television dystopias – The Guardians (1971)

The Guardians is a dystopian political thriller series made by London Weekend Television which went to air in Britain in 1971. It has never been screened since. It was also screened in Australia but as far as I know has never been seen in the U.S.

Back in the 60s neo-nazis and fascists were immensely popular as villains in both British and U.S. television – writers seemed to be convinced that there was a neo-nazi under every bed. They were usually presented as ridiculous cartoonish villains and the subject was mostly treated in a mocking way.

The Guardians was quite different. This series took itself very seriously indeed. It also refused to trivialise the subject by creating cartoonish villains. It dealt with the subject in a relatively subtle and even nuanced way. This is rather sophisticated political television.

The first episode raises more questions than it answers. That’s not a criticism. The intention (I assume) is to show us firstly the surface appearances of Britain as it is being transformed into a police state. We see the Guardians in action. They are obviously some kind of paramilitary political police, although whether they are actually under the effective control of the government remains doubtful. We are introduced to the Prime Minister Sir Timothy Hobson. He seems to be well-meaning but ineffectual. He’s the sort of man who likes to think he is willing to stand up for principles, as long as he doesn’t actually have to do so. We discover that real power is in the hands of a shadowy figure known as The General. We have no idea as to his identity or the means by which he has come to wield power over the government. Norman appears to be the man who transmits The General’s orders to the Cabinet. We see news broadcasts running in the background and it is obvious that there has been a lengthy period of strikes and civil unrest. We already have reason to be suspicious of this – is this genuine civil unrest or is it manufactured by the government or by The General?

We also meet a number of other characters. Tom Weston is a keen and ambitious member of the Guardians. While he’s happy to kick heads in the line of duty he’s actually a jovial sort of fellow and seems devoted to his wife Clare. Clare has been suffering from headaches and has been seeing a top government psychiatrist, Dr Benedict. There’s some interesting sparring between these two – Dr Benedict thinks Clare may be spying on him, Clare thinks Dr Benedict may be spying on her, Dr Benedict speculates that he has been called in because someone is taking an interest in Tom Weston.

Tom Weston is in charge of recruiting and training and he finds himself forced to accept a very upper-class recruit named Peter Lee. Tom Weston thinks that Peter Lee may not be at all what he seems to be and we’re inclined to agree with him. Is Lee a communist subversive? An agent of The General? An agent placed in the Guardians by some other group?

So all in all the opening episode establishes a definite mood of paranoia and conspiracy. It’s a promising opening.

As the series progresses some weaknesses do start to appear. The great danger facing a program dealing with politics is that it will succumb to the temptations of preachiness and speechifying. At times The Guardians succumbs to those temptations in a truly disastrous manner. The worst example is probably when the prime minister is dining with his old friend Sir Francis Wainwright who is now the head of the EBC (obviously a thinly disguised version of the BBC). The speeches start immediately and they go and on and on. The prime minister puts the case for the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule while the EBC chief puts forward the liberal argument for no censorship. It’s fairly obvious that we’re meant to accept Wainwright’s feelgood arguments but you have to give this program credit for at least putting forward the case for authoritarianism. And, surprisingly, the prime minister makes his case with passion and conviction. The problem is that it’s all done in such an unbelievably clumsy manner. It’s two characters sitting in a London club and talking and talking and talking.

Just as it seems that the series has self-destructed with excessive talkiness it suddenly comes to life again and becomes truly fascinating with some wonderfully devious power plays for the highest stakes of all.

One aspect of this series that does seem dated is that the imposition of a police state is seen as being a response to a crisis caused to a large extent by waves of strikes. Of course back in the early 70s strikes really were perceived as a major threat to the social order. It’s a fascinating look at the things the Left was paranoid about in 1971, and they were certainly terrified that strikes would be used as a justification for repression.

There is of course a resistance movement. Although they do not seem to be particularly efficient some interesting points are made about the right approach to take if you’re trying to overthrow the government, the key being to provoke the government into overreacting with excessively repressive measure which (in theory) will result in increasing opposition to the regime. This was in fact pretty much the theory behind the activities of urban terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang. In the series it is believed that such a strategy will work since Sir Timothy Hobson firmly believes that even an undemocratic government ultimately relies on the consent of the governed.

The series focuses partly on this resistance movement and partly on the power struggles within the government.

