“Who writes with a fountain pen anymore? For Christ’s sake, how friggin’ pretentious is that?”
Paul Giamatti’s CEO character in the movie “Duplicity” (2009)
A few years before English dramatist Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote the oft-quoted adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” in his 1839 play Richelieu (Act 2, Scene II), the great French military conqueror and empire builder Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) already remarked “There are only two powers in the world – sabre and mind. In the end, sabre is always defeated by the mind.” Indeed, that eloquent phrase has many predecessors. Earlier in 1600, William Shakespeare penned the line in Hamlet (Act 2, Scene II) “Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills.” In 1621, the eminent British scholar Robert Burton said in his work An Anatomy of Melancholy that “A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword.” And around A.D. 67-69, the anonymous author of Hebrews in the New Testament wrote the verse “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (NASB)
It should not be surprising, then, that during the world’s most violent conflicts, fountain pens have played a major role. For instance, soldiers in the European front during World War I relied heavily on Parker Pen Co.’s Trench Pen, an eyedropper which used ink tablets that could be dissolved in water, as carrying ink bottles would have been most inconvenient. Emotion-filled letters to families of American infantry at the dark and damp trenches were likely written using this instrument.
Equally, some of the most significant peace treaties ending hostilities were signed with fountain pens. The Treaty of Versailles ending World War I was formalized by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with a Waterman Ideal pen in 1919, according to Joseph Bourke, writing in the U.S. history publication American Heritage. The German Instrument of Surrender terminating the World War II conflict was signed in 1945 at Reims, France, by General Dwight Eisenhower using a Parker 51, among other pens. In the same year, one of the copies of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed aboard the battleship USS Missouri at the Tokyo Harbor by General Douglas MacArthur using his favorite Parker Duofold. Other world leaders were known to favor their own fountain pen brands – John F. Kennedy his Esterbrook, Richard Nixon his Parker 45, Winston Churchill his Conway Stewart, and more recently, Bill Clinton his Cross Century and Barrack Obama his Cross Townsend – and almost certainly used them to sign important documents that influenced world affairs.
The Parker 51, developed in 1939 but introduced to the public in 1941, was so named to commemorate the 51st year of the Parker Pen Co. (established in 1888). Dubbed “The World’s Most Wanted Pen,” its hooded nib, meant to work exclusively with its proprietary ultra-fast-drying ink, was a milestone in design and technology at the time. The ink was formulated in conjunction with this model and initially labelled “51” in 1941, later to be renamed “Superchrome” in 1947.
Can Hollywood be far behind to exploit this adage with depictions of the fountain pen’s superiority over modern arms? In 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sean Connery’s medievalist Professor Henry Jones, locked in a stranglehold whilst trapped inside a tank, reaches into his pocket and whips out an unidentified fountain pen, then manages to pull the lever filler to squirt ink into his captor’s eyes. While hardly plausible, Denholm Elliot’s Dr. Marcus Brody nonetheless erupts in glee, “But don’t you see? The pen IS mightier than the sword!”
Roger Moore’s James Bond in 1983’s Octopussy is supplied by gadget meister Q with what looks like a silver Montblanc pen containing strong enough acid to later disintegrate a prison’s steel bars (but apparently not strong enough to melt the pen’s barrel!). In Never Say Never Again of that same year, Sean Connery’s aging James Bond eliminates Barbara Carrera’s Fatima Blush with an exploding Montblanc 149 as she forces him to put pen to paper and write that she was his best lover. Was this a poison pen letter or what? And in 1989’s Batman, Jack Nicholson’s The Joker hurls a long feathery quill at John Dair’s mob boss Vinnie Recorso’s throat, quickly following up (before the ink was dry) with a cryptic “The pen is truly mightier than the sword!”
They may not have gold-plated nibs or fancy ink-filling mechanisms, but similar writing instruments figure just as crucially in other films. In 2017’s John Wick 2, Keanu Reeves brings to fruition his reputed ability to eliminate thugs with only a pencil by doing just that to three assassins in an airport chase scene. Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne stabs a killer inside his apartment with a ball pen in 2002’s Bourne Identity. And Rachel McAdams as hotel manager Lisa Reisert slits Cillian Murphy’s Jackson Rippner in the throat with a ball pen as well is 2002’s Red Eye.
The 1988 thriller Die Hard, however, had just the exact opposite result. Hart Bochner as sleazy, bearded cokehead Harry Ellis, tries to negotiate with terrorist mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), and cheekily poses this somewhat oblique question – “Hey, business is business. You use a gun, I use a fountain pen. What’s the difference?” Harry didn’t know at the time that this was a slip of his pen. He didn’t have a grip on the situation. He wasn’t bulletproof, as Noodler’s would say. He was…..I think you get it.