BR: 1984 / Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

July 4, 2016 | By

19841984_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  December 8, 2015

Genre:  Drama / Science-Fiction

Synopsis: Vivid adaptation of George Orwell’s cautionary tale of a records revisionist who pays the ultimate price for loving a rebel woman in a brutal totalitarian society.

Special Features:  Alternate Dominic Muldowney soundtrack mix / Isolated Mono Music & Partial Effects Track of Eurythmics score / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Whether it’s regarded as a cautionary tale, a critical reflection on the totalitarian regimes that emerged after WWII, a dystopian sci-fi classic of a not-quite impossible alternate future, or a dark satire, George Orwell’s 1984 is inarguably one of the most prescient, portentous works ever written.

That such a doom-laden story – a highpoint in British Bleakism, where the dominant philosophy is the world is permanently wrapped in a state of utter hopelessness – would make it to radio, TV and later the silver screen soon after its 1949 publication is surprising, but Orwell’s tale of a grim society in which every aspect of human life is controlled by the state was perfectly timed for the social and political climates that followed WWII.

Postwar PTSD, war heroes falling on hard times, seething racial strife, and distrust of government institutions, friends, neighbours, and family members were reflected in film noir entries and the emerging Red Menace dramas and suspense hybrids, so Orwell’s story of an apparatchik drifting from the state’s official / only plan and having a doomed affair with a rebellious flirt wasn’t remote from what already filled silver screens.

It’s also a crazy tale of humans designing their own extinction, based on a deranged philosophy in which a society seeks an unattainable purity – aspects seen in more contemporary religious death cults (notably the nutbar Heaven’s Gate), or nasty fanatical political movements foisted upon an entire country, such as the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal decision to reset Cambodian society to ‘Year Zero’ by purging intellectuals in killing fields, and switching to an agrarian Communist state.

In 1984, an entire nation is loyal to Big Brother, a cult figurehead who may never have existed in the first place, and yet Orwell’s gloomy tale suddenly became a sexy property to British and American producers within a 2 year period.

Winston Smith is a revisionist clerk at the Ministry of Truth in the province of Oceania, rebuilt from the ashes of an atomic war in 1965. His desk job is to rewrite news pieces and winnow through current and outmoded photos to ensure the government’s narrative is perpetually updated to reflect its interests. The inverted bizarroworld of 1984 has Winston turning chocolate rationing into a modest increase, rebranding war heroes as traitors, and incinerating any lingering print evidence on the spot.

Yet within the doldrums of his pathetic life in the lower rungs of an elite bureaucracy, he’s unsatisfied (no sex, movies, nor ample variety of challenging music and literature), and he begins to doubt his ‘love’ for Big Brother, whose giant face graces everything from TV screens (dubbed “telescreens”), posters, monuments, and government issued gin and cigarettes.

Winston scribbles dangerous thoughts (“Down with Big Brother”) in a diary purchased at an antique shop in the grubby proletariat sector of London, and shares his curiosity for a pre-war society with the shop’s owner, Charrington, a wistful senior who remembers an era when there were songs, poetry, and churches, and their specific connections to the human soul.

After Winston’s handed a note printed with “I Love You” from Julia, a woman working in the Anti-Sex League, the pair eventually develop an illegal relationship based on mutual attraction, a shared loathing for Big Brother, and a curiosity to explore aspects of a past before their time. Their love nest is a rented room above the antique shop that lacks a telescreen: a video portal which most of the time allows the government to see, critique, chastise, advise, and 100% spy on citizens. Sometimes Winston can see a face (as when a calisthenics instructor shows him how to bend over properly), but most of the time the monitor seems to retain Big Brother’s giant visage – to love, to fear, and to never forget.

In their secret room, the couple disrobe from number and name-stamped clothes, and eventually Julia uses their freedom to wear old dresses and makeup within the apartment. The couple also enjoys the food and drink of the upper elite: real coffee, sugar, beef, bread, and butter – organic extremes from the cheap cigarettes, bad java, and bottles of synthetic gin which the government offers at communal lunches to ensure the populace remains functional alcoholics through adulthood.

Booze is cheaper than pills, and by being labeled Victory Gin, it’s also pushed as a state-branded product which, when consumed, allows workers to ‘share’ in Big Bother’s wartime victories against the other continents supposedly out to destroy Winston’s land of Oceania: rival provinces Eurasia and Eastasia.

Like the Hitler Youth, kids are reared to revere Big Brother, tattle-tale and route out improper thoughts and behaviour, leanings, sexual yearnings, or blatant anti-government actions; they’re the generation of faithful zealots who will ultimately sacrifice their parents and eradicate older generations and whatever vestiges of the ancient past remain in their consciousness.

When Julia and Winston are discovered by the Thought Police – namely fake antiquarian Charrington and Winston’s boss O’Brien – they’re separated, tortured, and released after they’ve buckled and betrayed each other, having only love for Big Brother. In stark British Bleakism, they’re reduced to shells, trapped in a world that has no future, no hope, and certainly no more dreams to chase beyond self-eradication.


