Brideshead Revisited:  The Book and the Adaptations

The message of Brideshead Revisited  is that people who don’t believe in God are superficial.  Charles Ryder, the narrator of this novel, exemplifies this principle.  He is all about art and the pleasures of the palate.  That is to say, his interests are in the realm of the appearances.  He leads a sensuous existence.  He becomes fascinated with the Flyte family.  They are a bunch of Catholics, though of various sorts, from the devout to the lapsed.  But in any event, believing in God as they do, their lives have depth and significance.  Almost unconsciously, Ryder is drawn to the Flytes for that reason.

If Ryder were just a man who enjoyed the arts and liked to dine on good food and drink, it would not be so bad.  But he lays it on so thick, with language so flowery and ornate, that one cannot help but think that he takes himself way too seriously.  For example, when he encounters Lady Julia Flyte after not having seen her for some time, he says:

She was not yet thirty, but was approaching the zenith of her loveliness, all her rich promise abundantly fulfilled. She had lost that fashionable, spidery look; the head that I used to think quattrocento, which had sat a little oddly on her, was now part of herself and not at all Florentine; not connected in any way with painting or the arts or with anything except herself, so that it would be idle to itemize and dissect her beauty, which was her own essence, and could only be known in her and by her authority and in the love I was soon to have for her. Time had wrought another change, too; not for her the sly, complacent smile of la Gioconda; the years had been more than ‘the sound of lyres and flutes’, and had saddened her.

I don’t know about you, but if I found myself sitting at a table with someone who talked that way, I would plead a headache and bolt for the exit.  Her head was no longer quattrocento indeed!  And did you catch the bit about la Gioconda?  He’s not satisfied with comparing her to the Mona Lisa, which would be absurd enough for anyone but Nat King Cole.  He has to refer to that painting by its Italian name, just to put us ignorant philistines in our place, who had to Google the name to find that out.

Of course, Ryder talks this way because the author, Evelyn Waugh, put those words into his mouth.  Perhaps this was Waugh’s way of ridiculing people like Ryder who don’t believe in God, showing them to be affected as a way of compensating for a life that is hollow and without significance.  But then, since Ryder’s narration takes place after his conversion to Catholicism, it appears that if someone is insufferably pretentious to begin with, his believing in God isn’t going to make much difference.

As far as the adaptations go, there is a change that I found interesting.  When Ryder is dining with the Flyte family in the novel, Sebastian refers to Ryder as an atheist, but Ryder corrects him, saying he is an agnostic.  The 1981 mini-series follows the novel in this.  But the movie version produced in 2008 reverses the dialogue, so that when Sebastian says that Ryder is an atheist, “Bridey” (Lord Brideshead) says, “An agnostic, surely,” to which Ryder emphatically denies being an agnostic and asserts that he is indeed an atheist.

I suspect that the reason for this reversal of terms is due to the change in connotation of the word “agnostic” between 1945 and 2008.  At the time the novel was written, the word “agnostic” was sufficiently scandalous and shocking for a character like Ryder.  By the late 1960s, it had lost its edge.  It suggested someone who was wishy-washy, someone who didn’t want to appear naively religious, but was still hoping for some kind of afterlife all the same.  By the turn of the twenty-first century, this shift in meaning had become even more pronounced.  Only by changing Ryder into an atheist could his conversion to Catholicism actually seem to amount to something.

The Big Sleep: The Book and the Adaptations

Leigh Brackett was one of the screenwriters, along with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, hired by Howard Hawks to help turn The Big Sleep into a movie, which is notorious for having the most convoluted plot in the film noir canon.  In The Big Book of Noir, page 138, she makes the following comment:

True, the plot was so tangled and complicated that we all got more or less lost in it.  But it only got that way if one paused to look too closely.  Otherwise, the sheer momentum of the action carried one along, and why quibble?  . . . I did witness the historic occasion upon which everybody began asking everybody else who killed Owen Taylor, and nobody knew.  A wire was sent asking Chandler, and he sent one back saying, “I don’t know.”  And really, who cared?

After the movie was made and shown to the public, Brackett says that the audiences had pretty much the same attitude:

Audiences came away feeling that they had seen the hell and all of a film even if they didn’t rightly know, in retrospect, what it was all about.  Again, who cared?

She is right, of course.  I shouldn’t care.  But I do.

I first saw The Big Sleep on the late show, back when the late show was how most of us saw old movies fifty years ago.  About forty years ago, I saw the 1978 remake.  Sometime after that, I read the novel by Raymond Chandler.  About twenty years ago, I saw the 1945 pre-release version.  And off and on, through the years, I’ve seen the 1946 version about seven or eight more times.  And yet, I still found myself wondering what really happened.  And so, I set about the task of getting to the bottom of this mystery.  I reread the novel, read the original screenplay, and watched every version of this story all over again.  I think I may have hurt myself.

I suspect that most people would agree with Brackett.  They enjoyed watching The Big Sleep and have no need of a thorough analysis of what happened, who did it, and why.  But on the outside chance that there may be one or two others in the vicinity of my blog that might be interested in the results of my research, I am putting it all down on electronic paper.

The Novel

Rather than give a synopsis of the novel, I think greater clarity can be achieved by approaching the story in a different manner.

The Dramatis Personae

First, let us consider the characters in this novel, organized into groups:

The Sternwood Household.  General Guy Sternwood is a frail, old man with a sizable fortune.  He has two daughters in their twenties:  Vivian and Carmen.  Vivian is married to Rusty Regan, but he has recently disappeared.  There is also Vincent Norris, the butler, and Owen Taylor, the chauffeur.

Eddie Mars’ Casino.  Eddie Mars runs a gambling casino.  He has some hoodlums that work for him, the worst of which is Lash Canino, a killer.  Eddie is married to a woman named Mona.

Geiger’s Bookstore.  Arthur Gwynn Geiger owns a bookstore that pretends to sell rare books out front, but rents out illegal pornography in the back.  He has an assistant, Carol Lundgren, who lives with him as his homosexual lover.  Geiger has a secretary named Agnes Lozelle that waits on the customers.  She has two boyfriends:  Joe Brody and Harry Jones.  General Sternwood had once paid Joe Brody $5,000 to leave Carmen alone.  The general is under no illusions about the vices his daughters indulge in, so it is not clear what he thought Carmen was doing with Brody that she couldn’t do with someone else.

Philip Marlowe and the Law.  Philip Marlowe is a private detective.  He used to work for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator, under the supervision of Bernie Ohls.

The Ultimate Cause

By the time we get to the end of the novel, where Marlowe finally reveals the ultimate cause of the events that ensued, we are so worn out from it all that we are barely paying attention.  We are just glad that things are being wrapped up at last.  This is even more so in the 1946 adaptation, where Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is talking so fast and in reference to events not fully spelled out that we just assume he knows what he is talking about on account of his authoritative voice.  Therefore, let us begin where the novel ends, so to speak, where we finally find out what started it all.

Owen Taylor Loves Carmen.  Owen Taylor was in love with Carmen.  They had run off together once, with him thinking they would get married, but with Carmen just out for a good time.  Taylor got thrown in jail on charges of the Mann Act, but Vivian persuaded the police that he wanted to marry her, so they let him go.  The Sternwoods kept him on as the chauffeur.  He gave Carmen a little pearl-handled .22 caliber revolver as a present, with the engraving, “Carmen from Owen.”

Carmen Murders Rusty Regan.  Vivian has been married three times, the last to Rusty Regan, who used to be a bootlegger.  Carmen offered herself to Regan, but he declined.  As a woman scorned, and a psychopath at that, she talked him into taking her to a secluded place and teaching her how to shoot the pistol Owen gave her.  When he set up a target for her and walked back toward her, she shot and killed him.

Vivian Asks Eddie Mars to Help Cover Up the Crime.  Carmen went home and told Vivian all about it, “just like a child,” as Vivian puts it.  Carmen has epileptic seizures, and the novel seems to suggest that this is why she is crazy.  Perhaps that was the thinking in those days.  Anyway, in part to protect her sister from going to prison, but mostly to protect her father from having to live with the knowledge of what Carmen has done, especially since her father was quite fond of Regan, Vivian turns to Eddie Mars for help.

Vivian knows Eddie because she is a regular patron at his casino.  Their spouses knew each other even better.  Rusty was in love with Mona, but she married Eddie instead.  So, Rusty ended up marrying Vivian on the rebound.  But Mona didn’t care for Eddie’s illegal activities, the least concerning of which was operating the casino, so she left him.  Eddie didn’t much care that she left, and they remained on good terms.  Soon after, she and Rusty started having an affair.

Eddie Mars Plans to Blackmail the Sternwoods.  When Vivian asked Eddie for help disposing of Rusty Regan’s body, he had Canino put it in the sump near where Regan was killed.  Eddie figures he will be able to blackmail Vivian after that.  She makes her payments to Eddie by losing at the roulette table.  When General Sternwood dies, his daughters will inherit his millions, and that’s when Eddie really expects to cash in.

This is a cushy deal, but Eddie is worried.  If Regan’s disappearance comes to the attention of the police, they might investigate, suspecting that Eddie had him killed for fooling around with his wife Mona.  While carrying out that investigation, they might find out that Regan was murdered by Carmen.  That would put an end to the whole blackmail scheme.  Therefore, he asks Mona to go into hiding for a while so that the police will simply think she and Rusty ran off together.  She still loves Eddie, so she agrees to stay in a house Eddie has in the hills.

That takes care of the police, but Eddie is in a hurry for the general’s money.  He wants to know if the old man knows what Carmen did.  If so, Eddie can blackmail him immediately without waiting for him to die.

Eddie Mars Uses Geiger as a Cat’s Paw.  Geiger knows nothing about Regan’s murder, but goes along with what Eddie Mars asks of him.  In exchange for supplying Carmen with drugs, Geiger gets her to sign some promissory notes, supposedly representing gambling debts, amounting to $3,000.  The way Eddie figures it, if the general knows Carmen murdered Regan, he will suspect that Geiger’s demand for money is an indirect form of blackmail regarding the murder.  In that case, he will pay up.  And that will mean the serious blackmail of the general can begin immediately.  But when General Sternwood refuses to pay, Eddie knows that the general is not aware that Carmen murdered Regan, and that he has to wait until the general dies, when the daughters will inherit all his millions.

Philip Marlowe Enters the Story

Upon receiving the notes from Geiger, General Sternwood hires Philip Marlowe to deal with him.  And that is where both the novel and the adaptations begin.  My purpose here is not to give a complete synopsis, but only to explain what led up to this point, to give the ultimate causes while the mind is still fresh.  From this point forward, the novel and the movie versions can be followed with a better understanding of what is going on.  However, there are a few more plot points worth mentioning.

The Gang’s All Here.  Several times when Marlowe goes somewhere, an amazing number of people show up at the same place.  For example, Marlowe follows Geiger to his home and parks outside.  But Joe Brody is parked down the street too.  And so, apparently, is Owen Taylor.  And then Carmen shows up.  If Marlowe had followed Geiger the night before, Geiger would probably have just listened to the radio for a while and then gone to bed; if Marlowe had waited until the day after, Geiger would already be dead.

A couple of days later, Marlowe goes over to Brody’s apartment.  Agnes is also there.  In the 1946 movie, Vivian is there too.  And then Carmen shows up.  She has her .22 revolver with her, demanding the pictures that Geiger took of her naked.  Marlowe takes the gun away from her and sends her home.  Then Carol Lundgren shows up and shoots Brody.  Once again, Marlowe’s ability to be at the right place at the right time is uncanny.

The Death of Owen Taylor.  There are three opinions in the novel concerning the death of Owen Taylor, that it was an accident, suicide, or murder:

The uniformed man said: “Could have been drunk. Showing off all alone in the rain. Drunks will do anything.”

“Drunk, hell,” the plainclothesman said. “The hand throttle’s set halfway down and the guy’s been sapped on the side of the head. Ask me and I’ll call it murder.”

Ohls looked at the man with the towel. “What do you think, buddy?”

The man with the towel looked flattered. He grinned. “I say suicide, Mac. None of my business, but you ask me, I say suicide. First off the guy plowed an awful straight furrow down that pier. You can read his tread marks all the way nearly. That puts it after the rain like the Sheriff said. Then he hit the pier hard and clean or he don’t go through and land right side up. More likely turned over a couple of times. So he had plenty of speed and hit the rail square. That’s more than half-throttle. He could have done that with his hand falling and he could have hurt his head falling too.”

Ultimately, we have Marlowe’s authoritative voice to settle the issue, where he says Taylor was murdered:  “He had been sapped and the car pointed out the pier and the hand throttle pulled down.”  In the 1946 movie, Marlowe also dismisses both accident and suicide as the cause of death, leaving murder as the only possibility.

After Marlowe turns Lundgren in for killing Brody and reports the murder of Geiger, District Attorney Wilde suggests that Brody might be the one that killed Taylor, but Marlowe argues against it:

“What makes you so sure, Marlowe, that this Taylor boy shot Geiger? Even if the gun that killed Geiger was found on Taylor’s body or in the car, it doesn’t absolutely follow that he was the killer. The gun might have been planted—say by Brody, the actual killer.”

“It’s physically possible,” I said, “but morally impossible. It assumes too much coincidence and too much that’s out of character for Brody and his girl, and out of character for what he was trying to do. I talked to Brody for a long time. He was a crook, but not a killer type. He had two guns, but he wasn’t wearing either of them. He was trying to find a way to cut in on Geiger’s racket, which naturally he knew all about from the girl. He says he was watching Geiger off and on to see if he had any tough backers. I believe him. To suppose he killed Geiger in order to get his books, then scrammed with the nude photo Geiger had just taken of Carmen Sternwood, then planted the gun on Owen Taylor and pushed Taylor into the ocean off Lido, is to suppose a hell of a lot too much. Taylor had the motive, jealous rage, and the opportunity to kill Geiger. He was out in one of the family cars without permission. He killed Geiger right in front of the girl, which Brody would never have done, even if he had been a killer. I can’t see anybody with a purely commercial interest in Geiger doing that. But Taylor would have done it. The nude photo business was just what would have made him do it.”

Marlowe seems to be denying that Brody killed Taylor, but what he is really denying is that Brody killed both Geiger and Taylor, for Marlowe believes Taylor killed Geiger.  As for Brody, he previously admitted to Marlowe that he was the one that hit Taylor in the head with a blackjack.  Let’s look at the line cited above:  “He had been sapped and the car pointed out the pier and the hand throttle pulled down.”  The natural way to read this is that the person that sapped Taylor is also the one that made his death look like an accident.  As Brody has admitted to the former, then he is the one responsible for the latter.

Carmen Tries to Murder Marlowe.  Finally, Marlowe gives Carmen her revolver back.  She had once offered herself to Marlowe, but he had declined, so you know what that means.  She asks him to teach her to shoot.  They go to where she had previously killed Regan under the same pretense.  But Marlowe has filled the pistol with blanks.  She shoots at Marlowe again and again, emptying her gun, thereby confirming what he had suspected.  She then has an epileptic seizure.  He takes her home, telling Vivian to have her committed, or he will go to the police.  As for Eddie Mars and the blackmail scheme, Marlowe says he’ll talk to him.  Having recently killed Canino, Marlowe expects Eddie to be intimidated enough to leave the Sternwood family alone.

The 1944 Screenplay

The screenplay written in 1944 is in some ways different from both the novel and the movies.  Regan’s first name is now Shawn, and Vivian was never his wife, for she is now referred to as Mrs. Rutledge, divorced, presumably to make her available to Marlowe as a love interest.  It wouldn’t do to have Marlowe and Vivian be a romantic couple while she should be mourning her murdered husband.  This was not important in the novel, where Marlowe has no interest in her romantically.  In fact, the Marlowe of the novels never seems to be interested in women romantically, not even when he’s kissing them.  Some critics have accused him of misogyny, but I think that is too harsh.  Rather, he’s just so hardboiled that when he’s on a case, no womanly wiles can distract him from doing the job he was hired for.

But in the screenplay, not only is Vivian a woman that Marlowe shows an interest in sexually, he is also allowed a little nookie from the proprietress of the bookstore across from Geiger’s place.  After he gets some information from her about Geiger, they have a few drinks and then have sex.  Just before Marlowe leaves, she says, “A couple of hours, an empty bottle, and so long, pal,” her way of saying she knows this was just for the afternoon, not the beginning of anything more.  Marlowe also says, “So long, pal.”  It’s mutual.  She’s just as hardboiled as he is.

In the 1946 movie, however, it is only Marlowe that uses the word “pal” in saying goodbye to her (Dorothy Malone), and when he does, her shoulders droop, for she realizes he has no intention of seeing her again.  I always feel sorry for her when I see that scene.

Anyway, as Regan is no longer General Sternwood’s son-in-law in the screenplay, he is now just an employee.  And from the way the general talks, he was employed as a paid companion.

After Raymond Chandler admitted to Howard Hawks that he didn’t know who killed Owen Taylor, the authors of the screenplay apparently cared a little more than Brackett would have us believe, because they decided to solve that murder for him, revealed in a conversation Marlowe has with the district attorney:

Wilde:  So Taylor killed Geiger because he was in love with the Sternwood girl.  And Brody followed Taylor, sapped him and took the photograph and pushed Taylor into the ocean.  And the punk [Carol Lundgren] killed Brody because the punk thought he should have inherited Geiger’s business and Brody was throwing him out.

Marlowe:  That’s how I figure it.

This is the simplest solution to the murder of Owen Taylor.  Brody was not a killer, but he admits to hitting Taylor with a blackjack, knocking him out.  If you hit someone with a blackjack hard enough to knock him out, you’ve hit him hard enough to kill him.  When Brody realized that Taylor was dead, he decided to make his death look like an accident.  Then he quite naturally denied doing so when Marlowe questioned him.

Notice that Wilde gives ownership of Geiger’s business as the reason Lundgren killed Brody, whereas in the novel, Lundgren was in love with Geiger, and he mistakenly killed Brody for revenge, thinking Brody had killed Geiger.  In 1946, the Production Code did not allow references to homosexuality, so a different motive was provided.  There is no need to repeat the various homophobic remarks made by Marlowe in the novel, but there is one that is revealing as an apparent stereotype of homosexuals when the novel was written.  At one point, Lundgren hits Marlowe on the chin.  Marlowe says, “It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.”

The final scene in the screenplay takes place in Geiger’s house.  After Carmen fires blanks at Marlowe, revealing that she murdered Regan as Marlowe suspected, Carmen says there is nothing he can do about it.  If he goes to the cops, she will tell what happened, and it will be a big scandal in all the newspapers.  Vivian will go to prison too for helping to cover it up.  And her father will find out about it, which will make him miserable.  Marlowe admits defeat, saying he wouldn’t want that to happen.

I wondered about that part in the novel where Marlowe tells Vivian to have Carmen committed.  How exactly was Vivian supposed to have Carmen committed to an insane asylum against her will, without telling the police about the murder?  This screenplay ending makes more sense.

