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George Grosz, “Explosion,” via Centenaire.org

“Monstrous Chapters of History”

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George Grosz, “Explosion,” via Centenaire.org

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 187th installment in the series.

June 18, 1915: “Monstrous Chapters of History”

On June 18, 1915, the novelist Henry James wrote to his friend Sir Compton Mackenzie, accompanying the Allied forces as an observer at Gallipoli, to congratulate him on his forthcoming novel, some years in the works. But in his letter James couldn’t conceal a deep-seated unease about the implications of the Great War for art and literature produced before the cataclysm—now seemingly a bygone era, though ended only a year before. Would their older work still be relevant, James wondered, in the wake of

… that violence of rupture with the past which makes me ask myself what will have become of all that material we were taking for granted, and which now lies there behind us like some vast damaged cargo dumped upon a dock and unfit for human purchase or consumption. I seem to fear that I shall find myself seeing your recently concluded novel as through a glass darkly… by which time God knows what other monstrous chapters of history won’t have been perpetrated!

A few weeks later and a thousand miles away, on July 8, 1915 a German soldier, Gotthold von Rohden, wrote to his parents:

It seems to me as if we who are face to face with the enemy are loosed from every bond that used to hold us; we stand quite detached, so that death may not find any ties to cut painfully through. All our thoughts and feelings are transformed, and if I were not afraid of being misunderstood I might almost say we are alienated from all the people and things connected with our former life.

James and Rohden were hardly alone in identifying a “rupture” with the past, entailing the loss of contact with a prewar world that was now somehow defunct, and a new awareness of a deeper reality, at once primitive and profound. In October 1914 Rowland Strong, an Englishman living in France, noted: “The people whom I meet on the boulevards are becoming more and more possessed with the idea which has struck me so persistently, that the war marks the beginning of a new epoch… This applies not only to literature and the spoken word generally, but to every phase of life.”  In August 1915 Sarah Macnaughtan, a British volunteer nurse, stated simply in her diary: “Nothing matters much now. The former things are swept away, and all the old barriers are disappearing. Our old gods of possession and wealth are crumbling, and class distinctions don't count, and even life and death are pretty much the same thing.”

While some changes proved fleeting, others endured, leaving a world radically different than the one that existed before the war—and contemporaries were keenly aware of the transformation taking place around them. Indeed many spoke of an entirely “new world,” with wide-ranging effects on society, culture, religion, politics, economy, gender relations, and generational dynamics, among other things. But the root cause of it all was war’s first and most obvious effect: sheer destruction.

“Every One Has Lost Some One”

In her diary entry for June 18, 1915, Mary Dexter, an American volunteer nurse in Britain, summed up the experience on the home front: “It is so awful now—every one has lost some one."

By any standard the numbers were shocking. Among the Central Powers, by the end of June 1915 Germany had probably suffered roughly 1.8 million casualties, including around 400,000 killed. Meanwhile Austria-Hungary’s total casualties topped 2.1 million, including over half a million dead. Figures are harder to find for the Ottoman Empire, but between the defeat at Sarikamish and the continuing hard-fought defensive victory at Gallipoli (not to mention reverses in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as rampant disease) total casualties were probably approaching half a million, with well over a hundred thousand killed.

On the Allied side France, which bore the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front in the first year, had suffered over 1.6 million casualties by the end of June 1915, including over half a million dead. As the British Expeditionary Force massively ramped up in size U.K. losses were also mounting rapidly in 1915, hurried by the desperate defense at the Second Battle of Ypres and bloody defeats at Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge: at the middle of the year total casualties were around 300,000, including almost 80,000 killed. In the throes of the continuing Great Retreat Russia was suffering worst of all, with a mind-boggling 3.5 million casualties and a death toll approaching 700,000 (Italy, which joined hostilities at the end of May 1915, had casualties in the mere tens of thousands, although they would skyrocket with the First Battle of the Isonzo, beginning June 23, 1915).

Crunching the numbers, altogether in mid-1915 the Central Powers’ casualties came to around 4.4 million, including over a million dead, while Allied casualties amounted to 5.4 million, with 1.3 million dead. Put another way, in less than a year of fighting Europe’s Great Powers had suffered roughly four times as many deaths as the United States did during all four years of the Civil War.

“The Genie of War”

Most ordinary people now realized that there was no end in sight. On March 29, 1915 Kate Finzi, a British volunteer nurse, wrote in her diary: “To us any condition of ‘apres la guerre’ has become unthinkable. Sometimes it seems it must be the end of the world.” In a letter to her fiancée Roland Leighton written June 15, 1915, British volunteer nurse Vera Brittain predicted, “the war will be so long that the last people who go to the front will have as much of it as they care about… I don’t see what can end anything so tremendous.”

Indeed there was a general sense—terrifying but also strangely liberating—that the war had spiraled out of control, assuming dimensions that simply overwhelmed humanity’s capacity to understand or direct events; in short, it had taken on a life of its own. In May 1915 Madame Edouard Drumont, the wife of a French politician, wrote in her diary, “the Genie of war is loose, and is devouring everything; he rules the elements. It is horrible, and yet somehow magnificent.” Many participants likened it to a natural disaster: on July 10, 1915, an Indian soldier, Sowar Sohan Singh, wrote home, “The state of things here is indescribable. There is a conflagration all round, and you must imagine it to be like a dry forest in a high wind in the hot weather… No one can extinguish it but God himself—man can do nothing.”

Others pictured the war as a massive machine, reflecting its modern, industrial character. In mid-1915 Frederick Palmer, an American correspondent on the Western Front, wrote:

One sees the war as a colossal dynamo, where force is perpetual like the energy of the sun. The war is going on forever. The reaper cuts the harvest, but another harvest comes. War feeds on itself, renews itself. Live men replace the dead. There seems no end to supplies of men. The pounding of the guns, like the roar of Niagara, becomes eternal. Nothing can stop it.