Radio and Teleplays: American Takes on British Bleakism

Whether or not Orwell’s writings became ‘hot’ among literary agents and producers upon publication or a few years afterwards, 1953 and 1954 brought forth a double-header of adapted novels: a stark, brilliant animated version of Animal Farm (1954) which burned the image of an old horse destined for the glue factory into millions of poor kiddies; and four versions of 1984, which must have been fascinating for his estate and heirs (Orwell died in 1950), witnessing the variations in tone and quality.

us-steel-hour-sponsor-29-aug-1949-p63The first attempt came April 26, 1953, in one of the last radio shows of Theatre Guild on the Air, a long-running dramatic anthology series that switched later in the year to TV as The U.S. Steel Hour. Starring Richard Widmark (Street with No Name, Broken Lance, Judgment at Nuremberg) and broadcast before the release of his Pickup on South Street, the hour-long NBC show (available via presented a severely distilled version which I’ll refer to periodically in this comparative review.

StudioOneAnthologyCBS Television took a crack at the novel on Sept. 23, 1953 for the network’s classy Studio One. The live broadcast had genial Eddie Albert (Green Acres) as Winston, Suzanne Pleshette-clone Norma Crane (Fiddler on the Roof) as Julia, and Canadian Lorne Green (Bonanza) as duplicitous O’Brien, with Robert Culp (I Spy, Hickey and Boggs) handling the off-screen telescreen voice and unbilled Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible, North by Northwest) briefly glimpsed as a protester during the 2 Minutes of Hate, in which that citizens must participate to ensure they are physically, emotionally, and spiritually loyal to Big Brother (nicknamed “B-B” in some TV and film versions).

With an hour to convey grimness to American audiences, William Templeton’s adaptation streamlined the novel to its absolute essentials, which had to be done in light of the show’s minimal budget. Being a live show with no exteriors nor filmed cutaways, the Studio One production is very economical, but what stands out is how Templeton distilled Orwell’s story for the domestic U.S. audience.

As series narrator Don Hollenbeck proclaims at the episode’s head, “This is the story about the future. Not the distant future of spaceships and men from other planets, but the immediate future. This is a story about tomorrow. What happens to the people in this story might happen to us. Might happen to you. If we should ever relax in our fight for freedom, if we should allow any individuals or any group of individuals to reduce our freedom of thought, our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion, then what happens to the people in this story will happen to us.”

The intro makes it clear that Orwell’s tale isn’t standard science-fiction about alien invasions but traitors in our midst, Red-loving Commies willing to sell out the dream of a pure democracy for Red control, and people must remain vigilant and use this story to learn which markers are signals of early corrosion that would destroy the freedom cherished by all. Hollenbeck, who would be targeted by anti-Communists press and tragically commit suicide in 1954 (a moment dramatized in George Clooney’s superb Good Night, and Good Luck), speaks over the teleplay’s recurring music motif for the dystopian world – the march from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad,” Soviet-era music for Studio One’s teleplay set in a Soviet-styled totalitarian world.

Hollenbeck’s speech accentuates the need to preserve the freedoms that cannot be taken for granted without specifically citing Communism, whereas the Theatre Guild radio play makes no bones about the drama being a Red Menace warning. With an intro by a newsman to give the episode some gravitas, the host steps in and proclaims “George Orwell’s great novel 1984 deals with the most terrifying subject in the news today: The threat to all free men of Communism or totalitarian domination in any form… [Orwell’s fiction] projects the kind of prophetic reporting of the future. It is out blessing that we can see it so, and thus, alert ourselves.”

Templeton’s TV adaptation jumps to the main dramatic scenes: Winston writing in his diary “Down with Big Brother”; meeting friend and neighbour Parsons for a drink at The Chestnut Tree pub, where they spot elite party members Jones and Rutherford, soon to be arrested as traitors while the song “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree” is sung off-camera; Julia and Winston’s forest and bell tower rendezvous with much kissing and embracing; renting the antique store’s spare apartment; Julia’s donning of a dress and Winston recoiling from a rat; meeting O’Brien at his home; Julia and Winston ‘busted’ by the Thought Police in their love shack; and Winston’s term at the Ministry of Love, where he meets arrested neighbour Parsons, undergoes O’Brien’s torture sessions, and finally betrays Julia when faced with torture by rats in Room 101.

The finale reunites the two former lovers at the Chestnut Tree pub, where they admit to betraying each other before separating, while Big Brother’s drawn visage gazes from a wall.

Certainly when compared to subsequent script adaptations – especially Nigel Kneale’s feature-length BBC teleplay – the Studio One version is the weakest of the filmed quartet, mostly because it unfolds like a locked stage play, with ‘Oh, Gosh’ Albert miscast as wretched, wiry Winston, Crane terribly theatrical in her physical and verbal deliveries, and the story’s nasty edge dulled down to (likely) keep network censors and show sponsors happy. The romance is very physical, but the torture is implied and Winston’s suffering is merely being fearful of what lies ahead.

Director Paul Nickell hints at O’Brien’s cruel methodology to break down a man by applying high contrast lighting and Greene’s stentorian voice. It works, but there’s no edge to the material, although the limited sets work for a tale in which characters inhabit a world devoid of any physical beauty, grace, and warmness. The light pools hide the set’s narrow dimensions, yet convey the gloomy world of a totalitarian regime that keeps its citizens in a state of darkness. The uniforms for guards and officers include caps and waistbands redolent of Nazi brownshirts, minus frilly ropes and other décor.

Nickell’s direction is efficient but never flamboyant, and the scenes flow fluidly. The director gave an interview in 1987 at the Paley Center for Media (archived on the 2008 KOCH / eOne Studio One Anthology DVD set), in which he describes the importance of the teleplay, being ‘big and unwieldy and monstrous show’ because of the heavy subject matter, the scope of the cast, and having 4-5 cameras to shoot the live teleplay.

