Commentary Magazine

Treason Chic

Treason is in style. At least British treason. Or at least British treason when it is committed by Englishmen with posh accents wearing old Etonian ties. There is something poignant, and nostalgic, and bittersweet about it—to the point where all three of the leading British film imports into the U.S. in the last several months have wildly romanticized fictional creations suggested by the lives of Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby, Britain’s three most famous, and infamous, traitors of the last half-century. And cultural despair is all in style, British cultural despair, that is, and even British cultural despair transposed, as in John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, which Hollywood has just turned into a big-budget movie starring Diane Keaton.

Some twenty years ago I noticed in West Germany a cover line on a magazine which read, Warum Kulturpessimismus? (“Why Cultural Pessimism?”). Since that time, of course, the German intellectual classes have moved to the Left. The French—apparently always odd men out—have moved to the Right. America has moved first one way and then the other. British intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, curiously enough, have moved in the same direction as the Germans. With no Vietnam war and no Watergate, large sections of British elite opinion have lost contact with the mass of the population as thoroughly as any U.S. McGovernite. (During the recent Falklands war fair numbers of self-styled British intellectual “leaders” were wandering about in bafflement saying, “Who are all these patriotic people?”)

The British cinema, nothing if not modish, reflects accurately the attitudes of the UK’s own Yuppies and pre-Yuppies—a very close sociological equivalent of America’s movie audience. But whereas America’s radical-Left film-makers content themselves with movies implying that the Rosenbergs were innocent, or that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua are splendid fellows—and even these fail miserably at the box office—Britain’s movie industry has recently produced a quite remarkable genre, a special subdivision of cultural despair that I can only call Treason Chic. Who would have anticipated that any fragment of British opinion would ever bathe in the roseate glow of fond memory some of Britain’s most heinous traitors, men who joined the enemy and placed their country in mortal danger, and one of whom (Guy Burgess) may have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of American soldiers in Korea? But it has come to pass.

The first example of Britain’s new Treason Chic is Another Country, about which I have already written (“From Eton to Havana,” COMMENTARY, September 1984). Inspired quite openly by the life of Guy Burgess, the film, which opened in New York last summer, is essentially an ode to the beauties of homosexuality accompanied by a self-pitying lament over some minor disappointment suffered by the Burgess character at public school. If the film means anything at all, it means that any country beastly enough to inconvenience its homosexuals rather deserves to be betrayed, and that Burgess’s behavior in becoming a Soviet agent and eventually defecting to Moscow was not only comprehensible but in the last analysis justified.


I had no idea when I saw Another Country that it was to begin a whole new style, but before many weeks had passed we received from Britain The Jigsaw Man, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. If Another Country is an “artistic” film (whose claim to quality rests heavily on its Town and Country-style photography), The Jigsaw Man is a “big” movie, an action thriller. But it, too, has its celebrated traitor, in this case patterned plainly on Kim Philby. The story begins in Moscow, where we meet an elderly British defector (and former Soviet agent in his own country), played by an actor of appropriate age with Michael Caine’s voice (dubbed). The Kremlin is about to send him back to Britain on a thrilling mission and in order to escape detection he is given plastic surgery. To the amazement of one and all, the character emerges from surgery looking like Michael Caine at his true age.

The plot is trashy, as is usual in this sort of film, and really not worth recounting in detail except for two turns. Shortly after returning to England, the Philby character (Caine) encounters the head of British intelligence (MI-5), played by Olivier, who does not at first recognize him, due to the surgery and a Russian accent. But when he finally does, they greet each other like old comrades in arms. The reaction of the director of MI-5 at discovering his antagonist’s true identity is, more or less, Oh, you devil! You rascal! You scamp! This for a man who has committed high treason.

But Caine-Philby is not really a bad fellow, you see. In fact, suspecting that his Kremlin masters plan to “terminate” him once he gives them the list of Soviet-British double agents he has come for, he decides to double-cross them and sell the list to the highest bidder, escaping afterward with the loot to Switzerland. Since the head of MI-5 is onto his game, Caine-Philby offers to cut him in on the deal. They will both sell the list to the highest bidder, both escape to Switzerland. The movie ends with the two men laughing riotously, clearly in accord They are both rascals, it turns out, both scamps.

