The Dark Side of Henry V

Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Technicolor adaptation of Henry V is widely regarded as the play’s defining performance for popular audiences. Henry is a chivalrous king who inspires his men to victory. It is a terrific film, with bold technicolor, inventive storytelling and a fascinating design based on images from the Très Riches Heures. But Olivier’s wartime interpretation leaves out a darker side to Shakespeare’s character.

War Hero

Olivier as Henry V

Olivier as Henry V

Olivier sought financing from the British government by positioning his production as a piece of propaganda. He included this epilogue:

“To the commandoes and airborne troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture in some ensuing scenes, this film is dedicated.”

Frank Benson as Henry V, 1900

Frank Benson as Henry V, 1900

Henry V had been used as a morale-booster for centuries. James Mardock traces the play’s stage performances in England through the Seven Years’, Napoleonic, Crimean and Boer Wars in his Internet Shakespeare Edition essay. Henry’s popularity was at its peak during times of war, naturally. Patriots wanted to see their nation’s war icon on the stage, and governments wanted a hero to inspire the troops.

Anglophones had a different view of Henry during Britain’s occasional periods of peace. Mardock cites George Bernard Shaw’s 1896 complaint about Prince Hal’s “jingoism” and Milton Shulman’s 1951 review of a stage performance in which Shulman said Henry was “a blend of St. George, Lancelot, the Lord Chamberlain and the boy scout who has done the most good deeds of the week.”

Henry V‘s popularity may have been at its lowest between the world wars. The first left Britain disillusioned with ideas of romantic battle. As the second was beginning,the BBC’s Dallas Bower pitched the idea of a Henry V film to the Ministry of Information. Despite the play’s centuries-long history as propaganda, the ministry was skeptical. Film historian Bruce Eder explains in the 1999 Criterion DVD commentary:

“After all, from one point of view, Henry starts a war by invading a country for base economic and political reasons, and justifies his action using an ancient territorial claim. All of this perhaps made Henry seem a bit too much like Adolf Hitler.”

And that’s not the only problem with Henry.

War Criminal

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits in judgment of Henry V

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits in judgment of Henry V

In 2010, Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined with federal appeals judges, sat in judgment of Henry V at a mock trial hosted by the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C.  (You can watch that trial here – and enjoy seeing the justices cutting up with the attorneys)

The court unanimously ruled that Henry V broke international law when he ordered the massacre of French prisoners at Agincourt. They agreed with Henry’s Welsh Captain Fluellen:

Kill the poys and the luggage? ‘Tis expressly against the law of arms. ‘Tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert;, in your conscience, now, is it not?…[4.7.1-4]

Olivier left this order out of his production, as did most popular stagings of the play. It doesn’t sit well with a sympathetic portrayal of Henry. Neither does his threat to the people of Harfleur.

If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen. [3.3.33-41]

Olivier's peaceful depiction of surrender at Harfleur

Olivier’s peaceful depiction of surrender at Harfleur

A traditional defense of historic crimes is that “things were different then” or that humanity’s past butchers were simply “products of their times.” (Defenses used most often in the United States at Confederate battlefields or on Columbus Day.) Shakespeare undercuts that argument in advance. He invokes Herod’s in reference to Harfleur, and Alexander the Great’s murders in reference to the massacre of the prisoners. [4.7.31-38] The mentions of ancient kings are meant to remind a playgoer that the slaughter of unarmed innocents has been considered unacceptable as far back as recorded history goes.

Olivier cuts this scene as well. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 Henry V includes it, but undercuts it with a shot Henry’s face, showing relief at not having to follow through with his threat.

The postwar period has brought us stage interpretations of Henry that find sadism running through his entire life. (See Alternative Shakespeares 3, edited by Diana E. Henderson in 2007) They portray Prince Hal as a sarcastic and entitled youth. He spends his time in Eastcheap playing cruel tricks on his inferiors – and make the most of Hal’s Machiavellian speech at the end of Henry IV Part I’s Act I, Scene II.

