The Gold Rush (1925)—First We Recognized Love

I am writing about movies of the 20th century. But I feel as though Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 silent movie The Gold Rush offers a glimpse just as much into the 19th century. People living harder lives much nearer to the start of the 20th century, and nearer to the knowledge or the fear of privation, had senses of humor that do not entirely translate, seemingly because the sense of humor was harder as well. The movie’s setting and context are themselves from the 19th century, the Canadian Yukon gold rush of 1896 to 1899, an event to which many of the viewers of this film would have been contemporaries. And while the comedy in this ostensibly light-hearted movie is heavy with sadness, a Chaplin signature, the comedy also is sometimes harrowing. One of the comedic scenes is founded on starvation.

Chaplin as the Little Prospector and his companion Big Jim (Mack Swain) are snowbound in a remote cabin by a Yukon blizzard. As days pass without food, Chaplin turns to cooking and serving his footwear while Big Jim hallucinates that Chaplin is a chicken. The repetition of these images by cartoons of later decades has turned them into tropes, but consider that this humor, when it debuted, could only work for an audience well-enough acquainted with severe hunger to be able to relate to these strange ideas and laugh at them.

Humor elsewhere in the movie is based in cruel mockery. In multiple scenes, groups encountering the Little Prospector suggest, “Let’s have some fun with him.” The audience is invited to laugh at the taunting and trickery toward the movie’s protagonist.

For Chaplin’s character, there is no besting of his tormentors. Nor is there any show of pain on the part of the hero to draw out sympathy from the audience. The only inner life we are allowed to see is his love for the character Georgia, whom he encounters as a dance hall girl. He keeps a photograph of her under his pillow. He accepts her as a party to some of the mockery directed to him in order to have her near.

Georgia intercedes for
the Little Prospector
Victory in this movie does not consist of a defeat of mockers. The Little Prospector and Big Jim become wealthy at the end of the movie with their discovery of gold, but we do not see any of the Chaplin character’s tormentors witness his having become rich. Victory instead is Georgia making clear she at last loves him through a selfless act. Discovering they are traveling on a ship together bound to the United States, she mistakes the Little Prospector for a stowaway and moves to protect him from the ship’s crew, discovering only later he is wealthy, and a luxury passenger.

Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which seeks to discover why violence has declined so dramatically only in recent human history, describes the relatively recent development of a widespread appreciation for the inner lives of others. He credits this in part to the invention and spread of printing, which enabled the spread of literacy, which enabled the spread of essays and novels allowing people to cultivate the habit (which we forget is a habit needing cultivation) of seeing the world through others’ points of view. Proceeding slowly, this line of development would not have been far along at the beginning of the 20th century, and the invention of cinema would serve to hasten it. Thus, the humor of this early movie seems to have been designed to entertain a more callous audience, and yet it has had a lasting impact, an impact transcending its time, perhaps because of the way the object of callousness is the very hero of the story the audience is invited to revel in and follow.

And we see this character fall in love. If I am correct in borrowing Pinker’s view to theorize that the movie audience of nearly 100 years ago was harder and hasher to some extent, and less inclined to imagine the inner life of another, then that theory reaches its limit when it comes to the romantic yearning of this character. The story takes it for granted that the audience could fully recognize and appreciate this silent movie’s portrayal of the intensity of meeting, falling for, becoming captived by, and pining after an object of one’s heart.

In other words, the movie seems to expect the audience will be cavalier and unsympathetic to the Little Prospector as the victim of suffering and torment, but it also seems to expect the audience will recognize and fully appreciate the experience of falling deeply in love.

In this contrast, is there any sense of a trade having been made?

I don’t know that the following is true, but I feel that less of our art and fewer of the products of our popular culture today are about falling in love and experiencing romantic love. If I looked at the top of the pop music charts from a given week in the 1950s or 60s compared to a week within the current decade, wouldn’t I find that this topic—the strange but common fact that people find themselves falling in love—is less a focus of our art now than it was in the past? (Superficially at least, the answer seems to be yes, based on an internet search of pop music charts and what I able to infer from the titles of songs I don’t recognize.) And if indeed our culture has come to this—valuing one another more but being moved by romantic love less—then likely there is some cord of explanation that connects the one development to the other.

Perhaps it is this: If we are more safe now from material need, and if we are more safe now from the psychic trauma of mockery, could it be that the desire is quieted that might otherwise pine more ardently for a soulmate?

I live in the most fortunate part of the world. That is, I live in the modern world that is experiencing the most gentle times there have ever been. In this world, have we been spared the blows that would otherwise soften our hearts into crying out their deepest yearnings?

Rear Window (1954)—What Limits You Is What Empowers You

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Jesus said to love your neighbor. He went on to explain who your neighbor is. A neighbor, he said to a critic who was looking for a loophole, need not be someone you have known or seen. Your neighbor might just as well be a stranger from far away. The teaching still applies to us today, of course. But today, I wonder if there isn’t an extent to which we need the opposite message. Who is my neighbor? What if he is, well … my neighbor?

To be a believer in Jesus Christ is to have been chosen. We can succumb to exalting ourselves over this, as in: He chose ME. But that exalting places the emphasis in the wrong place. The truth is, He CHOSE me, because I could not have chosen for myself. The Lord renewed my mind; he gave me eyes to see. He called me out of darkness because I couldn't find the way.

