“The Wizard of Oz” is one of the most iconic and famous cinematographic creations, which has inspired and entertained millions around the world. It is one of the big cinematic myths, representing one of the fundamental film works.
It deals with very important topics, of belief and of truth, similar to other productions such as “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Matrix”. In fact, “The Wizard of Oz” is one of the masterpiece foundation stones and points of reference for many films of various genres and from different eras, from “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) to “Avatar” (2009).
The film, which is based on the 1900 book by L. Frank Baum, was directed by Victor Fleming and George Cukor and released in 1939 and starred Hollywood darling Judy Garland. The film tells the story of a Kansas girl who, in a troubled situation, finds herself ending up in a faraway kingdom. There, she meets with three friends and together they go on the search of the wonderful Wizard of Oz who can grant their wishes.
The movie starts out with a dedication, which says “For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion. To those of you who have been faithful to it in return …and to the Young in Heart …we dedicate this picture.”
In a sepia tone scenery, we meet Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl, who is trying to communicate the problems she’s having with a neighbor with whom she entered in a conflict because of her dog, Toto. Her aunt, however, cannot pay her much attention and neither can her other workers at the farm. Everyone is busy working and cannot give Dorothy the answers she is looking for. Her aunt tells her to find a place where she won’t get into any trouble. Dorothy ponders on whether such a place exists and says that there must be a perfect place, but that that place is not somewhere you can get by a boat or a train, but that that place must exist, “somewhere over the rainbow”. The first song of the film, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is probably one of the most emblematic songs in cinema history. Dorothy thinks of this amazing place, of which she heard “once in a lullaby”, meaning in her innocent childhood. The rainbow is embedded with a large series of symbols: the end of the rainbow is where a pot of gold is found, it is the place where dreams come true, it is a symbol of the covenant, it means serendipity and all things philosophy. Thus, the rainbow is the road or the gate she must go on or through in order to reach wisdom and happiness.
We are then starting to begin to see the connections between her life in Kansas and her world in “Wonderland” – “Oz”, when one of the workers tells her that she has no brain. Since her neighbor, whom she calls a “wicked old witch”, wants to destroy her dog, she runs away from evil only to soon meet Professor Marvel, who is like an oracle. His “importance” comes with the recommendation of being recognized by the crowned heads of Europe, so Dorothy asks him to read her past and present. As it turns out, professor Marvel is nothing but a merge between a connoisseur of the human heart and mind and a con artist, tricking her to go back to her aunt.
As she goes back home, a twister comes and, as she falls on her bed, the house is taken by the wind only to land “somewhere over the rainbow” as the music theme suggests and as Dorothy mentions. On her way, she sees things, from the ordinary to the… not so ordinary as she spins in circles in the air. The spiral is definitely a symbol for the transition between one world and the world of dreams. In it, regular things mix with extraordinary ones to compose a brand new world, with different rules and with different characters. As Dorothy steps out of the house, the whole world is no longer in a sepia tone, but in full color, as Dorothy discovers the magical plants, people and places of Oz. She meets the good witch, who asks Dorothy whether she is a good witch or a bad witch. As in most philosophical stories, Dorothy is confronted with having to define herself, she needs to state who she is or, at least, who she thinks she is. The good witch tells her that the munchkins have called her because a witch has dropped a house on the bad witch. Thus, Dorothy is symbolically assigned a new identity, which she at first refuses. She claims that witches are old and ugly, at which the munchkins laugh, making us understand that they see Dorothy as naïve, not knowing that you can also be a good witch. Glinda tells the munchkins that Dorothy has fallen from a star called Kansas, which is not only a reference to the US flag, but also to the fact that she did come from the sky, as somewhat of a deity. However, a new witch comes to Munchkin City, who wants to take revenge on Dorothy. However, Glinda points out the ruby slippers, which have somehow appeared on Dorothy’s feet. We don’t really find out what the slippers can do; only that their magic must be strong, as otherwise the bad witch would not want them. In a way, the ruby slippers are similar to the ring in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which does not seem to have a very strong power, but the power to give power. As we will learn later, similarly to the ring, the slippers have the power to make one disappear from one world and enter into another dimension.
