‘War of the Worlds’: from novel to movies

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War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds started life in 1898 as a novel by H. G. Wells. It was subsequently  adapted to a famous, indeed notorious, radio play by Orson Welles in 1938. The film rights had been acquired by Paramount in the 1920s but it was not until the early 1950s that studio producer George Pal revived the project. The first film version was duly released in 1953, having been directed by Byron Haskins from a screenplay by Barré Lyndon. In 2005, another film version, this time by Steven Spielberg with the then top draw star Tom Cruise, was released.

The enduring appeal of the War of the Worlds story alone makes it worth of further study. Of equal interest, however, is the way the original novel and its various derivatives reflect something deeper, namely changes in lifestyle patterns, social values and ideological climate of the time. Intentionally or not, all versions of War of the Worlds paint a picture of the world, giving varying representations of people and places.

Wells, Science Fiction and War of the Worlds

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) is often credited as the ‘father of science fiction’, along with Jules Verne (1828-1905) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950). By the time, Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, scientific knowledge and its technological application in a host of new devices like trains, automobiles and aircraft had transformed the world. Huge industrial cities now dotted many countries while developments in military firepower were industrialising warfare.

Astronomy too was fast advancing. The American amateur astronomer Percival Lovell, for example, was propagating the idea that Mars had once been home to an intelligent civilisation. The Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli had fuelled such speculation in 1894 with his claims to have detected what looked like canals on the planet’s surface. In the same year, a French observer Javelle reported that light could be seen flashing there (many saw this as an attempt at communication with Earth, though Wells turned the phenomenon into the flash of rockets being launched).

War of the Worlds is of course about invasion from outer space. Such concern about conquest by ‘outsiders’ did not emerge out of the blue. The end of the 19th century was a period of increasing international tensions. The face of European politics had been changed by the emergence of a new and powerful force, a united Germany. This perceived German menace was itself part of a wider set of tensions born out of the competitive scramble for lands and resources by all the leading European powers.

To critics of ‘imperialism’ like Wells, the colonial powers were ruthless and violent predators, sucking the blood out of the lands and peoples they brought under their domain. A true reign of extermination had existed for most of the 19th century in Tasmania where, through direct massacres by white settlers or death due to ‘alien’ diseases, courtesy of those same incomers, the indigenous population was wiped out (as the novel’s prologue mentions). Wells was well aware of the darkness at the heart of imperialism.

Wells brought other perceptions to his writings. As a socialist, he was not sympathetic to the established churches. Nor did he have much faith in other organisations in contemporary society, including the military. Indeed, he brought a sceptical eye to many human activities and institutions. He was critical of both existing social elites and the ordinary citizenry. He saw hypocrisy, ignorance and greed across society. At one point, he has one of his characters speculate that there will many people who will be prepared to serve the new Martian rulers (as had happened in the real colonies).

Of course, War of the Worlds in all its forms is mere fiction, albeit rooted in plausible science and technology (this distinguishes sci-fi from fantasy). However, though science fiction stories may be often set in some imagined future, the issues they address are usually of the time and place in which they are conceived. As such, sci-fi is a means by which contemporary hopes and fears, especially ones related to science and technology as well as environmental concerns such as overpopulation and pollution, can be aired.

Wells’ bequest

Readers experience the events of War of the Worlds through the eyes of the narrator, a resident of the area where the Martians first land. He is married and we also follow the adventures of his brother in London, which we have to assume, were related by him to the narrator at some subsequent stage.

The narrator is also friends with an astronomer, Ogilvy, which provides the earlier part of the story with an expert who can deliver a scientific commentary on the unfolding events. He is transformed into Professor Pierson in the radio version and the 1953 film’s scientist hero, Clayton Forrester. Ogilvy has no direct equivalent in the 2005 version.

There are two other significant characters, a curate with whom the narrator is subsequently trapped for a number of days in a cellar, and a soldier, a survivor from a destroyed artillery regiment. Both undergo major transformations in the two adaptations.

Then there are the aliens themselves. Wells of course chose to depict them as ferocious and pitiless. That they are portrayed as mindless killers offers an alternative form of political criticism, drawing parallels between their social structures and behaviour and those of cruel and aggressive authoritarian regimes in the human body politic. In book and all subsequent adaptations, the Martians destroy without restraint or remorse.

Space invaders

Since the time of the novel’s publication and the first film treatment, the red planet had been the subject of close human scrutiny courtesy of a series of flyby and orbiting rockets as well as robotic exploration ‘rovers’. It has become somewhat harder to suspend disbelief and accept that Mars is home to would-be invaders. Thus, Spielberg’s version simply avoids the matter of the invaders’ origin.

Wells imagined his Martians using tripod war machines. The makers of the 1953 film first thought of using his idea but the technical difficulties of reproducing such moving machinery on film proved insurmountable. Instead the Martians use flying machines which bear a strong resemblance to earthly manta rays (except that these fish are quite harmless).

By 2005, advances in computer generated imagery enabled Spielberg’s team to revert back to something much closer to Wells’ original concept. The deep and resonant fog horn sounds emanating from the Martian tripods are perhaps even more effective, though the 1953 film too had some striking sound effects too (made by distorted electric guitars). Wells had suggested as much, writing of both Martian ‘howling’ and ‘hooting’.

Wells also imagined that the Martians would use heat rays and deadly ‘vapour’ shells. Perhaps the notion of gas warfare has become too tasteless a subject. Not so long before Spielberg’s film, for instance, terrible images had circulated of gassed Kurdish victims of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Whatever the reason, both films confine themselves to destruction by heat ray. Certainly, on screen the flashes of the heat rays are very dramatic (though Wells is actually more graphic about burned survivors).

Both movies, especially the 1953 version, make the Martian machines more invincible than is the case in the novel. There, both human artillery and a warship, The Thunder Child, destroy a number of enemy war machines. In the first 1953 adaptation, the Martian warcraft are invincible and all conquering due to their use of a protective shield. The movies’ change accentuates the predicament facing humankind.

Inside the machines are the Martians themselves. In his depiction, Wells reflected a Darwinian view of evolution. This theory led many to assume an on-going development of mental faculties, a process which would favour the brain over the body. Logically this would create creatures with literally and metaphorically ‘big heads’ but comparatively puny bodies. Both films follow this logic, as do most sci-fi films and indeed comics. The films follow this characterisation, though the 1953 film restricts direct views of the aliens (a traditional weak spot in sci-fi films in the pre-digital era).

Wells made another choice: that the violent encounter should take place down here on Earth. The specific setting of the story is what would now be called the Home Counties of South East England. Events later focus on what is called “Dead London”. The British capital could justly be said to be the centre of the world’s greatest industrial power of the time, with the British flag flying in an Empire that stretched around the world. That the Martians could defeat such a power would, then, symbolise the terrible threat they posed to humanity in general.

Ideology

It was noted above that Wells brought strong values and messages to his story. He used an allegorical approach to attack colonialism, with the imperialists of his day figuratively transformed into Martians invaders from another world. The novel also raises further political perspectives, most directly through the character of the artilleryman. His views on the need for a new elite to some extent echo Wells who tended to envisage social  transformation as the result of leadership by planners and engineers (see his A Modern Utopia, 1905). His critique of existing class structures was not a rejection of elitism per se. He opposed them because existing forms of class privilege allowed the ignorant and incompetent to rule.

Some modern readers might hear in the soldier’s talk about the “able-bodied” and “clean-minded” a pre-echo of the rhetoric that was to be employed by right-wing demagogues in the decades after the book was published. But, to be fair, it must be also noted that Wells was no fool and, unlike many of his fellow socialists, Wells was not duped by dictators like Joseph Stalin.

Wells had no time for revolution-from-below (as in the socialism of Karl Marx) which he saw a little more than mob rule and likely to lead to disaster. In his novel War of the Worlds, Wells depicted ordinary people as helpless and panic-stricken. Indeed, at one point he has the artilleryman dismissively relate stories of crowds roaming the streets too drunk to see the alien machine that scoops them up.

Insofar as there is a hero in the original novel, it is the narrator himself. Clearly, he is a middle-aged member of the educated middle classes. That he can write down his experiences and discuss the scientific aspects of what happened underlines his level of knowledge. He is also married and the importance of both saving his wife and subsequently finding her are his core concerns. This is not a society of single parents and divorcees. Nor is it multicultural. It is ‘English’ to the hilt.

Indeed, the novel is very much a male affair. The three main characters are all men, as are minor ones like Ogilvy, the astronomer royal Stent, and a journalist named Henderson. The deputation that tries to meet the Martians is of all male. There are several unnamed women who at various moments shriek. The narrator’s wife appears a few times. Her response to being told by her husband of the first Martian attack is to worry that the aliens might come to their house: “’They may come here,’ she said over and over again.” At various point the narrator talks to her “reassuringly” since she gets into quite a flap.

Yet not all women in the story are like this. The narrator’s brother becomes companion in flight with two ladies. One of them, “a dark, slender figure”, has the presence of mind to bring a gun and has the will to use it. She is “quiet and deliberate”. Her sister-in-law, however, becomes “increasingly hysterical, fearful, and depressed”. She even panics at the thought of going to France.

The England described by Wells may be prosperous and contented on the surface but, below, there are deep flaws. When tested by the Martian invasion, this culture buckles. Wells peppers the narrative with representatives of many walks of life, all of whom variously are unable or unwilling to give help when necessary. Usually they just flee in abject confusion (though some pause to loot).

As mentioned above, Wells portrays established religion, embodied by the curate, in a most negative light. The armed forces are portrayed in a way that has become quite stereotypical. They wage a brave but futile struggle. But Wells also casts a satirical eye on soldierly ways too. When warned of the danger, officers stupidly refuse to accept what they are being told: “what confounded nonsense!”

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1953 Adaptation

The first movie adaptation in 1953 follows the overall architecture of the novel in the sense that everyday normality is disrupted by the arrival of the Martians, matters going from bad to worse thereafter before the final climax. After the opening prologue, the action moves straight to the landing of the Martian cylinders, omitting the book’s section on the gas flares from the surface of Mars. At the end too, there is considerable abbreviation with the fate of the Martians sealed in a very speedy ‘deus ex machina’ resolution, with the addition of a short epilogue.

The action was moved from the Victorian Home Counties of England to southern California, first the small town of Linda Rosa, then the city of Los Angeles. This was the cheaper option in terms of film production and would make the story more accessible to the primary target audience in the USA. Characters’ names were similarly Americanised, though the prologue was read by a veteran British thespian Cedric Hardwicke to add a bit of Shakespearian gravitas.

The biggest change to the narrative was to add a female character, Sylvia Van Buren. She plays the part of a classic ‘damsel-in-distress’. Thus, the narrative could now carry a love story alongside the sci-fi action. The novel’s narrator and scientists are rolled into one, the Pacific Tech physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester, whose scientific credentials are heavily underlined in the script. Instead of playing the role of an ‘everyman’, he can provide expert commentary on the story’s events.

Clayton’s efforts to protect Sylvia run parallel to his participation in the fight against the Martian invaders. Indeed, the narrative twice veers away from the work of his fellow scientists to find the Martians’ weak spot, first following Clayton and Sylvia as they hide from Martian search parties and, second, Clayton’s search for Sylvia midst the devastation of Los Angeles.

The curate in the original novel transmogrifies into the uncle of the heroine. He is a local pastor, a kindly man of peaceful disposition. His role bears no resemblance to that of the curate. He mainly functions as the means that brings Clayton and Sylvia together (he invites the former to stay in town). His death further serves to emphasise the deadly intent of the Martians (and gives Sylvia her first opportunity to have a great big scream!).

The artilleryman is dropped, though there are soldiers who play minor roles in the 1953 version. A number of scientists are also added, the main two, apart from Clayton Forrester, seemingly of foreign extract (after all, in real life, the American military did employ German scientists who had worked for Hitler)

The military counter-attack is updated. Thus, the movie makers add the use of nuclear weapons against the Martians to the story. It underlines the inadequacy of human technology even more dramatically than anything in the original book. Though the dialogue does mention radiation and what today would be called collateral damage, there is no debate in the manner of Independence Day (1996) of the wisdom of using such weapons.

Another theme in the novel is dropped. It is the lengthy reflection on the nature of evolution in which the narrator speculates on how the Martians evolved. Wells even hints that they might represent human destiny. Presumably it was decided that screen dialogue could not sustain such heavyweight material.

Despite the changes noted above and any offence they might have given to purists, it must be said that the core element of the original novel is faithfully preserved. It is that of human arrogance and the corresponding incapacity to recognise that there might be other forces greater than what humans can muster. The very things that aided humankind in the past — cleverness and courage — are shown to be of no avail.

Given that the previous decades had seen an avalanche of scientific discovery and associated technological innovation, something very tangible in daily life, widely celebrated (not least at World Fair expositions) and reflected across the media, it is all the more striking that Pal and his associates were so faithful to the fundamentals of the original text.

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The 2005 adaptation

Spielberg and his colleagues faced several choices when adapting the War of the Worlds novel. One was to eschew the changes made in the 1953 film and go back to the original. This was indeed the pitch of the low budget Pendragon Picture version that also came out in 2005: “The First Authentic Movie Adaptation of the 1898 H. G. Wells Classic Novel”.

In some ways, Spielberg did do just that. In particular he revived the tripod war machines, crewed by what turn out to be literally as well as metaphorically bloodthirsty aliens, something omitted by the 1953 adaptation. In one scene the army does manage to destroy an alien tripod: the invaders had not totally invulnerable to human weaponry. However, there is major departure in that the tripods had been buried by the aliens in pre-history and it is only their crews that descend from the skies (here the film is closer to the TV series of War of the Worlds in which the aliens have been hibernating).