This was also Nickell’s big shot at impressing Studio One brass, and what present day viewers may forget is how the tame grimness was, in 1953, more potent to audiences: Nickell recalls a Bronxville neighbour saying ‘that’s just what it’s like down there’ in South America, and the sponsor’s wife was “very upset with the program” because she couldn’t sleep after the broadcast’s airing.

Templeton’s script was tailored for the visual medium of TV, whereas S. Marksmith’s radio play is wholly reliant on sound and follows the convention in which a narrator periodically reads out core facts about the period and the politics, filling in narrative gaps between dialogue, sound effects, and dramatic score segments.

In spite of Orwell’s novel being heavily edited into dramatic peaks and valleys, the essential story remains intact, and it’s the radio actors who sell the drama by evoking fear, surprise, passion, and torment through often intense line readings. On film, Widmark’s delivery of a puzzled, angry, wiry little man would look massively melodramatic, but through the magic of a radio speaker and one’s imagination, he synthesizes the essence of Winston: bored, fearful of his rebellious thoughts and anti-BB writings, and his hatred of Julia (initially described as “the girl”) who seems to stalk him and perhaps evoke the incessant badgering of his wife Katherine.

With divorce being illegal, Katherine’s repeated efforts to upset Winston’s life perhaps explains his initial hatred of Julia, who shadows him in streets, pubs, and the antique shop, and stares from a distance, but with Katherine dropped from the subsequent teleplays and film versions, Winston’s almost psychotic hatred of Julia, favouring even her death, makes for a peculiar intro for the woman who would provide him with a brief period of (illicit) love and free thought, and ultimately contribute to their shared doom.

In the filmed versions, Julia hovers at a distance before she passes him her stark “I Love You” note and sets Orwell’s plot in motion, but in the radio drama the pair bump into each other, and Winston is uncharacteristically apologetic.

As for Katherine, she’s never named in the script, but Marksmith’s adaptation is the only one that refers to Winston’s prior marriage. (There’s also the issue of the Hollywood Production Code and network Standards and Practices bibles, which in the fifties were more restrictive with the depiction or mention of social taboos. Like Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth, Katherine may have been stricken from the film and TV adaptations because to studio and network censors, audiences would’ve been rooting for an adulterer.)


The BBC TV Version: Life is Swell!

One wonders (with amusement) how American TV audiences would’ve reacted to the BBC Sunday-Night Theatre’s 1954 televised adaptation of 1984, as scripted by Kneale and directed by prolific Rudolph Cartier, who also helmed the 1953 version of Kneale’s beloved sci-fi classic The Quatermass Experiment.

More faithful to Orwell’s story and its grim tone, the 1954 teleplay stars Peter Cushing (!) in a rare non-Hammer role, showing his fine acting skills in playing a beaten man clawing for some glimmer of beauty, only to be ground to dust at the end of this feature-length teleplay. At 107 mins., this is an unforgiving drama that doesn’t shy away from any of the novel’s horrors, and it certainly falls under the British Bleakism umbrella in which life is total shit, and there’s no salvation.

The Main Titles and Prologue glide to Winston gazing out from a porthole at the sky from the triangular monolithic Ministry of Truth. The telescreen orders him to explain why he’s been wasting 80 seconds at the window, and we see Winston’s attire is less of a uniform with a BB logo, and more prison jumper with serial number on both sides. Winston’s dereliction of duty is noted, and he’s ordered to return to work, revising news items and government stats on food and warfare.

O’Brien is played by Michael Redgrave-clone André Morell (Seven Days to Noon, Julius Caesar, 10 Rillington Place), who’s quite chilling in the last act, being utterly relentless in torturing Winston until he ‘sees’ 5 fingers instead of the displayed 4.

Yvonne Mitchell (The Dybbuk, Tiger Bay) is fine as Julia, portraying her as being more confident in sharing warmth and tenderness than the harder-edged Crane. Kneale’s script also gives Mitchell more material within scenes, so rather than stand silent when Winston tells O’Brien he wants to join the Resistance, she’s active in their conversation, and more of a partner than Winston’s tag-a-long lover.

Among the cast is a very young Donald Pleasence (The Great Escape, Soldier Blue, Halloween) as Winston’s Ministry of Truth colleague Syme. Campbell Gray is neighbour and pal Parsons, whose daughter, a member of the Youth Spies clique, ultimately betrays him by reporting nocturnal anti-Big brother verbal emissions to the Thought Police like a good little Hitler Youth and burgeoning Stazi moppet. For the Studio One production, neighbour and father Parsons is merged with Winston’s Ministry of Truth friend Syme, whereas in the BBC teleplay, the two characters remain intact, if not important secondary characters.

Pleasance, who made his acting debut with Mitchell in the BBC’s version of The Dybbuk, would swap roles in the 1956 film version, playing Parsons, and have no trouble mining the qualities of each character: Syme is a bureaucrat who’s completely devoted to Big Brother and believes wholeheartedly that the reduction of language will ensure people will lack the words to think critically, and eliminate in full thought crime. As weasel Syme, Pleasence shines beautifully, giving a performance that ensured he remained one of Britain’s top character actors into the 1950s and 1960s.

Kneale also plays up the class division, with Syme slamming proletariat workers like the stew-scooping cafeteria matron as ‘sub-human creatures,’ but unlike the American teleplay, he retains the original name of Eurasia’s leader, Emmanuel Goldstein, which Templeton changed to Cassandra.

