By the mid-1970s, Steve McQueen could do no wrong in the Hollywood film industry. Since 1960’s ‘The Magnificent Seven’ he had been one of the most popular actors going around, his machismo, good looks and charisma made him appealing to both male and female filmgoers. Even the upheaval in the film industry in the late 1960s/early 1970s and takeover of ‘New Hollywood’ didn’t impact his popularity.
And yet, McQueen clearly aspired to do more serious and substantial work, and be taken more seriously as an actor. Following 1974’s The Towering Inferno, he didn’t appear in a film for four years as he aspired and fought to make a film he really wanted to make – a film version of Henrik Ibsen’s famed 19th century play ‘An Enemy Of The People’.
Commercially the film was a disaster as he had trouble getting it made on an even limited budget due to the film going against his popular persona. And when it was finally made, the studio had so little faith in it they barely released it and it sunk without trace.
But while it was a commercial failure, how does the film stand up artistically. Does it justify McQueen’s belief that it was the film he was most proud of?
Set in a small town in Norway in the late 19th century, the plot centres on the family of respected doctor Thomas Stockmann (Steve McQueen). He discovers that the town’s new health spa baths (which are expected to bring prosperity to the town) are sourced with contaminated, poisoned water. Instead of being seen as a hero, he is turned into a pariah due to his conniving brother and mayor of the town (Charles Durning) and radical ‘supporters’ like a newspaper editor (Michael Cristofer) who turn against him when the pressure is on. But despite the total hostility and pressure, Thomas Stockmann isn’t a man easily broken.
At first glance, it’s easy to see why the studio had little faith in ‘An Enemy Of the People’. Not only is it a low-budget movie, it looks like a low-budget film as at times it feels like a filmed version of the play. That the director of the film – George Schaefer – largely had a career in television makes itself felt as there’s never a real cinematic feel to the film.
Despite the stodgy style of the film, there is much to enjoy. A film like this gives a lot of acting opportunities and they are taken up with relish. The standout performance is by Charles Durning as McQueen’s brother. In a lengthy career where he tended to play harsh authority figures or affable older men, this performance is highly atypical. He gives a marvellous characterisation of a conniving bureaucrat; in not just his gestures and words but even his body language there is always a level of calculation and dubiousness. But Durning never lets his performance slide into caricature, making the impact all the more powerful. Over his impressive career, this is arguably Durning’s finest performance.
McQueen’s performance as Thomas Stockmann is also impressive on multiple levels. As a characterisation, he manages to convincingly create a persona of someone who puts himself and his family in such a horrible position. He is dedicated and honest but lacks tact and his naivety means he doesn’t see the pitfalls in the relentlessness of his integrity on such a volatile situation. He lacks all the political maneuvering and manipulation that his brother has so that while he’s a much more noble character, he is doomed to losing the battle with him.
And McQueen’s performance is also impressive in that he’s actually attempting at all. He could’ve easily coasted on his career success in movies (until his early death in 1980) playing the same type of roles but with this he clearly wants to challenge his acting capabilities. It could be argued more skilled actors could’ve delivered more commanding and textured performances but McQueen brings his own effort and intensity to the role, as if aware this would be his only a chance at such a meaty part. It’s not his defining performance, but it’s his most admirable one.
But of course the great strength of AEOTP is that it’s based on a classic play full of thought-provoking ideas. Particularly so in the impassioned speech Thomas Stockmann gives to a hostile townsfolk about how the saying ‘the majority is always right’ is a falsehood. Well delivered by McQueen, it’s the high point of the film.
Overall, AEOTP isn’t a great film and it’s understandable why it failed to make an impact upon its release. In many ways it was probably more suited for television. But it’s a fine film overall and I’m glad McQueen was prepared to make it.