It’s not easy being a movie atheist. More often than not, you will end up being humiliated in the last reel. But of all the atheist-humiliation movies ever made, none have surpassed The Spiral Road. There is no substitute for seeing this movie in all its glory, but in the meantime, I will try, in my own small way, to give the reader some sense of this film and the slow, relentless way it reduces the big, swaggering atheist to a sniveling, sorry spectacle of a broken man.
The movie is set in the Dutch East Indies in 1936. As required by their medical school contracts, several young doctors arrive in Indonesia to spend five years treating the natives for tropical diseases, such as cholera, plague, and leprosy. The brightest of these, a gold medal winner with high honors, is Anton Drager (Rock Hudson). On the day of their arrival, the doctors are told they will attend a dinner where they will meet the hospital staff and their families. At the dinner, Mrs. Kramer, the wife of the director, tells Drager that the social life in the Dutch colony can be quite enjoyable, but he says he didn’t come to this part of the world for dance lessons or to join the Country Club. She says, “You make it sound like a fate worse than death.”
“I don’t believe in fate,” Drager replies.
Most people would regard Mrs. Kramer’s remark as merely a manner of speaking, but Drager cannot let the remark pass without taking a firm stand against such a notion. This would be like someone saying, “We can thank our lucky stars that it didn’t rain today,” to which someone says with a straight face, “I don’t believe in astrology.”
“What do you believe in, Dr. Drager,” she asks.
“Anton Drager,” he replies.
After an arrogant answer like that, one suspects that Mrs. Kramer might not be too disappointed that Drager has no interest in the social life in Batavia. Through subsequent conversation with her and then with her husband, we learn that Drager is quite ambitious. He wants to work with Dr. Brits Jansen (Burl Ives), who is the best in the field of tropical medicine, but who hasn’t published anything in years. Drager hopes to publish jointly with Jansen, so that when he returns to the Netherlands after five years, he will be very much in demand in the field of research, for which there will be significant remunerative benefit. Kramer agrees to send Drager to Jansen.
On arriving in the area where Jansen usually works, Drager meets Harry Frolick, a river master, and Captain Wattereus of the Salvation Army. Frolick goes out of his way to mock Wattereus’s religion, becoming so physically aggressive about it that Drager has to grab Frolick and push him away, knocking him to the ground. After Frolick leaves with a prostitute, Drager remarks, “Well, that was a ridiculous exhibition.”
“Poor Harry,” Wattereus says. “He’s going through a hell all his own, trying to prove God doesn’t exist. For if God doesn’t exist, Harry’s sins don’t exist. That’s why he’s so violent and unhappy.”
Drager disagrees, saying, “To me, Frolick is just a poor idiot who can’t hold his liquor.”
Now, either explanation could be correct, for all we know. It could be as simple as Drager says. But then, such extreme hostility toward religion on Frolick’s part makes us suspect he is an atheist who is still struggling against the remnants of religious upbringing that are still within him.
This is a recurring theme throughout the movie: explanations involving people’s beliefs in the supernatural versus physiological explanations only. Now, these explanations in terms of beliefs depend in no way on those beliefs being true. Even if there is no God, Wattereus’s explanation for Frolick’s behavior in terms of his internal struggle against religion could still be correct. But Drager seems incapable of making such a distinction, as if operating under a perverse sort of logic: the supernatural does not exist; therefore, explanations in terms of the supernatural are false; therefore, explanations in terms of people’s beliefs in the supernatural are false; therefore, only physiological causes can explain human behavior.
As another example, when Drager catches up with Jansen, who is in a village trying to eliminate the plague that has beset a village, Jansen tells him that he will often have to appeal to magic to deal with the natives. As easy as this is to understand, Drager appears to be unconvinced.
Later, when Drager tells Jansen of his dispute with Wattereus over the correct explanation for Frolick’s behavior, Jansen says, “I take it you don’t believe in God.” Now, just as you do not have to believe in God to accept Wattereus’s explanation, not accepting that explanation does not mean you are an atheist. So, there is no logical reason why Jansen should conclude that Drager does not believe in God. As a matter of fact, Drager says he does not believe in God, so Jansen’s conclusion turns out to be true, but that does not make his reasoning valid. So what is going on here? The movie is equating an explanation in terms of beliefs with holding those beliefs. By identifying atheism with a simplistic understanding of human nature, the atheist can be dismissed as a fool.
Along these lines, when it comes to physiological explanations, Drager is shown to be excellent. He is able to diagnose leprosy at a glance, which amazes Jansen. In other words, the movie makes it clear that in the realm of the physiological, Drager is brilliant. Therefore, when his physiological explanations alone do not suffice, it follows, according to the thinking underlying this movie, that his atheism does not suffice.
After learning that Drager is an atheist, Jansen says that atheism is fine for civilization, but there are no atheists in the jungle. This is a variation on the old saw that there are no atheists in foxholes. People who make that sort of argument reason as follows: people need to believe in God, especially when they are afraid of dying; therefore there must be a God. This is just one more conflation of the efficacy of a belief with the truth of that belief.