Why bother altering the name of just one character? Perhaps to eliminate a hint of anti-Semitism, as Cassandra is ethnically and culturally neutral, and yet by making Goldstein the hated figure of a fascist state, it also infers the world of Big Brother is highly racist. In 1984, there are three massive continent provinces: whitebread Oceania, Euromixed Communist Eurasia, and Asian Eastasia (whose captured prisoners are seen in the 1984 film production en route to the hangman’s noose).

Kneale also restores Winston’s confession to Julia as to why he fears rats – after stealing bread from his ill sister and fleeing for the night, he returned home to find her cadaver being devoured by the rodents – which Marksmith drops from the radio play, and Templeton vaguely infers in the Studio One and 1956 film versions. In the ‘censored’ Templeton adaptations, Winston starts to recount the event… but stops before giving further details, perhaps because his discovery the next morning was too gruesome for international (or just American) audiences amid an already bleak and potentially non-commercial story.

It’s also a lengthy moment in which the male hero (who will morally and emotionally tumble) reveals a deep childhood trauma. Crying after being brutalized by torture is understandable, but crying like a boy into the bosom of a woman about a dead sister and rats, as occurs in the BBC version, may have characterized Winston as a weakling, thereby turning off mass audiences and knocking down the box office revenues for the costlier 1956 film.

In spite of the modest budget, the BBC production is quite savvy by interpolating some second unit footage of Winston wandering more barren, bleak, and ruined areas of London, opening up the teleplay a bit before things become increasingly intense.

In teleplays and films, he’s electrocuted, but in the BBC version Cushing was outfitted with some dental cosmetics to make it clear he’s been beaten, shocked, starved, and had teeth pulled; when Cushing is helped up and forced to look at himself in a full-length mirror, we see the full horror as the character. (Fans of Cushing will find the moment absolutely heartbreaking. As Victor Stein in The Revenge of Frankenstein, it’s okay to see the genre actor smacked around like a long-haired rag doll, but as an Everyman, Cushing is very affecting in playing Winston’s physical and emotional torment.)

The contents of Room 101 (which beholds ‘the worst thing in the world’) are inferred in the 1953 teleplay by merely raising the topic of rats: they’re sounds emanating from a dark, distant room which are enough to turn Winston against his lover. The BBC production has him dragged towards a device which will send a starved rat towards his face, whereas the 1956 film has O’Brien showing him a plexiglass device at the end of which Winston’s head will be placed. In the 1984 production, Winston is outfitted with actual headgear packed with nasty rats.

What’s of note is how the BBC exceeded the subsequent 1956 film in detailing Winston’s betrayal of Julia, being far more intense than its rivals until the 1984 film, although in fairness to the 1953 radio play, Widmark screeches horribly during O’Brien’s ‘shock therapy’ to evoke the worst images in the minds of listeners, and O’Brien makes it clear Room 101 for Winston beholds headgear similar to the 1984 film version. Even for a radio drama that’s tight on time, Winston’s squealing is unusually long and intense, and one can hypothesize Marksmith or the show’s producers argued in favour of graphic sounds to instill audience revulsion not for Orwell’s totalitarian regime, but Communism.

If you don’t stay alert, this is what the Reds will do you and yours.

When the transformation from underground insurrectionist to zombie is complete, Winston and Julia meet again in the Chestnut Tree pub, freed by Big Brother via O’Brien, yet broken beyond repair. In the BBC production, each limps, is gaunt, and shows the signs of prolonged torture which, without any of our modern social support networks, dooms them to ignominious lives until they simply disintegrate, commit suicide, or are re-arrested for protracted infractions and executed for official propaganda value.

Whereas Julia disappears from the radio drama’s narrative after she’s arrested and separated from Winston, the Studio One version has Winston sitting quietly at a pub table with her, and as she leaves and heads down a Big Brother-postered hallway, the lyrics of “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree” punctuate their separation, with the following words resonating more effectively than any formal score: “Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you, and you sold me” – a different but no less fitting closing to Orwell’s bleak tale.

In the 1954 BBC and 1956 film versions, Winston’s last screen moments involve an expression of devotion towards Big Brother, thinking of his love for BB in the former, and shouting it like a lunatic in the latter, after Julia disappears from a bench under an actual chestnut tree. The radio play is a compromise of the two, where Widmark is more resigned to loving BB, but his voice hinting there might be a vestige of the old rebel in Winston that could, if conditions were right, materialize in some minor degree.


A 1956 Film? What 1956 Film?

19841956The lore behind the long unavailable / redacted 1956 film version involves Orwell’s estate, who felt the film wasn’t faithful to the novel, and had it pulled from circulation. The current grey market DVD and online editions come from the same print (there’s a scratch that runs along the Main Titles), and its limited availability on video infers a lousy movie, which it certainly isn’t.

Michael Anderson was tapped to direct after having made the exciting WWII film The Dam Busters (1955), and 1984 would come a year before he’d be handed Around the World in 80 Days (1956) by producer Mike Todd.

Anderson was never a visual stylist – critics have accused him of being rather dull, if not a hack – but at worst he was a serviceable director whose films were only as good as their scripts, and whether he shared a special affinity for their subjects. Nevertheless, rather than adapt Kneale’s superb BBC script, the producers opted to redo William Templeton’s 1953 teleplay, with Ralph Gilbert Bettison (ITV’s 1956 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel) tackling the translation from small to big screen.

A prologue – free from the radio play’s anti-Communist language – now sets up the drama as a post-atomic war landscape. To start the film with a bang, it begins with an air raid warning of raining Eurasia bombs, and Anderson makes excellent use of actual WWII-ravaged neighbourhoods much in the way director Charles Crichton mined the wrecked landscape where kids play in Hue and Cry (1947).