Americans who do not specialize in these matters may not know that the director of MI-5 during the crucial years was a man named Sir Roger Hollis, who, as it happens, fell under heavy suspicion of being a Soviet agent himself, the mole of moles. Sir Roger—elusive as ever—has since died, but those who knew him best in MI-5 are convinced of his guilt, a fact which no doubt suggested the Olivier character in The Jigsaw Man. It is almost impossible to imagine this story transposed to an American setting. Alger Hiss as, first, a Soviet agent, and, further, a lovable Soviet agent? Although The Jigsaw Man is pretty small beer as films go these days, it must be admitted that, even in an “entertainment” movie, the lovable traitor is a novelty, perhaps even a historic novelty.


The third of these Treason-Chic movies is An Englishman Abroad, directed by one of Britain’s most gifted film-makers, John Schlesinger (Darling, Midnight Cowboy), and starring Alan Bates. Skillful, witty, well-acted, well written (by Alan Bennett), it has come to America as a television movie on PBS’s Great Performances series, but is a far superior piece of work to either of the two earlier films.

An Englishman Abroad tells us, once again, the story, or part of the story, of Guy Burgess—who is decidedly the figure most beloved by the Treason-Chic set. This time, although the film’s authors admit to having concocted “imaginary incidents,” the Guy Burgess character is called, in all simplicity, Guy Burgess.

It seems that sometime in 1958 a young Australian actress named Coral Browne went with the Old Vic to Moscow, where—pure chance—she encountered Burgess, who had defected to the Soviet Union seven years before. Burgess, always something of a canaille, came bursting into her dressing room unannounced and threw up three times in her washbowl. But he had “bags of charm,” reported Miss Browne, and I confess that if Burgess succeeded in captivating her while intermittently vomiting in her washbowl he must have been charming indeed. Burgess (a flaming homosexual) invited Miss Browne to lunch, which turned out to be a squalid affair in his grubby little Moscow flat. Burgess sailed through it with superb aplomb, as if he were in the Reform Club in London’s West End or even Buckingham Palace. The brazen Burgess had an objective, however. He could not bear Soviet clothing, and had Miss Browne measure him for some new suits from his old Savile Row tailor.

Some twenty-five years after the event, Miss Browne told this story to author Bennett, who determined to write it as a screenplay. The result is An Englishman Abroad. Since the age of the actress is immaterial to the plot, Miss Browne plays herself in the movie, although the years have promoted her to Gertrude in Hamlet (possibly from Ophelia).


The film has an unusually ironic beginning. While a huge poster portrait of Joseph Stalin fills the screen, we hear a tinny, English rendition of the American Tin Pan Alley favorite, “Who—stole my heart away? Who—makes me dream all day?” Since by 1958 all the portraits of Stalin were down in Moscow (and his mummy was soon to be yanked unceremoniously from its resting place beside that of Lenin on Red Square), the juxtaposition of Stalin and the supremely silly “Who Stole My Heart Away?” is thematic, plainly symbolizing the romantic shallowness of most Western Communists’ understanding of the Soviet state.

In the movie, Stalin’s portrait is succeeded on the screen by those of Marx, Engels, and Lenin (“Dreams I know will never come true. Who—stole my heart away?”), these last three mounted on the front of a Moscow theater. Within, the Old Vic company performs Hamlet, Coral Browne playing Gertrude, while in the house sits Guy Burgess, gradually growing queasy with drink, and our story is under way.

Alan Bates’s Burgess is a true virtuoso performance, one of the finest I have ever seen from him. His cleverness, unscrupulousness, rudeness, wit—all with the impeccable accent and demeanor of the well-born Englishman of the period—have an uncannily authentic ring. “I’m sure I’m not the first person to remark on your pronounced resemblance to the late Ernest Bevin,” he tells the babushka guarding the stage door. “You could be sisters.” At lunch he brightly pumps Miss Browne for London gossip: “Do you see Harold Nicolson? . . . What about Cyril Connolly? Auden, do you know him? Pope-Hennessy? . . . Do you know Auden?” “You asked me. No,” answers Miss Browne, who evidently knows no one worth knowing.

Coral Browne herself seems far from sympathetic toward Communism, although, given the fact that Khrushchev’s “secret” speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist party had revealed to the world two years earlier the true nature of the Stalinist state, her condemnation is somewhat superficial. “If this is Communism I don’t like it because it’s dull! The poor things look so tired,” she says. “Some people think Australia’s dull. . . . And look at Leeds!” At one point she tells Burgess, “I’m only an actress, not a bright lady by your standards.” And we can believe it.