The opening seven paragraphs written by Wells to ‘set the scene’ are, in condensed form, also retained. There are, however, significant omissions from Wells first paragraph. He wrote that the Martians have “intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own”. Thus, straightaway he succinctly but clearly stresses that they are smarter than humans. But Wells also spotlights the fact that they are not supernatural. They are living beings like us, subject to scientific law and potentially vulnerable. He thereby anticipates the story’s ending.

As in the novel and 1953 film, the main character is present to witness the aliens emerge. Like Wells’ narrator and Clayton Forrester, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) survives the initial carnage and flees with his children. On their journey to the grandparents’ home, they get caught up in the alien onslaught and futile attempts by the armed forces to resist it.

As in the novel there is an extended scene with the hero (now plus daughter) trapped in a house, this time with a ‘survivalist’ called Ogilvy, something of an amalgam of the curate and the soldier of the original novel. Other incidents are added, notably the aftermath of a plane crash (amazingly it does not damage their vehicle), a dramatic escape from a ferry sunk by the aliens and, later, from a prison cage slung beneath an alien warcraft.

But the film follows its predecessor and the novel in that the end comes quite suddenly. The death of the aliens is combined with a final family reunion. The novel too briefly has the narrator rejoin his wife and a cousin but concludes with a lengthy speculation by him on what can be learned from the whole affair). Ray Ferrier is, however, not one for either philosophical or scientific musings.

Like the 1953 film, the 2005 version features spectacular action scenes. Yet the battles are subordinate to a story about individual human survival. Like Pal, Spielberg updated the time period to the present but moved the location to New Jersey on the other side of the USA. Another contemporary element is the addition of a roving TV news crew on one point in the story whose film footage is then available to reveal how the aliens arrived on Earth.

The biggest change is the addition of a young boy and girl, the offspring of a not very promising ‘hero’. They constitute the core trio of characters. In the novel and 1953 adaptation, children are scarcely seen and certainly not heard. Ferrier’s ex-wife and grandparents do put in an appearance but they are far from central to the main story.

Contexts

Both film makers and the audiences for their products are all children of their era. The context of both production and consumption will exercice a considerable influence of the content and style of the film as well as the responses to it by its viewers. The world of 1953 might be thought to have been a comparatively tranquil place. After all, societies were recovering from the calamity of World War 2 and some areas, not least homeland America, were experiencing an economic boom. Yet the War had demonstrated the dark side of science and technology, deployed to exterminate millions of concentration camp victims and harnessed to create a bomb that could destroy entire cities in a flash.

Worse, actual fighting had been replaced not by true peace but on-going hostility between two power blocs, the USA-led West and the USSR-dominated East: capitalist ‘democracy’ faced off totalitarian communism. To the horror of many Americans, China had just been ‘lost’ to the Communists. This “Cold War” had turned hot in Korea as local proxies of the two rival superstates, the USA & the USSR, fought each other in a conflict marked by an even higher percentage of civilian casualties than had characterised the 1939-45 war. There might have been global peace but the world was clearly a far from settled place.

Back in the USA, many American school children were given training in what to do if the nuclear attack alert were to be sounded. There were also scares about Communist spies and saboteurs leading to witch hunts led by Senator Joe McCarthy. So when characters in the 1953 film talk about enemy ‘”sneak attacks”, the audience in the USA at least would have had the Russians firmly in mind.

The early 21st century has some continuities with the post-war era but there have been big changes too. It is a world much more dominated by science and technology. Most people lead peaceful and, compared to previous centuries, prosperous lives, albeit with some terrible exceptions, especially in Africa.

Yet between the surface there is, again, much unease and, in many quarters, growing concern about the future. Some threats to well-being are quite concrete: human-caused climate change and other forms of environmental dysfunction, impending oil shortages, mass migration, terrorism, job insecurity and AIDS.

Violent conflict in various parts of the words (e.g. Sudan, Chechnya, Bosnia and many part of the Middle East), perhaps helped to give a harsher edge to the 2005 War of the Worlds. The triumphalism of the 1996 Independence Day has gone, a reflection of the fact that even military victories (e.g. the two Gulf Wars) can fail to deliver the promised dividends of greater homeland security or a lasting political settlement in the conquered lands.

Both 1953 and 2005 were years in which people were likely to be receptive to sci-fi films. The very vitality of the sci-fi has, in part, been its ability to give expression to fears about invasion, actual and potential, in all senses. It could be quite literal in the form of real viruses and diseases. More often it is done figuratively, with, say, aliens from outer space representing the threatening ‘them’, be they imperialists terrorists, immigrants, or simply strangers we do not understand.

Painting pictures of the world.

Whatever the particular treatment of the original story, both films contain values and give off messages about many aspects of society. Imagine, for example, aliens were to make a very quick visit to Earth but were only able to take back copies of the two films to show their fellows back home. Further imagine that such an alien audience sits back to watch the two movies. Now consider the impression they would get of the Earth.

Our alien viewers would get a picture of people. They would deduce that humans take two main forms, ‘male’ and ‘female’. They might also note that human skin colour varies. During their viewing they would be learning much, rightly or wrongly, about the behaviour patterns, status and social roles of these different people. They would see how people dress and what they eat and drink. They might further observe that people belong different social strata. Furthermore, it would be observed that people form organisations such as the armed forces, the church, the political system, and businesses.

Further conclusions might be drawn by our alien viewers about these entities and also social institutions like marriage, work and leisure. Our alien audience would also be given a picture of what America physically looks like, plus some snapshots of other parts of the planet. They would see towns and countryside as well as the insides of particular buildings.

Films, then, inevitably paint picture of people and places. It might be deliberate or accidental, overt or covert but it happens. Intentionally or otherwise, movies cannot but suggest that this or that aspect of life is normal or abnormal, typical or unusual, modern or out-of-date, desirable or undesirable, admirable or despicable, acceptable or intolerable, changeable or unalterable, inevitable or avoidable, and so forth. Of course, different members of the audience may totally agree with, only partially accept or completely reject such messages.

Of course, there will be many  — perhaps most — viewers who will say that they only want to be entertainingly diverted for a couple of hours and do not bother to think about any values and messages the movie might contain. Yet just to make sense of the film, they will be interacting with it. They will have to decide many things: who is who and what kind of people they are, what is the nature of particular situations (safe? dangerous? comedic?, etc), and so forth. They may develop feelings of sympathy or hostility towards certain characters. Audiences will likely be evaluating in other ways: was that a wise decision? is that action justified? was there a better alternative? etc. In doing so, they will be comparing events on screen to ones comparable to them from their own experiences (included ones courtesy of other mass media).

Geography lessons

Mention was made above of Planet Earth yet both films largely equate with the world with the USA. Other countries appear very briefly in the first adaptation, largely represented by stereotypical images. Thus, there is France (inevitably perhaps, a still of the Eiffel Tower) Brazil (the Christ Statue on the dome mountain of Corcovado Sugar Loaf mountain overlooking Rio) and India (Taj Mahal).

The 2005 film does not stray far from the NE states of Virginia, New Jersey and New York. The rest of the world is more or less ignored. On one crowd scene, conversation is heard about other countries. Interestingly there is a hint, albeit contradicted by another character, that Europeans have escaped the same degree of damage as the USA. After all many real Americans think that Europe is decadent and its countries, with the exception of Tony Blair’s Britain, have failed to support American efforts in the so-called War on Terror. Not surprisingly the script of The Simpsons cartoon series had school grounds man Willie sneer at French “cheese-eatin’ surrender monkeys”. The Independence Day by contrast was careful to include considerable plot information about alien attacks all over the planet.

Both films depict built environments as well as more rural areas. Two types of urban America are on view in the 1953 film. There is small town America, complete with both church and cinema. It is depicted as a place of tranquillity and decency. Linda Rosa is a town free from poverty, juvenile delinquency, drug abuse and racial tensions. To some extent the cinematic tradition (most commonly in crime films) of contrasting such homely places with the big, bad city is followed: the worst excesses of human behaviour happen on the streets of Los Angeles.

Small town America is today something of an endangered environment. Sometimes people have drifted away to the big cities. More often, conurbations have sprawled outwards, engulfing once physically and socially separate communities. The first sections of the 2005 film is largely set in that nowhere land of tract housing, business strips, car dealerships, shopping malls and highway interchanges.

It moves to the countryside for the major battle scene and for the sinking of a ferry before returning to suburbia. In passing, it does show that working class Americans do live in poorer environments compared to more successful middle class groups (of course this is all relative: Ray Ferrier is infinitely more prosperous than millions of people in Asia and especially Africa). Roads are a dominant feature of the film as, of course, they are of real America. Indeed, some alien viewers might even think that the Earth is inhabited primarily by cars which in turn seem to harbour two-legged creatures. Ray Ferrier, for example, almost lives beneath a gigantic flyover.

Humankind

Before discussing specific social groups and institutions, it is useful to start with the general picture painted of people as a whole. As noted before, H.G. Wells had not much faith in either the elites of his time but nor was he populist, extolling the virtues of the average citizen.

In the 1953 film a not very rosy view is given of humankind. Much is made, for example, of the way the last chance of defeating the Martians is lost when a  panic-stricken mob destroy the scientists’ van. (The scene is repeated in Independence Day but, seemingly, with more comic intent, as a cut juxtaposes the President’s plea for calm against scenes of mayhem).

The townsfolk of Linda Rosa are none too bright. Their only response to the ‘meteor’ landing is to think of ways of turning it into cash. In the first scenes in Los Angeles, we have see local citizens (including what the script calls “a bum with an unlighted stub of a cigar”) listening to Clayton Forrester on the radio at a local store. Even the “well-dressed” group shown in their home by the radio are rather vulgar (“Siddown!”, the man says to what the script calls a “bird-brained blonde”).

The mass of people shown in the 2005 film are not particularly more attractive than their 1953 counterparts. Perhaps the key scene is this respect is the one where Ray Ferrier and his children arrive at the ferry. Law and order soon break down and the threesome are evicted from their vehicle.

Overall, the two films follow the novel in taking quite a bleak view of human aptitude. After all, it is a bug, the common cold, that defeats the Martians, not human efforts. This might be contrasted against Independence Day in which it is human ingenuity which comes up with a technological weapon (a computer virus) with which to defeat the aliens.

Deep down, the 2005 film is the darker of the two. The 1953 characters claimed the aliens must have weak spots that could be exploited. No-one has any suggestions, let alone answers, in the second film. There are neither patriotic speeches (Independence Day) nor affirmations of religious faith (1953 film). Conspicuously absent is the strong feel-good element of many 90s movies (even the depiction of the Titanic catastrophe, with its upbeat, happy ending in the James Cameron 1997 treatment). It is true that the main character, Ray Ferrier, does cope after a fashion. Yet images of panic-stricken crowds, columns of helpless refugees and desperate mobs predominate. Even the soldiers mutely stare as they are taken to the front. There is none of the jocularity of the fighter pilots of Independence Day.

Representing Gender

If our mythical aliens came from Planet Male Chauvinism, they would feel quite at home with the 1953 film. The most obvious issue about the 1953 film in terms of representation is indeed its sexism. The screenplay does strengthen the female part in the Wells story. What the women do, however, is stereotypical in the extreme. The new heroine, Sylvia Van Buren, is a homely local girl who teaches “Library Science”. When she meets Forrester Clayton, she does not recognise him at first and talks rather dreamily about what a wonderful scientist the man is (“They had him on the cover of Time. You’ve got to rate to get that!”)

Before the first major battle, she is seen serving coffee and doughnuts to the waiting troops. This is but a sideshow to her main role which is to be scared out of her wits and scream for all she is worth (though she is also prone to fainting). To be fair, she does pause for a breath and she uses the time to get back to preparing a meal for ‘her man’ when they are trapped in a ruined house together.

High Science is also a bit beyond a mere female teacher of Librarianship. At the scientists’ conference, “Sylvia glances at them in turn, not understanding, but sensing the importance of what they are saying”, according to the screenplay. At the end of the film when all seems lost but she is reunited with Forrester, a radiant smile is seen to cross her face (the world may be on the brink of destruction but she has recovered her man!).

In Clayton Forrester’s Gene Barry, we have what, in 1953, would pass for an action hero. Initially he is seen wearing glasses (after all, he is a scientist!) but then discards them. He is considerably younger than the main character of the radio broadcast and novel but no teen idol. In an interesting example of how language changes, the script says that Clayton has a “butch haircut”.

By 2005, the hero has changed into what might best be seen as the Fallen Man. Though Clayton Forrester refers to a lonely side to his life (see below), he is clearly competent (and is duly rewarded with a prospective wife to keep him company). Ray Ferrier, by contrast, exudes inadequacy. He is someone who clearly deserved to get divorced and who merits the contempt of his children. His ex-wife is clearly several steps up the social ladder from him on the evidence of her house and parents. The mise-en-scene of his house speaks volumes (basically it’s a pigsty).

At the same time, he clearly finds little satisfaction in work. Essentially he is drifting through life. Only through the struggle to protect his offspring does he redeem himself (and even then only to a limited extent since he is last seen standing alone in the street, left out rather like Ethan Edwards at the end of John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers).

In common with several modern films, there is a strong element of masculinity-in-crisis. Ray Ferrier is shown to be struggling to command the respect of his children. At various points, both comment on his shortcomings. The son in particular is constructed to be that modern breed, the alienated youth who openly flouts adult preferences and decisions. The lad gets on well with his sister but this is largely a narrative device to create one counterpoint to a seemingly inadequate father.

The low point comes in a diner where, for comfort, Ferrier’s daughter clings to her brother for comfort, not her father. The father is often filmed in direct close-up with his heads in his hands before looking at the camera with a dazed and helpless expression on his face. His challenge to the survivalist in the cellar is born out of desperation, rather than a serious plan to save himself and his daughter.

