A few years ago, I was able to watch the classic film from 1939, The Wizard of Oz, on the big screen at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California. It’s long been a favorite film of mine. It was great to see it with an audience in the sort of classic 1930’s movie palace it was intended to be seen in. I’ve been thinking a lot about The Wizard of Oz in recent years and have been thinking about the ways that it differs from the sort of films people seem to be obsessed with these days.
When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz came on TV every year around the Christmas. This was back before streaming, before cable, before VHS or DVD. There were just a handful of broadcast channels and you could only watch what they decided to air when they aired it. Back then, it was very much rarer to see a film over and over again. You couldn’t watch The Wizard of Oz for most of the year; they held it back until the holidays so that it felt like a special occasion. A lot of families would watch it together. The way it was held back for a special occasion seemed to give it more importance than it would have had otherwise. It was something of a yearly cultural ritual which a large portion of the population shared. I think the film might have had a large effect on the baby-boom generation, and in a good way.
The film’s story starts off in Kansas to set up the character of Dorothy and the people around her. It uses the device of a bump on the head to transport Dorothy into a dream of an adventure in the fantasy land of Oz. At the end, she wakes up back in her own bed in Kansas. This wrapper story is very appealing and is a useful device for setting up the fantasy story. Many of the characters from the wrapper story have counterparts in the fantasy adventure (“and you were there, and you …”) with character traits magnified in the fantasy world. The Kansas wrapper is an essential part of the way the story is told, but I’m mostly interested here in the inner adventure story which is set in the land of Oz.
The story in Oz is an unusual story compared to so many others, both back then and now. For one thing, it has a female protagonist. Dorothy gets swept away to a strange place and must go on a quest in order to her enable return back home. She is not a princess or some sort of special chosen one. She’s just an ordinary girl who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances. She doesn’t succeed by unlocking some secret knowledge or some special ability, magical or otherwise. Dorothy succeeds just by being authentically herself: honest, open, caring, and loving. Her superpower is making friends. She meets strange characters along the way, characters very different from herself. She befriends these characters and invites them to join her in her quest. They are drawn to her not because she is powerful, seductive, or intimidating, but because they are drawn to her open and authentic personality.
Dorothy does not succeed by violence. Her house only crushes the Wicked Witch of the East by accident. When Dorothy splashes water onto her friend the Scarecrow because he’s on fire, she accidentally splashes some onto the Wicked Witch of the West which melts her. The single most violent act Dorothy performs is to bop the Cowardly Lion on the nose when he is acting like a bully. As soon as the lion is contrite and honest, she comforts him, befriends him. and invites him along on the quest.
The antagonist is another female, the Wicked Witch of the West who is out to get Dorothy “and your little dog too”, through no fault of Dorothy’s. The Wicked Witchh of the West plays on a lot of negative old crone female stereotypes, but this is somewhat counterbalanced in the story by the character of Glinda The Good Witch, showing sort of a yin and yang of witch-dom. Glinda’s line: “Only bad witches are ugly” may not be as feminist as one might like today, (hey, it was 1939), but all-in-all the film holds up pretty well for one over eighty years old. The wicked witch’s eventual downfall is brought about by the simplest of everyday substances, a splash of water. As soon as she has melted, Dorothy is afraid for herself among all of the witch’s minions, but it’s as if all of the witch’s evil spells evaporate and the witch’s minions all bow and say “Hail Dorothy”, grateful for their wicked leader’s demise.
The main authority figure in Oz is the Wizard. His frightening persona is presented with some quite impressive special effects for 1939. He’s all bluster and intimidation, frightening Dorothy and her companions terribly. When they first see him, he refuses all of the entreaties until they complete a seemingly impossible task, to bring him the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. When they return with the broom, having unexpectedly completed the task, he tries more bluster and intimidation, giving the companions no hope.
In the midst of his bluster, the Wizard is revealed as the man behind the curtain by Dorothy’s dog, Toto. When the authority figure is brought out from behind his scary wizard persona, he turns out to be just a regular guy and not intimidating at all.
The apparent messages in all of this seem to me to be ideas that are worthy of being repeated as a cultural ritual year after year: the female protaganist who succeeds by being herself, the positive effects of befriending people very different from oneself, the fact that scary authority figures require our belief in their persona to perpetuate their power over us and that something as simple as a splash of water or a pulled back curtain can change everything.
I find it interesting that Victor Fleming directed this wonderful film in 1939, the same year he directed that foul piece of Lost Cause propaganda: Gone With the Wind, which has so many messages whose repetition is problematic. Fleming delivered the film, but it was the original L. Frank Baum source material along with the adapting screen writers, Noel Langley and others, that delivered on the messages.
The Wizard of Oz was supplanted as a film young people would watch over and over by changes in the way television was delivered and by the arrival of 1977’s Star Wars, which came at a perfect time for VHS where children could watch it on demand without waiting for it to be broadcst once a year. I think our culture is the poorer for it. Don’t get me wrong, Star Wars is a fun and entertaining film, but the deeper messages which become apparent when one pulls back the curtain are not so benign. I highly recommend science fiction writer David Brin’s excellent critique of Star Wars:
Just what bill of goods are we being sold, between the frames?
- Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn’t be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow.
- “Good” elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability.
- Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough.
- True leaders are born. It’s genetic. The right to rule is inherited.
- Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.
That is just the beginning of a long list of “moral” lessons relentlessly pushed by “Star Wars.”
Brin has returned to and expanded his criticisms in other writings, but the above list is plenty for a start. In short, the Jedi seem to be very much like how fascists would see themselves. Sadly I think the influence of many of the darker messages of Star Wars can be seen as evident in modern American culture. We are now more a culture of wanna-be Lukes than Dorothys.
Is it just a coincidence that people who had absorbed the story of Dorothy as children became a generation where civil rights and women’s rights came to the fore? A generation who resisted the drum beat of authority figures for a war in Viet Nam? If Dorothy’s story had such an influence, it seems as if the inspiration may have faded over time for many of that generation and replaced by other less Dorothy-worthy messages. These two films don’t stand alone as cultural influences, there are plenty of other stories and mythologies affecting us all, both back then and now. I know my early days were influenced by other stories, from the original The Day the Earth Stood Still to the original Star Trek. And in modern times films such as Pixar’s have had a positive influence. But it’s hard to exaggerate the impact Star Wars has had on our culture since its release. I was already an adult when Star Wars came out, working at NASA, and old enough to be familiar with the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials which partially inspired it. As an update of those old serials, whose spaceships were usually powered by sparklers, it was amazing. Though I was entertained by Star Wars it did not entrance me as it did younger people who were introduced to it as children. But I was definitely entranced by Dorothy and her companions as an impressionable child. So, I’m surely biased here, but for myself, I would rather live in a country where Dorothy and her companions are considered heroes than one which idealizes Luke Skywalker and his crew.