One problem this series faced was that in 1971 Dixon of Dock Green was still on television. The idea of British policemen behaving like uniformed thugs seemed too silly even to contemplate. The idea of a British government setting up a paramilitary political police force and suspending long-cherished legal rights seemed like a joke. Today of course it all sounds chillingly plausible. In 1971 it sounded a bit far-fetched.

There’s some stuff about brainwashing, this being another major obsession of that time period. And there’s a considerable emphasis on the problems of crime, both ordinary crime and political crimes, and on effective and ineffective methods of dealing with these problems. This of course was a major obsession at that time – 1971 was also the year in which Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was released.

There is an assumption here that a fascist dictatorship is going to exploit nationalism in order to gain legitimacy. The government of Sir Timothy Hobson has adopted the slogan of Britain Great Again!

It’s also interesting that Hobson’s government is not portrayed as being all that totalitarian. In fact it’s rather less totalitarian than Theresa May’s government today. The series portrays an authoritarian rather than a totalitarian society. It appears to be a society in which, as long as you’re not openly a communist or openly opposing the government then the government pretty much leaves you alone. It appears to be a government than is not all that interested in controlling people’s thoughts and opinions on every conceivable subject.

As the series progresses we also see the resistance movement resorting to methods that are just as morally reprehensible as anything done by the government. As the series progresses we find that things get more complex. There is opposition to the government, not from ordinary people but from organised groups. These groups do not agree on tactics and they most certainly do not agree on ultimate objectives. In fact these opposition groups loathe each other more than they loathe the government.

Also interesting is the fact that Hobson’s government did not gain power as the result of a coup. They were democratically elected, by a landslide majority. It was more a case of an elected government carrying out a coup after being elected. It’s also worth noting that there isn’t a great deal (other than a certain hostility to unions) to indicate that this is a right-wing rather than a left-wing dictatorship. There’s very little mention of economic policy. And of course this was 1971, when political correctness as we know it was still virtually non-existent.

The Guardians has some very real strengths. It doesn’t rely on characters who are simplistic heroes or villains and while it’s very obvious that the series takes a firmly antagonistic view of Hobson’s fascist government it is prepared to accept that his government did come to power in response to a genuine crisis and it is prepared to grudgingly admit that a case can be made for a kind of benevolent authoritarianism (which is the kind of regime that Hobson believes he can bring about). Hobson is a man who sincerely believes he is doing the right thing. And while he might be deluding himself and he might in fact be doing the wrong thing the resistance movement is in many ways every bit as bad. This is a series that starts out giving the impression that it’s going to be propaganda but it ends up being surprisingly nuanced and intelligent.

The weaknesses are perhaps not entirely avoidable if you’re going to try to address serious political issues – there are a lot of speeches. This means that we do at least know exactly what the various characters stand for but it can make for some very stodgy television.

I have to admit that I ended up feeling more sympathy for the prime minister than for the resistance. Even the Guardians with their repressive measures seemed preferable to the chaotic violence of the resistance. The makers of this series really do seem to be cynical about both left-wing and right-wing extremists but what’s really intriguing is that they seem to be even more contemptuous of both left-wing and right-wing moderates.

The Guardians is one of the more fascinating attempts at making a dystopian political thriller. It has its flaws and it can get very talky but it’s intelligent and thought-provoking and  exceptionally complex. Although it was promoted as such it is most definitely not just an exercise in leftist anti-fascist paranoia. It’s an exploration of the conflicts between freedom and stability, authority and chaos, obedience and responsibility, duty and loyalty, liberty and order. It does not try to persuade us that there are easy answers. I suspect that’s why it was never repeated – in the 70s, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a TV show dealing in a nuanced way with questions of terrorism and political repression was not going to be viewed sympathetically.

The Guardians has been released on DVD in the UK by Network. It is well worth a look.

Advertisements

film review: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Speaking of naval fiction and screen adaptations of naval fiction, like so many youthful fans of this genre I eventually ran out of Hornblower novels to read and moved on to other writers. Writers like Patrick O’Brian. I think most people would concede that C.S. Forester and O’Brian are the two giants of this genre. My admiration for O’Brian’s novels has caused me to avoid seeing the 2003 movie adaptation  of his work, on the assumption that a 21st century movie version would almost certainly be riddled with political correctness and would almost certainly miss the subtleties of the novels.

Now that I’ve finally seen Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World I have to confess that my fears were not really justified. It’s actually pretty good.