The whole reason the subject of Wattereus came up in the first place is that he runs the nearby leper colony, and Drager and Jansen are taking the man Drager correctly diagnosed as having leprosy to live there. Jansen tells Drager that Wattereus and his wife Betsy are his best friends. When they get there, it turns out that Betsy has leprosy. She is behind a curtain surrounding her bed, so we are left to imagine that she has been horribly disfigured by the disease and is in much pain, as well as being blind. Jansen gives her an injection to make her sleep. Outside the hut, Jansen tells Wattereus, “She’s worse. There she lies dying, mutilated, rotting away, and I can’t do a thing about it.”
Later, when Drager and Jansen are alone, Jansen tells how when he first met them, they were already out there, taking in lepers, but they were doing nothing to protect themselves, because, Betsy said, “God protects us.” But he took one look at her hands and knew that she had the disease. “Well,” Jansen said to her, “Your God’s made a fool of you…, because you’ve got it.”
He says he almost got satisfaction in telling her. She was tending to a leper when he told her, but she just looked up at him and smiled. “I’ve never seen such beauty and peace,” he says. In other words, Jansen was much like Drager when he first came to the jungle, and this is just one of the ways in which living in the jungle makes people believe in God. It’s that same reasoning again: Betsy’s love of God is so strong that not even the knowledge that she will slowly be ravaged by a horrible disease can dispel her feeling of blessedness; therefore, there must be a God.
When a movie presents you with a setup like this, you know that the subject of mercy killing will inevitably arise. Drager asks Jansen if he ever thought about putting her out of her misery. Jansen says he did once, about three years earlier, but he couldn’t do it. Drager offers to do it himself. Jansen then explains why he couldn’t do it. He says he had the needle to her skin. She could still see and talk at that time, and she knew, so she asked God to forgive him even for thinking about it. That was when he realized that “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh way.” Jansen says that he realized he must not play God, and he makes it clear that it would be wrong for Drager to do so as well.
This is not much of a moral dilemma. If Betsy did not want to be euthanized, then that was her decision. What we would like to know is what Jansen would have done if Betsy had begged him to kill her. Would he still have said it was wrong to play God? But that kind of scene belongs in a completely different movie. This movie is not interested making us think. It is interested only in presenting us with an utterly lopsided advocacy in favor of God and religious belief, and in showing us just how wrongheaded the atheist is.
After several months, Els (Gena Rowlands), Drager’s fiancé, shows up for a visit. After one thing and another, they decide to get married. During the ceremony, the bride and groom are both supposed to repeat after the minister a ritual affirmation that includes the phrase “in the sight of God.” Drager tries to leave it out, but the minister isn’t having it, so Drager is forced to utter it. It would have been more realistic if Drager had simply repeated the phrase the first time with indifference, as most atheists would, but this is a movie atheist, don’t you know, so such things matter to him. Later, Els says it was sneaky of him trying to leave God out of the ceremony. He jokes, “I was in a hurry.”
Jansen does not like to work with married men in the jungle, but Els eventually convinces him to take Drager back. He agrees. It turns out that during the intervening months, Drager has been compiling Jansen’s notes on leprosy into a coherent manuscript. At first, Jansen is angry, but after reading most of it, he agrees that it is good. But Drager tells him to read the last chapter, in which Drager concludes that management of all medical centers presently under control of religious and charitable organizations be taken from them and turned over to the administration of the government health service. In particular, Drager believes that Wattereus is too sentimental, allowing people to stay in his leper colony long after their disease is in remission, causing the colony to be overcrowded. But Jansen points out that their families will never take them back, that the leper colony is the only family they have. Through the discussion, it becomes clear that Drager really doesn’t care about people beyond their role as patients with a disease to be cured. All he really cares about is getting back to Holland and publishing the manuscript jointly with Jansen, as a means of becoming a successful researcher. Jansen takes the manuscript away from him and says he will have him replaced.
The replacement is brought up by Inspector Bevers, who tells Drager that before he can take him back, they will have to check on Frolick. When they get there, the camp is deserted, except for Frolick, whose hair and beard make him look like a wild man. It is clear that he has gone mad. He tries to kill Drager with a machete, and Drager has to shoot him. Back in Batavia, Kramer is trying to understand what drove Frolick mad. Drager says it was a psychotic state induced by excessive use of alcohol. We have already seen that Frolick was an alcoholic, and there were bottles of gin everywhere. But Bevers has a different theory. The madness was caused by Burubi, the witchdoctor. True, Burubi probably supplied Frolick with the gin, but we also saw a dead lizard surrounded by a circle of blood, as well as an effigy of Frolick cut into pieces.
So, here we are again: Drager insisting on a purely physiological explanation; Bevers saying that black magic was involved. It is a cliché to point out that voodoo can’t harm you, if you don’t believe in it; but if you do believe in it, it can kill you. Superstitious natives have been known to go into shock and die when presented with an effigy of themselves with a pin stuck in it. Through isolation and excessive alcohol, Frolick’s mind had deteriorated to the point that he came to believe in the witchdoctor’s black magic. But Drager cannot accept this simple truth.