Anyway, Carmen is triumphant.  As she starts to leave, Marlowe gives her his hat and coat like a gentleman, even though she just tried to kill him, saying that she will need them because it is raining.  But Marlowe knows that Eddie Mars is just outside the house, waiting to shoot him when he leaves.  So, when Carmen leaves, Eddie mistakes her for Marlowe and shoots her.  Then Marlowe shoots Eddie.  With both Carmen and Eddie dead, the whole blackmail scheme has come to an end.

The 1946 Movie and the 1945 Pre-Release Version

As noted above, the screenplay has Marlowe agree that Joe Brody murdered Owen Taylor.  In the movie, Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) merely says that Brody’s denial that he killed Taylor does not make sense.  Consider the discussion in the movie where Brody finally explains that he got the naked pictures of Carmen by taking them away from Taylor after hitting him with a blackjack:

“He [Taylor] skidded off the road and came to a stop.  So I came up and played copper.  He had a gun. He was rattled, so I sapped him down.  I figured the film might be worth something, so I took it.  That’s the last I saw of him.”

Marlowe is skeptical:

“So you left an unconscious man in a car way out near Beverly.  And you want me to believe somebody came along, ran that car to the ocean, pushed it off the pier….”

In a movie, there is a world of difference between having Marlowe positively affirm that Brody killed Taylor, which is the original screenplay version, and having Marlowe say that Brody’s denial that he killed Taylor doesn’t make sense, which is the movie version.  In the absence of a confession on Brody’s part, we need to hear Marlowe’s authoritative voice assert that Brody killed Taylor.  But we never quite get that.  Therefore, there remains the sense that the death of Owen Taylor is never accounted for.  For this reason, most people that have seen this movie will be resistant to the idea that Brody killed Taylor, if you suggest it to them.  At least, that has been my experience.

Also noted above, the novel has Lundgren kill Brody because he was Geiger’s lover, and he thought Brody had killed Geiger, but the screenplay avoided this homosexual motive, giving control of Geiger’s pornography racket as the reason why Lundgren killed Brody.  However, the movie drops this economic reason and returns to the novel’s homosexual motive, but only in the form of a queer flash.  In the screenplay, when Marlowe takes Lundgren to Geiger’s house at gunpoint, he hands Lundgren the key to the house, which Marlowe had pocketed on the night of the shooting, and tells him to open the door with it.  But in the movie, he does not give Lundgren the key.  Instead, he tells Lundgren to use his own key to get in, implying that he lived with Geiger.

The 1945 pre-release version of this movie followed the screenplay in allowing Marlowe and Vivian (Lauren Bacall) to be a romantic couple, and the 1946 version went even further in establishing their relationship.  In the novel, it is Mona, Eddie’s wife, that helps Marlowe escape; in the movie, Vivian is also at the house with Mona, and Vivian is the one that helps him escape from Canino (Bob Steele).

The movie follows the screenplay in killing off Eddie Mars at the end.  Marlowe tells Bernie Ohls that Eddie killed Regan, even though he knows it was Carmen.  Since Carmen is not killed off, the movie reverts to the questionable idea of having her committed.

The 1978 Remake

In 1978, the movie was remade by Michael Winner, in color and widescreen, set contemporaneously in England.  Perhaps all these differences were meant to keep us from comparing it too closely with the original.  But notwithstanding the fact that it is it is filled with good actors, it falls flat.

This remake more closely follows the novel in some ways, while departing from it in others.  Vivian (Sarah Miles) is again Rusty Regan’s wife, and she has no romantic relationship with Marlowe (Robert Mitchum).  It is Mona, not Vivian, that helps Marlowe escape from Canino (Richard Boone).  And not only do we see Carmen, now going by the name of Camilla, firing her pistol with blanks at Marlowe, but we also see her shooting and killing Regan in an imagined flashback.

In the novel, Marlowe is still handcuffed behind his back when he shoots Canino.  But in both movies, the handcuffs are in front when Marlowe shoots him.  That’s too bad, because having Marlowe shoot Canino while his hands are cuffed behind him is quite an image.  It was illustrated that way on the cover of the paperback I bought so I could read the novel.

One thing that amused me was the pornography angle.  In the novel, Marlowe follows one of Geiger’s customers after he leaves the store with a package.  The customer gets scared and drops the package.  Marlowe opens it up, finding a book with both text and pictures.  He characterizes it is as “indescribable filth,” for which reason he doesn’t describe it.  Such a scene is not in the 1946 movie, but it is in the 1978 remake.  Marlowe gives a similar characterization of the book:  “indescribably filthy.”  In this case, however, we get to see the pictures he is looking at when he says they cannot be described.  They are nothing but pictures of naked women with their breasts exposed.  The pictures are no more revealing than a Playboy centerfold from the 1960s.  Later in the movie, Marlowe comes home to his apartment to find Camilla in his bed, completely naked.  She throws back the covers, and we see full, frontal nudity, including her pubic hair.  And so, if the book from Geiger’s bookstore has pictures that are indescribably filthy, then by its own standards, this movie is even filthier, even if it is only R-rated.  Obviously, they should not have allowed us to see those harmless photos of naked women as Marlowe expresses his disgust with what he is looking at.

Finally, this version tries to justify its existence by directly addressing the death of Owen Taylor.  Instead of availing itself of the screenplay solution, which was that he was killed by Joe Brody, this movie has Marlowe say that Taylor’s death was suicide.  The idea is that Taylor wakes up after being sapped, realizes the naked pictures of Camilla have been taken from him, and drives his car off the pier at a high rate of speed.  This contradicts what Marlowe said in the novel and in the 1946 movie.  It is also not realistic.  If Taylor wanted to commit suicide, it would have been simpler for him to shoot himself in the head with his revolver.  Driving a car into the ocean may not quite do the trick, but I guess the Owen Taylor of this version had never read Ethan Frome.

Farewell, My Lovely:  The Book and the Adaptations

If you are not clear on the distinction between an ordinary detective movie that was filmed a long time ago in black-and-white, a film noir, and a neo-noir, then you might try watching the three adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely.  Before comparing these movies, however, let’s review the novel itself.

The Novel

This novel, published in 1940, is not as complicated and confusing as The Big Sleep, the novel Raymond Chandler wrote before writing this one, but it comes pretty close.  So, rather than follow Philip Marlowe, the private-eye narrator, through all the dead ends and red herrings that he is subjected to before he solves this mystery, let’s consider the events as they actually occurred.

Velma Valento betrays Moose Malloy

Velma Valento is a beautiful song-and-dance girl that works at a night club named Florian’s in the fictional town of Bay City, California.  That is where she comes to know Moose Malloy, who also works there.  He is an extraordinarily huge man, the bouncer of the joint, and he falls madly in love with her.  He robs a bank in order to have the money he needs to spend lavishly on Velma, but he makes the mistake of confiding in her.  Rather than let Malloy spend that money on her a little at a time, she turns him in for the reward so she can get a lot of money all at once.  After Moose is convicted and sent to prison, she quits Florian’s and goes to work as a singer at a radio station owned by Lewin Lockridge Grayle, an old and sickly man, but one who is worth $20,000,000. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $400,000,000 today.)  He soon falls in love with Velma.

Jessie Florian goes to work for Lindsay Marriott

Several years later, Mike Florian dies.  He was the owner of the nightclub where Velma worked, and he leaves the place to his widow Jessie.  But as the neighborhood has been going downhill, she ends up selling it for not much money to a black man named Montgomery.  Needing a job, she goes to work as a servant for a family by the name of Marriott.  One member of that family is Lindsay Marriott, who is an announcer at the radio station where Velma is employed.  Apparently, it is a small world in Bay City.

One day Jessie hears Velma singing on the radio and recognizes her voice.  She goes to the station and sees that she is right.  She doesn’t know that Velma turned Malloy in for the reward, but she knows enough about her past to be a concern.  Therefore, Velma has Marriott buy her off with an expensive radio and monthly payments in exchange for holding the trust deed on her house, which means he could throw Jessie out on the street if she doesn’t keep her mouth shut.

Velma becomes Mrs. Grayle

But it’s not Marriott’s money that is paying for all this.  Velma is getting it from Mr. Grayle, whom she has agreed to marry, after telling him about her situation with Malloy.  He agrees to marry her in Europe and then sell his radio station, thereby making it difficult for anyone else to track her down. She not only becomes Mrs. Grayle, but changes her first name to Helen as well.

Having purchased the silence of Jessie Florian, Velma now has to worry about Marriott, letting him have enough money so that he doesn’t have to work anymore.  He becomes her regular companion, to which Mr. Grayle turns a blind eye.  He has what we would now call his “trophy wife,” and that is enough for him.

Moose Malloy gets out of prison

But then Malloy, having served an eight-year sentence, is released from prison.  He wants to find Velma, the woman he still loves. He buys himself a fancy suit of clothes and goes back to Florian’s. The place still has the same name because it would cost too much to buy a new sign.  While he is standing outside looking at the place, he is noticed by Philip Marlowe, who becomes curious about the guy.

Malloy goes inside to find Velma, and Marlowe ends up following him in.  Inasmuch as the nightclub serves only a black clientele, there is a lot of friction and physical confrontation, until Malloy ends up killing Montgomery, who pulled a gun on him.

The police are not really interested in the murder of a black man, which Marlowe refers to as a misdemeanor.  But to curry favor with Nulty, the detective in charge of the case, Marlowe agrees to see if he can find Velma as a way of getting information on the whereabouts of Malloy, who took off after killing Montgomery.

This leads him to Jessie Florian.  He doesn’t get far with her, but after he leaves, she contacts Marriott, telling him that Malloy is out of prison and looking for Velma, and that there is a private detective named Philip Marlowe that is also on the job.

Velma kills Lindsay Marriott

When Velma finds out about this, she decides that Marriott is the weak link to her past, someone who would probably fold if things got too hot.  So, she decides to kill him. Jessie doesn’t realize that Velma has become Mrs. Grayle, so she is not a problem anymore.  However, Malloy ends up killing her anyway while trying to find out about Velma.  But that comes later.

Velma tells Marriott that she is worried about Marlowe and wants him killed.  Marriott has come to enjoy all the money she has been supplying him with, so he agrees to do it.  She gets him to go to Marlowe with a phony story about how her necklace, made of Fei Tsui jade, had been taken from her during a robbery, and now the jewel thieves are willing to sell it back for a fraction of what it is worth.  The idea is to get Marlowe to go with him to a secluded place, where the exchange is supposed to occur.  That is where Marriott is supposed to kill Marlowe.  Instead, Velma is waiting for them.  When Marlowe leaves the car looking for the jewel thieves, she blackjacks Marriott several times, so viciously that his brains end up on his face.  When Marlowe returns, she hits him with the blackjack too, but only once, just enough to knock him out.  She is afraid of the heat that could come from killing a private detective who might have friends in the police force.

Velma frames Jules Amthor

There is another reason Velma does not kill Marlowe:  she needs him alive to tell the made-up story about the stolen jade, to distract the police and keep them from suspecting that she had anything to do with Marriott’s death.  After killing Marriott, she planted a cigarette case on him, in addition to the one he already had.  This one had three marijuana cigarettes in it, each one with a mouthpiece made from a business card.  (I didn’t know marijuana cigarettes could be rolled with a mouthpiece, but so they were.) Each business card said, “Jules Amthor, Psychic Consultant,” whom she had visited on several occasions. The idea was to make Marlowe think Amthor had something to do with the robbery and murder of Marriott.

Anne Riordan becomes Marlowe’s helpmate

When Marlowe recovers from being sapped, a woman named Anne Riordan shows up, who just happened to be driving by.  She later finds out that the jade that was stolen (supposedly) belonged to Mrs. Grayle.  As a result, Marlowe makes an appointment to see her, to find out if she wants him to try to get the jade back for her.  Mrs. Grayle leads Marlowe to believe that Marriott was a blackmailer of women.  Marlowe suspects that he might have fingered her for the robbery.

Dr. Sonderborg keeps Marlowe doped up

Then Marlowe pursues the Amthor clue.  He suspects that Amthor had a lot of rich women for clients.  If they wore expensive jewelry, he might let a gang of jewel thieves know about it. Marlowe goes to see Amthor and ends up being roughed up by one of Amthor’s hoodlums and then by some crooked cops, who drop him off at a small hospital run by a Dr. Sonderborg.  Marlowe is drugged, but eventually manages to escape.  The hospital is a front for all sorts of illegal activity, especially drug dealing. Another activity is that of providing a hideout for criminals on the lam. That’s why Marlowe sees Malloy there.  As I said, it’s a small world in Bay City.

Velma kills Malloy

Eventually, Marlowe figures it all out.  He gets word to Malloy to come to his apartment through a gambler named Laird Brunette. He gets Mrs. Grayle to come there too. Malloy hides in the next room while Mrs. Grayle and Marlowe talk.  Marlowe tells her he knows she is Velma, that there never was a robbery, and that she was the one that killed Marriott. When Malloy realizes it is Velma that Marlowe is talking to, he comes out of the room, still holding a gun absentmindedly in his hand. But Velma puts five slugs in him. She tries to kill Marlowe, but runs out of bullets.  So, she just takes off.

Velma kills herself

She ends up working in a nightclub in Baltimore.  A detective recognizes her and confronts her, but she shoots him three times, killing him.  Then she shoots herself in the heart.  Twice.  Marlowe says she did it to protect her husband, the one man that really gave her a break.  With his money, she could have beaten the murder rap against Malloy, claiming self-defense.  And they could never have proved she killed Marriott. But she wanted to spare her husband the pain of a scandal.

Nevertheless, because she was the wife of a rich man, the whole business brings a lot of people down. Although Amthor and Sonderborg had nothing to do with Velma’s treachery, they are casualties in the case, with both of them leaving town, running from the law, Amthor being caught in New York.  The bad cops in Bay City lose their jobs.

The Falcon Takes Over (1942)

As may be surmised by the title, the first movie version of this novel was transformed into a vehicle for a very different kind of detective than the hardboiled Philip Marlowe. Rather, he is an amateur sleuth known as The Falcon, a refined English gentleman who, in this movie, goes by the name of Gay Lawrence, played by George Sanders.  He makes a good living in the bond business. The movie is part mystery, part silly comedy. If you have ever labored under the misconception that a film noir is any black-and-white crime drama made in the 1940s or 1950s, this movie will disabuse you of that misapprehension.

Lawrence has a chauffeur named Goldy, who functions as a sidekick, with the usual kind of humor that such characters are given to.  Moose Malloy is played by Ward Bond, who is a big man in his own right, but made to look even bigger with padding. The nightclub that used to be Florian’s is now a high-class establishment, full of white people, and going by the name Club 13, the sort of place that Lawrence often frequents in formal attire.

By way of contrast, consider the opening line of the novel:  “It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro,” referring to the street on which Florian’s was located.  This alone reminds us of the times in which this novel was written, back when “Negro” and “colored” were the polite words our mothers told us to use rather than those preferred by our fathers.  Or preferred by Philip Marlowe, for that matter.  Though he uses the polite word “Negro” here, Marlowe uses a variety of racial slurs throughout the novel.  In a movie made today, if a character used the words Marlowe does, we would know that he was the bad guy, and that we were supposed to dislike him.  But when this novel was written, those were the days when one could be a racist without fear of censure; for we are supposed like Marlowe, and his racist remarks were just supposed to be the sort of thing a hardboiled private eye would say.  The reference to “mixed blocks” tells us that this part of town was becoming undesirable on account of all the African Americans that had been moving in.  But what would a man like Gay Lawrence be doing in that neighborhood?  Hence the transformation to a nightclub in the nicest part of town, catering to café society.

In this movie, as well as the two that follow, we pretty much encounter the same dramatis personae, but with variations.  They each want different stuff, do different things, serve different functions, and have different relationships with one another.  Some characters are added, combined, or deleted.  There are even variations on their names.  It would be tedious to enumerate and analyze them all, only a few being worthy of comment.

For example, as noted above, the racism of the novel is eliminated in this movie by changing the clientele of Club 13, formerly Florian’s, from black to white.  Although there was plenty of racism in movies made back in those days, it was seldom as stark as that in the novels.

Another difference is the treatment of homosexuality.  In the novel, Marlowe refers to Marriott as a “pansy” on account of his mannerisms.  But in this movie, Marriott (Hans Conried) merely comes across as weak.

Then there is the matter of motive, Velma’s reason for hiding from Moose Malloy.  In this movie, Malloy took a manslaughter rap for his boss.  But that means Velma didn’t turn him in for the reward money, so it is not clear why she is paying off Jessie Florian not to tell Malloy where she is, or why she changed her name.  All we can figure is that Malloy is the kind of guy who could kill a woman out jealousy and would be too strong for anyone to stop him.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

The second movie version of this novel is Murder, My Sweet, made a couple of years later.  This is a genuine film noir, and it closely follows the novel in plot, style, and tone, though with some simplifications that are usually necessary when bringing a novel to the screen.  Raymond Chandler used the words “sleep,” “farewell,” and “goodbye” in three of his novels, each a metaphor for death. However, the studio executives decided they needed a title with a literal meaning.  Dick Powell had been chosen to play Philip Marlowe.  Previously, he had starred in musicals, singing and dancing. The producers were afraid that if they used the same title as the novel, people would think it was another musical.

This movie is told mostly in flashback, which mirrors the first-person narrative style of the novel.  In addition, flashbacks are common in films noir, for they can give a movie a fatalistic tone, inasmuch as the events of the past cannot be undone, especially when the flashback begins after something bad has happened.  In The Falcon Takes Over, there is no flashback.  Everyone seems to have free will, and anything can happen.  But when Murder, My Sweet begins, Marlowe is being interrogated in a police station, accused of murder, and his eyes have bandages over them.

In the story that he relates, Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hires Marlowe to help him find Velma (Claire Trevor), unlike in the previous version and in the novel, where Lawrence/Marlowe just accidentally encounters Malloy in front of Club 13/Florian’s. Instead, they go to Florian’s together. This time the place is white, but low class.

The next day Marriott shows up to hire Marlowe, saying he wants his company when he is supposedly going to buy back the stolen necklace.  The elevator operator comments that he is a cute, little fellow, and that he smelled nice too.  Later on, Mr. Grayle refers to him as a “foppish” man. This counts as a queer flash, about as close as the movies could come to homosexuality in the days of the Production Code.

Once again, Velma’s motive for hiding from Malloy is unclear.  There is no reference to her having turned him in for a reward.  In fact, we don’t even know why he was in prison.  Nor does she seem to be afraid of him.  Toward the end of the movie, she tries to get Marlowe to kill Amthor for her because he was blackmailing her, since he knew of the affairs she had had.  But she does not ask Marlowe to kill Malloy.