As a direct result of exalting ourselves over the fact of having faith, we overcomplicate the question of what the purpose of our redeemed lives should be. We seek exalted missions for these presumably exalted selves. But what if God is giving simple assignments? What if the creator of the universe, the creator of your purpose and mine, has arranged the universe so that we are near to the purposes he has for us? What I am suggesting here is that the purpose you have the means and opportunity to fulfill right now, quite possibly the one you are already fulfilling, might be the work or the role God has in mind for you in advancing his kingdom. And I am further suggesting that the people near you right now—your neighbors, maybe—are the people God has given you to serve.

The movie Rear Window is about a man who discovers something like this. He discovers his neighbors, both literally and in a sense near to what Jesus meant. L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photojournalist accustomed to traveling the world, but a broken leg in a rigid plaster cast has trapped him in a wheelchair and in his small apartment. To pass the time, he watches his neighbors out the window that faces a courtyard into which many other neighbors’ windows open. And through one of these windows, he believes he sees a crime. The plot and drama of the movie turn on this.

But more broadly, Jefferies sees people. He comes to know them, comes to love them, comes to care about them. And in the case of that one scene in one of those apartments, he becomes personally involved and sees something he can do.

It is not hard to discern the message in all of this. Stewart’s portrayal of the adventurer suffering and bored because of the injury that traps him in a chair gives me an image I can summon the next time I am afflicted, the next time I feel I am stifled because of a development that keeps me from progressing the way I would choose. When I am halted in this way, brought down by circumstance or setback, I can wait, as this character waited. I can watch. I can ask what—or whom—the Lord has for me to see.

*   *   *

A few other observations about this film. I have been watching movies and writing this series of posts to infer what the 20th century was all about. This movie dispels two assumptions I might have made about the people of that century who lived before me:

1. I thought the phenomenon of not knowing the people who live in close proximity to us is a modern strangeness, something we have come to only recently. However, this movie accepts that state of affairs as a situation that all of the audience would have known well. One of the characters at one point (railing to the community about her dead dog, the cause of death she suspects one of her neighbors of knowing) delivers an impassioned speech about the selfishness of people not caring whom they live near. This speech would have fallen flat unless theatergoers then were as guilty as I am of living close to people and knowing little about them.

2. I might have been tempted to think that the practice and awareness of Christian faith were more common and more public in the past. But no, when the verse about “love your neighbor” is mentioned in this movie, it is not as a biblical verse. Female lead character Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) says, “Wasn’t there an old saying about ‘love thy neighbor’?” Of course, to me and to others who feel as I do, this verse amounts to more than an old saying; it is a teaching of the incarnate God. But I think this line delivered by Kelly’s character hints at how there were more churchgoers in the past, which is something apart from there being more lives renewed by faith. Her “old saying” line reveals scripture having been taught as literature, blending in with other books taught to this character as a schoolgirl. The instruction stuck with her sufficiently that it was recalled to mind, but it had no impact on her except as a curiosity that seemed to fit the occasion. Since the movie did not aim to make any point about faith or scripture, this detail from the character strikes me as credible. In the past, there was a larger share of the populace who had heard scripture and more who had attended church, but then as now, the Lord was choosing for faith those whom he would choose.

And one more observation that seems worth making about Rear Window:

3. The premise of the story could never work today. It could not have worked just a couple of decades after the film premiered. The reason is air conditioning, which would soon become commonplace. In the heat of the summer, people would no longer open their windows. Today, we speak of the problem of technology isolating us, but we tend to have in mind the technology in our pockets. Technology having this effect is actually a much older problem than our electronics. In incremental steps, it has been sealing us off. Beginning with control over our personal climates and the way that this removed us from our windowsills and porches, the advance of technology has steadily been taking us away from one another.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)—A Broad-Shouldered Melody?

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

There is a ballet built into Singin’ in the Rain. The ballet’s title, according to the characters in the film, is “Broadway Melody.”

Singing’ in the Rain is the story of actors and a film studio head making a movie in the 1920s. Gene Kelly and Jean Hagan portray two superstar silent movie icons, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont. For public consumption, the two pretend to be in a romance. To Lockwood, this is entirely a fiction and he seeks to keep distant from Lamont. But Lamont both presumes and expects an actual romance with him, and she is willing to advance schemes in order to have this. Meanwhile, a disruptive new technology has appeared: movies with sound. Lockwood is able to adapt into the medium but Lamont cannot. Unknown to her fans, her voice is shrill and her dialect uncouth. Therefore, in the talking movie these characters are preparing to make, Lamont will lip-synch the lines and the singing delivered by a new discovery, Kathy Selden, portrayed by Debbie Reynolds. Lockwood (Kelly) loves Selden (Reynolds), and the movie’s tension turns on Lamont’s efforts to sabotage Selden’s hope of being with Lockwood or having a career beyond being the famous star’s hidden voice. There is, of course, a happy ending in which Lamont’s machinations are gloriously defeated and Lockwood and Selden go forward together happily, Selden becoming a screen icon whose romance with Lockwood is no fiction.

That is the movie. But inside the movie, as I say, is a ballet. I call it a ballet because, though some of its songs have simple lyrics, its story is told almost entirely through dance. This segment is a portion of the movie the characters are producing as part of the real movie’s story, and we get to see this much of their movie as they intend for it to be seen. In other words, there is a ballet within the movie within the movie. Got that?

