He Can't See It

A British film from the 1940s captures the atmosphere of those first few years after the war when the idea of equality  seemed both just and inevitable. Lance Comfort's Silent Dust part of my ongoing series exploring the influence of the Second World War on British writers and filmmakers.


An idea percolates through the culture, which it comes to saturate. What happens next? Does the idea seep away to leave that culture dry; its holes, those pores, its limestone caverns ready for the next ideology’s rain? If only God were a bureaucrat! It continues raining. The culture sodden with what it already knows. On and on the idea falls. Everything saturated with the usual stuff. Wet through, and trudging across boggy ground, we dismiss the clouds ominous on the horizon: same old ships blasting the shore, we mutter to ourselves; almost welcoming another deluge. Yet today will surprise us. Those clouds heavier than usual, they also… What the devil! The ground oozing with water is giving way, and we…we…we are sliding into…a rising pool! and…and… Help! Help! Semaphoring desperately we cry for assistance that will not appear. The rain, once a harmless companion - it filled the irrigation ditches, grew the crops, festooned the gardens with fountain brilliance - has become our enemy; yesterday an officious gardener today it is a demonic gravedigger, burying us alive under water and mud.

In a few days the clouds clear. The rain having stopped, the marshes shrink, and some young lads, out walking, discover a corpse lying on the sun-cracked ground; smeared with dirt, badly decomposed they try to identify… Some old geezer, is the best that they can do.

The ideas of the present are so ubiquitous that we are hardly recognise them as ideas; for us they are part of the landscape, as familiar as Tesco and Barclays Bank. The ideas of the past, in contrast, are not only dead to us, we hardily recognise them as products of human thought. What strange creatures to have believed in such ridiculous things, we think. And it happens so suddenly: alive last week, yesterday the idea had a heart attack. Ping! It is gone for good.

In Silent Dust the collective ethos of the Second World War is still soaking into the topsoil of the culture, so that in Britain, in the late 1940s, the idea of the British nation remains a strong belief. Social compromise ousting heroic sacrifice as the dominant strain in the cultural atmosphere, Sir Robert Rowley is out of kilter with the times; his decision to erect a memorial to his dead son upsetting the villagers, many of whom also lost family in the war. Oblivious to the atmosphere, he will not listen to wise advice; Rowley impervious to these people’s feelings. He is so insensitive! An outsider, refusing to conform to this need for collective sympathy, his behaviour seems almost wilful, as if he wants to offend; little wonder that the local lord, who tries to persuade Rowley to dedicate the cricket pavilion to all the dead soldiers in the village, questions his motives. Such obtuseness, this inability to read the culture’s runes, suggesting both a moral weakness and some psychological defect: this man is not right in the head.

Rowley is blind, a useful symbolic attribute. Of course this man will not consider the villagers’ opinions: he doesn't see them for his own obsessions. His ego is vast. He cannot to look around his own suffering. A mob of violent ideas is rioting in a mind locked to the outside world. A character, this, far more complicated than most of us will ever know. Yet at the start it seems so obvious. Here is a self-made tycoon, who, like many of his type, has moved to the countryside, where he flaunts his wealth and expects, naturally, to rule over the local elite.1 Of course there is much he doesn't understand. To be rich and conspicuous is quite different from exerting authority; Rowley’s ostentation losing him respect not gaining it; the modest behaviour and subtle diplomacy of Lord Clandon (that collective “clan”, the self-effacing “don”) in strong contrast to Rowley’s display and blunt manner, direct to the point of rudeness. Not that he’s bad. Sir Robert remains true to his own history, where to acquire a fortune one must harden not soften the sensibility. A typical owner-manager of the old school Rowley seeks to dominate his surroundings; there will be no compromises to effect a peaceful harmony, the community’s anger accepted, if it allows him to have his way. I must win! All the prizes will come to me… Such a character lacks the rich texture of civilisation that can generate interests outside the self, tolerance the felicitous consequence. Self assertion is Rowley’s ruling force; his superhuman will growing a brutish persona that shows scant respect for those who oppose him. This is no Lord Clandon; a wise and sympathetic person, whose culture embeds him deep into the lives of the villagers, engendering mutual respect and a common understanding.  