Women do not play much of a part in the 2005 film. Ray Ferrier’s wife turns up to leave the children with him but then disappears from the film. Of course, there are other female characters. Rather revealingly, two are credited as “the hysterical woman” and the “panicky woman”. Others are shown in the conventional roles of “neighbour with toddler” and “upset mother”. The film does, however, a real person, Roz Abrams, a veteran TV reporter and news anchor for almost 30 years, most recently with CBS 2 News in New York. In doing so, the 2005 War of the Worlds does reflect to a certain extent the progress made by women towards greater equality of opportunity since 1953.

Age Concern

Anyone seeking to find out about human population demographics would be wise not to trust these two films, especially the latter one. In the 1953 one, the average person seems to be middle-aged. There are a few older citizens and very few young ones. In the America of the time the baby boom was underway but toddlers and babies in prams are conspicuous for their absence.

There is also no generation gap on view in 1953. Yet that new species, the teenager, keen to reject parental ways, had already been born. It might be remembered that this was the year of the Marlon Brando film The Wild One with its bike-riding tearaways. But it is easy to exaggerate. Most young people in that year were more familiar with the drugstore soda fountain than real drugs or really anti-social behaviour. The wholesome dance to which Clayton Forrester goes with Sylvia and her uncle is not too out of keeping with much of the then Middle America.

Apart from the gigantic explosion in human numbers, the biggest demographic change since the 50s has been the ‘greying’ of society. Yesteryear’s baby boomers have grown and many are now grandparents. The average lifespan has shot up. Yet this huge army of quite senior citizens is, for the most part, invisible in the 2005 film.

This is indeed the dominant practice in much of the media, the main exception being the representation of the more elderly as “old gits” and “grumpy old men/women”. Only a few films and TV shows show something more positive. Look at the proactive senior citizens of the film Cocoon (1985) or their equivalent, Marty in TV’s Frasier. Of course, the demographic of the core cinema audience is rather younger than society as a whole so it is not surprising that there is such a youthful bias in many films today.

There is another change in society that the 2005 film reflects, a phenomenon that some social critics have called the ‘infantilisation of society’. It is reflected in another new species, the kidult. He (it is more a male trend) has childish tastes, wants whatever he wants right away (no delayed gratification for him) and shies away from adult responsibility. The result is, to use a related term, “PeterPandemonium”. The 2005 film’s Ray Ferrier would seem to fit there the bill. At one point, he even asks his kids what to do.

The opposite side of this coin are ‘hothouse’ children who have grown (or had to grow) too fast for their own good. The very young, for example, are now the target of intensive advertising while pop culture has sunk its teeth into the pre-teens. To some extent, Rachel and Robbie Ferrier reflect this real phenomenon of accelerated child development.

Family Ways

Family values are very much to the fore in the 1953 film. Clayton Forrester is initially characterised as a work-obsessed and lonely bachelor who lives on campus (“I haven’t any family”). He has to eat in “coffee shops and restaurants”. He even does not know how to do the right steps at the square dance at the town hall! Later when trapped in the ruined house with Sylvia, he says that “a big family must be fun imagine it makes you feel you belong to something”. Sylvia might get a man but Clayton gets his full manhood. Marriage and the raising of children within its bosom, it seems, are normal and decent according to this movie.

Yet it can be argued that things are not so simple. Take, for example, the scene when the Martian probe touches Sylvia. It may simply be a horror film convention. Yet one critic, James Gilbert, speculates that there may be sexual undertones here. Clayton does not lay a hand on her (though elsewhere he roughly pushes her around) but the alien seems prepared to transgress proper decency.

Gilbert goes further and suggests that the romance plot is there precisely because conventional structures such as the family were widely felt to be at risk due to social change. Certainly World War 11 had shaken up many gender roles. Women had done skilled work in factories and shipyards. Many a soldier had received what were called “Dear John” in which they were informed that their partners were leaving them for someone else. Returning veterans sometimes found it hard to settle into domestic routine. The 1953 film restores some semblance of traditional order.

By 2005, things really have changed according to Spielberg’s representation of family life. The central character is a man who has lost his wife and is unable to relate to the children that the marriage produced (such characters are often washed-up cops, especially on TV). Family life is shown to have fractured further in that the ex-wife not only seems happy with her new husband but is also pregnant by him. Father-son conflicts replace those of mother versus daughter common in old weepies like Mildred Pierce (1945).

The 2005 film represents a significant slice of social reality. Roughly 50% of American marriages end in divorce. For well over 20 years, approximately one million American children per year have been lived in a house split by divorce. The peak year for divorce was 1981 but a subsequent decline reflects the fall in marriage rates, not a trend towards couples sticking together. Central to the decline of the family as the fundamental ‘glue’ of society is what David Blankenhorn’s eponymous book (1995) calls Fatherless America and David Popenoe (1996) A World without Fathers. Ray Ferrier would seem to fit the picture.

All together?

Community values are strongly evident in the 1953 films. They are embodied in the Linda Rosa townsfolk as well as its lead characters. Presumably such message had much appeal after the traumas of World War 2. That they could be lost due to actual or imagined hostile forces gave the film even greater significance, if only at a sub-conscious level. Gilbert points out that it is Religious Faith, that fundamental cementing element of (Conservative) America, that saves the day.

There is also a certain element of community in the 2005 film. Ray Ferrier is seen mixing with his neighbours and he seems to enjoy good relationships with his workmates, albeit only in the form of male joshing. Yet, subsequent to the alien attack, the co-operative spirit quickly falters. Ray and his children are very much on their own in their flight to safety. There are encounters with a TV crew and with other refugees but there is little sense of people uniting in the face of danger. Indeed Ray’s goal is to dump his children with his former wife and family. Such representation might be contrasted with, say, the tradition in many British films, especially war movies, of collective endeavour.

Central to any analysis of the human community depicted on screen is the representation of race and ethnicity. It might be remembered that 1953 was part of that period when Afro-Americans usually got to play just big fat and sassy slave Mammy (e.g. Hattie McDaniel in the 1939 Gone With the Wind) or scared servants whose frightened eyes and flashing teeth shine out in the dark (e.g. Willie Best in the 1940 The Ghost Breakers).

The America of the 1953 War of the Worlds is largely a whites-only environment. As news of the Martian attack is broadcast over the radio, we see shots representing all aspect of life: a store, a home and a factory. Later we see street scenes. All feature only whites. Yet the existence of hispanic elements in the American population is recognised by the character of Salvatore (“a swarthy Mexican”) who talks in that stereotypical kind of voice heard in the Pat Bone hit record ‘Speedy Gonzales’, courtesy of the famous voice actor Mel Blanc). Salvador is “good-natured” though a bit slow, closer to the stereotype of the sleepy and rather cowardly peasants seen in movies like The Magnificent Seven (1960). Other national stereotypes are only obvious in the original script. Thus the Italian attaché is “fat” and “suave”, the British one “has a trim moustache, three rows of ribbons, greying hair”.

Judged from a few scenes, the America of the 2005 film would seem to reflect the real life ethnic and racial diversity of the country. Ray Ferrier is shown as having Brazilian neighbours, for example. Nor are there any cardboard cut-out characters like the 1953 Salvatore. Yet the point shouldn’t be stretched too far. If the film were to be compared to some of the later Vietnam War movies or even to Independence Day, it might be concluded that Hollywood is still not totally at home to the human diversity of the real world. Unaware viewers would never guess that Afro-Americans constitute a majority in many big American cities, including the capital, Washington DC.

Consumerism and Social Class

Above, it was imagined what aliens might make of the Earth depicted in the two films. It might also be asked what the majority of the real planet’s human inhabitants might think of the lifestyles on view. For many, many millions today, the wealth of even the Americans of the 1953 film would seem quite rich in physical terms. Cars are taken for granted while the hero has access to a private plane. Everyone is well fed, equally well dressed, living in general comfort and comparative ease.

The affluence of the 2005 characters is even more striking, their houses endowed with all kinds of electronic gadgets and other trappings of affluence. No-one seems to go short of anything, prior to the sudden disruption of their lives. Of course, on real planet Earth, grinding poverty, lacking very basics such as clean running water, proper sanitation and adequate shelter are still common. One real life disaster in 2005, Hurricane Katrina, revealed just how many Americans in places like New Orleans live in very tight circumstances, even if they do not suffer the famines that stalk parts of Africa.

The 2005 film does, however, make much more of the differences in wealth and lifestyle within America. According to the 1953 film, the USA is a comparatively classless society. But the second adaptation does spotlight that Ray is clearly poorer than, say, his ex-wife and her new husband or his old in-laws. However, this is more a device to underline his failure as a citizen than serious social criticism. With regard to contemporary USA it is left to maverick directors like Michael Moore to put the realities of class division on screen.

With God on our side

Mention has been made of the positive changes to the man of God in the 1953 film. The film’s genuflections towards religiosity go further, however. The novel’s curate is turned a pastor at the local church and uncle to the heroine, Sylvia. He is a much more attractive character, wanting well for his niece and attempting to make peace with the aliens.

Churches figure prominently in the film, especially toward the climax when Sylvia seeks comfort in a church. Furthermore, in what many might feel to be a jarring finale, a voice-over gives the impression that God had saved his flock by the forethought of adding microbes to his Earthly domain. “It is the littlest things that God in his wisdom had put upon the Earth that save mankind, “ intones a voice-over. Indeed, it looks as if the prayers heard in the soundtrack have been directly rewarded and the Martians duly smitten. In the background, a choir intones a great ‘Amen’.

It is not clear whether the film makers totally misread what in fact are ironic comments by Wells in the novel or simply overrode the author’s intentions. Producer George Pal was a practising Catholic. Furthermore, it was common at the time to talk of the then ‘real’ enemy as “Godless Communism” so it seems only natural that the ‘good guys’ are decent Christian folk.

Though a Born-Again Christianity is a strong force in contemporary America, the 2005 film has fewer religious strands than its predecessor. There is no curate/pastor nor do any scenes take place in a church. Student of Planet Earth might conclude it had shed Organised Religion. Instead there is something of a spiritual void into which has stepped a very materialistic and selfish individualism reflected not just the character of Ray Ferrier but the general lifestyles on show.

Armed Might

The armed forces are another social institution that features in many sci-fi films, not just war movies. In the 1953 films, military leaders are shown to be rather foolhardy: “If they start anything, we can blast them right off the earth!” and, later, “The Air Force’ll take care of these babies now!” In 2005, the armed forces are evident but they are only seen moving to the ‘front’. There is a big battle but it happens literally over the hill. It scarcely matches the formal set-piece in the Pal/Haskin treatment. Nor are  there scenes with generals and scientists planning their next move. The White House, Pentagon and the like are simply absent in Spielberg’s version (cf Independence Day).

It should be noted that the American military has largely recaptured the public relations ground it lost during the Vietnam War and some soldiers (Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf) have become popular national figures. Presumably Spielberg’s choice reflects a decision to focus the narrative on Mr. Everyman (Ray Ferrier), thereby displacing other potential players. That said, the armed forces are mainly shown in roles that protect civilians, something of a positive depiction.

Scientists are, of course, a staple of sci-fi films. Their depiction in the 1953 is a direct echo of Wells. Only the scientists seem to have a clue: “If they’re mortal, they must have mortal weaknesses. They’ll be stopped — somehow!” But, like soldiers, they too are marginalised in the 2005 film, perhaps for similar reasons.

Though the 1953 film is certainly alive to the destructive powers of the nuclear bomb, civil nuclear energy is still being represented in a very positive light. Clayton Forrester is introduced in Sylvia’s dialogue as the “man behind the new atomic engines”. The great disillusionment would only come in the wake of the Windscale fire, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and various other accidents at nuclear power plants in subsequent years. The 2005 film largely ignores human technological capabilities.

The representation of violence has tended one way in American cinema. Crudely it is: “peaceful gestures may be fine in theory but, in practice, let’s blast ‘em”. Thus in Sergeant York (1941) and Shenandoah (1965), previously pacifist-minded men learn that they have to take up the gun while the Quaker wife of High Noon (1952) concedes that her sheriff husband was right to stay and fight.

Both films echo this tradition, though in a rather more muted way. The Martians kill the first people they meet and when pastor Collins suggest to the Colonel that “couldn’t you try to communicate with them first”, he is disdainfully ignored and duly gets killed for his own efforts to make peaceful contact. Yet human resort to violence gets nowhere so the film ends on a rather ambivalent note. The 2005 film is fairly similar. Ray Ferrier’s son feels that he must rush off and help the military but it is depicted as a foolish act.

Interestingly, both films exclude one group that usually muscles its way into both cinematic and real-life disasters: politicians. There is no speech of encouragement such as President Whitmore doing his Henry V speech in Independence Dayor the 1998 Deep Impact’s President Beck solemnly promising that America will be rebuild. Perhaps, in the aftermath of World War 2, it was assumed that the military, aided by scientists, would call the shots. In other sci-fi films of the time like the 1951 When Worlds Collide, politicians do appear but are incapable of responding to the danger.

Messages & Responses

It is hard to know what ideas audiences took away from these films. Certainly, both were very popular but it might be assumed that most cinema goers simply went to see a movie that would entertain them, least great special effects (for which the 1953 film duly won an Oscar). Overall, the first movie is a rather gloomy affair. It seems to say that all that can be done is to trust in God (though some might read this as a reassuring message). This thought and many of the stereotypes discussed above probably fitted the dominant mindset of the time.

The image, for example, of small town as country bumpkins probably meshed with the perceptions of many viewers in city cinemas. The ready resort to maximum violence would also have rung true with those aware of the life-and-death struggles against the Japanese in the Pacific War a few years before or against the human waves of North Korean and Chinese soldiers in the contemporaneous Korean War. Above all, the USA has a strong Christian element with whom the religious overtones of the films would be quite consonant.

A modern viewer might find much of the America on view in the 1953 film quite mundane, if not downright dull. Yet this might be the part of the charm of the film for audiences at the time. After all, it was the very ‘ordinariness’ and comforting moderation of Presidential Eisenhower, not just his war record, that had helped him get elected the year before in 1952.

