This has proven to be a difficult review to write. Summarizing the film is not hard but doing justice to the film’s subject matter and significance is challenging.
The first time I heard of Ayn Rand was in high school. There was this mysteriousness and reverence about her, like a prophet or deity. I made a mental note to revisit her work at a later time. I found this a difficult subject then, and still do, after 40 years and the unusual times we live in.
Her first novel was The Fountainhead (1943) followed later by Atlas Shrugged (1957).
The publication of The Fountainhead created quite an impression in literature. Her manuscript had been rejected many times by publishers, but it gained quite a following after publication. I have to admit, I never understood the controversy over the novel or Ayn Rand, or her objectivism philosophy. I understand the gist of the concept, just not how it could be an entire movement.
Rand writes “…the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” In The Fountainhead, there is a collision between the goals of the individual and serving the will and needs of society. It is this conflict that forms the dramatic tension in the novel and film.
The 1930’s was during the Great Depression and during the rise of totalitarian states where masses of people were told what to think and the state dictated culture. This was before the Internet and television; books, radio, newspapers and speeches formed attitudes and opinions. Rand was born and spend her early years in Russia, witnessing the Russian Revolution and the impact on her father’s business and their family. She immigrated to America in 1926.
Years ago, by chance, I saw the film of The Fountainhead on television one afternoon and I found it kind of disturbing. The film is visually striking, deep contrasts and angular shapes, almost European in texture. The relationship between the architect (Gary Cooper) and the critic (Patricia Neal) is erotic in a cruel sort of way; hot, cold, and punishing, and only later, passionate.
Howard Roark is an idealistic architect who does not want to follow the popular and accepted trend in architecture. He is willing to walk away from the profession than to succumb to it’s trappings. Following what is popular and accepted, is apparently mind control and stripping the individual of what is had, so Roark will have none of it. During the film he is constantly fronted with pleas to compromise, to design for the masses, to use popularly accepted styles – but he will not compromise. Roark is the poster-boy for individuality and he would rather do heavy, manual labor working on a construction site than bend his beliefs. If you want him to design a building, you will build it exactly as he has designed it, no changes, or he won’t agree to the project. That’s called conviction.
Warner Bros. put the film in the hands of veteran director King Vidor (The Champ, Stella Dallas, Comrade X, Duel in the Sun), who directed his first feature film in 1919. Vidor had a solid reputation and could swim in heavy melodrama, which The Fountainhead proved to be. Vidor was given a difficult job, particularly since Rand demanded that not one word of her screenplay was changed. His director of photography was Robert Burks, a veteran of film noir and many films with Alfred Hitchcock, so the man could create mood and effect.
Rand wrote the screenplay. She was not a novice to screenplays but her book is dense with her philosophy and it is very talky. Some books are too philosophical to break the plane of the visual medium. It helped that architecture is a visual medium so Roark’s vision could be demonstrated through his drawings and various projects. At times, the film feels like a classroom lesson in objectivism theory.
As I was watching the film, I thought of the work of Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life) and his homespun American ethos. I imagined Capra directing this film after a bad acid trip. Capra’s films were often about the masses, how they were fooled, manipulated or their right to know. Rand takes a different tack; yes the masses can be manipulated but the masses can also drain a man’s soul of himself, a theme even Capra would fly close to in his films.
This is not a scene by scene analysis of the film, but here’s a rough summary.
Roark is an architecture student who is told by the college that we will never be a success, his ideas are just too out of touch with the mainstream. He gets a job for an older architect who is also outside of the mainstream. Roark eventually goes out on his own but few clients will consider him, he is up for a huge job but won’t compromise, plus The Banner newspaper is against him, so he quits and takes a manual labor job in a quarry. There he meets Dominique, who will figure in his life going forward. Roark rebounds and achieves some success but soon buts heads with the architectural community. Dominique marries the owner of The Banner, and Roark designs their home. An old colleague of Roark’s a very successful architect, wants Roark to design a huge project and let him claim the project as his. Roark agrees on the condition that his design is not altered in any way. It turns out the design is changed and Roark, with Dominique’s help, blows up the project under construction. The Banner comes to Roark’s defense until the board of directors pressures the owner to reverse field and comes out against Roark, who must face trail for his action. Roark defends himself, convinces the jury in a long oral argument about the virtue of man’s individuality against the corrosive nature of the subjugation of the individual to the masses. Roark wins and is acquitted, wins a big contract from the owner of The Banner, who then kills himself. Roark designs the man’s building, the tallest building in New York, and marries his widow (Dominique).
Cooper and Neal were involved in a very torrid affair for a number of years, becoming pregnant with his child, which she aborted. He was married and his wife wouldn’t give him a divorce. On screen, there is fire between them.
Some interesting reviews on Rotten Tomatoes:
“Irresistibly campy Ayn Rand adaptation.”
“The Fountainhead is by turns exciting, handsome, astoundingly awkward, fully committed, untowardly relentless, very strange, and a little creepy in its compulsive watchability.”
“Potboiler of potboilers.”
“It’s the kind of dazzling film, shot in a fascinating German Expressionist style, that veers from being silly to being provocative.”
“It remains one of the strangest and most florid pictures of its time, possibly of all time. It’s also immensely enjoyable and startlingly steamy… a stylish, fascinating curio.”
If you suspend your notion that this film is a bit of a lecture, and think about how mass opinion is formed and manipulated, the actions of the characters are not that unusual. Rand just scratched the surface. Today, opinions are shaped by television and the Internet, not just as delivery sources, but organized efforts to misinform and create chaos. We know that foreign agents were at work in the 2016 election to manipulate opinion on social media. The Internet is hugely influential in not just sharing views, but of influencing opinions and instrumental in world events. ISIS used the Internet effectively to recruit terrorists with very slick messaging and videos. Mass demonstrations in Egypt, France and America have been organized using social media.
Newspapers were hugely influential in other times, less so now, as cable television, talk radio, blogs and social media not just share information but reinforce and harden existing views. Instead of a daily edition, access is 24/7.
The tug of war between the drive of the individual verses the good of society has been going on for centuries. Rand’s work was not focused on the political ramifications, rather the fight for the soul of man. Aren’t we always trying to hang onto our souls?