As for Burgess, Alan Bates’s brilliant, highly entertaining char-actor portrayal never seemed to me to jar with the Stalin-Stole-My Heart-Away theme. I am perfectly willing to concede that Burgess was a charming, outrageous scalawag—which wouldn’t have deterred me in the least from wishing him hanged if he’d been seized in time.


But imagine my surprise at the manner in which the story unfolds after Miss Browne’s return to London. She goes first to Burgess’s tailor and is received with courtesy, sympathy, and discretion. “How is Mr. Burgess? . . . He was one of our more colorful customers. Too little color in our drab lives these days,” says the shop assistant. “Mum’s the word,” cautions Miss Browne. The assistant replies, “Mum is always the word here. Moscow or Maidenhead, mum is always the word.”

So far, so good. But then Miss Browne receives a letter from Burgess asking her to order some pajamas from his old haberdasher. Here things do not go smoothly, the assistant informing her politely that Mr. Burgess’s account is closed. “The gentleman is a traitor, Madame.” At this point Miss Browne’s voice rises into the fishwife range, causing other customers’ heads to turn. “Suppose someone commits adultery in your precious pajamas. . . . What happens when he orders his next pair of jim-jams? Is it sorry, no can do?” she shrills. (The equation of adultery with treason is interesting.) “Jesus Christ, you were happy to satisfy this man when he was one of the most notorious buggers in London! . . . But he was in the Foreign Office then! [screeching now] It’s pricks like you that make me understand why he went!”

Come again? as Miss Browne might say. It’s because of people who know a traitor for a traitor that Guy Burgess became a traitor? And this is the film’s climactic, epiphanic moment, followed only by a sequence in which Burgess struts about Moscow among the ill-dressed Russians in his new Savile Row suit to the tune of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan ditty, “For He Is an Englishman” (“But in spite of all temptations/To belong to other nations/He remains an Englishman/He remains an English man”)—which in context seems to say fondly that an English gentleman is still an English gentleman even if he does commit treason. This implies exactly the indulgence that so enraged Britain at the time of the great defections: that members of the British upper class were more loyal to each other than they were to their country.


A sixth sense tells me that the scene in the haberdasher’s did not take place, that it is one of those “imaginary incidents” about which the film’s titles have the decency to warn us. I do not believe that an Old Vic actress would have screeched out the word “prick” in a fashionable Bond Street haberdashery in the 50’s—particularly since, in that decade, the word was still largely an Americanism. I also do not believe that a person would have mounted a screaming public defense of a British traitor in that period. In 1958 British troops had been (successfully) fighting a Communist insurgency in Malaya for a full decade under both Labor and Conservative governments, and the patriotism of World War II was still very much alive.

In the 30’s, it is worth recalling, the greatest of British music-hall entertainers was Gracie Fields, beloved, especially by Britain’s working classes, as “Our Gracie.” When the Luftwaffe bombs began to fall, however, Miss Fields, not even volunteering to entertain the troops, fled to America. The war over and the victory won, she returned to England and opened a new show at one of London’s largest music halls—to an empty house. She had abandoned her countrymen in their hour of need and they wouldn’t take her back. Her career was over. If feelings were this violent in 1945 about a mere entertainer, one can imagine the intensity of popular outrage when only six years later blaring London headlines announced that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two pampered children of Britain’s upper class, were Soviet agents and had defected to Moscow.

So An Englishman Abroad, produced by the BBC, tells us little about Britain of the 50’s but a great deal about Britain today, where treason seems to have been reduced to the level of a minor misdemeanor, entirely forgivable as an upper-class peccadillo—at least if committed by a gentleman with verve and the right sort of tailor. There is even something saucy and fetching about it, something rather stylish and U, as Nancy Mitford might say. An Englishman who betrayed his country used to be “the vilest creature known to man.” But no more, apparently. No more.


John le Carré (real name David Cornwell) has not concerned himself with treason in particular. He has made a career of writing spy thrillers denigrating Western intelligence services. When his The Spy Who Came in from the Cold appeared in 1963 (with a rapturous blurb from Graham Greene), the top of the line in spy fiction was Ian Fleming, whose James Bond series was the purest fluff. Le Carré provided a sharp contrast. In Fleming, intelligence “agents” wear evening clothes, drink champagne, gamble at elegant casinos, drive expensive cars. In le Carré, shabby men in seedy offices do demeaning work for squalid ends. Le Carré’s prose was, and has remained, lumpy, his dialogue leaden, his plots implausible, and his characters impossible, but a man who takes a gloomy view of the world recommends himself as a serious thinker, and le Carré was widely felt to have brought a kind of higher realism to espionage fiction. Long before the U.S. Congress began to impose legal limits on the operations of the Central Intelligence Agency, le Carré familiarized the reading public with the notion that Western intelligence services—the American even more than the British—were engaged in enterprises of a squalor and sordidness at least equal to those of the Soviet Union. (An element of perversity appears when we consider that le Carré has stated in conversation that he is a “frustrated British imperialist,” which seems to imply that envy and a twisted despair play roles here, too.)

