The Fountainhead Revisited

The 1949 Film Is Pop Nietzsche Perfection

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read Ayn Rand’s doorstop novel The Fountainhead, there’s the movie with Gary Cooper and screenplay by Ms. Rand herself. It’s perhaps the most faithful adaptation of any novel, despite the first third of the book being compressed into the first five minutes of the movie.

Which is perfect, just like everything else about the movie. The Fountainhead, novel or otherwise, is an unashamedly Nietzschean melodrama, having more in common with soap opera than much. For the pedestrian, this is a flaw, the ultimate condemnation of Rand’s work, but it’s hard to imagine Howard Roark and Dominique Francon mumbling at each other in “naturalistic” dialogue.

Ayn Rand is wrong about a good many things, but like all the greats, she gets the basics and has impeccable moral instincts. And so, her hero is a Nieztschean superman architect, as comfortable drilling marble in a quarry or putting his electrician’s license to work as he is standing atop the world’s tallest building, arms akimbo, looking down on the rest of us mortals.

Roark, like Faust, strives toward the infinite, looking to remake creation in his own image. Unlike Faust, this is a mark of heroism and not a fatal flaw. 

The villain is the mob, but their avatar is Ellsworth Toohey. He is the most perfect depiction of ressentiment of which I am aware. I have been moved to both chills and nausea reading and watching Ellsworth Toohey explain, with the dead-eyed conviction of the true believer, how any and all individual excellence is an affront to all of humanity.

There are people alive today who truly believe this and they’re occupying increasing positions of power in the West. The means by which they have gained their power is put succinctly into the mouth of Toohey by Rand: The practical men, the men more predisposed to ideas of rational self-interest and natural hierarchy, have abandoned the playing field of ideas, leaving them to cynical and, more to the point, evil men.

Rand, perhaps despite herself, was one of the great moralists of her time.

At the time it was released, the Daily Worker, the main east coast daily (yes, there were others) of the Communist Party, USA declared that The Fountainhead was an “openly fascist movie.” It’s difficult to think of a stronger endorsement than that.

But of course the left hated it. Not simply because of the philosophical themes, which at this point are still firmly rooted in interwar Nietzschean egoism and haven’t yet blossomed into Rand’s singular vision of hyper-individualism; But also because the film celebrates beauty and vigor, two things which leftists cannot abide. Leftism, at its core, is the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the spiritually deformed against the rest of us, a chaotic and destructive impulse to lay ruin to all that is noble in man. 

The film lacks some of the subtleties of the novel. Rand’s script is constantly saying the quiet part out loud. But film is a popular medium and Rand likely wanted to take the opportunity to say what she thought needed saying in the most direct terms possible so as to not allow for any confusion on the part of the viewer.

The casting is exceptional, with everyone dutifully doing their part as The Hero (Gary Cooper is an absolute blank canvas), His Flawed Friend, The Girl He Must Save, The Toadie and The Communist Psychopath. Particularly in the film, this is what these characters are: Less fully formed humans than idealized versions of forces Rand wishes to represent.

Again, this works, but it works because it’s in keeping with Rand’s general ideas about aesthetics. She called it “romantic realism,” but there’s very little about it that resembles “realism.” We might call it “romantic heroism” or, if we were trying to provoke the Objectivists, “romantic idealism,” in as much as it represents a romantic ideal.

The film’s score is equal parts schmaltz and soaring. To the Daily Worker’s point, it would feel as at home in From Here to Eternity as it would in Triumph of the Will.

Rand was unhappy with the architecture because it resembled more the German-derived International Style than Frank Lloyd Wright’s American modernism. She sternly instructed that Wright and only Wright be the inspiration for Roark’s buildings. While interesting, it won’t diminish the appreciation of Roark’s work.

The designs are beautiful, particularly when mixed among the still-art deco dominated look of 1940s New York. They inevitably lead one to question what our cities might look like if architects of today understood that beautiful architecture serves the same function as ugly architecture while also being beautiful.

There is a philosophical thread just about as old as time that attempts to reconcile a frank appraisal of the state of man with the insatiable desire of some men to crawl their way out of the soup of mediocrity and banality dominating the lives of the masses. The core ideas — ownership of the self as a launching pad for mastery of the self and then mastery of one’s environment, amidst the chaos of lesser men who resent the very notion of anything more noble in man — remain the same.

But each generation must update them in their own vernacular. The 19th Century had Also sprach Zarathustra, the inter- and post-war West had The Fountainhead.

The novel is certainly worth your time and attention, but if you have precious little of that to give, the film will do just fine. All of the main points are there: the nobility (and frailty!) of great men, the ressentiment of the mob, the true meaning of love, the importance of beauty. It has aged wonderfully and contains much that is more relevant today than when it was first released.