I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will. [1.2.317-318]


Our ability to examine the same character through radically different lenses is one of the most cited reasons for the Bard’s current popularity. But can a single stage or screen performance capture the ambiguity in Henry’s character?

The Avengers

The Avengers

Since 9/11, the films that sell the most tickets are those with strong, morally straight heroes with superpowers and/or magic who don’t worry much about collateral damage.

But on television, we’re more similar to Shakespeare’s audience in our acceptance of ambiguous heroes and villains. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are the easiest examples to pick out.

"Let every soldier kill his prisoners." Tom Hiddleston as Henry V

“Let every soldier kill his prisoners.”
Tom Hiddleston as Henry V

BBC’s 2012 The Hollow Crown adaptation of Henry V directed by Thea Sharrock splits the difference. It includes Harfleur and the massacre of the prisoners, but these scenes are a jarring contrast with the rest of the series. In his other sections of the Henriad, Tom Hiddleston plays Hal as an affable prankster who grows into a noble leader concerned about the well-being of his soldiers. This leaves us unprepared for his episodes of viciousness in France, which are puzzling based on everything else Hiddleston has taught us about his character.

It’s a shame, because Shakespeare’s nuanced view of heroism reflects the way the West feels about the current War on Terror. We see ourselves as the Good Guys, who also sometimes do evil. And that’s how I’d like to see Henry.

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The end of The Word

Ordet – The Word (1955) dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

Dreyer OrdetCarl Theodoe Dreyer’s final scene in The Word centers around the resurrection of Inger from her casket. The scene leaves us with a scene of awe, wonder, and hope for life after death. The Word‘s style ensures that the miracle is both narratively sound and emotionally shocking.

The “long takes and slow camera movements” help to “prepare the spectators for the miracle.” (Tybjerd) They bring us out of the quick cuts we’re used to and into a more meditative, reverent space. This spaces allows us to think about our own beliefs. The camera’s pace also mirrors the pace appropriate for a funeral, where we talk slowly and speak slowly. It encourages us to recall funerals from our own memories and liken them to Inger’s – and to anticipate our own. The religious, ponderous atmosphere encourages us to ponder the film’s ideas of faith.

Ordet - Preben Lerdorff RyeThe power of the miracle also comes from its contrast from the rest of the film, which is stark and realistic. Dreyer “did a great deal of research and shot his exteriors on location, seeking to create a stylized, abstracted realism.” (Tybjerd) It would be easy for us to dismiss a miracle if it came in a fantasy movie. But Dreyer makes The Word feel true to life. Johannes seems an unlikely miracle-worker; Dreyer gives him a harshness and makes sure the audience believes he is crazy rather than actually being Jesus, as he claims. When the miracle does happen, we don’t hear angels singing or see a light from the heavens. Instead, “the miracle of resurrection is expressed with such earthy, realistic simplicity and concentrated emotional intensity.” (Granhøj) Inger’s resurrection feels like a real miracle – one that challenges our beliefs.

Tybjerg, Casper, “Sound film and Dreyer’s career as filmmaker,” Scandanavian Film and Television, Web,

Granhøj, Birgit. Carl Th. Dreyer – The Man and His Work, “The Word.” Accessed February 16, 2014.

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Uncertain Detectives

Zodiac (2007) dir. David Fincher

The Five Orange PipsThe 1891 Sherlock Holmes story “The Five Orange Pips” is loaded with some of the genre’s most delicious tropes. It spans two continents, includes a secret society, two mysterious deaths, a will and a locked room mystery. Holmes, true to form, solves the mystery without even leaving his home.

Or at least believes he has solved it. He sends a telegram to a ship he thinks the murderers are traveling on. But it sinks before he has the chance to confirm his theory.

TV Tropes points out that this is hardly the only mystery Holmes could not solve. The website quotes Doctor Watson’s explanation in the 1922 story “The Problem of Thor Bridge,”

The Five Orange Pips“Some, and not the least interesting, were complete failures, and as such will hardly bear narrating, since no final explanation is forthcoming. A problem without a solution may interest the student, but can hardly fail to annoy the casual reader. Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world. No less remarkable is that of the cutter Alicia, which sailed one spring morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew. A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.”

Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle knew his work is unrealistic. But he (and his avatar Watson) also knew Holmes’s failures would not make for popular stories.

zodiac - jake gyllenhaal robert downey jrZodiac, like “The Five Orange Pips,” contains a large number of detective tropes. It starts out like a horror film, grabbing our attention with a graphic murder. We have puzzles, an eager amateur detective, and puzzles left in a newspaper. But the traditional detective framework breaks down as the film drags on. By the end of the movie, we don’t know much more than we did half an hour in. We think we know who the killer could be, but we’re not sure.

In one scene, the police force goes to see Dirty Harry at a theater; a fantasy based loosely on the Zodiac murders, but with a cop who doesn’t follow procedure, and who doesn’t leave any room for uncertainty about guilt or innocence.

Fincher’s movie confronts us with the contrast between the real world of the real-life Zodiac killer and the false world of the movies. Outside the theater, not only are detectives often wrong, but so are prosecutors, judges and juries.

Professionals used to complain that the Sherlock Holmes novels led laypeople to demand unrealistic results from forensic science. Now, there are dozens of conflicting studies about the “CSI Effect.”

Perry Mason - Raymond BurrFrom The American University Law Review, in 1991:

“There is one problem that I call the Perry Mason syndrome. A lawyer who specialized in defending white collar defendants told me what happened when he unexpectedly list a case and his client was convicted. He went up, just shattered, to a juror and asked, “What happened?” The juror said, “When you cross-examined the prosecution’s key witness, you did not get him to confess.” The lawyer realized that here is a real Perry Mason fan, and the real-life lawyer had not measured up.”

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Lawrence, Kierkegaard, and the limits of self-invention

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) dir. David Lean

ImageThe mystery  of Lawrence of Arabia is the person of Lawrence himself.  He is charismatic and captivating, but who is he?  New York Times critic Bosley Crowther famously complained in his 1962 review of the film, “We know little more about this strange man when it is over than we did when it begins.”

I believe we can find a key to the problem of Lawrence in the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.  His 1841 graduate dissertation On the Concept of Irony warns of the dangers of “living poetically” – a type of life that Lawrence appears to have followed.  Kierkegaard’s thesis suggests that we might feel like we know little about Lawrence because by the time the war ended, there simply wasn’t much about Lawrence left to know.

(Note: I refer to the 1992 translation of Kierkegaard’s writings by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.)


What is “living poetically?”

Kierkegaard examines the idea of “living poetically” in the section of The Concept of Irony titled Irony after Ficthe.  In it, Kierkegaard takes aim at a group of young people who live a life of detachment, Kierkegaard explains in a footnote, “I use the terms ‘irony’ and ‘ironist'; I could just as well say ‘romanticism’ and romanticist.'”

They are dreamers who believe they can do anything and be anything they choose, regardless of their surroundings, personal histories, or concrete realities. Essentially, these are people who take motivational GIFs seriously.

Kierkegaard’s example comes from a novel called Lucinde, by Friedrich Schlegel. Lucinde tells the story of the libertine Julian, who attaches himself to a woman named Lisette, in order to learn more about sex.  Although Lisette’s life in the novel revolves around sex, she does not ascribe much emotional importance to it – instead, it is an arbitrary part of her identity that she has chosen arbitrarily.

Sexual licentiousness was far from uncommon in literature, even in the 19th Century.  Kierkegaard’s objection is not that of a puritan complaining about restoration theater.  In fact, he writes:

“There is a moral prudery, a straitjacket, in which no reasonable person can move.  In God’s name, let it break to pieces. Conversely, there are the moonlit theater marriages of exaggerated romanticism for which nature at least can have no purpose and whose unproductive labor pains and weak embraces are of no more service to Christian than to pagan counties. Just give irony a free rein against anything like that. But Schlegel does not limit his attack to only that kind of falsity.”