Rowley is enormously successful. He has made millions, bought a wonderful house, and is married to an attractive and kind woman. It does not satisfy. The energy that created the success produces a restlessness that is never assuaged, always there are things he must do; the cricket pavilion a substitute for his commercial projects. This type of man cannot retire to the country. Today Rowley’s immense energy is focussed on his son Simon, killed in action in February 1945. Consumed by this death, his grief crystallises into a plan to build a memorial, which is about to be completed when the movie begins.

Obsessed by this idea, Rowley alienates the villagers and grows distant from his wife. Once again he is the victim of his own history; this kind of concentrated energy, focussed entirely on the project, though perfect for a business deal is out of place here, where feeling, sympathy and tact is how things get done. His single-mindedness sours his relationships, turning him into a misanthropic outcast, emphasising his alien nature. There is something odd about Rowley. This inability to recognise that the times have changed; his refusal to see the special nature of this place; then that imperviousness to all influence…There is a touch of the mad about Sir Robert. It is not just his nonconformism. It’s as if… He wills his obtuseness; not so much avoiding as denying reality.

The past is never quite how we remember it. Rowley is imagining a son who didn’t actually exist; while he laments a future - a glorious dynasty lasting for generations - that has been lost with Simon’s death. To us the Fascist overtones are strong. They are misplaced. Sir Robert isn’t an evil man. While the uncivil aspects of his personality are nearly always redeemed by acts of sympathy and kindness. This is no toytown Nazi. The feeling is more subtle: the times have made people wary of strong men who put their own egos before the community’s well-being; this is a Britain protecting itself from The Hero; Silent Dust one of the many prophylactics against the charisma of Big Men.Churchill, surely, is the target; a great wartime leader who oblivious to the nation’s present needs desired new wars to protect its past glories.

His fortune made it is time for Rowley to settle down, in the countryside, where he will be absorbed into the establishment; his origins, like his large house, to be obscured by ancient oaks and elms. A country estate, a cultivated wife, the respect of the local grandees, will give him a status high enough to secure a permanent foothold in the nation’s history (the British aristocracy, not the SS, is the model). Money by itself will not do; it can even be a handicap, preventing that sophisticated civility that rests upon understatement and is bred by instinct, creating its own easy grace.An ancient aristocrat is so accustomed to wealth that he hardly notices it; being rich a necessary inconvenience, which one tends to overlook or deprecate; Lord Clandon often indistinguishable from the villagers, a source of visual comedy in this film. What makes a lord special is near invisible to the unschooled eye. You must have very keen sight. Or have lived here for a very long time. An aristocratic culture is suffused with nuances - its meanings conveyed by microscopic gestures - that only a shared history and a friendly sympathy can discern; while respect is entwined with tradition, binding all classes together in shared loyalties. This is a culture difficult to learn - the words left out are as important as those spoken - and is acquired through an osmosis more felt than thought. 

We must mention the moral atmosphere of this period. In the 1940s a parity of respect between social unequals had become an ideal; creating a particular problem for society’s leaders, who, to maintain their authority, had to manage an odd mix of attitudes; they must exhibit good form, act with quiet sophistication and behave with an effortless superiority which at the same time recognises its own limits – it must accept the People’s rights, and its own economic and political diminishment. Lord Clandon is the archetype, with that tension between a continuing social ascendency but a palpable political decline; the reason for his sometimes ridiculous portrayal: as he rides his tricycle, or is misidentified by the local police, when he brings the fish home (for his wife to cook in their enormous Elizabethan mansion). Post-war equalitarianism has saturated this lord’s sensibility; yet his legitimate right to leadership remains, although the justifications are different now – he rules because he understands and is sympathetic to the People. The villagers do not question this arrangement; instinctively they recognise a person of quality, who is defined not by commercial success but by a special kind of spirit, that arises out of history, the past still retaining its lustre. Lord Clandon is the exemplar of a tradition of which all these characters feel themselves rightly part. Sensitive to the villagers’ needs, he is trusted to do their bidding, it is why he visits Sir Robert about the dedication of the pavilion. Such rule is effortless; our lord has generations to support him; while his charisma, his articulateness, and his confidence in command, are the very qualities that a People’s spokesman need when conversing with men of power. Here, in Lord Clandon’s person, is the magic of ancient authority. Rowley is a commoner. No maid excited when he calls. 