The ballet within the musical. Charise
as the woman in the green sequined
dress and Kelly as Lockwood
portraying the hoofer.
Here is the story told by that ballet, “Broadway Melody”:

A young “hoofer” (dancer) portrayed by Lockwood (who is portrayed in turn by Kelly; still got it?) comes to New York City from far away to pursue a career in dance. He is awkward, and dressed strangely. In stylized encounters, he finds his way to one talent agent after another. To each he proclaims in song, “Gotta dance!” To each he gives a demonstration of his talent. One agent ultimately accepts him, rushing him into performing in a club, which—we soon come to realize—is run or controlled by crime figures. We learn this when the hoofer comes upon the woman in the green sequined dress, portrayed by real-life actress Cyd Charise.

Through dance, we understand that the hoofer falls in love with her. Or is captivated by her. We do not know precisely; a ballet’s beauty is realized partially in our own inferences. But she is less devoted to him. The scarred gangster whose signature move in the dance is to methodically flip a coin leads her away by laying riches (jewelry) before her, as two silent henchmen, also flipping coins, bar the hoofer from going after her.

In vignettes, we see the hoofer’s career advance. He gives essentially the same performance in one setting after another that is better than the one before. He becomes a star. At a stylish and elegant party, he is the toast of all in attendance.

The imagined dance between the
hoofer and the woman last seen
in the green sequined dress.
And he is heartbroken. We see this when the woman in the green sequined dress appears at the party. There is an expression on her face; what are we to infer there? She feels something: regret over her choices, or remorse for hurting him, or resentment toward those who drew her away. And then there is a dance between the hoofer and her, with the audience understanding that this dance is being imagined by one or both. The imagined dance is the enactment of the characters’ recognition of what might have been and what now cannot be. Dejected, the hoofer returns to the street, the streets of New York City.

And this is what he finds: He finds a young hoofer, awkward and strangely dressed, who has just arrived from far away to pursue a career in dance. This familiar stranger proclaims in song, “Gotta dance!”

There is a notion that lavish Hollywood musicals date from a simpler time. A contrived and superficially upbeat story such as Singing’ in the Rain could only appeal to simpler audiences ready to be fed on simple themes. Or so the thinking goes. But inside of Singin’ in the Rain is “Broadway Melody,” a shadowed story speaking poignantly about human longing, disappointment, love, and hope. That allegedly simple audience for the film must not have been so simple at all, because they were the same audience prepared to receive this ballet.

In “Broadway Melody,” Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood also portrays the singer introducing the ballet’s story. The lyrics of the introductory song offer a clue to why we might misperceive what the audiences were seeing when they were witness to a movie like Singin’ in the Rain. That song says:

Don’t bring a frown to old Broadway
Ah, you gotta clown on Broadway
Your troubles there, they're out of style
'Cause Broadway always wears a smile

Those lyrics shock today. Your troubles are “out of style,” meaning unacceptable to others? And therefore we should not frown, but instead we are to “clown” and “always wear a smile”? This sounds to us like repression. This sounds to us like being false about what we feel. Maybe it is.

Or maybe not. There is this passage from scripture: We are to “carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” but at the same time, and just as importantly, “each person will have to carry his own load” (Galatians 6:2,5).

Perhaps people at the time when this movie was created had a different sense of which portion of their lot was their load rather than their burden. Perhaps they had a different sense of what it was that was theirs alone to carry, smiling rather than imposing onto others. They knew pain; the ballet could not have spoken to them if they did not. But perhaps they also appreciated the lightness of the musical as a counterweight to the pain, a welcome rest against the various loads that each of the audience members—in all the seats within the darkened theater—were exerting the strength to carry.

Stay in the Boat: Rereading Peter’s Walk on Water

Here is a fact from scripture that is relatively well known because it is often discussed: Jesus was not the only one to walk on water. Famously, Peter did, too, for the span of what would appear to have been a few halting steps. The scene is familiar to many, as it is practically a staple in contemporary writings and teaching aimed at Christians. And (in my view) the scene is widely misconstrued.

Specifically, when Peter walked on water, it is widely held that he did something laudable and important, something you and I ought to emulate. There is a Christian book whose title makes this suggestion: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (John Ortberg). Yet if we do indeed desire to “walk on water”—whether in reality or in the symbolic equivalent of stepping out into some similarly great action—is this a desire we should act upon?

In examining the details of this passage of scripture, I would like to point out that we are in fact not called by this passage to attempt to walk on water the way Peter did. And therefore we also are not called by this passage to pursue some symbolic equivalent of this act in our lives.

We are not called to do what Peter did, because in this story, Peter was disobedient.

I’ll develop this. First, here is the complete passage of scripture describing the scene:

Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After dismissing the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. But the boat was already over a mile from land, battered by the waves, because the wind was against them. Around three in the morning, he came toward them walking on the sea.  When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear. 

Immediately Jesus spoke to them. “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter answered him, “command me to come to you on the water.”

“Come!” he said.

And climbing out of the boat, Peter started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid. And beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand, caught hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those in the boat worshiped him and said, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

—Matthew 14:22-33

This incident occurs only once in time and once in the Bible. After the scene above, never again in scripture do we hear of Peter or any other disciple attempting to walk on water. And only thanks to one gospel writer do we learn of this scene. While Matthew, Mark, and John all recount the same incident of Jesus walking out across the sea, Matthew alone mentions Peter’s similar act. In all this, we see that the people who were witness to Peter’s act and knowledgeable about it do not seem to have responded as though Peter did something exemplary or even significant. Why?

