrahams’ hand to wish him well, then beats him in a race. Abrahams takes it badly, but Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), a professional trainer that he had approached earlier, offers to take him on to improve his technique. However, this attracts criticism from the college authorities.
Eric’s sister Jenny (Cheryl Campbell) worries he is too busy running to concern himself with their mission, but Eric tells her he feels inspired: «I believe that God made me for a purpose… (the mission), but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.»
Despite pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee, Liddell refuses to run a heat of the 100 meters at the Olympics because his Christian convictions prevent him from running on Sunday. Liddell is allowed to compete in the 400-meter race instead. Liddell at church on Sunday is seen quoting Isaiah 40, verse 31: ‘But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and be not weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’
The story compares the similar athletic experiences of Abrahams and Liddell while portraying their vastly different characters and reactions to adversity. High accomplishment comes to those with high aspirations, high energy and the capacity for great effort. But the central motivation and ultimate results of their accomplishment depend on their character and personality. This is a true story about two very different British athletes who accomplish at the highest level in their field, yet are driven to these achievements by very different motives along very different paths.
Englishman Harold Abrahams is the son of a wealthy Jewish financier in London. Highly sensitive to the anti-Semitic sentiments of the British upper class, he is determined to prove his worth and acceptability in everything he does. A runner of remarkable ability, in 1919 he enters Cambridge University and promptly completes a running feat which no one has been able to accomplish for 700 year. Abrahams’ passionate aspiration is to win a gold medal in the 100 meters at the 1924 summer Olympics in Paris.
While at Cambridge, Abrahams meets a lovely young singer Sybil Gordon and they soon fall in love. To her he confesses his heart’s turmoil. He has gone through life with a sense of helplessness, anger and humiliation because of the second-class treatment rendered to him as a Jew. To him running is a means of seeking revenge and conquering the social opposition. “I am going to take them on one by one and run them off their feet.” He strives to fit in and prove himself a loyal and capable Englishman. “So you love running?” Sybil asks him. “I am an addict. It’s more of a weapon. It’s a competition. You win because you are ruthless. … A weapon against being Jewish, I suppose. I’m semi-deprived. They lead me to water but won’t let me drink.”
Eric Liddell is the son of deeply religious Scottish missionaries, born and raised along with his sister Jennie in China and recently returned to Europe. Eric is a born runner with tremendous speed and a natural love of the sport who becomes widely known as the «Flying Scotsman.» Committed to a missionary’s life like his parents, Eric is requested by his church leader to dedicate his remarkable athletic ability to the service of god. “Run in God’s name” and let the whole world know it is God’s inspiration that makes you a champion. He too is destined for the Paris Olympics for the glory for God.
The first time Abrahams sees Liddell run he is bedazzled. Eric collides with another runner, falls down during a 400-meter contest between Scotland and France and appears to be out of the race. Then miraculously he gets up, starts running again, makes up a 20-meter deficit and wins the race. This indicates just how great is the unexpressed human energy which can be released in the right circumstances. It took the accidental fall to bring out the true greatness of Eric’s potential. “I’ve never seen such commitment and drive in a runner,” Abrahams remarks. Even more remarkable is the obvious joy with which Liddell runs. He tells Jennie, “I believe god made me for a purpose – China. He also made me fast. When I’m running I feel his pleasure, not just fun. To win is to honor him.”
The amateur spirit of the Olympics is still respected in Europe and professionalism is shunned. But times are changing. Sam Mussabini, a brilliant professional running coach, is looking for talent to shape. Abrahams approaches Sam and tries to hire him as a personal coach. Sam replies that it is customary for the coach to choose a worthy student, not vice versa. Abrahams is willing to break the rules in order to accomplish. Sam knows that social rules may be broken, but there are rules for accomplishment that cannot. At their first meeting, Liddell shakes Abrahams’ hand to wish him well, then beats him. Abrahams is crushed by the defeat and cries out to Sybil. “I don’t run to take beatings. I run to win. If I can’t win I won’t run. Now what do I stand for?” After the race, Sam contacts Abrahams and offers to train him for the Olympics, assuring Harold that he can improve enough to match Eric. Even though the university authorities frown on his hiring a coach, Abrahams persists.
On the boat sailing across the Channel to France, Liddell is informed that the preliminary heat for the 100 meters is to be run on a Sunday. He informs the British team leader that his religion prevents him from running on that day and he will have to forgo the race. “If I win, I win for God. To win on Sunday would be against God’s law.” Once in Paris, the team leader informs the rest of the British Olympic committee, which includes the crown prince, and they call Liddell and press him to relent. When he adamantly refuses, life responds and unexpectedly presents a solution. Lord Lindsay, another member of team who has just won a silver medal in another event, offers his place in the 400 meters to Liddell. Another member of the Committee explains how fortunate it is that they did not try to force Liddell to violate his conscience. He is “a true man of principle and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to separate his running from himself. For him it is God before King.” Whatever the mind fervently believes in – whether higher ideal or mere superstition – has the power to evoke a response from life. The power of Eric’s belief is equal to the power of all those of his community who share that belief.
