From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Dave, most mainstream Hollywood films that deal with politics have delivered a populist message. Not so with the film version of Ayn Rand’s hit novel The Fountainhead, which is a paean to radical individualism. Few films have ever so explicitly expressed a political ideology. Rand ensured that this one would do so by negotiating an unprecedented clause in her screenplay contract that mirrored the demands of her protagonist, Howard Roark: she was guaranteed it would be filmed as she wrote it (1).

The Fountainhead

In her 1960 essay “For the New Intellectual” (2), Rand offered a broad vision of the history of human societies. She contended that, prior to the founding of America, all previous societies were ruled by character types she called Attilas and Witch Doctors. Attilas were men of power, who forced their will on subservient masses by physical compulsion. Witch Doctors were masters of superstition and religious belief that appealed to the emotions and were the real powers behind the throne. Both ruled by a combination of physical threats and emotional appeals to altruistic self-sacrifice for the good of the whole, and both were parasitic on the productive individuals that created the means for sustaining and enhancing human life (3). According to Rand, all previous societies were founded and controlled by these parasitic types, while “the first society in history… [to be] led, dominated and created by the Producers was the United States of America” (4). The Producers are thinkers and men of action who shape the raw materials of nature to suit human ends. They are governed by their intellect, not their emotions, and require a laissez-faire capitalist economic system to best attain their ends: “a free mind and a free market are corollaries”. Like her intellectual precursor, John Locke, Rand founded her doctrines on the assumption that men by nature are rational beings, and that they cannot realise their full potential if they fail to be governed by such conscious rationality.

American democracy forged a unique alliance between Rand’s two primary productive types, the intellectual and the businessman, with Founding Fathers like Jefferson and Franklin functioning in both roles. Because “the degree of any given country’s economic freedom was the exact degree of its progress, America, the freest, achieved the most” (5). But, by the early 1940s, she sensed a looming crisis of confidence in American ideals, which had come to fruition by the 1960s. According to Rand, liberalism, existentialist nihilism and Marxist socialism had led intellectuals and philosophers to turn on businessmen, creating a bad conscience about profit that threatened to erode the American Dream. The primary purpose of Rand’s essay was to call for new intellectuals to help overcome this bad conscience, and restore the self-confidence that the businessman needs to realise “his” productive potential.

The Fountainhead

Rand was convinced that the New Deal had undermined the unique nature of American democracy, and The Fountainhead was an attempt to restore it to its former glory. Howard Roark, her ideal individual, is the archetypal producer, acting on his creative drive and oblivious to what others think.  Peter Keating, his architectural rival, is a true parasite, catering to public opinion and unable to do anything original. Ellsworth Toohey is a cunning Witch Doctor, champion of the notion of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole. Gail Wynand is a surprisingly sympathetic Attila, humanised by his love for Dominique Francon and friendship with Roark. Each stands for a pure concept in Rand’s philosophy, and all of their actions (and artificial dialogue) stem there from.

The crux of the cautionary tale Rand was weaving was that behind all collectivist/altruist notions of society is an incipient fascism, which is made possible when selfless individuals cease to rule themselves. Toohey must destroy Roark because he is a great man, an individualist that cannot be dominated and so must be eliminated. In what Durgnat and Simmon claim is the longest speech in cinematic history up until that point (6), Roark offers a spirited defense at his trial. The essence of Rand’s position is didactically stated in his summation, and gains added power from the simplicity of Cooper’s presentation:

The great creators, the thinkers, artists, scientists and inventors, stood alone against the men of their time. Every new thought was opposed, every new invention was denounced. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they paid, and they suffered, but they won. No creator was prompted by a desire to please his brothers, for they rejected the gift that he offered. His truth was his motive, his own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way […]. My ideas are my property. They were taken from me by force, by breach of contract. No appeal was left to me […] The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrifice. I came […] in the name of every man of independence still left in the world. I came here to state my terms. I do not care to work or live on any others. My terms are a man’s right to exist for his own sake.