Being overwhelmed by all that is happening, Dorothy wants to go home. She has doubts about the new world she has found and wants to get out immediately. However, she realizes that, as with a true philosopher’s journey, once she went down the rabbit hole, there is no going back. She then learns that to go to Kansas, she cannot go back the way she came, but she might be able to arrive there in another way, and, the one who knows how to get there is the wizard of Oz who lives in Emerald City.
Dorothy is told to follow the yellow brick road. The yellow brick road is a symbol for knowledge: it is a rabbit hole that takes you to wisdom and, which is shaped as a spiral, becoming wider and wider as you go along on it. Dorothy takes the pointed road, but she soon discovers that the yellow brick road splits into more directions. This can be regarded as a symbol for the way in which knowledge can spread into different directions and that the road you choose to go on can take you to different destinations.
At the crossroads, she meets the Scarecrow. He gives her directions on how to take him down and she frees him immediately. The Scarecrow is upset because he cannot do his job and is a failure because he doesn’t have a brain. He even tells her that some people without brains do a lot of talking – thus showcasing wisdom and knowledge for a second time. After explaining that he would even risk a box of matches for a brain, the Scarecrow asks her if he could go with her to Oz to ask the wizard for a brain. So, the two move forward.
We see the wicked witch hiding behind a tree as the two companions enter a garden of apple trees. Dorothy wants to pick an apple, but the apple tree does not let her. They get yelled at by the tree and Dorothy explains that she was just hungry, but the tree does not allow her to pick any apples. The Scarecrow uses reverse psychology and gets the tree angry, resulting in it throwing apples at the two, which they pick up to eat. Thus, the Scarecrow proves once again the does possess know-how and intelligence. While picking the apples, Dorothy discovers the Tin Man, who tries to tell them something, but cannot do it because his mouth is rusty. The Scarecrow has, again, a good idea, and suggests that they oil his mouth to allow him to speak.
The Tin Man has no heart and is sad about it. Interpreted in a psychological manner, it can be said that people with no symbolic hearts become rusty and freeze – they get stuck in aggressive manners, such as the Tin Man, who claims to have been holding the axe up for ages. While he does hear a beat, he claims not to have a heart. Dorothy invites him to go with them to give him a heart, but just as they were discussing, the wicked witch appears again and throws fire at them. The Scarecrow starts to burn, but, the Tin Man shows that he has a heart and puts the fire out.
They all decide to go to Emerald City and Dorothy claims that she feels that she’s known them forever; pointing out what was obvious to the viewer already, namely that the new friends she was making were mirrored images of her loved ones. And, of course, the witch of her bad neighbor.
Then, as night falls, they meet the Cowardly Lion, who was feeling down because he lacked courage. Of course, at the very beginning, the Lion is pretending to be tough, as many people who lack courage do. He claims he hasn’t slept, an important note on a psychological level, as the lack of courage often causes scarcity.
They convince him to go with them, even though he claims that he would be ashamed to be seen in the company of a cowardly lion – again, the story teaches us another psychology lesson: those who claim to be something they are not, are quite often ashamed and need to be “rescued” by others who believe in them or in their potential, as Dorothy and her buddies do.
It is quite interesting as, as the story progresses, the yellow brick road becomes broad enough for all of them. Once again, we are taught a great psychological lesson: the more friends you have, the broader your knowledge becomes, as the yellow brick road is the road to wisdom.
As they find themselves close to Emerald City, the wicked witch casts a spell and makes them go through a field of poppies. The field of poppies has been interpreted as being a symbol for addiction, since poppy seeds are used to create opium. And, as it happens, Dorothy falls asleep in the poppy seed, not seeming to be able to continue her journey. As it is often the case with wise men, Dorothy falls in the sea of addiction and cannot get up. She refuses the help of her friends and falls asleep. In this moment, as a side detail, the Tin Man begins to cry, showing again, that he does have a heart, but is not aware of it. Glinda sees what is going on and casts a good spell, causing it to snow, which wakes Dorothy up. Snow is a symbol for purity, as purity is often the solution to breaking out of an addiction or vice. However, too much purity can be overwhelming to some at the wrong moment, as the Tin Man, confronted with purity is too weak and rusts again, but his fellow travelers help him out this time again.
