What Basil Fawlty can teach 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Jessica Chastain from Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain from Zero Dark Thirty.

Sat, Jan 26, 2013, 00:00

Fawlty Towers and Zero Dark Thirty do not have a great deal in common. The former is a flawless series of TV farces concerning a permanently frustrated Torquay hotelier. The latter is a grim, unapologetically procedural film detailing the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. This week, however, the two works find themselves bundled together in an ancient debate about the responsibilities of authorship.

Last Sunday, the BBC broadcast a censored version of the most famous episode from John Cleese’s great sitcom. In “The Germans”, Basil Fawlty suffers a head injury and, all inhibitions silenced, tells his Teutonic guests exactly what he thinks of them. But the problem was not with the Germans.

Apparently, it’s still acceptable to have a brain-damaged loon shout “Krauts” at the top of his voice. The controversy concerned the perennially confused Major Gowan. Describing his trip, taken many years previously, to a cricket match with a young woman, Ballard Berkeley’s character remarks: “The strange thing was, throughout the morning she kept referring to the Indians as niggers. ‘No, no, no,’ I said, ‘the niggers are the West Indians. These people are wogs.’”

The ‘n-word’

Since the show’s first outing in 1975, the line has sat ever more uncomfortably in an otherwise perfectly balanced episode. It is probably fair to say that no contemporary writer would include it in a mainstream situation comedy. We are, after all, living in an era when the most commonly used of the two offensive epithets is, even when speaking in abstract terms, often referred to as the “n-word”.

Quentin Tarantino is currently refuting accusations that he sprayed the expression around too liberally in Django Unchained. That film had an 18 rating. The repeat of “The Germans” was at 7.30 on a Sunday evening.

All that noted, Cleese and Connie Booth, his often-overlooked co-writer, must be declared innocent of all charges of racism. The joke depends upon the viewer finding the Major’s language disgraceful. When one writes a racist character one does not necessarily endorse racism. This argument is so uncomplicated it hardly needs to be stated. The BBC’s move – though apparently endorsed by Cleese – does seem like moral pettifoggery.

The use of the troublesome word in the stiff-upper-lip 1955 war film The Dam Busters is much more problematic. When Richard Todd, playing wing commander Guy Gibson, shouts for “Nigger”, his black Labrador, we swallow hard and remember that this was a very different time. Drapers would sell curtains in a shade of brown named for the epithet. The Agatha Christie book we now know as And Then There Were None was once called Ten Little Niggers.

The film-makers would not, in that era, feel the need to so contextualise. The hero is presented as no less heroic for his embrace of casual bigotry. As Ricky Gervais’s character David Brent put it in The Office: “It was okay, because it was before racism.” The line is meant ironically.

All of which brings us, by the most circuitous of routes, to Kathryn Bigelow’s extraordinary Zero Dark Thirty. If you know anything about the film, you know that its CIA protagonists are depicted torturing suspects in their pursuit of Osama bin Laden. The resulting controversy has angered both right-wing and left-wing commentators: Republican politicians such as John McCain say the abuse never occurred; liberals such as Martin Sheen suggest the film implicitly endorses waterboarding. It is not unreasonable to deduce that the furore cost Bigelow a much-predicted Oscar nomination for best director.

The Zero Dark defence is similar to the Fawlty Towers gambit. The fact that Bigelow and Mark Boal, her writer, depict torture does not mean they sanction the practice. (Whether the events occurred or not is a different issue.) There seems to be no arguing with that line. Something of a cinematic Rorschach test, the weirdly apolitical, unarguably exciting film is as much a chilling indictment of US policy as it is a sabre-rattling slice of gung-ho jingoism.

And yet. The antique dynamics of storytelling lead us in a troubling direction. Bigelow’s film has a protagonist. Played with steely grit by Jessica Chastain, Maya – based on a real analyst – emerges as focused, intelligent and utterly committed. The viewer’s natural instinct is to sympathise and empathise with such a driven hero. If the film is working then some unwilling part of us will seek to understand why she doesn’t dissuade her colleague from placing a suspect in a dog collar. That’s how stories function.

In short, the “we’re showing, not endorsing” defence always requires some prodding and a little unravelling. At one end, we have the silly major of Fawlty Towers. At the other we have all those pontificating libertarian fruitcakes in the indigestible novels of Ayn Rand.

Mind how you go.

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