Rowley is blind to these nuances. He hasn't needed them before. Commerce is an impersonal and fluid world where arrogance and egoism ensures success: in a crowd you must strut to be noticed, shout to be heard. It makes one insensitive, narrowing down thought and feeling to close off a range of social interaction and intellectual activity that impoverishes a sensibility already poor.One needs to be subtle to prosper in a settled community whose social relationships are fixed and delicate; a man’s respect depending not on his wealth but upon his ability to use his social advantages wisely. You cannot sack the shopkeeper, evict a freeholder from his cottage… To belong to the Establishment (local or national) one must forgo many egotistical traits; political power (itself a kind of village) requiring a talent of compromise and an instinct for diplomacy. Rowley, battered by events, is to discover these truths and accept them. By the film’s end he listens to Lord Clandon’s advice. He has softened. And with his obstinacy gone, the old aristocrat and the new tycoon can at last converse as equals. Sir Robert joins the ruling clan. 

Until the disaster Rowley believed he could rule alone. He is blind to an obvious fact: that running a business is different from ruling the country. He cannot simply overbear men themselves rich and historically powerful; while the toughness behind their self-effacement is simply not grasped: in this world to be polite and unassuming are not signs of weakness. Compromise and some genuine meekness is essential for success in a society whose culture is sophisticated and its interests entrenched. The skills are not easy to acquire. Indeed, they go against Rowley’s nature. It is only when his moral universe has collapsed, and his ideal shown to be an illusion – his son no hero but a degenerate - that he can recognise their merit.

According to Brian Macfarlane, who introduced the film at the BFI, many of Lance Comfort’s movies during this period were about obsession and its destructive consequences. The obvious case here is Rowley’s idée fixe on Simon which arises out of a kind of mania about the British aristocracy; the source his own ambivalent status: he has the wealth but his culture is poor. Only a son born and brought up amongst the elite can truly acquire its sophistication,Rowley’s mimicry lacking the authentic touch. A true aristocrat lives by instinct and through custom and example - their focus the past, not the future, another telling sign - giving ballast to their thoughts, that grounded in the concrete - in land, in family, in human relationships - does not go beyond the bounds of propriety, itself protected by the instinct for conformity, policed by the surrounding society, always strong, ever watchful and articulate.To act like a lord easily leads to over-acting, especially when insensitive to the finesse of the original. When playing the idea of the local grandee always there is the tendency to overdo it: Sir Robert richer, more aloof, more generous (the large sum of money for a lad injured on the pavilion) more ostentatious (the grand house, the expensive car in fuel-short Britain) than the landed nobility. This extravagance undermines his authority; Rowley a nouveau riche drawing attention to his shaky status; so that even the dullest yokel can see he’s not quite top notch. Taste not riches denotes authority in this village; tact, not display, winning respect. Like so many who think too consciously about their behaviour Rowley strives too hard, until appearance becomes all: not able to be an aristocrat he must appear one, leading to evident distortion, a relinquishing of simple human qualities. A lord is both a superior person and an ordinary human being; this combination often overlooked in an actor’s performance, where the idea is privileged over instinctive feeling. Not the grace, generated by our feelings, but the hard mechanical actions of thought come to determine Rowley’s actions; naturally they feel hollow. Living up to the idea, forcing it to be real, he, ultimately, makes it false.7 Performances have other problems. An act is opposite to the real thing, the actor, more than anyone, knowing this sad truth. And if you perform you must be perfect - Rowley can’t afford to be an amateur aristocrat! Yet perfection does not exist in the social world.This man an actor who mistakes his drawing room for a stage… The whole thing becomes odd and unreal; Rowley refashioning his obviously flawed child as the exceptional son of a great man; Simon reimagined as an unblemished paragon, the matchless peer, the ideal knight, a hero of war. This is his obsession. Sir Robert’s enormous emotional energy concentrated on creating an imaginary past - the fiction of the chivalrous son - that was to have been the foundation of his now lost future, a modern line of Plantagenets, his own timeless dynasty.

