1984 starring Richard Burton

Nineteen Eighty-Four | Becoming Richard Burton

The ‘Becoming Richard Burton’ / ‘Bywyd Richard Burton’ exhibition is now reopened at the National Museum Wales and Wales Arts Review is publishing a series of essays to run concurrently with the exhibition, curated by Daniel G. Williams, director of the Richard Burton Centre at Swansea University. Each essay will discuss a specific Burton film; this week, Martin Johnes gives thought to Burton’s final film: an adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is one of the most important novels ever written. Dorian Lynskey’s brilliant history of its influence argued ‘No work of literary fiction from the past century approaches its cultural ubiquity while retaining its weight’. This is not down to its literary merits or its storytelling but its messages about the evils of totalitarian states and political surveillance, and the manipulation of history and language to wield authority.

The novel’s power and relevance quickly led to television, radio and theatre adaptations and Michael Radford’s film was the second cinema version. It was released late in 1984 and thus missed what Lynskey called the ‘Orwellmania’ of the start of that famous year. In 1983 and 1984, the novel sold nearly four million copies across the globe. There was serious and humorous discussion of its merits and relevance. Its slogans and messages appeared in advertisements, comedies, t-shirts and political speeches.

Nineteen Eighty-Four | Becoming Richard Burton

There was thus something of a Nineteen Eighty-Four fatigue by the time the film was released, but the fact that Richard Burton had died two months earlier helped generate interest. Burton played O’Brien, the senior party member who traps and interrogates the hero Winston Smith (played by John Hurt). He was not the original choice for the part. Radford remembered that Burton had always been in the frame but that his reputation for drinking meant they looked elsewhere. Sean Connery turned the role down, while Marlon Brando cost too much. Paul Scofield accepted it but had to withdraw after breaking his leg. Production and filming had already commenced by the time Burton was offered the part. His declining health was evident during filming. He did not drink and seemed nervous at first, but his star quality was apparent in the stories he told the crew and his insistence that his boilersuit costume be made in Savile Row.

Richard Burton’s role in the film won mixed reviews. The Observer said it was one of his ‘most restrained performances’ and that he ‘projects Orwell’s notions of a man of pure intelligence and will, who seems in his haggard face to have burnt out the last residue of compassion and pity’. The Daily Telegraph, in contrast, was underwhelmed. Its film critic wrote, ‘Although the actor worked wonders to disguise his melodious voice… I missed in his face the “sort of exultation” and “lunatic intensity” which Orwell described’. The Sunday Mirror thought that Burton’s performance was ‘a respectable piece of acting — but nothing more. He invests the character of torturer O’Brien, with his usual powerful presence, but fails to convey the role’s subtleties’.

Despite such reservations, the film was well received by the critics. But enthusiasm was muted by its stark bleakness. The Daily Mirror concluded, ‘There were no rays of hope in Orwell’s book. There are none in the film. Total despair is stamped into every scene’. The Daily Telegraph thought the film provided viewers with ‘an almost unrelievedly grim experience’. Concerns about such reactions had led a major distributor to suggest that the ending be changed to make it happier. 

From Michael Radford's 1984

The bleakness was intentional and perhaps the film’s central message. Like the novel, it depicted the grind of a daily life devoid of hope, laughter and small comforts and underpinned by a fear of authority. The film’s aesthetics were key to conveying this. The style was supposed to be that of a science-fiction film made in 1948. Virgin, who financed the film, would not allow it to be shot in black and white so a technique was used that produced a faded and slightly washed-out colouring. This was inspired by a line on the novel’s opening page which stated ‘there seemed to be no colour in anything, except in the posters that were plastered everywhere’. Indeed, the whole feel and atmosphere of the film were very faithful to the book.

Orwell’s novel was not a prophecy but a warning and a reflection on how power operates. It was both a product of its time and timeless. It was shaped by being written in the shadow of the Second World War, the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and by the threat of nuclear war. Its continuing appeal and impact lay in how every generation saw something of itself in the book. It spoke to both left and right and to their fears and prejudices.

The film was released in the middle of a long miners’ strike in which the British state had used both physical force and surveillance to enforce its will. But the Cold War meant the British and American right felt 1984 was not about themselves. The Daily Telegraph said ‘the evil direction which Totalitarian states can take is by now pretty well known from fact rather than fiction, and that this film, so painful to watch, may well be preaching, as it were, to the converted’. The New York Times felt the film had not captured the historical context of the novel’s creation. It rejected claims that 1984 was a ‘warning to America today’ with its ‘computers and surveillance systems’, arguing it was instead an attack from the onset of the Cold War on Communism. Indeed, the right’s sense of having the moral high ground was reinforced in the week of the film’s British release. On 12 October 1984, the IRA tried to assassinate the Cabinet by detonating a bomb at the Brighton hotel being used by the Conservative Party conference. 

But not everyone in the 1980s felt 1984 was a validation of the right. Although not as evident in the film as in the book, the message that hope lay with the proles, if only they would realise it, struck a chord with 1980s socialists who despaired at the working classes who voted Conservative. Moreover, the film took Nineteen Eighty-Four to new audiences. Distributors expected it to appeal to older cinema goers who knew Orwell, but it proved very popular with younger audiences. The director explained this by saying ‘Young people love despair’. With high youth unemployment and an intensifying nuclear arms race, there was much to despair about. But audiences took other things from the film too. When I saw it as a teenager in the 1980s, I was far more struck by its furtive and repressed sexuality than its politics.

Richard Burton in Michael Radford's 1984

Today, aspects of the film feel dated. Orwell’s original depiction of Julia was shallow but the age gap between the actors playing her and Winston seems uncomfortable to twenty-first-century eyes and there is also much unnecessary female nudity in the film. A modern adaptation would have more expansive shots that captured the bleak and shabby tiredness of 1984 London. Today, Orwell’s use of race to signify a horror of enemy soldiers would surely not have been brushed aside in the way this version does. But perhaps the film always seemed dated. Contemporary discussions of both film and book noted that Nineteen Eighty-Four’s vision had not come true. Then and now, the film looked and looks like a vision of an alternative past rather than a future that might come to be.

Yet Nineteen Eighty-Four, as a novel, a concept and a warning, remains as relevant as ever for both present and future. Some elected leaders seem to have given up any commitment to truth and honesty. ‘Fake news’ is everywhere, in both reality and the imagination. Attempts to point to historical truths are denounced. Digital footprints leave much of our lives vulnerable to surveillance and exposure. On both left and right, there is considerable intolerance of opposing views.

We are, perhaps, not like the party members of Nineteen Eighty-Four, accepting the status quo because we are manipulated, threatened and afraid. We are, maybe, more like the proles, distracted by ‘work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer’ and gambling. When we do become discontented, it leads ‘nowhere’ because we focus on ‘petty specific grievances’. ‘The larger evils invariably escaped their notice’, concluded Orwell of the proles. Unlike the proles, we do know what those larger evils are. Knowledge as power is a recurring theme in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but knowledge can only become powerful if it is used.

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Martin Johnes is Professor of Modern History at Swansea University and the author of Wales: England’s Colony? (2019).

Read the previous Becoming Richard Burton instalment here.