In The Little Drummer Girl le Carré pulls out all the stops. Whereas his earlier espionage thrillers had concerned the British intelligence services, a community of which he was an alumnus, The Little Drummer Girl deals with the Israeli and Palestinian Arab services, organizations he could have known about only through reading and hearsay and which he consequently described exactly as they existed in his imagination. This turned out to be at least a partial mistake. Deprived of le Carre’s seeming authority when writing about British intelligence, The Little Drummer Girl had to stand on its own two feet as a work of literature, and the British press—at least the more or less conservative organs of the British press—gave it a long overdue slamming. While in America Time magazine saw fit to devote a major story to le Carré, in Britain the Times Literary Supplement called the book kitsch, the London Times compared it with the work of pop adventure writer Mary Stewart, and the Daily Telegraph described it brutally as “a failure,” adding that le Carré “takes himself . . . much too seriously.”


Walter Laqueur has contributed to these pages an analysis of le Carré’s work, including The Little Drummer Girl, on which I could hardly improve (“Le Carré’s Fantasies,” June 1983). The film made of the book, directed by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Slaughterhouse Five), is, alas, all too faithful to the original.

The central character, on whom everything turns, is one of the most absurd in recent memory: “Charlie” (Diane Keaton), a London actress and PLO groupie. One would think that an actress with the approximate politics of Vanessa Redgrave would make a rather poor prospect for recruitment by Israel’s Mossad, but those Zionist devils go after her nonetheless. Their stratagem is bewitching. A secret PLO operative gives a talk to a group of sympathizers in Nottingham, England. Charlie, who seems to make a habit of this sort of thing, feels her heart bleed, her knees turn to water; but the Palestinian, wearing a ski mask and a bright red blazer, slips off into the night. Several cranks of the plot later, Charlie, now in Athens, spies a man of Middle Eastern appearance wearing a bright red blazer. Knowing that any man in a red blazer must be “her” Palestinian, she makes rather bold advances, tugging him, as it were, toward the nearest bed.

But our Palestinian is a straight arrow and, after a bit of the Parthenon by moonlight, takes her to meet his comrades, led by Kurtz (Klaus Kinski). And darned if the whole pack of them don’t turn out to be Israelis. Kurtz is an Israeli. Joseph, the man in the red blazer, is an Israeli. Even the “Palestinian” in Nottingham was an Israeli. But they have doped out our heroine by means of some rough-and-ready psychology: poor, lonely, sexually promiscuous Charlie, what she really wants is a “family.” They offer her this family and, bam, Charlie throws in her lot with the Jewish people.

The Mossad operations group trusts this new recruit so completely that, as her first mission, she is sent to penetrate the Palestinian terror network and lead the Israelis to the master terrorist of them all, Khalil (French actor Sami Frey). Charlie accomplishes this in about forty-five shakes of a lamb’s tail (tedious plot and counter-plot), the only problem being that she now falls in love with Khalil and sleeps with him, too. Khalil, Joseph, Joseph, Khalil. What’s a poor girl looking for a family to do? First she falls in love with Joseph because she thinks he’s a Palestinian. Then he turns into an Israeli, but it’s okay because he’s got a family. Then she falls in love with Khalil because the Palestinians have a family, too, and also he’s cute. But it’s all so senseless! And Charlie feels it is true tragedy when the Israelis blow Khalil away.

But she is not alone! Romance is not dead! Joseph defects! Back in England, rehearsing a play, a broken woman, Charlie casts her eye to the back of the empty theater, and there is Joseph. “I don’t know the difference between right and wrong any more,” he says portentously, to which Miss Keaton replies, with the magnificent silliness of an actress far, far beyond her depth, “I’m dead, Jose. You killed me, remember?” After which deep closing line, the two of them walk off into the gloaming.

