Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Gosford Park



'The favourite sport of the British "gentleman"', the Marxist writer F.A. Ridley noted in 1938, 'has always been killing - foxes in England, workers everywhere else'. I was reminded of that quote not simply by news that Conservative leader David Cameron seems to enjoy shooting deer just as much as Anthony Charles Lynton Blair relishes 'civilising' Iraqis and Afghans, but also by watching Robert Altman's film Gosford Park (2001), which was on TV over the weekend. While I had seen it before, I thought it really does deserve a mention on this blog as it is one of those films that repays repeated viewings and gets better each time you see it.

In short it is a Agatha Christie style 'Who Dunnit' murder mystery, set - like most classic Agatha Christie stories - among a small party of the English upper class at a country house in the 1930s. Yet for a change, the servants of the upper class while regarded as 'nobodies' by their rich masters and mistresses, are the real subjects of the whole affair. Class antagonism - what Marx called the 'uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight' between classes - is therefore the backdrop to Gosford Park, and this is brilliantly brought out in the wonderful script by Julian Fellowes, and helped by an all star cast. There was a good review of the film by Hazel Croft in Socialist Review, and she noted that:

Robert Altman made it policy while shooting to only film the rich upstairs if there was a servant present. The rich are shown lazing around, languidly lying on sofas, waiting for their every need to be met, while the servants hover in the background ready to jump to attention. In contrast, downstairs is a hive of activity, with servants rushing about, never getting a break in the military-style operation which is involved in meeting the whims of upstairs.

What I want to focus on in my post however is the way in which fading British imperial power is brought out in the film. After the First World War, the British Empire, as Chris Harman notes, suffered several damaging assaults.

The first serious blow to the empire was in its oldest colony, Ireland. The British ruling class had long been divided over whether to agree to limited reform ("home rule") to placate the nationalist movement, but both sides were insistent that Ireland had to be subordinate to the financial and military requirements of the British state. But in the summer of 1920, they came to the sudden realisation that their attempts to smash a huge mass movement of resistance to their rule might backfire terribly on the forces of occupation. The army, the cabinet secretary told the premier, David Lloyd George, would "bend and probably break" unless some other method of dealing with the unrest was found. Twelve months followed of intense debates in the British cabinet and vicious repression in Ireland. Finally Britain's rulers felt compelled to abandon more than three centuries of colonial rule.

The fact that by the 1930s the balance of global power had now shifted to the rising economic power of America is reflected in the film by the presence of an American film star Ivor Novello and a film director at Gosford Park. Both are studiously ignored and frowned down at by the vast bulk of these 'naturally superior' English aristocrats - particularly the Jewish director Weissman who gets a cold shoulder throughout.

The British Empire once guaranteed jobs for rich thick upper-class types in its bureaucracy (and also of course a way of making lots of money for investors and so on) and one down on his luck typical individual, Anthony Meredith, is trying to interest the very rich Sir William McCordle in one such scheme in Sudan, then of course a British colony. At dinner, he brings this into his conversation with Sir William's daughter, Isobel ( the script is online, fortunately):

- Isobel, did you know that William and I are going into business together in the Sudan?

- No, I didn't know that.

- It's quite exciting. What's happened is, apparently, there are hundreds and hundreds of Sudanese native soldiers, entire regiments wandering around the desert, willy-nilly, without any thing on their feet, which causes some hardship, I imagine. There's a large market in modernising the armies in the Sudan and providing them with boots.


However, it soon transpires that Isobel doubts Sir William is interested and indeed looks likely to pull out of this deal, prompting Anthony's concern:

- You mean you think he's losing interest in that sort of thing?

- Well, not just that. The whole Empire. I think he said the steam's gone out of it.

- William? That's not true, is it -- that you think the Empire's finished?


Sir William doesn't answer, but another character does, noting:

- Well, the Empire was finished after the war. Well, because of the war. It changed everything.

At this point Sir William himself finally joins in the conversation, killing with one line the dream of Anthony's African get-rich-scheme, by referring instead to the famous picture house in London.

- Empire Leicester Square?.

At this point the conversation inevitably comes round to the First World War itself, and the tensions between Sir William and his wife Lady Sylvia come to the surface:

---Well, I don't care what's changed or not changed. As long as our sons spared what you all went through.

-- Oh, not all. You didn't fight, did you, William?

--I did my bit.

-- Well, you made a lot of money, but it's not quite the same thing as charging into the cannon's mouth, is it?


Overall, watching Gosford Park in my opinion is an excellent antidote to the current monarchist guff around Helen Mirren winning an Oscar for The Queen. While I haven't seen that film, Mirren's character in Gosford Park reveals something of the real history of England, just as the film itself succeeds in illuminating the 'dark heart' of English civilisation.

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2 Comments:

At 3:43 am, Blogger DJN said...

I tried to watch the film but I found the sound mixing terrible rendering the voice inaudible. I'll give it another try.

Helen Mirren's acceptance speech was a pathetic and disgusting toast to the Queen for being a great woman or some crap like that. I almost hurled.

 
At 9:52 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Yes the sound is a bit crappy for some reason - and one has to really concentrate to follow the plot, but no line is wasted.

Helen Mirren apparently used to a be a noted republican but her acceptance speech was along the lines of 'I want to thank the Queen for being the Queen [i.e. for doing her job] and being in all of our lives throughout our lives [like we had a say in the matter] and how she couldn't have 'been' the Queen if the real Queen hadn't existed in the first place [like, d'oh!]'.

Then again, she was hardly going to stand up and quote Sex Pistol lyrics was she...

 

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