A reporter writing the biography of a dead national hero gets a lesson in the nature of political power. [ Keeper of the Flame credits: Dir: George Cukor/ Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Richard Whorf/ 100 min/ Drama/ Power Corrupts, Power Worship]
During World War II, when Keeper of the Flame was initially released, patriotic fervor encouraged an unquestioning and even reverential attitude toward the nation’s political and military leaders. Meanwhile, government assumed unprecedented powers. In short, in order to fight fascism abroad, we were becoming more fascist at home. This first-rate drama was a wake-up call to those taking freedom at home for granted.
As the film begins, the nation is mourning the death of Robert Forrest, a national hero of unblemished reputation who died unexpectedly in a car crash. It’s a tremendous loss for the country, as Forrest was the one man in politics on whom people had felt they could always count to do what was right. Millions liked and admired him. Young people in particular had joined his “Forward America” organization in droves.
Steven O’Malley, a highly regarded newspaperman, so respected Forrest that he returned from war-torn Europe just to write Forrest’s biography. At first, O’Malley presumes that everyone must have loved Forrest. However, as he starts digging for more details on the man, he begins to sense otherwise.
Yes, Forrest’s friends and family generally worshipped him, but their hero worship was often a destructive factor in their lives, and at times they resented him for that. And it seems that Forrest’s wife was having an affair with another man, whom Forrest hated and who probably hated him back. Indeed, Forrest did have enemies and there are hints that he may not have died by accident but was murdered.
Or is there something more going on? Why is the one person who can tell O’Malley what Forrest was really like — that is, Forrest’s icy widow — so unwilling to talk? Who or what is she trying to protect?
In many ways Keeper of the Flame is a classic mystery of the period, with dark brooding atmosphere and clues turning up when you least expect them, but in the end the real crime is much bigger than anyone suspects. The screenplay is intelligent and suggests a subtle understanding of the corrosive nature of human deification. Also in the plus column are Cukor’s superb direction, a superior mystery-style musical score, and a fine cast. Richard Whorf gives an inspired performance as the ultraloyal press secretary: enthusiastic, ingratiating, and completely dishonest — the essence of the cynical modern politico. Hepburn and Tracy shine as always, as the pair who must ultimately oppose him to show who are the real “keepers of the flame.”