here for BRIT PACK
TREASONS OF THE HEART
WHAT WAS LOST ON THE
PLAYING FIELDS OF ETON.
I hate the
idea of causes, and if 1 had to choose between betraying my country and
betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts
to betray my country.
Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy
When a ship of state
springs leaks—as Britain's has been doing like a colander in the last four
years of Thatcher government, with old spies being unmasked, top-secret
documents fed to the Press and media, and mini-Watergates opening up from
Westminster to Wapping—astounding things start happening to that state's
British cinema is
going spy-mad at present. And not with the clean-cut-action-man espionage of
J. Bond and chums but with the murkier moral verismo
of the country's real secret agents and defectors: Guy Burgess, Donald
Maclean, Harold (Kim) Philby,
George Blake, Anthony Blunt and the rest. All the old questions and
conundrums that ensue in the wake of political instability—questions of
treachery, loyalty, and political vs. personal allegiance—are being re-aired
in 1980's Britain,
and all the old real-life anti-heroes brought out of mothballs.
Country is Marek Kanievska's screen version of Julian Mitchell's hit stage
play about the formative (or deformative) schooldays of
Moscow-defecting Brit spy Guy Burgess. An
Englishman Abroad, written
by Alan Bennett and directed by John Schlesinger for Channel 4, scooped
almost every available British TV prize last year for its portrait of Burgess
in Moscow (played by Alan Bates). And even the dippy new commercial romp The
Jigsaw Man has Michael Caine commuting between
Red Square and Trafalgar Square as one "Phil Kimberley," a name
that only a shortsighted mental defective from Tierra del Fuego
could fail to unscramble as Kim Philby.
Just as Watergate in
America in the Seventies lit the blue touch-paper to a whole epoch of
Paranoia and Conspiracy cinema (The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three
Days of the Condor, etc.), so the political leakiness of modern Britain
is opening up a new era of films traiteurs. It's
likely that the adamantine and `unsinkable' Prime Minister Thatcher herself,
British politics' answer to the Titanic, is one of the big contributing
factors. Her air of steely invincibility is a challenge to all passing
icebergs and all passing saboteurs with portable depth charges.
But there's a
difference between Watergate cinema and the new British traitor movie.
Watergate was an open-and-shut case of heroes and villains. The villains were
the crime and cover-up experts on Capitol Hill and in the White House; the
heroes were the Galahad journalists who unmasked them. In Another Country and An Englishman Abroad—and in Graham
Greene's The Human Factor, novel
and film, and John Le Carré's long-running Smiley
saga—spying, subversion, and treachery are far muddier ethical areas. And far
muddier emotional areas. No longer
is the spy either a dark-garbed figure of clipped and hissing evil (if he's
against us) or an upper-crust swashbuckler of the John Buchan or James Bond
variety (if he's for us). Burgess in Another
Country and An Englishman Abroad
is neither hero nor villain but a man of a hundred moods, paradoxes and
motives: petulant, dilettante, proud, mawkish, sarcastic, despairing,
funny. And the very roundness of the portrait is a reflection of the extent
to which we now empathize with, rather than simply praise or condemn, the
complex choices and emotional contortions of the men who choose to become
The spy is also, of
course, that oldest and grandest of tragic prototypes, the man
fallen-from-high-places. Burgess went to Eton,
top "public school," on which the school in Another Country is based. And he had his eyes
set—not-too-implausibly considering his brains, flair, and secure place in
the oldboy network—on a top-flight career in the Foreign
Office. Julian Mitchell's play and screenplay suggest that it was thanks to
the persecution and disappointed hopes of promotion he experienced at
school, because of his deafeningly indiscreet homosexual adventures, that
Burgess turned to the panacea of Marxism. Disappointed at not climbing to the
top of the hierarchy, he decided to scorn the hierarchy as a whole, and turn
to "another country" where all men were equal (but some were more
equal than others).
