Sleeper (1973) and The Sleeper Awakes (1899/1910)

Sleeper was the first film to win both Hugo and Nebula for Best Dramatic Presentation, for 1974 in both cases. (I am informed that the eligibility period for the 1974 Nebula was December 1973 to November 1974.) The Hugo finalists were Genesis II, which has a similar plot to Sleeper, Soylent Green, which had already won the 1973 Nebula, Westworld and The Six Million Dollar Man. The other two Nebula finalists were new to me – a Czech animated film, Divoká planeta (Fantastic Planet), and a TV version of Frankenstein.

Very loosely based on the H.G. Wells novel 1910 The Sleeper Awakes (revised from the 1899 text, When The Sleeper Wakes), the protagonist (Miles, played by Woody Allen who also co-wrote the script) wakes from a 200-year sleep to find that America has become an incompetently led police state, where people have forgotten how to have good sex. He and his girl (Luna, played by Diane Keaton) become involved with the rebel movement to overthrow the state. IMDB users rate it 18th and 50th of the films of 1973. Here’s a trailer, in the form of a spoof interview with Woody Allen.

There are a number of actors who have appeared in previous Oscar and Hugo-winning films. The big name is Diane Keaton, who we saw last year as Al Pacino’s second wife in The Godfather. There she was the audience viewpoint character, in a way. Here she is again the protagonist’s main love interest; it’s a less interesting character but she seems more energised.

Jessica Rains, the daughter of Claude Rains (see Lawrence of Arabia and Casablanca) is the woman that Miles sees in the mirror when shaving. She was also the secretary in the Western Union office in The Sting, earlier this year (did the best I could to find a decent shot of her face).

Also John McLiam (Dr Agon) had a very small part in My Fair Lady, which I won't bother to track down.

To start with my old favourites, race and sex. There are several black extras in the film, but I don't think any of them speaks and certainly none is credited. And I have to say that I was startled by Sleeper’s misogyny. When introducing himself to Luna, Miles says, “I'm a nice person. I have healthy life drives. I'm as good as gold. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I would never force myself sexually on a blind person.” Perhaps the joke is meant to be that a sighted person wouldn’t let him get close enough to try. But it’s frankly a very creepy line.

He then kidnaps her, tying her up and gagging her – and she becomes a convert to his cause, perhaps in a reference to Patty Hearst. In the climactic scene as Miles and Luna are pretending to be surgeons cloning the dictator in front of an audience of loyal scientists, he twice shuts her up by grabbing her face and forcing her mouth shut. One could say that it hasn't aged well, but I'm surprised that this was considered acceptable even in 1973.

I'm not particularly familiar with Woody Allen's films – I think literally the only one I've seen in the cinema was Hannah and her Sisters, shortly after it came out – and I must say I had expected a bit more intellectual depth. Sleeper depends very much on slapstick humour, rooted in the early days of Hollywood, with an edge of (very gentle) satire. It's mostly funny, but it's not very profound. Soylent Green, which lost to Sleeper for the Hugo, is the better film. There were some very funny lines, I miust admit.

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.

You can get it here.

Sleeper is very loosely based on H.G. Wells' The Sleeper Awakes, the 1910 revision of his 1899 When The Sleeper Wakes. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

What a wonderfully complex thing! this simple seeming unity — the self! Who can trace its reintegration as morning after morning we awaken, the flux and confluence of its countless factors interweaving, rebuilding, the dim first stirrings of the soul, the growth and synthesis of the unconscious to the subconscious, the subconscious to dawning consciousness, until at last we recognise ourselves again. And as it happens to most of us after the night’s sleep, so it was with Graham at the end of his vast slumber. A dim cloud of sensation taking shape, a cloudy dreariness, and he found himself vaguely somewhere, recumbent, faint, but alive.

I had read this as an undergraduate, but it was interesting to return to it in the light of Woody Allen and also Adam Roberts, whose work on Wells was nominated for the BSFA Award this year and two years ago. As with Sleeper, Wells' protagonist wakes after 200 years to find himself embroiled in a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow the dictatorial system which has grown up in the meantime. In Wells' novel, Graham the Sleeper, discovers that due to complex inheritance procedures and careful investments by his trustees, the whole world is now being run as his property in his name. He teams up with the rebel Ostrog to take real power, and then discovers that Ostrog is as bad a dictator as the old regime; the book ends with Graham leading a dramatic air battle against Ostrog's forces.

It is lucidly written, and the Sleeper's fish-out-of-water experience of the future, and his gradual realisation (twice over) of the flaws of the system are well drawn. But there is precisely one named female character (and apparently Wells took out the romance sub-plot between 1899 and 1910; he also renamed the flying machines in the book for the 1910 text, since aeroplanes had been invented in the meantime). The ultimate demonstration of Ostrog's evil is that he suppresses revolt in Paris with security forces from Africa, and plans to do the same to England. Wells thought of himself (and was thought of by many) as the epitome of progressive thought in his day. To put it mildly, he had his blind spots as well. Still, you can get it here.

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