Moreover, the fundamental institutions of society — home, family, church, army, science — are tested but survive. They might not the agents of victory. That is God’s hand. They may give way at the edges. There is looting and mass panic. But society does not implode as in the original novel. Midst the gloom, then, there is a reassuring light.

Above all, the film speaks to the fears and suspicions of the Cold War age. America might have become the leading superpower but it was vulnerable none the less, just as the film suggests. Of course, the dominant discourse has long been one of Progress. Certainly mainstream politicians compete to promise More! Better! Bigger! But, perhaps, deep down, many people are more sceptical and appreciate the potential for things to turn out quite differently. Films like War of the Worldsgive voice to such hushed fears. How many cinema goers at the time made any connection between the Red Planet, the red colours in the film and the Red Menace of Communism is anyone’s guess. Probably most just enjoyed a scary alien invasion movie.

To modern audiences, the religious tone in particular might strike some today as rather corny. Yet it is no more odd than that found in recent films directed by Mel Gibson (e.g. Passion of Christ, 2004) or in which he has appeared (e.g. Signs, 2002). Indeed the evocation of God’s hand by politicians like George Bush could be seen as a greater cause for concern, against which Pal’s treatment is rather mild.

Use and gratifications 2005

The second adaptation affords both similar and different pleasures for its audiences. It certainly offers quite spectacular special effects. Thus, there are many ingredients taken from the disaster movie genre. Assorted people are variously crushed and incinerated while the trio of survivors manage to get away (with balls of flame literally in hot pursuit at one point).

En route they meet more people but they too are destined to die. Indeed, their deaths are customarily spectacular: a burning train, army vehicles out of control and aflame, and a capsizing ferry. Of course, the conventions of the disaster movie prohibit instant and total disaster (as might be inflicted by a truly superior alien adversary). That would finish the movie too soon!

The alien onslaught is told from the eyes of one American family fighting to survive it. To that extent, it might appeal more to those sections of the audience that have been saturated with soap opera and the like. It is also custom and practice in news and documentary programmes now to focus on the plight of a handful of victims of, say, an earthquake or tsunami.

The ‘hero’ is the film is much more of an ‘ordinary Joe’ than his ‘predecessors’ and as such constitutes someone in the narrative with whom large sections of the audience can identify. As would be the case with most people in real or imaginary wars, he does not know the ‘big picture’, he is uncertain what to do and simply has to cope the best he can. He is no hero but nor is he, ultimately, a complete coward. He can rise to the occasion — as do many ordinary people in real life calamities.

The grim tone should not, however, be exaggerated. After all, the Ferrier family does survive, father has reconnected with his children, while ex-wife and grandparents made it as well. The damage done is not beyond repair: many buildings still stand and at the end the proper authorities seem in control again. Just as the real USA survived September 11th so too does it absorb fictional blows in the 2005 film.

The extent to which the 2005 film connects to public concerns about terrorist assault can only be a matter of speculation. The destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York was, of course captured live on TV for all the world to see, epitomising this new kind of war. Citizens of the USA, UK, Spain and elsewhere have become used to appeals to be vigilant and to rally together in the face of this common foe.  It is perhaps a sign of the times when the script, consciously or otherwise, has Rachel ask: “Is it terrorists?” on the occasion of the first alien attacks.

Though there have been large-scale dissent against many aspects of the war against terrorism, especially the invasion of Iraq and what many feel to be bogus justifications of it, a film whose subject is a sudden onslaught by an utterly ruthless foe is going to resonate widely. So too will the replication of specific images from events like September 11th, none more so that the sight of body parts flying through the air, pieces of crashed aeroplanes or people sticking up pictures of loved ones who are missing.

America is very much shown as a victim. It has done nothing to bring the on-screen calamities down upon itself. In the real world, there are many, not least in the anti-globalisation and other movements, who might disagree. They might argue that, to some extent, the USA — or certain sections of it — has brought many problems on itself, not least by consuming a grossly disproportionate share of the world’s resources, ignoring other concerns (climate change etc) and generally trampling over other cultures through a more insidious process of Americanisation. But this is not how most Americans will see it and the film concurs with this view.

Whose picture?

It is one thing to try and describe the picture thus painted. It is another to analyse who was behind this representation and what were their motives in creating it. Reference has already been made to the way the events and popular attitudes of the time could have coloured the minds of both film makers and audiences alike.

Yet individuals are not just passive creatures, simply reflecting the dominant way of thinking about, valuing and doing things at the time. There have been plenty of movie makers, for example, who have gone against the grain, often risking commercial failure and public opprobrium. So it is necessary to look behind the camera and consider those making the choices about settings, characters, storylines and so forth that create the world of a film.

At first sight, both films would seem to be largely the product of white, middle-aged American men, the George Pal/Byron Haskins team (the screenplay writer, cinematographer and editor were all male too) and Steven Spielberg (ditto). In 1953 the three producers were all men. By 2005, however, two of the three producers of the film were women, though most of the female crew seem to figure largely in roles such as casting, costume, make-up and set design (in 1953 some of these roles were also filled by men).

Of the team behind the 1953 War of the Worlds perhaps George Pal is the most interesting and the one to have planted any specific values and messages in the movie. George Pal was of Hungarian extraction and had worked at the famous UFA studio in Berlin before he came to the USA at the age of 31 in 1939 (he had left Germany when Hitler came to power). He had long shown an interest in fantasy since his stop motion Puppetoon animations of the 40s for Paramount.

His first sci-fi film Destination Moon (1950) was a hymn to private enterprise since it is American businessmen who are behind the lunar spaceship. Pal also celebrated science. Clayton Forrester and his colleague are shown to be humanity’s only hope in not just War of the Worlds but also When Worlds Collide made two years before (industrialists also help again). In the 1960 Time Machine, Pal again celebrates another adventurous spirit.

The depiction of utterly destructive aliens in the 1953 War of the Worlds possibly owes something to Pal’s experience of the Nazis. In 1942, he created an extermination-bent mechanical army in his 1942 Tulips Shall Grow. Given that he found shelter in the USA after fleeing Holland, it is not surprising that there is no deep questioning of American values, institutions, or lifestyles in any of the films he produced or directed. Indeed the spirit of adventure and free enterprise seems to run through several of his creations.

It is even less clear whether War of the Worlds reflects any specific ideological on the part of its director, Byron Haskins. Other films such as The Naked Jungle (1954) and The Power (1967) depict strong men (not unlike Clayton Forrester) who suddenly have to face terrible ‘alien’ dangers, respectively an army of ants and a murderous super-brained man. There is a certain emptiness in all three of the central heroes, men who in one way or another, are loners (Forrester’s being his lack of a domestic life).

Perhaps it is the comparatively long personal scenes in what after all is a sci-fi action film that are the distinction contribution from Haskins. There is more emotional depth to the characters than is common in modern blockbuster spectacles, the 2005 adaptation included.

Spielberg

Spielberg is sometimes singled out as a movie ‘auteur’, putting a distinctively personal stamp on his films. Yet it is hard to draw some direct line between the 2005 film’s representation of the world and some ‘Spielbergian’ worldview. Many have noted a certain tendency towards sentiment, sometimes of  a quite cloying kind, in his films. Thus in the otherwise blood-soaked Saving Private Ryan (1998) there is a tear-jerking epilogue in which the now ageing Ryan is reassured that he has lived a good life and has thus merited the sacrifices made on his behalf. In 2005, such sentiment is rather less evident, though there is a quite mawkish scene in which Ray Ferrier sings a Beach Boys song to his daughter (it certainly brings bitter tears to the eyes of any music lover!).

Many films by Spielberg have a wide-eyed wonder at the world with a faith that some beneficent force (not necessarily Godly) tips the balance in favour of good  over evil. Sometimes that awe has innocent, almost childlike qualities. Many of his films seem to reflect his own desire for a simpler  more straightforward world, a desire that surely resonates strongly with millions of people. The values are homespun and down-to-earth. Spielberg celebrates home, family, inclusion, and tender, loving care.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the overall war against the alien invaders in the 2005 film is kept in the background. War of the Worlds is essentially about a struggle by a parent to protect his kids. Even the major battle against the alien tripods happens over the brow of a hill while the camera and editing keep the focus on the man, his son and daughter.

Central to Spielberg’s concerns have been child-parent relationships and the family home. On the negative side there is the recurrent theme of loneliness and estrangement. More positively there is reunion, acceptance and belonging. At the beginning of War of the Worlds, the family is in complete disarray: the parents are divorced, the children adrift. But, by the end of the film, though marriage may be not have been healed, everyone is back together again. Even the narrative logic of the film is sacrificed for the sake of a quite cloying finale as father and daughter not only find the mother and grandparents safe and sound in a street that the war somehow missed but the son turns up, having been last seen disappearing onto a fire-swept battlefield.

Ultimately there is one thing that connects to the two films, apart from the generic conventions of science fiction. It is the feeling that peace, prosperity and security cannot be taken for granted. Instead they are brittle gains that can be swept away in a flash. Once all the spectacular special effects and specifics of their storylines have been forgotten, it is this sense of fundamental insecurity that lingers the longest. Given the increasingly troubled times that seem to lie ahead in actuality, perhaps, metaphorically speaking, they both did look to the future.

 

© Sandy Irvine,

Newcastle Upon Tyne

26 November 2019

 

Bibliography

Ash, B., ed. (1977). The Visual Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. Harmony House.

Benshoff, H. & S. Griffin (2003). America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Blackwell.

Berger, A. (1992). Popular Culture Genres. Sage.

Berger, A. (1997). Narratives in Popular Culture, Media & Everyday Life. Sage.

Conrad, P. (2005). ‘Why We Love Aliens’. The Observer, Sunday June 12, 2005

Freer, I. (2001). The Complete Spielberg. Virgin Books

Gilbert, J. (1976). ‘Wars of the Worlds’. Jnl. Of Popular Culture, Vol. 10: 326-336.

Hardy, P., ed. The Aurum Film Encyclopaedia: Science Fiction. Aurum Pr.

Hardy, S. (2005). ‘H.G. Wells: The Man Who Knew Too Much’. Sight and Sound, July 2005: 26-29

King, G & T. Krzywinska. (2000). Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace. Wallflower Pr.

Korn, E. (1996). ‘The Truth Isn’t Out There, It’s Down Here’. The Guardian, Friday, August 9, 1996.

Lacey, N. (1998). Image and Representation. Macmillan

Newman, K. (2002). Science Fiction/Horror. BFI Sight & Sound Reader

Preston, P. (2005). ‘Popcorn from the Rubble’. The Guardian, Monday, July 4, 2005.

Redmond, S., ed. (2004). Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader. Wallflower Pr.

Roberts, A. (2000). Science Fiction. Routledge

Stewart, C. et al (2001). Media and Meaning: An Introduction. BFI Publishing

Taylor, D.J. (2005). ‘Mars attacks! Again!’ The Guardian, Friday, June 17, 2005

Telotte, J. (2001). Science Fiction Film. CUP

 

The website Wikipedia has very useful entries on H. G. Wells, War of the Worlds, and the two film adaptations.

 

‘Trotsky’: Netflix delves into the television dustbin of history

TV Trotsky

Russian drama series about Trotsky on Netflix

Fake news has a very close cousin: fake history. Masters of both are the Russian media under the rule of the ruthless kleptocracy headed by Vladimir Putin. Russian television marked the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution with a glossy 8-part serial ‘Trotsky’, made by the production company Sreda. First shown on the country’s premier TV channel, it is now available on Netflix (the team behind the production will simply be called Sreda).

The series is well acted and its action scenes are effectively mounted. If nothing else, it moves along at a fair pace, covering a lot of ground between Trotsky’s political youth and final hours. But, politically, it is most remarkable for its distortion of Trotsky’s life and times. Indeed, it is so bad at times that is perversely compelling viewing: some terrible movies have, of course, become cult films. I could not help watching all of it, given a lifelong interest in the history of the Russian revolution in particular.[i] To be fair, many people probably will learn something from the series. I for one was only vaguely aware, for example, of the ‘Schastny’ affair in which Trotsky does indeed seem to have played a reprehensible role.[ii]

The events of 1917 have an enduring fascination, not least because it was one of those rare occasions when a long established regime was well and truly uprooted, replaced by one radically different. Though society and technology today are very different, there are political lessons to be learned from the advent of Bolshevik rule, not least about what went so very badly wrong afterwards. Indeed, debate about the degeneration of the Russian Revolution may well run, run and run. Thus, it is still debated whether the Bolshevik Revolution was a genuine mass uprising or a putsch (or, perhaps, a mixture of the two). All sorts of questions, from the validity of ‘revolutionary’ politics and of highly centralised ‘vanguard’ parties to tolerance of dissent and the use of political violence, are posed.

The narrative of the whole series is structured around a series of flashbacks, moving forward in time, during a series of interviews late in his life Trotsky is portrayed as having with Frank Jacson (alias of Stalinist agent Ramón Mercader, the assassin of Trotsky in August 1940). Such lengthy exchanges never took place. Quite incredibly, Jacson is portrayed as a young idealist who, even more amazingly, openly supports Stalin in his conversations with Trotsky. At one point, Sreda’s Jacson is shown at one point to be so nice he cannot even kill a rabbit whereas Trotsky merrily bashes it on the head. In reality, Jacson had deviously wormed his way into Trotsky’s circle in his then Mexico City household. in order to murder the former Bolshevik leader on NKVD (and Stalin’s) instructions.

The main linking motifs between the various episodes in Trotsky’s life are a collage of events (mainly of death and destruction) and the military train Trotsky used to travel between fronts in the Russian Civil War. The latter becomes a fearsome monster in its own right, billowing smoke. It is often seen from below as it hurtles past, carrying its ‘angel of death’ on his way to administer more executions, including the decimation of Bolshevik units[iii] and, in one scene, a massacre of innocent peasants.