I believe it helps to highlight seven points:

(1) At the start of the passage above, Jesus gave his men a command. He wanted them to get into the boat; he wanted them to travel to the other side of the lake.

(2) When Jesus walked out onto the water to meet the boat a mile from shore, his disciples thought he was a ghost. When they heard their Lord’s voice say, “It is I,” they knew differently.

The text does not state explicitly they knew differently, but we hear no more about their fear after this point. And Peter knows, because he now addresses Jesus as “Lord” and he asks something of him, a call and an empowerment, that he could only expect Jesus to grant.

However....

(3) Peter apparently chose to forsake this knowledge, not accepting Jesus’ statement of identification. In the hope of something more, some special treatment, he asked the Lord to prove himself. If it is you, Peter asked, then give special notice to me.

Again, Peter knew this was Jesus. And Jesus had already given a command (point 1) that Peter now chose to ignore.

And yet....

(4) God honors our choice to be disobedient. He does not wreak vengeance when we go our own way. He even sustains us through the peril of the way we have chosen. Thus, Peter asked the Lord, “Command me to come.” And as requested, though it was contrary to what Jesus had previously commanded, he gave Peter this new command.

But look what happens:

(5) As soon as Peter found himself in perceivable danger, he embraced what he knew all along. That is, as soon as he was sinking, his words were no longer, “If it is you.” All of a sudden, his words became, “Lord, save me!” The truth of Peter’s willfulness was revealed.

(6) Look who gets rebuked in this story. Once the rescue has been made and the story is done, who gets scolded? Answer: Just one person. Contrary to the premise of the book title mentioned earlier, Jesus has no criticism for the people who stayed in the boat.

(7) At last, when Jesus got into the boat—that is, when Jesus joined his disciples in the place where he asked them to be—there was peace. As scripture says, the wind ceased.

Peter in this scene was disobedient. He sought to practice something like the power of Jesus for the sake of his personal glory or thrill. We are not called to this personal exaltation. Peter fell. Jesus saved him. Thereafter, Peter was never seen to attempt something like walking on water again. Much later, when Peter was at sea and he saw the risen Jesus on shore, Peter jumped into the water and swam (John 21:7).

We consider Peter’s action to have been exemplary because he performed a miracle. However, Jesus cares nothing for miracles, at least not in and of themselves. To the ones who claim to belong to him because of the miracles they have done in his name, Jesus says, “I never knew you; away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23). In the incident of walking on water, Peter’s miracle was self-aggrandizing and vain. The call of the Lord is not like this. The Lord calls us into faith because of the power our transformed lives will have in advancing his kingdom, whether that happens by miracle or not.

Thus, the way of Jesus is potentially very simple. It might even be peaceful in the midst of the storm. The Lord has work that he leads us through. He has places he assigns us and he has roles for us to perform. Our time within these places and roles is brief, amounting to just a short journey, a little time within a boat. If the Lord calls you into such a vessel, how do you come to believe the better choice is to step out of it?

North by Northwest (1959)—Up from Action

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

In watching North by Northwest, I was struck by how well society functions. At least, society as portrayed in this film.

In the course of this film’s events, we encounter porters, telegrams, comfortable trains, and visitors enjoying a pleasant time in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Protagonist Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) wears a gray flannel suit all through the movie and does so happily, a model of conformity to this system that hums along so well.

The film is a thriller based on mistaken identity. Thornhill, a thriving advertising executive, is mistaken for “George Kaplan” by two men looking for this person in a hotel bar. Thornhill simply raises his hand to summon a waiter in seeming response to the waiter calling out Kaplan’s name. The mistake proves harrowing, as “Kaplan” (an identity later found to be fictional, a ruse advanced by U.S. government agents) is the object of the machinations of international spies. Roger Thornhill is kidnapped by the thugs and swept into a drama that his captors and pursuers throughout the movie assume he understands.

Grant’s character is interesting for what he does not do, for the role I have been conditioned by modern movies to expect that he will take, but to which he never succumbs. Within this action movie, which features explosions (well, one explosion), a chase scene on the very faces of Mount Rushmore, and the pursuit of a running man by an airplane in the movie's signature scene—through all of this, Roger Thornhill never becomes an action hero. The character never embraces the action of the events, never relishes it or becomes excited by it as an encouragement to our excitement. Thornhill stands up to his captors more out of indignation than out of becoming a heroic adversary to their aims. There is nothing brash, combative, or dynamic about him. He keeps that gray suit practically all through the movie, shedding it at one point only to get it laundered.

And he does not fight. Today, the routine convention of the action movie has the hero discovering some previously unknown skill or inclination for fighting his antagonists. By contrast, in this movie, we have a scene with Grant in which he judges that he can’t overcome his captors and refuses even to try. The message of the modern action movie is that physical action is a better way, the transcendent way, and the ending of such a movie typically has its hero transformed into discovering he is better and more powerful than the banal and conforming way of his workaday society. Cary Grant discovers no such thing. To the contrary, he doubles down on his everyday world in the end. Once the villain is defeated and his character is free, he not only returns to his old life, but he pulls spy and female lead Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) into that life with him by marrying her.

It wouldn’t last. The time of this movie’s release was just 17 years away from Taxi Driver’s portrayal of the same society as something festering, something in decay. Maybe either portrayal is exaggerated and maybe both are, but why these two portrayals? Why the change, across less than two decades? What did the moviegoers of 1959 believe, or what did they know?