Kierkegaard takes aim at Schlegel’s characters because they try and invent their own sexual identities on the basis of whims, rather than develop them as an expression of their authentic selves. Schlegel’s characters consciously choose their destiny based on what they consider aesthetically attractive.  For a person living poetically, Kierkegaard writes, “life is a drama, and what absorbs him is the ingenious complication of this drama.  He himself is a spectator, even when he himself is the one acting.”

This type of “poetic living” can most obviously be seen in online personas, which represent real people, but are not the real people themselves.  My Facebook profile does not reflect my personality, but is rather a constructed persona that I created, curating things from my real life based on aesthetic concerns.

Or, take the example of reality show celebrities.  It is impossible to tell where the character ends and the real person begins.  There is little agreement as to how much of the 2011 Kardashian – Humphries relationship was real and how much was staged.  Personally, I doubt Kardashian knows herself.

Self-invention or “self discovery” is currently considered a rite of passage for young Americans. The Onion expertly satirized this in two articles from more than a decade ago – Lesbian Identity Ends Abruptly Mid-Junior Year and College Freshman Cycles Rapidly Through Identities. From the latter article:

“I almost feel bad for introducing him to weed,” said Tim Hiller, Vanderkamp’s friend. “After meeting my friend Sky, Kirk started talking about dropping out of school and joining a Buddhist monastery. Of course, a couple days later, he also said he was going to learn to play bass and get a jam band together. He said the monks would be cool about it.”

Kierkegaard was much less gentle in his critiques:

“many an ironist, before finding rest in nothing, has run through much stranger fata [destines] than the rooter presented in Lucian, which had first been Pythagoras himself, then Aspasia, the dubious beauty from Miletus, then Crates the Cynic, then a king, a beggar, a satrap, a horse, a jackdaw, a frog, and a thousand other things too numerous to mention, then finally a rooster, and that more than once, because it found the most pleasure in being a rooster.”

This isn’t to diminish Kierkegaard’s writing into a screed against 19th-century hipsters.  He warns against poetic living that divorces itself from reality or that creates a persona without a person; in postmodern language, a simulacra without a thing being simulated.  What happens when I take the next step from cultivating an attractive Facebook profile, divorce it from my true self — and then cultivate my life in order to fit what I think might look good on a Facebook profile?

Kierkegaard sees that as nothing less than the destruction of the self.  “in order to really and thoroughly to be able to create himself poetically, the ironist must have no an sich. [in itself]…. Therefore the ironist frequently becomes nothing, because what is not true for God is true for man — out of nothing comes nothing.  But the ironist continually preserves his poetic freedom, and when he notices that he is becoming nothing, he includes that in his poetizing.”

“Irony is indeed free, free from the sorrows of actuality, but also free from its joys, free from its blessing, for inasmuch as it has nothing higher than itself, it can receive no blessing, since it is always the lesser that is blessed by the greater.”

Lawrence of Arabia’s poetic living

It is easy to find filmic examples of characters who attempt poetic living and suffer the fates Kierkegaard describes.  Charles Foster Kane and Barry Lyndon each invest themselves so wholly in their public self-images that they become divorced from reality and their persons disappear behind their personas.  But T.E. Lawrence, as depicted in Lawrence of Arabia, is perhaps the clearest example of the phenomenon.  (I will examine Lawrence as written in the screenplay Robert Bolt; not the historical person of T.E. Lawrence)

Lawrence’s poetic life constantly bumps up against reality.  On occasion, Lawrence seems to acknowledge that he’s not living as a human being – and at one point, he tries to reform.  But the lure of being Lawrence of Arabia and leaving Lt. Thomas Lawrence behind is too much.


At the beginning of the film, Lawrence is quickly established as a narcissist.  Actor Peter O’Toole’s upper-class English accent could be called a parody if it weren’t real.  Lawrence sees himself as smartest, best educated man in the Cairo command, and attempts to cultivate that image with a condescending manner.  Even here, before his journey begins, he fails, tripping and knocking over tables – putting into physical form what Kirkegaard said about an ironist who “continually collides with the actuality to which he belongs.”