On top of these is a series of hallucinations in which Trotsky thinks he is being confronted by people from his past. These episodes are mainly used to underline Trotsky’s guilt, his vulnerability and, now and again, his remorse. Perhaps they are also meant to point to someone losing his mind and even wishing his own demise. In the final scene, Trotsky is indeed shown provoking Jacson who almost then acts in self-defence, contradicting all known facts.[iv]

Sreda apparently chose to depict Trotsky as some sort of rock and roll star.[v] It is a choice that instantly dumbs down the subject matter. Indeed, ‘Trotsky’ looks like some sort of over-egged mix of rock biopic/rock opera such as ‘Rocketman’ and ‘Tommy’, into which ingredients from older crime thrillers, such as the gangster’s ‘moll’, have been stirred.

The series received a right royal rubbishing on websites linked to the modern day Trotskyist movement. Clearly, its adherents will tolerate no negative criticism of the “Old Man”. Sreda have indeed bent the stick too far one way. Yet Trotsky and Trotskyism have several shortcomings, some of which, albeit in a crudely ham-fisted way, Sreda spotlights.

Monsters on the rampage

Trotsky is depicted as quite some monster: a psychotically egotistical, utterly amoral, merciless, sex-mad megalomaniac whose sole motivation is personal ambition. Everything is grist to what is portrayed as his murderous mill. Not only is he a bad man to have in charge, he is also a bad husband and parent. He shamelessly betrays his two wives. This brute would even sacrifice his own children, at one point using his son to provide a shield from a would-be assassin.[vi]. At one point, his children shut the door in his face for neglecting them.

Frequently, Trotsky is shown spouting forth about freedom and justice but, for him according to Sreda’s representation, the toiling masses are just sad dupes, there to be used. We see a long list of people sacrificed by Trotsky. His Messiah complex is apparently such that, having taken power in Russia, he seemingly gives it away to Lenin such is his belief in his mission to liberate the entire world. His ruthlessness is such that he will break any number of eggs to make his ‘omelette’. According to Sreda, he is largely responsible for the stinking mess that was thereby cooked. The character of Jacson points out that Stalin only did what Trotsky would have done, an argument that reduces their differences to one of mere personality antipathy (in which case, the question is begged why several veteran Bolsheviks bothered to sign the ‘Platform of the Left Opposition’)[vii]

Fawning women apart, this ‘rock star’ actually has only one real ‘fan’, a drunken sailor with puppy dog devotion. This portrait too is a travesty of the real-life Nikolai Markin, one of the unsung heroes of the Russia Revolution and someone warmly praised in Trotsky himself in his own memoirs.[viii] We first meet him extorting money from a Jewish pawn broker. It is less than clear why someone depicted as a violent anti-Semitic should ‘fall’ for Trotsky, a Jew. Rather predictably, Markin is also depicted as falling for Trotsky’s wife as well, for which act a wrathful Trotsky, elsewhere shown in the series to be an exponent of free love, sends Markin to his death during the Civil War.

In the narrative, Trotsky’s wicked qualities are vouched for by none other than Sigmund Freud. I cannot find any solid references to their meeting but Sreda conjures a head-to-head meeting at a lecture Freud is giving. ‘Smart Alec’ Trotsky points out the flaws in Freud’s argument but this is merely a device to allow Freud to deliver a quick diagnosis (just standing on a staircase for a few moments) of Trotsky’s ruthless lust for power and lack of any mercy (apparently Freud could tell by just watching Trotsky’s eyes: no need for lengthy diagnoses on a psychiatrist’s couch!).

Where Sreda is on stronger ground is Trotsky’s streak of personal vanity and intellectual arrogance. In his history of the Revolution, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, John Reed does write of Trotsky’s “pale, cruel face” when, in his most famous speech at the October Congress of Soviets, he verbally consigned protesting Menshevik delegates to the “dustbin of history”. At the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk negotiations in 1918, Trotsky’s haughtiness was commented upon by a number of those present.

Trotsky does seem to have rubbed up the wrong way people who might otherwise have supported him. Lenin’s last testament, for example talked of his “too far-reaching self-confidence”[ix] Trotsky was also viewed as a ‘Johnny-Come-Lately’ by some veteran Bolsheviks, something Stalin skilfully exploited. Arguably Trotsky’s conceit blinded him to the threat posed by Stalin and other opponents.

Later in life, Trotsky continued to behave in the same counter-productive way, dismissing groups that, basically, were on the same side, notably POUM in Spain (the crime of ‘centrism’ being a recurrent term of abuse). The Trotskyist movement was to be similarly warped by a tendency for rancorous hair-splitting and enfeebling splits, political DNA arguably inherited from  Trotsky himself.

Trotsky - monster 1

Villain of the piece

All through the series, Trotsky is shown committing foul deeds. Thus, he is portrayed as the prime culprit behind the execution of the imprisoned Tsar and his family. In reality, he played no part. The Ural Regional Soviet took the initial decision. At roughly the same time, Lenin and just 6 other members of the Central Committee back in Moscow also decided that the act was necessary (to stop the Tsar being released by White armies and becoming a unifying point for anti-Bolshevik forces). It is true that, later, Trotsky did excuse the brutal murder of the Tsar’s family but that does not mean he was behind the deeds. Perhaps Sreda might have paid attention to surviving Romanovs who blame Lenin, not Trotsky, for what happened to their forebears.

He certainly did harsh things to win the Civil War yet his measures were not very different to some of the those employed by Abraham Lincoln to shore up Union troops during the American Civil War — war is a cruel taskmaster. It is worth remembering the view of William Graves, American general and commander of US troops in Siberia at the time: “I am well on the side of safety when I say that the anti-Bolsheviks killed one hundred people in Eastern Siberia, to every one killed by the Bolsheviks”. White general Anton Denikin in particular perpetrated many pogroms.

A more responsible series might have shown what the ‘other’ side was doing. Thus, we get to hear of the assassination attempt on Lenin in 1918 (read off from a ticker tape). But we only get to see the execution of would-be murderer Fanny Kaplan and gruesome disposal of her body. No context is provided. More generally, we only find out indirectly how soon the Bolshevik regime was threatened by ‘White’ counter-revolutionaries and the Czech Legion in Siberia. As far as I can recall, no mention is made of the 10 countries that sent troops against the Bolsheviks, including Britain. These efforts were accompanied by various plots supported by foreign agents such as Bruce Lockhart.

The Bolsheviks did indeed resort to severe repression but they understandably felt they were literally fighting for their lives (Another Bolshevik leader, Uritsky, was killed at the same time as Lenin was badly wounded). This does not excuse Bolshevik and it is true that abuses by the Cheka started very early, with a number of brutes being ranked to its ranks (a flavour of which Sreda does capture). But a one-dimensional picture of the Bolsheviks as but bloodthirsty tyrants is not justified by the facts.[x]

Overall, Trotsky is squarely blamed for sowing the seeds of the subsequent show trials, mass executions and labour camps. He is the one who demands full-scale ‘red terror’ of “biblical proportions”, including concentration camps. He is the one who sets up the first show trial (Admiral Schastny). In the interviews, ‘Jacson’ repeatedly returns to the accusation that Trotsky started what Stalin only finished. To be sure, Trotsky was no saint. Critics such as Victor Serge rightly called him to account, for instance, over the repression of the Kronstadt rebellion (about which Trotsky spread a few cartloads of fake news).[xi]

In a final twist of the knife, this monster also has an Achilles heel. He is prone to hallucinations. He is that other old trope, the tormented soul. This narrative device is but a means to underline what a rotten beast he was. In this TV show trial, he is thereby found guilty twice over. At these moments he can be shown cringing in terror but he is still not permitted any signs of real humanity.

As in common in gangster movies, Sreda’s arch villain is shown to have the odd pang of remorse for his past crimes. Yet Trotsky’s final words, for instance, do not sound like those of a man regretting his life’s work.[xii] One might think that the Fourth International he launched was a ludicrous venture. One might doubt the merits of the ‘Transitional Programme’ it produced. One could question Trotsky’s vision of a better world[xiii] or his thoughts on ‘means’ and ‘ends’.[xiv] Yet it is hard to deny that he clearly stuck to his worldview right to the end.

Sreda makes but two concessions to the extremely one-sided portrayal. First, perhaps just following an old war movie trope, Trotsky is shown bravely rallying Red Army troops as they flee the field. Second, in the affair of what became known as the “philosopher’s steamboat”,[xv] Trotsky engineers the exile of intellectuals who were threatened with execution by the secret police. But Sreda does not concede too much. Trotsky’s action is portrayed as a means of placating his son Sergei rather than an act of genuine clemency. He is also more worried the practical impact on foreign opinion than by any real commitment to the principles of free speech.

There is a more positive picture of Trotsky when the series arrives at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the negotiations with the Germans, Trotsky, as the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs was between a rock and hard place. Bolshevik delegates there before him (Joffre etc) had apparently been loose-lipped about Moscow’s weaknesses, sometimes after too much drink, and, as Sreda shows, Trotsky took firm control.

His position was not dissimilar to that of the IRA’s Michael Collins in the negotiations with Britain for Irish independence a bit later.[xvi] Collin’s fellow leaders were similarly divided on what to do as were Trotsky’s. On the one side, Lenin recognised the desperate need for peace (not well conveyed) while, on the other, several other Bolshevik leaders such as Bukharin called for revolutionary war (sort of shown). Trotsky was somewhat stuck in the middle, calling for neither war nor peace but hoping, perhaps naively, that a successful revolution in Germany would save the day. It did not happen and, after further advances by the German army, there was no alternative but to buy some time by giving away a crippling amount of land. Trotsky, as is shown, had probably made the best of a thankless job. The ‘haughtiness’ mentioned above could, of course, been a ploy to disguise his fundamentally weak position.

Sreda at least recognises that Trotsky was right on the issue of foreign food aid to relieve famine conditions in 1921-22. He is shown to be opposed by Stalin in particular. The latter seemingly would rather have seen many more thousands starve to death than be indebted to foreign generosity. The issue was not a simple one however. Food aid has often come tied with strings though in case American food does seem to have stopped  a lot of people from starving.[xvii]

Overall, for Sreda, this is a man with, otherwise, few redeeming features. Trotsky’s towering intellect and skills as a thinker, writer and polemicist are simply ignored. Trotsky’s writings on literature, including his critique of the ‘Proletkult’, reveal a perceptive mind. It was also a prescient one that quickly spotted what a horrendous danger Hitler posed.[xviii]Furthermore, there is little doubt that he played the part of a leader during the Civil War without whom the Bolshevik regime would have really struggled to survive.[xix] Sreda’s picture of Trotsky-as-monster makes it hard to imagine why Trotsky managed to inspire genuine loyalty, not least after he fell from power and became such a vulnerable and politically isolated figure.

Trotsky - monster 2

(as with the image above, this is an anti-Bolshevik poster of the time,
featuring the Jewish Trotsky as an orgre
)

One Man Revolution

One of the most risible sequences of the whole series concerns the October Revolution itself. Trotsky is portrayed as some sort of Mephistopheles conjuring up the political takeover. For a good part of this section, he is shown alone in a room full of maps on which he plots the seizure of key buildings. Soldiers and sailors flood out at his command. Through Trotsky was indeed centrally involved in planning the move against the Provisional government, he was nonetheless only part of a group in and around the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee. It in turn was only one of several such bodies across Russia.

We only see two others, Kamenev and Zinoviev, the latter depicted as bumbling and weak, an image presumably to shore up that being built of the decisive and energetic Trotsky.  In reality there was a fierce debate inside the Bolshevik Party about the seizure of power. Kamenev and Zinoviev in particular strongly opposed the plans. The party in 1917 was not the ‘machine’ it became in later years. [Stalin’s role would appear to have been fairly marginal during the final days].

What is utterly absurd is the portrayal of Lenin. He turns up very late to the ‘ball’ and is shown to be somewhat miffed by what Trotsky has gone and done in what is portrayed as his absence. Yet, if the Revolution had a mastermind and driving force, it was Lenin above all others, including Trotsky (who overtly recognised that reality in his writings on the subject). There can be little doubt that from the early days, Lenin has exercised a dominant influence on Bolshevik thinking.

‘Trotsky’ is of course about Trotsky but more effort could perhaps have been made to give more credit not just to Lenin but to several other influential figures such as Bukharin who were far from being mere ‘yes men’. The Marxist thinker Plekhanov does make an early appearance but his debate with Trotsky is somewhat reduced to one of grumpy old man versus jumped-up peacock.

Indeed, Lenin’s role rather contradicts the tenets of Marxist ‘historical materialism’ given that one individual was so central to what unfolded. Marxist historiography, including Trotsky’s own significant contribution, is similarly contradicted by the extent of contingency in the events. From far Sreda’s picture of them happening with almost clockwork precision, thanks to Trotsky, things could easily have gone the other way during, as well as before and after, October. History can suddenly shift in other directions for all sorts of reasons, some quite trivial and quite removed from the interaction of big forces and leading figures. There seldom is any ‘inevitability’ [xx]

More monsters

Trotsky is far from the only victim of fabrications and half-truths. There is, for example, Alexander Parvus (Helphand). He is another faker, one solely interested in making money. He seeks to ferment political breakdown in Russia for the benefit of his German paymasters and perceives Trotsky to be his tool. Here, the series revives the quite discredited theory that the German cash was behind the Russian revolution. Viewers would never guess that, for many years, Parvus was widely admired as a talented Marxist theoretician. It is true that he did descend into shady business dealings but this seems to have followed disillusionment after the failure of the 1905 Revolution.[xxi]

The role of this warped representation of Parvus in the narrative is actually quite poisonous. It goes way beyond just taking liberties with history. Here, we have a very shady rich Jew attempting to manipulate events in another country for perverse ends. This representation fits very conveniently with the anti-Semitism of regimes such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Victor Orban in Hungary (remember the conspiracy theories circulated about George Soros).

