Anyone familiar with Superman knows that ever since he was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, his purpose has always been to symbolize and uphold the values of "Truth, Justice and the American way." During the filming of the first Superman at Pinewood Studios in England, on the wall of his office director Richard Donner proudly displayed a model of Superman in flight. The superhero carries a banner with only one word: "Verisimilitude," which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "the quality of appearing to be true or real." The challenge for the production team was to make the miniature, optical, mechanical, and flying effects absolutely convincing. Everyone involved in the film knew that the one-line tease on the advertising posters was going to be, "You'll believe a man can fly." That was a very tall order given the state of film technology in 1977. The challenge for me as an actor was to equal the achievements of the technical experts; if they could create verisimilitude, then I had to do the same. The first step was to examine the values embraced by the character and passed down for generations. Truth and justice seemed relatively easy to understand, but what about "the American way"? What does that mean? Is the American way different from the way of other countries that uphold democracy and human rights? Isn't it dangerous or at least counterproductive to imply that the American way is somehow better than others?
I posed some of these questions to Dick Donner soon after I arrived in London to begin preproduction for the film. He seemed pleased by my enthusiasm and by this evidence that I was taking my job seriously, but told me to go figure it out. The first day of shooting was only three months away and he was up to his neck in technical problems. Every department seemed to need final decisions yesterday.
After considerable thought and discussion with friends, including a number of politicians who were fans of Superman, I decided that because the character is a hero for the entire world, nationalism was not an issue. When Lois Lane asks Superman, "Who are you?" he replies, "A friend." That makes him, above all else, a symbol of hope. In the face of adversity, hope often comes in the form of a friend who reaches out to us. I thought about other aspects of the American way and the basic rights of pluralistic societies: equal opportunity, equal rights, tolerance, free speech, and fair play. For centuries wars have been fought in defense of those rights. In countries where they never existed or were taken away, millions of people have risked their lives to escape. Most of them left with only a few possessions and the hope of not being turned away by a free society.
To say that I believed in Superman is quite an understatement. Of course I knew it was only a movie, but it seemed to me that the values embodied by Superman on the screen should be the values that prevail in the real world.
- An excerpt from
Nothing Is Impossible,
by Christopher Reeve