Orwell Rolls in His Grave (2003)

When I was a young man in the 80s and 90s, I used to think that I was living in a good world. That humanity, generally speaking, was going in the right direction and that we had a bright future ahead of us. Well, time has moved on, and so has my mind. Nowadays, I tend to be increasingly cynical about the future of mankind. Perhaps that is why I am writing a blog about cinema instead of anything important. A form of denial. Do something fun, and anxiety may perhaps be kept at a distance for a few hours more.

But even in the world of film, reality creeps up every once in a while, even though it is reality filtered through the minds and performances of the filmmakers. A good example of this is Robert Kane Pappas’ documentary Orwell Rolls in His Grave. Even though it is more than ten years old, it still has some interesting things to say about where today’s media are headed.

George W. Bush - one of the targets of the documentary Orwell Rolls in His Grave (2003)

It is important, when watching a film like this, to realize that it is not a balanced account of the state of things. Quite to the contrary, every person in the film who is allowed to speak freely is someone who shares Pappas’ point of view. That is not to say that it lacks value, nor that there is no truth in it. As a matter of fact, I find it absolutely terrifying to ponder the kind of world we are living in if only half of the accusations are true, and especially given developments such as the NSA surveillance, that were not known when the film was made.

Yes, the film is relevant, in spite of its age, and even though it has in some ways aged considedrably. There is much reporting about George W. Bush, for example, who was president at the time. Today, we tend to think that Bush was some kind of cruel American joke on humanity, not deserving to be taken seriously, but back then Bush was actually real and his statements and actions carried meaning.

The strength of this documentary, and the reason why it remains relevant, is the way in which it intertwines interviews and other typical documentary material with quotes from George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four. As I have already noted in my review of the 1954 film Nineteen Eighty-Four, the US is not Oceania, and there is no reason to believe that it will turn into Orwell’s dystopia. But the allegories in the book and film are perhaps even more relevant today than they were when the book was written.

This film is best enjoyed when you are ready to step out of your bubble for a moment and look at some not so very nice aspects of reality.

They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality ... and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. Quote from Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, from the documentary Orwell Rolls in his Grave (2003)

Orwell Rolls in His Grave
Download link
Year: 2003
Running time: 1 h 44 min
Director: Robert Kane Pappas
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Low (480×320)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

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Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

As I started preparing this week’s post, I noticed that I was not the only one who made the connection between Edward Snowden and Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. News editorials and political blogs are filled with Orwellian metaphors, and Amazon sales of the book apparently rose several thousand per cent in a single day after Snowden’s revelations were made public.

One of the very best filmed versions of the book was made thirty years before the year in the title. Nineteen Eighty-Four, like Quatermass and the Pit (which I wrote about last week), is a live science fiction drama produced by the BBC. The two productions even had the same writer and director, and some actors also appear in both.

Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Winston Smith is played by none other than Peter Cushing. A brilliant Cushing, at that. And if possible, Donald Pleasence as his “friend” Syme is even better. In fact, the whole production is brilliant. A few slip-ups (such as the shadow of an overhead microphone visible on screen) must be accepted in a live production such as this. The dictatorial government’s total control and repression reaches for you through the screen, and you can feel the anguish, then a vague hope, and then … But I should stop here, in case you are not previously familiar with the story.

One year earlier, American CBS had made another live TV production of the same story. I have not seen that version, but it too is said to be very good, although shorter. Orwell fans may want to check it out.

We have to acknowledge that the US is not Oceania, Edward Snowden is not Winston Smith, and Barack Obama is certainly not Big Brother. But that was never the point. The point, I think, is that the book and the film Nineteen Eighty-Four still have something to offer. Real-world events can only serve to reinforce what was already there.

This film is best enjoyed as an allegory and a warning that is just as relevant today, almost sixty years after the film, sixty-four years after the book.

'Big Brother is watching YOU!' Peter Cushing in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Nineteen Eighty-Four
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Year: 1954
Running time: 1 h 47 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×544)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)