The war’s scale and complexity defied comprehension, and ordinary people’s feelings of powerlessness and ignorance were further amplified by the lack of hard news, as censorship and propaganda made it almost impossible to tell what was really going on beyond one’s immediate surroundings. In March 1915 a French officer, Rene Nicolas, noted: “We are narrowed down to our own sector, and know practically nothing of what is happening outside.” Similarly a British officer stationed in Flanders, A.D. Gillespie, wrote in May 1915: “The game is so big that we can never see more than a little bit at one time…” And Mildred Aldrich, an American living in a village east of Paris, confided in a letter to a friend on August 1, 1915: “At the end of the first year of the war the scene has stretched out so tremendously that my poor tired brain can hardly take it in. I suppose it is all clear to the general staff, but I don't know. To me it all looks like a great labyrinth…”

In the vacuum left by official censorship, rumors ran rampant. In his play The Last Days of Mankind, the Viennese critic and playwright Karl Kraus painted a satirical sketch of the rumor mill, with the character “Subscriber” (who is usually seen reading a newspaper despite the lack of news in it) noting: “The rumor circulating in Vienna is that there are rumors circulating in Austria… The government explicitly warns against believing the rumors or spreading them and calls upon each individual to participate most energetically in suppressing them. Well, I do what I can; wherever I go, I say, who pays attention to rumors?”

Face to Face with Death

The endless, incomprehensible war traumatized soldiers and civilians alike, but for obvious reasons men at the front were the most directly affected. Most soldiers witnessed the death of friends and companions, and some also saw their own family members killed in front of their eyes. In May 1915 an anonymous British volunteer nurse wrote in her diary:

Here is a true story. One of our trenches at Givenchy was being pounded by German shells at the time of N. Ch. [Neuve Chapelle]. A man saw his brother killed on one side of him and another man on the other. He went on shooting over the parapet; then the parapet got knocked about, and still he wasn’t hit. He seized his brother's body and the other man’s and built them up into the parapet with sandbags, and went on shooting. When the stress was over and he could leave off, he looked round and saw what he was leaning against. “Who did that?” he said. And they told him.

In the trenches men spent long periods literally staring death in the face, as they watched bodies decompose just a few yards away in no man’s land. J.H. Patterson, a British officer at Gallipoli, confided: “One of the worst trials of trench warfare is to see the dead body of a comrade lying out in the open, gradually fading away before one’s eyes, a mummified hand still clutching the rifle, the helmet a little way off, looking ever so weird in its gruesome surroundings.” Sometimes their duties required physical contact with the dead: in Flanders, in mid-May 1915 a German soldier, Alois Schnelldorfer, wrote his parents, “500 Englishmen lie dead near us just over the front line, black in the face and stinking up to a kilometer away. They are horrible to see and yet men on patrol missions have to crawl close by them and even grope their way among them!”

Soldiers often came across corpses and skeletons while digging new trenches, or when old trenches flooded and collapsed. During periods when it was impossible to leave the trench because of enemy fire, dead bodies were frequently interred in the side or bottom of the trench. One anonymous ANZAC soldier wrote in his diary: “We are living practically on a big graveyard. Our dead are buried anywhere and everywhere—even in the trenches.”

Dead bodies left in no man’s land were subjected to relentless shelling, with grotesque results. In July 1915 Leslie Buswell, an American volunteering with the French ambulance service, recalled meeting French soldiers going to the front:

I could not tell them that they were going to a place where between their trench and the German trench were hundreds of mangled forms, once their fellow-citizens,– arms, legs, heads, scattered disjointedly everywhere; and where all night and all day every fiendish implement of murder falls by the hundred—into their trenches or on to those ghastly forms,—some half rotted, some newly dead, some still warm, some semi-alive, stranded between foe and friend,– and hurls them yards into the air to fall again with a splash of dust, as a rock falls into a lake. All this is not exaggerated. It is the hideous truth, which thousands of men have to witness day and night.

Coping with Humor

Soldiers suffering profound psychological trauma tried to cope as best they could, which often meant focusing on the sheer absurdity of their situation. In many cases they reached a tacit agreement to use humor to avoid acknowledging the horror surrounding them. In November 1914 a British officer in Flanders, Captain Colwyn Phillips, wrote to his mother: “We get some pretty good fun all the same and repeat every joke a hundred times… In our mess we never allow any mention of anything depressing…”

Unsurprisingly soldiers resorted to gallows humor to insulate themselves from reality, including jokes that in ordinary circumstances would be considered in shockingly poor taste. Leonard Thompson, a British soldier in Gallipoli, recalled limbs sticking out from the walls of the trenches: “Hands were the worst: they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging—even waving! There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying ‘Good morning’, in a posh voice. Everybody did it.” Judging by other accounts this macabre “joke” was common on all fronts of the war.

But even gallows humor had its limits. The English poet Robert Graves wrote in his diary on June 9, 1915:

Today… I saw a group bending over a man lying at the bottom of the trench. He was making a snoring noise mixed with animal groans. At my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before; I somehow regarded them as a poetical figment. One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke that sounds like a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at 20 yards’ range.

Fatalism

It was impossible not to notice the arbitrary nature of fate, as shells landed apparently at random, narrowly missing one man and killing another because of a difference of a few seconds or feet.  The British war correspondent Philip Gibbs admitted it was fascinating “to see how death takes its toll in an indiscriminate way—smashing a human being into pulp a few yards away and leaving oneself alive… How it picks and chooses, taking a man here and leaving a man there by just a hair’s-breadth of difference.”

Some soldiers came to evince total disinterest in their own existence, verging on nihilism. Donald Hankey, a British student who volunteered, wrote home on June 4, 1915: “But at present, sitting in a trench with the bullets pattering round, and the possibilities of mines and bombs and things, one feels that it is rather rash to talk about ‘after the war,’ and one has an odd feeling that, after all, one only has a sort of reversionary interest in one’s own life!”

