1984—“This then, is the story of the future. It may be our children’s future, if we fail to protect their heritage of freedom.” Guess what?
The first go at George Orwell’s astounding 1948 classic “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was done for American TV in 1953 (starring Eddie Albert), followed a year later by a BBC adaptation with Peter Cushing. Apparently, the still-blacklisted climate of 1956 was sufficiently snowed by Orwell’s inference of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism to miss out on snuffing the ’56 feature film, made, fittingly, in the book’s Britain, starring American actors in two of the lead roles. Still, the 90-minute effort was insultingly released in the States on a double-bill with another Brit-made item, The Gamma People. Lead players Edmond O’Brien, Jan Sterling and Michael Redgrave were not enough to draw crowds, nor was the pessimistic material itself. In crewcut Eisenhower USA, it eked a mere $600,000 placing 192nd. However flawed, a serious adult take on what lay ahead was outgrossed three times over by the fruit-salad monster that rolled out of a cave for It Conquered The World. *
“They’re afraid of love. Because love makes a world they can’t control.”
The script, written by William Templeton (who’d done the ’53 TV version) and Ralph Gilbert Bettison, is essentially a primer, sort of a Cliff Notes pass at the book’s daunting complexity. So much of Orwell’s story was either internalized (in the thoughts of doomed hero ‘Winston Smith’) or delivered as something to be read and pondered rather than shown (detailed exposition on the philosophy of the Big Brother state) that what comes over on screen are merely brush strokes of visuals suggesting atmosphere (with budgetary constraints) and quick-sketched passages of confrontation, with some verbatim parcels of dialogue included. Along with 1955’s The Prisoner, this was one of the first movies to present—albeit greatly watered down—the application of mental/psychological torture as opposed to mere brute force. Michael Anderson, who’d delivered a hit the year before with The Dam Busters, directed; he had much better luck with his next, much larger and certainly cheerier assignment, Around The World In 80 Days, coming out later in ’56. Everyone went to see the Jules Verne escapism: Orwell’s cry of despair echoed in empty theaters.
The normally ebullient O’Brien’s casting doesn’t fit the book’s conception of Smith, but he does a sincere job: Douglas Brode, author of numerous books on movies, posits in his “Lost Films Of The Fifties” that this is the role the gregarious actor ought be most remembered for. The similarly offbeat Sterling is adequate, no more, as Smith’s secret lover and co-rebel ‘Julia’. Redgrave does well as the party bigwig who will set Winston’s mind right—by emptying it. **
Malcolm Arnold’s score announces dire things to come. With David Kossoff, Donald Pleasence (adept), Carol Volveridge, Mervyn Johns, Kenneth Griffith, Walter Gotell. John Vernon, uncredited in his first film work, provides the voice of Big Brother. 91 minutes. Remade, with John Hurt and Richard Burton in…1984.
* Thought Police on the Job—Nigel Morris, in a 2012 article for ‘Frames Cinema Journal’ lays out the case that the ’56 version was partially financed by a division of the C.I.A. “Keeping It All In The (Nuclear) Family: Big Brother, Auntie BBC, Uncle Sam and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four“. Orwell’s pitch-dark satire has become a planet-strangling reality: “they” know you just read what I wrote, comrade.
** We (that would be me), while appreciating Douglas Brode’s generous nod to Edmond O’Brien’s ‘Winston Smith’, would be more inclined to salute the always dependable actor’s later, ‘bigger’ showboating in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Seven Days In May and The Wild Bunch. 1956 was a busy year for the 41-year-old actor: along with 1984 he was featured in The Rack, D-Day the Sixth Of June, The Girl Can’t Help It, A Cry In The Night and several TV episodes.
Deceptively middle-brow 1956 actually saw a number of movies that discreetly challenged orthodoxy or in one way or another ruffled feathers: Patterns, Attack, Tea and Sympathy, The Searchers, Giant, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, …And God Created Woman, Baby Doll, Three Brave Men.