In light of the above, the reader will perhaps not be surprised to learn that Lenin is portrayed as another wicked brute, solely interested in personal power. At one point, he even threatens to throw Trotsky off a roof, one of several make-belief events in this fiction. Lenin was certainly ruthless and single-minded, arguably to an unhealthy extreme. Yet, in reality, here again was a far more rounded character. Like Oliver Cromwell, he had his ‘warts’ but they were not his whole face. Where Sreda is on stronger ground in its depiction of Lenin’s final struggle and especially his fears about Stalin.[xxii]

Stalin is shown to be a violently jealous schemer. Early in the series he is depicted as a ruthless killer, murdering helpless guards during a hold-up. His hatred of Trotsky, we are told, stemmed from a small slight when, at an early party congress, Trotsky did not notice him and failed to shake his hand. Thereafter, Stalin lurks in the background, waiting his chance. Often, he is shown lurking behind Lenin, something that rather exaggerates the role he was playing in the party at the time.

In this crude caricature, the series misses part of the picture. Stalin certainly was an extremely violent and paranoid tyrant but Sreda’s series fails to show how deftly he manoeuvred to establish his rule.[xxiii] Dull-witted, he wasn’t: Trotsky was wrong to dismiss Stalin as an “outstanding mediocrity”. Stalin was, in fact, a serious student of Marxism and his theoretical work, its turgid prose notwithstanding, was closer to the Marxist canon (though perhaps more Engels than Marx) than many Marxists care to recognise. More importantly, his notion of ‘socialism in one country’ had genuine appeal in a war-ravaged country, whereas Trotsky’s advocacy of international revolution seemed only to offer more conflict. Unlike Hitler, Stalin was smart enough to back battle-winning generals such as Zhukov.

The series does actually mention what really tipped things in Stalin’s favour. Through the mouth of Trotsky himself, it is made clear that Stalin’s rise to power depended on a new social base, that of the fast multiplying number of party apparatchiks. Many owed a direct personal debt to Stalin for their appointments and promotions in the expanding bureaucracy.[xxiv] This new elite quickly began to get a sense of its own self-interest, one very different to that of the mass of workers and peasants. Putin’s power today stands on the descendants of that layer (plus some old-fashioned mobsters). It is rather convenient to dump all the blame for the crimes of Communism on Trotsky rather than Stalin, the real ‘gravedigger’ of the Revolution.

Loose women and lost masses

The Bolshevik Party actually had in its ranks an unusual number of highly talented individuals. A perhaps surprising number were women (though the party leadership was male dominated).[xxv] One of long-term activists was actually Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s second wife. Not only was she an experienced political activist, she was also a clear-headed writer. Her resignation letter from the Fourth International, for example, provides a very cogent analysis of the Soviet system.[xxvi] Indeed, it is better than Trotsky’s convoluted attempts to maintain that Russia was still some sort of workers’ state, no matter how degenerated.

Not that such a history does her any good in Sreda’s reworking of history. In it, she is transformed first into a self-indulgent and somewhat frivolous lady of the salons before she falls (or, rather, is clutched) into Trotsky’s embrace. Afterwards, she quickly becomes more of a doormat. She is not alone in being smitten by Trotsky (frequently shown clad in tight black leather). The other main female characters cannot wait to (literally) jump on top of him. Thus Larissa Reisner, radical journalist and later officer in the Volga River flotilla in 1918, is depicted as nothing more than a voracious vamp. Then there is the artist Freda Kahlo. Her fling with Trotsky would appear, in Sreda’s picture, to have cured her of assorted physical ailments from which she suffered.[xxvii]

As might now be expected, Trotsky also acts as a vile cad by abandoning his first wife. In reality, it was Aleksandra Sokolovskaya who first  politically educated Trotsky. Later, she agreed both to his flight and to subsequent divorce, seemingly remaining friends.[xxviii] According to Sreda, a rather naïve and ‘wet’ Trotsky received his political education instead from a prison governor, whose name he duly took, an assertion contradicted by Isaac Deutscher in his famous trilogy on Trotsky.

But at least one sees these women. The Bolshevik seizure of power depended greatly on the strong base they build in the big factories, especially in Moscow and St Petersburg. Though Russia was agrarian society with a peasant population dominant in numerical terms, it was also home to some modern factories in the cities. Soviets based on them were a critical institutional ingredient in the overthrow of Tsarism.[xxix] Some workers actually became leading figures in the party. But this critical social layer is conspicuous for its absence. Instead, Bolshevik muscle is shown to depend largely on a few sailors.

To be sure, the Kronstadt garrison in particular did play a significant role but the struggle to win support in the factories was more important.[xxx] The ‘July Days’ seem to have had their roots there, whereas, according to Sreda, these events are more a matter of violent looting by a handful of hooligan sailors (who, at a time of serious food shortages, simply throw food onto the ground rather than eat it or carry it away).

There is another group that puts in an appearance: liberal intellectuals. Sreda uses the real-life crackdown on the intelligentsia (eg shots of the Cheka breaking up university lectures and arresting professors) to demonstrate what, it is saying, was the inherently repressive nature of Bolshevism. Trotsky and his fellow leaders had talked about freedom but quickly acted to silence critical dissent. Sreda uses the figure of Maxim Gorky. It is certainly true that at the time the writer was very critical of the Bolsheviks “Lenin and his associates consider it possible to commit all kinds of crimes … the abolition of free speech and senseless arrests., he wrote.[xxxi]

What is especially revealing about this section of ‘Trotsky’ is the other intellectual Sreda chooses to use to present its story. He is Ivan Ilyin, a religious and political philosopher.. It might be useful to remember then that Ilyin was an apologist for fascism. Before, Ilyin had supported Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War One. He was no liberal intellectual in the western sense.[xxxii] Vladimir Putin is a great fan (he brought Ilyn’s bones back to ‘Mother’ Russia for burial), something that the Sreda team presumably understood.

The overheads of revolution

The Sreda series repeats the old trope that “revolutions devour their own children” (in the screenplay the words, or something like them, are put in the mouth of Trotsky’s father). It is true that, in the struggles such as the 1640 revolt against Charles 1 in England, the 1789 revolution in France and, of course, the 1917 Revolution in Russia, many members of the first wave of the revolution were subsequently killed by those who came to power next. Yet the same could be said of many types of regime, including long-established monarchies and empires. Kings killed princes and vice versa, while murderous purges by new powers-that-be routinely exiled, imprisoned or executed previous state ministers.

The trope is a lazy one since it obviates the need for serious analysis of specific times and places, teasing out what often were quite distinct factors at work. Instead, everything is put down to the workings of some universal rule. In the case of Russia, it leaves out pressures such as the impact of the World War One and then the ruinous Civil War as well as the role of foreign powers attempting to strangle the new regimes. There were specific difficulties too in the near impossible task of reconciling the demands of the cities and those of the countryside.

Such pressures fed into violent schisms which tore apart the Bolshevik Party. The Trotsky-Stalin split was not some iron law of history but a real conflict over the future of the regime. To be fair, matters were made worse by factors in Bolshevik ‘iron discipline’ and its ideology, not least a tendency to see life in abstract and crude categories (this or that class as if they were homogenous blocs, only capable of behaving one way).[xxxiii] It was compounded by a cavalier attitude towards individual human rights (‘bourgeois’ ideology). Thus, it was a terribly short step from talk of liquidating ‘Kulaks’ as a class to actual liquidation of individuals and families deemed to belong to that class (often they didn’t but that did not save them).

Any fanatical determination to create ‘utopia’ can indeed legitimise a lot of cruelty and destruction en route, with opponents and, soon, even those displaying what is deemed to be insufficient enthusiasm to be ground under. As John Gray argues,[xxxiv] dreams of total and immediate transformation of society, of a millennialist sweeping away, lock, stock and barrel, of the old order, and of ‘perfecting’ people can turn into all too real and all too terrible nightmares for actual people.Bolshevism did have such strands (as, today, does Islamic Fundamentalism).

More generally it can be argued that there was a strong strain of intolerance and a predilection for repressive measures in the Bolshevik worldview. Indeed, the young Trotsky had prophetically warned of the dangers in Lenin’s concept of party organisation of a “substitutionism” in which democratic norms are replaced by ever more centralised and top-down decision-making by a ruling clique and, ultimately, a sole dictator. Other radical socialists of the time such as Rosa Luxemburg also critiqued both Bolshevik theory and subsequent practice once in power.

Trotskyists were to talk a great deal and approvingly of “Leninist norms” but abuses grew in number when Lenin was in power and were not just confined to excesses by the Cheka. The revolution ‘degenerated’ well before the rise of Stalin. The first forced-labour camps were set up in 1918 and by 1921 the Gulag system had over 80 camps. Sreda spotlights the corruption in food distribution, for example. It is paralleled by a scene in the film adaptation of ‘Dr Zhivago’ in which the allocation of accommodation become controlled by petty and vindictive tyrants. The sympathetic American journalist John Reed soon become disillusioned with the new regime as did other visitors.[xxxv] It might be noted that once some of the more dogmatic policies of ‘War Communism’ were replaced by the new Economic Policy, food began to flow into the cities again: requisitioning had been a disaster.

But there remains a need to look at how things worked out in practice rather than rely on rather tired adages. As the former anarchist Victor Serge noted, the Bolshevik Party did contain germs but so too do all bodies. The question is rather what encourages those germs. The state of collapse across the Russian economy in the aftermath of World War One and then the Civil War was surely a major factor. The Sreda screenplay fails to tease out just how dependent were Bolshevik plans on the successful revolution in richer pats of Europe, thereby releasing aid with which to address Russia’s economic woes. It might be noted in passing that, according to the BBC website, the very first concentration camp in the young Soviet Russia was actually created by British and French interventionist forces on Mudyug Island near Arkhangelst for Boslshevik prisoners..

Dramatising versus falsifying history

Entertainment movies and TV dramas are of course not academic history tomes. Even TV documentaries are going to cut corners if only to fit into TV schedule running times. They often rely on reconstructions since actual footage is often not available (that too might give a distorted view).[xxxvi] Historical dramas on the big and small screen will cheery pick the best bits about their subject, amalgamate discrete events and characters as well as invent dialogue, especially if no-one knows what actually was said. Simplification is often necessary to make what happened comprehensible to audiences not familiar with a topic. Similarly, there will always be a tendency to focus on individual events rather than long-term background processes since these are easier to convey.

Sreda could claim, then, that it was simply offering an entertainment for modern audiences, far removed from the events of the early 20th century. Yet there are plenty of film and TV dramas that still give a reasonably accurate picture of what happened and why, whilst keeping their views entertained. Examples range from ‘Band of Brothers’ to ‘Chernobyl’, from ‘1864’ to ‘The Crown’, and from ‘Apollo 13’ to ‘All the President’s Men’.

There may be some really dramatic licence, for example, in Eisenstein’s ‘October’ (eg the staging of the storming of the Winter Palace)[xxxvii] but, at least, he got right the fact that, quite contrary to Sreda, it was Lenin, not Trotsky, who led the Bolshevik seizure of power. Then there is Warren Beatty’s ‘Reds’ which covers the central period of the timeline of ‘Trotsky’ only much better.[xxxviii] The satirical black comedy film ‘The Death of Stalin’ clearly took some historical liberties yet it still provided a real flavour of the murderous political machinations of that era. The BBC has shown that it is possible to stage a drama-documentary on 1917 that shows different viewpoints about the events.[xxxix]

Dramatic representations of history are, then, inherently problematic.[xl] Facts regularly get mixed in with pure imagination. What is not acceptable, however, is the wholesale distortion of history and, in this case, the strong smell of anti-Semitism. I do not know what the relationship is between Sreda and the Putin regimes. Perhaps the form the production of ‘Trotsky’ took was just a matter of keeping in with the authorities. Whatever the relationship, there is no disguising the fact that ‘Trotsky’ is not about giving a reasonably accurate but still entertaining representation of its subject’s life and times. It serves up too many fabrications, somewhat echoing Stalin’s own lie machine, all, in effect if not intention, serving to legitimise the brutal and repressive regime now in power in Moscow.

Apart from the boost given to anti-Semitism, Sreda is saying in effect that all struggle to improve society is pointless and indeed counter-productive: you might as well put up with what you’ve got. Putin is a creature of the machine inherited from the Stalinist years. Sreda plays safe: blame Trotsky for all that has gone wrong in Russia. But it also serves the myth-making of the new ruling caste. Indirectly ‘Trotsky’ endorses the notion that the current regime is a break from the (bad) past and can offer a (good) future of a ‘true’ Russia reborn. Critics of Putin and his clique are, then, just like Trotsky and Parvus presented by Sreda: agents of foreign interests.

In sum, ‘Trotsky’ is a concoction truly fit only for the dustbin of media history. It might not be right to censor it but Netflix could have commissioned a documentary to give viewers a better view of what really happened. As it stands, Netflix is just being a channel for toxic propaganda that could have come from the Kremlin.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

[i] As I type, I have on a bookshelf near me a somewhat worn copy of ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’ by Victor Serge, a book I chose when I won a school prize for A Level results back in 1968.

