Nineteen Eighty-Four


Where do I get my Big Brother campaign pin and yard poster? Michael Radford’s elaborate Orwell adaptation sticks closely to the original book, even after decades of deriviative dystopias have stolen its fire. John Hurt is excellent as Winston Smith, and Richard Burton is his inquisitor.

Nineteen Eighty-Four
Twilight Time
Limited Edition
1984 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 111 min. / Ship Date December 8, 2016 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack, Gregor Fisher, James Walker, Phyllis Logan.
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Production Designer Allan Cameron
Art Direction Martin Hebert, Grant Hicks
Film Editor Tom Priestley
Original Music (2) Dominick Muldowney / Eurythmics
Written by Jonathan Gems, Michael Radford from the novel by George Orwell
Produced by Al Clark, Robert Devereux, Simon Perry, Marvin J. Rosenblum
Directed by Michael Radford

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

George Orwell’s pessimistic 1948 novel 1984 is probably the most important political book of the last century. A story of a very possible dystopia, it outlined the ability of a regime with modern technology to control completely the actions and even the thoughts of a captive population. Orwell meant his statement against Totalitarianism to apply to his own England, then war-weakened and experimenting with socialist solutions. When we American kids were allowed to read 1984 in school, it was specifically described as an exposé against Communism. That’s certainly accurate when applied to a monster like Joseph Stalin, who would have loved to wield the surveillance tools available today.

It would seem obvious that a producer would try to adapt the book in the ‘future’ year in which it is set. Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four stars an excellent John Hurt, features Richard Burton in his last role, and has a lot to recommend it. Orwell’s book is real scare fiction, paranoia bait that had us checking behind wall decorations for hidden Viewscreens. This version gets the letter of the book’s descriptions, and faithfully reproduces its content and much of its dialogue. But it doesn’t quite capture the full measure of the novel’s baleful horror. I’m not sure anybody would want to see that movie — the book’s ‘Two Minute Hate’ spectacles use military atrocity footage.

In the totalitarian state of Oceania, lowly outer party functionary Winston Smith (John Hurt), toils at his job rewriting bits of history, while secretly nurturing his own petty rebellion against conformism. There’s no escaping the ever-present Viewscreens installed in every room, that allow the Thought Police to watch every citizen; hence the sinister motto, Big Brother is Watching You. With a female co-rebel named Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), Winston finds a rented room without a Viewscreen. They meet there for forbidden sex, and wonder if there really is a resistance movement somewhere, that they might join. As Thought Criminals are always caught, Julia and Winston consider themselves doomed, but swear to retain their human dignity by never betraying one another. Unfortunately, Smith’s inquisitor turns out to be his inner party contact O’Brien (Richard Burton), who knows exactly which fear buttons to push to crush Winston’s will.

Two versions of this tale were produced in the 1950s. A 1954 BBC television production was written by Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame) and starred Peter Cushing. A huge success, it gave both talents a big career lift. A 1956 film version directed by Michael Anderson became unavailable in the 1970s because the Orwell estate disapproved of it — an ironic echo of the historical revisionism done by Winston Smith in the story itself. Starring Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling, it was released with two different endings — one of which didn’t show Smith and Julia rebelling against Big Brother and being shot down for their trouble. Of yet, critics haven’t demanded its revival. When ‘buried’ movies are discussed it is often mentioned in tandem with Joseph Losey’s “M”. As both movies were Columbia releases, is Twilight Time perhaps in a good position to debut them on disc?

Michael Radford’s version was, as its trailer proudly boasts, filmed in April of 1984. It’s an accurate interpretation that has less impact than it might, if only because most of the original novel’s ideas were long ago scavenged for movies with science fiction and espionage themes. The concept of televisions that monitor citizens and rob them of their privacy is now a given in dystopian thrillers – and of course also in real life, where Internet-enabled televisions may be keeping track of what we watch, for ‘marketing purposes.’ The book’s onslaught of state propaganda lies only seems fully alive in Television political ad campaigns. The shrill, authoritarian cadence of Orwell’s war bulletins, with their inducements to rage and carefully-selected ‘human interest’ stories, have also certainly come to pass.

1984 has made a broad mark in film culture, in movies big and small. Fritz Lang’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, with its spy hotel wired with hundreds of television cameras, remains the core statement on surveillance and techno-voyeurism. Dozens of fictitious dystopian futures owe a debt to Orwell, from Logan’s Run to The Prisoner to Scream and Scream Again, to George Lucas’ THX 1138. England’s socialist infrastructure proves to be a perfect target for outer-space invaders in Quatermass 2: the aliens find the regimented, secrecy-obsessed bureaucracy easy to infiltrate, and easy to transform into a centralized totalitarian regime. Stretch the idea a bit, and James Bond can be seen as a royalist backlash against socialist gangsters and their technological conspiracies.

Radford sticks with the original book’s conception of dystopia. Several decades and ‘atomic wars’ after The Blitz, the fictional land of Oceania still looks like a bombed and blighted ruin. It isn’t even trying to recover, as poverty and despair help keep Big Brother in power. Oceania is perpetually at war, with enemies that seem to be arbitrary. Constantly striving to keep up production and fueled by lies and fantasies hurled at them 24 hours a day, the citizens of Oceania live in a constant state of terror.

With its ability to monitor the activities of each individual, and its Stalinist culture of informing and betrayal, the all-powerful government in Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot be opposed. Constant intimidation keeps all on their best behavior, and any individual might be unfairly denounced at any moment. The party has a surfeit of candidates confessing to fictional crimes, displayed in televised daily show trials. The party demands that its citizens cease to function as people (no sex, no marriages, no families) and devote themselves 100% to the state. The news blurbs pretend that a resistance exists to enforce a constant state of vigilance.

