A few thoughts on saving the Munchkins, defeating tyranny, and the politics of America's favorite fairytale.
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the great American movies of all time. The Wizard of Oz debuted in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on Aug. 15, 1939, going on to become one of the nation’s — and the world’s — great cultural lodestones. Over the years, The Wizard of Oz has been endlessly quoted, parodied, and rehashed like few other films. It’s endured because it’s a great piece of filmmaking driven by an engaging story, bravado performances, and ecstatic songs. Like many fairytales, though, Oz also tells us quite a lot about the very grownup problems of the era that gave birth to it — in ways that are oddly relevant to our present-day predicaments.
Even today many fans don’t know that Frank Baum, the author of the novel on which the film is based, incorporated a lot of contemporary politics into his story. He wrote the book during the Populist era, when monetary policy (of all things) happened to be the hot issue of the day.
The American historian Henry Littlefield analyzed the entire novel in this light. In his reading, the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, which was defended by the privileged interests of the time as the essential principle of "sound money" — one that was strongly opposed by the middle-class Populists (many of them farmers) who sought economic salvation in an expansionist policy championed most famously by Democratic presidential aspirant William Jennings Bryan and exemplified by a new monetary standard incorporating silver. (Dorothy’s shoes in the original novel are made of silver, not rubies. The creators of the movie chose the ruby slippers because they knew they’d look better in Technicolor, which they wanted to show off to its most powerful effect.)
The Yellow Brick Road leads to the Emerald City, which stands for the alluring but ultimately false promise of the gold-backed dollar. Dorothy, in this allegory, is the everyday American, energetic and somewhat naïve, who only achieves full political consciousness when she allies herself with farmers, industrial workers, and the hesitant yet powerful patriotic spirit that finally comes of age in the Spanish-American War. (We’ll leave it up to you to figure out which characters are which.)
There’s still some controversy among scholars about whether Baum really intended his book to be read this way; I suspect he saw it above all else as an engaging fable for kids, though that didn’t preclude working in some contemporary politics for the grown-ups. (To me, the parallels between the politics of his day and his novel are just a bit too conspicuous to be dismissed entirely.) To a certain extent, of course, all fairytales can be read as allegories, since they operate on the level of archetype. (Just look at all the fun psychoanalysts have had with the stories of the Brothers Grimm.)
The movie version continues to live on in the imagination of its audiences partly because it stands a bit outside of time and space; there’s something ageless about it. Gone with the Wind, the Hollywood blockbuster that premiered at the same time (and ended up beating Oz out at the box office), seems, by contrast, painfully dated. Even so, when I watch Oz today, I still can’t help being struck how much, and how richly, it reflects the moment of its making.
Principal photography for Oz started in October 1938, just at the end of the Sudeten Crisis, when Britain and France had decided to avert all-out war by appeasing Hitler’s demands for territorial concessions from Czechoslovakia. At the beginning of that month, Nazi Germany had already started annexing the Sudetenland, the part of Czechoslovakia that was home to a majority of ethnic Germans. This meant the destruction of the most successful of the new European states born from the aftermath of World War I; Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, thought it was a price the Czechs ought to be willing to pay for "peace in our time." No one really asked the Czechs what they thought. By the time The Wizard of Oz was finished, Hitler had absorbed the rest of their country into the Third Reich, and a new world war seemed inevitable.
Most Americans knew this, but they didn’t want to get involved. The preferred foreign policy of voters at the time was isolationism, which wanted to see the United States stay as far away from grubby European power struggles as possible. Most Americans undoubtedly sympathized with Chamberlain when he dismissed the Czech crisis as "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing." Central Europe seemed, in those days, unfathomably exotic to Americans in particular — which is perhaps why the makers of The Wizard of Oz chose it as the template for the fantasy land in which most of the film takes place. (I’ve never heard anyone who worked on the movie’s production design state this explicitly, but it seems pretty obvious from the costumes worn by the Munchkins and other denizens of Oz.)
Perhaps the biggest difference between Baum’s original novel and its Hollywood retelling is the role of the Wicked Witch. She’s a minor character in Baum’s book, but the writers at MGM decided to give her a much more prominent role in order to create dramatic tension. In the film, she’s a huge and ominous presence that draws much of its force from images that were ghosting around in people’s heads at the time. She presides over an army of lockstep automatons who operate out of a castle that seems to have been designed by some of the same people who did the visuals for the Nazi Party rallies, especially their notorious torchlight processions. This is Baum’s gentle children’s tale translated into the dark and frightening world of the late 1930s.
Dorothy, with a bit of help from her friends, ultimately succeeds in dismantling tyranny. But it’s not something that she’s eager to do. First she has to unveil the feckless Wizard, a louche fraud who’s basically a good guy but doesn’t quite have the strength to do the right thing on his own. (Probably a fair summary of how many Americans viewed Great Britain in 1939.) When the appeal is made to her best moral instincts, Dorothy steps up to the plate and does what’s expected of her — but she’s not in it because she wants power for herself. She’s in it because she knows she has to do the right thing. What she wants most of all, of course, is to go back to Kansas. A proper American can never really be at home in a place like Oz, with its complicated power struggles, its Technicolor seductions, and its weird ethnic conflicts.
I’m not claiming that this is the only possible reading of the movie; great works of art allow for multiple interpretations that often happily co-exist. At its most obvious level, Oz is a profoundly American story about the adventure of personal self-discovery, about finding that magical strength that lies within (preferably with a bit of help from your friends — especially if they happen to be a manic robot, a man of grass, and an emasculated carnivore). But precisely because The Wizard of Oz is such an American story, and also because it’s so deeply steeped in its times, the movie has managed to capture something of the ambivalence with which Americans viewed their own country’s place in the world at the time — and still do today.
The 21st-century United States is deeply entangled in global affairs, yet many Americans, exhausted by the recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, are increasingly reluctant to embark in armed crusades beyond their borders. Even today, as President Obama reluctantly deploys military force to defend an embattled minority in the mountains of Iraq, it’s still possible to feel that deep tension between the American urge to defend high moral principles around the world even while longing to avoid the sort of foreign involvements that George Washington warned about in his farewell address.
We want to help those people in their funny costumes, since ultimately they’re just like us. Sometimes doing the right thing means taking journeys into weird foreign realms, perhaps even offing a couple of bad guys along the way. But really, in the end, there’s no place like home.