I wrote in a previous post about how World War II casts a long shadow over the films I have been watching.

When North by Northwest was made, did people hold their society in higher regard? Did they appreciate society more than Taxi Driver’s audience did and more than we do now?

It would seem they did. And with reason: In the real world in which this movie was made, as recently as 14 years prior to the movie, the chance to move forward peacefully and flourish by wit within a smoothly humming society was denied to most. Families were separated and careers put on hold as soldiers and sailors served far away. Thus, our action heroes of today—including the violent protagonist of a version of this movie if it had been made today—would offer a transparent fiction to the audience of 1959. Presented with such a character, those viewers would have seen right through him.

For that audience, fighting was not transcendent. Fighting would not have made the movie interesting. The people then knew all about fighting. They knew what fighting looked like and what it could and could not accomplish. Violent action was not exotic, not drama.

Instead, strikingly, the theme of this movie, the predicament that apparently spoke to them and captured their attention, had to do with how to resist action being forced upon them.

The drama of North by Northwest turned on this question: Can the man brought into a dangerous situation against his will—in a way, drafted into that situation—find his way back home safely? And more than that, can he find his way up out of that action into living peacefully and living nobly once again? Living and thriving in society once again? Compared to these questions, the aspirations of our modern fantasies unfortunately point downward, point southerly, aiming the opposite way from this film’s direction.

From Here to Eternity (1953)—Our Principles Fall

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, an ending of the world by God. Our faith does not require this. The prophecies of the New Testament, whether spoken by Jesus or written by John, do not have to be understood this way. When Jesus hanging on the cross said, “It is finished,” it was truly so. God and humanity would be reconciled, and the new creation was underway from that point forward. We are living—just as the title of the famous movie would have it—from here to eternity.

In the movie From Here to Eternity, two men are stuck in the “here.” They are stuck in the positions in which they find themselves in the Army, at their posting at a not-yet-famous location in the Hawaiian islands just before the United States has entered World War II. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), who has recently transferred to this base, finds that his reputation has transferred ahead of him. A talented middleweight boxer, he refuses to join the company boxing team—the pride and passion of the commander, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober)—because of Prewitt’s determination not to risk repeating a tragedy, his once blinding a man by injuring him in the boxing ring. The private’s refusal to add his talents to the company team brings the ire of Holmes and his boxers, who inflict punishments on him including forced marches and menial duty.

Lancaster and Clift
Prewitt’s commitment to his principles and his endurance in the face of suffering draw the attention of First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who competently runs the Army base on Oahu in the vacuum left by the neglect of the boxing-obsessed (and philandering-obsessed) commander. Warden falls in love with the commander’s neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), who promises to divorce her husband and marry Warden if he will become an officer. But in this she has come to the point of Warden’s principles. Whatever his gifts, whatever his leadership, the sergeant is determined that he is an enlisted man. Remaining true to himself and his dignity requires this. He refuses to repudiate his status for the sake of becoming an officer and obtaining authority over other men.

The wonderful thing about this movie, and the profound truth it expresses that gives the viewer pause, is found in the way the story has no care for the principles of either man. Our principles do not necessarily matter, in part because our principles do not necessarily express a commitment to morality or truth, even when we find high-sounding ideals to attach to them. Our principles can express our pride even when they are wearing morality or truth as raiment. The conceit of both of these men in the movie who are standing on their principles is that they are making a claim to know the future. They insist they know exactly what effect their decisions will have and where their choices might take them.

The most brilliant scene in this movie is not the iconic scene of Lancaster and Kerr kissing on the beach as the tide comes in. That scene was just a special effect, a trick of timing. The most brilliant scene in the movie is when Lancaster’s Sergeant Warden walks out from behind his desk, the desk at which we have seen him sitting from the viewpoint of only one camera angle throughout the movie so far. As he leaves his desk, the camera pivots for the first time to follow him, and thus we learn something about the office we have never seen before. The office has a calendar on the wall facing the desk. Perhaps illogically (the detail only bothered me when I thought about it later), it is a daily calendar like one that might be used in a bank. A single large number announces the day’s date. Lancaster’s character walks over to this calendar as he is speaking on the phone and, still talking into the receiver, he happens to lean on the wall beside it. Though he is naturally oblivious to the date, we see it and cannot help but take note. We learn that the day’s date, for these two men who are stuck, for everyone else at this base on Oahu, is December 6, 1941.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor comes the next day. Warden is surprised, Prewitt is surprised, the entire base is surprised and thrown into confusion, until the soldiers begin to understand, begin to rally, and even begin to fight back, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Warden.

The base’s new commander (Captain Holmes’ abuses having been found out by this point) is not to be found at the moment of the attack. Events therefore give no regard to Warden’s principles; he is thrust into the role of an officer even if he does not formally hold the rank. It is he to whom the men look, it is Warden who hastily organizes resistance against the Japanese, and it is even he who has the ammunition storage shed torn open when he is told that an officer’s key is needed to unlock it.

The events are equally callous toward Prewitt’s principles. He could have joined the boxing team anyway. Because of this attack and because of the war it will bring, there would never have been any intracompany boxing championship for him, or even a single match to fight. All of that would have been abandoned.

It is a surprising moral, but one the story invites us to contemplate. Our principles are our pride, or they might as well be. Our principles—the codes we write for ourselves—are not necessarily the codes to which we are called.

