Thursday, April 25, 2013

Drew Maciag's "Edmund Burke in America"

Drew Maciag has taught history at the University of Rochester, SUNY Geneseo, and Nazareth College.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism:
Edmund Burke in America (The Movie) would call for a "cast of dozens." Options that spring quickly to mind are Anthony Hopkins as the inscrutable John Adams, Daniel Day Lewis as the wacky Rufus Choate, and (a middle-aged) Dustin Hoffman as the conservative alchemist Russell Kirk. Although Johnny Depp is the obvious choice for Tom Paine, I'd rather see Charlie Chaplin (talkie version) inhabit that role. Who better than Spencer Tracy to portray the twin sides of Theodore Roosevelt (Rough Rider/frontier adventurer and presidential Victorian-Progressive)? Vincent Kartheiser (of Mad Men) will be at his inconsequential best playing any of the younger Burkean conservatives of the 1990s (frustrated little characters!). All these men (there are no significant parts for women in this ideological war movie) must ultimately act in the shadow of the legendary British statesman, Edmund Burke.

Actually there are several Edmund Burkes; that is, there are multiple sides to his personality and political philosophy. The actor best able to project each of them while remaining true to the character's core identity was Raymond Burr. Burr's physical frame was a bit too imposing; but better to err on the side of visual gravitas when casting this monumental part. The Raymond Burr who was Perry Mason, the skillful, dignified, articulate, rational, principled advocate for justice, is the Edmund Burke who supported the American colonists, the natives of India, the Catholics of Ireland, the victims of slavery, capital punishment, the pillory, debtors prison, and penal colonies. The Burr who was R. Frank Marlowe--the cock-sure, self-righteous, overly dramatic prosecutor in A Place in the Sun--will be equally convincing as the older Burke who became a reactionary crusader (if this were the only side to Burke’s persona, then Charles Laughton would be perfect!); and since this later Burke requires a mysterious menacing quality (some thought he was going insane) the Burr who was (murderer) Lars Thorwarld in Rear Window comes to mind. Finally, Burr as Robert Ironside—the wheelchair-bound detective—is the Burke who, throughout his life, was effective yet constrained, accomplished yet resentful, respected yet inadequately rewarded, never all he felt he could be; always he projected a tough, brave front, but it never completely obscured his inner sense of vulnerability (or his ultimate humanity).

While he's not on my list of great directors, the only first-rate director with enough proven dramatic range to pull off this complex historical saga was William Wyler. Of course, the story can easily be rewritten as an anti-ideological warfare "dark comedy" and handed over to Stanley Kubrick; or if you insist on employing the still-living, it would be interesting to see what the Coen Brothers might do with the likes of E. L. Godkin, Woodrow Wilson, and Judge Robert Bork! (Wyler would shoot in luminous black and white, with classic static camera work; the Coens would shoot in color, with a hint of sepia tone, and lots of steadicam fluidity, which will lend the characters a subtle sense of transience, relativity, and irony. The Coen version would give the story a more contemporary feel; Wyler’s would appear to be more historically convincing. Neither version would capture the reality of the historical drama, because in “real life” few of the characters experienced the same political or cultural milieu; I guess that’s what makes the story interesting in the first place.)
Learn more about Edmund Burke in America at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue