Directed by Agnieszka Holland ◆ Written by Andrea Chalupa ◆ Produced by Film Produkcja ◆ Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)
Directed by Martin Ritt ◆ Written by John le Carré, Paul Dehn, and Guy Trosper ◆ Produced by Salem Films ◆ Distributed by Paramount Pictures
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Directed by Gregory La Cava ◆ Written by Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch ◆ Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures
The story of the Soviet Union’s blunders under Lenin’s rule are legion, but they didn’t compare to the harebrained policies unleashed by Communist bureaucrats in thrall to Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, which are ably depicted in Polish activist Agnieszka Holland’s film Mr. Jones.
The Holodomor, a man-made famine that resulted from Stalin’s nutty plans to collectivize Ukrainian farms in 1932, is high on the list of Uncle Joe’s spectacular missteps. By uprooting Ukraine’s traditional farming culture and ordering the populace to send their produce to Moscow, he single-handedly thrust uncomprehending peasants and small farmers into famine and poverty.
Of course, the world didn’t know much about this at the time. Many leading journalists of the day were so smitten with the prospects of communism that they did yeoman work feeding the public with lies that claimed all was well under Stalin’s benevolent rule. What’s more, any scribbler who tried to tell the truth was dismissed as an arrant liar. The New York Times’ Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty, took this line considerably further than others. He made it his duty to target reporters who defected from the party line. This is nowhere more evident than his attacks on Welsh correspondent Gareth Jones.
Jones wrote for the Western Mail, where he gained modest distinction when he filed his interview with Adolf Hitler in 1930, in which he stated unequivocally that the Führer was not to be trusted and further that the West should ally itself with Russia. On the strength of his Hitler report and his work as a foreign affairs advisor to British Prime Minister Lloyd George, he obtained a commission to travel to Moscow to speak with Stalin.
Jones was convinced the Russian premier would back Western powers in their struggle with Germany. He had swallowed whole the propaganda being disseminated in Europe and America about the Soviet Union, and wanted to write about its premier commissar from first-hand experience. He was determined to visit Russia so that he could corroborate the propaganda that had been unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Convinced of Stalin’s noble intentions, he wanted to give his readers an eyewitness account of them.
Once in Russia, he slipped his government-appointed minders and witnessed the results of Soviet policies in Ukraine. He soon came to his senses and reported the horrible truth. People were starving to death and kept from seeking escape by the Soviet authorities, lest they tell the outside world of the calamity that had descended upon them: bodies left dead in the street, parents cannibalizing their own children, and soldiers killing those who resisted collectivization.
The world knew little about these horrors, for they had gone unreported or were covered up by journalists who were complicit with the Communist regime, in the hope they would eventually create a paradise on earth. Jones’ courage in casting light on this horror has been largely forgotten, and Holland’s Mr. Jones was directed for the express purpose of bringing the world’s attention to the truth-telling journalist, played by James Norton, who has been in the running to play James Bond.
Jones’ foil was Duranty, played with villainous aplomb by Peter Sarsgaard. Duranty downplayed the existence of the famine and denied it was the result of Stalin’s insistence upon collectivizing farms and sending the major part of their produce to feed Moscow. Duranty amplified the Soviet party line that the Holodomor was a vile Western invention contrived to undermine the truth of the success of Stalin’s five-year plan, which was certain to lift Russia from its economic woes and to restore the people’s well-being. Yes, the Party conceded, the Soviet people were undergoing hardships, but these would disappear once Stalin’s measures took hold.
As Duranty so glibly put it, to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs. The broken eggs amounted to nearly four million lives, according to most reputable historians. Duranty’s personal omelet, on the other hand, was comprised of a sumptuous, fully paid-for Moscow apartment in which he entertained politicians and journalists in raucous parties. He is depicted presiding over one of these events stark naked—the better to avail himself of the numerous compliant women available at his party, there to entrap foreigners who came to drink and take drugs.
Although I was familiar with Duranty and other fellow-traveling socialist “thinkers” and journalists such as John Reed, I didn’t know anything about Jones before seeing this film. This is largely because Jones died just before his 30th birthday at the hands of two Mongolian bandits, thought to have been in the employ of Soviet agents. Then there were the efforts of the left to render Jones an unperson.
I’m reminded of the attempted assassination of British novelist George Orwell, which occurred several years after the events of the film. While Orwell was in Spain, foolishly taking up arms in the cause of the Republican revolutionaries trying to defeat Franco’s forces, he was picked out in an attempted purge of perceived enemies by the Spanish secret police.
Of course, proponents of political ideologies have a tendency to become extreme in their efforts, but it always seems to me those on the left are quite a bit more extreme. They usually manage to convince themselves and a large number of their admirers that the sanctity of their cause justifies any violence they need to commit.
I mentioned Orwell just before as a parallel to Jones. The film goes further, unwarrantably so in my judgment. Holland has enlisted an actor named Joseph Mawle who resembles the saturnine Orwell, to show up throughout the film as he writes Animal Farm—Holland appears to endorse an unproven theory that the name of the novel’s farmer, Mr. Jones, is a reference to the Welsh journalist. Orwell’s role in the film is to comment on the devious methods of the Communists and their fellow travelers.
But there’s no record that Jones ever met Orwell. This is too bad, because it undercuts the last scene in which Jones is shown having lunch with Orwell and the book agent who represents them both. You can understand why Holland would want to do this. It allows her to quote the scene in Animal Farm in which the pigs are gathered in a posh restaurant sharing a gourmet meal with their human enemies while the lesser farm animals look on from outside. Clearly, Holland wanted to reveal the self-indulgent hypocrisy of the Communists. But she’s done so at the risk of casting doubt on her presentation of the story.
Holland’s film disturbingly renders the Holodomor with scenes of people, children usually, driven to extremes by hunger. In one scene, Jones finds himself on a train packed with starving Ukrainians. When he discards the peel of an orange he’s been eating, several of them rush forth to pick it up. One of them begins gnawing on the rind. In another scene, he enters a house in which a girl is preparing a meager meal. She offers him a bit of boiled meat. When Jones asks where she got it, she tells him she got it from her brother Koyla—a true statement, as she’s been keeping his body fresh in the snow in her backyard.
Although Mr. Jones is not an espionage story, its bleak account of human betrayal and the horrors it can occasion reminded me of Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Although Holland’s film is shot in color, she’s drained its palette so that many of its scenes seem to be shot in a muted black and white, especially the ones set in Ukraine. I was reminded of Richard Burton’s portrayal of Alec Leamas wandering through the overcast streets of London in a drizzling rain, looking every inch a forlornly disillusioned man. Ritt cleverly used the city’s typical weather to express the plight of a man who had been discarded by those who had once been his friends and associates. So too went Jones during his 40-mile trek through wintry Ukraine, isolated from friendly human contact. Bleak doesn’t begin to describe it.
On the other end of the spectrum, are the films in which Eugene Pallette appeared in the 1930s and of whom I’ve written before in my review of My Man Godfrey (1936). Although Pallette had been cast in several leading man roles in silent films, he became a staple of ’30s comedies, in which he generally played delightfully put-upon husbands and irritable detectives. This was in part due to his foghorn voice and his weight gain. Although he had been a jockey in his youth, by the ’30s his proportions had swollen beyond 240 pounds, rising ultimately to 300. With his bulk, he gave an impression of a 5’8” fire hydrant.
Ever the professional, Pallette managed to use his dimensions to exquisite comic effect even in trifles such as The Ghost Goes West (1935) and the more substantial Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in which he played Friar Tuck, wearing a metal bowl for a helmet while fencing alongside Errol Flynn.