Images of roving motorcycling soldiers and scrambling citizens follow, and during the rush for cover Winston (American actor and D.O.A. star Edmund O’Brien) encounters Julia (peroxided Jan Sterling) in a doorway – an efficient method in introducing the two leads instead of a third into the drama.

As with all adaptations, Winston wears I.D. (as a chest tag), but this is the only version when he holds up his I.D. to the telescreen after arriving home, pats down his coat, and shows the contents of his briefcase – a weird addition, since the telescreen overlord can’t possibly see the papers within.

Actually, in Anderson’s film, there is no telesceen but a pulsing glass orb that’s metaphorically BB’s all-seeing eye. It’s an interesting alternative to a TV screen (especially since it resembles the rolling coloured accordion balls in old gasoline dispensers), but it dates the film more than the wispy clouds and visible eyes seen in the Studio One version. The BBC production opts for a kind of inverted teardrop panel with a twirling dot of light at the base, but the 1984 film restores Orwell’s concept of TV panels which can spy, play newsreels and state infomercials, display BB’s dour mug, or get workers out of bed for their morning calisthenics. (Both the 1984 film and the 1953 radio play dramatize Winston’s experience with a pushy exercise instructor.)

The use of the “BB” nickname returns, as does Pleasence, this time playing pal and neighbour Parsons – less jovial, though, with a greater sense of paranoia. Also dropped from the radio and Studio One teleplay (but retained in the BBC version and 1984 film) is Winston being asked by Parson’s wife to fix a clogged drain, which introduces the rotten Parsons kids. The scene’s elimination allows for Julia’s formal appearance in the pub where Winston and Parson are commiserating to occur earlier in the narrative.

A new scene that echoes Winston being scolded for cloud gazing in the BBC production has him summoned to an overlord’s office where he’s about to be investigated for being spotted in the proletariat antique shop, but O’Brien (played by the real Michael Redgrave) uses his influence to quash the charges to a warning – an action that expands O’Brien’s screen presence and offers a more stark moment that helps convince Winston he’s a man to be trusted. (In the radio play, Winston says he’s inexplicably ‘compelled’ to truth O’Brien.)

The 2 minutes of hate is the same, but “arch traitor” and Eurasia leader Cassandra (originally Goldstein) is now Kalador, with actor Bernard Rebel groomed to resemble a Trotsky-like figure. It’s an interesting sequence because the circular set, with a cast of cheering / jeering masses participating in a collective ritual (hating a government-sanctioned villain) foreshadows Anderson’s direction of Carousel in his second-best known film, the dystopian sci-fi classic Logan’s Run (1976).

Both scenes have characters embedded within the government bureaucracy – Winston and Julia as desk-level fact adjustors, Logan as a rebel-hunting Sandman cop – that ultimately betray their society’s order, and become traitors, hunted by their respective colleagues or superiors, but the endings of each story couldn’t be more extreme. In Logan’s Run, the dystopian world literally explodes, leaving a class of pretty kids to restart the world, whereas in 1984 the system is so efficient that it will, and by its own design, destroy itself by eradicating the humans necessary for its existence (and ironically, preserving Oceania’s physical infrastructure which will devolve into ruins).

Anderson was arguably well-suited, then, to tackle Logan’s dystopian world, but he’s not one for grim & grimy tales, which is why the 1956 film is a safe container for Orwell’s cautionary take and political satire. In both the BBC and Studio One teleplays, there is no music in the cafeteria, and yet, Anderson has the environment almost drowned with a super-cheery waltz rendition of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” (final movement), which is a very wrong choice: if BB’s totalitarian system is designed to eradicate culture (music, song, poetry) and ensure everything that surrounds citizens related back to BB, why drag up a chipper version of what is ostensibly banned music?

The character of Syme makes an appearance of sorts in word only, and only once: Parsons is gathering donations for Hate Week (For costumes? Beer? A fancy-schmancy float?) and turns to address unseen Syme for money owed. As a contrast, in the radio play, Parsons is fused with Syme and rebranded as Ampleford, but is more Syme-like and (presumably) lacking Parsons’ family since none are ever seen.

In the 1984 film, there’s a striking scene in which members of the Junior Anti-Sex League describe their goal to a group in eradicating not only love and sex, but procreation, and it’s here where Julia discretely tells Winston where they should have their first love encounter. This scene was reworked by Anderson into the cafeteria, where Winston is dining across from Julia, and beside two Ant-Sex League members engaging in a rhetorical exchange of what they do – info purely for the benefit of audiences. What’s wrong about this scene is quite clear: why would two characters exchange secret info right beside peers, colleagues, overlords, and chatty friends like Parsons?

When Winston and Julia arrange their rendezvous, it’s during Hate Week, as Eurasia prisoners are driven in caged trucks through the city centre. Anderson focuses on an important gesture between the imminent lovers: Winston reaches back and touches Julia’s hand, which becomes very poignant when they attempt the same gesture during arrest by the Thought Police, but are ordered to avoid all physical contact

Like the prior teleplays, their first meeting and bell tower rendezvous are retained, and much of what follows is the same, but where the holding pen for arrested traitors was treated as a dark room, Anderson has it bright white, blinding the captured. (The room’s ever-brightness is also described in the radio play.)

A speaker replays a taped conversation between Winston and O’Brien before the latter emerges and has Winston taken away for torture, but what stands out in this scene is Winston demanding to know from a zombified prisoner ‘What do they do to the women,’ inferring early on that her betrayal will likely consist of more invasive torture.

