Note: The article was originally published in The Orange County Register and has been reposted with the author's permission.
Ayn Rand has converted more Americans to the causes of individual rights and limited government than all the nation’s conservative think tanks combined. Now the film version of her most accessible and underrated book, “We the Living,” is returning to theaters in a remastered and high-definition version at a time when these principles urgently need a renaissance.
First published in 1936, “We the Living” is Rand’s first book, a semi-autobiographical tale of life in Russia following the revolution. The novel’s background is historical and specific, but its theme of individualism versus collectivism is timeless — and timely in today’s era of never-ending calls to sacrifice for the common good such as the homeless, student debtors, and the climate gods.
“I don’t want to fight for the people, I don’t want to fight against the people, I don’t want to hear of the people,” says protagonist Kira Argounova. “I want to be left alone—to live.”
In addition to its literary and philosophical triumph, “We the Living” was one of the first exposes of what life was actually like inside Soviet Russia. As a result, the novel faced numerous publication hurdles in America’s “Red Decade,” when intellectuals and elites championed communism, similar to how they back socialism today. Like all of Rand’s major fictional works, the story features a female lead who is smart, confident, and sexual.
“We the Living” is ultimately a love story. The plot follows Kira, who agrees to become the lover of Andrei, a heroic communist warrior whom she admires (there’s no strawmanning of socialism here), to help her true love, a fugitive named Leo.
The story addresses life and humanity when the government treats people as animals — merely as worker bees, cows to be milked, lions to be tamed, or sheep to follow. “Why do you think I’m alive? Because I have a stomach and eat and digest the food? Because I breathe and work and produce more food to digest?” asks Kira. “Or because I know what I want, and that something which knows how to want—isn’t that life itself?”
The film adaptation of this book is a remarkable story in its own right. Made in Italy during WWII, without Rand’s knowledge or consent, its filmmakers highlighted the story’s ostensible message of opposition to the Soviet Union, which Italy was fighting at the time. The film premiered at the 1942 Venice Film Festival to widespread critical and popular acclaim.
Yet the censors quickly caught on that the film was against collectivism in all its forms, including Italian Fascism, and Benito Mussolini ordered it destroyed. At risk to their lives, the filmmakers sent in the negatives of a different film under the dangerous, but ultimately correct, assumption that the fascist bureaucrats would destroy it without inspection. They hid the film’s actual negatives in a basement for the duration of the war.
The film then languished for decades before being discovered in 1968 by Rand’s lawyers, Erika and Mark Holzer. They brought the negatives back to America, and Rand (who was generally impressed by the adaptation) oversaw editing to make it more closely adhere to the book and her philosophy. In 1988, the film premiered in the U.S.
Armed with new digital editing technology, Duncan Scott, who edited the film with Rand years ago, spent two-and-a-half years removing dust, repairing scratches, and fixing other flaws from every movie frame. His production company recently held screenings of the restored film in New York City, Italy, Serbia, and Ukraine. He is currently partnering with distributors for a wide international release.
Fans of Rand and foreign films will especially enjoy it. One reviewer called it “The Casablanca of wartime Italy…. a superior epic romance, a masterpiece.”
It’s also a warning as the nation moves in a collectivist direction where government officials sacrifice individual rights to increase their power. “We the Living” is a much-needed romantic rejuvenation of the indomitable human spirit. It furthers Rand’s unparalleled legacy long after she’s gone.
Jordan Bruneau is a political writer based in Los Angeles.