Sent on a mission to the Arabs, Lawrence decides to re-invent himself as one.  Despite his lack of experience in the desert, he decides to eat and drink as his Bedu guide does – ignoring the bad taste and attempting to brush off the way he can barely ride a camel.  But when his guide is killed for drinking from a well, Lawrence reverts back to his Lt. Lawrence identity. He lashes out, in his natural English imperialism,  “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long they will be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel.”

ImageLawrence has composed himself by the time he crosses the desert and is received in Prince Faisal’s tent.  He advises the Prince on how to conquer the area in his own name, without relying on English support.  Faisal calls Lawrence out on his romanticism, telling him “I think you are another one of these desert-loving English.”

Lawrence leads an Arab army to Aqaba, but Sharif Ali rides beside him, taking every opportunity he can to deflate Lawrence’s ego.  Lawrence sees a chance at heroism when he rides back to find Gasim, a man who has been lost in the desert.  He is told that Gasim’s fate is written — but Lawrence doesn’t want to hear about harsh realities.  Instead, he says that “nothing is written,” but promises he will survive and join the army in Aqaba because “that is written, in here,” pointing to his mind.

Lawrence miraculously survives the rescue, earning the admiration of Ali. From here on, Ali is as dedicated to Lawrence’s assumed identity as much as Lawrence is.  Ali tells Lawrence that “for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.”  Lawrence confesses that he is the bastard son of a nobleman, but Ali says “it seems to me you are free to choose your own name then.”  Lawrence can escape his past by inventing a new, more romantic identity.  “For irony, there never was a past,” Kierkegaard wrote.

ImageAli burns Lawrence’s clothes, and brings him a new set of robes.  Lawrence rides off and prances about in his outfit, delighting in his new identity.  “What takes the ironist’s time, however, is the solicitude he employs in dressing himself in the costume proper to the poetic character he has poetically composed for himself,” Kierkegaard wrote.  But Lawrence’s bubble of Arabian fantasy is quickly burst – Auda ibu Tayi sees him and laughs at the silly Englishman dancing in an Arab costume.  To add insult, Auda’s young son points out that even he can tell Lawrence is English; a proclamation that makes our would-be Arab’s smile fade.

Auda’s men join Lawrence’s army, and the group advances on Aqaba.  But before they attack, a tribal feud erupts.  Lawrence agrees to execute the instigator.  The condemned man is revealed as Gasim, the very man Lawrence built his image on saving.  “It was written then.”

This pattern continues through the rest of the film.  Lawrence experiences success and grows more confident in his constructed identity.  But then a failure crops up to challenge his ideal.  Lawrence leads the army to conquer Aqaba, but there is no gold.  Lawrence assumes the mantle of a prophet to cross the desert, but he leads his loyal servant to his death. His triumphal re-entry into Cairo is overshadowed by the post-traumatic stress Lawrence cannot suppress.  Lawrence survives an assassination attempt, claiming he can only be killed by “a golden bullet,” and tells Ali he “not just anybody.”  But, he is captured, tortured and sexually assaulted by the enemy.

This last trauma is too much for Lawrence.  He returns to Cairo and asks for a desk job.  But by now, the military command and the British media have both bought into Lawrence’s persona.  He’s given a pep talk and sent back out to lead an attack on Damascus.  At first we wonder if Lawrence has changed.  Ali says he is the same man, but perhaps “humbled.”

ImageWhen we see a news photographer’s truck leading the military charge, we know the familiar pattern has returned – but now with even more deadly consequences.  Lawrence is a hero once again, but his image is shattered by his newly discovered taste of sadomasochism.  At the Tafas Massacre, he shatters Ali’s belief in his persona.  But both Lawrence and the news reporter know the charade must continue.  “Here, let me take your rotten bloody picture for the rotten bloody newspapers,” he mutters.

Those rotten bloody newspapers run Lawrence of Arabia’s picture and persona on their front pages as he achieves his greatest triumph and conquers Damascus more than a day before the British regulars arrive.  But the Arab Council is a failure.  As it becomes clear the British will take control, Lawrence visits a hospital full of Turkish prisoners.  It is terribly run, without doctors or running water.  Lawrence meets the dying men and collapses in laughter as he is forced to face the horrors his fantasy has unleashed – without anything concrete to show for it except the headlines that Prince Faisal refers to as “illusions.”