The problem with historical fiction, and historical movies, is that they almost always say more about the era in which they are produced than about the era in which they are set. This problem has always existed but has become steadily worse. Contemporary historical fiction and movies are populated entirely by 21st century characters wearing period costume. The beliefs, values, attitudes, opinions and prejudices of the characters reflect today’s world and appear so hopelessly anachronistic in historical films that such books and films become merely absurd. It is very difficult to avoid this trap.

Watching Master and Commander it’s obvious that screenwriters John Collee and Peter Weir have at least tried to avoid this pitfall. The characters do to a certain extent reflect the very different outlook and the very different values of the early 19th century. Captain Jack Aubrey is motivated by a sense of duty that would seem absurd in a character in a modern movie but it feels reasonably right for the period. His views are roughly what you expect from a British frigate captain in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars.

He is even allowed to give a little speech on the subject, and (even more surprisingly) on the subject of patriotism. Most surprising of all is that he is permitted to deliver the speech in a refreshingly non-ironic manner.

The great temptation would have been to make his friend naturalist/physician friend  Stephen Maturin into a proto-SJW. Mercifully this does not happen. Jack and Stephen disagree strongly on countless subjects but both men remain fairly plausible as men of their time. Stephen might be a religious sceptic but he deplores the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. He believes in social hierarchies.  Stephen likes to give the impression that he sees the Navy mostly as a way to pursue his interest in natural history but when push comes to shove and the survival of the ship is at stake he is more than willing to grab pistol and cutlass and indulge (with considerable enthusiasm) in hand-to-hand fighting.

This is certainly a magnificent looking film. It’s grungy enough to be convincing without overdoing it. The action scenes are great. As far as entertainment is concerned it scores very highly.

The biggest plus is Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey. I’ve never had much time for Crowe as an actor but he’s superb here. Most crucially he plays Aubrey as a genuine hero. He’s not an anti-hero. He’s not a flawed and tortured hero. He’s the real deal.

There’s also a welcome lack of political correctness. It’s not that the film is politically incorrect – it simply ignores the existence of PC and gets on with the story. Of course you have to remember that it was made fifteen years ago and you probably wouldn’t get away with such a film today.

All in all Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is much much better than I’d expected.

It’s also interesting to compare it to the roughly contemporary Hornblower TV series.

Hornblower, and an age without heroes

We live in an age without heroes. We may be the first age to dispense with heroes. We have celebrities instead.

Even fictional heroes these days are more like celebrities than real heroes. Or they’re flawed heroes, with the emphasis on the flaws. Or they’re anti-heroes. They aren’t heroes in the sense that heroes used to be understood. They don’t behave in a truly heroic way. They don’t stand for heroic virtues – self-sacrifice, courage, honour, selflessness, duty.

We live at a time when Hollywood celebrities are congratulated for their courage for expressing exactly the same political views that everyone else in Hollywood expresses.

Perhaps this is all part of the gradual loss of hope, and loss of confidence, that western civilisation has experienced over the course of the past century.

I can still (dimly) remember a time when we had heroes although they were already starting to go out of fashion with our intellectual elites. I can still remember when real heroes were celebrated, and fictional heroes provided inspiration.

One of the great fictional heroes, and perhaps the last great British fictional hero, was Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester chronicled Hornblower’s entire career, from humble midshipman to famous admiral, a career that spanned the whole of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Hornblower was introduced to the world in 1937 and featured in a dozen novels over the following thirty years.

Forester did not write mere Boys’ Own Adventures. He was a writer who understood that the world is a complex place and that it contains evil as well as good and that heroism is not always straightforward. Nonetheless Hornblower was a true hero. He was by no means perfect but whenever it counted he proved that he had the right stuff.

I devoured all of the Hornblower novels when I was young and still believed in heroes. I have very fond memories of them. Which is why I’ve been very reluctant to watch the British Hornblower TV series which was made between 1998 and 2003. By the late 90s British television was already riddled with political correctness and I had grave doubts as to whether they would have been capable of doing justice to Hornblower.

I’ve finally weakened and tonight I watched the first of the Hornblower TV movies, The Even Chance (later retitled The Duel).

Were my forebodings correct? Well, partially. For my tastes it tries a bit too hard to be dark and edgy, especially in the first half. A bit too much emphasis on the horribleness of everything, a bit too bleak and a bit too much gore. And definitely too much of what our American cousins like to call profanity.