[ii] https://www.rbth.com/history/330040-why-did-trotsky-execute-hero

[iii] Compare with this eye witness account: https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/reissner/works/svyazhsk.htm?fbclid=IwAR1BzTnsNJUPBZpxYdWOA6IX1kuYhixVn6_G2gwDKdnfvuh7OhlvPCAiKAM

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/13/trotsky-ice-axe-murder-mexico-city For better coverage of Trotsky’s final period, see: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780061938436/trotsky/

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/03/russian-revolutions-rocknroll-star-trotsky-gets-centenary-tv-series

[vi] If we follow the logic of Sreda’s representation, this article might have been written by someone else not Trotsky: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/obits/sedobit.htm

[vii] https://www.peterlang.com/view/9783631695548/xhtml/chapter003.xhtml

[viii] Paragraph 23 here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/ch24.htm

[ix] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol02/no01/lenin.htm

[x] It is worth comparing Sreda’s picture with the descriptions in, for example: https://www.faber.co.uk/9780571269068-six-weeks-in-russia-1919.html ; https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/943-lenin-s-moscow ; https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/211691/memoirs-of-a-revolutionary-by-victor-serge-translated-by-peter-sedgwick-foreword-by-adam-hochschild/ ; https://archive.org/details/whatisawinrussi00lansgoog/page/n70

[xi] https://www.marxists.org/archive/mett/1938/kronstadt.htm

[xii] See: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/fi-is/no7/testaments.htm

[xiii] For a critique from a ‘green’ perspective, try: http://www.trotskyana.net/GuestContributions/irvine_prophet.pdf

[xiv] Three examples; https://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5565 , https://www.marxists.org/archive/shachtma/1961/xx/terrcomm.htmland https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1940/trotsky-morals.htm

[xv] https://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/08/books/08grim.html

[xvi] The eponymous movie takes some liberties with history but, unlike ‘Trotsky’, still manages a far fairer picture of its subject’s life and times, whilst not sacrificing entertainment value.

[xvii] https://www.hoover.org/research/food-weapon

[xviii] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/themilitant/1945/v09n19/trotsky.html

[xix] It did have the advantages of ‘interior lines’ and opponents who were badly divided and, fatally, who failed to coordinate their efforts. Yet the fledgling regime faced enormous odds which Trotsky certainly managed to shorten.

[xx] https://profilebooks.com/historically-inevitable.html

[xxi] https://spartacus-educational.com/Alexander_Parvus.htm

[xxii] https://www.press.umich.edu/93113/lenins_last_struggle

[xxiii] https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/299269/stalin-by-stephen-kotkin/

[xxiv] Some socialists at the time concluded that a new kind of society, a ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, was emerging eg https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10492079-neither-capitalism-nor-socialism Another group saw the Soviet Union as ‘state capitalist’ eg https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1964/russia/index.htm

[xxv] 18 of the 21 members of Central Committee at the time of the revolution being men, for example

[xxvi] https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedova-natalia/1951/05/09.htm

[xxvii] https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-frida-kahlos-love-affair-communist-revolutionary-impacted-art

[xxviii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleksandra_Sokolovskaya

[xxix] https://spartacus-educational.com/RUSsoviet.htm

[xxx] See: https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745399980/the-bolsheviks-come-to-power-new-edition/  See also: http://web.mit.edu/russia1917/papers/1024-WorkerSupportfortheBolshevik%27sOctoberRevolution.pdf

[xxxi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxim_Gorky#cite_note-25

[xxxii] http://www.openculture.com/2018/06/an-introduction-to-ivan-ilyin.html and https://www.ridl.io/en/ivan-ilyin-a-fashionable-fascist/

[xxxiii] This study captures something of that unquestioning discipline: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/546/54650/the-whisperers/9780141013510.html . The punitive nature of the Bolshevik mindset manifested itse;lf quite early on. See the work on Anne Applebaum, gor example. The best fictional portrayal remains: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1113694/darkness-at-noon/9781784875459.html

[xxxiv] https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/557/55721/black-mass/9780141025988.html

[xxxv] See the reports of the (anarchist) Emma Goldman, for example: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/goldman/works/1920s/disillusionment/ch04.htm On Reed: https://spartacus-educational.com/Jreed.htm

[xxxvi] War photography, for example, has had a long problematic history: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/looking-at-war

[xxxvii] https://www.rbth.com/history/326637-fall-of-winter-palace-how-1917

[xxxviii] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/may/02/reds-votes-left-warren-beatty

[xxxix] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098pgf1

[xl] Eg http://www.culturahistorica.es/rosenstone/historical_film.pdf

World War One and film

Appended is a PowerPoint presentation exploring how movies have sometimes both refleced and fed some myths about the Great War, the “war to end all wars”.

The cause of peace is not helped by bad history. This applies especially to World War One. A crop of anniversaries is reviving interest in the events of 1914-1918 and any ‘lessons’ it might teach.  Care must be taken to avoid the crude stereotypes that circulate about it.

One obvious danger is historical anachronism, projecting back onto the Great War period, not least the political leaders and generals of the time, knowledge and values of the here and now that were not current then. The realities of the war took nearly everyone by surprise at the time and few knew how to respond strategically or tactically. Most things worked out very differently to what key decision-makers intended. There was much miscalculation about the responses others might make. A lot of writing on the Great War makes insufficient allowance for accident and contingency, relying too much on overly deterministic theories about the inevitability of imperialist war.

But we cannot duck the difficult issues of what to do when faced with a brutal and expansionist power as Imperial Germany certainly was. German war crimes in Belgium were not myth while Austria committed terrible atrocities in Serbia, though, for some reason, these are usually overlooked. German ‘scorched earth’ policy during the retreat to the Hindenburg Line was also extraordinarily destructive.

Britain in particular was faced with terrible choices, not least hostile occupation of Belgium and German seizure of large (and economically vital) chunks of France. It is wrong to simplify the options available. It seemed that victory on the western front was the only way forward (the Dardanelles option had proved a disaster) and that defensive operations would leave Germany sitting on her conquests.

Ultimately, of course, it was the sea blockade that broke that back of Germany and Austria on the home front, though it must be said that death by starvation is not much better than death in battle. Indeed, by winter 1917 there were mass strikes in Germany due to the effects of the blockade. But there was not obvious at the time that the blockage alone would suffice. So land campaigns continued.

In a narrow sense the war was not ‘futile’ since the allied side, leaving aside its motivations and goals, scored a resounding victory. Thus in the seocnd half of 1918  the German army suffered a crushing defeat, a reality later shrouded in the self-serving mythology of the ‘stab-in-the-back’ spread by the Nazis and other reactionary forces. Similarly the Versailles Peace Treaty was not especially punitive as such settlements go, though it fatefully failed to translate the big talk about self-determination into consistent practice. In doing so, it created a whole series of powder kegs waiting to explode.

Contrary to another common stereotype, the death rate at the front, though certainly terrible, was no worse than in most wars (it is camouflaged in World War 2 by the far higher % of non-combat troops – that war was sometimes far more lethal than WW1 for those at the ‘cutting edge’). Indeed, the most lethal of all wars were (in comparative population terms) in the hunter-gatherer societies, as Steven Pinker and others have shown, though much of the killing took place not in big battles but in murderous raids and ambushes.

Things must be put in proper perspective. It is not surprising that the first day of the 1916 Somme offensive gets so much attention. Yet the ‘frontier’ battles of autumn 1914 were more lethal while the death rate in 1918 was higher than in 1916, something commonly ignored.

Another stereotype is ‘lions led by donkeys’. A handful of British generals were incompetent, most were average and some were brilliant. It is remarkable than, within two years of the Somme disaster, British generals had fashioned a war-winning machine. Germany was decisively defeated. That could not have been done by ‘donkeys’.

Furthermore, the Somme campaign did break the German army. It never really recovered and only fought on because of the influx of troops released by the Bolshevik withdrawal from the war.  Meanwhile, most British prisoners apparently thought that Britain had won the battle, according to German source material.

Interestingly in the dark days of early 1918, despite all the war-weariness, recruitment and industrial production went up in Britain while the strike rate went down. It might also be remembered that it was the working class poor who most benefited from the war. Many were actually not fit enough to fight but they were able to get what for them were really well paid jobs in the munitions factories. There was, at the same time, strong oppostion in some quarters to the whole war drive, though at time it was intertwined with other issues such as the ‘dilution’ of skilled labour and high rents. In other words there was more diversity of experience and opinion that is sometimes recognised in broad brush pictures of the ‘working class’ or the ‘labour movement’.

In terms of the fighting  itself, the key problem for the generals was lack of direct communication with the front line and their unfamiliarity with new technologies such as the tank and the aeroplane. The high death rate amongst senior officers undermines the stereotype of armchair generals sipping wine back at the chateau and callously sacrificing their troops. The average life expectancy of a British lieutenant was in fact around 6 weeks, far shorter than that of any other social group (most of these officers were ex-public school boys). In any case, other armies had far more ‘donkeys’. Look at the ‘kindermord’ at Ypres in 1914. However few ‘excelled’ the disastrous Italian campaigns on the Isonzo front. Yet a lot of ‘pop’ history seems to slag off only British generals (‘Oh What a Lovely War’, etc)

It might also be remembered that pro-war poetry quantitatively exceeded that from anti-war poets (Owen etc). Indeed such famous critics of the war as Owen and Sassoon voluntarily went back to the front, the latter well known for his enthusiasm for killing Germans (“mad Jack” was his nickname). Censored letters overwhelmingly reveal an attitude of ‘we’ve got to see it through’. Deep disllusionment really spread when hopes for the post-war period turned to dust.

In terms of films themselves, pro-war ones, and not just straight propaganda products, outnumber anti-war ones, most of which came later when the disappointments and frustrations of the 1920s decisively turned opinion against the war (futile sacrifice etc.). Until then, now reviled figures such as General Haig had actually been very popular public figures. There are plenty of other stereotypes e.g. the ones in the film ‘Gallipoli’ which ignores the role of UK troops and treats ANZAC soldiers as the same (New Zealander soldiers were quite different to Australian ones).

Similarly the ‘German’ army was very diverse. Allied troops were keenly aware that units from some parts of the then comparatively new Germany were far less combative than others. The Italian army was so diverse that many soldiers went to their deaths not knowing what orders had just been given such were the language barriers within ‘Italy’.

Overall, we need to avoid the crude (if very funny) stereotypes of, say, ‘Blackadder’.

The real lessons of WW1 are

  1. do not create tinder boxes,
  2. do not throw around matches and
  3. build institutions for conflict-resolution and peace-building

It might also be argued that though ‘Balkanisation’ has its risks and that small wars can be very vicious, it is the existence of big political units that really threatens the common good whern they start threatening each other. It is not so much that small is inevitably beautiful but, rather, than big will be a lot worse when it turns ugly.

WW1 in film

 

Eco-heroes in India

On June 6th, 2016, ‘The Guardian’ led on its first page with a big picture of Muhammad Ali. It was accompanied by 2 page spread inside and a 12 page special supplement on his life. Yesterday, its sister paper ‘The Observer’ devoted the first 5 pages of its main section plus an 8 page special supplement to the same story.
This was all about someone largely famous for punching people. True, he had a way with words too and his life reflected much that is significant in our times, most of all, of course, on-going racism in the USA and elsewhere.
Yet such coverage is surely way over the top. The press and broadcast news do focus on events rather than processes, colourful individuals not anonymous groups, and surface effects over underlying causes. Most of the ‘consumers’ clearly see things in similar terms or else media audiences would simply evaporate.
But truly significant issues and developments remain so, regardless of popular preferences. Climate change is a civilisation-changing phenomenon, of truly momentous proportions. The so-called ‘sixth extinction’ is unraveling the very web of life, as biodiversity collapses. War clouds are spreading in several areas. A new global recession seems all too likely. Yet the death of a boxer garners far, far more attention.
Still if news must focus on individuals, how about this for a story that combines real courage and inherent significance:

Women are leading protests in Tamil Nadu state against a power plant – yet few people in India know the village they’re from, let alone support their cause
THEGUARDIAN.COM|BY VIDHI DOSHI

Media matter: a green view

The reputation of the media has seldom been lower thanks to revelations about press intrusion, phone hacking, phone-in rip-offs, trivialisation, systemic bias and so forth, even turning a blind eye to sex crimes within their own industry. Such things reveal an industry that is deeply sick. Yet a healthy media are central to the health of democracy.

Certainly developments such as adverse climate change are more serious and more urgent than the wrong-doing of Murdoch and his minions such as Rebekah Brooks. Even in terms of that scandal itself, the track record of the Metropolitan police is far more worrying than that of gutter journalists and editors. [It might be noted here that, though the police now claim that they were too preoccupied by the threat from al-Qaeda to address the issue of phone hacking, they still found the political will and resources to hound ‘climate’ activists and the like]

Yet the News Corporation affair does matter: healthy media are critical to the flow of information and serious debate necessary if the various threats to our collective future are to be properly addressed. A comparison of, say, the Sunday Times in the days when it led the crusade over thalidomide and the paper it became under Murdoch’s subsequent ownership demonstrates the malign effect his ilk have had on the media.

Defend the BBC!

Worse, the war waged by Murdoch and especially his son, the now widely discredited James, against the BBC has threatened a further dumbing down. For all its failings, public service TV and radio in Britain since the founding of the BBC back in the 1920s have set remarkably high standards, widely recognised across the globe. This was certainly true during World War 2 and remains largely the case today.

The advent of commercial TV in the UK, then radio, did initiate a race downwards, with more and more American imports and imitations such as loudmouth ‘shock jocks’. So-called ‘reality TV’ plumbed new depths but, generally, the BBC services maintained an unrivalled blend of choice, quality and reliability (spend a night in an American motel zapping channels and you will visit a multi-channel hell, HBO’s better offerings decidedly the exception to the vulgar and stupefying rule).

So the BBC has to be defended against threats posed by News Corporation and other such conglomerates. Indeed there is an overwhelming case for breaking up such empires. The furore over Murdoch’s hacks and their misdeeds should not take attention away from the poisonous outpourings of groups like the Daily Mail and General Trust or Northern and Shell (Daily Express, OK!, Television X and other trash). The expansion of such organisation in the event of further crises within the Murdoch empire would scarcely improve the breadth, depth and integrity of the media in Britain.

Miscommunication

There has been widespread condemnation of the phone hackers in particular and, more generally, of over-mighty media barons like Murdoch. Very, very belatedly, the Labour leadership has begun to make noises about the matter. Radical media critics like Noam Chomsky have long been indicting the bias of Fox TV and similar appendages of media conglomerates such as News Corporation. This begs the question of what stance the Greens might take in the broader debate about the media in society.

