Watch “The Hangman,” a Classic Animated Film That Explores What Happens When No One Dares to Stand Up to Evil

Last Friday, I was downtown at an open air cinema to watch a collection of animated shorts. It was also a beastly hot night with roaring sundowners, a very present danger of being clocked in the head by falling palm fronds, and an existential danger of fire in the hills. The other existential danger was that of the authoritarian turn of this country that, at that moment, seemed so far away from our picnic baskets and wine in a can.

In the middle of the program of well made but light and fluffy shorts came the above animated film, “The Hangman.” The version above is not the restored version we saw, but it’s pretty much the same, give or take a scratch. Les Goldman and Paul Julian’s 1964 short delivers a moral message along the same lines as anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the Socialists” statement–currently a meme you’ve probably seen pass through your social feed. And though the narrative, based on the poem by Maurice Ogden, is easy to suss out as it trundled towards its mortal conclusion, it did not stop the fact that the rambunctious Friday night audience fell dead silent upon its conclusion. You may too.

The poem first appeared in a 1954 issue of Masses and Mainstream, a monthly Marxist publication that continued publishing through the worst excesses of the McCarthy hearings to an understandably vanishing readership. The poem has occasionally been taught in the context of the Holocaust, but any kind of creeping fascism will do. Not much is really known about Ogden, who wrote the poem under the pseudonym Jack Denoya in its original publication. (He is possibly the same man who taught at Coast Community College in Costa Mesa, CA, and ministered at Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church.)

The animated version, with its modernist look influenced by UPA’s animation studio, came out one year after Masses and Mainstream folded. During that Friday night viewing, I suspected the narrator to be Ken Nordine, who recorded a vocal jazz album around that time. But actually the voice belongs to Herschel Bernardi, a film and theater actor who would have been known to Broadway fans for his starring role in Fiddler on the Roof but to television fans as Charlie Tuna in the Starkist commercials. Before all that, however, he was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, which made him a perfect choice to narrate “The Hangman.”

Director Paul Julian illustrated much of the background art used in Warner Bros. cartoons, and his claim to pop culture fame is providing the “beep beep” sound for the Road Runner cartoons by the same studio. Producer Les Goldman went on to produce several other influential animated shorts, such as “The Dot and the Line” and “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

However, “The Hangman” is serious food for thought in these fraught times, and it’s good to see it back in circulation, thanks to curator Ron Diamond. Here’s to hoping history doesn’t repeat itself.

Related Content:

Watch a Surreal 1953 Animation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” Voted the 24th Best Cartoon of All Time

A Short Animated Introduction to Karl Marx

The Best Animated Films of All Time, According to Terry Gilliam

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

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  • Kathy Shaidle says:

    “McCarthyism” zzzzz. You know there WERE actually card-carrying Communists in the federal government, schools and Hollywood tho right, many of whom were spies for the USSR? Just checking…

    This may sound vaguely familiar…

    “In the ongoing kulturkampf dividing the society, the elites of Hollywood, Cambridge and liberal think-tankery had little sympathy for bow-legged men with their American Legion caps and their fat wives, their yapping about Yalta and the Katyn Forest. Catholic and kitsch, looking out of their picture windows at their flocks of pink plastic flamingos, the lower middles and their foreign policy anguish were too infra dig to be taken seriously.

    “Once a year these people would hold huge Captive Nation Day rallies in cities across the country, which Democratic politicians of taste and sensibility avoided. The only Democrats in evidence at these rallies of unstylish anti-communists were often dismissed by their social superiors as smarmy, corrupt, machine pols. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belsen, all the Nazi concentration camps were dismantled, but the Gulag grew and left-liberals like California congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas and the editors at the New Republic magazine seemed not to care. Working class anti-communist voters did not fail to notice the disdain with which some of the liberal intelligentsia regarded them. The early 1950s, not coincidentally, marked the beginning of the great outmigration of the blue-collar workers from the Democratic Party.” (…)

    “An adequate history of the McCarthy/Truman period, one that gives proper attention to the class, ethnic, religious and cultural antagonisms of those times, has not yet been written. But enough new information has come to light about the communists in the U.S. government that we may now say that point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him.”

  • James Barlow says:

    As the gallows grow in confused symbolism and surreality the structures of the town become more antireal and cubist finally transforming into wartorn ruins! The music at 4:00 transforms from simple listenable folk melody to discordant jazz. The citizens have taken up the carpenter’s square—symbolizing rightness and rectitude—and begin holding it gunlike as the Hangman does with shrouded heads: a double pretension of blind justice and rectitude, when what one really has is bureaucratic anonymity and justice weaponized–really brilliant double symbolism and an horrific irony. Just as the alien is scapegoated for representing the globe (he holds), the ‘outside world’, and the man with the empty bird cage represents the ‘live and let live’ of freedom (“natural law”).

      The manic, xylophonic melody briefly lapses into the theme of the opening bars of “Yankee Doodle” at 4:39-4:43. Brilliant allusion: the blood beneath the gallows chute makes the gallows tree grow is reminiscent of Thomas Paine: “The tree of liberty must occasionally be watered by the blood of patriots.” The fact that hangings don’t result in a lot of bloodletting but guillotinings do alludes to the French Revolution as well. 

