As I Was Saying/Essay XXXI

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Essay XXX As I Was Saying
Essay XXXI
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XXXI: About the Films

THE time has come to protest against certain very grave perils in the cinema and the popular films. I do not mean the peril of immoral films, but the peril of moral ones. I have, indeed, a definite objection to immoral films, but it is becoming more and more difficult to discuss a definite morality with people whose very immorality is indefinite. And, for the rest, merely lowbrow films seem to me much more moral than many of the highbrow ones. Mere slapstick pantomime, farces of comic collapse and social topsy-turvydom, are, if anything, definitely good for the soul. To see a banker or broker or prosperous business man running after his hat, kicked out of his house, hurled from the top of a skyscraper, hung by one leg to an aeroplane, put into a mangle, rolled out flat by a steam-roller, or suffering any such changes of fortune, tends in itself rather to edification; to a sense of the insecurity of earthly things and the folly of that pride which is based on the accident of prosperity. But the films of which I complain are not those in which famous or fashionable persons become funny or undignified, but those in which they become far too dignified and only unintentionally funny.

In this connexion, it is especially the educational film that threatens to darken and weaken the human intelligence. I do not mean the educational film in the technical or scientific sense; the presentation of the definite details of some science or branch of study. In these innocent matters, even education can do comparatively little harm to the human brain. There are a number of really delightful films, for instance, dealing with exploration and local aspects of biology or botany. Nothing could be more charmingly fanciful than such natural history; especially when its monsters seem to emulate the Snark or the Jumblies, and become figures of unnatural history. But in that sort of unnatural history there is nothing unnatural. The Loves of the Penguins are doubtless as pure as the Loves of the Triangles; and to see a really fine film in which an elephant playfully smashes up four or five flourishing industrial towns or imperial outposts only realizes a daydream already dear to every healthy human instinct. Where the real peril begins to appear is not in natural history, but in history. It is in the story of those talkative and inventive penguins of whom M. Anatole France wrote in the tale of that terrible and incalculable creature, who is so much more ruthless and devastating than the wildest rogue elephant, since he does not destroy industrial cities, but builds them.

In short, it is in relation with the story of Man, the monster of all monsters and the mystery of all mysteries, that our natural history may become in the dangerous sense unnatural. And everybody knows that the commonest way in which history can grow crooked, or become unnatural, is through partisanship and prejudice, and the desire to draw too simple a moral from only one side of the case. Now, it is just here that the most successful films are in some danger of becoming actually anti-educational, while largely professing to be educational. In this connexion, it will be well to recall two or three determining facts of the general situation of society and the arts to-day. The first fact to realize is this: that only a little while ago the more thick-headed prejudices of provincial history were beginning to wear a little thin. Men would still take, as they were entitled to take, their own side according to their own sympathies. But they were beginning to realize that history consists of human beings, and not of heroes and villains out of an old Adelphi melodrama. Whether men were for or against Queen Elizabeth, they did begin to understand that she was something a little more complex than Good Queen Bess; and that even her unfortunate sister was in a situation not to be completely simplified by the use of a popular expletive, as in Bloody Mary.

It began to be admitted that the great seventeenth-century struggle, about whether England should be a Monarchy or an Aristocracy, could not be used merely to prove that Cromwell was never anything but a saint or Charles I never anything but a martyr. This great change for the good was very largely connected with the passing of the old Two-Party System. There had been a time when people were told to choose, not so much between Gladstone and Disraeli, as between a popular figure who was not Gladstone and another popular figure who was not Disraeli. The wary Old Parliamentary Hand, with his Tory traditions of the Oxford Movement, was represented as a wild, revolutionary idealist, everywhere demanding that the heavens should fall, that some Utopian justice might be done. The cynical cosmopolitan adventurer, with his romantic loyalty to Israel and his open contempt for the common Conservative point of view, was praised as a hearty English country gentleman, innocently interested in crops which consisted chiefly of primroses. These fatuous electioneering fictions were beginning to fade away; partly through a reaction towards the rather acid Lytton Strachey biographies, partly through a more sane and liberal historical interest in historical characters who really were very interesting human beings. And then, when the truth was beginning to pierce through in books, and even in newspapers, the whole light was blotted out by a big, fashionable film, cunningly written and brilliantly performed, in which Disraeli appeared once more as God's Englishman covered with primroses and breathing the innocent patriotism of our native fields.

The second fact to remember is a certain privilege almost analogous to monopoly, which belongs of necessity to things like the theatre and the cinema. In a sense more than the metaphorical, they fill the stage; they dominate the scene; they create the landscape. That is why one need not be Puritanical to insist on a somewhat stricter responsibility in all sorts of play-acting than in the looser and less graphic matter of literature. If a man is repelled by one book, he can shut it and open another; but he cannot shut up a theatre in which he finds a show repulsive, nor instantly order one of a thousand other theatres to suit his taste. There are a limited number of theatres; and even to cinemas there is some limit. Hence there is a real danger of historical falsehood being popularized through the film, because there is not the normal chance of one film being corrected by another film. When a book appears displaying a doubtful portrait of Queen Elizabeth, it will generally be found that about six other historical students are moved to publish about six other versions of Queen Elizabeth at the same moment. We can buy Mr. Belloc's book on Cromwell, and then Mr. Buchan's book on Cromwell; and pay our money and take our choice. But few of us are in a position to pay the money required to stage a complete and elaborately presented alternative film-version of Disraeli. The fiction on the film, the partisan version in the movie-play, will go uncontradicted and even uncriticized, in a way in which few provocative books can really go uncontradicted and uncriticized. There will be no opportunity of meeting it on its own large battlefield of expansive scenario and multitudinous repetition. And most of those who are affected by it will know or care very little about its being brought to book by other critics and critical methods. The very phrase I have casually used, "brought to book," illustrates the point. A false film might be refuted in a hundred books, without much affecting the million dupes who had never read the books but only seen the film. The protest is worth making, because provincial prejudice of this kind is frightfully dangerous in the present international problem of the hour. It is perfectly natural for nations to have a patriotic art, and even within reason a patriotic education. It naturally teaches people, especially young people, to be proud of the great heroes of their great history; and to conceive their own past in a sort of poetic way like legends. But this is exactly where we may test the difference between a legend and a lie. The outlines of a real hero, like Nelson or Sarsfield, are not altered when the figure is filled up, in maturer stages of knowledge, by the facts about failure or weakness or limitation. The hero remains a hero; though the child, being now grown up, knows that a hero is a man. But the figure of the fictitious Beaconsfield will not support the intrusion of the real Disraeli. It would be destroyed by all that was most interesting in Disraeli; even by all that was most genuine in Disraeli. A dummy of that sort does no good to national credit or glory; all foreigners laugh at it, knowing more about it than we do; and we ourselves can only preserve our solemnity by not going near enough to laugh. That is to make the thing a mere "film" on the eyes of official obscurantism; and to give a new secretive meaning to the title of "The Screen."