They have now overcome the obstacles they needed to overcome to reach the capital of wisdom and truth that will grant them their wishes.
As they prance towards Emerald City, we hear the beautiful “Optimistic Voices” song:
“You’re out of the woods
You’re out of the dark
You’re out of the night
Step into the sun
Step into the light
Keep straight ahead for the most glorious place
On the face of the earth or the sky
Hold onto your breath
Hold onto your heart
Hold onto your hope
March up to the gate and bid it open”.
As they arrive at the gate of Emerald City, the guard tells them that they cannot meet with a great wizard because nobody gets to see him and that he has not even seen him once. Dorothy asks he even knows that there is a wizard then, which gets the guard all riled up. They tell him that the good witch has sent her and in order to prove it, the Scarecrow suggests showing the guard the red slippers. As it happens, the slippers seem to be the only reason why the guard lets them in. Once again, the Scarecrow has shown his good ideas.
As they wait to enter to the Wizard, the lion sings a song during which he shows his desire for strength and through his performance; he seems to gain the respect of his friends. As they symbolically crown him king, he says that the mere concept of being a king will make him not fear anything. He tells them that all the things he could do would be due to courage. This moment is the moment that the Lion does not see his power coming from a title, but the title coming from the power. “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!” he says. Thus, he understands that, while one can find his strength because he is the king, one can become a king by having courage. At this moment, he drops the symbolic cape and wears only the crown that had been placed on his head, marking the true content of being a king, which lies outside the formal aspects.
They go to see the Wizard, who seems to be what we today would call a hologram and, after scaring them with fires and smoke, he tells them that he will grant their wishes if they are able to bring him the broomstick of the Witch of the West. This would imply that the four travellers need to kill the wicked witch.
Soon after they enter the witch’s territory, Dorothy is kidnapped by the servants of the Witch of the West, who take Dorothy to the witch’s castle. As a cinematic side note, some viewers of the film will notice a resemblance between the forest where the Witch of the West lives and the land of Mordor in “The Lord of the Rings”.
In the Witch’s tower, Dorothy is asked to give up the slippers and, forced by blackmail, she decides to give them to the witch. However, she does not seem to be able to take them off. Once again, the power of the slippers is brought into discussion with not obvious explanation as of why the slippers are important. Is it maybe that the slippers are Dorothy’s destiny? The slippers definitely seem to be something that only Dorothy can possess: is it her strength or personality?
To rescue Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion dress up as being servers of the Witch of the West. As in many movies, the three characters need to disguise as evil or enter evil (once again, think Neo entering agent Smith) to conquer it. This is a theme that can be discussed more in a Matrix-related text.
In the final confrontation, the Lion shows again his courage to go for Dorothy, the Scarecrow has the brains to use the Tin Man’s axe to make the chandelier fall on the soldiers and it all ends with Dorothy throwing water on the witch, causing her to melt. The symbolism of water is quite clear. Water symbolizes purity and life and can act as a weapon against evil – think of holy water. In other words, Dorothy kills evil with life.
The four buddies go back to the wizard, and discover that he was in fact just a man behind a curtain; a scene playing on the onstage/backstage concept. The Wizard of Oz was using illusions (smoke and mirrors) to convey an illusion. In the end, the Wizard is no better than any of them, but, using his status, he manages to grant them their wishes. In a way, his presentation can be interpreted as people needing to look important in order to be important.
