Hal Draper

Movie Review

The Fountain Head; Fascist Theme
in a Miserable Film

(22 August 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 34, 22 August 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Fountain Head deserves a review in spite of the fact that it is as blooming a stinkeroo as ever came out of a Hollywood studio. But since this dim view of its merits as a film has no necessary connection with the reason it invites discussion, we skip the bill of particulars. If you blunder into it looking for an evening’s entertainment, let the consequences be on your own head.

The Fountain Head is a “social message.” The message is not incidental to the film nor does it have to be clawed out of the plot by a hypercritical class-angler. It is almost the sole content of the picture as planned; even the psychotic “love story” is subordinated to it rigorously.

We have no doubt that its producers and Ayn Rand, its author, thought of it as a morality play AGAINST the totalitarian idea. That’s what makes it interesting, because it is in fact written around a thesis which is totalitarian to the core.

Superman Theme

The hero is an architect who, in the face of ridicule, poverty, slander and public opinion, courageously refuses to compromise with his integrity as an artist. He holds fast to an ideal of modernism in architecture and declines to pander to lower tastes for the sake of orders and monetary reward. And gradually he does manage to make his way without compromising his art.

But this laudable theme of the precious individual integrity of the artist is NOT the theme of the film. In fact, if the hero were merely an artist, the plot wouldn’t work. The hero is an architect: an artist, indeed, but an artist whose product is not merely an object of esthetic pleasure but an economically necessary commodity-houses, for example – in the production of which a host of other people are necessarily involved, not to speak of the people who are to live in them.

It is this role of the architect which makes possible the shift (which goes by unnoticed in a script otherwise filled with talky-talky exposition) from individualism in art to individualism as a social philosophy. The result is the projection of a Nietzschean “superman” as the paladin of ... democracy.

The climactic episode of the film (flat as a pancake in execution but climactic in conception) is Miss Rand’s own proposal for a test of her philosophy. A low-cost housing project is planned, but no architect has solved the problem of how to keep it low-cost. Our hero cannot compete because he is persona non grata. The problem attracts him, not because it will mean low-cost housing for people who need it, but simply because it is an interesting problem to be solved. (This attitude is carefully and belligerently explained as a necessary attribute of the creative mind.) He solves the problem; a fellow architect is permitted to submit the design in his own name on the condition that not a single change be made in it.

The design is adopted and the project is built, but despite the stand-in’s objections, the housing directors incorporate changes which modify the severely modernistic style. Recourse to the courts would be futile (the scenario informs us). What shall the Genius do about this defloration of his brainchild?

In the dead of night he blows the whole housing project sky-high with dynamite.

According to Miss Rand’s thesis, now put forward in its full flower, there is no alternative for him. Gary Cooper (who, we forgot to say for understandable reasons, plays the Genius) dots the i’s in a courtroom speech in which he defends his action.

Even at this point, if the defense were conducted on the ground of upholding ARTISTIC integrity, one might still have to comment on the subject of the SOCIAL responsibility even of an artist – when what is involved is not the consignment of a poem to the wastebasket but of a housing project to dynamite.

But in this key speech, the issue is not posed in terms of art at all. Explicitly and in so many words, the issue is defined as “the Individual versus the Collective” in all of society.

The dynamiting is put in the context of the struggle against totalitarianism in the modern world; the architect is made a symbol of the individual’s right to refuse to be regimented by “the Collective” (this word is used for society because it is supposed to evoke an image of COLLECTIVISM, which is simply assumed to be equivalent to statism and totalitarianism). If any reader finds this as madly far-fetched as does the reviewer, it must be said on the other side that at least the jury is convinced.

Philosophy for Fascism

The test case deliberately picked by the author is far-fetched, but the philosophy is not. It is very old.

The architect, being the prototype of the Creative Ones of the world, from whom alone all good has come (this is demonstrated in three minutes of the defense speech), has a right to act as a law unto himself. Crucial to the argument as given, and to the philosophy, is the fact that he has this right NOT because he is an individual but because he is a Great Man, a Creator, NOT an ordinary human being.

The workmen on the housing project naturally have to do exactly What they’re told to do; the people who are to live in the houses have to live in the houses which are exactly such as the Genius has planned for them. Nothing of Miss Rand’s philosophy has any relevance to them; the problem is not one of the relationship between man and man in society, but of the relationship between the Great Man on the one hand and society on the other.

If a totalitarian dictator needs a personal rationalization for his use of the whip (or of dynamite), it is of course this philosophy of the supra-social rights of the Superman. More important – since dictators themselves often do not worry about rationalizing their roles to themselves – it is equally the rationale for acceptance of a fuehrer and contempt for the democratic will of the people.

People – including ourselves – would probably get more stirred up by a film which glorified strikebreaking, let us say. Because it deals with concepts of social philosophy in abstract fashion (the concretization in plot is so fantastic that the sit-and-run customer may excusably miss the point), the Fountain Head will doubtless not arouse the hisses it deserves. But it is surely the most fascist-minded film I can easily recall at the moment – fascist-MINDED precisely.

Last updated on 28 August 2021