Things do pick up as the movie progresses and it does start to become rather more heroic. Hornblower makes some blunders and doesn’t always handle things well but he is a 17-year-old midshipman and a hero is someone who is able to overcome his own weaknesses and learn from his own mistakes and he certainly does that.

On the whole it was not as good as I’d hoped, but nowhere near as bad as I’d feared. When it comes to the television of the past twenty years that’s about as much as one can hope for.

And it has inspired me to revisit the Hornblower novels, and to try to track down the 1951 American film Captain Horatio Hornblower (which I remember as being quite good).

bad new for the Oscars, good news for everyone else

You don’t often get good news stories but this is definitely a good news story. The 2018 Academy Awards telecast set a new record – the lowest ratings in its history.

Maybe people don’t want to watch four hours of political preaching? Maybe the people who actually watch movies don’t share the belief of those who make movies – that every movie should be an excuse for political messaging, that every single awards show and every interview given by Hollywood celebrities should be an extended political lecture?

And there is one other thing that Hollywood execs need to bear in mind. The dismal ratings for the Oscars indicate declining interest among American movie-goers but Hollywood these days is heavily dependent on foreign markets, such as the Chinese market. And those markets have little patience with being hectored politically by self-righteous Americans.

There’s also, as mentioned in a comment by бармаглот to my previous post, the all-new inclusion rider madness – stars will be able to have it included in their contracts that a movie must include specified levels of diversity. This should do plenty of damage, particularly to the foreign box office.

Hollywood needs to die. Perhaps we are seeing early signs that this is actually going to happen. One can only hope.

superhero moves – liberalism on steroids

Why are superhero movies pushed so aggressively by the studios? There are several obvious answers. These movies don’t require originality, just money, and in commercial terms they’re safe.

There is another possible reason. Superhero moves are liberalism on steroids. They sum up so much of the Social Justice mindset. What Social Justice Warriors hate and fear more than anything else is reality, because reality rarely coincides with their theories. When you make a superhero movie you can just ignore reality.

We all know that in real life men are much stronger than women. But that isn’t fair! In a superhero movie it’s no problem. Female superheroes can be even stronger than the male ones. We all know that in the real world multi-culturalism is a disaster. But in a superhero movie it works just fine. A superhero movie is an opportunity for creating a Social Justice fantasy world.

Superheroes also don’t have to earn their superpowers. They just have them. That’s an idea that appeals to liberals. In an ideal liberal world you can be anything you want to be. You just have to follow your dream.

Back in the 70s and 80s science fiction was an incredibly popular genre. You might think that sci-fi really isn’t much different from the superhero genre but actually it is. Science fiction at least has to go through the motions of trying to appear vaguely plausible. There is at least a tenuous connection with reality.

It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with fantasy, but it can be dangerous if it’s being used to reinforce theories that just don’t work. And if it’s being used for purposes of blatant propaganda.

popular culture and kids

I’ve just been reading a discussion thread at Steve Sailer’s iSteve blog on the latest Star Wars movie and I find myself filled with dismay. It’s not the fact that the movie itself is apparently virulent anti-white pro-liberal propaganda, That goes without saying. What I find dismaying is the number of commenters who tell us that they have just taken their children to see this movie and they were appalled by the propaganda and by the fact that the propaganda was just as bad as that in the previous Star Wars movie. They admit that they knew the movie would be politically correct propaganda and yet they took their kids to see it.

These are people who for the most part not only identify as conservatives, they identify as belonging to the dissident wing of conservatism. They have contempt for mainstream conservatives. And yet they are simply unable to comprehend the blindingly obvious fact that all movies today are social justice propaganda. Every single movie. They still think that if they keep going to the movies eventually they’ll come across a few good movies that aren’t social justice propaganda. Which is not going to happen. Movies that do not support the social justice narrative do not get made these days.

So if you know that this movie is going to be poisonous, why on Earth would you take your children to see it?

Now I do understand that it’s easy for me to say that I find no problem at all avoiding modern popular culture. I don’t have children. I do understand that for people with kids it’s a real problem. But we’re talking about movies that are genuinely evil, movies that preach out-and-out hate for white people and for all the traditions of western culture and for all the norms of civilised society. This is a Disney movie and Disney is a studio that pushes the homosexual agenda even more aggressively than the other studios.

Of course the problem is that your kids are not going to be very happy if all their facebook friends and all their friends at school have seen the new Star Wars movie but they’re not allowed to see it. On the other hand if you’re allowing your children to use social media like facebook it could be argued that you’re already failing in your duties as a parent. It could even be argued that if you’re sending your kids to school you’re already failing them.