This fatalistic attitude also gave rise to a dark pastime in the form of a sweepstakes before battles, as described by Graves: “Before a show, the platoon pools all its available cash and the survivors divide it up afterwards. Those who are killed can’t complain, the wounded would have given far more that to escape as they have, and the unwounded regard the money as a consolation prize for still being here.” Also called “tontines,” after a form of annuity, these schemes appealed to the widespread love of gambling among enlisted men: before the landing at Gallipoli, one anonymous ANZAC soldier recalled “Some of the chaps making a book on the event, and laying odds on the chances of the takers getting through the slather-up unharmed. Others tossing up to see if certain of their mates will finish up in heaven or hell!”

Soldiers at the front did their best to prepare their loved ones for the likelihood of their own demise, although they realized that there was little they could say or do to blunt its impact. On May 30, 1915, Lieutenant Owen William Steele of the Canadian Newfoundland Regiment wrote to his wife to expect the worst: “When we go to the front, it will not be one Newfoundlander today, and one to-morrow, &c., but suddenly you may hear of a whole Company being wiped out…” Three days later a French officer, Andre Cornet-Auquier, wrote a letter to his sister in which he stated matter-of-factly, “I shall probably never know your husband or your children. All that I ask is that some day you will take them on your knees, and, showing them the portrait of their uncle, as a captain, will tell them that he died for your country and in part for theirs too.”

It was especially difficult for men who were themselves grieving over loved ones but also unable to comfort their families—particularly when they were so far away that there was no possibility of returning home on leave. One Sikh soldier wrote home to India on January 18, 1915: “Tell my mother not to go wandering madly because her son, my brother, is dead. To be born and to die is God’s order. Some day we must die, sooner or later, and if I die here, who will remember me? It is a fine thing to die far from home. A saint said this, and, as he was a good man, it must be true.”

At the same time, relatively few soldiers embraced the heroic ideal of selfless devotion found in propaganda—especially the clichéd notion that wounded men were eager to return to the fray. In January 1915 Dexter, the American nurse volunteering in Britain, wrote in a letter home: “They all ridicule the idea of wanting to go back—and say no sane man would.” Robert Pellissier, a French soldier stationed in Lorraine, wrote to an American friend on June 23, 1915: “The newspapers talk about men eager to get back to the firing line. Let me assure you that that’s confounded nonsense. Most of them are stoically indifferent, others are determined and also disgusted.”

Spiritual Casualties

On both sides the official religious line, endorsed by state churches and reinforced by propaganda, held that warfare wasn’t incompatible with Christianity, as all the belligerents claimed to be defending themselves against external aggression. In The Last Days of Mankind, Kraus skewered the self-righteous belligerence of sermons delivered by pro-war pastors, including one who assures his congregation:

This war is one of God’s judgments for the sins of the nations, and we Germans, together with our allies, are the executors of divine judgment. There can be no doubt but that the kingdom of God will be immensely furthered and strengthened by this war… Why were so many thousands of men wounded and crippled? Why did so many hundreds of soldiers become blind? Because God thereby wanted to save their souls!

As this mockery indicates many Europeans were skeptical, at least in private, about the concept of a “just war,” especially in light of atrocities against civilians, the use of “inhuman” weapons like poison gas, and the destruction of places of worship (below, a famous scene of the Madonna hanging from the steeple of the cathedral in the French city of Albert). Thus a common theme in letters and diaries from this period is the idea that European civilization had shamefully “turned its back” on the teachings of Jesus Christ.

A typical sentiment was expressed Mabel Dearmer, a British nurse volunteering in Serbia, who wrote in her diary on June 6, 1915: “What chance would Christ have today? Crucifixion would be a gentle death for such a dangerous lunatic.” And Robert Palmer, a British officer in the Indian Expeditionary Force in Mesopotamia, wrote to his mother in August 1915: “It is dreadful to think that we’ve all been denying our Christianity for a whole year and are likely to go on doing so for another. How our Lord’s heart must bleed for us! It appalls me to think of it."

Despite the assurances of spiritual authorities, some soldiers feared that their actions in combat offended God, jeopardizing their chances of salvation. This anxiety was reflected in religious folkways that often seemed to contradict the clergy’s attempts to reconcile war and religion. A German priest, Father Norbert, described seeing a makeshift altar built by Bavarian soldiers in late June 1915:

Only one thing was surprising, the pedestal of the altar cross. On it namely is a larger-than-life (1/2 m), beautifully painted Sacred Heart with a crown of thorns, and pierced by a Bavarian… bayonet bearing the sword knot of the 4th Company. As I attempted to criticize the depiction a bit and asked how the 4th Company had offended the Sacred Heart, the soldiers present were astounded at my ignorance about the symbols they had used. The heart pierced by a military bayonet was supposed to signify that the Sacred Heart had been insulted by the atrocities of war…

These trends weren’t confined to ostensibly Christian nations: the Ottoman Empire also saw growing disillusionment with official Islam, or at least the state-sanctioned Muslim clergy, who were once again unfailingly pro-war. Ordinary Turks were particularly skeptical about the proclamation of “holy war” against the “infidels”—a naked attempt to use religion as ideology (and blatantly inconsistent, considering the empire’s allies Germany and Austria-Hungary were also “infidels”). Adil Shahin, a Turkish soldier at Gallipoli, remembered how Muslim clerics buttressed the authority of the state:

We had hodjas [priests] in the trenches. They would talk to the soldiers and say, “Well, this is how God had ordained it. We must preserve our country, protect it.” They told them they had to carry out their ablutions and say their prayers regularly. We’d pray five times a day—morning, noon, afternoon, evening, and night. If it coincided with the fighting, of course, the prayers would be put off until later.

In fact there was a widespread sense of spiritual and moral decline across the Ottoman Empire. In June 1915 an American diplomat in Constantinople, Lewis Einstein, visited an elderly Turkish aristocrat who “deplores the atheism of the young generation. He himself often visits his parents’ tombs, but feels certain that none of his sons will go to his grave. He is terribly pessimistic over the situation… Turkey was ruined.