In Alan Bennett's based-on-truth
screenplay for An Englishman Abroad
we meet Burgess in Moscow a quarter century later, seen through the eyes of
actress Coral Browne (playing herself), whom Burgess invited to lunch after
a chance meeting during a performance of Hamlet.
Burgess, heavily topped up with vodka, apparently burst into her dressing
room to throw up. This Burgess is instantly recognizable as an autumnal
version of Mitchell's Burgess, a man living on epigrams, gossip, disappointed
and vocal sexuality (he isn't sure if the Russian boy he's been given as a
lover has been assigned as reward or punishment), and a dandyish aristocratic
manner still impregnated with Eton. The reason he invites Browne, we learn,
is so that she can measure him for the suit, shirt, hat, and nether garments
he wants her to order from a top tailor in London.
The portraits in
these two films are both guesses at
Burgess's character and personality. But they're sufficiently close to each
other to suggest that the writers have delved deeply enough into their
subject to find the common ground.
the perennial English commodity that no amount of class warfare, from miners'
strikes to unemployment marches to anti-government leaks, seems likely to
resolve or wear away. But the paradox at the heart of Mitchell's play and
film is its suggestion that the seedbed of the British traitor is the patrician
education, and that the horror of British inequality may be most deeply felt
by those at the top rather than the
Last summer I trusted
myself to British Rail and trained up from London to Oxford, with its
dreaming spires and nightmare monasticism, where Another Country was being filmed, with the crumbling honey-toned
Gothic of Oxford's Brasenose College standing in for Eton. I came fresh from
seeing the stillrunning stage play the previous
night, where for the 600th-odd performance Guy Burgess (called Bennett in the
play) was gadding about laying siege to his teenage Ganymedes,
railing against the hypocrisies and hierarchies of Britain and finally
turning in last-scene despair to Das Kapital. I went about the film location purveying my
bewilderment as to how on earth they could turn this hothouse drama about the
madness of the English public school system into a movie with globe appeal.
First I threw my
bewilderment in the direction of the film's star Rupert Everett, who had
"originated" the Bennett role on the London
stage in 1981. Lolling and Byronic, he was taking a breather under a stone
archway while a long crocodile of Eton-clad boys—grey flannels, black
tailcoats and toppers—went before the camera, marching across a quadrangle
to the orders of director Marek Kanievska. Wrist-thick cables snaked across the grass,
towering arc lights strove to outshine the August sun, and tracking rails
were being laid and re-laid by a perspiring crew who looked as if they were
putting in time on the Burma Railway.
"I think Another Country will be a much better
film, an even better film than it
was a play," says Everett
in his throttled-velvet voice, unlolling from the
archway as I extend my tape-recorder. "Marek
and I see eye to eye about the character of Bennett, and how to rework the
way I played him on stage in movie terms. Also I feel I know the character
better than ever now. I did the play for nine months and all the continuity
and the contradictions are there in my head."
interested you about the role and the character of Bennett-Burgess?", I
asked, quick as a flash.
"He's a very
exciting, vibrant, dangerous character. A very quick-witted creature. At the
beginning of the play Bennett has a great deal of potential, but he's
betrayed by himself, by his own nature. By himself and not by anyone else. And once that happens he turns, irrevocably,
into something quite frightening, bitter and nasty. He's got an acutely
brilliant sense of humor about his surroundings, and it's a tragic shame that
he's not strong enough to sustain that through what goes wrong with him.
Because he makes a huge mistake. I mean, he really doesn't judge things well,
because from the moment he blackmails the prefects about, about..."
with just about everyone in the school," I prompted.