For a start, Greens would join with ‘libertarians’ in the defence of free debate, which, in part, depends on a diversity of opinion. It is very alarming that whilst the Murdoch affair was hogging the headlines, a dangerous development took place. It was the proposal from Professor Steve Jones that the BBC should exclude certain ‘unscientific’ points of view.

Jones included climate change ‘denialists’. They might indeed be talking nonsense. Both common sense and the scientific consensus suggest that adverse changes are underway and that they are largely human-driven. Yet, in such tremendously complex processes, there is always the possibility that some sceptics might just have a point. Certainly the notion that a ‘low carbon economy’ is the solution is very misleading since it would not stop and indeed, if pursued in isolation, might even aggravate other ecological threats. In any case it is better to deal with their objections openly rather than drive them underground, something that might actually boost their appeal in some quarters.

Jones also included opposition to genetic engineering especially with regards to genetically modified crops, held out by some as the solution for food shortages. In fact there are substantial objections to this technology. Moreover the ‘scientific consensus’ has been wrong at many moments in history (see, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 150 Years of Expert Medical Advice to Women)

Scientists are not always free from tunnel vision and there is no guarantee that they are taking into proper account possible connections and interactions beyond that fragment of reality they may be studying. Only on-going debate can limit the dangers of reductionist thinking. It might be remembered that many ‘intelligent’ people thought that individuals like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin had lost their senses. So it is vital to keep the debate open, even if dissidents from the dominant view seem utterly mistaken.

Unearthly Consensus

There is, however, deeper ideological agreement right across print and broadcast media. Take, for example, discussion in the news about the UK economy and specifically its growth rate. There is almost unanimous reportage across the media that growth is far too low and what is needed was a stimulus to ‘get the economy going’. Yet such growth would accelerate the descent into climate chaos and aggravate every other ecological ill, with the inevitable result that human economy would collapse.

This has been shown in numerous studies (e.g. Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth and Richard Heinberg’s End of Growth; see also: http://steadystate.org/). Indeed John Stuart Mill outlined the need for a ‘steady-state economy’ back in 1848. Yet reporters and commentators (Will Hutton, Robert Peston etc) steadfastly stick to manifestly bankrupt thinking about the economy and its ecological underpinnings.

Media disconnection from Earthly reality is even more pronounced when it comes to overpopulation. There is a deathly silence about the matter. Indeed there is often a marked pro-natalism. Thus British tabloid newspapers greeted the birth of the 20th child in early 1999 to a Mrs Pridham, Britain’s current record holder as a matter of great joy. The Guardian gave a story about the Turner family of Oxfordshire (13 children) the headline of “the more the merrier”.

Obituaries of celebrity population boomers normally talk in terms of “lust for life” (the quote is taken from a piece on late actor Anthony Quinn, who fathered his 11th child at the age of 78). Conversely lack of children is bemoaned. So when the Euro crisis moved to Italy in July 2011, the country’s economic woes were widely blamed on a “birth dearth”.

To some extent, such ecological blinkers stem from the fact that the media share a failure across society to think ecologically. However there are also intrinsic biases in the very nature of mass communication technologies that also cause such distorted coverage in both factual and entertainment media. It is something that only a handful of really radical thinkers like Jerry Mander and Neil Postman have explored (to be fair it is worth studying the fake populism in contemporary media, to which Tory MP George Walden’s The New Elites is a surprisingly stimulating guide).

There is an inherent tendency, especially in daily media such as newspapers, radio and TV news, to focus on discrete events, rather than underlying processes. Spectacular accidents like oil spills match media production routines and news flows much more than the slow drip of environmental degradation (most oil pollution actually being from routine drips and dumping). One result is that the ecological crisis is widely perceived in a narrow and one-sided way, as a problem of pollution, ignoring the many other ways in which the Earth’s life-support systems are being eroded.

Furthermore, to fill airtime and column inches, the media not only build up issues in exaggerated ways but then, to get a second bite of ‘the apple’, knock them back down again, perhaps by spotlighting some dissenting voice, again out of all proportion to the merits of the case.

Many ecological issues, especially at the level of values and intrinsic importance, translate badly, especially to media dominated by images and simple sound bites. Pictures of, say, an undisturbed seashore make for less than gripping TV and film compared to dramatic shots of beach buggies and surf boarders. A huge dam tends to look better on screen than a quiet river scene, its costs not that immediately obvious.

Impacts

The effects of the media on their readers, viewers and listeners, however, need more careful consideration than is common. Certainly they should not be ignored. The media not only influence what issues count as society’s ‘agenda’ but also frame the way items on it are discussed. They play a part in defining what is ‘normal’ (e.g. consumerism) and what is ‘deviant’ (e.g. ‘Luddite’ opponents of some new technology). They can shape fashion, diet and the very language we speak (“oh my god” being but one such media ‘gift’ to everyday English thanks to you-know-what, not to forget the polluted ‘language’ of Gangsta Rap).

Media effects should not, however, be exaggerated. On balance, the media tend to reflect rather than shape public opinion. Common sense also suggests that press barons, film producers, TV managers and the like will deliver what appeals to potential audiences simply to boost sales and rating figures. Sadly, large sections of the public prefer to read salacious gossip about celebrities or watch Top Gear. They don’t want reports about ecology, economics or serious social and cultural matters. Indeed the media routinely receive lots of complaints about too much ‘bad’ news, instead of more cheerful matter.

This begs the question why businesses spend so much on advertising if the media have only limited impacts. Part of the reason is defensive, with adverts commissioned because rivals are splashing out. Normally, it is more a matter of persuading consumers to change brands than a manufacturing of new ‘needs’ out of thin air. Plenty of advertising campaigns, not least the marketing of new movies, flop or are even counter-productive (most famously the ‘Strand’ cigarette marketing).

Audiences tend to pay attention to what they want and interpret what they receive in terms of the own mindset. So, apparently, a majority of readers of that infamous Sun front page attacking Labour leader Neil Kinnock (above) actually went and, contrary to the paper’s ‘instructions’, voted… Labour. During the Falklands War, some 25-33% of the public continued to oppose the campaign despite near unanimity across the media in its favour. In totalitarian regimes like the USSR and Nazi Germany, large numbers persisted in disbelieving what intense and pervasive government propaganda was telling them.

The media, not least advertising, tend to be most influential when they are connecting to existing hopes, fears and general attitudes within their audiences. So they tend to reinforce rather than create beliefs and specific opinions.

The news can certainly be very selective. Yet there are many factors, other than bias and malice, at work: time constraints, a perceived need for balance between different kinds of news stories, availability of suitable photos/film footage, competition from other stories, suitable fit with the news production cycle of a station/newspaper… Certainly Greens should not rubbish the average reporter and other media personnel: it is often unfair and indeed rather counter-productive

It is a fact of life that conflict is more interesting than absence of strife. So days lost to strikes will be over-reported at the expense of days of normal working. Similarly, easily explained one-off stories about things that affect a lot of people will drive out ones lacking such qualities. So a rail strike will be reported rather than years of mismanagement of the railways. There is not necessarily an anti-union conspiracy here.

In any case, for all the (justified) accusations of ownership over-concentration, partiality and indeed downright censorship, there is still a surprising degree of diversity in the media. After all, it is easy to buy books by media critics such as Noam Chomsky or see ‘oppositional’ films by the likes of Michael Moore. Tony Benn has regularly appeared on TV and radio. The Mirror gave much space to both Paul Foot and John Pilger. Yes there are plenty of counter-examples but crude black-and-white stereotypes discredit our overall arguments.

Too much, too fast

There are a much deeper and more serious problems inherent in contemporary media technology, ones independent of actual ownership, to which Marshall McLuhan famously referred when he said that the “medium is the message” (i.e. not its content). These flaws will still be there even if conglomerates like News Corporation were to be broken up (certainly causes nonetheless worth fighting!).

For a start, the sheer quantity of airtime to be filled in round the clock broadcasting leads to a loss of quality, with endless repeats, cheap quiz and chat shows as well as yet more imports from the USA. Even a well-funded public broadcasting system would find it hard to fill such lengthy schedules with high quality programming.

A more serious concern is a decrease in average attention spans, a problem which can be laid at the door of both TV and computers, with their relentless barrage of fast-changing screen shots, shifting camera angles and special effects. [See the work of Baroness Greenfield]. It creates real problems for anyone with complex and lengthy ‘messages’ like the Greens.

At the same time, development like ‘rolling news’ TV, emails and blogging encourage knee-jerk reactions, at the expense of proper investigation and reflection. The anonymity of much ‘new media’ also seems to be inciting often vicious rudeness. Across the so-called ‘blogosphere’ and postings on the Facebook ‘wall’, the utterly inane competes with the innately stupid. Social networking is perhaps more a case of social nitwitting. There is indeed much unjustified hype about the progressive potential about such ‘new media’.[i]

The media regulator Ofcom suggests that the average person in the UK spends 7 hours a day watching TV, surfing the net and using their mobile phones. Actually the total usage is more since often they are ‘multi-tasking’, which, in effect, means they are not really paying that much attention to particular things. How often does one see people in company fiddling with their mobile phones when they are supposedly ’socialising’?

True, the media may spotlight issues such as famine and stimulate flurries of concern. Yet even the best coverage seems to produce few long-lasting changes amongst its audiences. Couch potatoes are perhaps not the stuff of real social change. As McLuhan realised, if people are glued to a TV box or computer console, they are effectively immobilised, more a recipe for inaction than active involvement in real struggle in the outside world. Perhaps it is symptomatic of such problems that the outrage of the British public over scandals like bankers’ bonuses and the like has seemed so short-lived.

Finally, outrage at Murdoch and co should never be allowed to disguise the fact that millions actually like what News Corporation and its ilk offer. No-one is forced to consume their products. Too often radical movements blame their lack of progress on the media, not honestly facing the fact that many people – at present – simply don’t want what Greens and other radical critics of society offer. It is a harsh reality that cannot be ducked.

So when the dust has died down on ‘Hackergate’, Greens need to pose a lot more questions about the role of the mass communication in society and look to a really radical reform of not just ownership of the media. We ought to be asking whether, there is a media surfeit – frequency, speed and volume – and whether ‘less’ might really be more.

[i] for a corrective view, see: http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=722 as well as Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Illusion and Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur

Newcastle’s new giant street screens

Sandy Irvine's photo.Above is what Newcastle City Council seems to think is progress It is the new giant double sided advertising screen at the top of Northumberland Street. As reported in the ‘Evening Chronicle’, the city’s Outdoor’s Chief Executive, Steve Smith, is over the moon: “We are delighted to have won the right to build and operate these screens in this highly desirable city and location.” When our local Labour rulers talk of ” ReNewcastle: Renewal and Regeneration”, the end result seems to be degradation or demolition or both, be it more urban sprawl or little monstrosities in the city centre. WreckNewcastle more likely!

The new live digital screens belong to UK-based City Outdoor Media. It operates a further seven screens across cities in the UK, including a further four full motion screens in Manchester city centre.

The ‘Chronicle’ also reported that Stephen Patterson, of the Business Improvement District Company, NE1, thinks that this screen, in addition to those at Swan House and Central Motorway have added to the “visual animation of the region’s capital city, especially after dark”, creating “a vibrant shopping experience… another positive step”.

City Screen above A167

Actually it adds to the oppressive volume of advertising that bombards us daily. It is ugly and intrusive. It is symptomatic of a mentality that cannot see beyond a society based on spend, spend, spend. If advertisers are looking for outlets and the cash-strapped council looking for new income streams they should focus on desirable things such as paid sponsorship of litter collection, street cleaning and recycling.

In the meantime, however, they are taking us to a world that resembles the city streets seen in the opening sequences of the film Blade Runner, though, when switched off, it is reminiscent of the alien obelisk in Kubrick’s ‘2001’. Perhaps soon there will be airships floating over our heads with advertising too. Instead we should be following the lead of cities such as Grenoble and banning billboards, screens and so forth.

We might also wind up NE1. Companies like that are too rooted in an unsustainable model of urban development.

Sandy Irvine's photo.
Sandy Irvine's photo.

Newcastle’s Giant Advertising Screens

Look below at what Newcastle City Council seems to think is progress It is the new giant double sided advertising screen at the top of Northumberland Street. As reported in the ‘Evening Chronicle’, the city’s Outdoor’s Chief Executive, Steve Smith, is over the moon: “We are delighted to have won the right to build and operate these screens in this highly desirable city and location.” When our local Labour rulers talk of ” ReNewcastle: Renewal and Regeneration”, the end result seems to be degradation or demolition or both, be it more urban sprawl or little monstrosities in the city centre. WreckNewcastle more likely!

The new live digital screens belong to UK-based City Outdoor Media. It operates a further seven screens across cities in the UK, including a further four full motion screens in Manchester city centre.
The ‘Chronicle’ also reported that Stephen Patterson, of the Business Improvement District Company, NE1, thinks that this screen, in addition to those at Swan House and Central Motorway have added to the “visual animation of the region’s capital city, especially after dark”, creating “a vibrant shopping experience… another positive step”.
Actually it adds to the oppressive volume of advertising that bombards us daily. It is ugly and intrusive. It is symptomatic of a mentality that cannot see beyond a society based on spend, spend, spend. If advertisers are looking for outlets and the cash-strapped council looking for new income streams they should focus on desirable things such as paid sponsorship of litter collection, street cleaning and recycling.
In the meantime, however, they are taking us to a world that resembles the city streets seen in the opening sequences of the film Blade Runner, though, when switched off, it is reminiscent of the alien obelisk in Kubrick’s ‘2001’. Perhaps soon there will be airships floating over our heads with advertising too. Instead we should be following the lead of cities such as Grenoble and banning billboards, screens and so forth.
We might also wind up NE1. Companies like that are too rooted in an unsustainable model of urban development.