Beauty in Wartime

As Henry James wrote in his letter to Mackenzie, the rupture with the past would also have a sweeping impact on culture, although it still wasn’t clear what the new art and literature would look like—or even if these idle pursuits could survive in the brutal new world forged by the conflict. But one thing was clear: the elevated, refined culture of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, focused above all on beauty and fine feeling, was dead and buried. Kate Finzi, a British nurse, wrote in January 1915: “Yet, in truth, poetry no longer matters, art no longer matters, music no longer matters to most of us; nothing really matters save life and death and the end of this carnage. Nor will the old regime, the old art, the old literature ever again satisfy those who have seen red and faced life shorn of its trappings of superficiality and conventions.”

Indeed, in the midst of mankind’s ugliness, some called into question the very idea that beauty mattered or even existed. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat and living in Germany, casually noted in her diary: “We arrived at Kissingen on June 20. It is a beautifully peaceful spot, but as there is no peace to be had anywhere, what difference does it really make whether the surroundings are pretty or not?” But the aesthetic impulse ran deep, and others continued to find beauty in wartime – and even in war itself. A German soldier, Herbert Jahn, wrote to his parents on May 1, 1915:

Yesterday evening I was sitting in the ivy-arbour outside our dug-out. The moon shone brightly into my mug. Beside me was a full bottle of wine. From a distance came the muffled sound of a mouth-organ. Only now and then a bullet whistled through the trees. It was the first time I had noticed there can be some beauty in war – that it has its poetic side… Since then I have felt happy; I have realized that the world is just as beautiful as ever; that not even this war can rob us of Nature, and as long as I still have that I cannot be altogether unhappy!

As the Christmas Truce of 1914 showed, shared appreciation of beauty was one of the main ways that soldiers on opposite sides of the war could relate to each other and recognize each other’s humanity. Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, noted in his diary on August 13, 1915:

One of the next starlit summer nights, a decent Landwehr chap came up suddenly and said to 2/Lt Reinhardt, “Sir, it’s that Frenchie over there singing again so wonderful.” We stepped out of the dug-out into the trench, and quite incredibly, there was a marvelous tenor voice ringing out through the night with an aria from Rigoletto. The whole company were standing in the trench listening to the “enemy,” and when he had finished, applauding so loud that the good Frenchman must certainly have heard it and is sure to have been moved by it in some way or other as much as we were by his wonderful singing.

On the other hand sometimes the most profound experience of beauty was solitary, as related by William Ewing, a chaplain at Gallipoli, on July 15, 1915:

… I went up the hill in the dark to watch for a little the flashing shell bursts, the white light of the star shells, the trail of light from the rockets, and the wavering fan of the great search-lights, all picked out in strange distinctness against the gloom. When I turned to come away, a thin, bright silver strip of moon hung in the transparent blue just over the hospital ship, which lay about a mile from the shore. Out of the darkness her lights shone with piercing radiance. You could not see the ship: only a high white light at the bow and stern, a row of green lights along her side, like a string of emeralds, with a great cross of red flaming in the center, all reflected in gleaming streaks wavering in the water. It gave one the impression of a great fairy lantern, hung on the moon, shining with almost unearthly beauty.

But appreciation was inevitably tempered by the juxtaposition of beauty with war’s horrors, and the knowledge that many beautiful things actually served destructive purposes. On the night of June 20, 1915, the novelist Edith Wharton witnessed a spectacular scene from the roof of a chateau in Flanders:

It was the queerest of sensations to push open a glazed door and find ourselves in a spectral painted room with soldiers dozing in the moonlight on polished floors, their kits stacked on the gaming tables. We passed through a big vestibule among more soldiers lounging in the half-light, and up a long staircase to the roof… The outline of the ruined towns had vanished and peace seemed to have won back the world. But as we stood there a red flash started out of the mist far off to the northwest; then another and another flickered up at different points of the long curve. “Luminous bombs thrown up along the lines,” our guide explained; and just then, at still another point a white light opened like a tropical flower, spread to full bloom and drew itself back into the night. “A flare,” we were told; and another white flower bloomed out farther down. Below us, the roofs of Cassel slept their provincial sleep, the moonlight picking out every leaf in the gardens; while beyond, those infernal flowers continued to open and shut along the curve of death.

See the previous installment or all entries. 

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15 Things You Might Not Know About One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
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Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which premiered on this day in 1975, won critical acclaim, box office success, and a shelf full of Oscars. But even if you love the complex exploration of life inside a 1960s psychiatric hospital, there are a few things you may not know about its behind-the-scenes story. 

1. CUSTOMS NEARLY DOOMED THE PROJECT. 

Despite the middling success of the 1963 stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel starring Kirk Douglas, Hollywood legend Douglas was dead set on adapting the story for the screen. Douglas contacted Czech director Miloš Forman about the project, promising to send Forman a copy of the book for his perusal. 

Douglas mailed Forman the novel, but the package was confiscated by Czechoslovakian customs and never reached the director. Unaware of the parcel’s fate, the filmmaker resented Douglas’ broken promise, and Douglas thought Forman rude for never bothering to confirm receipt of the novel. It took a decade to sort the mess out, and things only cleared up when Kirk’s son Michael Douglas took another crack at production and contacted Forman once more. 

2. ONE STUDIO WANTED TO CHANGE THE ENDING.

When producers were shopping the picture to studios, 20th Century Fox was interested, but with a catch. Fox would distribute the film, but only if the filmmakers would agree to rewrite the ending; the studio wanted McMurphy to live. Producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas wisely considered this a deal breaker, and United Artists eventually distributed the film.

3. JACK NICHOLSON AND LOUISE FLETCHER WERE NOT THE FIRST CHOICES FOR THEIR CHARACTERS. 


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When Kirk Douglas spearheaded the first attempt to bring One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to life on the big screen in the 1960s, he had intended to play the Randle Patrick McMurphy role himself, just as he had on stage. When production began in earnest 10 years later, Douglas was too old for the part, leaving director Forman to consider and contact the likes of Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, and (his personal favorite) Burt Reynolds before finally settling on Jack Nicholson.