"Yes. Once he
does that, he's really blown it for the rest of his life. It was such a
stupid thing to do, really, because those schools and what happened there
really determined the rest of your life. Especially Eton,
especially in Burgess's time, the 1930s. They all went up together, and then
they ran the rest of the country together. So if you had done that act of
blackmail at school, they'd remember. So he's blown it. All his dreams and
ambitions. And that's terrifying. At the age of 16 or 17 he's blown every
chance of being a leader, which he could otherwise have been."
came up to us and requested Everett's
attendance on the set as he was in the next shot. Off he went, and Everest's
co-star Colin Firth hoved into tape-recorder range
across the sunstruck quadrangle. Firth plays Tommy
Judd, Bennett's Marxist schoolchum and eventual
converter. "Judd's a rebel against the system but he's more open about
it than Guy Bennett," says Firth. "Bennett is underhand, he wants
to take advantage of the comforts, and that's really his undoing. Judd is
more upfront, he's a proselytizer. He could never have been a spy."
Does Judd in the
movie, or whoever was his historical original, end up defecting to Moscow
killed," says Firth. "On my 21st birthday. In the Spanish Civil War.
That's what happened to the character Judd is based on, a man called John Cornford, who was a public schoolboy in the
Thirties." Judd is not, as the Variety review of Another Country had it, based on Burgess's famous spy chum Donald
Maclean, according to scriptwriter Julian Mitchell.
He states that Judd is an amalgam of two people, the man Firth mentioned and
Esmond Romilly, who later
became a pilot and was killed in World War II. Both were public schoolboys
and avowed communists.
Firth was whisked back
into the movie melee to rehearse a dialogue scene on a sunlit bench. As the
schoolboy extras broke ranks and took a grateful rest from pounding the
gravel, I scanned them for likely interview victims. One older boy, tall,
blond, patrician-looking, stood out so starrishly
from the rest that I thought I had spotted another one of the leads. I went
up and quizzed him. No, he wasn't one of the leads. What he was was Viscount Charles Althorp,
Princess Diana's brother, no less. The Viscount was lending the supporting
cast a dash of incognito distinction and shuttling for the movie between Oxford
and Apethorpe Hall in Cambridgeshire,
the family seat, which was being used as a second location for the film.
No sooner had I
struck royalty, though, than tea and sticky buns engulfed the sward. Cast
and crew turned their backs on work and interviewers, and a hundred raving
schoolboy extras made short work of the patisserie. Off I hopped to the
nearby Sheldonian Theatre, Christopher Wren's
baroque beehive in honeyed stone, where Michael Cimino
had shot the opening commencement sequence for Heaven's Gate. By the time I returned, Another Country had turned into a mini-production. Just a crew,
a couple of actors and bearded, bearish producer Alan Marshall. On this
is severed for the first professional time from his pal and partner, director
Alan Parker. But the latter's name comes up quickly nonetheless.
ME: What prompted
you to go after this play?
We didn't actually. By sheer coincidence Alan Parker saw it at the dress
rehearsal and we became involved in it as the Alan Parker film company, with
Alan possibly directing. Then Alan, as it happened, began preproduction work
on another project. The play's producers, Julian Seymour and Robert Fox
[younger brother of actors James and Edward], suggested I might go ahead and
produce it with another director.
(That other director
was Marek Kanievska,
Polish-born but British-resident, here helming his first feature after a
string of TV and short-film credits, including the Oscar-winning A Shocking Accident. As Marshall and I
spoke, Kanievska was busy once again laying rails
for a tracking shot, for the Everest-Firth bench scene.)
ME: Do you feel
bereft without Parker?
[with bearish grin and frown]: No. He's on the phone and we talk. He's my stand-in director just in
case it goes wrong! [Laughter.] It's difficult working with a new
director, obviously, and needs adjustments. There are different nuances. But Marek and I agree on basics, so there are no big problems.
He's tracking mad, of course. There are probably more tracking shots in this
film than all Alan's put together!
ME: Will the film
give a seal of approval to what Burgess has done?
MARSHALL: Oh no, not
at all. It's not a propaganda film, and of course the story is fiction, even
though inspired by Burgess's story.