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

In this third adaption, made in 1975, Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran) says he was sent to prison for robbing a bank, returning to the reason for his incarceration in the novel. And Velma (Charlotte Rampling) turned him in for the reward, just like in the novel.  Therefore, she once again is afraid of Malloy, and she has a strong motive for trying to keep him from finding her.

This adaptation takes its title from the novel. By this time, Chandler’s novels had come to be revered as classic detective fiction, so the title was too valuable to just set aside as it was in the first two movies.  The movie has elements of the film noir style, unlike The Falcon Takes Over, but it does not qualify as film noir, primarily because there is a self-conscious aspect to it, which is what distinguishes neo-noir from film noir proper. Unlike the traditional film noir, this version was made in color.  But it would not have changed its category if it had been made in black-and-white, because the day had passed when studios made black-and-white movies to hold down the cost.  By the 1970s, movies that were made in black-and-white were done so for artistic reasons. So, we would have been saying to ourselves, “Oh, it’s in black-and-white, just like a film noir.”

Then there is the setting.  Just as a choice had to be made about color versus black-and-white, so too did a conscious choice have to be made between the original setting and a contemporary one.  The 1970s just do not have the same cultural feel as the 1940s. For example, if a private detective in the 1970s wore a trench coat and a fedora, we would think he was some kind of Don Quixote who had seen too many films noir and was trying to be like those romanticized detectives of fiction.  For that reason, perhaps, the movie was set in the 1940s.  But now when we see Robert Mitchum as Marlowe in a trench coat and a fedora, we check these items off, as if they were on a list of things that every film noir private detective must have.

Furthermore, there are a few elements from the 1970s that work their way into this movie, which we know to be deliberate choices made by the producers.  These 1970s situations and values retrojectively put into a story supposedly set in the 1940s are also what place this and other movies like it in the neo-noir category.

One such choice consists in adhering more closely to the novel than the earlier versions.  In the novel, Florian’s has become a “Negro” nightclub.  In the two previous movie versions of the novel, the studio executives kept the nightclub white, possibly to avoid upsetting the 1940s audience on matters of race.  By 1975, showing Florian’s as being a black establishment was not only more acceptable, it was almost hip. Movie producers were by that time looking for ways to have more blacks in their movies, and so following the novel in this regard was made to order.

Other stuff is thrown into the movie that was neither in novel nor in the previous versions in order to reflect the zeitgeist of 1975. An extraneous mixed-race couple is added to the plot.  That could hardly have been a commonplace in the 1940s, so it calls attention to itself as rather forced.  Jessie Florian says that it ruined the career of the husband, who was white, for “marrying a nigger.”  In this way, the movie allows its audience to feel smug, regarding itself as superior to the past as it deplores the racial prejudices of those times.  In the novel, it was Marlowe, among others, who used racial slurs like that.  In this movie, other people use racial slurs, but Marlowe uses only the polite words of the 1940s, “Negro” and “colored.”

If putting a miscegenous couple into this movie seems forced, the fact that they have a child for Marlowe to care about is even more so.  I suppose the fact that Marlowe is friendly with a mixed-race child lets us know we are supposed to like him, as if we needed a push in that direction.  In any event, it was around this time that children started gratuitously showing up in movies that would have been better off without them.  Sappy sentimentality simply does not belong in a film noir, but I guess this is another difference between that genre and neo-noir.

Then there is Jules Amthor, who has become Frances Amthor, a lesbian.  With the end of the Production Code, it was now possible to feature homosexuality explicitly. However, there was no felt need to treat such characters sympathetically.  Instead, she is a huge woman, portrayed as the stereotypical butch dyke.  Her presence in the movie might be indicative of the fact that there was less censorship in 1975 than in the 1940s, but it is in no way an expression of tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality. In fact, whereas Marlowe refers to African Americans with polite words only, he refers to Marriott as a “fairy.”  The movies of the 1970s showed more deference to African Americans than they did to homosexuals.

A Future Remake

It’s about time for another remake, one suitable for the twenty-first century. It will probably have to have a simpler plot in order to make room for all the CGI action sequences.  But more important than that are the issues of homosexuality and race.

A gay character will be required, of course, for that is one of the boxes that need to be checked off when making a movie like this today.  But that does not mean having a homosexual like Marriott or, in the case of the last remake, Frances Amthor, both of whom are portrayed by means of negative stereotypes. Rather, having Philip Marlow himself be gay should meet with approval from today’s audience.

Actually, this has already been done in a way.  In the movie Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005), Michelle Monaghan grew up reading hardboiled novels about a private eye named Jonny Gossamer.  Robert Downey Jr. is in love with her, and he also knows a lot about those novels too.  He tries to understand the mystery he gets involved in by reference to things that happened in those novels. Jonny Gossamer is the equivalent of Philip Marlowe, and the movie is divided into chapters named after Raymond Chandler’s books, the last one being Farewell, My Lovely.  The real hardboiled private eye that Downey meets is gay. In fact, his name is Gay Perry.  So, he has the same first name as Gay Lawrence, the Falcon, though with a different connotation, of course.  Since Perry is played by Val Kilmer, he is a real man, not like the effeminate Marriott of the novel and the movies.  Also in keeping with the sensitivities of the twenty-first century, Perry doesn’t like secondhand smoke.

Another box that must be checked off today is the miscegenous couple.  As noted above, there was such a couple in the last remake, but they were minor characters.  In a twenty-first century remake of Farewell, My Lovely, Moose Malloy and Velma Valento should fill that slot.  However, it will have to be Velma that is black and Malloy that is white.  It simply wouldn’t do to have Moose Malloy be a big, hulking black man looking for his white Velma, who is desperate to get away from him.  That simply would not bespeak of the enlightened, progressive attitude that a mixed-race couple in a movie is supposed to represent nowadays.

An American Tragedy:  The Book and the Adaptations

In 1906, Chester Gillette drowned Grace Brown in a lake because he had gotten her pregnant, a crime for which he was put to death in the electric chair.  An American Tragedy, a 1925 novel by Theodore Dreiser, is based those events.

In the novel, the man is Clyde and the woman is Roberta.  There is another woman, Sondra, whom Clyde wanted to marry, but she may be a completely fictional character.  The first film adaptation of An American Tragedy, released in 1931, has the same title as the novel, and the three principal characters have the same names.  The second adaptation, directed by George Stevens in 1951, has a title that is different from the novel, A Place in the Sun, and the characters have different names.  Don’t ask me why.  To help keep things straight, here are the identities:

George (Montgomery Clift) = Clyde

Alice (Shelley Winters) = Roberta

Angela (Elizabeth Taylor) = Sondra

In A Place in the Sun, George is raised in a poor family that does street missionary work.  But he wants more out of life than that, so he hitchhikes to California where his rich uncle lives, hoping to better himself through that family connection.  He gets a job working in his uncle’s factory, where one of the strict rules is that he is not to date any of the girls that work there, which would include Alice.  But as luck would have it, he runs into Alice at a movie theater and ends up walking her home.  They start seeing each other, and one night he comes into her room at a boarding house, one thing leads to another, and they end up having sex.  They continue seeing each other, and I naturally thought they continued having sex during this period.  I have no doubt that Chester Gillette, the real George, and Grace Brown, the real Alice, did have sex more than once.  But reality is one thing, and a movie is something else.  And so, one night when George comes over to visit Alice, she says, “George, we’re in trouble.  Real trouble, I think.”  He asks her what she means.  She replies, “Remember the first night you came here?”

That’s when I had to laugh.  There it was, the standard formula:  a woman has sex just one time, and sure enough, she gets pregnant.  It’s almost as if a good form of birth control for unmarried couples in a movie is to have lots of sex.  Otherwise, why not let George and Alice have regular sex for two or three months before she ends up getting pregnant?  I understand the dramatic aspect of pregnancy arising from just one moral lapse, but there comes a point where the formula is so overused as to be absurd.

Anyway, during the time between their one act of fornication and Alice’s realization that she is pregnant, George has met and fallen in love with Angela, who is rich and upper class, and to his amazement, she has fallen in love with him and wants to get married.  This is everything he has ever hoped for.  But then he finds out Alice is pregnant.

He tries to get her an abortion, but the doctor he arranges for her to see tells her to go home to her parents.  Eventually, the idea of killing her takes hold of him.  He hears about how sometimes people drown when they are out on the lake, and he recalls that Alice said she did not know how to swim.  And so, he suggests that before they get married, they should have an enjoyable afternoon out on the lake.

Now, in the novel, Clyde doesn’t actually kill Roberta.  He planned to drown her and make it look like an accident.  He gets her out into the middle of the lake in a rowboat, knowing she cannot swim.  But then he thinks he cannot do it.  But then he thinks he will.  He might as well be picking petals off a daisy:  “I kill her, I kill her not, I kill her, I kill her not.”  Anyway, she ends up falling overboard and drowns just as he was thinking, “I kill her not.”  Notwithstanding all the planning he put into this murder that he changed his mind on at the last minute but which had the same result anyway, his identity is discovered, he is tried for murder, convicted, and executed.

This was not the first time Dreiser used the idea of a man being indecisive about committing a crime until the contemplated criminal act accidentally happens just as he was thinking he would not commit the crime.  In Carrie (1952), the movie based on Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie, Lawrence Olivier’s character is tempted to steal money from his boss when he is closing up one night and finds that the safe has been left open.  He takes the money out of the safe, puts it back, takes it out, and so on, until just as he decides he won’t steal the money, the safe accidentally closes and locks while he still has the money in his hands, leading to his downfall.

In a couple of respects, the first adaptation of An American Tragedy is better.  For one thing, it is more faithful to the true story on which it is based.  What I regard as more important than that, however, is the actress that plays the part of Roberta is Silvia Sidney.  We readily believe in her naïve innocence.  She seems like the Roberta of the novel, a woman we like and feel sorry for.  As noted above, however, in A Place in the Sun, Alice is played by Shelley Winters.  I don’t know what Shelley Winters was like as a person, but her screen persona simply is not the sweet, innocent virgin for whom we are supposed to have sympathy because she was taken advantage of by a man.  In fact, the hostess for a showing of this film on Turner Classic Movies, Alicia Malone, said that this movie was a turning point in Winters’ career.  Before that, she was typically cast as a blonde bombshell or as a sexpot, and it was for that reason that George Stevens, the director, refused at first even to consider her for this part, saying she was “completely wrong for this plain, meek, little factory girl.”  I don’t know why he relented.  Someone like Betsy Blair would have been far more suitable for the part.  In any event, it was not much of a turning point for Shelley Winters, for afterwards she still seemed suited for roles in which she is a hard-boiled broad, as in Alfie (1966) or Bloody Mama (1970).  As a result, when she is taken advantage of by a man in a movie, we are more likely to think she is dumb than naïve.

Partly as a result of this difference, we are sad when Silvia Sidney’s Roberta drowns.  As for Shelley Winters’ Alice, however, I know I am supposed to feel sorry for her, and I do a little bit, but the fact is that I never really mind when Shelley Winters dies in a movie.  I find her to be a little irritating, and so whenever she dies in a movie, I experience her death more with a feeling of relief than with a sense of loss.  For example, the fact that she drowns in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) does not spoil my sense that the movie has a happy ending.  A third movie in which Shelley Winters drowns is The Night of the Hunter (1955), murdered by her newlywed, psychopathic husband, played by Robert Mitchum.  Now, Robert Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell, is supposed to be as bad as they come, so you would think they would have allowed him to kill a more likeable actress, like Debbie Reynolds, for instance, so that we would really think Harry is evil.  But I believe they picked Shelley Winters to be his victim so that we would not spend the rest of the movie feeling sorry for her.  In other words, the movie has a happy ending, in part, because the earlier death of Shelley Winters’ character does not strike a sour note that resonates through the rest of the movie.

If A Place in the Sun had starred an actress to play Alice who would have been more believably innocent and whose death would have been more disturbing, then we would have been appropriately outraged that George would have even thought about abandoning her, let alone make elaborate plans to murder her, just as we are when we read the novel or watch the first adaptation.  But with Shelley Winters playing the part, her death really seems to be just a plot point, and we almost end up feeling sorrier for George, played by the likeable Montgomery Clift, than we do for Alice.

Within the novel and the two adaptations, Clyde (George) is punished for a murder that he did not commit, even though things accidentally happened as he had planned.  But when we step outside the novel and the adaptations, we may ask why the story was written this way.  After all, murders take place every day, but how often does someone plan a murder, change his mind at the last minute, only to have the person he was planning to murder accidentally die in a manner similar to what he had planned?  I submit that the answer to that question is, “Never!”  This is strictly a figment of Dreiser’s imagination.  As for the true story this was based on, Chester Gillette deliberately killed Grace Brown with a blow from his tennis racket, knocking her into the lake, where she drowned.

Furthermore, there are doubts as to whether there was another woman, nor need there have been one.  Gillette may have murdered Brown simply because he didn’t want to marry her.  It would have at least been realistic had there been another woman, but she too may have been dreamed up by Dreiser.  As far as the novel goes, Sondra is not just another woman.  She is upper-class.  And throughout the early part of the story, we are made aware that Clyde is ambitious, for it is the theme of ambition that accounts for the word “American” in the title.  As a result, we doubt that he ever loved either woman.  Or rather, he loved Sondra, but only because she was rich and upper-class.

There are many movies in which women try to rise socially by marrying into the upper class, and often as not, they succeed.  But while we are sympathetic to a woman’s attempt to marry up, we do not extend the same attitude toward men.  Men are allowed to marry down for the sake of love, but when they try to marry up, we just don’t like it.  In fact, it may even be that this is the real reason Clyde is punished, for not being content with his lot in life, since the novel goes to great lengths to make it clear that he did not commit the crime for which he was charged.

The other day, I happened to watch Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005).  It readily calls to mind an earlier movie of his, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), in which someone also gets away with murder and lives happily ever after.  Also, we see the protagonist reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which is also about a man that commits a murder.  Finally, music from various operas is heard throughout the movie.  Operas often involve lust and murder, or so I’ve been told.

About halfway through this movie, however, I began to notice similarities between this movie and An American Tragedy.  But there were also many differences, and I figured that including a discussion of Match Point in this review would be a stretch.  But then it occurred to me that whenever I fancy that I’ve had an original thought, it usually turns out that lots of other people have already had that thought.  So, I Googled it.  Lots of other people have already had that thought.  One critic suggested that since the story is set in England, the movie’s title should have been A British Tragedy.  The identities are now as follows:

Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) = George = Clyde

Nola (Scarlett Johansson) = Alice = Roberta

Chloe (Emily Mortimer) = Angela = Sondra

Chris, like Clyde, is ambitious.  He is a tennis player.  I don’t know if that has anything to do with the fact that a tennis racket was the murder weapon used by Chester Gillette, but I suspect the main reason is to supply us with a simile.  In the opening scene of the movie, we see a tennis ball being hit back and forth between two unseen players.  Suddenly, the ball hits the top of the net and bounces straight up.  The match will be determined by which way the ball falls, on which side of the net, a matter of sheer luck.  We hear Chris saying that as in tennis, so much of life is a matter of luck.

There are a lot of differences here and there between this movie and the ones discussed above.  For one thing, Chris and Nola don’t have sex just one time as did their counterparts in A Place in the Sun.  (As for the novel and the first movie version, I think they had sex just once, but it’s been a long time since I have read the former and seen the latter.)  Moreover, Chris is already married to Chloe when he gets Nola pregnant.  And whereas Clyde (George) lost interest in Roberta (Alice) as soon as Sondra (Angela) became available, in this movie, Chris is indifferent to Chloe, to whom he stays married in order to keep his position in her father’s business, but he is madly passionate about Nola.

Unlike the novel and the movie versions, where having an abortion is attempted but thwarted by the fact that it is illegal, in this movie, regardless of whatever the law is in England at this time, Nola has already had two abortions and could easily have a third when Chris gets her pregnant.  She decides she doesn’t want to have another one, saying that it is high time he left Chloe and married her.

This was a good way for Woody Allen to finesse this situation.  First, he probably wanted to avoid the cliché of a woman getting pregnant after doing it just once.  Second, Scarlett Johansson’s screen persona doesn’t suggest a woman that is pro-life.  So, he makes it clear that she has had sex with other men in the past, and many times with Chris.  Then he has her reject the solution of having an abortion, not as a matter of principle, but because she has already had two abortions, and she just doesn’t want to do that anymore.  So, what is different this time?  A woman’s attitude toward abortion is sometimes determined by her feelings for the man that impregnated her, and Nola is in love with Chris.

Chris decides to get out of this difficulty by killing her.  Having secreted one of his father-in-law’s shotguns out of the gun room, he uses it to kill an elderly lady that lives next door to make it look like a home invasion to steal her jewelry and prescription drugs.  Then he kills Nola just before she enters her apartment, making it look as though she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You would think that his killing Nola because her pregnancy threatens his comfortable life with Chloe would be sufficiently horrible all by itself.  But when he kills the elderly woman next door to cover his crime, that is an even greater evil.  It is not simply that killing two people is twice as bad as killing one.  It’s that the murder of the woman next door is decidedly more cold-blooded.

After the murders are discovered, the police read Nola’s diary and ask Chris to come in for an interview.  Before going there, he throws most of the woman’s jewelry into a river.  As he walks away, he realizes he still has the woman’s wedding ring.  He throws it toward the river, but unbeknownst to him, the ring bounces off the guardrail just like that tennis ball at the beginning of the movie.  It does not go into the river, but falls back on the pavement.  That appears to be bad luck for Chris.

Chris hallucinates one night, seeing himself in a conversation with Nola and the murdered neighbor.  Like a Greek chorus, they tell him he is doomed and will be punished.  He says, “It would be fitting if I were apprehended and punished.  At least there would be some small sign of justice.  Some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.”

We find it hard to believe that Chris would engage in this philosophical commentary at this point, even if he does read Dostoevsky and go to the opera.  Instead, we can’t help but regard this as Woody Allen’s statement on the story he is presenting us, delivered through the mouth of Chris.

It turns out that the fall of the ring on the pavement was actually good luck.  Just as one of the detectives figures out what really happened, another detective tells him the ring was found in the pocket of a drug addict with a long rap sheet, acting as confirmation of the original theory that it was a home invasion with Nola as collateral damage.  Now that guy will be punished for those murders he didn’t commit.  The movie ends with everyone in Chloe’s family being happy about the baby that she and Chris finally had.  Chloe’s father says he is sure the baby will be great at whatever he chooses to do, but her brother says he just hopes he will be lucky.

In An American Tragedy and its movie versions, Clyde (George) was not actually guilty of murder.  His decision not to kill Roberta (Alice) just as she accidentally falls into the lake and drowns is a matter of chance, like the tennis ball that might fall on one side of the net or the other.  But in Match Point, it is not the death of Nola that is a matter of chance.  It’s not as though Chris was thinking to himself, “I kill her not,” when he stumbles, causing the shotgun to go off accidentally.  Rather, the murders are an act of free will, not involving any element of chance.  It is only a matter of luck that he got away with it.

And so, the moral of this story is, there ain’t no moral.

The Last of the Mohicans:  The Book and Its Adaptations


The tragedy of miscegenation is twofold:  First, there is the conflict between a loving couple from different races and the racist society that disapproves of their union.  Of course, this is a particular type of situation in which society disapproves of love even where race may not be involved, the classic story of which is Romeo and Juliet, in which the couple is of the same race but of two feuding families. Second, there is the hapless fate of their offspring, for in a society that abhors miscegenation, the children of such unions will likely be despised.  In particular, they may have a harder time finding love than their parents did; for their parents fell in love despite the opportunities to marry within their own race, whereas their children will find their chances for marrying greatly circumscribed regardless of which race they choose to affiliate with.

This twofold tragedy is a natural subject for novels, plays, and movies.  Of movies in particular, West Side Story (1961) is a good instance of the first type of tragedy arising from miscegenation.  It not only updated the Romeo and Juliet story, but also racialized it by having the boy be Caucasian and the girl be Latina.  Regarding the second type of tragedy of mixed-race love, Imitation of Life (1959) is probably the best representative.

Most of us enjoy these stories from an egalitarian vantage point.  We disapprove of the racial animus that forbids miscegenation while sympathizing with the lovers or their children that suffer undeservedly from societal condemnation. I sometimes wonder, however, if racists enjoy these stories too, though for quite different reasons, seeing them as tales of sin and punishment.  So, in West Side Story, someone who strongly disapproves of the intermarriage between whites and Puerto Ricans might understand Tony’s death as condign punishment for violating that taboo.  And people who abhor mixed-race offspring might watch Imitation of Life and say to themselves, “That’s what Sarah Jane gets for trying to pass for white.”  Had there been Capulets and Montagues in the audience, they might have favorably regarded the ending of Romeo and Juliet as teaching what can happen when you disobey your family in matters of love.

The Last of the Mohicans involves both types of tragedies arising from miscegenation, although you would never know it just from watching the movies. When a movie varies significantly from the novel on which it is based, one sometimes wonders why the producers of the movie did not simply make up a whole new story and film it under another name.   The main reason, of course, is that though the plot of the movie departs in many ways from that of the novel, yet it is too similar in other respects to escape the charge of plagiarism should the producers pretend it to be an original work. Furthermore, the public’s familiarity with the novel acts as a kind of advertisement.  By “familiarity,” however, I do not mean that the public in question have actually read the novel.  Far from it.  Most people have not read The Last of the Mohicans nor ever will.  But they know that it is a classic in American literature, and they figure that even though they have no interest in reading the novel, watching a movie based on that novel might provide them with an evening’s entertainment. Moreover, it is the fact that most people have not read the book that allows the producers of the movie to take liberties with impunity, for the most disappointed members of an audience will usually be those who have read the book and know it well, and they will be few in number.   And so, the stories in some of the movie versions of this novel almost seem to be taking place in a parallel universe, where the characters and setting are more or less the same, but the relationships are different and different people live and die in the end. Furthermore, the manner in which the story is changed over the years reflects the sentiments on the part of the producers and the audiences as contemporary values are projected back into the eighteenth century, thereby rendering the past suitable for present consumption.  To make matters even more confusing, critics reviewing a movie sometimes project their knowledge of the book into the movie while others project the movie they just saw back into the novel.

In particular, there is the peculiar fact that though the novel involves both a miscegenous couple and a person of mixed race, yet the dramatizations tend to keep the first but avoid the second, and even the first is depicted in various ways and with differing degrees of emphasis.  These differences intrigued me, resulting in reflections that led to this essay.  In sorting this out, it is necessary to keep in mind the question as to whether James Fenimore Cooper, his audience of readers, the producers of the movie versions, and the audiences of those versions are of the enlightened, egalitarian type, deploring racism, or the racist type, affirming it, interpreting the story respectively as one of undeserved suffering or of punishment for sin.

In sorting out the various ways miscegenation is treated in the novel and the adaptations, I have divided this essay into several parts, this first one being the introduction, of course.  This is followed by a review of the novel.  Then the adaptations that were made before the Civil Rights Movement are considered, followed by the adaptations made shortly after the beginning of that movement.  After that, I discuss the 1992 version, which was made in what might be called our “post-racial society.”  I realize there are still problems of race relations to this day, but relatively speaking, they are much diminished from what they once were, as is reflected in this most recent adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, though in a manner that is less than felicitous.  Finally, there is the conclusion.

The Novel

The setting of the novel is the French and Indian War in America in 1757. Natty Bumppo is a major character in this novel as well as in James Fenimore Cooper’s four other Leatherstocking Tales.  In this novel, however, he is referred to as Hawkeye and as La Longue Carabine.  His two companions are Chingachgook and his son Uncas, the last two members of the Mohican tribe. They are basically on the side of the British. The Hurons are Native Americans that fight on the side of the French.  Magua, a Huron by birth, but now an outcast, is the villain.  Cora and Alice Munro are daughters of Colonel Munro, commanding officer of Fort William Henry. Cora has black hair. As for her skin, I lack the ability to paraphrase Cooper’s description of her and will thus quote him directly: “Her complexion was not brown, but it rather appeared charged with the color of the rich blood, that seemed ready to burst its bounds.” [p. 26]  She has a serious temperament.  Alice, the younger of the two sisters, is a blonde with blue eyes and fair skin.  She has a lighthearted temperament.  Finally, there is Major Duncan Heyward, who is in love with Alice.

The driving force that puts a wedge between this novel and the movie versions that came later is the fact that Cora has a mixed-race heritage. Now, you might think that a novel written in 1826 would have said that Cora was part “Negro,” for that was a polite term in those days.   However, the circumlocution by which her father refers to the fact of her mixed-race ancestry is remarkable for its excess of delicacy, worthy of the sensitivities of the twenty-first century.  Colonel Munro says of her:

I had seen many regions, and had shed much blood in different lands, before duty called me to the islands of the West Indies. There it was my lot to form a connection with one who in time became my wife, and the mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady whose misfortune it was, if you will,’ said the old man, proudly, ‘to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people. [p. 312]

The degree of Cora’s racial mixture is not made explicit. However, Munro’s use of the expression “descended, remotely” implies, at the very least, that the mother of Munro’s first wife was not African, but rather one-half African. From this it would follow that Munro’s wife was one-quarter African and that Cora was one-eighth African.

Perhaps Munro’s avoidance of the word “Negress” and other acceptable terms at that time, like “mulatta,” “quadroon,” or “octoroon,” was due to the fact that it was his daughter Cora he was talking about.  In fact, he berates Major Heyward for being a southerner, suggesting that he was prejudiced against her. When Heyward first asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Munro assumed it was Cora he was interested in, for she was the older of the two sisters. When it turned out that Heyward wanted to marry Alice, Munro jumped to the conclusion that he was slighting Cora on account of her dark aspect.  He continues:

Ay, sir, that is a curse, entailed on Scotland by her unnatural union with a foreign and trading people. But could I find a man among them who would dare to reflect on my child, he should feel the weight of a father’s anger! Ha! Major Heyward, you are yourself born at the south, where these unfortunate beings are considered of a race inferior to your own.

‘‘Tis most unfortunately true, sir,” said Duncan, unable any longer to prevent his eyes from sinking to the floor in embarrassment. “And you cast it on my child as a reproach! You scorn to mingle the blood of the Heywards with one so degraded — lovely and virtuous though she be?” fiercely demanded the jealous parent. [pp. 312-3]

It is interesting to observe that Munro refers to the part of Cora’s ancestry that is not white as “that unfortunate class,” while in speaking of the attitude of southerners, he uses the expression “considered of a race inferior to your own.”  It would, of course, be anachronistic to suggest that Munro is of the opinion that has become fashionable of late that race is just a social construct. More likely, it is an effort on his part to diminish, at least in his own mind, the taboo nature of miscegenation, for marrying someone of another class would not have carried quite the same stigma as marrying someone of another race.

Heyward protests this charge of prejudice against him, saying it is only on account of his love for Alice that he lacks an interest in Cora.  In any event, the race in question of which Cora was a part is scarcely referred to elsewhere in the novel, except when Magua goes into a speech about how the Great Spirit colored men differently, intending the black ones to be slaves [p. 599].

The hesitancy on the part of Munro to name explicitly the black race that formed her ancestry was probably more than just sensitivity on his part regarding his daughter.  It may be that Cooper wished to avoid offending his readers, who might have flinched at a blunt description of Munro’s first marriage. People in general were uncomfortable with the idea of miscegenation and the offspring they produced.  There was a sense that the children of mixed-race couples should not exist. First, the marriage of black and white that brought them into existence was thought to be intrinsically wrong.  Second, the offspring of such marriages presented a problem when it came to their getting married:  because they are part African, they are too black to marry someone who is white; but being part Caucasian, they are sometimes too white to be suitable for marriage to someone who is black.

Of course, it takes two people from two different races to produce a mixed-race child in the first place.  Therefore, it is certainly not out of the question that someone of mixed-race ancestry should find someone to marry too. But Cooper disapproves of miscegenation, so notwithstanding the fact that people had to cross racial lines in order for Cora to be born, Cooper does not want Cora to do likewise and have a child of her own, lest the reader think miscegenation meets with his approval, so he kills her off in the end.

Uncas falls in love with Cora, and she seems to return the feeling.  Uncas’ being a Native American, however, does not solve the problem of Cora’s unsuitability for marriage, for she was too white to marry someone of the “red race,” as it were. As a result, Cora has to die in the end, in part because her very mixed-race existence was disturbing, and in part to keep her from marrying Uncas, whom Cooper also kills off, possibly as punishment for wanting a white woman.  This is achieved by having Magua forcibly take Cora, intending to make her his squaw. Cora threatens to jump off a cliff to avoid the fate worse than death, but another Huron stabs her in the breast, killing her.  Uncas arrives, too late to save her, and he is killed by Magua. Then Hawkeye shoots Magua before he can escape.

At Cora’s funeral, the Native Americans talk about how Uncas and Cora will be spiritually married and live together in the happy hunting ground, but Hawkeye, expressing Cooper’s sentiments, shakes his head “at the error of their simple creed” [p. 686], disapproving of even this much miscegenation.

In other words, though Cooper extols friendship between men of different races as something admirable by having Hawkeye’s best friends be two Mohicans, yet he is unequivocal about his disdain for a sexual mixing of the races.  In fact, just in case anyone might have doubts about a white man that hangs out with Native Americans all the time, Hawkeye says at one point, “I am not a prejudiced man, nor one who vaunts himself on his natural privileges, though the worst enemy I have on earth, and he is an Iroquois, daren’t deny that I am genuine white” [pp. 49-50]. This need to affirm the purity of his whiteness was not thought amiss by Cooper when he wrote this novel, but notwithstanding Hawkeye’s insistence that he is not a prejudiced man, his need to assert that he is genuinely white belies that denial. Were anyone today to insist that he was genuinely white, daring anyone to contradict him, we would undoubtedly suspect him of being a white supremacist. Actually, it is probably not so much that Hawkeye, expressing the apprehensions of Cooper, feared that anyone would think him a Native American that worried him, but rather that someone might think he was of mixed race, part European and part Native American.  Cooper had a strange ambivalence concerning race. He was fine with men of different races being friends and living amongst each other, but he was averse to the notion of men and women of different races marrying.  And because the offspring of such mixed marriages is thought to be something odious, Hawkeye is at pains to declare his racial purity.

After Munro’s first wife died, he married another woman, who is Alice’s mother. As noted above, Alice is blonde with blue eyes and fair skin.  Now, it would have been unthinkable to have Alice be the one that Uncas fell in love with and who reciprocated those feelings for him. It was one thing for Colonel Munro’s wife to have been the daughter of a white man and a woman of African descent, taboo though that was, but it would be quite another thing even to suggest that a white woman would have any feelings of affection for someone of another race.  Had Uncas and Alice been the ones in the novel to develop a romantic relationship, unconsummated though it may have been, it would not have been sufficient to kill them off in the end. The reading public would have demanded that Cooper be killed off as well. In other words, Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is what allows Cooper to suggest an attraction between her and Uncas.  According to Cooper’s way of thinking, it was because Cora was one-eighth African that she was able to find Uncas attractive, whereas a blonde, blue-eyed, unadulterated white woman like Alice would have no natural inclination for men with dark skin.

My conclusion is that while we today read this novel as a tragedy of undeserved suffering caused by a racist society, for Cooper, his story was one of sin and punishment. Cora’s lonely life and unhappy end was the result of her father’s sin of marrying across racial lines.  It put her in the position where only a Native American might take an interest in her, and even for that both she and Uncas are punished with death.

Movie Adaptions before the Civil Rights Movement

The 1920 version of The Last of the Mohicans follows the novel pretty closely, as closely as might be expected from a seventy-three minute version of a long, involved novel.  The main difference, as far as miscegenation is concerned, is that nothing is said of Cora’s having a mixed-race ancestry. When the movie starts, Cora and Alice are at Fort Edward, which is remote from the fighting. Major Heyward is in love with Alice, just as in the book. There is also a Captain Randolph, a man the intertitle says is more interested in women than warfare, who is in love with Cora.  No such character exists in the book.

If we refer back to the discussion between Colonel Munro and Major Heyward, quoted in Part 2 of this essay, we can see why the novel most definitely did not want a character like Captain Randolph in the story to act as a suitor for Cora. First, it is the fact that there was no one asking for Cora’s hand in marriage that leads to the misunderstanding about which daughter Heyward wanted to marry, which in turn leads to the discussion of Cora’s mixed-race ancestry.  Second, the fact that there is no white man in the novel who wants to marry Cora is not just an accident of circumstance. Rather, it represents the more general situation regarding Cora, which is that her being part African makes her a dubious match for a Caucasian.  But once the producers of this movie decided to omit Cora’s mixed-race ancestry, there no longer was a good reason for her not to be of some interest to one of the officers, and so a Captain Randolph was created to fill that void.  As for Hawkeye, he is asexual and has no interest in either of the women, just as in the novel.

Randolph, out of cowardice, becomes a traitor and betrays the British when they get to Fort William Henry.  Shortly thereafter, he is killed.  He never had much of a chance with Cora in the beginning of the movie, and he had no chance at all once she became enamored of Uncas. As in the novel, she and Uncas fall in love, and as in the novel, their miscegenous inclinations are prevented by having them die in the end.  In this case, Cora tries to jump off a cliff to get away from Magua (Wallace Beery), but changes her mind when she sees Uncas coming to rescue her. She grabs on to Magua who was trying to stop her.  But when Magua sees Uncas, he uses his knife to make her let go, just to spite Uncas, whom he then kills in turn.

In the 1936 movie version, we see right off the bat that the whole business about Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is going to be omitted, for it is Alice who is the brunette and Cora who is the blonde.  In fact, one with a suspicious turn of mind might wonder if the switching of hair color was the result of a deliberate effort to eliminate the dark truth about Cora’s ancestry even in the minds of those few in the audience that might have read the book.  More likely, it is just the result of complete contempt for the story on the part of the producer, who may not have even bothered to read the book himself.

To make matters even more confusing, their personalities are switched. Cora, now the blonde, is like the blonde Alice in the novel, lighthearted but weak. Alice, now the brunette, is like the brunette Cora of the novel, serious but strong.  If Major Heyward were in love with Cora, we might figure that those who produced this movie just got the names mixed up.  But no, Heyward is in love with Alice, just as in the book. Only in the movie, his love is unrequited. This is so she can fall in love with Hawkeye (Randolph Scott), who in turn falls in love with her. When the movie ends, we are led to believe that they will eventually marry.

Needless to say, this is a very different Hawkeye from the asexual man of nature in the novel.  But it is a development not unexpected.  It may have been all right for heroes in nineteenth century fiction to be celibate, but the twentieth century seemed to be uneasy with men like that.  So, finding a woman for Hawkeye was just the thing in 1936.

I noted in Part 1 that some critics project what they see in a movie back into the book.  One reviewer of this 1936 version (TCM) says, “You may recall from your high school literature class that Alice will eventually fall for Hawkeye….” Well, you may recall that, but hopefully you do not, because no such thing happened in the novel.

As for Cora, her father says that she was engaged to be married to a young man who was lost at sea in a naval battle.  So, like the 1920 version, it is made clear that she is suitable for marriage to a white man, whereas in the novel, long before we are made aware of Cora’s mixed-race ancestry, we feel the tension in Cora’s situation by having her be an older sister with no suitor, past or present, despite the fact that she is a beautiful woman.

The miscegenation involved in Cora’s ancestry may have been omitted in this movie, but the threat of miscegenation between Cora and Uncas has not. And what is striking about this is that there is more tolerance in the movies for miscegenation when the white woman is a brunette than when she is a blonde, as Cora is here.  However, this difficulty is skirted by having the affection between Uncas and Cora go primarily in one direction:  Uncas is in love with Cora, but she seems only to like him.

Just as the critic reviewing this movie for TCM “remembered” Alice falling for Hawkeye in the novel, so too do some critics (VarietyOzus) see things in this movie that were only in the novel. In particular, they say Cora falls in love with Uncas, but I think the authors of those reviews must be bringing their knowledge of the novel to the movie, for I do not see it in the movie itself.  In fact, Cora continually refers to the man to whom she was once engaged, presumably as a way of reassuring the audience that she cannot be in love with Uncas, if she still loves her deceased fiancé.  So, in addition to making it clear to the audience that Cora would have been suitable as a bride for a white man, adding this deceased fiancé to the story, one whom she still loves and grieves for, was presumably intended to keep the audience from supposing that she might have romantic feelings for Uncas.  Still, things get a little too close for comfort, so she still has to die in the end by flinging herself off a cliff to avoid the fate worse than death.

Movie Adaptations after the Civil Rights Movement

Two versions of this novel were made in 1965, both foreign films, one going by the English title The Last Tomahawk and the other by the English title The Fall of the Mohicans, only the second of which was available for viewing.  In this latter film, both Cora and Alice are brunettes, but like the 1936 version, their personalities are reversed from that of the novel, with Alice having the stronger character. Major Heyward acts as though he has no interest in her. In fact, he seems to despise her. But finally, after the surrender of Fort William Henry and the massacre by the Hurons, when Heyward and Alice are captives thinking they are about to be put to death, he tells Alice he loves her. If there is a reason for deviating from the novel in this way, I cannot imagine what it is.

The only thing that seems to remain constant in these movies thus far is that the one named Cora, regardless of her hair color or personality, is the one whom Uncas falls in love with. One almost gets the sense that once Cora’s mixed-race ancestry had been eliminated from the story, the people that produced these movies saw no need to worry about which sister had what color of hair or what kind of personality, who was loved by Uncas, or who died in the end.  And to a certain extent, I guess they are right.

This version makes it explicitly clear what Cora’s feelings are toward Uncas, for she says to him, “I love you.” Chingachgook, however, disapproves, telling Uncas that he must perpetuate the Mohican line by marrying a Mohican woman.  It seems the producers of this movie have forgotten that the reason for the title of the book is that there are no more Mohican women around for that purpose.

Uncas and Cora die in the end, but not in the usual way.  Uncas and Magua (called “Cunning Fox” in this movie) fight to see who will get Cora in a camp of the Delawares.  When Uncas kills Magua, another Huron shoots an arrow into Cora for spite, and then another puts a spear in Uncas’ back.  So, there is no leaping off the cliff to escape the fate worse than death for Cora. Of course, neither was there any leaping off the cliff at the end of the novel. But the producers of most of the movies apparently figure that as long as Cora has to die and there is a cliff handy, she might as well jump off it.  One wonders if Cooper wanted to suggest that as a possibility by having the scene of Cora’s death occur near a cliff, but then pulled back from it and had her stabbed to death instead so that she would not have to go to Hell for committing suicide.  But I digress.

At their funeral, the Delaware chief Tamenund says that Uncas and Cora are together in the happy hunting ground, just as in the book.  But unlike the book, we do not see Hawkeye shake his head in disapproval at the thought of miscegenation, even in a spiritual sense, in some afterlife.  So, owing to the Civil Rights Movement, Hawkeye has become more tolerant in this regard.

In 1971, a BBC TV mini-series was produced, but which I have been unable to see.  (I could buy the DVD, but I am more of a cheapskate than a film scholar.)  From what I can gather, however, it is the most faithful adaptation of the novel. In particular, Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is actually referred to in gossip, which has it that Cora’s grandmother was a one-half African. Given the year in which this mini-series was made, it makes sense that both elements of miscegenation were finally able to become part of an adaptation.  In fact, as we shall see, it turns out to be an inflection point, after which the elements of miscegenation begin to fade away.

Then there is the 1977 made-for-television movie.  As in the 1965 adaptation, Alice and Cora are both brunettes.  Even if, like most movies, the part about Cora’s mixed-race mother from the West Indies is omitted, one might think that Alice and Cora would still be distinguished by the color of their hair, one being blonde and the other brunette, as a way of staying faithful to the book regarding Cora’s black ancestry while avoiding any explicit reference to it. Still, the important thing is that even though the year of production is 1977, a time when much progress had been made in the realm of civil rights, and ten years after anti-miscegenation laws had been ruled unconstitutional, and, I might add, ten years after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there is no hint of Cora’s ancestry being anything other than white.

The reason for avoiding Cora’s mixed-race ancestry in the late 1970s, however, is not likely to be the same reason for avoiding it in 1920 or 1936.  Instead, it was probably a simple matter of budgetary considerations. To keep production costs low, those who produced this movie never filmed any scenes that take place at Fort William Henry.  Except for a brief scene at Fort Edward in the beginning, all we get to see are the scenes that take place in the forests or in some Native American camps. Only at the very end of the movie do we hear about the surrender of the fort and the subsequent massacre from a couple of officers. Therefore, because Heyward never makes it to the fort in this movie, he cannot have the conversation about Cora’s racial ancestry with Colonel Munro.

Cora does not die in the end.  In fact, she does not even threaten to jump off a cliff, although she is close to one. Magua tries to shoot her out of spite, but Uncas jumps in front of her and takes the bullet.  Chingachgook then kills Magua.  In other words, by 1977, attitudes about race in America had improved to the point that Cora’s love for a Native American no longer necessitated her death.  Having gone this far, one might wonder why they didn’t just go ahead and let Uncas live too, so that he and Cora could get married and live happily ever after. You might suppose that they couldn’t do that because Uncas and Cora would have had children, thereby perpetuating the Mohican line, which would contradict the title of the movie. But that would not really be a problem on account of the whole prejudice against miscegenation and the offspring arising therefrom. In other words, Uncas and Chingachgook would still be the last of the Mohicans because half-breeds don’t count. And so, notwithstanding the willingness of the producers of these movies to change around the story regarding who loves whom and who lives or dies, they just could not bring themselves to spare Uncas right along with Cora.

The Post-Racial Period

For all the changes in the personalities of the two sisters and their hair color in the previous versions of the novel, at least they were consistent on one point, which is that Cora was the one that Uncas fell in love with.  No longer. In this version, Uncas falls in love with Alice (Jodhi May) instead of Cora (Madeleine Stowe).  In any event, we are prepared for Uncas to fall in love with somebody when, near the beginning of the movie, someone remarks that it is high time Uncas found himself a woman and married her.  So later, when we see him looking at Alice with longing, we know what he has on his mind. However, there is no indication that Alice feels anything for him, at least not in the version I saw.  There is some footage showing Uncas holding her while she appears to be in shock, and I suppose that made it into the director’s cut. Moreover, some say there is a screenplay indicating a love scene between them, but if so, the fact that these scenes never made it into the theatrical release is the result of choices made by those who produced this movie.

Anyway, this time it is Cora instead of Alice whom Heyward is in love with, but she declines his offer of marriage because she falls in love with Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) with whom she has a sex scene of sorts.  The reason for the sex scene—which is either really passionate hugging and kissing or actual intercourse with their clothes on—may have been homophobia:  the scene was needed to preclude the possibility of a homoerotic interpretation. This was not a consideration in the earlier versions, but by 1992, the idea that Hawkeye would live in the woods with two Mohican men, without having any interest in women, would have created a vacuum, regarding which suspicions of homosexuality were bound to rush in.

Unlike Cora, Alice has no suitor.  And who can be surprised? She is a big nothing, just a pretty face.  I don’t know what Uncas saw in her.  I guess it was the pretty face.  It seems to be enough for some men.  Furthermore, as she is the younger sister, the fact that no white man is interested in her is not as suspicious as when she, under the original name of Cora, was the older sister and had no suitor.  She flings herself off the cliff in the end, and the synopsis on IMDb says it is to “join Uncas in death,” but once again one suspects this would be the result of projecting the novel (or some previously watched adaptation of such) into this movie. Rather, she could easily have leapt to her death just to avoid becoming Magua’s squaw.

Actually, her leaping to her death seems rather pointless.  Since we are given no reason to think she is in love with Uncas, his death would not be sufficient reason for her to take her own life.  As far as the old fate-worse-than-death motive is concerned, this was already scotched by Hawkeye when he told Cora to “submit” if she is captured, that he will find her and rescue her.  In other words, the attitude in this movie is that being raped by a Native American is no longer a fate worse than death, an attitude fitting for a post-racial society. Better to let Magua have his way with her until Hawkeye had a chance to enable her to escape.  You might argue that Alice never got the word, that she was still laboring under the old values, which held that a woman must preserve her honor at all costs. But while we are watching the movie, we find it hard to make this distinction.  Once Hawkeye has affirmed authoritatively that a woman should try to stay alive even at the price of being raped by a man of a different race, we cannot help but regard Alice’s leap to her death as misguided.  And as we see in the subsequent scenes, she would indeed have been rescued without being raped had she just continued to allow herself to be held captive.


In my discussion of the novel, I concluded that for Cooper, his story was about the sin and punishment of miscegenation, while most people today would understand it as a story of innocent people being forced to suffer in a society that forbids love between people of different races.  Regardless of how the story is understood, however, the effect is intensified if Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is a part of it, especially since it is this that leads to her being attracted to Uncas.  So, why would the movies, with the exception of the BBC mini-series, invariably omit it?

The 1920 version of this novel was produced just five years after Birth of a Nation, in which the villains of the piece are both “mulattoes,” one instigating the Civil War, the other causing discord during Reconstruction. If the audiences at that time were inclined to think of such people as inherently evil, small wonder then that this had to be suppressed in the case of Cora, for she is no villainess.  On the other hand, miscegenation between Caucasians and Native Americans was somewhat more acceptable, as can be seen from the successful movie The Squaw Man (1914) and its remakes, although an unhappy ending is still necessitated. However, in The Squaw Man, the man is white and woman is Native American, so their union in marriage is allowed, even if finally ending tragically.  In The Last of the Mohicans, however, the woman is white and the man is Native American.  There is always less tolerance for miscegenation when it is the woman who is white and it is the man who is of another race.  Therefore, the love between Uncas and Cora had to remain unconsummated.

For similar reasons, the 1936 version also suppressed Cora’s mixed-race ancestry, especially since it was made three years after the Production Code began to be rigorously enforced. Cora’s affection for Uncas is downplayed, but Uncas is still portrayed as being in love with Cora, so that is enough to necessitate the death of both of them.

The 1965 version was made one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  As a result, it does not hesitate to allow Cora to openly declare her love for Uncas. One would think the time had finally arrived to allow Cora’s mixed-race ancestry to be made explicit.  The fact that it is not may be laziness on the part of the producers, who were content to follow the lead of the previously made movies rather than worry about the novel, especially since it is a cheaply made foreign film.

Though I have not seen the 1971 version produced by the BBC, from what I gather, both Cora’s mixed race ancestry and her love for Uncas are part of the plot.  This is exactly what one would expect, given the climate regarding race relations at that time.

The 1977 version was such a cheesy production that I don’t think much should be made of it. Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is omitted, but this version is unique in allowing Cora’s love for Uncas to go unpunished, though Uncas is not vouchsafed the same consideration.

This leaves us with the 1992 version, which omits Cora’s (i.e., Alice’s) mixed-race ancestry and gives no indication of any feeling between Cora (i.e., Alice) and Uncas. Given the fact that this was a big budget production, one would think that the time was ripe for a movie that not only kept the names and hair colors straight, but also emphasized both Cora’s mixed-race ancestry and her love for Uncas.

Now, some apologists for this version point to the fact that the director, Michael Mann, said that his movie was based on the 1936 version rather than the book.  But is that an explanation or an excuse?  In other words, I suspect that Michael Mann wanted to avoid the whole issue of miscegenation, and knowing the prominent role it played in the novel, he skirted the issue by claiming that his movie is more of a remake than an adaptation.

Had this movie been made before the 1960s, the reason for suppressing the two elements of miscegenation would have been the one given previously for the 1920 and 1936 versions, which is that audiences were still uncomfortable with people marrying across racial lines and having mixed-race children. But that can no longer be the motive here, for as we have seen, when the 1971 mini-series was produced, including both elements of miscegenation, the times had changed to the point that this was no longer a problem.

As best as I can tell, this leaves us with only one reason why Michael Mann left out or greatly minimized the elements of miscegenation.  He didn’t think it was important.  He figured no one would any longer care if one of the sisters were of mixed-race ancestry or if she were in love with a Native American, on account of the times having changed so much.  But by that kind of reasoning, we might as well not make a movie about the French and Indian War, for no one cares about that anymore either.  In other words, just as audiences have no trouble taking an interest in a war of minor importance historically, so too do audiences have no trouble becoming emotionally involved in conflicts between individuals and society, even if such conflicts no longer exist.  By leaving out the elements of miscegenation, Mann cut the guts out of the story.  His version of The Last of the Mohicans seems to be neither a story of punishment for sin nor of innocent suffering at the hands of an intolerant society, but just an action/adventure costume drama in which a couple of the characters die in the end for no better reason than that’s what happened to them in the other movies.

However, there is still hope.  Just as attitudes about race have changed over the years, so too has there been a change in attitudes about homosexuality. Undoubtedly, another version of The Last of the Mohicans will someday be made, and a future director, unconcerned with the possibility of a homoerotic interpretation, may allow Hawkeye to be ostensibly celibate, just as in the novel, while letting those who wish to interpret his relationship with Chingachgook as being something more than friendship do so.  And if that same director is alert to the universal theme of the individual against society, he may see that the two elements of miscegenation in the novel can be resurrected to good effect.

Excalibur (1981)

There have been many movies based on the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  Of those I have seen, Excalibur is my favorite.  Except for “O Fortuna” and some original compositions for this movie, most of the music for Excalibur comes from Richard Wagner’s operas, about which a few preliminary remarks are in order.

The Music of Richard Wagner

Those who regularly attend the opera are probably appalled at the way Wagner’s music has been appropriated for a mere movie.  But from my lowbrow perspective, Wagner’s music has never before been put to such good use.

It is not surprising that much of Wagner’s music is dark and heavy.  He was, after all, influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, who is known for his pessimistic philosophy. Wagner, in turn, influenced Friedrich Nietzsche, who praised Wagner in his The Birth of Tragedy, but became critical of him in his subsequent writings.  Both Wagner and Nietzsche were appropriated by the Nazis.  In the case of Nietzsche, his philosophy of the will to power undoubtedly appealed to the Third Reich, while Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen glorifies the Teutonic warrior gods and heroes of Norse mythology, with whom the Nazis readily identified.  It also helped that Wagner was an anti-Semite.

As a result, if you are watching a movie in which a character is associated with Wagner, he is probably evil. In Brute Force (1947), for example, Hume Cronyn is Captain Munsey, Chief of Security in a prison. During a conversation he has with the prison doctor, it is clear that Munsey is a fascist. He says kindness is weakness, and weakness makes a man a follower instead of a leader.  When the doctor quotes Jesus about the meek inheriting the earth, Munsey says that is contradicted by science, which says the weak must die so that the strong may live.  The doctor says Munsey enjoys inflicting pain.  Munsey inflicts some of that pain on the doctor.  In a subsequent scene, Munsey, while wearing a wife beater, repeatedly hits one of the inmates with a rubber hose while we hear the overture from Tannhäuser in the background.  It is not background music, however.  When the prisoner is first brought into Munsey’s office, we see that the music is coming from Munsey’s record player.  It helps put Munsey is the proper mood.  After hitting the prisoner with that rubber hose several times, and finding that he still won’t talk about the prison break Munsey knows is being planned, he walks over to the record player, turns the music from that Wagnerian opera up twice as loud, and then really starts whipping that prisoner.  The actor playing the part of the prisoner Munsey is torturing is Sam Levene, who was a Jew.

On a lighter note, in Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen tells his friend about the tall, blond guy looking at him in the record store while saying they were having a sale this week on Wagner.  He is sure that he did this because Allen is a Jew.

In The Stranger (1946), Orson Welles plays a man who was a high-ranking Nazi during the war, but now is in America, hiding under the name of Charles Rankin, employed as a professor of German history.  He pretends to despise the Nazis in particular, and Germans in general, all the better to deflect any suspicion as to his past.  When asked for his opinion, as an objective historian, as to whether Germany would ever want to go to war again, he replies that a psychiatrist is needed more than a historian, giving us insight into just why there is such a fit between Wagner’s music and the Nazis, especially regarding his Der Ring des Nibelungen:

The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world envy and hatred. Conspired against, set upon by inferior peoples, inferior nations.  He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing.  Not the German.  We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain. But we learned from our casualty lists the price of looking the other way.  Men of truth everywhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No, he still follows his warrior gods, marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the fiery sword of Siegfried. And in those subterranean meeting places that you don’t believe in, the German’s dream world comes alive, and he takes his place in shining armor beneath the banners of the Teutonic Knights.  Mankind is waiting for the messiah, but for the German the messiah is not the prince of peace. No, he’s…  He’s another Barbarossa, another Hitler.

At this point, he is asked about the reforms being effected in Germany.  Rankin continues:

I can’t believe that people can be reformed except from within.  The basic principles of equality and freedom never have and never will take root in Germany.  The will to freedom has been voiced in every other tongue. All men are created equal, liberté, egalité, fraternité, but in German….

His brother-in-law points out that Karl Marx was an advocate for freedom, but Rankin dismisses the objection, saying that Marx was a Jew.  His father-in-law says in that case, there is no solution.  But Rankin disagrees, suggesting there is a final solution, so to speak:  “Annihilation.  Right down to the last babe in arms.”  When his wife expresses surprise that he is advocating a Carthaginian peace, he replies that the world hasn’t had trouble from Carthage for two thousand years.  In this way, one of the architects of the holocaust hides the role he played in that by pretending to be in favor of a genocidal elimination of all Germans.

And who can forget the way the “Ride of the Valkyries” was used diegetically in Apocalypse Now (1979) to accompany the attack of the helicopters on a North Vietnamese village.  “Yeah, I use Wagner,” says Robert Duval, who plays a psychopathic colonel.  “Scares hell out of the slopes.  My boys love it.”  Just before the attack, we see a school teacher bringing young children outside to play, but scrambling to get them back inside as the first notes of this music reaches their ears.

The inverse is also true, in a way.  In any movie set in World War II, showing a Nazi listening to Wagner or hearing him praise his music, as in The Night of the Generals (1967), is to be expected. However, if a German in such a movie ostentatiously avoids Wagner’s music, then we know he is basically a good German. The movie Das Boot (1981), for example, is set on a German submarine during World War II. When the crew enthusiastically sings “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a marching song associated with British soldiers in World War I, we know we are supposed to like these Germans.

I noted above that purists object to using music from an opera as background music for a movie. Beyond that general complaint, many are bothered by the fact that Excalibur is based on the British legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, while Wagner’s music is German. The fact that Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal are Wagnerian operas based on Arthurian stories is still not enough to appease their sense of propriety.  Worse, the prelude to Tristan und Isolde is used as background music for the story of Lancelot and Guenevere, not for Tristan and Iseult proper.  The fact that both are stories of a love triangle is no excuse.  The music from Götterdämmerung is unquestionably associated with Siegfried, a Teutonic knight, rather than a British one.  The fact that Siegfried, like Arthur, has a magical sword worthy of having its own name, which was stuck in a tree, which only someone special could remove, suggesting an affinity between the two legends, is not thought to be sufficient justification for using that music in this movie. Finally, there are those that object to the fact that the music associated with the title sword in Excalibur is from “Siegfried’s Funeral March,” their complaint being that funereal music is inappropriate as a leitmotif for a weapon; although they might begrudgingly concede that this grim music, which we hear at the very beginning of the movie, foretells the tragic end toward which the events of this story move.

But enough of this.  Suffice it to say that there are those who prefer the opera, and there are those who would rather watch a movie.  As for this movie in particular, given what has been noted above regarding movies where characters associated with Wagner are understood to be evil, does this not mean that using Wagner’s music for Excalibur implies that King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are evil?  It does not, for a simple reason.  It is only after Wagner became associated with Nazi Germany that Wagner’s music acquired that evil connotation, and then only for movies set during or after World War II.  Even Wagner’s anti-Semitism would probably have been overlooked as a nineteenth-century commonplace had it not been for the holocaust.  I am sure that those who attend the opera never regard Tristan, Isolde, Parsifal, or Siegfried as evil.  For similar reasons, Wagner’s music could be used for Excalibur without fear of putting the legend of King Arthur in a bad light.

As a final note of irony, although The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a silent film, music was scored for it, intended to by played by an accompanying orchestra.  This music has been added as a soundtrack for subsequent viewing.  When the Ku Klux Klan is riding to the rescue of a white family as they are besieged by a mob of black men who are intent on killing the men of the family and raping the women, we hear the “Ride of the Valkyries” in the background. Because the movie was made before World War II, the music was intended to glorify the Klan and make the audience thrill to their heroism. The evil connotation this music had in Apocalypse Now does not apply to The Birth of a Nation, even though we might think it should.

The Movie

In discussing any story about King Arthur, one first must distinguish between the historical King Arthur and the King Arthur of legend:  of what we know of the historical King Arthur, there is too little on which to base a movie; of what we know of the legendary King Arthur, there is too much. Therefore, when one sets out to tell a story about the legendary Arthur, it is not merely that the author is likely to take liberties with the source material.  He must do so, or else the result will be a ponderous mess.

The Sword

Mostly, it is a matter of simplification, which involves eliminating many of the characters and stories about them.  In Excalibur, the title tells us that the unifying principle of this movie about King Arthur (Nigel Terry) will be a sword.  Its purpose is to unite the various warring tribes of England into a single kingdom.  In many versions of the Arthurian legend, Arthur becomes king by pulling a sword out of a stone; then, somewhat later, he receives Excalibur, a completely different sword, from the Lady of the Lake.  That is one magical sword too many.  But it gets worse.  In Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, the basic source material for this movie, there is another story about another sword sticking out of another stone.  And then there is still another story about a sword in a scabbard that only someone special could remove.  Apparently, the idea of a sword sticking out of something that can be removed only by one person was so fascinating that it ended up being used a couple more times; but the effect is to make it seem rather commonplace, as if there were swords sticking out of this or that all over England, and every other Tuesday some knight would run across one and try to pull it out.

Less is more, and so later versions of the Arthurian legend tend to have only one sword sticking out of one stone, the one Arthur pulls out, and it is the same sword Excalibur that comes from the Lady of the Lake. So it is with the movie Excalibur.

Merlin (Nicol Williamson) secures Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake for Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) to help him wage war against the Duke of Cornwall and become ruler of all England.  It is Merlin’s hope that the truce will result in a permanent peace, enforced by this enchanted sword.


And so it would have been were it not for a disruptive force that recurs throughout this movie, brought about by women.  At a party at Cornwall’s castle celebrating the truce, Cornwall has his wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman) entertain the guests by dancing.  As soon as Uther sees her, he knows that he must have her, and says so openly in earshot of her husband.  Needless to say, the truce is broken.

Uther’s army lays siege to Cornwall’s castle and tries to batter down the gate, but to no avail.  And so, Uther makes a pact with Merlin that if he can gain access to the castle and possess Igrayne, whatever issues from his lust will be Merlin’s.  What follows is a great scene in which the beautiful, naked Igrayne is being ravished by Uther in a full suit of armor.  (And I knew a woman who complained just because her husband didn’t shave first.)  Nine months later, Igrayne gives birth to Arthur, and Merlin shows up to collect.  Uther gives up the baby, but then changes his mind and chases after Merlin to get him back. However, as Uther is no longer trusted on account of his having betrayed Cornwall, he is ambushed by men intent on killing him and gaining possession of Excalibur.  Mortally wounded, Uther denies them possession of the sword by plunging it into a stone.  Seeing this, Merlin makes the pronouncement that only the future king of England will be able to draw it out.  It is in this way that the movie fuses Excalibur and the sword in the stone into just one sword.

Igrayne cannot be blamed for cheating on her husband when Uther has sex with her. Instead, she is effectively raped, because Merlin’s magic allowed Uther to take on the appearance of Cornwall, thereby deceiving her.  And so, while Cornwall was getting himself impaled by a lance, Igrayne was getting impaled by Uther, who gives her his seed just as Cornwall expels his last breath of air.

There are those, however, who might say she was just asking to be raped, what with her voluptuous dancing, all scantily clad in front of Uther and his men, purposely teasing their passion.  In all seriousness, in this and what follows, there is a suggestion that it is the women who are at fault for all the disruption they cause.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  Men have been blaming women for causing trouble ever since Adam blamed Eve for what happened in the Garden of Eden.


Years later, Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, proving that he is to be king, but many knights have doubts, and another civil war breaks out, in some ways paralleling the first one.  Once again, the man who wields Excalibur wins, the opposing sides are reconciled, and there is a celebration, this time at the castle of Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart).  And once again, there is a woman who dances and who will prove to be a disruptive force, but not quite in the same way.  This time the woman is Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), but at least she is only the daughter of Leondegrance and not his wife.  As she dances, she is more modestly attired, and Arthur does not merely lust after her as Uther did Igrayne, but has fallen in love. And this time, instead of Uther betraying Cornwall to possess his wife, it is Guenevere who betrays Arthur when she has sex with Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay).

Another excellent movie based on the Arthurian legend is Camelot (1967), which is different in tone and style.  For one thing, it is a musical; for another, it is lighthearted, at least in part.  The unifying theme of this movie is also indicated by its title:  Camelot as an ideal place and time.  Arthur (Richard Harris) has ideas about the law and courts that should replace the barbaric notion that disputes were to be settled by force of arms.  There is something almost pathetic about this Arthur, however. When the movie begins, he comes across as timid and fearful.  Admittedly, he is anxious about meeting Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave), the woman he is to marry, but most of the movie is about his relationship with her.  And from the song she sings, we find that she wants the exciting life of a maiden, in which men fight over her, and not have to enter into an arranged marriage.  She and Arthur meet by accident, and she finds she likes him.  But liking a man and loving him are two different things, so we are not surprised when she falls in love with Lancelot.  As a result, Arthur becomes a cuckold, and that of the worst kind, a wittol.  I don’t mean to go full Nietzsche, but I can’t help thinking that Arthur’s avowed preference for right over might is an expression of weakness. Presumably, we are supposed to admire him for rising above his feelings of jealously, for having an inner strength, but when a man knows his wife is cheating on him and allows it to continue without protest, it is hard not to harbor feelings of contempt.  Eventually, thanks to conniving on the part of Mordred, Arthur is forced to condemn Guenevere to be burned at the stake for her adultery, but she is saved by Lancelot, and the two of them escape to France, soon followed there by Arthur. Too bad Arthur didn’t think of no-fault divorce when he was musing about more civilized ways of behaving. In any event, regarding this rescue of Guenevere by Lancelot, Camelot follows the story as told by Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur and T.H. White in The Once and Future King; but though it is for many a favorite part of the legend, yet it is omitted in Excalibur, perhaps because it would have made the movie too long.

As for Excalibur, there is only suspicion at first, voiced by Sir Gawain at the Round Table, that Guenevere is in love with Sir Lancelot, and that is why he absents himself from their fellowship, which is true.  But while Lancelot nobly tries to resist Guenevere, she proves too much even for him when she seeks him out in the forest and overcomes him with her love.   Later that night, Arthur discovers them together, naked and sleeping in each other’s arms.  Unlike the Arthur of Camelot, this one isn’t putting up with any of that. He plunges the sword Excalibur into the ground between them, thus marking the end of his marriage to Guenevere.


Another difference between Camelot and Excalibur is this:  in the basic legend, which Camelot mostly follows, Mordred is a man at the time when Guenevere is condemned to die, whereas he has not yet been born when Arthur learns of Guenevere’s infidelity in Excalibur.  And this brings us to a simplification that may actually be the elimination of a complication that arose out of a desire to conceal a story that was originally quite simple.  In Bulfinch’s Mythology, Mordred is simply referred to as Arthur’s nephew. However, in the movie Camelot, we learn that Mordred is Arthur’s bastard son.  In The Once and Future King, White makes it clear that Mordred was both nephew and illegitimate son of Arthur, the result of an incestuous union between Arthur and Morgause, his half-sister. Presumably, the producers of Camelot wished to avoid the notion of incest and mentioned only that Mordred was Arthur’s illegitimate son, just as Thomas Bulfinch avoided the topic by referring to Mordred only as Arthur’s nephew. True, Morgause is said to be Mordred’s mother in this movie, but her being Arthur’s sister is not mentioned.  Excalibur returns to the original story and makes it clear that Mordred was both nephew and son of Arthur.

Continuing the Theme of Incest in Le Morte d’Arthur

While not in this movie, there are a couple of stories in Le Morte d’Arthur that intensify the dread of incest.

The May-Day Massacre.  First, because Arthur had sex with his sister, the offspring of that incestuous union, Mordred, is destined to kill Arthur, ending the kingdom, and bringing ruin upon the land.  Merlin is aware of this, and he tells Arthur that a child born on May Day will be the cause of Arthur’s death.  So, Arthur rounds up all the male babies in England who were apparently born around that time, loads them all on a ship, and sends them to sea where they die in a shipwreck. But wouldn’t you know it!  Mordred is the one baby that survives.  A stranger finds him and raises him until he is fourteen years old.  Well, that trick of killing a bunch of babies didn’t work for Herod either.

Once again, however, it is all the woman’s fault.  Arthur did not know Morgause was his sister, so he was blameless.  Well, almost blameless.  He knew she was married.  But as far as the incest is concerned, Morgause knew what she was doing when she seduced Arthur.

An Oedipal Tease.  Second, when at one point, Mordred became ruler of England in Arthur’s absence, he forged some letters purporting to tell of Arthur’s death while fighting Lancelot.  He called a parliament and asked them to make him king, intending to clinch the deal by marrying Guenevere.  In other words, Mordred, the bastard son of the incestuous union of Arthur and his sister Morgause, intended to marry Arthur’s wife, who is practically his stepmother.  However, the plan fell through and the marriage never took place.

Back to the Movie

Speaking of Morgause, another simplification in Excalibur is that of Morgana (Helen Mirren), the third and most disruptive woman in this movie, a composite character consisting of Morgause and her sisters Morgan le Fay and Nimue, a woman whom Merlin fell in love with and to whom he revealed many secrets of necromancy.  Nimue is sometimes identified with Viviane, the Lady of the Lake.  The Lady of the Lake, by the way, is not the woman whose hand reaches above the water holding Excalibur.  In Le Morte d’Arthur, the Lady of the Lake and Arthur have a conversation about that hand sticking out of the water holding a sword, and she tells him to go get it.

The movie has its own way of blaming the woman for Arthur’s incest.  Morgana makes herself appear to be Guenevere, and Arthur allows her to make love to him, distraught as he is for having just lost the real Guenevere.  And so, if we may rightly say that Uther raped Igrayne by magically taking on the appearance of Cornwall, so too may we say that Morgana raped Arthur by magically taking on the appearance of Guenevere.

Morgana wants Mordred to become king of England.  Over the years, she uses much of her magic to keep herself looking young, but she is tricked by Merlin, at which point she becomes old and ugly. Now that she is no longer sexy and beautiful, Mordred has no more use for her, so he strangles her. This, along with the kisses she gave him on the lips, earlier in the movie when he was growing up, is a contribution by John Boorman, the director, adding a hint of incest between mother and son.

The Holy Grail

Being the offspring of an evil union, Mordred is naturally evil himself.  His birth, in combination with Guenevere’s adultery, and the loss of the sword Excalibur, causes England to go into decline, beset by famine and pestilence; and Arthur, who is one with the land, also goes into decline, coming close to death. He sends his knights off to find the Holy Grail, which will restore England to peace and prosperity. Perceval finds the Grail, restoring Arthur to his former strength when he drinks from it. Arthur calls his remaining knights to arms to fight a third civil war against Mordred.  Knowing that Guenevere has become a nun, he first goes to the convent to forgive her and say that, perhaps in the hereafter, they may be together again.  She agrees.  She then returns Excalibur to him, which has been in her care all this time.

The Death of Arthur

Almost everyone dies in the final battle.  In Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur thrusts his spear into Mordred, who then forces himself forward on that spear until he can strike Arthur with his sword.  In Excalibur, this is reversed, which is an improvement:  Mordred impales Arthur with his spear, and it is Arthur who pushes forward on that spear until he can use Excalibur to kill Mordred.

Only Percival remains, taking on the role of Sir Bedivere as another simplification. Before Arthur is taken away by three queens to the vale of Avalon, he tells Percival to return Excalibur to the Lady in the Lake. Percival is reluctant to give up the sword, but Arthur says that some day another king will come, and the sword will be there for him when he does.  But that future king is Arthur himself, the king that was once and will be again.

The Razor’s Edge (1946 and 1984)

The Razor’s Edge is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, written in 1944.  It is about a man that is shocked by his experience during the Great War, which changes him forever and sets him off on a quest to try to understand whether life has any sense to it, or whether it is just a stupid blunder.  It was made into a movie in 1946 and remade in 1984.

The 1946 Movie

The movie begins in Chicago just after the end of the war, with Maugham (Herbert Marshall) finding himself at a party for the upper class, where we meet most of the characters who will figure significantly in the rest of the movie.  One in particular is Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), who is exasperated that his niece Isabel (Gene Tierney) is engaged to Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), because “he hasn’t any money,” and “he doesn’t want a job.”

“That must shock a man like you who’s never earned a penny in his life,” Maugham notes with amusement.

“It may have escaped your notice, my dear fellow,” Elliott replies, “but I am not an ordinary man.  For the run of mankind, industry is essential.  I see no reason why this young man, who my niece has got herself engaged to, should not conform to the customs of his country.”

Elliott says “his” country, because he does not himself regard America as his home, preferring Europe instead, especially Paris.  He says he is in “this benighted city” only to visit his sister, the hostess of the event, and his niece Isabel.  In those days, Europe had snob appeal, what with its royalty and class consciousness, as opposed to America, where no one is born with a title or cares about having a coat of arms.

In fact, as we quickly find out, Larry has turned down a job selling bonds, offered to him by Gray Maturin (John Payne), who comes from a rich family.  Isabel is perplexed by this.  When she asks Larry what he wants to do, he answers, “I don’t know.  Loaf, maybe.”  This confirms Elliot’s characterization of him as “bone idle.”

Isabel makes the observation that many of us watching the movie have been thinking about for several minutes running, which is that you can’t live without money.  Larry replies that he has a little, which gives him the opportunity to do what he wants.  As we find out later, he has an income of $3,000 per year.   The story begins in 1919, so, adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of over $47,000 today.  It was a peculiarity of a previous era that wealth was often expressed in terms of income rather than net worth.  In the novel, after the passage of over ten years, Larry says he was not affected by the stock market crash of 1929 because all his money was in government bonds.  During the years when this story was set, twenty-year Treasury bonds paid an average of 4%.  So, in order to generate an income-equivalent of $47,000 today at this interest rate, Larry’s bonds would have to be worth over $1,175,000.  That is what Larry apparently means when he says he has a “little” money.

In Larry’s situation, I would not have wanted a job either.  The difference, however, is that whereas I really would have loved to spend my life loafing and being bone idle, Larry is bothered by the fact that during the war, a man gave up his life saving him, and he wants to know why, to understand what it all means.

I have no doubt that participating in a war would be a most disturbing experience.  And to come very close to death, only to have another man give up his life saving yours—that would have a profound effect on you.  But Larry’s perplexity seems to go beyond that, as if the event has challenged certain preconceptions he had.  I shall take the liberty of speculating on what those preconceptions were.

There is an idea that shows up periodically in the history of philosophy that man is basically selfish, and any appearance to the contrary can be explained away as selfishness in a less obvious form, sometimes referred to as enlightened egoism.  But a genuine sacrifice of one man’s life for that of another would be hard to explain in that way.  From this it would follow that there must be a transcendent principle that allows man to rise above his animal selfishness, setting aside his self-interest for the benefit of others.  That seems to be what underlies Larry’s need to understand that sacrifice, to find that transcendent principle.

Upon hearing about Larry’s intentions, Isabel decides to put their engagement on hold.  In part, she does not want to try to live on Larry’s income, but she is also bothered by Larry’s lack of ambition, saying that he should get a job as a matter of “self-respect.”  They agree to wait, and Larry goes to Paris, where he believes he will be better able to see things clearly.  In general, the characters in this movie flow from America to Europe, and in Larry’s case, all the way to India, only to return to America as the story ends.

Isabel and her mother come to Paris a year later.  She finds that Larry intends to persist in his existential quest, but he thinks there is no reason why they could not get married anyway.  “Remember how we used to talk about traveling all over the world together?” he asks.

“Of course I want to travel,” she replies, “but not like that:  cheap restaurants, third-rate hotels.  Besides, I want to have babies, Larry.”

“All right, darling,” he says.  “We’ll take them along with us.”

That is utterly unrealistic, and Isabel knows it.  As she has no intention of living the bohemian life that would entail, even without babies, she breaks off the engagement.  Just before she returns to America, Isabel and Larry go out for a multicultural night on the town, after which she intends to seduce him, get pregnant, and force him to return to America, where he will have to marry her, settle down, and get a respectable job.  But she changes her mind.  Elliott, who was wise to her game, asks her why she did not go through with it.  She said she could not bring herself to play such a dirty trick on him, but Elliott says she was just being realistic, knowing the marriage would never have worked.  We all act from mixed motives, and probably her decision not to go through with it was a combination of the two.

Isabel returns to America and eventually marries Gray, which is what Elliott wanted for her all along.  Gray has been quite successful selling bonds, and is now worth $20,000,000.  (Adjusted for inflation, that would be like $270,000,000 today.)  Also at their wedding is Sophie (Anne Baxter), who has been Larry’s best friend since they were children, and her husband Bob.  Sophie and Bob, a couple of modest means, were also at the earlier party with which the movie began.  At that time, she declined a drink when offered, saying that Bob didn’t like her to drink because she was “too fond of it.”  In other words, she is an alcoholic.

The scene shifts back to Europe, where Larry is working as a coal miner.  Now, it was one thing for him to lie around, taking it easy, reflecting on the meaning of life, made possible by his income of $3,000 per year; but if he was going to work anyway, why not get himself a job selling bonds for Gray’s company?  The reason, of course, is the supposedly purifying nature of manual labor.  Working with your hands always seems to be more honest and conducive to a spiritual life than working with your mouth or with your mind, which some people regard as having a corruptive influence on the soul.  That’s why it was important that Jesus had been a carpenter rather than a money lender, for example.

Larry has made friends with Kosti, a nihilistic, defrocked Polish priest, who says that Larry sounds like a religious man who does not believe in God.  Larry says he doesn’t believe in anything.  Kosti suggests that Larry go to India and meet a man that many have found inspirational.  This Larry does, putting himself under the tutelage of the Indian guru.  Whereas Western religions tend to see God as presiding over man and nature, the religious view to which Larry is now exposed thinks of God as one with these things.  The holy man tells him, “There is in every one of us a spark of the infinite goodness which created us.  And when we leave this earth, we are reunited with it as a raindrop falling from Heaven is at last reunited with the sea which gave it birth.”  The movie reinforces this simile comparing God to the sea by beginning and ending with scenes of the ocean, not to mention the many times we see the ocean in the background throughout the movie.  After studying for a while with the holy man, it becomes time for Larry to ascend the mountain and live in solitude.  It is there, seeing the sun come up one morning, that he feels himself to be one with God.  This is the transcendent principle Larry has been seeking, the one he believes is needed to overcome man’s basic selfishness:  if we are all one with God, then altruism is just one part of God helping out another part of God.

Just as manual labor is presented as spiritually preferable to office work, so too is nature presented as more conducive to the experience of revelation than the artificial constructions of civilization.  As it was important for Jesus to go into the wilderness, where he fasted for over a month, so too was it important for Larry to seek solitude on a mountain top, enduring the bitter cold.  By way of contrast, Elliott says he detests the countryside, and Maugham observes at another point in the movie that Elliott looks upon “nature as an impediment to social intercourse.”  In any event, having had this revelation on the mountain top, Larry is advised by the holy man that it is time for him to return to his world.

That world, it turns out, has not been doing so well.  First, Sophie survives an automobile accident in which Bob and her baby are killed.  Somewhat later comes the stock market crash of 1929, in which Gray’s firm is wiped out.  (This was not on account of the bonds his firm had been selling.  In the novel, Gray and his father got caught up in the stock market frenzy and started speculating in securities on the margin.)  In a conversation with Maugham, Isabel notes with irony that she and Gray and their two children are living all right on her income, which is about the same as Larry had when she refused to marry him.  Actually, they are doing better than that.  It seems that Elliott not only got out of the stock market just before the crash, but actually sold short, making a killing.  He has taken a place on the Riviera, where he can hobnob with royalty, while allowing Isabel’s family to live in his posh apartment in Paris, and also providing them with a maid and a governess for the children.

At least, they are all right financially.  Gray, however, has not only been unable to find work, but has suffered a nervous breakdown as well, afflicting him with terrible headaches.  Just as manual labor and communing with nature on a mountain top has given Larry peace of mind, so the fall from high society and the world of finance has given Gray a head full of pain.

When Kosti told Larry about the holy man, he said it was not so much the man’s teachings that affected people, but the man himself.  This recalls what Maugham said at the beginning of the movie, that the man about whom he was writing was not famous, and that he may be entirely forgotten after he has died.  That is, there is something about Larry himself that impresses Maugham, not in anything that he has done.  In fact, Larry does remarkably little.

The first thing he does on his return to Paris, where he becomes reacquainted with Gray and Isabel, is to cure Gray’s headache through hypnosis or the power of suggestion, which he learned in India.  This is not farfetched, for Gray’s headaches are clearly psychosomatic.  As Larry puts it, there is nothing miraculous about what he did; he only put an idea in Gray’s head, and Gray did the rest himself.  It was necessary that Larry explicitly deny that what he did was a miracle, for left unsaid, we might think him a fraud.  (In the novel, Gray says, “It’s a miracle.”  And later, Isabel says the same thing.  But as in the movie, Larry denies it.)  However, it functions as a miracle substitute.  On the one hand, something like a miracle was required.  Suppose Jesus had never performed any miracles.  If all he had done was preach, no religion would have formed around him, no matter how wise and good he may have been.  By the same token, in order for us to be convinced of Larry’s spirituality, he had to do something that at least bordered on the miraculous.  On the other hand, this story is set in the twentieth century.  Had Larry walked on water, we would have thought that to be ridiculous.  And so, as a compromise, Larry does something marvelous, something neither Maugham, Isabel, nor Gray had ever seen before; while at the same time, what he does can be understood rationally, not requiring a supernatural explanation.

Once the headache is gone, they all decide to go out to a nightclub, where Isabel confides in Maugham that she still loves Larry and has never loved anyone else, including her husband, though she says she is too fond of Gray to ever hurt him.  After they spend some time at a respectable nightclub, they decide to go slumming and end up at a dive, a place where people dance the tango, of course.  It is in that seedy place that they run into Sophie.  When I first watched the movie, I figured she worked there.  But in the novel, her in-laws were so scandalized by her drunkenness and promiscuity after Bob and her baby died that they promised her an allowance if she left America.  And now that she is in Paris, she has acquired a taste for opium as well. She also has a man who treats her rough, just the way she likes it.

It is only on the way home that Larry finds out about Sophie’s tragedy.  He gets out of the car and heads back to that nightclub.  Somewhat later, we hear that he has gotten Sophie to quit drinking, and they are going to be married.  Upon receiving that news, Isabel becomes furious.  She tries to get Maugham to tell Larry not to marry Sophie, saying that Sophie is no good.  “The fool thinks he’s cured her,” she says.  Maugham notes that Larry cured Gray, but Isabel replies, “Gray wanted to be cured.  She doesn’t.”  When asked how she knows that, she says, “Because I know women. Do you think she’ll stick to Larry? No. She’ll break out. It’s in her blood. It’s a brute she wants. That excites her. It’s a brute she’ll go after. She’ll lead Larry to Hell.”  Maugham agrees with her, but he doesn’t think there is anything they can do about it.

“Do you think I’ve sacrificed myself,” she asks, “only to let Larry fall into the hands of a woman like that?”  Isabel claims that she gave Larry up so as not to stand in his way.  Maugham sneers at her characterization of what she did as a sacrifice, saying, “You gave him up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat.”

Maugham gives the usual reasons for not interfering with Larry’s plans to marry Sophie, essentially saying that it is none of their business.  But then he goes a step further. “There’s only one thing you can do,” he says.  “Make the best of a bad job.  Larry’s gripped by the most powerful emotion that can beset the breast of man: self-sacrifice. He’s got to save the soul of the wretched woman whom he had known as an innocent child. And there’s nothing you or I or anyone can do to prevent it.”

While Isabel’s self-serving talk of her sacrifice stands in contrast to the sort that Maugham attributes to Larry, Maugham has a low regard for self-sacrifice, even when it is genuine.  In the novel, he makes it clear that it is a temptation to be avoided, even comparing it with the sacrifice Jesus made, for which he has contempt:

D’you remember how Jesus was led into the wilderness and fasted forty days? Then, when he was a-hungered, the devil came to him and said: If thou be the son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But Jesus resisted the temptation. Then the devil set him on a pinnacle of the temple and said to him: If thou be the son of God, cast thyself down. For angels had charge of him and would bear him up. But again Jesus resisted. Then the devil took him into a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world and said that he would give them to him if he would fall down and worship him. But Jesus said: Get thee hence, Satan. That’s the end of the story according to the good simple Matthew. But it wasn’t. The devil was sly and he came to Jesus once more and said: If thou wilt accept shame and disgrace, scourging, a crown of thorns and death on the cross thou shalt save the human race, for greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Jesus fell. The devil laughed till his sides ached, for he knew the evil men would commit in the name of their redeemer.

In any event, he advises Isabel to be nice to Sophie, and she seems to agree, but like Maugham, we are suspicious of her motives.

On the pretense of buying Sophie her wedding dress, Isabel connives to get Sophie alone with her.  Isabel praises the vodka Elliott recommended, saying it must be tough giving up alcohol all at once.  Sophie admits that it is a desperate struggle for her to not take a drink, especially when Larry is not around.  Isabel then leaves Sophie alone with the bottle of vodka, saying she has to pick her daughter up at the dentist, knowing Sophie won’t be able to resist the temptation.  Sure enough, Sophie drinks a glass and then another, leading her back to her old ways.  Larry manages to track her down to an opium den, but she refuses to go with him, running away when a fight breaks out.  No one knows anything about her until a year later, when her body is fished out of the harbor, her throat slit.

In the novel, Maugham runs into Sophie in Toulon between the time she ran out on Larry and when she was murdered.  She seems to be much happier than previously.  When the whole group met at lunch just before the wedding was to take place, Maugham described her as looking pitiful:

Sophie hardly spoke except when she was spoken to and then it seemed an effort to her. The spirit had gone out of her. You would have said that something had died in her and I asked myself if Larry wasn’t putting her to a strain greater than she could support.

But now she is in much better spirits.  Not being sure if Maugham knew, Sophie tells him she didn’t marry Larry after all.  Maugham says he knew that, and then asks her why not.  “Darling,” she says, “when it came to the point I couldn’t see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ.”  She tells Maugham about drinking the vodka at Isabel’s apartment, which made her feel “like a million dollars.”  She says she plans to stay in Toulon, where she can get all the opium she wants from the sailors she sleeps with.

One sailor in particular shows up, her boyfriend, whom she says is a jealous Corsican, so Maugham had better leave after buying him a drink.  After introducing them to each other, Sophie and Maugham exchange the following remarks in English:

“Dumb but beautiful,” she said to me.

“You like ’em tough, don’t you?”

“The tougher the better.”

“One of these days you’ll get your throat cut.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she grinned. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

Back to the movie:  Though it was villainous of Isabel to tempt Sophie with the vodka, would it really have made any difference in the long run?  If Sophie could not be left alone for five minutes without drinking down an entire bottle of vodka, and then heading for an opium den, she was doomed anyway.  We all know how people make an extra effort to please the person they are soon to marry, but then revert to their old ways within months of the nuptials.  Isabel was only making manifest before the wedding what was bound to happen after it.

Even if the marriage would have worked, it was essential that Sophie die instead.  Consider the case of Jesus again.  He was able to move from place to place, cleansing the leper, giving sight to a man that was blind, enabling a man that was lame to walk again; after which he would move on to the next town.  In short, Jesus never got tied down to any one person or any one place.  But let Jesus get married and have children, and no matter how wise and good a man he was, we would never have heard of him.  He may have sacrificed himself taking care of a wife who contracted leprosy, while also caring for a son that was blind or a daughter that was lame, working long hours to support them, and yet there would be no religion based on his life.  By the same token, had Larry and Sophie gotten married and made a go of it, it would not have been long before she started having babies.  They would have returned to America, where Larry would have had to take that job selling bonds.  There is nothing like getting married and having a couple of children to put the quietus on your wanderlust.  Maugham would never have written a book about him.

Maugham and Larry make arrangements for Sophie’s funeral, after which Maugham tells Larry that Elliott has had a relapse. Elliott has not gotten on well with Princess Novemali, an American widow who parleyed her fortune for a title by marrying a Roman prince, and who is now a major socialite in France. It seems that Elliott helped spread some rumor about Princess Novemali and her chauffeur, which happened to be true. She is throwing a party to which she has invited everyone of note on the Riviera, except Elliott.  It is going to be the greatest party of the season, and Elliott, though he is on his death bed, yet is devastated that he has not been invited, a deliberate insult, which brings him to tears.  It is the culmination of many such insults, as those who once ate his food and drank his liquor no longer have use for him.  He says he wishes he had never left America.

The bishop that gives Elliott the last rites says, correctly, that he was a good man whose faults were on the surface.  Larry, being good friends with Novemali’s secretary (Elsa Lanchester), manages to obtain an invitation card and fill it out himself, making it look as though Elliott has been invited to the party after all.  His vanity satisfied, Elliott dies a happy man, after instructing Maugham to send his regrets about not being able to attend, and then cursing Princess Novemali with his dying breath.  He leaves his fortune to Isabel, which will allow Gray to get his company out of receivership.

Let us review the deeds of Larry’s life since his return from India.  First, he performed that trick of hypnosis that cured Gray’s headache.  But that means that any psychiatrist skilled in the art of hypnosis might easily have done the same.  Second, taking pity on the woman that was his best friend from childhood, Larry helps her with her alcoholism and decides to marry her.  Marriage is indeed an undertaking not to be entered into lightly, but it is not beyond the pale that you or I, in the same situation, might do the same for a woman who has been our best friend since childhood.  I’m not saying it would be a wise thing to do, mind you, for the reasons already given, but only that we might be foolish enough to try.  Finally, given how easily Larry was able to obtain an invitation card and forge it to make a dying man happy, I dare say that most people would not hesitate to do the like as well.  In the novel, however, it is not Larry that purloins the invitation and forges it, but Maugham.  So Larry doesn’t even get credit for that.  In fact, unlike in the movie, Larry is not present when Elliott dies.

In other words, Larry does not perform miracles, does not become the spiritual leader of a great religious movement, and does not dedicate his life to ministering to the suffering of mankind.  In fact, there is no reason to think that Larry would not have done precisely the same things had he gone to work for Gray selling bonds instead of going to India, save for the fact that he might not have learned that hypnosis trick.  Of course, as Larry reminds us in his final scene with Isabel, recalling what he told her at the beginning of the movie, the really great change in his life came when another man gave up his life saving him, and we never saw what he was like before the war. In any event, Maugham sums up what is special about Larry, saying to Isabel, “My dear, Larry has found what we all want and very few of us ever get. I don’t think anyone can fail to be better and nobler, kinder, for knowing him. You see, my dear, goodness is, after all, the greatest force in the world. And he’s got it.”

Just before the final scene with Larry, Isabel tells Maugham that she intends to see Larry as much as she wants when they all get back to America, saying, “All my life, I’ve done the things other people have wanted me to do. From now on, I intend to do the things I want to do.”  However, it is too late, and in her final scene with Larry, she realizes she has lost him forever, especially when she realizes that he knows that she was responsible for getting Sophie to start drinking again, which ultimately led to Sophie’s death. This scene was not in the novel, where it is Maugham, not Larry, who knows the truth about what Isabel did to Sophie.  It is just one of the ways in which the movie is more effective and satisfying than the novel.

In that last scene with Isabel, Larry tells her of his intention to work in a factory or a garage, because while working with his hands, his mind is free, and yet he is accomplishing something.  He says he may eventually buy a taxicab, where he can always be on the go and meet lots of people.  Once again, the point is that manual labor is the only occupation suitable for a man of his spiritual nature; and once again, the peripatetic life is the only one suitable for him as well.  In the last scene, we see Larry working on a tramp steamer on his way back to America, thus combining the ennobling nature of physical work and movement from one place to another with the spiritual simile of the sea.

When I set out to review a movie that is based on a novel or short story, the question arises as to how much the original source should be taken into account.  It is perfectly reasonable to evaluate a movie on its own terms, as if the novel or short story did not exist.  In some cases, the two are so different that one must ignore the original source material completely.  In other cases, as in this one, the novel and the movie are similar enough so that the former can help shed light on the latter.  And so it is that I have referred to the one in reviewing the other.

But now I must add one more item that was left out of the movie that is of such nature that, had it been included in the movie, I suspect the audience would have lost their admiration of Larry and regarded him a fool, leaving the theater in disgust.

It is one thing, when reading the novel, to hear Larry go on about all that he learned in India, as well as the problems that still puzzle him:  the existence of evil, the nature of God, the karma of reincarnation, and the meaning of life.  And we are not terribly surprised when we read that Larry seldom eats meat, and that he has decided to abstain from sex from now on.

But then he gives away all his money!  He does so because, though his income has made it possible for him to study philosophy and religion, yet he now believes that financial independence would be a burden to him going forward, because it would hinder his quest for the spirituality he seeks.  And he gives away that money, even though it is his plan, upon returning to America, to save up his money until he can buy a taxicab.  I need not tell you how appalled Maugham is when Larry tells him this, or what he says against such a decision, for it is the same reaction that most of us would have.  A man may embrace any number of religious views and then drop them as the years go by when they no longer suit his fancy.  He may become a vegetarian, only to give that up and have himself a thick steak.  He may decide to be celibate, and then give in to his lust should the occasion warrant.  But once he gives away all his money, it is gone for good.

In delving into philosophy, Larry should have read Aristotle, who said that while money cannot buy happiness, a certain minimum level of material wellbeing is necessary for it, for no one can be happy who is cold and hungry, which may be Larry’s fate someday, when poor health and old age eventually come upon him.

The 1984 Remake

The 1946 version of The Razor’s Edge is about as good as one could want, but it was remade in 1984 anyway.  Some people do not like old movies, especially when they are in black and white, so that may have been the thinking behind the production of this second version.  But there are differences far more significant than that.

One in particular is what Larry did during the war.  In the novel, he was a fighter pilot.  Before I had read the novel, I always assumed, when watching the 1946 movie, that Larry had been in the infantry.  In the 1984 version, however, the story begins as Larry, played by Bill Murray, has volunteered to become an ambulance driver in Europe at a time when America had not yet entered the war.  But if at this point in the story, Larry is willing to risk his life to save others, why should he be so shocked that someone lost his life saving him?

The scene in which Larry’s life is saved is perplexing.  Larry says of the man who died saving his life:

He was a slob. Did you ever see him eat? Starving children could fill their bellies on the food that ended up in his beard and on his clothes. Dogs would gather to watch him eat. I’ve never understood gluttony, but I hate it. I hated that about you. He enjoyed disgusting people, being disgusting, the thrill of offending people and making them uncomfortable. It was despicable. You will not be missed.

Well, that’s quite a eulogy.  I know we’re all supposed to understand that this is Larry’s way of expressing his gratitude and affection for the man that saved his life.  But we know this only because it’s a movie, and because Gray and another man give each other knowing looks, indicating that they understand, so we are supposed to understand too.  In real life, however, no one would ever say such things over a dead man unless he had contempt for him.  I’m just glad he doesn’t say something like that when Sophie (Theresa Russell) dies.

So, what is the effect of having a man give his life to save Larry’s?  Apparently, it turns him into a jerk, even to the point of his becoming rude and violent, yelling at Isabel and later at Elliott.  The Larry of the novel and the 1946 version is good-natured and soft-spoken, but in the scene where Larry kicks an expensive piece of Elliott’s furniture, breaking it to pieces, it is Elliott who is calm and composed.  At that point, I wanted to forget about Larry and stay with Elliott.  And why does Larry yell and break furniture?  Because he isn’t getting his way.  He didn’t want to marry Isabel right after the war, as they had planned, and she was supposed to understand.  But now that it pleases him that they should marry a year later, on his terms, she is the one that doesn’t want to.  That makes him angry.

Whereas in the novel and the 1946 version, Isabel almost has sex with Larry in order to get pregnant and force him to make an honest woman out of her; in this version, because the movie was made in 1984, she has sex with Larry without getting pregnant.  I suppose this was to make the story seem up to date.  When she wakes up in the morning in Larry’s apartment, there is a disgusting bug on her pillow, and in the hallway, she sees rats.  When she goes to use the communal bathroom, it is repulsive.  But Larry’s place was not like that in the novel.  It was decent, though modest, and had its own bathroom.  But in this 1984 version, his room is a sty.

Years later, when Larry discovers Sophie in that dive and brings her to his apartment, it is a much nicer place.  It’s clean and has its own bathroom.  Maybe that’s what he learned in India.

This is just one of the ways in which this movie is over the top.  Here’s another:  In the novel, when the stock market crashes, Gray’s father dies of a heart attack.  In this 1984 version, his father blows his brains out.  And Gray becomes so upset that he cuts his hands smashing them through glass panels.