A number of different actresses were considered for the role of Nurse Ratched, the film’s central antagonist, as well: Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, and Angela Lansbury were all in the running, before Louise Fletcher ultimately got the part. 

4. LOUISE FLETCHER CHANGED FORMAN’S VIEW ON THE CHARACTER. 

Forman’s original view of Nurse Ratched was as “the personification of evil,” a characterization that made Louise Fletcher a bad fit for the part in the filmmaker’s mind. As Fletcher pressed for the role, Forman’s perspective of Ratched evolved: “I slowly started to realize that it would be much more powerful if it’s not this visible evil,” he said. “That she’s only an instrument of evil. She doesn’t know that she’s evil. She, as a matter of fact, believes that she’s helping people.” This new take on the character paved the way for the official casting of Fletcher. 

5. SEVERAL OF THE FILM’S STARS WERE NOT ACTORS. 

Following the production team’s decision to use Oregon State Hospital as its shooting location, the producers hit on the idea of casting facility superintendent Dr. Dean Brooks as Dr. John Spivey, the doctor charged with assessing R. P. McMurphy’s psychological health. Brooks agreed to play what turned out to be a sizable role, though it would be the only acting job he would ever take. He also helped secure employment for many of his hospital’s patients as extras and crew members during production. 

Mel Lambert, another non-actor, was wrangled to play the harbormaster who protested McMurphy’s ad hoc fishing trip. What’s more, Lambert—a respected area businessman who had a strong relationship with the local Native American community—introduced the production team to Will Sampson, the 6-foot-5-inch-tall Muscogee painter who would make his acting debut as the major character Chief Bromden. 

6. THE STARS LIVED ON THE WARD DURING PRODUCTION. 


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All of the actors who played patients actually lived on the Oregon State Hospital psychiatric ward throughout production. The men personalized their sleeping quarters, spent their days on campus “get[ting] a sense of what it was to be hospitalized” (as actor Vincent Schiavelli put it), and interacting with real psychiatric patients. 

7. MANY SCENES WERE SHOT WITHOUT THE ACTORS’ KNOWLEDGE. 

To complete this realistic immersion, Forman led his performers in unscripted group therapy sessions in which he directed the actors to develop their characters’ psychological maladies organically. He would often capture footage of the actors, both in and out of character, without explicitly mentioning that the cameras were rolling. The film’s final cut includes a shot of a visibly irritated Fletcher reacting to a piece of direction fed to her by Forman. 

8. FORMAN AND NICHOLSON HAD A TREMENDOUS SPAT OVER THE FILM’S PLOT. 

While the intensity of the turmoil varies from rumor to rumor, reports from the set were consistent on one fact: The star refused to speak with Forman for a large chunk of the production process. Nicholson took issue with Forman’s suggestion that the hospital inmates would be an unruly bunch upon the initial arrival of McMurphy. Instead, the actor insisted that such disavowal of the medical staff’s authority should only begin after the introduction of McMurphy into their lives and routines. 

Although the version of the story that we see in the film today is more closely associated with Nicholson’s alleged reading, suggesting that Forman ultimately took his advice, Nicholson refused to interact with his director from that point forward. When the star and Forman needed to communicate with one another, they used cinematographer Bill Butler as a middleman. 

9. DANNY DEVITO CREATED AN IMAGINARY FRIEND DURING PRODUCTION. 


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Emotionally strained by a demanding shooting schedule that kept him 3000 miles from his future wife, Rhea Perlman, DeVito developed the coping mechanism of an imaginary friend with whom he would have nightly chats. Concerned that his own sanity might be slipping away, DeVito sought the advice of Dr. Brooks, who assured him that there was no reason to worry as long as DeVito could still identify the character as fictional. 

10. THE CREW WAS WORRIED ABOUT THE SANITY OF ONE CAST MEMBER.

While Dr. Brooks had no concerns about DeVito, he echoed the rest of the cast and crew’s apprehensions about the psychological state of Sydney Lassick, who played Charlie Cheswick. Lassick exhibited increasingly unpredictable and emotionally erratic behavior during his time in character, a pattern that culminated in a tearful outburst during his observation of the final scene between Nicholson and Sampson. Lassick became so overwhelmed during the scene that he had to be removed from set. 

11. FLETCHER TOOK OFF HER CLOTHES IN ORDER TO GET FRIENDLIER WITH HER CO-STARS.

Envious of the camaraderie her male costars had forged, and hoping to dispel any associations with her tyrannical character, Fletcher surprised the cast one evening by ripping off her dress on the crowded ward. Years later, the actress laughed about the display, saying, “‘I’ll show them I’m a real woman under here, you know.’ I think that must have been what I was thinking.” 

12. THE FISHING TRIP SCENE BARELY MADE IT INTO THE FILM. 

Initially, Forman was vocally opposed to including a scene that took place beyond the grounds of the hospital out of concerns that a temporary liberation would undercut the dramatic force of the film’s ending. In the end, Zaentz convinced Forman to shoot the fishing trip sequence. It was the final scene filmed and the only piece shot out of chronological order. 

One thing to look for in the fishing scene: A very subtle Anjelica Huston cameo. Huston, who was dating Nicholson during production, has a nonspeaking role as one of the spectators on the dock as McMurphy and his fellow patients steer the stolen boat back to shore. 


Warner Bros.

13. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST WAS THE FIRST FILM TO WIN ALL “BIG FIVE” ACADEMY AWARDS IN 41 YEARS.

Not since 1934's It Happened One Night swept the Oscars had a film walked away with awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest took home the lot, with Nicholson and Fletcher winning the top acting awards. The feat would not be matched again for another 16 years, with Silence of the Lambs becoming the next (and last to date) movie to earn the distinction. 

14. THE FILM ENJOYED ONE OF THE LONGEST THEATRICAL RUNS IN MOVIE HISTORY. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was revered worldwide, but Swedish viewers developed an especially soft spot for the film. Cuckoo’s Nest remained a regular option for Swedish moviegoers through 1987—11 years after its initial release. 

