September 3, 2011 § 11 Comments
Fritz Lang’s 1941 film Man Hunt (based on a novel with just as unintentionally homoerotic a title, Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household, which I haven’t read) is structured around an interesting conceit: just before WWII, a thrillseeking British aristocrat (Alan Thorndike, played by the Canadian Walter Pigeon) is caught aiming a rifle at Hitler in what he claims was a “sport stalking,” basically throwing the fish back in. He’s then constantly pursued for the rest of the movie by the Gestapo in order to get him to sign a confession that he both a) really intended to kill Hitler and b) did it with the full knowledge of the British government, creating a pretext for war. Why Germany would want to go to war with Britain in 1938 is anyone’s guess, but that’s beside the point. By the end of the film, Gestapo agent Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, the great English Nazi), before getting an arrow in the neck, has convinced Thorndike that he unconsciously desired Hitler’s death but fails to get him to subordinate that desire to a nation state. Since we’ve seen Thorndike’s own aristo father imply that England would gladly give him up for dead to appease the Führer, it’s easy to understand why.
But the resistance to nationalism goes deeper. Thorndike is an individualist, a free spirit, able to treat his social class — that most typically English of classes, landed gentry — as merely a source of income. I don’t know the circumstances behind the casting choices, but it’s entirely fitting that the lead actor be a Canadian with no interest in sounding English, the love interest, a working-class Londoner, played by an American (Joan Bennett — hearing Jersey attempt Cockney is quite an experience), and the heavy an Englishman with fluent German. Having heard Sanders do a decent enough German accent in other films, I can only assume that Lang told him to drop it for this role, and anyway the incongruities are backed up by the plot: the name Quive-Smith is an odd hybrid that doesn’t seem to have much to do with German, he is suspiciously described at one point as “too perfectly English”; Thorndike’s accent is (weakly) explained by the amount of time he spends “at his house in Canada,” etc. All of which adds an extra layer of irony to the following bit of dialogue between them. I’ll include the whole scene as it’s the only one I could find on YouTube; the part I transcribed occurs around 4:30:
Quive-Smith: “Your conversation fascinates me, Thorndike. But this softness in your nature with regard to the ultimate purpose of firearms betrays the weakness, the decadence, not only of yourself but of your entire race. Yes, you’re symbolic of the English race.
Thorndike: “I’m beginning to think that you’re symbolic of yours!”
The film’s amusing habit of highlighting the distance between the actors, the characters, and the national cultures they’re supposed to represent foregrounds the instability of any connection between signifier and state-fiction, and the absurdity of insisting on them. That this absurdity is linked to war is the film’s moral argument. Which can be a bit hard to reconcile with the fact that its one utopian projection is inextricable from violence. We’re told that Thorndike is an apolitical pacifist. This claim is undercut early on — after squeezing an empty trigger on Hitler, we see him put a bullet into the chamber and aim the rifle again before he’s caught — but it is not exactly refuted. In the end he confesses to wanting to carry out the assassination, not for England but for “humanity,” a concept that, like his pacifism, he derives from his enlarged sense of self, his abhorrence of anyone else trying to “play God.” If only he had figured this out straightaway, he could have saved the world. And indeed the film ends with him joining the military, solely in order to go rogue as soon as he’s behind enemy lines and “fulfill his destiny” by killing Hitler all by himself.
To get any idea of how this might have played at the time of the film’s release, months before the U.S. entered the war, we’d have to imagine Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming propaganda movie about killing Bin Laden coming out a few months after 9/11. But that wouldn’t be right either, because Man Hunt was an American studio film, adapted from an English novel published before the war, directed by a Austrian Jewish refugee, set in England from just before the invasion of Poland to just after the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, and released shortly thereafter. It was enough to cause problems with American censors who saw it as anti-German — the US was of course still neutral. Man Hunt is the only anti-nationalist war propaganda movie I can think of without lasers, dragons, or zombies, made in the name of an international alliance that had not yet become the Allies (so the Bigelow analogy would only work if the movie was made in China, set in New York, and directed by an Arab Jew). In Thorndike, frontier toughness (he’s a hunter who kills Quive-Smith with a makeshift bow and arrow), gentlemanly charm, and pacifistic morality come together under the banner of upright Anglo-American individualism, to create a fantasy that 60 years later has all but become NATO foreign policy. Post-Bin Laden, we’re living in Man Hunt‘s utopia.
But what if we resist the interpretation the film guides us toward, that of the lone badass driven by universal principles to stop wars, indifferent to the state that underwrites his adventures? To seize instead on that initial, almost anarchistic moment where Thornhill takes aim, shoots nothing, and packs up to go home, and read it against the teleology of the plot and his ‘unconscious’ utopian motives? It would be the nihilistic choice, true, the abandonment of all thought of a better world, but it would embrace everything great about the movie: its lightness, its sense of playful irony, the analogy it draws between serious ethical principles and the rules of a game — and a different kind of power, power as the mockery of power, seriousness as the mockery of seriousness.