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.