ME: This film could
give another meaning to the saying, "The Battle
was won on the playing fields of Eton."
Why aren't you filming at Eton?
They turned us down. So we've dressed up the boys in top hats and tails,
which is the Etonian dress, and came to Oxford
as the next best place.
After my visit to
the set, Another Country soon dove
into the darkness of postproduction, that Nibelungland
from which we mortals only hear the distant rumble of Steenbecks
and hiss of editing scissors. Before the film burst into daylight again and
copped a prize for Best Artistic Contribution (Peter Biziou's
cinematography) at its Cannes
World premiere, Britain
unbosomed some earlier contenders in the Traitors
In An Englishman Abroad, Guy Burgess laid claim to be everyone's
favorite double-agent. The fascination of this TV movie, brilliantly shot by
John Schlesinger in a snowbound Dundee-for-Moscow,
is that it pinpoints its traitor hero at a time when the motivating sparks of
anger and idealism portrayed (or hypothesized) in Another Country have long died, and Burgess is now a genteel
landed whale spread out on the terminal beach of middle-aged exile.
How-to-change-the-world has turned into How-to-get-through-the-day: with the
aloof and imperiously polite Coral Browne roped along to a soul-chilling
lunch of garlic-spiked tomatoes and gossip in Burgess's flat; followed by a
walk to the local cathedral, where he weeps silent tears at the splendor of
the soulful, majestic, Russian choral singing.
Though the film is
built around a true story (Miss Browne did
meet Burgess, more or less in these circumstances), it takes flight, like
any good story, into the higher strata of suggestive metaphor. The
haberdashery that Burgess wants Browne to order become his last, proud,
hopeless heraldry of homesickness. Garbed in them, he walks with chin-up
grandeur through the Moscow
streets in the last sequence, while the soundtrack swells to Gilbert and
Sullivan's "He is an Eng-lish-man."
contradictions in Burgess, his patriotic sentimentality about both Russia
aren't analyzed by the movie, they're presented as a given. Which makes us do the thinking. And the film
suggests that the ideals and political credos that motivate action become
just so many straws in the wind. What remains behind is the emotional bedrock
in the love of a country or a people or a way of life.
What An Englishman Abroad, in its
bitter-sweet magnanimity, doesn't take on board is the fact that a traitor is
nonetheless responsible for all his actions, and goes on being responsible.
He may forget or wish to forget the motives of his treachery and its consequences,
in the suffering or deaths of friends and colleagues, in his own broken
promises and pledges. But his victims remember, if they survive. And so does
history, which keeps the file on him and has an alarming tendency to keep
taking it out when least expected—usually when another spy in the chain is
revealed ten or twenty years later, a regular jack-in-the-box event in
A traitor can never
simply shrink himself into an old dear who eats garlic tomatoes and chats
about the dear dead days of Eton
by a dramatist's sleight-of-hand. As a film, An Englishman Abroad is almost
identical to its own portrait of Burgess: witty, wistful, eclectic,
irresistibly charming, and finally, fatally in thrall to its own sentimentality.
The Jigsaw Man, directed by Guy
Hamilton, is a bash at disinterring the shade of Kim Philby
and notable chiefly for the convolutions of a plot which probably even Philby, with access to a main-frame computer, couldn't
work out. The movie also reminds us how incredibly innocent and insular Britain
can be when addressing the topic of spies and traitors. Not only is our top
diplomat hero played by Michael Caine as a
gallivanting rough-diamond with a cockney-Russian accent ("Ah will be needink British pusport"),
but whenever the film radiates out into global references it starts dropping
clangers as big as filing cabinets—as in a telecast
talking of Julius and Esther Rosenberg.
The Jigsaw Man is a loony throwback to
the old "DropgunorIkeelyou" days of spy
movies. But the subject of one man's tug-of-war loyalty—should his first allegiance
be to himself or his loved ones or his country?—surfaces today in many
British films that are not specifically
about spying or defection or treason.
