The 39 Steps (1935)

A category of my favorite cinematic experience is the ‘innocent man on the run’ genre that Alfred Hitchcock pioneered. While North By Northwest (1959) is my favorite Hitch film of this genre, The 39 Steps (1935) is another great film in the genre, especially for being pre-noir and relatively early cinema. From Wikipedia:

The 39 Steps is a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, the film is about a man in London who tries to help a counter-espionage agent prevent an organisation of spies called The 39 Steps from stealing top secret information. When the agent is killed and he stands accused of the murder, he goes on the run with an attractive woman to save himself and stop the spy ring.

Of the four major film versions of the novel, Hitchcock’s film has been the most acclaimed. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked it the fourth best British film of the 20th century; In 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British movie of all time, and in 2011 named it the second greatest Best Book to Movie Adaptation.

Scottish author John Buchan used the Richard Hannay character (the ‘innocent man on the run’ protagonist) in at least five other novels. In The Thirty-Nine Steps (the full text of the novel can be found here), streams of plot integral to the villainy Hannay is attempting to stop involve a Jewish plot to start a war between Germany and Russia (note that this book came out in 1915), a plotline completely excised from the Hitchcock film.  From Ch. 1 are the following passages spoken by the character of Scudder:

  • “Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland; besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.”
  • “Do you wonder?” he cried. “For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the back stairs to find him.
  • “Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von Und zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog.

Summarizing it nicely, one blogger writes:

Indeed Hannay was in many respects the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, but Hannay is from a different era. He is deeply Presbyterian; as was Buchan himself, and for the kind of British public school values of honesty, fair play plus King and country that seem a quaint anachronism to the modern reader. Hannay; as Bond was and is, is a rather two dimensional character and Buchan’s writing to the modern eye; like Fleming’s, is rather lack in subtly and variety although it would have appeared very differently to a reader of the time when adventure stories of this type were the equivalent of a popular sitcom today.

Hannay; as I have intimated, was very much a product of his time and held somewhat conventional views, but he also exhibits some rather unorthodox ones for his time: particularly his stance on jewish question as well as the roles that jews play in the five John Hannay novels. It is perhaps amazing for a modern reader to realise that in these five novels: a jew is never once a positive character and is actually; if not the primary antagonist, one of the main enemies that Hannay faces in ‘Greenmantle’, ‘Mr. Standfast’ and ‘The Three Hostages’, which are the second to fourth novels respectively. In the first (‘The Thirty Nine Steps’) and the fifth (‘The Island of Sheep’) the jews are more incidental to the plot: however in ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ in particular the jew is directly cast as an enemy of civilisation and the cause of the war.

In ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ Franklin Scudder; a free agent working with the British Secret Service Bureau, remarks to Hannay that in Europe there was a ‘big subterranean movement going on, engineered by dangerous people’ and that this movement was composed of ‘educated anarchists’ who Scudder openly identifies as being jews.

Indeed Scudder talks about how the jews seek to achieve two things: jewish rule through anarchism/socialism and making the maximum amount of profit as capitalists through the war and the revolution (particularly between Germany and Russia). The eerie parallel with the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion does not end there as Buchan makes Scudder say the following prophetic paragraph:

‘Everything would be in the melting-pot, and they looked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.’

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