Chatterbox’s recent item on The Skulls, a forthcoming movie thriller about an Ivy League secret society that’s clearly modeled on Yale’s Skull & Bones, opined that the film seems to be an attack on George W. Bush. (Chatterbox has seen only the trailer. To view that, click here.) Chatterbox didn’t say so, but he assumed the film’s line of attack on Skull & Bones was from the left–Bones being a creaky old redoubt of what Nicholas Lemann’s book The Big Test: The Secret History of the Meritocracy labels the “Episcopacy.” There are a few Episcopacy-hating (and even Bush-hating) conservatives around, but not many of them work in Hollywood.
Chatterbox continues to suspect that The Skulls is a liberal plot to get George W. Bush. But a Slate colleague has brought to his attention the existence of an earlier Bones-bashing movie–in this case, a made-for-TV movie–that has a strong cult following among conspiracy theorists on the right. This is The Brotherhood of the Bell, a 1970 TV flick in which Glenn Ford plays a college professor commanded to do the bidding of the powerful secret society he belonged to as an undergraduate. Although The Brotherhood of the Bell turns up on late-night TV now and then, it is not easily available on video, so Chatterbox can’t give you a thumbs-up or -down on it just yet. But he can tell you a bit more about its cult.
Even sight unseen, Chatterbox doubts that The Brotherhood of the Bell was ever intended to be a touchstone for the militia crowd. It was written by David Karp, a City College graduate who became one of the writers credited with creating the “Golden Age” of TV drama. Like his contemporaries Paddy Chayevsky and Reginald Rose, Karp, who died this past September, seems to have been very earnest and very committed to writing about injustice. His New York Times obit describes a Karp TV play called One as telling the story of “a college professor striving for free expression at a future time when the state is supreme and all traces of individuality have been stamped out.” Given the time (1955) and place (New York), that almost certainly means Karp was a liberal–probably a Stevensonian Democrat, probably Jewish, and probably mistrustful of the Ivy League goyim and their childish secret rituals. Hence The Brotherhood of the Bell.
But if you click around the Web, you’ll quickly discover that The Brotherhood of the Bell has become, like Report From Iron Mountain, a much-discussed piece of agitprop for the “off the grid” extreme right. (Report From Iron Mountain was a much more deliberately ideological document when first written, but, ironically, its intent was leftist satire, a point that continues to be lost on its readers.) If you click here, you’ll see Brotherhood of the Bell mentioned as a teaching tool for understanding how the Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations work. If you click here, you’ll see it listed amid a batch of (bootleg?) conspiracy tapes for sale about the New World Order and other far-right bogeymen. If you click here, you’ll see Glenn Ford’s son, a former actor turned building contractor who was a talk-radio host in Los Angeles during the mid-1990s, offering free videos of The Brotherhood of the Bell to anyone who orders more than $100 worth of his old air checks off his Web site. Peter Ford was the dialog director for The Brotherhood of the Bell.
Peter Ford’s own life story is too elaborate to detail here. Suffice it to say that he was a child of Hollywood divorce (raised mostly by his mother, the actress/dancer Eleanor Powell) who became an “anti-socialist” sometime after age 6, when Charlie Chaplin ran over his dog. (At present, he’s writing his memoirs.) Ford believes in something called “The Conspiracy,” which he didn’t really have time to explain to Chatterbox over the phone, but which consists of “a group of people internationally who are moving toward an agenda which would promote one-worldism.” Among the heavies of this narrative are Cecil Rhodes, the Trilateral Commission, Fabian socialists, and Skull & Bones. Who’s he going to vote for in the California primary? Probably Bush.