An error we make in choosing these principles, or choosing these boxes that we dignify to be principles, is that events are not constant. The time and the season are not constant. Things change, as you know. The circumstances around us will shift or dissolve, and the next instance of this dissolution could happen any moment. It could happen tomorrow. (What is today’s date?)

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean much. It might come anyway. At the very least, God has all manner of small apocalypses in store. They are terrible and total while they are happening, and the pain and loss are consequences of the fact that Death still has its way. Yet the work of Jesus is finished, and one consequence of this is that Death has been routed and its rule has been deposed. Thus, life awakens past every such apocalypse. The new creation brings freedom, including shedding the shackles of what we thought would happen, and dropping the burden of that person we had thought ourselves to be.


The Wild Bunch (1969)—Tactics Alone Provide Nothing

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

“Let the dead bury their own dead,” said Jesus.

A scene from the 1969 western The Wild Bunch portrayed a perverse caricature of this very principle. Fleeing on horseback after their attempted railroad office robbery had turned into a gun battle, a group of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) are slowed by the members of their band who had been wounded in the fight. One rider falls and can no longer continue. Bishop shoots him dead. Another senior member of the outlaw gang, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) looks on. When two others in the band want to pause to bury their fallen companion, Engstrom objects to the risky and unnecessary delay, saying:

“I think the boys are right. I’d like to say a few words for the dear, dead departed. And maybe a few hymns’d be in order. Followed by a church supper. With a choir!”

Engstrom’s mocking rejection advocates the same action and logic as the call from Jesus, though of course the parallels end there. Jesus’ command had to do with letting go of the burdens of obedience to this world for the sake of the kingdom already moving and transforming the world. “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and spread the news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). By contrast, the bandits wanted to get away with their loot. (And fitting to the comparison I am making here, that loot in this story proved illusory. The thieves stole a decoy cash box full of steel washers rather than coins.)

The point I am offering in describing the scene this way is this: The tactics contained within the commands of Christ have power and efficacy apart from the way of Christ. That way—the way of “Take up your cross and follow me,” the way of “If you love me, obey my commands”—consists of something other than effective tactics or wise strategies. Improvements to tactics can come to anyone over time. Wisdom will also come over time, and a clarifying of values or purpose might come as well. But a life or a mind that sees changes such as these, that becomes more mature and effective, might still be a life or a mind that is directed toward futility. The tactics of Jesus’ teachings about living for him can also be applied to aims that are pointless and deathly, so without him, we might resemble Jesus now and again as we are heading all the more effectively toward oblivion.

The Wild Bunch is the story of a group of characters who are appealing to us in their fellowship to one another, and in the fact that the story offers them as protagonists, but who otherwise do not merit our sympathy. The robbery in the opening scene was confounded by an ambush by bounty hunters, leading to a shootout in which not only robbers and bounty hunters were lost, but also innocents caught in the crossfire. We see no remorse; the movie is about the aging Holden and Borgnine’s desperate attempt to pull off one more daring and lucrative robbery to overcome the failure of this attempt before the end of their luck or abilities brings an end to their career.

I said fellowship. There is a certain code this group of bandits lives by. Or, at the very least, they believe there is such a code. Confronting a warlord general who brutally rules a small community in Mexico, Borgnine declares, “We’re not like him.... We don't hang people!” But as the viewer of this scene, I don’t know whether I am being asked to take his word for this. Borgnine’s character had never been in a position of autocratic power. Given the distance he had already gone in his chosen work to rationalize violent death, wouldn’t he be able to go farther still to rationalize hanging as well? (Indeed, how much of any of our success at adhering to a code is the result of simply the opportunities we have been given? Not for nothing does the prayer say, “Lead us not into temptation.”) We then see the same murkiness around the men’s seeming loyalty to a companion—their seeming fellowship—in their attempt to assuage the general’s anger over a murder this companion committed. The men end up not rescuing their companion from this enemy, but accepting a job in the general’s service.

The one clear aspect of the men’s code to which they remain committed is what drives the story of the movie: determination toward the goal. Bishop, Engstrom, and the remaining survivors of their wild bunch will not relent in their pursuit of gold. “These are men,” says Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of their crew who pursues them throughout the movie, having been caught and turned by the authorities. These are men, he says, meaning they have the strength that comes from mature self-knowledge, even character. Yet all of that power is directed toward an elusive aim that can only come to nothing.

At the start of the movie, we see children watching a scene on the earth at their feet: a swarm of ants overwhelming and devouring a pair of scorpions. The scorpions are more powerful, but the ants are ravenous, and in the end numerous enough to destroy them. The children watching this scene from above are watching with—God’s viewpoint? The children choose no winners in this particular contest, they just watch the event unfold. And at the end of the movie, we are given something like the same view. The general kills the member of the gang who has angered him, and the gang kills the general. Mexicans authorities who had been under the command of the fallen general overwhelm the gang. It becomes clear in this fight that there is no outcome for the Wild Bunch except for their lives to end. Which, it needs to be said, was their predicament all along.

Stones

I sometimes experience remembered joy as a source of pain.

The memory of the joy provokes an indictment in my mind. There is a wincing self-infliction. Its source is an irrational fear. Its source is the fear of scarcity. Upon remembering joy, I feel the fear that joy is finite, that joy is scarce. I suffer under the false belief that as my life advances, more of the share of joy allotted to me is being lost into the past. The pain comes from the sense that I somehow ought to have been wiser about experiencing the joy better or holding onto it more tightly so that I could drag it a little farther with me into the future.