How Winston is tortured at the Ministry of Love is handled quite differently than other productions. Unlike the 1984 film where grime from bodily fluids have built-up from decades of interrogations, Anderson and his set designer stick with the conical, circular designs that flow down from the honeycombed gerkins where the ministries are housed (like Winston’s workplace, the Ministry of Truth), and the holding pen at the Ministry of Love.

In the interrogation room, O’Brien and his victim remain in a sanitized area with lots of backlighting, a bright hospital light by a dentist chair, and silhouetted soldiers standing far behind Winston. Winston’s electrification is shown via a telescreen, but once again Anderson opts for a very odd visual maneuver: instead of being cold, concentrated, and totally focused on torture, O’Brien at one point turns to the camera, completely covers our view of Winston as he’s being electrocuted, and smokes a cigarette.

What’s unusual is that O’Brien also pops a pill and downs it with a tumbler, and his coat is unbuttoned at the neck. Why would a seasoned interrogator need to loosen up and some stimulant? Greene as O’Brien in the Studio One teleplay sweats on camera (likely from the hot studio lights) but he remains firm; Morell in the BBC production leans over the coffin-like electrocution box and makes cold, professorial demands of Winston; Redgrave seems to need a hit (perhaps real Victory Gin) because Winston’s slow-to-reach breaking point is either frustrating, or O’Brien’s just getting bored; and in the 1984 production, Richard Burton uses a calm, paternal tenor between brutal shocks.

Perhaps taking a cue from the BBC production, Anderson retains the scene where Winston is told by O’Brien to examine himself in a full-length mirror, but perhaps because of Edmund O’Brien’s heavier figure, the effects of starvation and deep bruising can’t be seen; the inference of physical suffering is wholly reliant on torn wardrobe, some stubble and charcoal smudging, and the actor’s weary voice.

When O’Brien shows Winston an empty cage and we hear rats, the horror must come from the actor, and his breakdown is sufficiently potent to make up for the lack of rodent imagery. The scene’s capper is a bit wobbly, in which Winston wimpers and cries, hurries towards the outstretched arms of O’Brien, and breaks down. Redgrave is adequate as Winston’s quasi-paternal torturer, but he lacks some of the coldness that made Morell more effective.

Moving on to Orwell’s finale, instead of meeting in the pub, Winston sees Julia under a chestnut tree in a park, and after a few words, he steps away, drawn to a news report of BB’s victory. When he returns to the park, Julia has gone, and with no one and nothing in his life, he drums up his energy and focus on what he’s been tortured to do: love BB, scream his devotion, and join the masses at the city square rally.

As Winston, O’Brien is fine, but his casting is still wrong: in the insular, controlled-from-birth world of Oceania, how would one child grow up with a 100% pure American accent? Were his parents Inglewood, Californian expats? And if he was Canadian, was he raised by Canadian émigrés?

The 1956 film isn’t a failure, but it’s an uneven effort to take a grim tale and make it more palatable to mass and international audiences, which is why Michael Radford’s 1984 film stuck with Orwell’s tone and made what many fans and critics feel is the most definitive edition.


THE 1984 Film

And yet, like the prior film, Radford’s version disappeared from circulation after falling out of print / being commercially redacted for many, many years before small pop-ups on overseas DVD and Blu-ray releases. I’ll get into Twilight Time’s fine U.S. release shortly, but let’s finish up with the last contrasting details that make Radford’s film so special.

19841984_poster_sRadford’s adaptation feels like a needed reset, although 32 after its release, it is very much a product of the 1980s in tone, design, and sound. Whereas the live teleplays relied on minimal set décor and used light and shadow for tone to make sets appear deeper, Anderson’s film reflected the streamlined fifties style, especially in the design of the ministerial gerkins that resemble (perhaps logically) rising towers of importance and surveillance, yet structures erected to withstand direct hits from rival provinces. The proletariat has to hide among the ruins of bombed-out London, but like the Soviet Politburo elite, BB’s chiefs probably had a secret underground city where they could weather impacts and still govern and enjoy some of the special privileges and delicacies banned from average minions.

Visually, Radford’s film reflects the post-apocalyptic mania that beset the 1980s and 1990s where things were greasy, grimy, spikey, and one’s environment felt like relics repurposed for more rudimentary uses. Anderson’s dystopian Logan’s Run had two worlds – the angular, clean pods of the youngsters before they were ‘renewed’ in the magical sacrificial suicide game called Carousel, and the outerworld landscape where no one treads because of disease, radiation, or the world’s in a totally ruinous state (or as in George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan’s original 1967 novel, filled roaming wild animals, like big cats from long gone zoos). It’s the realm where feral creatures and tribes of humans live and engage in brutal acts of self-preservation.

If 1970s dystopian sci-fi were glossy widescreen ruminations on deserted and abandoned pasts tied to lost plagues or radiation contamination (The Omega Man, The Ultimate Warrior, Damnation Alley), the 1980s and early 1990s were about reclamation of past social and political structures – vestiges of civilization that could be used to control and dominate under the auspices of social equality and progress. The world of Max Headroom (1987), Blood of the Heroes (1989), Hardware (1990), Mindwarp (1992), and other variants (including the seminal Mad Max from 1979) had heroes tied to old military, bounty hunter, explorers, police jobs before characters wandered and faced aggressors in human, mass mob, or killer robot form.

