Reflections on Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove (2009)

A recent ‘History versus Hollywood’ event was a double feature of Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I had decided on this pairing, believing that the similarity of subject matter – accidental nuclear war – would accentuate the differences in how the subject was treated. I had grown up on Strangelove and was looking forward, with much presumption, to ‘turning on a new generation.’ Fail-Safe I had never seen before and assumed to be inferior in fame and in quality to Kubrick’s masterpiece. I actually showed Fail-Safe first, intending it as a sort of warm-up act.

Fail-Safe, of course, turned out to be extremely intense and disturbing. The horrifying ending left the audience aghast and silent. The last thing I wanted to hear in the heavy aftermath was the sound of my own voice saying something like, ‘And now for something completely different,’ as I introduced Strangelove – the funny film about nuclear war – but of course I had no choice; and naturally, Strangelove’s humor fell flat. (I could almost hear Lenny Bruce saying, ‘Go ahead, follow that on,’ in his skit about a comedian whose routine is sabotaged by the previous performer’s impromptu tribute to ‘the loved ones we lost in the war.’) After Fail-Safe, Strangelove just bombed. Since ninth grade, I’d regarded it as the best and the funniest film ever made, but now, I just didn’t like it any more.

During my mental post mortem on the evening, I realized that there was more to Strangelove’s bombing than my poor decision to show it after Fail-Safe. In fact, the films represent two conflicting cultures, separated by a great geographical (and perhaps a generational) rift. The most important difference between them, in my view, is one of characterization. In Fail-Safe, the characters, both political and military, are basically honorable people, and even the callous Walter Matthau role is rational and well-meaning in his own way. In Strangelove, everyone in the film is sexually perverted and bat-shit crazy, with the implication that the political and military professions are uniquely well-suited for such people. While Stanley Kubrick and scriptwriter Terry Southern were no doubt inventing grotesques to make their satire effective, the Northern sophisticate, who relies on art to help him appreciate reality, sometimes conflates the two; and up North, in the 1980s, we took it as a given that our leaders were sickos straight from the Strangelove set. In that milieu, then, Strangelove essentially preaches to the choir. The Southerner, of course, forms very strong opinions about politicians and military people, but he is not simply amused by them, as the over-educated Northerner is. The blasé detachment afforded by Yankee schooling is the chief prerequisite for enjoying a film like Strangelove. Without it, both because Fail-Safe stripped it away and because of the Mobile, Alabama venue, our Friday double feature didn’t work.

Movie Review: Just a Sigh

During a recent visit to my public library, I was intrigued by a DVD that did not have a picture of an exploding helicopter on the case, and since films without exploding helicopters are generally my favorites, I decided to take it home. Just a Sigh (France, 2013) was written and directed by Jérôme Bonnell and cast with Emmanuelle Devos and Gabriel Byrne as the leads.

The absence of exploding helicopters always promises a decent drama, and for the most part, I was not disappointed, although the drama of Just a Sigh is a little blasé in a European way. The protagonist, Alix (Devos), is a struggling stage actress who might be described as a late bloomer but who is beginning to suspect that her career, and her life, may never really bloom at all. She gets along poorly with her sister Diane (Aurélia Petit), in part because the latter is more conventionally successful and happy. In fact, Alix has a maladjusted, Holden Caulfield air about her, although, at 43, she’s got a few years on Holden.

While on a Paris-bound train from a show in Calais, Alix spots walking-wounded Doug (Byrne); their eyes meet, and an exchange of pain takes place. They bump into each other again in the city, which, in any culture, is a sign that they are fated to meet. They strike up a conversation, which steadily increases in intimacy. The tactics of their seduction are comically complicated when a clueless academic horns in, but Alix and Doug give him the slip, make their separate ways to Doug’s hotel room, and hop in the sack.

I don’t remember much of what happens after that. It comes out that Doug, an academic of the jaded variety, is in Paris for the funeral of a past love; and the film ends, as one might expect, with uncertainty as to whether or not Alix and Doug will make their tryst more permanent. However, I lost my concentration during the sex scene, owing to technical distractions. My DVD player, so ancient that it is also a VCR, tends to show images with a reduced brightness, and thus the hotel room setting appeared so dimly that I could barely make out the lovers’ making out. Furthermore, as I fiddled with the TV remote to boost the brightness to eleven, I noticed that the color was distorted: Whatever flesh was not in darkness was tinted a throbbing purple. I grew desperate at the controls, but I could not restore Ms. Devos and Mr. Byrne to their natural hue. Neither actor is a spring chicken, frankly, and the dark magic of my DVD player made each resemble a decomposing corpse. Mr. Byrne’s cheeks and biceps glowed as though from gangrene, and Ms. Devos’s sagging breasts, which she must have been contractually obligated to reveal, called to mind two dead blowfish in an oil slick. I felt like I was watching a necrophiliac orgy in a morgue or perhaps the suicide of two people making love in the core of a nuclear reactor.  My own face began to turn blue from laughing. I coughed out my popcorn and, as I said, ceased following the film’s subtleties.

