My first visit to Trump-era US involved visiting various extended family, predominantly of an elderly, Catholic, and conservative persuasion. Upon arrival in Virginia, following an 18-hour door-to-door journey, several newly purchased paperback non-fiction books were thrust upon me as welcoming gifts. Amongst these was Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, the story of the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew that won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, narrowly beating a German team in the final. Due to certain familial connections with several of the crew (a great uncle was coached by the cox and one of the oarsmen at MIT in the 1940s, and would later embark on a failed business venture with another), it was gently insisted that I read, and finish, this book by the end of the week. Confident in my ability to ‘read’ (i.e. scan) and digest material quickly, and not being one to shirk from a challenge (much like American rowers racing against Nazis), I duly accepted.
Brown’s book presents the US crew’s rise from depression-era working class America, to Hitler-conquering champions in a familiar Rocky-esque narrative. More interesting than the inevitable underdog triumph are the details of life in the Pacific Northwest during The Great Depression and the efforts of Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl to turn the Olympics into a coup for Nazi public relations. Goebbels and Riefenstahl saw rowing as a useful symbol for fascist ideals, particularly the eight-man crew. Muscular bodies coiling and uncoiling in unison so to propel a sleek craft rhythmically and smoothly through the water – all under the direction of a weaker coxswain, tuning the crew with oratorical power – stood as a fitting synecdoche for their vision of German society. Thus, amongst all the other fetishism of the physical form in Riefenstahl’s Olympia, the rowing footage is defined by rippling biceps, faces contorted in a mix of agony and ecstasy, and the guttural commands of the cox.
The book presents a central contest between American working class spirit and Germanic efficiency which is troubled by the prominent part played by George Yeoman Pocock – rowing sage and University of Washington boat builder. As described in the book, whilst growing up in a working-class family in Kingston-Upon-Thames, Pocock affected an upper-class English accent – a fact that does not mesh with the crew’s supposed embodiment of their humble roots. Begining each chapter with an epigraph of rowing philosophy taken from Pocock’s biography, Brown includes such Mr Miyagi-isms as ‘the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them’. Others approach a body fetishism and aestheticism that is no less fascist than anything in Olympia, or in the work of artists like Gabriele D’Annunzio and Yukio Mishima:
One of the first admonitions of a good rowing coach, after the fundamentals are over, is ‘pull your own weight’, and the young oarsman does just that when he finds out that the boat goes better when he does. There is certainly a social implication here.
Good thoughts have much to do with good rowing. It isn’t enough for the muscles of a crew to work in unison; their hearts and minds must also be as one.
Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.
Like Goebbels and Riefenstahl, Pocock realised the symbolic power of rowing as a metaphor for a certain type of society: one that valued cohesive cooperation, total commitment to shared ideals, and sculpted bodies. Riefenstahl was happy to include the US eights victory in Olympia as rowing itself, rather than simply German rowing, presented an ideal which Nazi Germany was to strive towards in all facets of society.
This solidified for me a notion that I have held for a while: competitive rowing can be a metonym for fascism. A thought that has played upon my mind ever since David Fincher’s The Social Network. The film tells the story about the rise and rise (and the crushing loneliness) of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), in the form of a creation myth narrative intercut with scenes from a lawsuit brought against Zuckerberg by twin beefcakes Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (a digitally duplicated Armie Hammer). The Winklevosses claimed that Zuckerberg pilfered intellectual property and source code from their own embryonic social network whilst all three were attending Harvard. Not only are the twins astute entrepreneurs, they are also chiselled physical specimens stripped from Wagner and Hitler’s wildest dreams – ‘I’m 6’5”, 220 pounds, and there’s two of me’, claims Tyler. They were also Olympic rowers. This mix of brains and brawn is emblematic of the old Italian fascist slogan: Libro e moschetto, fascista perfetto [Book and musket, perfect Fascist].
One of The Social Network’s central scenes involves the twins’ participation in a Harvard eights crew race at the Henley Royal Regatta. As in Olympia’s rowing sequences, Fincher pays close attention to bulging muscles, the obvious arousal of the spectators, and most overtly: the agony/ecstasy evident on the grimacing faces of the rowers – the spirit of the sport that George Pocock espoused. Tellingly, both the Nazis in 1936 and the Winklevoss twins in 2004, lose.
The most striking aspect of the Regatta scene is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ dominant score. They provide a brooding, squelchy, synth-driven industrial cover of Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King (which Fincher requested should emulate Wendy Carlos’ Moog-performed covers of classical music that Stanley Kubrick used in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining).
Grieg’s original music was composed to accompany Henrik Ibsen’s stylistically eclectic play Peer Gynt. Grieg aimed to match Ibsen’s smorgasbord of styles with his incidental score, and In the Hall of the Mountain King was itself intended as a parody of jingoistic Norwegian attitudes. Grieg wrote ‘For the Hall of the Mountain King I have written something that so reeks of cowpats, ultra-Norwegianism, and “to-thyself-be-enough-ness” that I can’t bear to hear it, though I hope that the irony will make itself felt.’
But whilst Grieg intended the piece to be so ludicrously nationalistic as to be satirical, its legacy has diverged from this original purpose, at least partly due its use in cinema. Perhaps the most famous deployment of In the Hall of the Mountain King, prior to The Social Network, are in D. W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Fritz Lang’s M (1931). In the former the music was used without a hint of Grieg’s irony during the Union’s attack on the Confederacy. Here, the music simply paints the Union soldiers as threatening to the honourable army of the South. This, remember, is a film where the Klu Klux Klan are the heroes. In M, the main melody of the piece is the sinister refrain whistled by the child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). Once again, the music signifies a sinister threat. M ends with Beckert being tried for his crimes by a kangaroo court of criminals, a scene that pre-empts the mob justice that would become prevalent in Hitler’s Germany.
In the Hall of the Mountain King was written as a riposte to Aryan mythmaking and nationalism, yet became symbolic of that movement due its appropriation by cinema. When Reznor and Ross created their own electronic pastiche of the piece this should have turned it into a fascist tune (rhythmic, mechanised, relentless). But as the meaning of the music had already been altered in the public consciousness, Reznor and Ross end up satirising those who took Grieg’s original parody seriously, and thus restoring the piece’s original meaning. In choosing In the Hall of the Mountain King to score this scene, Fincher is openly mocking the fascist sensibilities of the Winklevoss Twins, and by extension, the entitled technocrats/entrepreneurs of contemporary Western society (a fact that is compounded by Harvard losing the race).
No matter how Daniel Brown and George Pocock frame it, competitive rowing remains the domain of the elite, and is emblematic of fascist aesthetics. ‘Fascist’ is a much used (and much misused) label in our current political climate. Presumably, most people do not wish to be associated with the term, but we should acknowledge the extent to which we consume and take pleasure from fascistic material. Hence the popularity of rowing (and indeed many sports) and the popularity of The Boys in the Boat. This is sanitised and permitted fascism masquerading as anti-fascism. Brown’s book is passed around by my family like Mein Kampf, and thus I am indoctrinated. Off I goosestep to play In the Hall of the Mountain King on my bassoon (without a hint of irony).