Orwell’s saga of a totalitarian regime that survives after atomic warfare actually makes a perfect fit for 1980s dystopian fantasies, but none of the aforementioned were genuine social and political critiques – only anti-nuclear dramas qualified, albeit as a separate sub-genre – so Radford’s film was perfectly timed to attract mass audiences with its veneer of post-apocalyptic hell, but really slam audiences with a moral lesson in the kind of world that can exist if freedoms were removed by a ruthless regime and its devoted apparatchiks and brainwashed generations within the party’s youth wings.

The importance of Orwell’s novel and the films to varying degrees shows not how influential 1984 was to various regimes, but how accurate its author was in describing the dehumanizing processes used to mold populations for future generations.

Big Brother’s INGSOC party espouses social progress, but like the Soviet system which despotic satellite regimes adopted, there were still the elite politicos who enjoyed benefits of food and travel, and the lowly proletariat whose food, education, leisure activities, and libations were controlled.

Winston (John Hurt, playing a much older version of Orwell’s 39 year old hero) is able to travel beyond London’s grubby areas and meet Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) because they’re mid-level apparatchiks, but once they’ve been arrested, tortured, and released, mid-level freedoms are halted. Their re-education or ‘cleansing’ as Michael Redgrave proclaims is something to be celebrated and publicized for its propaganda value, but like former Oceania heroes Aronson, Jones, and Rutherford (a trio often reduced to a couple in prior versions), they can become non-persons or re-arrested on whatever trumped up charges, executed, and their epitaphs re-propagandized in media streams as cautionary tales in infomercials for free-leaning, would-be rebels.

Radford also adds a unique moment which simply and darkly summarizes the ongoing modifications to history. Never mind Winston burning photos of the trio or redacting text in newspapers; after having stricken a former hero from the records, he realizes the bottle of Victory Gin features the non-person’s face on the bottle, and in an almost unconscious gesture, Winston scratches the visage off the label with his thumbnail to ensure the redacted history is complete, even in his own apartment.

Radford’s film also satirizes totalitarianism by applying its brand beyond posters: there are logos for INGSOC as well as cheap Victory Gin and cheap, shitty Victory Cigarettes; video montages for the party that are mixed media presentations everyone must watch and react towards according to behavioural codes of conduct; and in each film, audio-visual media is used to isolated the villain.

Stalin crafted his own unique version of himself, but being a massively bureaucratic regime, the Soviet Politburo was packed with many potential successors who would maneuver and shore up backing before filling a power vacuum. The 1980s saw a rotating series of party leaders because those at the top were too old and creaky to survive (Yuri Andopov and Konstantin Chernenko) as long as predecessors like Leonid Brezhnev, whereas North Korea’s Kim dynasty is able to maintain its Orwellian world because their Dear Leaders keep procreating. Like BB, one must show total fidelity to the leader and believe whatever nonsense is proclaimed by government.

Radford also grasped a concept none of the prior screenwriters managed to explore (because of running time and differing foci to suit networks and less flexible producers): BB as an eternal leader. No one knows his age, health, or if he’s still alive. He’s a brand that will remain eternal because Symes and his division are eradicating language, voiding memory, and reducing the consciousness of the populace to almost binary foci. Anyone who strays has his / her mind shredded, or they just disappear. BB never needs to be retired, succeeded, or declared dead, and like a Star Trek episode of a God-like entity (1968’s “The Ultimate Computer”), he could literally be a computer in an underground bunker with a handful of humans fulfilling its mandate.

This is something hinted via O’Brien, who acts as a regional shepherd for the local flock of workers. His torturing of Winston is brutal and relentless, and his exchanges with Winston are equally bleak because what matters isn’t whether Winston truly believes he loves BB; his mind must be smashed to the point where he must believe in a banana if that’s what INGSOC wants.

Although set in 1948, Radford sticks to the same plot points, but he opts for an interesting series of interweaving dream states that are tied to Winston both in that verdant valley where he meets Julia and they make love, and recurring flashes from his childhood fleeing from his apartment with the chocolate he’s taken from his ill sister. O’Brien appears in some flashes because the dreams represent a fuzzing subconscious state in which even memories and fantasies are infiltrated by INGSOC.

O’Brien also represents a trusting figure – more so than in prior versions because to sway Winston into believing he too is a member of the anti-BB underground, he must come off as a father figure; a more accessible, personable version of BB. (Aspects of fuzzy memories in which O’Brien figures like a viral father figure are also in the 1953 radio play, although those brief moments feature lush score and chirping birds.)

Burton, in one of his last performances, proved he could still be compelling onscreen when the material and character were great, and his performance style was reigned in. There are no Burtonisms because his O’Brien always sounds reasonable. Greene’s O’Brien was creepy and perhaps secretly attracted to wiry, wispy Winston; Morell’s version was more officious and lacked any warmth; and Redgrave’s was an egotist who felt torture was a means to enrich his faux paternalistic persona: when Winston breaks down and cries from Room 101, O’Brien erectifies his arms Christ-like, and grabs the sobbing wretch not as a father figure, but a proud ideologue. Burton blurs things a bit by being a guiding father with specific expectations that happen to mandate the use of horrific torture.

Like the Studio One teleplay, Radford also closes his film with Julia leaving Winston alone in a pub, but one can argue Radford’s closing shot is deliberately ambiguous:  Winston hears his own post-cleansing confession on state TV, and he reacts with reserved joy when the telescreen announces Oceania’s total victory over its enemies, but he then turns away, and whispers “I Love You” – not as a sign of total devotion to BB, but an echo of a lost love for someone he’s unable to identify because O’Brien’s scrubbed it away. It might be BB; it’s probably BB; but there’s something so off with this ‘imprinted’ lover that Winston’s visage remains frozen in a horrific state of hopelessness. It’s the pain of never knowing what preceded his cleaning is what ends the film, and it’s bloody brutal.