My friends think it might have something to do with the cable box being on top of the DVD player.

Review of C.V. Wedgwood’s William the Silent

Given how thoroughly I was inspired by C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, it’s odd that I waited thirty-three years to read another of her books. Perhaps I didn’t think that anything could mean so much to me again, and I suppose it’s true that my susceptibility to inspiration was much greater when I was a recent high school graduate (when I read The Thirty Years War) than it is today. Having become set in my ways and no longer in the market for inspiration, I kept Ms. Wedgwood on the shelf, as it were, like a medicine I didn’t need. All this time, though, I never forgot her, sitting up there; and so finally, desiring nothing more than the pleasant buzz of a good read, I fetched her down, twisted off her safety cap, and fished out her 1944 opus, William the Silent.  Of course, I found it very inspiring, as all great work is.

William the Silent is set about a half century before The Thirty Years War and serves as a prequel to it. It narrates the first phases of the Netherlands revolt against Spanish rule, which began in 1566 and which did in fact contribute to the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. The conflicts that dominated the general age overlapped in their religious, political, social, and other aspects, and Ms. Wedgwood deals with the complexity equally well in both of her books. A typical passage from William the Silent includes the phrases “Whether Protestants or Catholics…controlled the French crown, the French monarchy remained the chief potential enemy of the King of Spain in Europe…. The religious issue, the fact that the Kings of France and Spain were both Catholics, was misleading.” (p. 150 of the 1960 edition) The chief overlapping conflicts, of course, were the religious and the political, and the question of which conflict would finally take precedence is, as Wedgwood shows, the key issue in the formative history of the Netherlands.

As to what determined how these conflicts would be resolved – in other words, what drives history – Ms. Wedgwood pays only lip service to materialist considerations. “At all times,” she writes, “some men will be moved by deep spiritual motives incomprehensible to the materialist, unpredictable and inexplicable in terms of politics and economics. It adds something to knowledge to know the economic thrust behind the Reformation, but it diminishes knowledge to see that and nothing else.” (p. 26) The prime movers of Ms. Wedgwood’s history are not economic forces but human beings. Elucidating their motivations is Wedgwood’s forte. She is no social scientist or statistician but a storyteller, and the story she tells is rich in drama.

The central character of William the Silent is its namesake. William of Nassau spent his childhood in the German county of that name and was educated according to the “rigid moral code, sincere, generous, and simple,” of his Lutheran mother, Juliana (pp. 10-11). As imbibed by William, this brand of morality remained a private affair and never mutated into the sectarian fanaticism that marked many of his contemporaries. At age eleven, by the unexpected death of his cousin René, he inherited the principality of Orange, in France, together with René’s more significant holdings in the Netherlands, and it was in the latter country that William grew to manhood as a rich, affable, Catholic aristocrat, ward and courtier to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519-1556), who counted the Netherlands among his many dominions. William might have remained a courtier, had not Charles been succeeded by his intolerant son Philip, who ruled the Netherlands from Spain as King Philip II and who began scheming to purge the Netherlands of heresy. William of Nassau/Orange earned the sobriquet “The Silent” as he listened, appalled but passing no comment, to the French King Henry II’s divulging of Philip’s plans.

As Wedgwood asserts, William was temperamentally opposed to religious persecution. “He could never fully believe that God was either so cruel or so unreasonable as to damn men for their opinions.” His reaction to Philip’s policy was “not one of outraged religious feelings (he was a Catholic, so how could it have been?) but of outraged humanity. It seemed to him an unprovoked attack on a decent and trusting people.” In other words, Wedgwood concludes, it was “an immoral act politically [emphasis hers], contrary to the sworn duty of a King, whose function is to protect his people. He decided, then, not to champion the Protestants but to eliminate Spanish influence in the Netherlands, two very different things.” (p. 60) The balance of Wedgwood’s book measures William’s success at re-framing the religious conflict as a political (or national) one, as he sought to create in the Netherlands a liberal polity, tolerant of all sectarian beliefs.

It is not giving too much away to say that William largely failed in this endeavor. He was that most tragic of types: a man ahead of his time. “Even among his closest friends, even in his own family,” Wedgwood writes, “his religious position was regarded as unsound. His widely tolerant views met with no sympathy whatever.” (p. 194) In fact, despite his dream of a religiously-pluralistic Netherlands, William often found himself with little alternative but to resort to sectarian expedients in order to realize it. One wonders if Lord Acton (1834-1902) did not have William in mind when he observed that “friends of freedom have been rare” and that they are often forced to “associate themselves with auxiliaries whose objects differ from their own.” In William’s case, he came to understand “that only the narrow, intolerant, and fanatical can fight the narrow, intolerant, and fanatical” (p. 110); and he thereupon turned to the Calvinists, adopting their forms of worship personally and encouraging their militancy. As William hoped, Calvinism would become the servant and not the master of the national cause. “Holland was his fortress and the Calvinists his advance-guard, but from this base, he sought to bring once more into being the free, united Netherlands.” (pp. 127-128)

