The Fountainhead King Vidor; script: Ayn Rand (USA: 1949) Gary Cooper; Patricia Neil
viewed dvd Sept 2020
King Vidor’s 1949 movie ‘The Fountainhead’ was scripted by Ayn Rand from her novel of the same name. Ayn Rand was perhaps the most influential of a group of American writers who in the early 1940’s set about developing the basic tenets and building blocks of a right wing ideology that could compete intellectually with the ideas of socialism. Much of her thinking is now incorporated into the generic beliefs of today’s alt-right ideologists. Marxism in particular was viewed by Rand and her allies as monopolising the intellectual discourse in universities. Her intention was to provide combative philosophical economic and moral succour to right wing conservative thinkers and lend their world views a carapace of academic respectability. Rand was also deeply involved in bringing Hollywood movies and Hollywood film makers to the attention of the House Committee for Un-American activities. She was of the most active of those engaged in suppressing and arresting any expression of socialist ideas in movies made in Hollywood and the making of the Fountainhead from her own novel of the same name, was intended as a new ideological way foreword for popular movies.
The mainspring of Rand’s thinking was the superiority of the individual will over the collective will. Her thinking is this respect quickly started to resemble the vision of the world as described in ancient Celtic and Nordic texts, a world divided into the forces of light and dark. A world in which these opposed cosmic entities were locked in deadly conflict. Rand like others before her swaps dialogue and debate for metaphysics. The Fountainhead sees the visionary individual architect Howard Roark reject the ethos of the crowd, refusing to be drawn down into the mire of its collective mediocrity. He’s a man living by his own lights, a man knowing he is right and will be vindicated, unafraid to stand alone.
Excepting Ruark’s overweening arrogance, the position he takes is fair enough on its own terms. Roark is a literary exemplar of those who as individuals are prepared to stand up for what they believe in. But Roark’s function in the Fountainhead is to justify individualist capitalist right wing ideology.
It’s 1949 the USA and USSR are contesting hegemony over the planet, their ongoing conflict focused on the city of Berlin which has been blockaded by the Soviet Union. For Rand the right wing thinker the conflict is a mythic contest between the light and the dark: between the forces of good in the form of the USA and its socio-economic system, and the forces of evil manifested by the communist USSR. She sees it as a zero sum game: one or the other must win. But what would be the consequences should evil prevail? For Rand this is unthinkable. Her position is that it cannot be allowed to take place, and were it ever on the point of happening then the forces of light would be justified in destroying the entire world to prevent the victory of darkness and evil. A eschatological outcome made possible by the invention of atomic weapons. The Fountainhead provides the ultimate underlying specious logic for the destruction and annihilation of life:
Better dead than Red.
The key dramatic moment in the film is when Roark learns that the plans he drew up for the development of a huge city housing project have been altered as the site was built and developed. The final structures bear no resemblance to his vision. Roark enraged and betrayed sets the building on fire, watches in ecstasy as the flames raze it to the ground. He lurks triumphant amidst smouldering ruins that were to have been people’s homes but which for him symbolise the forces of collective mediocrity he has fought throughout his life.
Roark’s setting fire to the public housing project, is Rand’s message both to American politicians and to her supporters on the Right not to shirk from the prospect of annihilation; not to pull back from using atomic weapons against the USSR. If necessary the forces of economic righteousness and individual freedom must be prepared to destroy the world to prevent the triumph of darkness.
Better dead than Red. The slogan that characterises American foreign policy from 1945 to date leaving its imprint across the whole of Central America, Chile, Argentina, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and now in variant form through most of the Middle East.
Rand’s underlying theme suggests that whole scale destruction of civilisation might be necessary as a sort of sacrificial cleansing, a way of once and for all banishing darkness. The use of atomic weaponry is not only justified but a necessary act of expiation. And Rand’s belief is that from the ashes of destruction the strong individual will arise and recreate the world in their own pure image. The resurrection of capitalism.
In court, charged with arson Roark defends his action as the legitimate response of the individual to protect the purity of their vision. He is cleared of all charges. He is justified and assumes the status of ‘The Heroic Seer’. In the last sequence the camera shadowing his new wife, cranes up to the height of the new building he has just visioned and built (inevitably some Albert Speer neoclassical confection). She finds him like a God wind wrapped and triumphantly gesturing out over the city proclaiming his genius and asserting his right to intellectual conquest.
Interesting that Rand’s position re destruction and civilisation has some analogies to the way in which Hitler and the Nazis construed the cosmos. They understood themselves as mythic beings with a global destiny as racial crusaders to save the world from degeneracy and evil in the form of Jews and Communists. Nazism was ultimately a do or die endeavour. As Germany slid into total defeat, Hitler rather than surrender to the forces of the allies chose obliteration of Germany and her people, embracing an end of the world scenario as represented in the Wagnerian Ragnarok of German mythology. To destroy the world was better than to suffer defeat; Hitler and his general would certainly have used Atomic weapons had they possessed them.
So in relation to the USSR there’s interesting continuity between the Hitler view and Rand’s. Whereas Hitler saw the Western allies (America Britain France) as degenerate entities with little understanding of what they were doing, the USSR was seen as evil: communist and jew ridden. The fake but mythically construed role of Aryan Deutschland was to destroy the USSR and all it represented. It was the Light against the Dark. When Hitler understood he was facing obliteration, the last months of his chancellorship were spent in part trying to convert the Western Allies to this vision. He was unsuccessful – up to a point. But when the European war ended, Rand and her supporters picked up this metaphysic and charted their own cosmological map: American was now on the side of the angels, standing in opposition to to Stalin’s Satanic masses. Rand and her cohort proceded to recast Hitler’s racial myth as an ideological divide.
Rand’s legacy is preserved in the proliferation of a large number of right wing think tanks which actively promote the advancement of private interests over public good. To some great extent their influence has shaped the recent development of the economies of not only the USA and the UK, but many other countries world wide. Ironic to note that with the break up of the USSR the ideological war has receded, but Ayn Rand’s mythical ideological opposition of dark and light as expressed in the Fountainhead has transposed back to its original Fascist form: race. Populist politicians in the USA in the UK and in Europe have reverted to a racist mythologies, represenitng their white populations as the entitled forces of light opposed to the masses of deprived dark skinned people, represented as forces of darkness, demanding their share of the world’s resources.