If there’s any weak character in Radford’s version, it’s perhaps Julia, because in having actress Hamilton disrobe and be fully nude, it does reduce her to a sex object. Julia’s a self-proclaimed hypocrite in wanting debauchery while working for the Anti-Sex League, but her screen nudity reduces the heroine’s more articulate, headstrong qualities that resonate in prior filmed productions. Hamilton is fine and gives Julia a striking edge when she’s shrill at public gatherings, but Julia is a character who’s tough to deepen onscreen because she’s either too masculine, or just a sex object responsible for luring and destroying Winston’s safe albeit wretched life.

Cyril Cusack is perfectly cast as antiquarian / Thought Policeman Charrington, and like Burton, he’s able to glide between playing his character as a genial figure before straightening up and being a cold menace, quite proud in orchestrating the sting operation and ridding Oceania of one more sleazy couple. Cusack may well have been cast based on a similar performance in Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) in which he plays a fire chief  who takes pride in destroying illicit knowledge, and you know Charrington’s room’s going to be scrubbed clean, redressed with dust, and the mirror replaced for the next entrapment.

Syme (James Walker) and Parsons (Gregor Fisher) are similarly well-cast, and Parson’s children are as rotten and brainwashed as their variants in the BBC adaptation, which alongside Radford’s film, rank as the best of the five versions examined here.

Radford’s film is more measured in pacing – the film runs 111 mins. – and the editing by Tom Priestley (Deliverance, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Tess) is quite tight, structuring the film in more traditional intro-middle-denouement thirds. The film’s visual scope is enhanced by the remarkable production design by Allan Cameron (Highlander, Showgirls, Angels & Demons) which assembles grubby derelict locates, packs in masses of proletariat, a giant telescreen, and crumbling buildings where even mid-level apparatchiks must live. Even the train station that ferries Winston to the country looks like shite.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, Skyfall, Sicario) developed a special desaturated colour palette which in some later TV and home video versions was altered with boosted colours. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features the bleak theatrical version, and for fans of the controversial music score, one can switch between the theatrical soundtrack mix with Dominic Muldowney’s orchestral and choral pieces with snatches of the Eurythmic’s electronic music, and the original film mix with Muldowney’s complete score.

Perhaps as a means to give the film extra push in case its bleakness proved a turn-off to early audiences, Virgin engaged the Eurythmics to record an electronic score, and with final cut, had the film remixed against Radford’s wishes. Their thinking may have been commercial and pragmatic: should the costly film under-perform, Virgin could at least get some cash from the soundtrack album which contained lengthy re-recorded vocal versions of David A. Stewart and Annie Lennox’s score.

The album became a huge best-seller, but it took years before Muldowney’s music appeared in full on the DVD. I’ll provide a comparison between the two scores at a later time, but suffice it to say both mixes do work for the film – it just depends which version is more pleasing. Fans of the theatrical film may prefer that mix because of their familiarity with the Eurythmics material (which actually works fine, nestled between Muldowney’s cues), but there’s undoubtedly more continuity in Radford’s preferred mix (which also has superior fidelity and clarity).

Twilight Time’s Blu also contains an isolated mono music and partial sound effects track of the Eurythmics cues that are more threadbare than their LP versions, and were previously unreleased. Virgin did a great disservice to Radford and original composer Muldowney, but Lennox and Stewart also composed one of their best albums, and Virgin’s insurance tactic inadvertently launched Stewart’s own occasional film scoring career (Jute City, Showgirls).

A production ignited by a director wanting to make a more faithful film version of Orwell’s novel, 1984 ranks as one of the best 1980s sci-fi dramas, and a wrenching film that still packs a powerful punch because of its nihilistic elements and continuing evocations of contemporary horrors. The mass-shaming of captured prisoners being driven through the city centre before they’re publicly hanged vividly recalls the propaganda crafted by ISIL to keep locals in line, and the devotion to Big Brother and his monstrous apparatus of control has many parallels with North Korea’s ongoing Dear Leader regime, its strict behaviour codes and exposing the proletariat to aural and visual propaganda, food rations, and cheap booze to numb a sense of hopelessness.

Although not a prolific director, Radford’s career includes the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning Il Postino (1994) and The Merchant of Venice (2004), but his follow-up film White Mischief (1987) is another exercise in bleak storytelling, reuniting the director with cinematographer Deakins and editor Priestley for a dry, cruelly black drama of murderous, filthy rich wankers. (It’s a stellar production screaming for a proper Blu-ray release.)

The year 1984 offered up documentaries and re-examinations of Orwell’s writings, but perhaps the most striking is Ridley Scott’s iconic Apple Macintosh ad, in which a marathon runner bolts down the aisle of a dystopian / ‘Radfordian’ congregation and tosses the massive sledgehammer into the telescreen.

It’s a brilliant statement against the dull, the mechanical, and the dreary in favour of a futuristic device that frees the mind (“You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”) by offering visual beauty and the tools to explore and invent and expand – the very antithesis of Big Brother’s shitty little world.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s Blog — IMDB: 1953 Studio One / 1954 BBC / 1956 feature film / 1984 feature film  —  Soundtrack Album  — Composer Filmographies: Dominic Muldowney / Eurythmics
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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