In an extraordinary scene the madness of this obsession is revealed. With Simon resurrected Rowley discovers that his wonderful son is an egregious criminal: a deserter, who having faked his own death, has also stolen and murdered. A kraut would be better than this! Over the last few weeks Simon has been hiding in the house, blackmailing the other family members for money - he needs plenty to leave Blighty - knowing that they are afraid for the old man’s health if he discovers the horrible truth. It is an example of how the weak protect the strong, by helping them maintain their illusions; the weak fearful of the strong’s collapse if the fictions - necessary for rule, power, control - are exposed as lies. But the strong are stronger than that! Rowley existing in a land of thought and feeling that is foreign to the good people around him: Joan and Angela can have no inkling into the complicated ideas circulating about his mind: simple sorrow is not the cause of his insane obsession. Like all exceptionally powerful characters this man’s thoughts are unpredictable and disturbing…

Rowley gives his son two choices: surrender to the police or…commit suicide! Simon cannot believe what he has heard. Sir Robert is serious: “you are already dead to me,” he says. It is a resonant statement. Also a revelation. This proud father has been living with the shame of Simon’s immorality; his memorial a conscious decision not to celebrate but to destroy this history. There were clues before, as when Rowley talked of “my vicious son” when Joan told him about Angela’s unhappiness in the marriage. Though to know the truth is quite different from accepting it.9 In amongst the complicated layers of his mind Rowley knows the true nature of his son; but until now, until Simon’s resurrection, here in this room, he has refused to seriously think about it. And the war has been very useful: it has taken away the incriminating evidence. And continues to be of use… The boy is better dead than alive. Only as a symbol, of a noble’s self-sacrifice to the ideals of the nation, can Rowley have the son he desires. All of his energies have thus gone into fashioning a phantom. The facts are grubby. Simon a depraved character who once sponged off his rich dad and is now revealed - that sin of sins! - a coward. Selfish, mean, his will weak, Simon cares only about the easy pleasures money provides. We recognise the inheritance. Much of Rowley’s character persists in his son, especially this concern with cash. Although, whereas in the older man money was the means of fulfilling a purpose - wealth a sign of success - for the son money exists merely for bodily satisfaction; the asceticism of the father turned into the sybaritism of his child. Instead of growing up a new kind of man, an aristocratic tabula rasa, Simon is a remnant of his father’s past, exhibiting its most ugly characteristic: money love. It is a terrible irony. Simon has inherited the personality that Sir Robert must ditch if he is to truly join the Establishment; although, in rare moments, his poor childhood in Leeds can be useful, as when he makes a rhetorical point against Lord Clandon. You’re better dead! It is an extraordinary moment.  

There is something I haven’t told you. When Simon enters the house all the family see him apart from Rowley, who senses his presence from the reactions of the others. To his father Simon is a ghost!

Sir Robert is blind. The handicap allows for a complex interplay of mistakes and misunderstandings that climax in another powerful scene, when Rowley, thinking about the strange behaviours and anomalies that have recently occurred - a glass smelling of whisky; that cry of Angela; a familiar whistle; his daughter-in-law’s sudden rejection of Maxwell, Lord Clandon’s son - has a mental crisis; the screen solarised, we, the audience, are thrust inside his head, following him through the dark alleyways of his disturbed mind until he solves the puzzle: Simon is alive: he is in my house!

Intuitively Rowley knew something was wrong. However, until he gave close attention to these anomalies he ignored them; making the doubts easy to suppress. We are sure this has been the history with Simon all along. In February 1945 Rowley was given the chance to remove those doubts forever; the reason for his fanaticism over the war memorial; Rowley to bury his unease under a large tombstone; a prominent public monument the one thing large enough to hide the truth - from himself. Yes. The atmosphere of the times has even percolated into Sir Robert’s consciousness: only the public realm can ease his private turmoil. 

