A brilliant and original architect, with a noble vision of life’s potential, struggles against a sea of mediocrity and cynicism to achieve greatness in his art. [ The Fountainhead credits: Dir: King Vidor/ Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey, Robert Douglas/ 114 min/ Drama/ Ayn Rand, Creator as Hero, Individualism]
“Howard, every new idea in the world comes from the mind of some one man. And do you know the price he has to pay for it?” That’s the subject of this film: the struggle of the creative person against the momentum of mediocrity—the price the creative person pays to move the world forward.
At the center of The Fountainhead is Howard Roark, an ingenious young architect. His building designs are strikingly original. And there’s the rub. The world doesn’t want originality. At every architectural firm, at every meeting of builders, at every turn, he is told that he must compromise his designs. He must add a conventional façade, blend his design with a style of the past, or accept incongruous changes. As one of his fellow architects puts it, in a word of friendly advice: “You can’t stand alone. Give in. Learn to get along with people. Start to design the kind of building everybody else does. Then you’ll be rich; you’ll be famous; you’ll be admired—you’ll be one of us!”
Roark is a man of intense integrity, however, who designs solely for the satisfaction of seeing his visions realized. To compromise his designs would be to compromise himself, and that he will not do. Under these circumstances, his struggle to find work might be tough enough on its own, but he is opposed as well by a secret archenemy, Ellsworth Toohey, an art critic dedicated to the destruction of originality.
The struggle between these two is symbolic of the broader struggle between individualism and collectivism. It’s a theme virtually unique to Ayn Rand, who wrote the novel on which this film is based and who, more than any other author, projected and defined libertarian values. These values, in particular the celebration of creative effort and the insistence on man’s right to exist for his own sake, are unmistakably dominant here. Practically every line of Rand’s script is shaped by these values, particularly the closing speech.
However, many libertarians have criticized the film because, compared to the novel, it’s somewhat less satisfying as entertainment. Gary Cooper’s interpretation of Howard Roark is rather stony, and the telling is melodramatic at times. All that said, it still has a lot going for it, not the least of which is that it’s still fundamentally Ayn Rand’sThe Fountainhead, a terrific and insightful story. It’s also visually interesting, thanks to director King Vidor’s creative use of lighting and camera angles. And Robert Douglas’s portrayal of evil, socialist intellectual Ellsworth Toohey is delightful. This is one of the most focused screen representations of libertarian ideas to be found and a popular film in its own right, shelved in the classics section for good reason. One small note: it has a rape scene, so it is not appropriate for children.