But the Calvinists, like most people, were more interested in their own power than in abstract notions of freedom and unity. They rampaged through Antwerp and other towns in 1566 and in Ghent in 1577, sacking Catholic churches and oppressing the Catholic citizenry. (pp. 85, 87-89, 183, 192) Contrary to William’s wishes, “the religious problem submerged the national” and “the Netherlands against Spain became the Calvinists against the Catholics,” as the Calvinist north and Catholic south drifted apart. (pp. 178-179, 199) William’s last desperate attempt to maintain cohesion was to place the country under the protectorship of the French (and therefore anti-Spanish) Catholic Francis of Anjou (1555-1584), but the latter proved to be as petty a man of the times as William was a great man in advance of them, and the project failed. By the time William passed from the scene, he had indeed fathered the future United Provinces (or “Holland”), but the greater Netherlands of his hopes remained unrealized. (The lost southern provinces became the separate nations of Belgium and Luxembourg.)

For having created two (or three) sectarian states, when he had wanted to create one inclusive state, William resembles Gandhi, who imagined one tolerant India but who got instead the religiously partitioned India and Pakistan. For having expended all the energy of his adult lifetime in the leadership of a disparate assemblage of self-determined peoples, William resembles Washington. Throughout her book, Wedgwood shows him constantly persuading, negotiating, compromising, and begging, usually before the proto-democratic estates of the various provinces or the Estates General. He always adhered to their forms and never abused the power they granted him. On the contrary, he worked himself half to death for them, prompting one contemporary to observe, “So charged with affairs of state, with labors and toils and troubles of all kinds from morning to night, he has no time even to breathe. (p. 158)

Even toward Philip, he upheld his loyalty for as long as possible, preferring only to remonstrate on behalf of the Netherlands’s ancient rights, until he became a reluctant rebel. However, it is his loyalty to his social inferiors in the provinces and towns that raises for us the most interesting issues. Viewing through William’s eyes his constituents, who were simultaneously his masters, Wedgwood notes that “They lacked education, vision, political experience. He did not naturally expect such gifts of the whole populace, for what sane politician does? But he could have wished for more of them among the middle and upper classes, on whose consent his authority was based.” It was of course the common people and their middle and upper class demagogues who thwarted William’s great plans for a liberal nation in which they could all peacefully live; and even in the defense of their own cities they were they uncooperative, refusing, for example, his suggestions to lay in stores of food in anticipation of sieges. (p. 149) The various representative estates were chronically slow to provision the army, its members daring not to act until subordinate assemblies gave their approval. The problem, according to Wedgwood, was that “Burghers and lesser men were in control of the Estates, a group more representative of the country’s needs and interests, but still unused to the power which circumstance had given them, seeking always to diffuse and transfer the ultimate responsibility.” And then she says it:

There is something to be said for the easy assurance of those who have been born to rule; in a time of emergency a certain fearlessness, a certain indifference to criticism, is essential. Strongly as William believed in representative government, religiously as he laid his every action open to the Estates and the cities, behind all he did was an absolute self-confidence, the natural gift of the man who, from childhood, has expected to take weighty and responsible decisions on his own authority. (pp. 208-209)

Is Dame Wedgwood advocating here for aristocratic governance? It might seem that she is, in her book about a great man whose constituents didn’t deserve him. However, despite the phrase “born to rule,” Wedgewood is referring to virtues that were not in fact shared by the titled aristocracy and that were (and are) attainable to commoners. At most, she is extoling a natural aristocracy. As we know from the rest of her book, moreover, William’s career was that of a modern politician, not a medieval lord. He disposed of no serfs and commanded no vassals but was instead forced to appeal both to representative assemblies and to popular opinion. Above all, though, Wedgwood clearly admires William for more than his decisive leadership style. She admires him, rather, for his overriding liberality. In this respect, he was exceptional, even among aristocrats.

For all William did for his people and for all people, one of his greatest and most representative acts, in Wedgwood’s telling, came after the lifting of the siege of Leyden in 1574:

It was a moment for joy-bells, for speeches and congratulations, and the striking of commemorative medals. The relief of Leyden was something which must be remembered through all the ages, and by what monument could this be achieved? In his choice William revealed the constructive genius of his mind. The erection of a column, or the striking of a coin, means little enough ten years later. He sought instead a living monument which would grow with the reborn nation, and enlarge and refresh its national life. To commemorate the liberation of Leyden, he founded her great University, offering thus in the midst of war and destruction, of change and violence, a salute to the things which are true and enduring, the freedom of mind and the intellectual liberty for which he was fighting. (148)

As brought to life by C.V. Wedgewood, William the Silent is not just an aristocrat. He is a hero, just as C.V. Wedgewood is one of mine.