Example: One Saturday morning I ended up skipping stones with my younger daughter at the river not far from our house. This moment was, I now realize without much difficulty, one of joy. The moment was soulfully nourishing in a way that happiness is not. (More on that distinction in a bit.) The stone-skipping interlude is still so recent that I do not yet encounter my memory of it as pain, but I know from long experience that the memory has the potential to come to that. Right now, accurately or not, I still feel as though the exact magic of that moment could be recaptured. But this daughter of mine will grow, she will become more complex, she will no longer be as open to visiting the river with her dad, and I will naturally be tempted to look back on that moment as something lost. I will miss having the chance to go skip stones with a 10-year-old. I will feel this memory as an avenue no longer open. Yet the falseness of that feeling is found here: It fails to account for other avenues of joy that will have opened within that future time when I will feel this. Changes over time are not always losses, even though we are biased toward thinking this way. We have this bias simply because we know what has been, but we do not know what is coming. In my ignorance over what is to come, I pine over the known joys of the past rather than anticipating the joys before me that as yet are only known by God.

Joy and happiness are different. I’ve written about this, most recently here. What is joy, and how does it differ? The bible gives clues to a definition. According to Galatians 5:22-23, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control.” The significant detail within this passage is “fruit,” the word being singular rather than plural. That is, these qualities are not “fruits” of the outflow of the Spirit, like a basket of varied and different fruits. There is one “fruit” and it is all these things. Joy, whatever it is, is the state that is also marked by the presence of rising and outflowing love, peace, patience, and the rest, all at the same time. What is joy? Joy is that thing that has love, peace, and patience in the mix as inherent parts of the very same thing.

Happiness does not have this quality. Happiness is more the state of a void being filled with the activity or attainment that can temporarily fill it. I may feel happy while cliff diving or eating ice cream. I may feel happy watching a particular TV show. I may feel happy if people are saying nice things about me because I have just done something they like. But none of these experiences comes with peace, patience, or love. Happiness is a pursuit, an activity positively performed or an object positively achieved. Joy, by contrast, is found in the negative space or the passive space, the air around and among these pursuits. Where happiness is an attainment, joy is that which is allowed to come when the obstacles to joy clear away.

Obstacles such as fear. As in my fear of scarcity. Let me make a vow, then: I will refuse to engage with such fear. (Can I make that refusal stick?)

Or obstacles such as hurt. A commitment, then: I will refuse to accept this hurt. (Is that choice available to me?)

Or obstacles such as isolation, which is often self-imposed. Or obstacles such as plans, which multiply with my ego’s assertion of all that I can or must do.

The time spent throwing stones happened because it was allowed to happen, and because it was the right thing to happen in the moment when it was allowed. The time spent throwing stones happened because I was blessed enough that all those obstacles fell away.

Let me not be mystical, however. In all this discussion of joy as a spiritual state, there is a real physical component. Right now, as I draft these words, I am strong enough not to engage with the fear that might find me, strong enough to avoid this obstacle to joy, largely for the simple reason that I slept well last night. I do not often do this. And the reasons I don’t sleep well often have to do with feeding fears or overfilling plans. Thus, the lack of joy actually follows a feedback loop bigger than just the quality of my attention or spirituality in a given moment or a decision I make right now. If I feed fear enough, or feed pride enough regarding all that I imagine I should do, then I can make my very brain and body too restless for joy to take root in my mind. I might be joyless simply because I have cultivated that state. That is, I might be helpless in my joylessness, because the obstacles to joy have already been raised against it.

Discovering this, there is nothing to do. There is nothing to do when this has happened, except the Spirit will find the way back. Or no.

No, that’s not quite the right way to express it. The Spirit will not find the way back, because the Spirit has no way back to find. The Spirit is not the party that became lost.

And here we come to an important point: Joy is fixed within the world. Joy is constant. Again, joy is altogether different from happiness in this regard. As we have seen, joy is an outflow of the Creator. Joy is the sun at the center of world’s system, and like the sun it relentlessly exerts its gravity.

It is we who lose our way. Defining the universe as being no bigger than our selves, we find no joy within it and despair. We then muscle through, doing without joy, perceiving that joy seemingly has spilled entirely away from what this universe contains.

But if we admit that joy is constant and it is bigger than us, if we accept this, then we can stop. We can stop as best we are able.

We stop, and we wait for the gravity of the sun to overcome the inertia of our failed attempt to throw ourselves into some other orbit that, instead of being higher up, is actually just farther out into the dark. We stop and we wait—we wait perhaps quite a while—until that inertia plays itself out and the arc of our trajectory brings us dropping like a stone back into joy’s orbit again. There is no sin in waiting for joy in this way.

I mentioned scarcity, my fear that joy is limited and I am spending my share.  The scarcity mentality is actually a particularly painful fallacy because it not only turns memories to pain, but also makes the prospect of the future painful. According to this fear, the future is a place that will have less and less joy in it.

However, if God is love (I John 4:8) and if love is joy (Galatians 5:22, as explained above), then by the nature of equivalency, God is joy.

God is joy. Which means that joy is not scarce at all, but is as infinite as God is.

There will always be joy. There will always be plenty. There will always be more joy to come. And when it comes to joy—not the case with happiness, but when it comes to joy—it is we who will always be too scarce to contain it all.

