By Tom Anderson
William Jennings Bryan was one of the most influential figures in American political history, despite failing to win the presidency on any of his remarkable three attempts (1896, 1900 and 1908). In 1896 he was just a two-term Congressman and a failed Senate candidate, but was already noteworthy as an orator. At the Democratic Congress of that year, he gave his famous “Cross of Gold” speech in which he fiercely attacked the Gold Standard policy held by the incumbent Republicans, and supported by the ‘Bourbon’ conservative faction of the Democrats. Since 1873, the United States had recognised only gold as the basis of its currency, a policy that benefited industrial eastern states and eased trade with the British Empire, but which caused economic chaos for the poor and in particular the farmers of the agrarian West. The western Populist movement had arisen to call for a return to bimetallism—basing the currency on both silver and gold. Bryan, a Silver Democrat supported by Populists, became bimetallism’s most charismatic advocate and, for his speech, was chosen as the youngest presidential candidate in history over the Bourbon rivals.
The 1896 presidential election was one of the most dramatic and hotly-fought in history. In the end, Bryan was defeated by Republican William McKinley, but he had forever changed the makeup of the Democratic Party. As noted above, Bryan ran twice more, prompting a political cartoon of 1908 to suggest he would still be running for president in 2008! Yet in the end Bryan’s reach was even longer than that, for in 2015 his influence produced one of the many gaffes that sank the campaign of hapless once-frontrunner Jeb Bush. Perhaps Bryan might be happy at the thought that he had caused trouble for one of the Democratic Party’s rivals beyond the grave. But how did he do it? If you are expecting this to be a simple path through American politics and Bush mentioning Bryan directly, you haven’t read enough of these articles!
In 1900, the year of Bryan’s second attempt at the presidency, the author L. Frank Baum published a children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It remains hotly debated whether the book was meant to be an allegory for contemporary politics, and specifically the 1896 presidential election; it is worth remembering that this does not seem to have been considered until an article by Henry Littlefield in 1964. On the other hand, given that the 1901 musical adaptation of the book (by Baum) does make contemporary explicit political references . For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume the political events did inspire Baum’s book at least to some extent. The usual allegory is that the Scarecrow represents American agriculturalists hurt by the Gold Standard (the Yellow Brick Road), the Tin Woodsman represents industrial workers, the Cowardly Lion is Bryan himself, the Emerald City is Washington DC, and Dorothy’s silver slippers represent the silver of bimetallism.
Yes, silver, not ruby. Mention The Wizard of Oz and most people will picture the groundbreaking 1939 colour film adaptation by MGM with Judy Garland. Never mind that this was actually the eighth cinematic adaptation of one of the Oz books (yes, books plural—there was an entire series, also often forgotten), to say nothing of the musical and stage adaptations. This is the one that people are thinking of when they make Wizard of Oz references, as evidenced by the fact that the changes made from the book and previous adaptations (such as the slippers being ruby, to exploit the bold colours of the film better) remain part of those references.
And there are many such references; The Wizard of Oz is arguably America’s national fairytale, and American-produced media is as filled with influence from it as British media is of Alice in Wonderland, if not more so. The longevity of such cultural influence was amusingly depicted in The Avengers (2012), where Steve Rogers/Captain America, having been frozen in suspended animation since the 1940s and struggling to adapt to the modern world, reacts to someone mentioning ‘flying monkeys’: “I understood that reference!” There are relatively few examples of fiction which have remained in the language across generations.
But here we focus on only one example of this, and it isn’t even a solely American production. In 1973, Sean Connery was in a sticky situation. He had rose from obscurity to become one of the world’s biggest and best-paid stars thanks to his role as James Bond in six films, but had grown to hate how he was regarded as synonymous with the character. As part of his agreement to appear in (as it was thought) his last Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever, United Artists agreed to fund two of his own projects. The first of these, the gritty The Offence, was a commercial failure, and UA pulled out of the deal (the second film would have been a Macbeth adaptation). Connery was stuck high and dry. Director John Boorman came to the rescue with a new project. He had been hoping to adapt The Lord of the Rings (and had even been corresponding with JRR Tolkien about it) but the project had been shelved due to spiralling cost estimates. Still invested with the idea of exploring a fantastic world, Boorman developed his own ideas, initially hoping to cast Burt Reynolds in the lead role—but when illness prevented Reynolds from starring, the role went to Connery.
Boorman and Connery’s collaboration became Zardoz (1974). Notorious for its avant-garde strangeness, the film features Connery in a…unique red costume as Zed, an ‘Exterminator’ in the year 2293. In this post-apocalyptic setting, society is divided between barbarian ‘Brutals’ whose population Exterminators must keep under control, as directed by a great flying stone head called Zardoz, and ‘Eternals’ who have achieved immortality, but now often find nothing left to live for. Zed hides aboard Zardoz and temporarily ‘kills’ its operator, Arthur Frayn, then is brought into the Eternal society and treated as a brute beast. But the Eternals do not realise that Frayn deliberately bred and prepared Zed as a super-man to infiltrate that society and end its stagnant status quo. In a flashback scene, Frayn shows Zed an old book as his inspiration: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Just like ‘Oz, the Great and Powerful’ in the book, Frayn was posing as a deity when he was just a man behind a curtain.
Zardoz was a failure at the box office, but appears routinely on lists of iconic bizarre cult classics, likely helped by Connery’s costume. It undoubtedly influenced other media produced later, but most examples of this are debatable. One which assuredly is not is the DC Comics character Vartox, a friend and rival to Superman introduced in…1974, who suspiciously resembles Sean Connery in a red costume. Despite this seeming like a throwaway topical reference, once a character is introduced into comic books, one can pretty much guarantee that at some point in the future they will be brought back, and has appeared as recently as the 2000s.
In 2015, the team behind the successful DC Comics TV adaptations Arrow and The Flash produced a new series, Supergirl, based on Superman’s cousin and distaff counterpart. Unlike the first two series, which shared a universe, this would be a separate version of Earth to facilitate the plot. But the writers needed a villain which Supergirl could defeat in the pilot episode, one of comparable power to herself. Someone dusted off Vartox, reimagined as one of the Kryptonian criminals imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, and Owain Yeoman of The Mentalist fame was cast opposite Melissa Benoist as Supergirl.
Like its predecessors, the Supergirl series was successful and made a big splash on its debut of October 26, 2015. A few days earlier, presidential candidate Jeb Bush was asked about superheroes at the Libre Forum in Nevada. Although the question seemed to be more directed about Marvel superheroes (dominating the film box office), Bush gravitated to DC on TV. Evidently having seen TV previews, he commented that Melissa Benoist as Supergirl (about a decade younger than his own daughter) ‘looked pretty hot’, before seeming to realise how this would be received and commenting that he expected the quote would appear on the news. Accurately.
That was by far from the only gaffe to sink Bush’s campaign of course, which ended with the most lopsided ratio between dollars spent and primary votes obtained in American history; after spending over a hundred and thirty million dollars, he came sixth in the Iowa caucuses and fourth in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, suspending his campaign in February 2016. It seems likely that the once-frontrunner would have self-destructed regardless. But it’s amusing to consider that from Bryan to Baum to Boorman to Benoist, a closed Ouroboros of American politics reached through popular culture from 1896 to 120 years later.
More consequences articles to come!
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth