Sunrise is a silent film made in 1927. Its longer title is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The “song” in question is alluded to in the prologue: “This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and of every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time.” The prologue goes on to say that life is pretty much the same everywhere, “sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.” And since the characters in this movie do not have names, but rather are referred to as the Man, the Wife, and the Woman from the City, we are supposed to understand that what we are about to see expresses a universal truth about mankind. So what exactly are the lyrics of this song we might hear anywhere at any time? Basically, they tell the following story.
A farmer (George O’Brien) falls in love with a woman (Margaret Livingston) from the big city. She encourages him to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor), after which he can sell the farm and live in the city with her. She figures out how he can do it, by faking a boating accident in which the wife drowns. He takes his wife out into the middle of the lake, starts to kill her, but finds he cannot do it. However, his wife saw the murderous intent in his eyes and his threatening gestures. She flees from him as soon as they reach the other side of the lake. He keeps catching up with her, and she keeps trying to get away. Little by little, they reconcile, and she forgives him.
Now, we all know that in a lot of old movies, a woman is expected to forgive her husband’s indiscretions, and if she does not, she is regarded as foolish and wrongheaded, as in The Women (1939) or The Philadelphia Story (1940). But it is one thing for a wife to forgive adultery, and it is quite another thing for her to forgive her husband for almost carrying out a plan to murder her. That is probably something that a woman should not forgive. And yet this movie not only has the wife forgive her husband, but it also praises her for doing so, depicting such forgiveness as an expression of the purity of her heart.
The man and his wife essentially renew their vows by watching another couple’s wedding, and then carry on like a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon. We see them having a lot of fun in a variety of ways, and his manner toward her is loving and caring. As if that proved anything! Wouldn’t it be nice if the men that abused their wives were consistently rude and brutal? In that case, women would not even marry such men in the first place, let alone keep forgiving them and taking them back. But such men are not so conveniently consistent. One minute they are beating their wives, and the next minute they are bringing them flowers and begging for forgiveness. And as often as not, it works.
Finally, it is time for them to go home, and they get back on their little boat and head across the lake. A storm suddenly appears, capsizes the boat, and he believes that she has drowned. So, in a manner reminiscent of An American Tragedy, which was made into a couple of movies, including A Place in the Sun (1951), the accident that he was planning to fake actually happens.
When the woman from the city comes looking for him, thinking that he pulled it off, he becomes furious. She sees the same murderous look in his eyes and the same threatening gestures that his wife did earlier. She runs away, but he chases after her. When he catches up with her, he begins strangling her maniacally. The idea is that she is the villain of the piece. In other words, it was really her fault that he almost murdered his wife. So while his wife forgave him, he does not forgive this woman. And just as the movie would have us approve of the way the wife forgives her husband, it would also have us approve of the way the husband does not forgive the woman he was having an affair with, so that her being strangled was simply giving her what she deserved.
At the last minute, it turns out his wife has been rescued. He stops strangling the woman and returns home to be with his wife and child. The sun rises, presumably symbolic of the couple’s fresh start in having a happy marriage. Of course, we are talking about a man who made plans to kill his wife, who pulled a knife on a man for bothering her in the barber shop, and who then almost choked his lover to death in a rage. And yet, this movie would have us believe that the Man and his Wife will live happily ever after.
It is not surprising that the message of this movie is that a woman should forgive her husband for his sins, because it is some other woman who is really to blame. After all, it was written and produced mostly by men. It essentially painted a rosy picture of domestic abuse, and encouraged battered women to stay with their violent husbands. “Even if your husband almost killed you,” the movie seems to say, “you should stay with him, because deep down he really loves you.” It is therefore understandable that such a movie would appeal to men.
But it may be that this movie was supposed to appeal to women as well. Women were much more dependent on men back then. There was a great deal of economic and cultural pressure on women to get married and stay married, especially once they had a baby. And so, stuck in a bad marriage as so many women were, they needed to believe that staying with their husbands and forgiving them for all their misdeeds was the right thing to do. If this movie had ended with the wife leaving her husband, it would have implicitly criticized all the women in the audience who chose to stay in their unhappy marriages, making them feel weak and foolish. But by having the wife stay with her husband, the movie applauded her forgiving nature, making a virtue out of what for many women was a necessity.
However, this movie did not do well at the box office, so maybe the women weren’t buying it.