The Skulls (and Bones) Prequel

Chatterbox has just finished watching The Brotherhood of the Bell, the 1970 made-for-TV movie starring Glenn Ford that Chatterbox previously identified  as an antecedent to The Skulls, a conspiracy-minded movie thriller about Yale’s Skull & Bones due for release March 31. Chatterbox hasn’t seen The Skulls, but he has reviewed the film’s trailer  and a story synopsis posted on its Web site. The movie, which is set in New Haven, includes an “initiation scene” that shows members being branded–an apparent conflation of Skull & Bones rituals (which reportedly don’t include branding) with those of the Yale branch of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity (which did brand initiates for a time in the 1960s). As Chatterbox argued earlier, the branding scene seems designed deliberately to embarrass George W. Bush, who is well known to be a) a Bonesman; and b) a former Deke president who made his first appearance in the public prints defending Deke’s branding ritual, which he likened to a “cigarette burn.”

But let’s get back to The Brotherhood of the Bell. Chatterbox was curious to see it after learning that the film has a loyal following among conspiracy theorists on the right. (For evidence, click here and here and here. This last site is maintained by Peter Ford, son of Glenn Ford, former talk-radio host in Los Angeles and self-described “anti-socialist.”) The militia-loving “off the grid” right’s fondness for this TV movie is somewhat ironic, since The Brotherhood of the Bell’s politics seem faintly left–a stew of resentment against not only Skull & Bones but also country clubs, the Junior League, and the whole backslapping “Episcopacy” (Chatterbox borrows the term from Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test) that was breathing its last when The Brotherhood of the Bell was filmed.

The Brotherhood of the Bell is for some reason not available on video (Chatterbox unspooled it at the Library of Congress, which maintains many such curiosities in its film and TV collection). This is a shame, because it’s a very gripping and deftly-plotted film. If The Brotherhood of the Bell had better dialogue and bore any traces of a sense of humor, Chatterbox would rank it alongside The Manchurian Candidate, the greatest conspiracy movie ever made. As it is, it Brotherhood is still one of the better conspiracy flicks Chatterbox has ever seen; it is, for instance, miles ahead of Oliver Stone’s dreadful (and similarly humorless) JFK.

A synopsis:

The story begins at a dawn initiation ceremony at St. George’s College, located just outside San Francisco. (The action’s West Coast locus blurs the Skull & Bones connection; it’s possible that scriptwriter David Karp, a New York City College grad, had in mind other goyische secret societies like San Francisco’s Bohemian Grove in addition to Bones.) A student named Phillip Dunning is being inducted into the Brotherhood of the Bell, a secret society founded 200 years before in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He has stayed up all night reading the “articles and letters of the Brotherhood,” which he hands over to the two men initiating him: Andrew Patterson (Glenn Ford), a professor at the “Institute for the Study of Western Civilization,” and Chad Harmon, a San Francisco financier. The two older men tear up the articles and letters, burn them, and bang a huge antique bell with a gong. Harmon tells Dunning that he must pledge “absolute obedience” to the Brotherhood, and absolute secrecy. In exchange, “if you require anything at all, get in touch with your Senior and he’ll see that it’s arranged for you.” Patterson is Dunning’s Senior; 22 years earlier, at Patterson’s induction ceremony, Harmon was Patterson’s Senior. As Harmon drives off in a Rolls Royce, Dunning tells Patterson, “It just occurs to me that we’re part of the establishment now.” “Not part,” Patterson answers. “The establishment.”

Before driving off, Harmon has handed Patterson a business card with the address of a mansion on it. Patterson goes there and is handed an envelope with an assignment to carry out for the Brotherhood–his first ever. Patterson is tasked with persuading his colleague at the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, an East European (Jewish?) émigré named Dr. Constantin Horvathy, to decline a dean’s post in linguistics that he’s been offered at an eastern college. That job has been reserved for someone else in the Brotherhood. To get Horvathy to decline the post, Patterson is instructed to threaten to reveal the names of people who helped Horvathy defect to the communist thugs who rule Horvathy’s homeland. Patterson is horrified by the assignment–Horvathy is a dear friend–but his loyalty to the Brotherhood compels him to perform the blackmail nonetheless. Horvathy kills himself.