Compared with the book, the film seems fairly muted on the issue of where justice lies as between Israel and the PLO. Many a moviegoer, not dwelling overlong on the meaning of Joseph’s not knowing the difference between right and wrong any more, may not take in the fact that he has deserted both the Mossad and his country, something that is made quite explicit in the book. Le Carré’s own official comment on The Little Drummer Girl is that it is saying, “A pox on both your houses.” This, however, is nonsense, and in the same logical category as crying, “A pox on all nuclear weapons!” while calling on only the West to disarm (confident, naturally, that the Soviet Union will follow suit).

Moreover, to confine myself to the movie, Klaus Kinski—although an actor of some power—has never played a sympathetic role in his life, nor does he here as Kurtz. Sami Frey (Brigitte Bardot’s ex-fiancé) is a matinée idol, and charming. The Israelis conform fairly closely to the Nazi model (the name “Kurtz” hardly spoiling that impression) and many of the Palestinians, among them Khalil, seem quite idealistic. Both sides are violent, but we see the Israelis’ victims. There is no doubt about it, Warner Brothers has made America’s first forthrightly anti-Israel movie. It is dropping like a stone all over the country.


This leaves me with the problem of America’s movie critics, who, with the highly honorable exceptions of the New York Times and Time, are in the odd position of having fallen into raptures over a film that is both bad and a failure. It has been widely reported that American journalists are substantially to the Left of the American people; I submit that American film critics are, in their ecstatic way, far to the Left of other U.S. journalists. I have before me a full-page advertisement for The Little Drummer Girl, consisting largely of eulogistic quotes from eleven major reviewers. It is perhaps no surprise that Newsweek‘s reviewer should have found the film “the most riveting movie of the year,” or that the reviewer for the Village Voice should have found it “tense and provocative.” But the critic for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, a paper hardly guilty of indulgence toward the Left, or of being anti-Israel, also thought it was “gripping and powerful, riveting entertainment,” while the critic of the Daily News (which endorsed Ronald Reagan for President) felt it was “thrilling, involving, brilliantly done. . . . I was riveted to the screen from beginning to end.”

But the most bizarre review of all appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper whose remarkably fine editorial pages are dedicated unswervingly to the advocacy of traditional, patriotic pro-Western positions. Israel probably has no more influential friend in the U.S. press than the Wall Street Journal. Yet the newspaper seems to resist tenaciously the notion that art in our age has become heavily politicized, feeling, I suppose, that it is “only culture” or perhaps “only entertainment.” In any event, the paper’s movie reviewer, Julie Salamon, wrote one of the most laudatory notices of The Little Drummer Girl in the entire country. At the end of a piece which affirms that John le Carré’s novel stirred up controversy because it treated Palestinians and Israelis “more or less with an even hand” (the book’s anti-Israel bias is naked), and which describes Klaus Kinski as playing Kurtz with a “frighteningly gentle cruelty,” Miss Salamon writes:

We see brutality, kindness, and fanaticism in both camps and are left with the message that this war is senseless and hopeless. This is certainly no great revelation, but it is enough to sustain a spy story where everything else works well. In The Little Drummer Girl, everything else works very well indeed.

The movie, as I have said, shows us substantially more fanaticism and brutality on the Israeli side, while kindness seems to be a Palestinian monopoly, with the exception of the Israeli, Joseph, who in the end defects. But, more important, the war between Palestinian and Israeli intelligence services is in actual fact not “senseless,” any more than the struggle between the U.S. and the USSR is “senseless,” and anyone who thinks it is should have an enforced course of reading in Clausewitz. Perhaps Miss Salamon has lost exactly what John le Carré has lost, a sense of the moral worth of our civilization—and that of Israel, so much a part of ours. But if that is true of a reviewer, what are we to make of American editors who publish such reviews but who have not for a moment forgotten the moral worth of our civilization?

A residual hangover from the days when we dominated a new continent unchallenged, plus a certain strain of philistinism, may make it hard for many Americans to recognize that contemporary culture is utterly permeated with ideology. Yves Montand, a French entertainer whose spectacular break with the Left has prompted wild if good-hearted speculation that he might become a new Ronald Reagan, once told me that he had never read a word of Karl Marx, but had been converted to Marxism by seeing Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet film classic, The Battleship Potemkin. Our opponents consider culture a battleground like any other. Yves Montand knows this. Shouldn’t we?



It is not universally realized that theatrical movies and television movies are an identical product, both shot on 35 mm. film stock, the only difference being that television movies are generally made on a smaller budget and are doomed to have their main showing on an inferior projection system Nonetheless, “regular” movies almost always end up on television, and exceptional television films, such as those of Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, frequently have a “theatrical release” in foreign countries.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.