Cal, written by Bernard MacLaverty
and directed by Pat O'Connor, is about a Catholic boy (John Lynch) in Northern
Ireland torn between his
reluctant involvement with the IRA and his love for the wife (Helen Mirren) of a murdered Protestant, at whose killing he
drove the getaway car. It's a Romeo and Juliet yarn—two divided houses and a
love caught in the crossfire—and it suggests that the fascination in Britain
today with the conundrums of loyalty extends far beyond the exclusively
political. Or that the political has got up such a head of steam that it has
now burst through into the personal.
Likewise Sakharov, Jack Gold's film about the Russian
dissident starring Jason Robards and Glenda
Jackson, and aired in the U.S.
this summer on HBO. It is not about espionage or political treason per se, but it does adumbrate many of
the conflicts that underpin those subjects: personal beliefs versus
political mandate, freedom vs. tyranny, silence vs. outspokenness, the
individual vs. the establishment that reared him. And just as Judd in Another Country could be defined as an
"open traitor"—a freespoken proclaimer of Marx to the West —so Sakharov
and his fellow dissidents are open traitors, evangelists for freedom in a
That the traitor can
be a man of heroic virtue us also suggested by Orwell's 1984, now shooting in Britain with Richard Burton, John Hurt,
and Suzanna Hamilton, directed by Michael Radford.
Most of us run screaming from the room whenever this book is mentioned these
days, and have to be comforted, sobbing, with the thought that it's only
150-odd shopping days to 1985 when Orwellomania
will at last be over. But overexposure shouldn't distract us from Orwell's
prime place in the traitor symposium. 1984
is the clearest clarion-call among 20th-century books to the need for
heroic betrayal. To betray the totalitarian state, as Winston Smith and
Julia do or try to do—even the state that 'protects' them and gives them all
their food and shelter, and education and culture —is an act that can be
vindicated, suggests Orwell, by both personal morality and collective
Orwell wrote the
novel in 1948, during the postwar heyday of the British Labour
party, and he intended it as a warning note. He saw the creation of the
authoritarian state as a betrayal of Socialism: although today, as Russia
grasps tightly onto its captive states on the other side of the missile
curtain, it's becoming increasingly arguable that the authoritarian stare is
not a betrayal of Socialism but a logical fulfillment of it.
The shadow of
betrayal as a theme spreads out into Jerzy Skolimowski's
new film, which could hardly be less Orwellian, Success Is The Best Revenge: a crazy-cut tragicomic meditation on
allegiance and abdication. Of the two main characters—the Polish stage producer
self-exiled in Britain (Michael York) who shuns but still loves his native
country, and his rebellious son (Michael Lyndon, Skolimowski's
own son) who abandons Mom and Dad and adoptive Britain to fly back to a
Poland he's never really known—which is the traitor and which the loyalist
Skolimowski uses scattershot editing and a squall of non-sequiturs to make
the audience feel as much at sea as the characters. The movie suggests that
for most people (those not working in the giddy echelons of political power
or influence) there is no terra
firma in the world of betrayal and allegiance. You take your own compass,
plant your feet on the deck, squint up hopefully at the stars, and trust to
The new Polish presence
in British cinema—directors like Skolimowski and Kanievska,
cinematographers like Cal’s Jerzy Zielinski—is a strikingly apt
embellishment at this time. No country going through the throes of ethical
and political self-scrutiny, as Britain is today, can fail to have thrown
some frantically curious glances at Poland's history during the last few
years. Is Lech Walesa a
traitor? Or a hero? Or both? And what of Jaruzelsky?
A recent Tom Stoppard TV play, Squaring
The Circle, asked these questions, and a forthcoming film starring Ian
Holm as Lech looks set to do the same.
experience unleashed a whole sea of political paradoxes into British life and
thought. Here was a Conservative British government cheering on a foreign
trade union movement in its struggle against its national leaders. (The irony
was not lost on Britain's
own trade unions.) And here was the Socialist opposition in Britain roundly
condemning the role of the Socialist leaders in Poland and the Eastern Bloc.