15. KESEY REFUSED TO SEE THE FILM (BUT MAY HAVE BY ACCIDENT). 

The poster child for the “the book was better” movement, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Kesey disapproved of a big screen adaptation of his novel as soon as he found out that the filmmakers had abandoned the use of Chief Bromden as the story’s narrator. Kesey never intended to see the movie, but one story says he inadvertently caught a few moments during a bout of channel surfing one evening. Once Kesey realized what he was watching, he promptly changed stations.

According to fellow novelist Chuck Palahniuk (who has famously praised director David Fincher’s adaptation of his novel Fight Club, plot changes and all), Kesey once stated privately that he did not care for the material.

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30 Facts About Your Favorite Martin Scorsese Movies
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Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

In the pantheon of iconic American film giants, Martin Scorsese gets to sit at the head of the table and carve the turkey. In a career spanning 50 years, he has created some of the most visually spectacular and quote-worthy material ever put on celluloid. To celebrate the auteur’s 75th birthday, here are 30 facts about some of your favorite Scorsese movies. Ready? Great… now go home and get your #@$%ing shinebox!

1. MUCH OF THE MEAN STREETS BUDGET WENT TO ITS SOUNDTRACK.

Clearing songs for 1973's Mean Streets ate up almost half of the film's $500,000 budget. Staying true to his well-documented love of rock, Scorsese used tunes by The Ronettes, Eric Clapton, and The Rolling Stones for the soundtrack. “For me, the whole movie was 'Jumping Jack Flash' and 'Be My Baby,'" the director said in Scorsese on Scorsese.

2. LAURA DERN HAD A TINY ROLE IN ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE.

Future Oscar nominee Laura Dern made one of her earliest, albeit uncredited, appearances toward the end of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Working alongside her mother, Diane Ladd, Dern—who was seven years old at the time—played a little girl eating a banana-flavored ice cream cone at Mel’s Diner. It took 19 takes to get the shot, which required Dern to consume 19 ice cream cones. Impressed by the budding actress, Scorsese told Ladd that “if she doesn’t throw up after [19 takes’ worth of cones], this girl is ready to be an actress.”

3. THE “YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?” SCENE FROM TAXI DRIVER CAME FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.

Robert De Niro improvised that whole paranoid monologue, including what would become the movie’s most famous line. (The film's screenwriter, Paul Schrader, later said, “It’s the best thing in the movie, and I didn’t write it.”) De Niro got the line from Bruce Springsteen, whom he’d seen perform in Greenwich Village just days earlier, at one in a series of concerts leading up to the release of Born to Run. When the audience called out his name, The Boss did a bit where he feigned humility and said, “You talkin’ to me?” Apparently it stuck in De Niro’s mind.

4. MUCH OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK WAS IMPROVISED (WHICH MAY HAVE BEEN ITS DOWNFALL).

In 1977, Scorsese released New York, New York. What was meant to be an epic musical turned out to be one of the director’s biggest bombs, due partly to the fact that the normally very regimented director decided to take a more improvisational approach to the film. “I tried to have no idea at all what I was going to do, as much as possible, on the day of shooting—as opposed to having a fairly strong idea of what I was going to do,” he said. “I was really testing the limits … I had a very chaotic style, on purpose, on New York, New York. And I found it didn't work for me."

5. A LOT OF FAMOUS CINEMATOGRAPHERS WERE INVOLVED IN THE MAKING OF THE LAST WALTZ.

The seven 35mm camera operators who shot The Last Waltz, Scorsese's 1978 concert documentary, included Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter), and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Scorsese and Robbie Robertson (who also served as a producer) came up with a 300-page shooting script of diagrams and text that assigned the camera positions with the music lyrics and cues. According to the film's production notes, it was the first music documentary made on 35mm.

6. JOE PESCI WAS RUNNING AN ITALIAN RESTAURANT WHEN SCORSESE AND ROBERT DE NIRO APPROACHED HIM ABOUT RAGING BULL.

Joe Pesci had been a professional actor and musician (he sang and played guitar) off and on since childhood, but he called it quits in the 1970s. His 1975 Broadway show with comedy partner Frank Vincent (whom he would later recruit to play Salvy in Raging Bull) had closed after a week, and his first movie, 1976’s The Death Collector (also featuring Vincent), was a flop. But Robert De Niro happened to see that film in 1978, and was so impressed by Pesci’s performance that he pitched him to Scorsese. The two tracked Pesci down and called him at his restaurant to coax him out of showbiz retirement to co-star in Raging Bull.

7. SCORSESE INITIALLY DIDN’T SEE HOW THE SCRIPT FOR THE KING OF COMEDY WOULD WORK AS A MOVIE.

Robert De Niro passed Paul D. Zimmerman’s script for The King of Comedy on to Scorsese, hoping that he could interest him in directing it. "I didn't get it," Scorsese later admitted. "The script is hilarious. But the movie was just a one-line gag: You won't let me go on the show, so I'll kidnap you and you'll put me on the show.” Eventually, he came to see how it could be turned into a feature.

8. GRIFFIN DUNNE HAD TO GIVE UP, WELL, PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING TO STAR IN AFTER HOURS.

In order to capture the desperation and paranoia to play word processor Paul Hackett in After Hours (1985), Scorsese gave star Griffin Dunne some very specific instructions. “I was at a symposium with Marty Scorsese and he said, ‘I really had to be hard on Griffin for this part. I said, no sex, no going out, none of it,’” Cher told People at the movie’s after-party. “It must have worked,” she added. “He’s so good at being frustrated.”

9. IT WAS PAUL NEWMAN WHO APPROACHED SCORSESE ABOUT THE COLOR OF MONEY.

Walter Tevis had written the book The Hustler and its sequel, The Color of Money, yet Paul Newman didn’t care for the adapted screenplay to the latter. So Newman went to Scorsese, as he was a fan of his work, particularly Raging Bull, which he felt had a similar tone to what The Color of Money should be.