He then grants them their wishes: First, he gives the Scarecrow a diploma. Then, he takes the Cowardly Lion by his arm and explains to him that he is the victim of disorganized thinking. Thus, by thinking that he runs away from danger, he thinks that he has no courage. The Wizard explains that the Lion is “confusing courage with wisdom”, which is quite the psychology lesson. He then gives the Lion a medal to express the fact that he has courage. The Wizard then tells the Tin Man that he doesn’t know how lucky he is not to have a heart, but proceeds to giving him a heart-shaped clock. The clock is a symbol of time, as for the wholehearted, time is important and extremely valuable. He then tells the Tin Man that a heart is not judged by how much he loves (for he can love the wrong things), but by how much it is (truly) loved by others.
The Wizard then leave the three to rule over Oz because their virtues, kindness and courage. He decides to take Dorothy back to Kansas, but fails to do so and Dorothy remains in Oz. Before that, he tells them that once he accidentally landed in Oz with a balloon and that the people of Oz made him a wizard. This short story is not just a parallel to Dorothy’s story, who came from up above and takes on a role she did not ask for, but is also an allegory for the concept of royalty. The Wizard of Oz is a simple man, who did not ask to be there, but made it his mission to rule to the best of his capabilities. While he does come from another world, he does not seem to be much different from the creatures of Oz, his understanding of the mechanics of the world is the only criteria that separates him from them.
And so, since Dorothy could not be taken back to Kansas, the good witch returns and tells her that she had the power to go back to Kansas all the time, but that she did not tell her because then Dorothy would not have believed her. Just as in other later films, if we may bring up “The Matrix” again, she needs to discover who she is and what she can do for herself, or at least believe enough in herself in order to do the things others tell her to do. Dorothy explains that what she learned is that if she cannot find her happiness in herself, she won’t find it anywhere else.
As told by Glinda, she then knocks her feet together and says “there’s no place like home”, which transports her, through the spiral-vortex, back to Kansas.
She wakes up in the sepia-tone world we saw in the beginning and meets her family, but this time around she is a different Dorothy. Dorothy is now an enlightened philosopher who got out of Plato’s cave and is now conflicted, but happy. They obviously do not believe her as she speaks about the true world, but for her, it’s not important anymore, as she is home; the home being a symbol of one’s own mind and self. Above all, she is with those she loves, which is why she is not burdened with contemptus mundi.
“The Wizard of Oz” has a dense story, with a lot of details and symbols, which is why it remains an all-time classic production appealing to many people from all walks of life.
The film is carefully crafted and, even though it may seem naïve and childish at times, it is definitely a masterpiece that conveys extremely powerful messages. The core narrative of the story of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and all the other characters is that the things we want to be or the attitudes we wish to have can be found in our minds. As humans, we seek validation, which makes sense, since you’ll never know if others see you as you see yourself in the absence of validation; but that the attitude itself comes from inside us. And, above all, that in most cases, we already have it, but don’t know that it is within us.
This poses the very interesting question (and sometimes, the question is the answer), of whether people can change or whether circumstances and validation moments only reveal who they are.
There are many other things that one can derive from the film. For example, the fact that, as in many other movies and works of art and religion, we learn that the mirrored world (but not the upside down world) is where the truth lies. As mentioned, one of the workers tells her that she has no brain before she arrives in Oz, only to discover that it was him who was lacking (or acting as if he was lacking) a brain. While most characters in “The Wizard of Oz” are mirrored between the two worlds: the three buddies are the workers, the witch is the neighbor, the wizard is the professor, only one is not mirrored in an explicit way; which leads us only to make the implicit connection that her aunt is Glinda, the good witch. If in Kansas, her aunt is nearby but does not do much, in Oz; Glinda is not nearby but influences Dorothy tremendously, being the catalyzer for her journey. Glinda is the Morpheus of Oz (à la Matrix), which would be another explanation as of why she is the only one not mirrored in Kansas.
At one point, the witch claims that the slippers can make her the most powerful of Oz, which would mean that there’s more to them than the power to teleport yourself. In Hebrew, “oz” means “power”, so the slippers are most likely to represent the very notion of power being in someone’s hand. In this sense, the message of the film is that your psychological universe and the wisdom one gains through philosophy can determine power.