The time was clearly out of joint and something was rotten, or at least new
and perplexing, in the state of Europe.
No wonder that the
various leaks, revelations, unmaskings and minor
scandals of the last few years have met with a wildly heterogeneous response.
All the old criteria are being skittled like ninepins.
Back in the early Sixties, when the Profumo affair
erupted and helped to unseat Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister, scarcely
anyone demurred at the importance and degree of the security risk involved
and the justice of Profumo's dismissal, however
much sympathy they had for him as a person.
But under the
current Thatcher regime, leaks and scandals and other voluntary or
involuntary forms of government destabilization have encountered no unanimity
of reaction at all. Many condemned but many condoned Cabinet Minister Cecil
Parkinson, who was dismissed from the Conservative Party chairmanship last
year for an adulterous affair, involving broken promises of marriage, with a
woman bearing his child. Many condemned but many cheered the newspaper which
recently published a sheaf of leaked Cabinet documents exposing the
government's covert attempts to manipulate the miners' strike (despite Mrs.
Thatcher's frequently fanfared hands-off attitude)
by playing off different trade unions against each other in the pay round
And most famously,
many condemned but many cheered Sarah Tisdall when
she was identified as the civil servant who leaked to the Guardian Cabinet documents revealing
the arrival time in Britain
of the U.S.
cruise missiles. She was put in the slammer for six months by the judge. Was
she a dangerous traitor or a martyr for pacifism who broke her oath of
secrecy for another, "higher" cause?
The whole crossweave of political and personal motivation, guilt
and innocence, purpose and accident, idealism and self-interest, in matters
of "betrayal" is immensely complex. And it is seen to be more complex the more a nation puts distance and
decades between itself and the simplicities and patriotic imperatives of a
war or a state of emergency.
No wonder modern Britain
gets hooked on the Byzantine imbroglios of John Le Carré.
His plots and characters and moral schemes for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People have as many counterpoints, contradictions, cryptograms
and canonic overlaps as a Bach fugue. And so does his latest novel, The Little Drummer Girl, now going
before the movie cameras with Diane Keaton.
I finally caught up
with Another Country in June at a London
cinema. The finished product is fascinating, not so much because it is a good
film—it isn't—as because of what seems to have happened between stage and
screen. The rainbow-hued rhetoric of Mitchell's play has done a bunk, leaving
behind something leaner and more larval. This defecting-butterfly process
has had its auspicious influence, especially in Peter Biziou's
doom-and-velvet photography, which out-Caravaggioes
The Verdict. But there's also a
lost-and-lusterless feeling in the characters now, brooding away in their
Eton black as if it were Hamlet black. And the actors have clearly been
encouraged to semi-soliloquize rather than stage-semaphore their dialogue, in
the vain and earnest hope that this will be more cinematic.
Another Country's one trump card, apart
from Biziou's prize-grabbing lens work, is that it does suggest, even if it doesn't well
execute, the notion that the traitor might have tragic status. This Eton
could be an Elsinore where young Hamlets, garbed in
inky black, get their last chance to thrash out the great issues of life,
death, sex, and personal or political idealism before taking the terrifying
plunge into adulthood and self-determination.
The film of Another Country has only the air, not
the substance, of a tragedy. But that alone might help to nudge the younger,
newer British filmmakers toward continuing to delve for the genealogy of
modern morals and political sensibility, not in the far-flung fol-de-rol of the British Raj,
but in the intellectual incubators of our own schools and universities.
cliques and clubs and cabals. There they might find that England
past, like modern Russia
or imperial India,
is another country, and a far more neglected one, from whose language and
struggles and dreams we still have much to learn.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE
JULY-AUGUST 1984 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.