The real challenge is to find alternatives, and find ways to persuade children to accept those alternatives. There are thousands of wonderful children’s books and “young adult” books that were published in the pre-PC days. There are hundreds of excellent movies for kids that were made in happier times. There are extremely good TV series from the past that were aimed at kids. All this stuff not only still exists, it’s remarkably easy to access. Getting kids to accept the older stuff will be very challenging but the alternative is exposing them to cultural poison.

the cruel illusion of romantic love

The idea of romantic love as the basis for marriage, and the basis for personal happiness, is so deeply entrenched that it is easy to imagine that it is both universal and eternal. It is neither. It’s a purely western idea and it didn’t get off the ground until around about the twelfth century. That was when the European upper classes discovered courtly love.

Courtly love seems to have been to a considerable extent a literary invention (this proving once again that writers are in general a foolish and empty-headed lot) although the increasing feminisation of the Church and the rise and rise of the cult of Mary may have played a part. In any case courtly love spread like wildfire through the upper classes. Or to be more precise, it spread like wildfire among the women of the upper classes.

At the time it was perhaps not entirely a bad idea, or it didn’t seem like such a terrible idea. Life was still somewhat brutal and the upper classes were still to a large degree a warrior aristocracy and they were a little unpolished (although it needs to be emphasised that the Middle Ages were never as barbarous or uncivilised as hostile propaganda has led us to believe). Still, life wasn’t as much fun for the ladies as they would have liked. Courtly love sounded wonderfully exciting to them.

Marriage at the time was basically an economic contract. Your parents selected a prospective spouse for you (and this applied to young men as much as to young women) on the basis of the degree of advantage it would bring to the family. As long as you didn’t find the person repulsive the marriage would go ahead (actual forced marriages were always forbidden by the Church). It was a sensible system that worked but it was also a system that put the interests of family and society ahead of the interests of the individual. Marriage was about responsibility and duty. That’s not to say that marriages were loveless. If both parties accepted the situation and made the most of it strong bonds of affection could and did develop. And if those bonds of affection failed to develop and either party decided to seek emotional or sexual solace outside the marriage it was not considered to be the end of the world as long as it was done discreetly.

The new concept of love changed all this. Now the idea was that you would fall in love with someone before you married them. There was also a very strong emphasis on sex, and especially on women’s sexual pleasure. There was a simple way to know if you had found True Love or not. If your emotions were not coupled with sexual lust it wan’t True Love.

The writers of romances who promoted courtly love, writers like Chretien de Troyes, were not unaware of the dangers and Chretien certainly seems to have nourished the fond hope that couples would satisfy their emotional and sexual appetites within the safety and sanctity of the marriage bed. Of course in the real world that was never going to happen, and it didn’t always happen in the romances either (adultery makes for more exciting literature than faithful marriage).

For a long time the old and the new concepts of marriage co-existed and balanced each other out. The quest for True Love was important but responsibility and duty still mattered. You could choose your spouse, but you were expected to choose sensibly and to consider family and economic interests.

It all started to go wrong after the First World War. Responsibility and duty were now very old-fashioned notions. They were positively Victorian. And in the 1920s everything Victorian was of course assumed to be hopelessly bad, stupid, oppressive and worst of all old-fashioned.

And at around this time Hollywood came along. Romantic love was made to order for Hollywood. It provided exciting plots that women loved and it proved to be an ideal weapon with which to undermine marriage (Hollywood was fanatically devoted to sabotaging our civilisation right from the start). Romantic love was soon to reign supreme.

There are several major problems with the romantic love ideal. The biggest problem is that it implies that marriage is only really valid as long as True Love still flourishes. If True Love starts to fade, or if the sexual passion that is the unfailing indicator of True Love starts to falter, then marriage becomes oppressive. And surely it’s wicked to expect people to stay married if there’s no True Love any more? Romantic love therefore, in practice, implies that marriage is temporary and that it should be approached from a purely selfish perspective. It’s all about feelings. It’s all about me!

Romantic love is also quite useful from the point of view of social control. Our lives might be empty and meaningless and we might be just nameless faceless consumers but that’s OK because one day True Love will come along and then everything will be hunky dory. We won’t even notice the atomisation and alienation of modern society, or the crassness of our culture, or the way we’re lied to and manipulated. Because Love Conquers All.