10. SCORSESE GOT THE IDEA FOR GOODFELLAS WHILE SHOOTING THE COLOR OF MONEY.

In a rare moment of downtime on The Color of Money set, "I read a review of [Nicholas Pileggi's] Wiseguy ... and it said something about this character Henry Hill having access to many different levels of organized crime because he was somewhat of an outsider," Scorsese told Rolling Stone. "He looked a little nicer. He was able to be a better frontman and speak a little better. I thought that was interesting, because you could get a cross section of the layers of organized crime—from his point of view, of course. So I got the book, started reading it and was fascinated by the narrative ability of it."

11. THE FAMOUS “FUNNY HOW?” SCENE IN GOODFELLAS WASN’T IN THE SCRIPT.

The most famous (and certainly the most quoted) scene in Goodfellas comes at the beginning, when Pesci's Tommy DeVito jokingly-yet-uncomfortably accosts Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) for calling him "funny." In addition to being the driving force behind the scene on screen, Pesci is also responsible for coming up with the premise.  

While working in a restaurant, a young Pesci apparently told a mobster that he was funny—a compliment that was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. Pesci relayed the anecdote to Scorsese, who decided to include it in the film. Scorsese didn't include the scene in the shooting script so that Pesci and Liotta’s interactions would elicit genuinely surprised reactions from the supporting cast.

12. STEVEN SPIELBERG TRADED CAPE FEAR TO MARTIN SCORSESE FOR THE RIGHTS TO SCHINDLER'S LIST.

Scorsese was set to direct Schindler's List, but was apprehensive about making it after the controversy surrounding his previous two films, Goodfellas and The Last Temptation of Christ. At the same time, Steven Spielberg was set to make Cape Fear, but decided that he "wasn't in the mood" to make a movie about a "maniac." So they traded projects. Spielberg had Bill Murray in mind to play Max Cady. Scorsese had other ideas.

13. THE CASINO OPENING TITLES WERE DESIGNED BY THE LEGENDARY SAUL BASS.

Saul Bass is certainly the most famous (and possibly the only) well-known designer of opening credit sequences, with more than 50 to his name. If there was a movie in the '50s or '60s with distinctive opening titles, odds are good that it was Bass's work, often in conjunction with his wife, Elaine. (Among them: Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, West Side Story, Spartacus, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.) Bass did the titles for Scorsese's Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, and Casino, which turned out to be the final film of his career. He died five months after the film opened, at the age of 75. 

14. GANGS OF NEW YORK WAS 32 YEARS IN THE MAKING.

Scorsese read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld in 1970 and immediately thought it would make a good movie. He didn’t have any money or clout yet though, so he had to wait. He bought the movie rights to the book in 1979, and even got a screenplay written around that time, then spent the next 20 years trying to get the project off the ground.

15. THE DEPARTED IS A REMAKE.

While Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan claim they did not watch the 2002 Hong Kong action movie Infernal Affairs before making The Departed, the two films share more than a few similarities. Infernal Affairs director Andy Lau unsurprisingly prefers his own film, saying of The Departed, “Of course I think the version I made is better, but the Hollywood version is pretty good too.” 

16. “GIMME SHELTER” IS SCORSESE’S UNOFFICIAL GANGSTER THEME SONG.

Before The Departed, Scorsese had previously used the Rolling Stones song in Goodfellas and Casino. It seems Billy Costigan loves the Stones, too; the CD that he mails to Sullivan is housed in the case for the Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street.

17. MEAN STREETS TOOK ITS TITLE FROM A RAYMOND CHANDLER ESSAY.

Originally titled Season of the Witch, the film’s name was changed to Mean Streets from a line from Raymond Chandler’s 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” Writing about the art of storytelling and plumbing the depths of humanity, Chandler wrote. “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

18. DE NIRO WANTED TO MAKE RAGING BULL AS A PLAY, TOO.

This was in early 1978, before it was even written as a movie yet, when De Niro was collaborating with Mardik Martin to adapt LaMotta’s memoir, while simultaneously trying to convince a noncommittal and increasingly drug-addled Scorsese to take on the project. De Niro’s idea was to stage it as a Broadway play (to be directed by Scorsese), and then, during the run of the show, spend the daylight hours shooting the movie. De Niro liked the idea of the day’s filming influencing the way they performed the play that night. But Martin’s script wasn’t yet ready for either medium, and Scorsese was in no shape to do it then anyway. 

19. SCORSESE WAS WORKING ON NEW YORK, NEW YORK AT THE SAME TIME HE WAS MAKING THE LAST WALTZ.

Scorsese was supposed to be in New York editing the Liza Minnelli/Robert De Niro musical drama when he was in San Francisco preparing and shooting The Last Waltz. According to Scorsese, New York, New York producer Irwin Winkler was "very upset" when he learned this.

20. CHANDELIERS FROM GONE WITH THE WIND WERE USED ON THE LAST WALTZ.

The performance recorded for The Last Waltz was designed by Boris Leven, who has served as production designer on West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Leven created a backdrop inspired by the films of Luchino Visconti (Death In Venice, The Leopard), borrowing props from the San Francisco Opera's production of La Traviata and chandeliers designed for Gone with the Wind. Robertson wasn't sold on the elaborate decor. He told Leven, "Chandeliers? I don't think that's going to go over with Neil or Bob or the rest of the musicians. These people don't do chandeliers, Boris."

21. THE FIRST SCENE SHOT FOR GOODFELLAS WASN’T DIRECTED BY SCORSESE. 

As you might know, the business of filming is rarely chronological—directors tend to jump scenes for cost, scheduling, and efficiency reasons. For Goodfellas, the scene that broke shooting ground was the intentionally low-budget Morrie’s Wigs commercial, which plays just before Henry and Jimmy hassle Morrie about a debt near the beginning of the film. To get the feel of the commercial right, Scorsese contacted Stephen R. Pacca, who had created his own ultra low-budget ads for his replacement window company, to write and direct the Morrie’s Wigs ad. 

