20 August 2010

The Hangman - 1964 Animated Version of Maurice Ogden's Powerful Poem

You may well remember this poem from your high school days (if you are of a certain age) and it is something to which those in a liberal education environment were exposed. It seems somehow to have been lost in the rush to follow curricula perhaps considered more modern, which is a great shame.  The poem in its simplistic power is easy enough for ten year olds to take in the ramifications of its message..

This marvellous animation, a real blast from the past, is the 1964 animated version of the poem, created by Les Goldman and Paul Julian. Herschel Bernardi is the narrator. The film was a co-winner of the Silver Sail award at the Locarno International Film Festival in 1964.

The story is quite simple as it the somewhat dated animation techniques (which do give it a real flavor of its time and place however).  A hangman who arrives in a small town and begins to execute its citizens one by one. As each citizen is led to the gallows, the rest are afraid to object out of fear that they will be next. Ultimately there is nobody left in the town apart from the Hangman and the poem's narrator. The narrator is then executed by the hangman as there is no one left who will defend him.

The poem is about about acquiescence to the state when it begins to oppress others. Some though that Ogden was referring to The Holocaust, others yet thought that he was delivering a metaphorical critique of McCarthyism. If he indeed wrote about anything specific it is not necessary to know the absolute specifics as we must interpret the work for our own time. With that in mind, the poem has lost none of its powers.

"Dead," I whispered. And amiably
"Murdered," the Hangman corrected me:
"First the foreigner, then the Jew...
I did no more than you let me do."