Terry Southern was a Zelig-like figure who found himself at the centre of multiple cultural upheavals in the post-war period: he was a proto-hipster on the periphery of the “Beat” Generation, his non-fiction put him at the forefront of the New Journalism, he was in London when it really began to “swing” (Southern is nestled between Dylan Thomas and Tony Curtis on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and he became a founding father of the Hollywood renaissance which briefly threatened to supplant the old order at the turn of the 60s. Southern was a crucial bridge between generational unrest, whose contributions to Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Easy Rider (1969) evinced a revulsion for the destructive capacity of power, but equally a levity which posed the question: “Wouldn’t it be funny if… ?”
Southern was uniquely positioned to witness that moment in Western culture when “God and democracy folded” to leave only “laughter and sex.” He railed against the conformity and paranoia of the Eisenhower consensus, the bromides of suburban sprawl and consumer abundance; he attacked “the smugness and fantastic illusions of our way of life” with a lacerating wit (Gore Vidal described Southern as “the most profoundly witty writer of our generation”). Southern’s provocations were softened by his alacrity for the grand comic gesture, locating a Goldilocks zone between agitprop and slapstick. Yet he embodied the contradictions of the period: he was at turns facile and fatalistic, vacillating between wild irony and existential dread; he championed liberation yet practised misogyny; as a native Texan, he was forever vigilant against “the scorpion beneath the yellow rose.”
Southern helped to create some of the most vivid characters in cinema history, but his most persistent and prescient creation is Guy Grand, the protagonist of his 1959 novel The Magic Christian. Southern’s satirical novel is a succession of comic escalations focusing on the “crackpot” billionaire Grand, whose fortune has afforded him the ability to “make it hot for them” with a series of increasingly elaborate pranks designed to exploit the general lust for “easy green.” Grand constructs a massive concrete vat filled with manure, blood, urine and 10 thousand 100-dollar bills, on which is painted “FREE $ HERE”; he purchases a newspaper in order to insert random French words and misspellings, he pays off actors to sabotage a TV drama and introduces a jaguar to a dog show he is sponsoring. Grand is a corporate raider with a sense of fun; the world becomes fodder for his eccentric schemes and joyful subversion; the social contract is voided by the reality of his wealth.
The Magic Christian was one of Peter Sellers’ favourite books. In fact, his admiration was instrumental in Southern securing the Dr. Strangelove co-writer gig), so it seemed inevitable that writer and star would try to recapture some of that cinematic magic. But in the 10-year interval between book and film, there was a suspicion that Southern’s brand of satire had lost its edge; he had penned the peak-60s oddity The Loved One (1965), an incoherent string of consciously “outrageous” skits that was more Skidoo (1968) than Putney Swope (1969). John Cleese and Graham Chapman — who were brought in to do a rewrite on The Magic Christian at the behest of Sellers — certainly took a dim view of Southern’s efforts, dismissing his screenplay as “rubbish” with “quite hopeless dialogue.” But some of the blame must be apportioned to its star, whose insecurities ensured that the film became a vehicle for his whims. (Southern would dismiss the film as a “vulgarisation” of his novel.)
The film adaptation of The Magic Christian transforms Southern’s incisive, if light-hearted, critique of investment capital into an affectionate swipe at the British class system, and the vagaries of imperial decline. As such, money is no longer the barometer of social license; titles and heredity are the things that uphold entrenched privilege (Guy Grand is given a knighthood to underscore this). Just as Grand subverts social shibboleths, Sellers undermines the very text he professed to admire. Without a Kubrick/ Mackendrick/ Ashby to exercise a restraining influence, Sellers lets it rip, and Grand is subsumed within the star’s all-encompassing exuberance. Sellers is given free rein by director Joseph McGrath, with the result that he overwhelms the carefully calibrated balance Southern was able to strike. The Magic Christian becomes a string of celebrity walk-ons (Roman Polanski, Richard Attenborough, Spike Milligan, et al.) whose chief role is to respond to Sellers. It presages the Oxbridge silliness of Monty Python’s Flying Circus by drawing much of its humour from the medium itself.
This comedic intertextuality is the closest The Magic Christian comes to capturing the spirit of the novel, as Grand’s acquisitions are of a distinctly postmodern variety. In Grand’s universe, nothing is fixed; everything is up for grabs — ownership permits desecration, culture and history are a fool’s game. The unleashing of the Sellers persona has implications for the Grand character: he is no longer the novel’s sneering oligarch, but a seductive trickster, a class war avenger who — à la Batman — even has his own ward (played by a singularly uninspiring Ringo Starr, whose dearth of charisma is magnified by his proximity to Sellers as he eats up the frame with his heady locutions and exquisite timing). Ultimately, Grand is just another costume for Sellers to throw over himself; its essence is located in the co-ordination of symbols.
Sellers clearly loaded his own concerns into this reconfiguration of the Grand character; Grand’s stratagems spoke to his own plight, his intrinsic opacity. Despite its unfocused execution, The Magic Christian may have been a more personal project for Sellers than has been understood. Like Grand, his identity is in flux, and he seeks definition in masks and costumes; the ever-diminishing aura of glory is reduced to infantile tricks, to loud and gaudy displays of potency. As with celebrity, wealth proves to be a degenerating force; relationships only exist on the level of the transaction (this may explain why The Magic Christian never penetrates the surface or develops beyond its initial premise: it is locked in the cadence of gamesmanship). Grand keeps flinging the Apple of Discord in the hope that it may land on something solid and clarify his predicament, but he merely succeeds in heightening the contradictions.
In the novel, the eponymous luxury cruise ship functions as a grand metaphor for social stratification. In the film, it serves as a symbol (perhaps inadvertent) for the rot setting in to the counterculture. The gradually intensifying psychological torture Grand inflicts upon the ship’s passengers in the novel becomes farcical and prurient in the film, veering more towards the “Carry On” franchise than Richard Lester (Christopher Lee shows up in Dracula garb, and Yul Brynner performs a song in drag, for no apparent reason). What once had the capacity to inspire has become an empty signifier. The “revolution” has not levelled the playing field, it has simply created a new aristocracy. The Grands of the world have replenished themselves by donning the mask of insurrection. Grand is will to power dressed up as eccentricity.
The Magic Christian cries out to be re-visited. For all the cultural specificity of the novel and film, Grand remains a strikingly modern figure. His spirit haunts the workspaces of Silicon Valley and the boardrooms of high finance; his influence can be found in the corridors of power, where bored plutocrats seek to purchase the political process without digging into the primary of their fortunes. Southern understood that money can alter reality — that with sufficient funds you can turn anyone into a player in your pantomime, that “philanthropy” is a mechanism of control. Money is the game, and the house always wins.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.
Categories: 1960s, 2020 Film Essays, Comedy, Featured, Film Essays
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