This brief excerpt indicates the rhetorical force that convinced not just the jury, but the board that enforced the Hollywood Production Code, which Roark broke by committing a crime that was so richly rewarded (7).

The Fountainhead

King Vidor was a surprisingly apt director for the film, despite the fact that one of his early hits was Our Daily Bread (1934), which had a decidedly communal and populist message. But, by 1944, he had joined the anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (8). As the Turner Classic Movies citation for him notes: “King Vidor’s films range across all genres, but they are unified by a concern with the struggle for selfhood in a pluralistic, mass society” (9).

Rumours of deep tensions between director and writer were rife, but Vidor’s later comment seems to play this down:

I got along great with her. They didn’t even have to pay her because she was so anxious to get the book on the screen. She said she’d do it under one condition – if they changed any lines, she wanted to be telephoned and called to the studio. That was a great help to me because actors always want to change lines. So I used that as a prop. I’d say to Gary Cooper, “Okay, you’ll have to phone Ayn Rand”. And he’d say, “How long will it take her to get here?” “Oh, it’ll be about an hour.” And he’d say, “Oh God, let’s go, I’ll read the line”. Many actors, out of nervousness or fear, will say, “I can’t read that line”. But if they try hard they can.

For The Fountainhead I always thought that either Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney was the ideal casting, not Gary Cooper, because he’s such a nice and quiet guy. But when I saw the picture a few years later I thought Cooper was ideal because he’s very quiet and he just says, “No, that’s not the way I want it”. Very quiet, like the strong guy of High Noon, and I thought it was much better than having a guy losing his temper and being arrogant and yelling. (10)

Vidor’s stylistic choices were crucial to the film’s overall impact. The menacing atmosphere of The Fountainhead is achieved by “borrowing film noir’s angles and darkness, its paranoia, its focus on a beleaguered or tormented individual. In that sense, the film noir is anti-populist. Every man walks alone down dark, mean streets.” (11) The threat of the collective herd is given symbolic expression here, and the loneliness of the authentic creator is made palpable. But, unlike the typical film noir protagonist, Roark’s destruction is not inevitable, and his triumph is filmed in the bright light of day, with his head up in the proverbial clouds.


  1. Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, p. 263.
  2. Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual, Signet Books, New York, 1961.
  3. Rand, pp. 16-24.
  4. Rand, p. 24.
  5. Rand, p. 25.
  6. Durgnat and Simmon, p. 268.
  7. Durgnat and Simmon, p. 267.
  8. Rand was commissioned to write a statement of its principles entitled “Screen Guide for Americans” in 1947. See “‘Screen Guide for Americans’: Ayn Rand, Walt Disney, and Ronald Reagan Tried to Warn America”, Overmanwarrior’s Wisdom: http://overmanwarrior.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/screen-guide-for-americans-ayn-rand-walt-disney-and-ronald-reagan-tried-to-warn-america/.
  9. “King Vidor”, TCM: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/198681%7C94180/King-Vidor/.
  10. “King Vidor on The Fountainhead (1949)”, Cinemagumbo: http://cinemagumbo.squarespace.com/journal/2012/3/28/king-vidor-on-the-fountainhead-1949.html.
  11. Durgnat and Simmon, p. 261.

The Fountainhead  (1949 USA 114 mins)

Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod, Dir: King Vidor Scr: Ayn Rand, based on her novel Phot: Robert Burks Ed: David Weisbart Art Dir: Edward Carerre Mus: Max Steiner

Cast: Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey, Patricia Neal, Kent Smith, Robert Douglas, Henry Hull, Ray Collins

About The Author

Dan Shaw is Professor of Philosophy at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, USA, edits the print journal Film and Philosophy and is co-editor, with Steven Jay Schneider, of Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror (2003, Scarecrow Press).

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