It is fine that this movie wants to extol the wisdom of India, but in so doing, it feels compelled to to take a cheap shot at Christianity.  As Sophie lies in the hospital bed, distraught that Bob and her baby have both been killed, a nun tells her it is a time for rejoicing, for her husband and the baby are now both in Heaven.  In real life, one may occasionally run into a nitwit like that, but in this movie, the nun is put forward as representative of Christianity.  In other words, Eastern religion good, Western religion bad.

In the novel and in the 1946 version, we are supposed to regard Larry’s plan to marry Sophie as an act of self-sacrifice, evidence of his spiritual transformation.  But at the end of this movie, when Larry is accusing Isabel of killing Sophie, he says, “I thought Sophie was my reward for trying to live a good life.”  A reward, not a sacrifice.  So, in this movie, he was just going to do what he wanted to do anyway, marry a woman he was in love with.  Men do that every day, and they don’t have to go to India first either.

Speaking of Sophie, instead of her and Bob being a happily married couple, in this version, Bob got her pregnant and had to marry her, after which he appears to be unhappy to have lost his freedom.  And there is no indication that Sophie is an alcoholic at this time.  It was a lot easier to believe that Sophie would descend into drink and promiscuity in the novel and the 1946 movie after the accident.  Sure, it could still happen, even so, but why make changes in the story that work against such an outcome?

Another difference between the two versions is that Maugham is not a character in the 1984 version and thus provides no narration.  Because Larry never did anything miraculous or spectacular, we needed Maugham’s commentary to tell us that Larry’s spiritual nature was such as to inspire others to be better human beings.  Without Maugham to guide our appreciation of this aspect of Larry’s personality, we are not likely to figure that out on our own.  And even if there had been a Maugham in this version, I don’t think we would have believed him.

In the end, Larry’s wisdom concerning the meaning of life is that there is no reward for being good, but nothing matters anyway.

Murray cared a lot about this movie and was disappointed when it flopped.  Little did he realize that the spiritual movie that he was perfectly suited for was a comedy, Groundhog Day (1993), which is every bit as much a classic now as the 1946 version of The Razor’s Edge.

Studs Lonigan:  The Book and the Adaptations

In the 1930s, James T. Farrell wrote the trilogy Studs Lonigan.  There have been two adaptations of this book, both with the same title, but neither of which is readily accessible for viewing.  The film adaptation made in 1960 invites comparison with Rebel Without a Cause (1955), since both movies are about troubled youth.  Because this movie is only 95 minutes long, it is a much abbreviated version of the story as told in the book.  In 1979, a TV mini-series was produced whose length of 360 minutes stood a much better chance of faithfully representing the book, but it failed to do so.

It would be tedious to enumerate all the differences between the book and the two adaptations, but there is one difference that stands out from all the rest, a change in the very essence of the central character.  Both the movie and the mini-series make Studs out to be a much better person than he was in the book, more likable and sympathetic.  And this is too bad, because it is the only novel in which the central character is a bully, and it would have been nice to have this defining trait preserved in either adaptation, which could easily have been done, even in the 95-minute movie.  This is not to say that Studs Lonigan is the only novel featuring a bully, but typically, it is the character who is bullied that is central, not the bully himself.  In Farrell’s trilogy, we are always inside the head of Studs.  We get to see what it is like to be a bully, how he thinks and feels.

A lot of people might not even think of this as a novel about a bully. Certainly, the title character never thinks of himself in that way.  But then, you will not hear many people say, “I am a bully.”  Oh, sure, one might admit to having been a bully on one or two occasions, for which one is ashamed. But we seldom encounter anyone who will characterize himself as a bully, as if it were his essence.  And yet, we have scarcely reached the third page, when Studs refers to “goofy Danny O’Neill, the dippy punk who couldn’t be hurt or made cry, no matter how hard he was socked….”  A minor character, it was the bullied Danny O’Neill with whom Farrell identified.

The day never passes that Studs does not think about beating someone up, although it is something he thinks about more than he actually does.  Studs does have his moment of greatness when he beats up Weary Reilley, who is an even worse bully than Studs.  But throughout the novel, Studs finds plenty of glory in pushing others around who are smaller, weaker, or more timid than he is, especially when he and his pals outnumber their hapless victims.

One of my favorite parts of the novel occurs when a priest gives a passionate sermon attended by Studs and his gang.  We hear Father Shannon warn against the evils of smoking, drinking, and necking.  And for a brief moment, we allow ourselves to hope that he will admonish the young toughs about fighting.  We don’t expect him to say they should turn the other cheek. That would be asking too much.  But perhaps the priest will at least urge them not to be so quick to throw the first punch, especially if the boy being punched is weaker and smaller.  It is not to be.  In fact, Father Shannon tells them that if they catch some college atheist making a play for their sister, they should beat him up.  Later, Studs and his gang talk about the sermon, and it is clear that they are glad they have sisters, because beating someone up always feels better when you can be righteous about it.

At the end of the novel, Studs regrets the fact that he never kissed Lucy when they sat in that tree, that he dropped out of school instead of continuing his education, that he didn’t save his money, and that he ruined his health with all the smoking, drinking, and carousing around.  But he never regrets being a bully.

The Letter: The Play and the Adaptations

Somerset Maugham wrote the play The Letter, which has been made into a movie three times, four if you include a rather loose adaptation. Set in Singapore, it is about a woman, Leslie Crosbie, who kills Geoffrey Hammond with a revolver while her husband is away inspecting a rubber plantation. She claims that Geoffrey tried to rape her, and for the most part she is believed. Though she will have to be tried for murder, yet an acquittal seems to be a foregone conclusion.

In the play, her lawyer is informed there is an incriminating letter in the hands of a “Chinese woman,” who was Geoffrey’s mistress.  Her name is Li Ti in the 1929 movie version, played by Lady Tsen Mei, who was Chinese.  In the 1940 version, in order to satisfy the Production Code Administration, this woman becomes his wife instead of his mistress, and she is changed from being Chinese to being Eurasian, played by Gale Sondergaard.

In the letter, it is clear that Geoffrey and Leslie were lovers, and that she begged Geoffrey to visit her on the night she killed him.  She has to pay blackmail to get the letter back.  After she is acquitted, her husband finds out that all their money is gone, and she has to confess what really happened.

In the original play, Leslie intends to try to make her husband happy and hopes he will forgive her, even though, as she admits to her friend, she does not love him.

In the 1940 version of this play, Leslie, played by Betty Davis, after trying to tell her husband that she still loves him, is repulsed by her own lie and tells him she does not and cannot love him, saying, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed.”  She then wanders outside, where she is stabbed to death by Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard).  Although the Production Code was gone by the time the 1982 version was made with Lee Remick as Leslie, this ending, at least in implication, was kept.  Perhaps it was the fact that it was a television movie that led the producers to decide that Leslie still needed to die as punishment for what she did.

Though the version with Betty Davis as Leslie Crosbie is the best one, yet the 1929 version with Jeanne Eagles gets the award for having the most unpunished and unrepentant Leslie.  Instead of deciding to try to be a good wife, as in the play, or being killed, as in the 1940 and 1982 movie versions, in the 1929 version she defiantly tells her husband that she does not love him and that they are stuck with each other.

Also, in the Eagles version, when Leslie goes to get the letter, there is a disturbing scene where prostitutes are kept imprisoned behind bamboo bars. Finally, this version is the most racist of them all in its depiction of Asians, which is not surprising for a Pre-Code movie.

The least satisfying version of this play, on the other hand, is The Unfaithful (1947).  It has several minor differences with the others.  First, the names of the characters are different.  Second, there is the title, which reflects the fact that there is no letter. Rather, the incriminating evidence is a bust of the unfaithful wife, sculpted by her lover, who was an artist.  Third, the setting is California after World War II.  But why go on?  There are only two differences that matter. In the other versions of The Letter, Leslie’s final confession is that she was so upset that her lover no longer wanted her that she killed him in a jealous rage. In The Unfaithful, the final confession of the “Leslie” of this version is that she was the one who wanted to break off the affair, and that her lover was obsessed with her and would not leave her alone.  The other difference is that in The Unfaithful, the married couple are reconciled at the end, because they truly love each other.

The Forsyte Saga: The Book and the Adaptations

When I finally set out to read The Forsyte Saga, a collection of three novels by John Galsworthy, I expected it to be entertaining and mildly thought-provoking, but something easily forgotten as soon as the last page is read and the book is placed upon the shelf.  Instead, I found the book to be a little creepy, but in a persistently disturbing way, so that my thoughts keep returning to it.

The theme of the first novel, The Man of Property, is completely revealed in its title, and Soames Forsyte is the man.  Unfortunately, among the many things he regards as his property is his wife, Irene.  This might not be so bad were it not for the fact she had an intense disliking for him from the very first.  When he impulsively kissed her arm one evening, she shuddered with revulsion.  Soames noticed this shudder, but he persisted in asking her to marry him.  Eventually she agreed, thinking she could stand it, but after they were married for a while, she finds Soames to be so repulsive to her physically that she asks for her own bedroom, by which it is understood that they will no longer be having sex.

So, why did Irene marry a man for whom she had such a powerful disliking?  The book gives us only a hint as to the answer, covered briefly in the space of a couple of pages.  It tells us that Irene’s stepmother, Mrs. Heron, was anxious to get Irene married off for two reasons:  First, she cost Mrs. Heron more than the fifty pounds a year that Irene’s father had left her.  Second, Mrs. Heron was anxious to get married again, and the men she hoped might propose to her kept being distracted by her beautiful stepdaughter.  As a result, Soames was able to enlist Mrs. Heron’s cooperation in courting Irene.  Nevertheless, these are not sufficient reasons for a woman to marry a man that repulsed her, and the novel tells us that Soames never could figure out why Irene did finally consent to marry him.  It should be noted that between Irene’s fifty pounds a year and the money she could earn giving piano lessons, there was no need for her to marry anyone.

Apparently, the various people who decided to adapt The Forsyte Saga found it as disturbing as I do that Irene would be willing to marry a man for whom she has such a strong, visceral aversion.  In That Forsyte Woman (1949), which is mostly an adaptation of The Man of Property, Irene’s revulsion for Soames before she marries him is suppressed. Instead, she is portrayed as making the mistake of marrying a man she didn’t love and then regretting it afterwards.  In other words, it is easy to understand a woman’s making that mistake, so the movie is essentially making excuses for Irene.

In the 1967 television mini-series, Mrs. Heron has a prospective suitor for herself.  He is a lecher, and he gives Irene to understand that she is the real object of his sexual desires, which he intends to pursue once he has married Mrs. Heron.  This would certainly explain why Irene would marry Soames as a way of getting away from her future stepfather.  But there is no such character or situation in the book.

In the 2002 television mini-series, the two reasons given in the novel as to why Mrs. Heron would like to see Irene married are adhered to, so it comes closest to being a faithful adaptation on this point.  However, both reasons are dramatized and given more intensity than is indicated in the book.  In particular, Mrs. Heron acts as though her financial situation is desperate, owing to her need to support her stepdaughter, whereas in the book, there is no indication that having to support Irene is an inordinate burden.  And there is also a scene in which Mrs. Heron becomes furious when the man she was hoping would propose to her expresses an interest in marrying Irene instead, following which she tells Irene she will not support her for another year.  Irene replies that she cannot support herself on her own, though that is exactly what she does do later on.  In other words, this adaptation is consistent with the book on this point, but takes pains to make explicit what the novel only suggests.

The point is that each of these three adaptations is determined to make Irene a sympathetic character, whereas the book leaves us a little perplexed as to why Irene ever consented to marry Soames.  Furthermore, the 2002 adaptation portrays Soames as being more vehement and angry than in the book, at one point almost maniacal, as if to make Irene a more sympathetic character by virtue of her being terrified of his scary behavior.  In fact, the entire mini-series becomes increasingly maniacal, with people yelling and getting physical in a way that never occurred in the book.  The 1967 adaptation, which includes material from the sequels as well, is more faithful to Soames’s character in this regard.  He is still an unpleasant fellow who raped his wife, but this earlier version is content to allow Soames a bit more self-restraint, much as he is portrayed in the book. And Irene is not afraid of Soames in that version or in the book, but merely filled with revulsion at the thought of him. In fact, with the exception of the bit about the man who intended to marry Irene’s stepmother, the 1967 is far more faithful to the book than is the 2002 version, which really takes liberties with the story. On the other hand, That Forsyte Woman has one thing the two mini-series do not: star quality.  Actors Errol Flynn, Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, and Janet Leigh give this movie a vitality that the television mini-series seem to lack by comparison.  But let us now set these adaptations aside and consider only the book from here on.

Irene has a friend named June Forsyte, who is the daughter of Soames’s cousin, and a woman whom Soames dislikes, for he suspects she puts ideas into Irene’s head. To get her away from June and other such people, he decides to build a house in the country where he can have Irene all to himself. Then it would be just the two of them, side by side.  And this at a time when there was no such thing as television!

Soames hires Philip Bosinney to build the house for him.  Bosinney is an architect, and the fiancé of June.  Boy, if that is not asking for trouble!  When it comes to business, I always prefer to deal with strangers.  You may think you are going to get first class work at bargain rates when doing business with friends and family, but as often as not, there is a misunderstanding that leads to grief, and thus it is in the novel as well.

To make matters worse, Irene and Bosinney fall in love and have an affair. Soames suspects as much, which only adds to his frustration at being estranged from his wife, and so one night he decides to exercise his conjugal rights by force.  In short, he rapes Irene.  (Note:  In That Forsyte Woman, Soames does not rape Irene, but only slaps her.) Now, Soames is a bit of a stuffed shirt and not very likeable, but we do not expect something like this. The result of this violation is that whereas before, Irene had merely been repulsed, now she is thoroughly devastated.  Soames feels guilty and ashamed, but at the same time, he believes he was in his rights, and that Irene was just being unreasonable.  When Bosinney finds out about it, he becomes so distracted that he walks into the path of a carriage and is run over and killed.

It is interesting to observe that in this novel, which is written by a man, a man rapes his wife and traumatizes her, whereas in Gone With the Wind, which is written by a woman, a man rapes his wife, and it is just what she needs, satisfying lusts she never knew she had.  You would think it would be the other way around.

Irene leaves Soames, and years later they get a divorce.  She then marries “young Jolyon,” June’s father.  Speaking as a man, if my best friend had an affair with my fiancée, and then after she died, he proceeded to marry my mother, no one in my family would ever see me again.  So, this must have been pretty rough on June, but she manages to hold up reasonably well.  In any event, Jolyon and Irene end up living in the house out in the country that Bosinney had built for Soames, just the two of them, side by side.  And still, television had not yet been invented. However, this marriage turns out to be idyllic.  They eventually have a child, whom they name “Jon.”  Soames remarries, hoping to have a boy, but his wife has a girl instead, after which she can no longer have children.  They name her “Fleur.”

When they grow up, Fleur and Jon meet and fall in love.  So we have a Romeo and Juliet story, in which the two feuding families are two main branches of the Forsyte family, that of Soames and that of Jolyon.  Both sides of the family try to keep them apart, but at the behest of his daughter, Soames visits Irene and assures her that if their children marry, she need have no fear of having to meet him again socially.  He promises her that whatever else happens, she will never have to see him again.  He offers to shake hands, but she refuses. It is here that my sentiments begin to change. In the beginning, Soames comes across as a monster, while Irene is a sympathetic victim. But by this point, I find myself feeling a bit sorry for Soames, while Irene is beginning to make me feel uneasy.

Since this is a Romeo and Juliet story, I expected Jon and Fleur to marry or die trying. Instead, we have a very different outcome.  Jolyon writes his son a letter, in which he explains why he and Irene object so strenuously to his marrying Fleur.  He tells Jon that if he marries Fleur, it will “utterly destroy your mother’s happiness,” that it will be a “nightmare,” causing her “pain and humiliation,” and whatever children Jon and Fleur have, they will be a constant reminder of the “horror and aversion” that she can never forget. And in the end, since Jolyon knows he will soon die from a bad heart, he tells Jon that his mother would be all alone.  As for the part about Irene’s being all alone, I guess that is what happens when you betray your best friend, marry her father, and then move out to the country, where you practically never see anyone but your husband, your son, and the maid.

The result is that Jon breaks off his engagement with Fleur, and subsequently buys some land in British Columbia where he and his mother can live, just the two of them, side by side.  He says in a letter that he thought about moving to California, but it is too nice there. This is supposed to be a joke, but that is the only reason given in the book.  In other words, Jon and Irene could have moved to, say, San Diego, where Irene could get out and make some friends, or, since friendship does not seem to be her thing, at least she could socialize and find some activities she might enjoy.  Instead, Jon buys a farm in a part of the world where they are likely to be snowed in six months out of the year. And they wouldn’t even have television!

If this situation between Jon and his mother seems a little strange, it is made all the more so by the oedipal adumbrations in Jon’s youth.  As a child, he tells his mother that he does not want to go to school:  “I want to stay with you, and be your lover, Mum.”  And this is followed by a protracted scene in which Jon, finding out that his father will not be in his mother’s room that night, asks if he can sleep with her.  All right, I know that children sometimes sleep with their parents, although it was never something I wanted to do.  And I know that little boys sometimes say they want to marry their mothers.  But real life is one thing, and novels are another.  John Galsworthy would not have written these scenes into the novel if they were not important.  At the very least, Jon is a mama’s boy, something Fleur clearly sees when she tells Jon he is tied to his mother’s apron strings; for Fleur was ready to get married anyway, their parents’ problems be damned. Knowing how Irene betrayed June, Fleur regards Jon’s mother as someone who will not hesitate to destroy the lives of others, and I’m inclined to agree with her.  But in the end, Fleur is defeated.

So Jon and his mother live happily ever after.  Well, not quite, because Galsworthy wrote another trilogy years later, in which Jon and Irene move to North Carolina, where Jon finally gets married, almost as if Galsworthy realized what he had written in the first trilogy, and then came to regret it. A lot of readers, me included, have been bemused by the fact that Jolyon, who was appalled at the idea of Soames’s attitude that a wife was the property of her husband, and Irene, who was the victim of that attitude, should end up enslaving their son to his mother.  In the preface to the first trilogy, Galsworthy makes the following remark:  “A criticism one might pass on the last phase of the Saga is the complaint that Irene and Jolyon, those rebels against property—claim spiritual property in their son Jon. But it would be hypercriticism, as the tale is told.”  He points out that Irene said to Jon, “Don’t think of me, think of yourself!”  But she approved the letter her husband wrote to Jon, and that single sentence, especially in the way she says it, is more likely to augment Jon’s feelings of guilt than diminish them.  Today we would call it being passive-aggressive.

There is a theory in literary criticism that rejects authorial intent as being the final word concerning the meaning of a novel.  I never paid much attention to that theory until now, but here it seems especially apt. Galsworthy may deny that Jon’s parents have enslaved him, and he may have subsequently tried to undo the oedipal implications in the first trilogy, but at the expense of being charged with “hypercriticism,” I think it is there in the way “the tale is told.”