Shattered Dreams: A movie of ideas

The movie Bolshevism on Trial, aka Shattered Dreams, is a movie of ideas that’s still worth seeing. Yesterday I saw this 1919 silent under the latter title at the Manchester library, accompanied by Jeff Rapsis. The first title isn’t quite right; utopian socialism, rather than Bolshevism, is its main focus.

An idealistic woman, Barbara, wants to set up a socialist community on an island so that the world will see the happiness it creates. Her friend Bradshaw, who has a rich father, leases the island for them. (The names of the characters in the IMDB listing are different from the ones in the version I saw yesterday. There may have been two significantly different versions of the movie. I’m using the names as I remember them, and I have a lousy memory for names. Sorry if I’ve got any wrong.) Bradshaw’s father despises the project but lets him do it anyway to learn a lesson.

They set up a community with no laws and no money, and people can pick the jobs they want. Not surprisingly, people’s choices have more to do with what they’d enjoy than what’s necessary to live. Bradshaw resorts to drafting people for jobs, but he’s reluctant to put teeth into his demand, and most people would rather dance than work. The few people who are doing real work get increasingly angry at having to labor without pay.

Wolff, Barbara’s chief organizer, has been planning to take advantage of the chaos, and he gets the population to vote Bradshaw out in his favor. He tries to force Bradshaw to sign over the lease on the island, then imprisons him when he refuses, planning to stage a fatal accident later. Bradshaw’s friend Saka (Luther Standing Bear, who’s subjected to serious ethnic stereotyping) gets a message out, and Bradshaw’s father sends a rescue squad as Bradshaw escapes and overpowers Wolff. Bradshaw and Barbara recognize the failure of their experiment, deciding to get married.

The movie is based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, who also wrote The Clansman, the source for Birth of a Nation, but the only racism in this movie (aside from the nearly all-white casting that was standard for the time) is presenting Saka as talking in stereotypical Indian syntax.

At first I thought of the movie as presenting Leninism vs. Trotskyism, but that hadn’t yet played out in 1919. More likely it was modeled on the Bolsheviks’ taking over the Russian Revolution. It shows what has to happen in the absence of economic incentives, and it demonstrates how power-grabbing dictators take advantage of ideals that fly in the face of reality. The ending wanders away from this point by piling on symbols of American patriotism and revealing that Wolff is actually Russian, but that’s not too surprising considering that the US had just won a war and was now very concerned about what was happening in Russia.

You can find some clips from it by searching for “Bolshevism on Trial” on YouTube.

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4 Responses to “Shattered Dreams: A movie of ideas”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    Sounds very interesting. I ordered a DVD containing this movie, and very much look forward to watching it.

    Are you familiar with the movie Heavens Above!? It is a British movie about a priest with ideas presciently similar to those of Pope Francis, trying to practically implement his ideas in his parish. It is a comedy, but dealing with serious themes which from your description sound very similar to those of Shattered Dreams. (It also has excellent acting by Peter Sellers, in what I consider his best performance.)

    the only racism in this movie … is presenting Saka as talking in stereotypical Indian syntax.

    It is very fashionable today to vilify the pidgin English, spoken by American Indian characters in movies and TV shows, as racist stereotyping; but the truth is that it is a historically accurate depiction of the English usually spoken by American Indians during a certain period.

    If you learn a foreign language as an adult, and then use that language purely for business purposes, continuing to have all of your personal and social interactions with speakers of your native language, then you will never need to speak the foreign language beyond a very limited vocabulary and very simplified grammar, and consequently are unlikely to make the effort to progress beyond that level in the language. Such a simplified way of speaking is called “pidgin”, which is a cognate of “business”; pidgin is the way people talk in a language they use purely for business purposes. And that is in fact how American Indians usually spoke English at the time when they were still speaking their native languages in their everyday lives.

    Regarding the one most famous case of a fictional American Indian character – Tonto – the criticism does have some justification; Tonto is portrayed as spending a lot more time with the Lone Ranger than with members of his tribe, so he would certainly be using English for more than just business, and consequently would have learned to speak it better. But for most fictional American Indian characters from that period, depicting them as speaking pidgin English is accurate, and there’s no reason to criticize it.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      Saka’s situation is similar to Tonto’s, if not even more in that direction. He’s living among the white people and is familiar with their ways, though he keeps some of the traditional ones. Even the telegram that he sends for help is in pidgin, which is weird.
      Heavens Above sounds interesting. I haven’t seen it.
      I don’t know why WordPress held up your post for approval this time. Were you commenting with a different account?

      • Eyal Mozes Says:

        I used the same account I always do. See if this reply is posted automatically; if it is also held for approval, that would indicate something wrong with WordPress.

        In my last comment I marked the box asking for email notification for comments on this post; but didn’t get an email notification on your reply. Now when I’m replying again, the box isn’t even showing. So there does seem to be something wrong.

        • Gary McGath Says:

          This time your reply went through without needing approval.
          I don’t know why it’s acting odd today. I did some work with my other blog to add a redirect, but that shouldn’t have done anything to this one.

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