Patterson, consumed by guilt, confesses to his wife Vivian (Rosemary Forsyth), who persuades him to tell her father, a wealthy and powerful real estate tycoon named Harry Masters (Maurice Evans). Masters takes Patterson to see a federal agent named Thaddeus Burns (Logan Field) who knows all about the Brotherhood of the Bell. Burns takes Patterson’s written evidence–the instructions and the names he received in San Francisco–and urges Patterson not to speak further of the matter lest he compromise the investigation. On returning to see Burns a second time, however, Patterson is told that there is no agent Burns. Patterson asks a real agent named Shephard (Dabney Coleman–with hair!) to phone Masters for corroboration that he met with Burns. But Masters tells Shephard there was no such meeting. Masters–his own father-in-law–is part of the Brotherhood conspiracy!

Now Patterson’s life starts to seriously fall apart. His boss at the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, Jerry Fielder (William Smithers), tells him that the foundation that funds the institute has decided to eliminate Patterson’s department, putting him out of a job. Patterson confronts Harmon, who tells Patterson that he’s ungrateful–“Are you truly ignorant of what the Bell has done for you?” The Brotherhood, Harmon says, made a millionaire out of Patterson’s Irish father Mike (Will Geer) by giving him a crucial construction company contract shortly after Patterson joined up. It has also been responsible for Patterson receiving every job and every fellowship he’s ever had. “You have never competed for one thing in the 22 years since you took your oath at sunrise,” Harmon tells a shocked Patterson.

Patterson takes his story to the press. The local DA responds by mocking the idea of a “White Anglo-Saxon Mafia.” The IRS raids Mike Patterson’s construction business and finds some incriminating planted documents. Enraged, Mike Patterson confronts his son’s father-in-law, Masters, tries to beat the truth out of him, but suffers a cerebral hemorrhage. While Patterson is at the hospital with his dad, wife Vivian, who is very spooked by the foregoing events, shoots an intruder in the house. This turns out to be a neighbor who says he was just looking in on her, but may also have been part of the Brotherhood. Patterson rushes home and learns that his father has died. Vivian, overcome with remorse, now shifts her loyalty from husband to her father, Harry Masters, telling Patterson that he should forget about the Brotherhood so they can get on with their lives. “My father can get you a job if that’s what’s worrying you,” she says. This causes Patterson to snap:

I bought a lie. The lie that you can get something for nothing. Well, you can get nothing for nothing. Not even you. You were given to me just like everything else. Now I have to give you back and I don’t care. I just don’t  … want you anymore.

Vivian, shocked, says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Patterson replies: “Just get out.” (This scene is amazingly noir for TV.)

Patterson goes on a sleazy TV talk show hosted by Bart Harris (William Conrad) to tell his story. When Harris opens it up to questions from the audience, Patterson discovers, to his horror, that the Brotherhood conspiracy theory appeals only to radicals and nuts. A black nationalist proclaims that “It is well known to every black man and child” that the Brotherhood of the Bell exists; it is “the power structure of the United Racial States of America.” A woman in a pink suit steps forth to declare that Patterson is “really named Abraham Warsaw, and he’s a Jew” conspiring on behalf of “international Jewry.” Then Harris weighs in, saying no, the Brotherhood is in fact “an underground Catholic organization formed by the secret college of cardinals in Rome,” who intend to overthrow the U.S. But it turns out Harris is kidding. In fact, Harris says, Patterson “is an idiot.” Harris picks up a bell, rings it at Patterson, and calls him a “ding-a-ling.” Patterson grabs Harris, chokes him, and asks him if he went to St. George’s. Patterson is carried off to jail as Harris resumes ringing the bell and shouting, “Ding-a-ling!”

If The Brotherhood of the Bell were true to its dark vision, it would end here. But apparently some idiot network executive made writer Karp tack on a schlocky hopeful ending. Patterson’s old boss at the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, Fielder, who turns out not to be part of the conspiracy, bails Patterson out and tells him he became suspicious when he discovered that Patterson was the only member of the laid-off department he couldn’t find a job for: “It was as though your name were on an invisible national blacklist!” If only Patterson had another witness who could vouch for the Brotherhood’s existence! Patterson hops in his car, drives to St. George’s, and finds his initiate, Dunning. He begs Dunning to go public with him. “They called on me, and they will call on you Phillip!” he says. “You’ve either got to be at war with them or you’re in their service!” he says. “Come with me and you’re free of the Brotherhood!” But Dunning refuses to speak. Dejected, Patterson leaves Dunning. But then–hey, wait a minute!--yes, that’s Dunning running after him! They embrace, and head off to proclaim the Brotherhood of the Bell’s perfidy to the world.

Having provided so many details of Karp’s ingenious-but-unsubtle plot, Chatterbox feels analysis would be superfluous. He will merely conclude by pointing out that in the genre of Yalie Menace movies, The Brotherhood of the Bell won’t easily be surpassed by The Skulls.