The Man in the White Suit , 1951
Starring Alec Guinness and Joan Greenwood
This film is a story of an altruistic inventor, Sidney Stratton (played by Sir Alec Guinness) who has discovers a fabric that will never get dirty, and never wear out. He is determined to bring this fabric to market, however both the textile factory workers (the proletariat) and business executives (the capitalists) see it as a threat that will eventually put them out of business. This film brings up questions regarding the nature of innovation, who benefits, and who is harmed, as well as the factors that impede it (namely greed and fear).
Aside: If you haven’t seen this film, which is probably the majority of people, and you want to I recommend you fast forward until Sidney Stratton discovers the miracle cloth. Until that point the plot is very slow and muddled, but the second half is great and is where all the conflict, drama, and moral questions occur.
I would like everyone reading this post to imagine the implications of Sidney Stratton’s miracle cloth. Think about it. If a cloth never got dirty, and never wore out, it would never need replacing. That means that time and energy and resources would be saved in not having to clean or replace your clothing. However, on the flip side jobs would be lost, and production would go down having (what I see as a temporary) negative effect on the economy. What would be the moral thing to do in this situation?
To market the cloth that could potentially allow people to be free from wasting resources to clothe themselves, aiding the consumer, or to prevent the cloth from going to market to protect the workers and the industrialists? I see it as the former case, since both the workers and industrialists can adjust over time to produce something else that is needed. In the short term it would probably first be good for the industry as it could be marketed at a higher price, but then could be disastrous for the industry if people decided they no longer needed new clothes and demand went down (though honestly, how many of us have many more clothes that we need because we like them stylistically?).
The capitalists and workers have parallel discussions regarding the cloth midway through the film. Both are initially pleased by it, thinking it a wonder, before realizing the personal implications on their future. The workers fear job loss, and the industrialists exhibit signs of greed. In the beginning of the discussion between Textile Mill owners, Birnley, the owner of the plant in which Stratton worked and made the discovery asserts that “Some individuals will suffer temporarily, but I will not stand in the way of progress.” He then points out inventions like the Cotton Gin, which changed the way textile manufacturing worked. He argues this would be the “greatest step forward” but another industrialist counters “over a precipice.” This latter Capitalist argues that the prior innovations increased production, whereas this would decrease production and therefore cripple the industry, and that’s when Birnley’s mind is swayed.
Outside, the workers look at Stratton’s brilliantly white new suit, some praising it, while others look on cynically arguing that owners would never go for it. One quips, “What do you think happened to all the other things? The razor blade that doesn’t get blunt? The car that runs on water with a pinch of something else?” indicating that they never were produced, they stayed figments of the imagination.
This line brings up the point that this tale is truly an allegory and any innovation could be substituted for this “miracle cloth”. In fact the film was prescient, in that 50 years later a documentary would be made on exactly how Industry Leaders (and others who benefited from the status quo) prevented another innovation from occurring. That film was called Who Killed The Electric Car? This premise is no longer a work of fiction.
In fact, at the end of The Man In The White Suit, it turns out the miracle cloth was unstable and ended up disintegrating, ending the threat. So in reality, it was just the prospect of change that caused all the panic- the worker strikes; the industrialists kidnapping and attempting to bribe Stratton; and the angry mob chasing him down and threatening his life.
This brings me to the spiritual implications of the film. Our hero, Stratton, holds many noble qualities. He is altruistic, he is committed to knowledge, he does not care about pay or credit for his findings, and in fact is willing to share the credit. However he is naïve. In fact, by the end of the film there are only two people on his side, the main female character Daphne, Birnley’s daughter (played by Joan Greenwood), and a little girl of about 7, indicating that only the innocent and idealistic truly have humanity and not their own self interest at heart.
Can we truly not be self-interested? Or at least can we not be short-sighted and think of the longer term benefits? In the long term the cloth (or the electric car, or whatever else) can better society, but in the short term it takes so much effort for the individual to fight the interests of those “in charge”.
In fact, one could look at the founders of major world religions to see how people react to change, even positive change, which they do not understand. Jesus was crucified for bringing a new message, and Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned and exiled for forty years for ushering in a new day. Or if you are into politics you could look at the Progressive movement during either turn of the century and the recent US election of Barack Obama.
On that I will end with a quote from Bahá’u’lláh which counsels us regarding insight and greed:
“O children of understanding! If the eyelid, however delicate, can deprive man’s outer eye from beholding the world and all that is therein, consider then what would be wrought if the veil of covetousness were to descend upon his inner eye. Say: O people! The darkness of greed and envy becloudeth the radiance of the soul even as the clouds obstruct the light of the sun.”
~ Bahá’u’lláh, from The Tabernacle of Unity