The Fountainhead: A Classic Film About The Overcoming Underdog
The film “The Fountainhead” was released July 2, 1949. It was directed by King Vidor and starred Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, and Raymond Massey. The film was based on a novel written by Ayn Rand, who also wrote the screenplay.
“The Fountainhead” is the story of a brilliant architect who, after his expulsion from college, struggles against society to maintain the integrity of his own ideas and individuality in his work. Securing a position working for a once great architect who advocated styles of architecture that deviated from accepted forms, he pursues his career remaining true to his convictions despite the later pleadings of his employer to compromise with the desires of society. Adhering to his conviction to remain true to his own style of architecture and demanding of his clients that his work be accepted unchanged, he finds that his career and his life are turbulently affected by the relentless efforts of society to force him to conform to its demands and standards. As his work finally receives the recognition that it deserves, he finds himself forced to take actions that lead to a direct confrontation with those who wish to break his resolve or destroy him.
Personally, I thought this movie was amazing. I’ve never seen a movie with so many people with such strong wills and firm, immense egos. Their interaction was so straightforward and matter-of-fact. It seemed that no one minced words. The only fear that anyone seemed to have was of being controlled by others, or losing control of what they see as theirs. Only one of the central characters was weak and breakable. All of the other main characters were clear about what they wanted, how they wanted it, and having exclusive rights to it. It was clear that the most valuable and respected quality of character was the inability to be subjugated, corrupted, or broken. Watching the central character overcome obstacles and opposition, while maintaining the integrity of his convictions, was downright inspiring.
Watching this movie, I got the sense of watching representatives of certain kinds of people. The personalities of the characters were so strong, almost overwhelming. Their convictions about what they wanted, how they thought things should be and their overall determination concerning everything in their lives made them a little like fortresses. Their most cordial interactions sometimes seemed like battles.
Each of the characters had qualities that seemed exclusive to themselves on some level. And they all seemed to stand out against the backdrop of the society in which they interacted. But, at the same time, they either had a profound effect on their social environment, or they were profoundly affected by it.
One of the most profound characters was, of course, the main and central character Howard Rourke. Rourke, a brilliant architect, had a style that was unique among his peers on all levels of his profession. He had strong convictions about his work and refused to compromise in any way. It had to be accepted as he produced it, without change, or not at all. He claimed a kind of sovereignty over his work that he fought to maintain at the cost and to the exclusion of all else. He was also a firm believer in securing and maintaining his own success in his own way, and afforded admiration and respect to those who felt and lived the same way. And those who accepted and openly admired his work the way he produced it he accepted as social peers. His determination to maintain the integrity of his work and the style in which he produced it was such that he gave next to no consideration to those who opposed him. He considered them unworthy of thought.
The woman who became the object of Howard Rourke's affections was Dominique Francon. Here was a woman that had some rather serious attachment issues. She wasn't clingy or anything like that. Quite the opposite, actually. From the beginning of the film, she shows her determination to avoid becoming, as she described it, "enslaved" by her own affections or attachments. And not just affections for people, either. She didn't want to be attached to anything by her own affections, not personal property, not any kind of activity or vocation, nothing. Such was the strength of her drive to be free that she desparately wanted to remain unencumbered by affection of any kind for anyone or anything of any kind. After she met Rourke, she went to great lengths to demonstrate the strength of her convictions.
From the beginning of the film, Dominique Francon was engaged to an architect, Peter Keating. Keating was the only major character in this film that could be considered weak. I wouldn't call him a villain in any sense of the word. But, he was something of a tool. To me, he was the ultimate suck-up. And he kind of prided himself on it. He had every confidence that he was going to enjoy the greatest success giving everyone what they wanted. And he was self-serving to the exclusion of all else. There was nothing that he was unwilling to sacrifice for his own gain, and he had no personal integrity to hold him back. The thing about him that I found rather annoying was that he like to gloat over his own success, brag about it, then cover it with a veneer of charity. (Kind of made you want to smack him.)
The character that some might think was the most powerful both in terms of personality and success was Gail Wynand. Here was someone who recognized the faults and shortcomings of people in general and used them to his own advantage. As a result, he developed a generally low opinion of people and held it as a blanket judgment of everyone, using it as justification for his own actions in the pursuit and maintenance of his own success. Across the years of his life, this had a negative effect on who he became and he knew it. To him, there was no such thing as a man (or woman) possessed of any level of integrity. But, he did have a kind of respect for any personal strength or integrity he happened to find in others, if and when he found it. In fact, he admired it.
Gail Wynand certainly had the potential to be the proverbial villain in this story. But, he removed himself from that consideration by his genuine admiration for and subsequent friendship with Rourke. The real villain in this story was Ellsworth Toohey. This guy was downright insidious. This was one of those people you have to keep your eye on. He gets along with everyone, smiles in your face, then manipulates and uses you. He too has a generally negative opinion of everyone and uses the negative traits he recognizes in others to his own advantage. But Toohey's goal is the acquisition of power pure and simple. He is a hater of individuality, creativity, genious and integrity as these characteristics stand in the way of his control over those around him both individually and collectively. Hence his contempt for Howard Rourke and others like him. This makes Toohey Rourke's greatest adversary.
Along with the power of all of the characters, I particularly like the connections that come to exist between them. When Rourke is expelled from school for refusing to compromise the style of his work, one of his classmates, Peter Keating, brags to him about how he's going to be a success, warning Rourke that, unless he follows in his footsteps, he's never going to become a successful architect. In the course of furthering his career, Keating becomes engaged to Dominique Francon, daughter of the owner of the architectural firm for which he works. Dominique Francon works as an architectural consultant, a title she shares with Ellsworth Toohey, at the city's leading newspaper "The Banner" owned and run by Gail Wynand. Having fallen on hard times, Rourke is forced to find work as a day laborer at a quarry where he meets and becomes involved with Dominique Francon, who comes there to take time off after the breaking of her engagement to Keating, and whose father happens to own the quarry. It just gets better from there. In order to break free and escape from her love for Rourke, she agrees to marry Gail Wynand, who, being desparately in love with her, was determined to marry her despite her admission that she didn't love him. And she does this right after Rourke confesses his love for her.
Howard Rourke's uncompromising integrity and perseverance pays off as the movie progresses. Much to the perplexity of some, Rourke remains as stedfast as a rock in the maintenance of the integrity of his work. Making this of greater value than his associations, Rourke finds work among those less affluent than the businesses and organizations that Toohey has turned against him. As a result, his work is soon seen everywhere and is ultimately noticed by Gail Wynand. And, after facing down Wynand's test of his integrity, Rourke wins his admiration and friendship.
There also seemed to be an underlying message in the film. I picked up the first hint of this message when the main character’s convictions became clear. It became more defined as the story continued and was disclosed in detail in the article his then close friend, Gail Wynand, composed for the newspaper and the courtroom testimony/summation that Rourke rendered at his trial toward the end. And, I dare say, it struck me as rather profound. The main character’s dedication to the system of beliefs that formed the foundation of his personal convictions was as inspiring as his perseverance in overcoming the obstacles and opposition he faced in pursuing his career.
I would recommend this movie to any lover of classic films. I would recommend this film to anyone who enjoys stories about underdogs beating the odds and overcoming adversaries. There is even something here for those who enjoy a good love story. As a matter of fact, you could say that there is something of a “love triangle” in it. Even for a story that’s glossed over in that late 40’s Hollywood veneer, it makes for a great view of human nature both on the individual and the collective level. While, at first thought, I wouldn’t recommend this movie to someone who wasn’t a fan of classic films, I have to say that I think someone who just liked a good story would be able to enjoy this film.