22. REESE WITHERSPOON BLEW HER CAPE FEAR AUDITION. SO DID DREW BARRYMORE.

"It was my second audition ever," Witherspoon said in 1999. "My agent told me I'd be meeting Martin Scorsese. I said, 'Who is he?' Then he mentioned the name Robert De Niro. I said, 'Never heard of him.' When I walked in I did recognize De Niro, and I just lost it. My hand was shaking and I was a blubbering idiot.''

Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role, too, but believed she overacted for one of Scorsese's assistants. In 2000, she called the audition "the biggest disaster" of her life and said that Scorsese thinks she's "dog doo-doo" because of it.

23. GEORGE LUCAS HELPED WITH SCORSESE OUT WITH AN ELEPHANT PROBLEM FOR GANGS OF NEW YORK.


ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The Star Wars creator, then working on Attack of the Clones, had visited the massive set in Rome and told Scorsese that it was probably the last of its kind, that such large re-creations would be done on computers now to save money. Lucas’s know-how in such matters came in handy later, when Gangs needed an elephant and none of the animal wranglers in Italy were able to produce one in time. So Scorsese called his old friend Lucas and asked for help: “We’re effed," Scorsese told Lucas. "We don’t have [an] elephant! Tell us how to shoot it!” Lucas, an old pro at such things, guided them through the process of filming without the elephant and having it digitally created later. It’s the only thing in the movie that’s completely computer-generated. 

24. SCORSESE WAS INSPIRED TO CAST GWEN STEFANI IN THE AVIATOR AFTER SEEING HER PICTURE ON THE SIDE OF A BUS SHELTER.

The Marilyn Monroe-inspired pictures, taken by Herb Ritts for a Teen Vogue cover, caught Scorsese's eye. Stefani told MTV the story, as she heard it from DiCaprio. “Martin Scorsese’s driving in New York City and he sees my Teen Vogue cover on the side of a bus stop shelter. And he’s like, ’Who’s that girl? Let’s get her!’ I had Leonardo DiCaprio tell me the whole story in Martin Scorsese’s voice, so it was pretty bizarre.” Stefani portrayed Jean Harlow; it was her first film role. 

25. BERNARD HERRMANN DIED JUST A FEW HOURS AFTER RECORDING THE MUSIC FOR TAXI DRIVER.

Scorsese was lucky to get Bernard Herrmann, a Hollywood legend who had scored Citizen Kane, Psycho, Cape Fear, North by Northwest, and dozens of others. Herrmann wrote the Taxi Driver score and conducted the recording sessions himself, finishing in Los Angeles on the evening of December 23, 1975. He retired to his hotel and died sometime during the night, officially Christmas Eve morning, at the age of 64. He was posthumously nominated for an Oscar. 

26. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS WAS TRAINED BY REAL BUTCHERS FOR GANGS OF NEW YORK, BECAUSE OF COURSE HE WAS.


Miramax

Ever the Method actor, Day-Lewis first took lessons from two Argentine brothers with a butcher shop in Queens, then from a master butcher specially flown in from London.

27. SCORSESE THREATENED TO TAKE HIS NAME OFF OF RAGING BULL OVER ONE MINOR SOUND ISSUE. 

Very late in the post-production process, when the film was due to premiere soon and Scorsese was still tinkering with the final sound mix, producer Irwin Winkler gave him a drop deadline: All work would cease at midnight on a certain night, and that would be it. When the hour arrived, Scorsese was obsessing over one minor line of dialogue someone says to a bartender —“Cutty Sark, please”—which he didn’t think was audible. Winkler told him too bad, we’ve got to send this thing out. Scorsese declared that if Winkler released the film this way, he wanted his name taken off it as director, because it no longer reflected his vision. Winkler said, “So be it.” Like all good producers, he knew that sometimes you have to let an overtired director throw a tantrum and say things he doesn’t really mean. Sure enough, Scorsese recanted sometime later.

28. SCORSESE AVOIDED AN X RATING ON TAXI DRIVER BY MAKING THE BLOOD LOOK MORE BROWN THAN RED. 

Scorsese desaturated the color in the film’s gorier scenes, rendering the blood less realistic and more like a black-and-white tabloid newspaper (without actually being black-and-white). Not only did it fit the lurid tone he was going for, it soothed the nerves of the ratings board. 

29. CATE BLANCHETT DID HER HOMEWORK FOR THE AVIATOR.


Miramax

At Scorsese's request, Blanchett watched all of Hepburn's first 15 movies for The Aviator. Blanchett also screened Hepburn's 1973 interview with Dick Cavett, read a memoir about her, took golf and tennis lessons, and took cold baths just like Hepburn. On June 29, 2003—the same day that Blanchett arrived on set for the first time—Hepburn passed away. "I picked up the paper thinking, 'Isn't it odd that Katharine Hepburn's on the cover?'" Blanchett recalled. "She had such a remarkable life, and then with her death, she was even more present in everyone's mind."

30. WE MAY NEVER KNOW WHAT THE REAL SAM “ACE” ROTHSTEIN ACTUALLY THOUGHT OF CASINO.

Lefty Rosenthal—the inspiration for Sam Rothstein, who died in 2008—said he only ever saw Casino once. If that's true, it was the screening of a rough cut that was also attended by Nicholas Pileggi. Pileggi sat with Rosenthal—they were the only ones in the screening room—and said Rosenthal's reaction was positive. But near the end of his life, when an interviewer mentioned that, "You only saw Casino once—and you don't like the movie," Rosenthal replied that "It lacked the detail of what I did. There are scenes where the Rosenthal character repeated the same thing twice. I would only tell you to do something one time—that's all I needed. And there was that scene that still angers me when I think of it—I never juggled on The Frank Rosenthal Show. I resent that scene. It makes me look foolish. And I only did that TV show [at] the behest of the chairman of the board of the Stardust so that the public would realize I was a decent guy and not a mobster as portrayed by the media covering us at the time.” Did Rosenthal change his mind over time? Did Pileggi misinterpret his initial reaction? We'll never know.

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