Lawrence the man is left with nothing but an illusion.  On the shores of Aqaba, he admits to Ali he doesn’t know if he is a prince or a man, or what he is.  On the bank of the Nile, he is left speechless as the question “Who are you?”


Lawrence’s invented self has left him without a true self.  No one who knows him can even find anything genuine to say about him at his funeral.  Director David Lean brings us the romantic notion of Lawrence, but shows us the emptiness of that same romance.

The film’s intermission begins immediately after a short exchange between Lawrence’s superior, General Allenby, and the diplomat, Mr. Dryden.

ALLENBY: I’ve got orders to obey, thank God. Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind.

DRYDEN: Let’s hope we’re not.

who are you

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12 Years a Slave – Breaking the silence on slavery

12 Years a Slave (2013) dir. Steve McQueen.

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVEHollywood has released more movies about slavery in ancient Rome than slavery in America.  And the rare popular films that do directly discuss the issue, such as Amistad and Lincoln, are more concerned with the political battles fought by the white leading characters than they are the black experience of slavery.

At a wide glance, this seems very odd.  Slavery was the dominant political and cultural issue on the continent for at least a century.  Hollywood producers have never shied away from showing violence or cruelty, and political activism has always been a terrific way to win awards.  Roots was immensely popular with television viewers, proving there’s an audience for the subject.

confederate cemetery fayetteville arkansasBut to those of us living in the former Confederacy, cinema’s silence doesn’t seem unusual.  Even in the liberal corners of the south, there’s a tremendous unwillingness to acknowledge of slavery.  We’re practically tripping over Confederate monuments and Civil War battlefields, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much as a plaque to commemorate the former slaves who helped build this area.  Earlier this year I attended a lecture on the 150th anniversary of a local battle.  We heard about the history and geography of the city in great detail, and were read a lengthy list of the dead on both sides of the conflict.

But the “s word” was not spoken.

Very early in its history, Hollywood adopted a neo-Confederate view of slavery — that slaveholders were basically good people living in a different time who shouldn’t be judged harshly.  Slavers usually treated their property well, and whether slave or servant, African Americans are better off serving white people anyway.


Fictional character Scarlett O’Hara was always very kind and friendly to slaves.

We see this attitude in all of the highest-grossing films that touch on the subject; Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Song of the South.

That’s the importance of 12 Years a Slave.  For millions of Americans, the movie clips played at the Academy Awards in March will be the first time they are exposed to the historical reality of slavery.

That’s also where 12 Years a Slave gets its power.  It, and last year’s Django Unchained, are the first mainstream movies to portray plantation owners are villains and to show slavery from a slave’s point of view.

But the violence in 12 Years a Slave is not Tarantino’s violence.  It’s been compared to Schindler’s List in that it emphasizes the dehumanizing, unnecessary nature of the sadism inflicted upon the victims.  It presents us with a picture of an evil that cannot be justified, and stands as a record of the unique horrors of plantation slavery.

It’s odd to praise a film for taking the stand that “slavery was evil.”  But even 150 years later, that’s a rare thing to hear.

12 Years a Slave

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All That Heaven Allows

All That Heaven Allows (1955) dir. Douglas Sirk

all-that-heaven-deerWill a woman let society decide who she is and how she should live?  Or will she instead let the man she loves make those decisions for her?  Such is the sad “choice” facing Jane Wyman’s character in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film All That Heaven Allows.

Ordinarily, most of us would give a film of this age a bit of a pass for not measuring up to feminist scholarship.  We could even give Heaven a favorable comparison to most Hollywood melodramas released in 2013.  But there’s a long-running campaign to re-interpret Sirk as a progressive champion, when he was no such thing.

