14 November 1966
Oskar Werner as Montag
Fahrenheit 451, directed by François Truffaut and based on the book by Ray Bradbury, is a dystopian nouvelle vague ﬁlm set in a country where an authoritarian state encourages—indeed, enforces—anti-intellectualism so as to promote social conformity. The ﬁlm, which features a mesmerising soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann, is, according to Time magazine, “a weirdly gay little picture that assails with both horror and humor all forms of tyranny over the mind of man.”1 According to Bob Thomas, it is “a thinking man’s movie.”2 Moreover, thanks to its opposition to censorship, and to its support for the freedom to wear one’s hair as one wishes, it is also correctly regarded as a libertarian classic.
The main character is a government employee named Montag. In the book, this character is named Guy Montag, but in the movie, no name other than Montag is ever uttered. Even his wife, Linda, refers to him as Montag. Thus, we should be perhaps little surprised when Les Wedman writes that “There is no communication between individuals; no acts of love between husbands and wives” in this movie.3
Montag is a ﬁreman, but if you think that means he puts out ﬁres, you are mistaken. Most homes in this future society are ﬁreproof, anyway. No, ﬁremen in this society have a sinister function: they conﬁscate and burn any books or manuscripts they can ﬁnd. Reading, and even owning, books is regarded by the state to be a crime against society, a cause of instability that needs to be violently crushed. As one website puts it,
This is an engrossing futuristic tale of a society where all printed material is banned. In this country of the future, ofﬁcials believe that people who read and are able to think for themselves are a threat to the nation where individualism is strongly discouraged. The inhabitants of this society all seem to be suffering from sensory deprivation and their only link to news and entertainment is a large television screen on the wall… It is also a society where drugs are dispensed by the government in order to further pacify the citizens. Mop up squads roam the streets, shaving the heads of individuals whose hair they consider to be too long and to be the trait of a non-conformist. It is the job of ﬁremen to hunt down subversives and burn the caches of books they’ve secreted away.4
While it’s not entirely clear whether the drugs are actually dispensed by the state, there is reason to suspect they are. This is because these drugs have no formal names. If private companies were producing and selling them, they undoubtedly would.
Also, while it may seem strange to the modern viewer that mop-up squads run around trimming the heads of unconsenting victims, it is important to remember that the length of a male’s hair was somewhat of a big deal to authoritarians back in the ’60s. As Jules Archer writes,
Long hair became the most visible symbol of young people’s right to look the way they pleased. The challenge was quickly met by school authorities, who insisted that the hair be cut. More than half the court cases concerning student appearance involved long hair. The others involved beards, miniskirts, desert boots, and other violations of Middle America’s dress code.5
Montag is returning from work one day when he runs into an aspiring, and inspiring, teacher named Clarisse. Clarisse asks Montag a number of question, including whether or not he ever reads the books he burns. Up until that point, he had not; yet, the question sticks with him, haunts him, until he eventually decides to engage in a little nonviolent civil disobedience and reads David Copperﬁeld. While Montag had been indoctrinated to believe that books “disturb” people and “make them antisocial,“ he quickly realises that this government propaganda was merely a lie. Montag’s life soon changes. As Dr. Christopher Falzon aptly puts it, Montag “turns from obediently serving the state to questioning and ultimately opposing it.”6
Eventually, Montag is caught, and forced to burn his own books. He burns all but one, which he stuffs into his shirt. When the captain of the Rodier Firehouse discovers that Montag still has a book on his person, he pulls a gun on the innocent Montag. Forced to defend his own life, Montag uses his ﬂamethrower against the violent captain, and makes his escape. Society is so utterly wrecked by collectivism and conformity that, when a passing police car orders people to look for this enemy of the state named Montag, we see people obediently stepping “out of their identical houses to look.”7
In the end, our hero makes his way to a hidden community of bibliophiles. They call themselves the Book People, as each one has memorised a book from start to ﬁnish.8 Unfortunately, the ending has a certain weakness to it. As one commentator puts it, “Truffaut did an admirable job in depicting the dark and dank, sterile and shallow existence of society, but he completely missed the boat with regard to those who held the key to the future. The ending…depicted them as lifeless automatons, rather than as diverse and hopeful literary hippies.”9 This is indeed regretful. Nevertheless, the movie is deﬁnitely worth giving a watch or two.
A Response to Russell Baker
Watch the Feature Film Here
1 “Cinema: Out of Nothinkness,” Time magazine (Friday, 18 November 1966).
2 Bob Thomas, “Bradbury’s work to reach screen,” The Leader-Post 57, no. 288 (Regina, Sask.; Saturday, 10 December 1966), p. 4.
3 Les Wedman, “Fahrenheit 451 Message Chill Threat to Future” The Cancouver Sun 81, no. 65 (Friday, 16 December 1966), p. B21.
4 Destitute Gulch, “Fahrenheit 451,” destgulch.com (cited 22 May 2011). Paragraphs reformatted.
5 Jules Archer, “A Different Life-Style—the Counterculture,” chapter seven of The Incredible Sixties: The Stormy Years That Changed America, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. 77.
6 Christopher Falzon, Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy (London: Routledge), p. 84.
7 Jon Osborne, “Fahrenheit 451 (1966),” libertarianism.com (cited 22 May 2011).
8 Time magazine writes, “Filming for the ﬁrst time in English, [Truffaut] loses nothing but one elegant Gallic pun—in the original scenario the French words for ‘book men’ and ‘free men’ are combined in a portmanteau phrase: les hommes-livres.” See “Cinema: Out of Nothinkness.”
9 Franklin, comments on “Revisit Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451,” Mises Economics Blog (26 August 2010 at 11:18 A.M.).