Nineteen Eighty-Four: George Orwell and Michael Radford’s Call For Anarchist Revolution
”You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution.
You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit or it is nowhere.”
–Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
”At one time in the world,
there were woods that no one owned”
–Cormac McCarthy, Child of God
Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) is a brilliant adaptation of George Orwell’s novel of the same name, originally published in 1949. The film follows Winston Smith (John Hurt) as he struggles to find truth and meaning in the oppressive regime put forth by The Party and its leading figurehead: Big Brother. The Party is a totalitarian government which rules the people through constant manipulation and fear: Winston Smith himself works for The Party, as one of the people in charge of changing, editing, and rearranging the truth which Big Brother chooses to spread. In doing so, The Party changes the population’s relation to truth itself: by understanding reality as constantly shifting, and their own perceptions as elements which cannot be trusted. As such, the population becomes reliant on Big Brother to understand the world around it. The added threat of the war is only pressure which ensures that fear and mistrust are directed elsewhere: towards the clear, obvious, and immediate threat, as opposed to what is familiar. Of course, the mental manipulation is made additionally obvious by the presence of the Thought Police, an organization whose sole purpose is to catch so-called “thought-criminals”; individuals who have, in thought, betrayed The Party. Such is where the anarchist overtones of both the novel and the film shine through. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a film which promotes an anarchist philosophy.
Anarchy is a far more nuanced political philosophy than the name may suggest: Simply, it implies that hierarchal power-structures are inherently poisonous and corrupt, and that a population can only be free when rid of such systems. It does not suggest that there don’t exist alternative organizational systems which could ensure the cohesive harmony of humankind. An anarchist may call for a form of true democracy whereby all decisions are agreed upon by the entirety of the population, and hence restoring power to the masses as opposed to the elite. It is in this way that Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four can be considered as supporting of an anarchist revolution.
The presumption is drawn at its very source from the film’s approach to governmental organizations. The Party, and Big Brother are quite obviously controlling and surveilling the masses for their own benefits – which is to say, in order to remain at the very summit of the societal hierarchy. However, where a different film may have called to subvert the organization through supplanting it, Nineteen Eighty-Four presents us with the resistance, a party opposed to Big Brother working in secret to destroy it… or so it is believed until it is revealed that the organization is also under Big Brother’s thumb. Hence, one may only come to the conclusion that all forms of government are inherently corrupted, woking to present opposing ideas as a front for their ulterior motives. This is additionally supported by the fact that the only truly free people seem to be the proletarians: a group living essentially outside of society, in poverty, but following their own rules as opposed to those imposed by the government. They live in an anarchistic system, completely disenfranchised and treated like animals. However, despite this, they are the only people who appear to have found happiness within their situation, and a form of truthfulness, expressed semiotically through the integration of the proletarian woman’s song and Winston’s final understanding and appreciation of it, once he has broken free of the mental chain works of The Party.
It is hence relevant to shine a light on the way in which the film showcases the happiness of the proletarians, as well as the love between Winston and the woman who brings him to this self-acceptance, the mysterious Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), as acts of rebellion. This is important due in large part to the way in which The Party uses fear (the constant threat of war) and hope (the constant reassurance that the end of the war is near) in order to keep the population in a state of docility. If a population is fearful, it is easier to convince them of the necessity of their difficult situation, however, hopelessness leads to desperation, which in turn leads to rebellion. A careful balance of hope and fear are needed to maintain the idea that the individual has a need for Big Brother and the policies of The Party, and that their own thoughts and feelings are misleading. By loving outside of the system, and finding happiness within oneself, individuals gain assurance of the truth and of their own independence. If the individual is only truly free when he is at peace with himself and trusting of the truth of his interpretation and critical thinking, then any major controlling force (such as the government) becomes, in and of itself, anti-human. Love is, as framed by Michael Radford, anarchy.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a gorgeous film: Every shot, every detail, ties back into itself, nothing is accidental. The performances within the film are magnificent, as is the cinematography which highlights the emotional subtext of the story. The grey-ness, for example of everything Big Brother touches as opposed to the bright, saturated world of the forest and clearing where Winston and Julia first make love, and where Winston hides within himself when The Party is attempting to break him, is striking. The small beautiful bobble, symbol of resistance, the tangible horror of the rats, continuous and reoccurring reminder of Big Brother’s power within the film, the looming, towering presence of the large screens in the film, almost paralleling the cinema screen on which the film was projected, create a set of strongly resonant images which echo the narrative flow of the storyline. In many ways, then, the form of the film itself is a rebellious call to anarchy. A flurry of separate, seemingly unrelated symbols and phrases appear with striking frequency within the film, and yet, none are futile. Each and every detail is tied back to a thematic revelation once arrived at the crushing end of the film. This, in and of itself, is a parallel to anarchism as a movement: an idea which, at first glance, appears to be chaotic and disorganized, can, when properly intellectualized, result in a harmonious collective. Nineteen Eighty-Four is not only a beautiful film, it is an important one. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with its political leanings, it is undeniable that the film encourages critical and intellectual discussions of its propositions, something which only seems increasingly relevant and urgent as time goes by.
Written By: June Rossaert