Abrahams faces Americans in the 100-meter final who are touted to include the fastest men on earth. He has already lost two races to the same competitors. Before the race he confesses to Sam, “I am 24 and I have never known contentment. I’m ever in pursuit and I don’t know what I’m chasing. I’ve known the fear of losing. Now I’m almost too frightened to win.” Abrahams goes on to win the event and emerge with the title of fastest man on earth. After the race he and Sam celebrate in private their shared personal accomplishment. He lived for another 54 years and was considered the grand icon of British athletics. Eric races in the 400 meter against equally tough competitors and wins his race as well. He mixes with the crowds in jubilant celebration. After the Olympics, he returned to China where he died during World War II.
Who accomplished what and how? Driven by a complex and a fervent aspiration to win a respectable place in English society, Abrahams has achieved the greatest title in amateur athletics. The drive for social acceptability is a very powerful motive. He has leveraged the energy of that drive for achievement. He ran in the name of his country and under the banner of patriotism, but really he ran for himself. For him running was a labor in a life and death struggle for acceptance and respectability. It is doubtful whether even this remarkable accomplishment gave him the peace and fulfillment he was seeking. Liddell ran in the name of God and for the joy of self-giving to his God. His very act of running was a self-fulfilling joy. One believes in his concept of God and service, the other in his own inner potential. Both accomplish on the basis of their beliefs.
«Forrest Gump» famously inserted Tom Hanks into old archival footage, interweaving moments from real U.S. history with the fictional story of his character: A simple yet sincere man, sharing homespun wisdom on a park bench to different strangers while recounting the story of his ever-so-charmed life.
Director Robert Zemeckis and ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) employed digital compositing and other groundbreaking visual effects to give Forrest’s tale a true-to-life veneer. Thanks to the wonders of CGI they were able to rewrite history cinematically, having Forrest intersect with presidents and pivotal moments in American culture across three decades.
The film won six Oscars and is endlessly quotable — but what you might not know is that the character of Forrest Gump was loosely inspired by three real men.
Sammy Lee Davis was the inspiration for Forrest’s war wound
As «Forrest Gump» was celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2019, USA Today spotlighted Sammy Lee Davis, a decorated Vietnam veteran, as one real-life inspiration for the character. Nicknamed «the real Forrest Gump,» Davis was at the film’s anniversary screening on the National Mall in Washington, DC. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Medal of Honor in 1968, and he’s at least famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page.
You can see footage of the Medal of Honor ceremony in «Forrest Gump» — though of course, it’s Hanks who shakes Johnson’s hand. Like Forrest Gump, Davis was shot in the buttocks and elsewhere in his back over thirty times, by friendly fire. The moment where Forrest shows the President his butt wound was invented for the film.
Winston Groom dedicated his novel to two other men
Screenwriter Eric Roth adapted Winston Groom’s novel, «Forrest Gump,» for the big screen. Groom, who passed away in 2020, dedicated the book to Jimbo Meador (pictured above) and George Radcliff, two of his childhood friends. Both men are private individuals, but Distractify notes that their «speech patterns are similar to Forrest’s.» Hanks originally sought to downplay Gump’s Southern accent but Zemeckis coached him to keep it and adhere to the source material.
The Bubba Gump Seafood Company is now a real restaurant chain, but it started out as a fictional business endeavor launched by Forrest and Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise). The idea for that stemmed from conversations that Groom had with Meador — appropriately, at lunch. He explained to Distractify:
«Although he never did any shrimp farming, [Meador] was always interested in it, and we used to talk about it a lot. Jimbo knows everything there is to know about shrimp. We used to have lunch about once a week, and it occurred to me after one of these conversations while I was writing Forrest, ‘What better thing to do than make Forrest a shrimp farmer?’ «
Meador also owned a river delta boat and had a seafood processing job, much like Forrest does in the movie. He reportedly shunned the public spotlight after he started getting copious interview requests from the likes of David Letterman.
The same goes for Radcliff, who only consented to an interview with Mobile Bay Magazine because the writer was someone he had known for a long time beforehand. Radcliff appears to have wholly or partly inspired the felicitous nature of Forrest’s journey through history. He once beat Paul McCartney at arm-wrestling, for instance, without knowing who «that little drunk English guy» was.
What’s interesting about Radcliff is that he was a scrapper, meaning he liked to fight. This might be part of what Groom meant when he told The New York Times that Zemeckis sanded the «rough edges» off his book character. He originally wanted John Goodman to play the role of Forrest Gump. That would have been a very different movie.
At the end of the day, «Forrest Gump» is still cut from a fictional cloth, but art does imitate life. To do a mad-lib bit of paraphrasing with Forrest himself, «[Movies are] like a box of [inspirations].»