We suspect Sir Robert has known that Simon is alive. In a marvellous flashback sequence, where the morally repugnant history contrasts strongly with Simon’s mellifluous voiceover, we are told that his faked death has been discovered. A rumour, surely, would have reached the old man. The deserter is alive! Impossible, therefore, to compromise over the pavilion: it will prove that my son has died. We are going deeper inside this man’s head… Could Simon return if he is so ostentatiously memorialised, so toppling this totem, destroying the public image of himself as a marvellous hero? Is Rowley relying on Simon’s vanity to get his wish? My son must die! And he will abet me in this fantasy…

Rowley is to get his wish, but only when he recognises that his ideas are flawed. Only after he accepts that his wife loves him, that Lord Clandon is concerned about his best interests, and that he has been selfish, misled by a coarse egotism, then, and only then, can Rowley be redeemed, as a member of this community. He must give up his son, that evil caricature of himself, who emphasises and debases just those qualities which made him a success but which must now be jettisoned, both for his own good and for the well-being of the village. The brutal owner-manager of the 19th century has become an anachronism. The date of his blindness - it is 1939 - is also significant: the war needed a different kind of character to run things; today’s leader someone who respects the sensibilities of everyone in the nation, especially those without power or position.

The film reminds us of the benefits of institutional inefficiency: freedom. Without a photograph the police are unable to identify Simon’s corpse. A quiet scene at the end of the movie reconciles the county’s two most powerful men; Lord Clandon, having recognised Simon’s dead body, suggests to Rowley that he remove all the pictures and photographs: “it is what I did when my son died, and it did me a great deal of good.” At first Sir Robert isn't alive to the hint; interpreting him literally, he replies that he is blind, and therefore cannot see the pictures, their existence irrelevant. Lord Clandon then repeats his suggestion, but changes the emphasis, to reveal his true meaning – he is not referring to Rowley’s feelings but is thinking about the police, and the possibility, if they see these photographs, that they will expose the myth of the heroic son. At last he understands, and agrees. To see beyond his own ego is to appreciate the nuances in Lord Clandon’s civility, where the truth lies not in things and experiences but in the values and meanings we attach to them; a glorious history created not by denying the facts but turning their flawed reality into brilliant myths, a succour for the whole community. Sir Robert accepts this wise advice. He is acquiring the aristocratic touch.  


1.  For an extraordinarily interesting portrait of such a character but seen from the aristocratic side read A Man of Power, by Isabel Colegate. What is especially interesting about this novel, written in the very late 1950s, is that it shows an aristocracy losing its power; become a cosmopolitan jet set parasitic on the wealth of the new tycoons, a rising class. The capitalists are taking over. And it’s not just about the money. For not only are men like Lewis Ogden the new elite, they are also more attractive, because dynamic and purposeful, than these fading sybarites.

2.  Rose Macauley’s The World My Wilderness is an exploration of this theme.

3.  Isabel Colegate is very good on all this.

4.  Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is a devastating satire on this social type, who, in the maestro’s hands, becomes the biggest anti-hero in English literary history.

Isabel Colegate’s portrait is more nuanced and sympathetic; no doubt reflecting the times: her tycoon is both wealthy and highly intelligent; dynamism and cleverness two important social ideals of the 1950s.

5.  Barry Lyndon felt the same, thus his obsessive delight in his son.

6.  Nicely captured in Richard Davenport-Hines’ study of Proust: Dinner at the Majestic: Proust and the Great Modernist Dinner Party of 1922.

7.   Forthcoming work deals with this in detail. To summarise here: feeling and idea are two different substances; and in trying to turn the one - the ideas of the mind - into the other - the body suffused with feeling - we produce consequences that can be strange and unpredictable; the results often the opposite to what were expected. Lars von Trier’s entire oeuvre is awash with this insight; the Europa trilogy (possibly) its best exemplification.

8.  This is sourly brought out In Petrarch’s On his Own Ignorance and That of Many Others, where he diagnoses the bad mouthing of friends as due to his own unwillingness to keep up the literary persona in private company (in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer,  Paul Oskar Kristeller and John Herman Randall, Jr.).

9. Barry Lyndon wrote an entire book to hide the truth from himself. He failed.