The Third Man (1949)—Fewer Words

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American writer visiting Vienna just after World War II when it is carved among the occupying Americans, British, French and Soviets. Though he is there at the invitation of his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), he arrives in the city to discover that this friend has just died—or so it would seem.

The movie is eerie, capturing the out-of-sorts feeling of being an outsider who is trying to move against the wearying riptide of a culture that doesn’t accept you. The moviemakers employ this distant historical context to produce a feeling that is enervating and familiar.

The movie is also modern. I’ve just recently watched other 1940s movies. This one has discovered a trick those other films don’t know. Namely, the actors in a film—where we can see the speaker’s face and thereby pick up nonverbal cues—need not speak in the overfull statements and completed sentences of the live stage. Back then, people were not really so verbal or prosaic as they were presented in the era’s films. It is simply that in the first couple of decades of audible film, we had not yet figured out how to use this medium to accurately depict our world.

The breakthroughs are obvious only in retrospect. Perhaps there is some medium today—I think of e-books—that we are still employing according to dated conventions, no longer valid, so that the medium’s full potential for authenticity and impact have not yet been found.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)—The Laughter Bought with Failure

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Reflecting upon The Treasure of the Sierra Madre brought my thoughts to another movie I had seen, Ocean’s Eleven. The first version, not the remake.

Originally, both films explored a similar theme. Both told stories of men bound together in a scheme to pursue material riches, only to have those riches evaporate in the end, with the men (those who survived) instead enriched in the less sought-after way of being shaped by an experience. I say “originally,” because Ocean’s Eleven changed. In the 2001 remake of the 1960 movie, the grand scheme to obtain wealth grandly succeeds. The sadness in this is the moviemakers’ apparent decision that the original story no longer provided a satisfying ending. The testing and forging of a man’s soul are no longer adequate to resolve a story. Spectacular riches are needed in order to do that.

Thus, I fear a remake of Sierra Madre. I fear the falseness of the ending it would have. In the modern retelling I imagine, the man overcome by avarice is not done in by it, but rather manages to emotionally bootstrap his way into a greater strength of character at the last minute. Wretched bandits do not kill him in the remake, but instead he overpowers those bandits, rushes back to find the companions he betrayed, and redeems himself to them by saving them from peril and saving everyone’s gold. (But all of this is only my imagining. I googled “treasure of the sierra madre remake” and it looks like we are safe.)

Huston, Holt, and Bogart
In the real movie, Humphrey Bogart gives a gripping performance as Dobbs, a man who descends ever deeper into greed, eventually consumed by it. Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt) are two impoverished Americans living in Mexico. Meeting an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston), they persuade him to lead them into the mountains looking for gold. Unfortunately for Dobbs, they find it. He ultimately betrays his two companions and takes all the gold they had worked to obtain. Then, on his solo flight from them, he is found and overpowered by trio of bandits, a weakened and desperate group that the original three companions could have fended off if they had still been together. The bandits do not even know the dust in the bags on Dobbs’ burros is gold, so they discard it. Much later, Curtin and Howard find these bags torn open in the desert, the strong winds already having blown their contents away.

Howard, the old man, laughs at this. His laugh is joy squeezed through pain, as it dawns on him that the winds are taking the gold back to the very mountains from which the men had worked so hard to extract it. Laughing ever stronger, he says it was worth the ten months of hard labor they spent in the mountains to see this happen and have that experience.

His reaction is shocking, and yet his reaction is the one that this existence calls upon each of us to have, this existence in which nothing is ours to keep. It is the response the new version of Ocean’s Eleven and the remade Sierra Madre of my imagination both do not have the courage to offer, or do not expect their audiences to have the courage to embrace.

With that remade film I keep mentioning, what did happen? Why was there one ending for Ocean’s Eleven at first, then the concession to a less challenging ending when the story was told later? The reason might be something small, such as the changing demographics of moviegoers. Maybe movies today are written for younger people.

Or maybe society today is more infantile than it was, with all of us more dependent on the comforts we enjoy. As our American society has become wealthier, have we undergone the very same transformation as Bogart’s character? A story that acknowledges the value to be found on the other side of the loss of wealth no longer connects with us, because the very thing that this story would have us imagine losing is something to which we now cling with greater fervor.

Then again, the message of the movie may have been just as shocking and powerful back then as it is now. Maybe that’s why it lasted. Indeed, the message of Sierra Madre is about even more than avarice. It is about that only for Dobbs, who is lost and ultimately slain because of the enslavement to his hoard. For the other two men, this story is about failure.

Thankfully, Curtin was not alone when he discovered the empty bags. He had the old prospector there with him in that instant of their comprehension of the loss. The prospector was a guide for him then after all, guiding him by means of laughter through this moment of confusion and pain.

The gold dust blew away. But here is the thing: What if it hadn’t? What if they had kept the gold, brought it home, and spent the money on a sheltered, luxurious life? There still would have been sadness in that life, there still would have been discontentment, and the gold would have blown away simply by a slower means.

This way, Curtin and the prospector would always have the impact of the loss, would always have souls shaped by the intensity of the experience of seeing the riches blown away all at once. As the prospector said, this was worth ten months.

Our great aims and pursuits have value whether or not they bring riches, whether or not they end in the success we sought. Those aims and pursuits might even deliver a greater value if riches or success are not the result. They deliver a greater valueand they deliver a scarier valueif they can somehow bring us to the foot of a realization well beyond what our timid imagination had originally set out to grasp.