All That Heaven Allows - Jane Wyman Rock HudsonJane Wyman plays New England widow Cary Scott, who falls in love with her Thoreau-reading gardener, Ron Kirby, played by Rock Hudson.  Scott’s children and friends all want her to settle down with a nice, older gentleman.  She wants to run off with Rock Hudson.

Obviously, our Hollywood audience is rooting for Rock.  The story of a woman choosing a dashing young man over the wishes of her family and of high society is a classic.

And Sirk tells the story beautifully.  His use of color is absolutely stunning — and the things he can get away with without alienating the audience is unparalleled.

All That Heaven Allows - color room

Take a look at this still from a scene where Scott tries to comfort her crying daughter.  She is sobbing because of the way she was teased over her mother’s love affair with the gardener.  Sirk shows us the strange window that creates these colors — and then bathes the characters in them, leaving Jane Wyman’s face in white light to keep our focus there.  The tumbling, emotive, heart-wrenching color fits the emotional pitch of the scene so well, we don’t notice its artifice.

All That Heaven Allows - televisionAnd this scene is even more daring.  Scott has already said she doesn’t want a television set, because it would mean she is giving up on life.  And yet, this is the Christmas present her son gives her.  She is drained of color as she stares into the screen and the salesman promises “drama, comedy, life’s parade, at your fingertips.”

OK, maybe Sirk doesn't play it *entirely* straight.

OK, maybe Heaven doesn’t play it *entirely* straight.

The screen-within-a-screen and the character-as-audience is a classic Brechtian device.  Sirk famously directed a production of one of Bertolt Brecht play while in Germany, something the Sirk-as-ironist crowd seizes upon to make their point.  But Sirk is pure melodrama, in this scene and in all others.  He plays it straight.

“You have to think with the heart,” Sirk said in an interview where he dismissed some of the interpretations surrounding his work.  He may have complained about the restrictions given to him by profit-motivated studio execs, but Sirk very much wanted to leave an audience crying, and he very much meant what he wrote.

That’s why it was hard for me to see Imitation of Life or All That Heaven Allows as ironic or subversive.  Certainly, there are no subversive themes in All That Heaven Allows.  Unlike Todd Haynes’s 2002 tribute, Far From Heaven, Sirk’s film is notably apolitical.

Walden All That Heaven AllowsRock Hudson’s character, Ron Kirby, offers Cary Scott quite a change from New England society, and he’s clearly a good guy.  But a feminist interpretation sees him as no less inflexible, judgmental or uncompromising than the town gossips.  He lives his life by the maxims contained in Thoreau’s Walden — a favorite of 19-year-olds everywhere before Kerouac came around.  Kirby does not associate with people who also do not admire Thoreau.

Kirby doesn’t want to meet Scott’s circle of friends, will not even consider moving into her home, has an arrogant attitude towards her culture and lifestyle, dismisses Scott’s legitimate fears about losing her life-long friends, and shows little interest in her daily life.  He has their life planned out for them, and breaks the engagement when she suggests they wait until the children have gotten a chance to know him better.

All-That-Heaven-Allows Jane WymanIt become clear Kirby wants to free Scott from “society” so he can remake her as one of his people — his friends, his house, his books, his expectations.  It’s fine for a woman to march differently, as long as it’s to her husband’s drum.

I’m not trying to assault All That Heaven Allows.  I think it’s a beautiful film with a terrific love story.  But I don’t think it’s fair to interpret it, or Sirk, as unusually progressive for 1955.

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Docks of New York

Docks of New York (1928) dir. Josef von Sterberg

The Docks of New York

Mae is despondent after spending life as a prostitute, and decides to drown herself.  The burly steamship stoker Bill saves her life instead.  They go out drinking (the film is set in the past, when pubs were legal) and get married by a minister.

The Docks of New York

The director shines lights on their faces to tell us they are in love.  This marriage is more than just “a good time” – even if neither character is ready to fully trust in that yet.

The Docks of New York

But, the sea calls, and Bill must leave his bride behind.  Can love shine through the fog and the squalor of poverty on the docks?

The plot is paper-thin, but the story is timeless — and the light is one of the best examples of Hollywood romance there ever was.

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