Winston Smith’s dilemma is that he hasn’t shaken his personal identity. He can’t avoid seeing the implications of the lies on the Viewscreens — some of which he manufactures himself at his day job.

Nobody should expect Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to match the poetry of Orwell’s prose, or accurately depict the full depth of Winston Smith’s paranoid state of terror. The rubble-strewn alleys and bedraggled citizens are made of the same generic stuff as dozens of post-apocalyptic thrillers. Cinematically, the next year’s Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four what Dr. Strangelove was to Fail Safe — the ‘comic’ version that communicates the basic concept better than the straight version. Brazil outdistanced this film by turning Orwell’s world into a fantastic freak show with an irresistible element of macabre humor. Radford does contribute effective new ideas of his own, specifically a vision of a doorway to peace and contentment on a grassy hill. It provides a welcome if fleeting emotional contrast to the colorless cold and pain of Winston’s confinement.

John Hurt makes a fine Winston Smith, small and ineffectual but with sad eyes that reveal a dangerous spark of independence. Richard Burton is less apt as his tormentor O’Brien. Most of his dialogue seems to be verbatim catchphrases from the novel, delivered in the same quasi-menacing monotone. Suzanna Hamilton makes Julia the perfect female thought criminal. All she wants is to live like a human being, but the all-controlling State has brought things to a point where people no longer own their own bodies. The vague hopelessness of the lovers’ quiet rebellion is thrilling and depressing at the same time. Cyril Cusack’s petty functionary is a nice reminder of the derivative Fahrenheit 451, but he hasn’t much to do. The smaller part of a downtrodden citizen named Parsons is well played by Gregor Fisher. Excellent extra casting pegs Oceania’s average citizens with chilling accuracy — these people really do look and act like lumpen proles manipulated by fear.

The recreation of the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is accurate, but, as I said before, familiar from the borrowings of films, plays and stories beholden to Orwell’s original concept. Radford’s flashbacks to Smith’s youth pale next to those in the book. I read 1984 in the fifth grade, hiding the book from a substitute teacher who thought it too adult for me. The sex passages were notable, but the most wrenching parts of the book were the flashbacks with Smith and his mother and sister, living in wretched, hopeless misery.

The terror scenes of Winston Smith’s torture seem somewhat muted in Radford’s version, mainly because such scenes are so common now; we’re accustomed to downbeat stories of apocalyptic doom. Poor Smith’s prognosis is so hopeless, there’s little room for involvement. We certainly see why he would break his pact and denounce Julia, but we don’t quite experience the breaking of his spirit, which is the true purpose of the torture sessions. It’s an aesthetic problem: externalizing Smith’s emotional convulsions with more theatrics (as Edmond O’Brien certainly did) might defeat the somber tone the director has carefully built up. Curiously, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil reinterprets 1984 more effectively than Radford’s more accurate retelling, by cloaking its terror behind a smokescreen of black humor. Michael Palin’s torture scenes in the giant, Quatermass-like dome are simultaneously funny and appalling: even as Jonathan Pryce perishes, he thinks he’s achieved Nirvana.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Nineteen Eighty-Four goes the extra mile to correct the color of earlier video versions of Michael Radford’s film. Original prints were dark and de-saturated, but from its cable TV premiere forward the show has been given a less extreme, more colorful transfer. Filmmakers striving to give their work a ‘special’ visual appearance are often frustrated when video versions revert to whatever some potentially uniformed video technician thinks is ‘better.’

Some home video outfits make an effort to reproduce an original theatrical appearance, but some video labs operate like factories. It is common for scenes filmed Day For Night to come out looking like high noon, and a moody James Bond film was re-timed as brightly as a sitcom, so it’s a lot to ask for a video company to approximate the original appearance of unusual shows like John Huston’s Moby Dick (promised from Twilight Time) and Reflections in a Golden Eye, or Ettore Scola’s A Special Day.

Happily, MGM’s encoding, from 2004 makes an effort to replicate Radford’s original color design. Colors are indeed dulled. I expected the dream sequences set in green fields to be contrastingly bright and cheery, but they show only a little more chroma. The effect is more exact. Combine that with the sharp image and widescreen aspect ratio, and the proper mood of proletarian misery comes through.

The other big news is the re-introduction of director Radford’s original soundtrack choice, an orchestral score by Dominic Muldowney. A fanfare (“Oceania, ‘Tis For Thee”? ) sounds like a cue from Holst’s The Planets. The producers reworked some tracks — I noticed a vocal over the end credits on one version that’s not there on the other. The score hasn’t been replaced, but just augmented with some tracks by the Eurythmics. It’s the Eurythmics version that I’ve always heard. Twilight Time gives viewers the choice of either mix, finally bringing the problem to an end. This is the quality custodianship that shows TT at its best. An original trailer billboards the Eurythmics tracks, with Annie Lennox.

The other official extra is an Isolated Score Track, of the Eurythmics version only. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes sketch the significance of Orwell’s book and the movie version with clarity and precision, touching lightly on the effective performances. She notes the pathetic lovers looking skinny and pale, knowing that failure and arrest are unavoidable. Ms. Kirgo also touches on the video recovery of the film’s original look, telling us that the photochemical process used to achieve the muted prints was called ‘bleach bypass.’ Today, any kid with a good eye and nimble fingers can do far more on a simple PC.

Last note — those of us around and thinking back in the real 1984 will remember the book’s biggest culture appearance of the year – as referenced in an epochal promotional TV ad for the Apple Macintosh.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Nineteen Eighty-Four Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent ( two music choices, see above )
Supplements: Isolated Score Track (Eurythmics) , trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 13, 2016

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