      “And so we ceased, and asked no more.” Right at the moment when the Hangman begins using as justification for his death edicts and their published pronouncement of sentence the motto above the obsolescent courthouse door. But nota bene: that motto,  which began as admonishment and ended as absolute obiter dictum rationalizing murder, was a half-truth. “And do not transgress the gods” (“et non temnere divos”)–do not disrespect the divine–was summarily neglected BY THE COMMUNITY AT THE OUTSET!

      So the significance of the film is much more than the Jeffersonian “all that’s required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing” (&tc). It does require a degree of moral sensitivity and genuine literacy, perhaps more plausible in 1964, to get it. 

      The association with Americanism, democratic values etc, is telling. 1964 was the same year Barry Goldwater said “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” the kind of slogan a hangman would applaud. Somewhere Nietzsche, commenting on the origin of democracy in the west noted how it became possible thanks to the scientific inventiveness of Dr. Guillotine, who persuaded the National Assembly of the painlessness of his device, resulting in the reign of terror. “How much gruesome thunder and blood there is beneath all good things!” Nietzsche concluded. 

      The guy who wrote the intro to this is surprisingly good. Haven’t heard the Californian term “sundowner” since living out there. Funny he would confuse the narrator’s voice with that of Ken Nordeen……

    At 1:09 is first seen part of the famous phrase of Vergil. 

    See: (from Studiolum website):

    Virgil’s Best Verse

    Discite iustitiam, moniti, et non temnere divos

    In the chapter dedicated to Phlegyas – the king of the Lapithes, who burnt down the temple of Apollo at Delphi – Baltasar de Vitoria quotes and translates into Spanish a verse that Virgil puts into the mouth of the king. Phlegyas, for his impious act, was condemned to keep shouting aloud, in the Inferno, “Discite iustitiam, moniti, et non temnere divos” (learn justice, you admonished, and be not disrespectful towards the gods). But Baltasar de Vitoria also adds a surprising story:

    And by the way I tell you the story that I heard from a priest, a man of great veracity, who, being called to one possessed by the devil, asked the demon which was the best verse of Virgil, and it responded that this was: Discite iustitiam, &c.

    The judgement of the demon might be influenced by the fact that this verse of Virgil is pronounced in the Inferno, and will be ringing there for an eternity, and that those condemned for impious acts – indeed, such as Lucifer himself – must hear it with a special horror: this is the case of Salmoneus*, Tantalus, Sisyphus and other obstinate rebels against the gods. And its impact must be that much greater, as the commentary by Servius explicitly tells us that this imperative was directed towards those “now undergoing punishment”. This does not lack in paradox, for how should they accomplish this order in those circumstances?

    * On Salmoneus, king of Elis, who dared to compare himself to Jupiter, a complete tragedy was dedicated by Joost van den Vondel («Salmoneus», Amsterdam 1657), which bears on its frontispiece, as a motto of the work, this admonishment by Virgil (cf. its digital edition in dbnl).

    Apart from the situation in which it is pronounced, the greatness of this verse is due to the perfect symmetry and sententiousness with which it marks the duties of the prince towards his inferiors and his superiors, towards his subjects and towards the gods. Exactly these duties are emphasized – although generalized, concerning everyone – by Lipsius in his De constantia.

    Thus it is no surprise that in a copy of the authoritative Basel 1562 edition of Virgil’s Opera omnia edited by Georgius Fabricius (1516-1571), conserved in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, this verse is underlined – as if it were a motto – by the same Renaissance hand who numbered the verses of this book:

    That this verse in effect functioned as a kind of motto, or sentence of common use, is attested by its presence in many poliantheae: thus for example in that of Joannes Langius (Basel 1613), where it appears under the concepts “Justice” and “Fear of God”. It also figures as a motto of emblems in Juan de Horozco’sEmblemas morales (2.23, f. 45) or Juan de Solórzano Pereira (Emblem 19), always with reference to the work of judges.

    Nevertheless, it is strange – and almost mysterious — that in an edition of Virgil’s Opera omnia by Petrus Burmannus Jun. (1746) we can find a commentary quoted from Georgius Fabricius that cannot be read in his own edition. This comment refers to the Humanist priest Lazzaro Bonamico (1477-1552), who asked a possessed Paduan girl – who was fluent in Latin and Greek, and well-lettered – which was the best verse of Virgil, and she pronounced in a loud and clear voice exactly this one that is quoted here.

    At this point we have good reason to doubt the “great veracity” of the priest of Vitoria, who related this story as if he himself had lived it.

    However, the story does not finish here. James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) attributed it to Melanchthon (in whose exhaustive index we cannot find a single word about it), transposing it from Padua to Bologna, and affirming that the girl otherwise “did not know Latin”. The only certain fact is that Melanchthon starts with this quotation one of his epigrams as an admonishment to lyric poets “that have to warn us that God punishes the arrogant princes”. Perhaps with this admonishment in mind, Hegel – albeit not in a lyrical vein – gave this verse as a title to his translation of Jean-Jacques Cart’s pamphlet against small German tyrants.

    However, the story ends with a twist on behalf of injustice and the contempt of gods: indeed, Poe censures Voltaire for having intentionally mistranslated this verse in order to deny the Judaic origins of monotheism…

    And finally, while we might have had doubts in the “great veracity” of the priest mentioned by Vitoria, what reasons do we have for believing the assertion of a demon?

    Servius, In Vergilii Aeneidos, 6.620

  • marmer says:

    I guess you didn’t watch the whole thing, huh?

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