Drager is still stressed by having to kill Frolick, but he and Els decide to go to dinner. Wattereus happens to be in town for his monthly checkup, and he joins them. He laments that he might have been able to do something for Frolick. Drager replies that all he had to do was work a miracle, turning whiskey into water. That’s a pretty good line.
Wattereus argues that it was not the alcohol that drove Frolick mad. Rather, after the natives deserted him, Wattereus continues, Frolick was forced to stand alone, and that’s what broke him. Throughout the movie, there have been remarks by Drager to the effect that he is a rugged individualist, someone who relies solely on himself. Now Wattereus is implying that this kind of stance toward the world is untenable. He says of Frolick, “He cut himself off from God, and from people, at least the love of people, the only sources of strength a man can call on.”
This is another conflation that this movie makes, and it makes it in a big way: love of God and love of people. The idea is that because the atheist thinks he does not need God, it follows that he thinks he does not need people. Of course, Drager is an atheist who, as a matter of fact, thinks he does not need people, but that is only because the people who made this movie wanted him to be that way. Not only is there no logical reason why the two should be related, they are not so related as a matter of fact. But in this movie, love of God and love of people are inextricably intertwined. This is emphasized by an epilogue at the end of the movie, a quotation from the Bible, I John, 4:12, that makes this connection: “No man hath seen God…. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
But Wattereus is not through. He moves on to the next step: “And he was defenseless against the wilderness. But then we began in the wilderness, all of us lost and afraid. But with a choice: to take the spiral road upward, leading to God, or to remain in the darkness and degenerate back to the animal. I know how terrifying it is to look into the face of a human being, someone you know, but can no longer recognize, and to see in it the image of what we can become.” In other words, Frolick was not practically unrecognizable because he hadn’t shaved, bathed, or combed his hair in a month, but because he didn’t believe in God. It was his atheism that caused him to become like an animal.
Drager has another explanation. He tells about how just before he came out to the Dutch colonies, a God-fearing, gentle shopkeeper committed a brutal sex crime. It seems he had been receiving hormone treatment for chronic prostatitis, and an accidental overdose was apparently responsible. And so, Drager continues, if an injection can turn a saintly man into sinner, then the reverse should also be true. Eventually someone will discover the right chemical to turn a sinner into a saint. “It will be the first biochemical explanation for faith, like putting God into a test tube. Religion would become nothing more than a matter of glands. One simple shot. Ten cc’s of saint serum and heaven on earth.”
After Wattereus leaves, Els chastises Drager for humiliating him, but Drager is clearly fed up with it all, saying he just wanted to clear the air: “You heard him. Spouting all the spiritual gibberish about poor Harry, the man without God, punished for his sins, struck down by some heavenly fist.”
Els says that was not what Wattereus meant, saying, “All he said was we all need faith in some power greater than ourselves, that we need each other, that without it we’re alone, and we can’t live alone. No one is strong enough.”
Els is right in one respect. Wattereus was not saying that God will strike down people who don’t believe in him, but rather that man cannot live without believing in God. Drager says it’s the same thing. On that they disagree. But where they do agree is on the conflation, just reiterated by Els, of loving God and loving people, needing God and needing people. But here too there is disagreement, a disagreement of attitude toward that conflation, with Els saying we need God/people, and Drager saying he doesn’t need God/people.
Drager says, “I’ve heard stuff like that since I was a kid, and it scared me then. Love one another, love God or he will destroy you. I heard it all.” He tells how his father, who was a hellfire-and-damnation preacher, would “beat me regularly trying to teach me to love God.” Drager says he was afraid at first, but then he stopped it once and for all. At the age of ten, while his father was ranting from the pulpit, Drager says he dared God to kill him, saying to God, “I don’t love you, God. Do you hear me? I hate you….” He says he kept that up every Sunday for a month. But nothing happened. And then he knew, “God couldn’t touch me. He couldn’t hurt me. And if he couldn’t hurt me, he couldn’t help me. Nobody could.”
Note the conflation right at the end: God can’t help me, therefore people can’t help me. Needless to say, when he explicitly follows up on this by saying he doesn’t need anyone, Els draws the conclusion that he does not need her. He is reluctant to go that far at first. She says she wants to understand what is happening to him. He says he is angry that Jansen won’t let him publish the manuscript with him, and he is upset that he had to kill a man. And he tells her that he had an affair with a native woman while in the jungle, “No words, no questions.” In other words, he may need sex, but he does not need the person that goes with it. Finally, he tells Els that he does not need her, that she should go back to Holland.
Meanwhile, back in the jungle, something has happened to Dr. Sordjano, who happens to be a Muslim. Drager is sent to check on him, to bring him back if he is still alive, and to shut down the camp. When Drager, Inspector Bevers, and their crew arrive, they find a situation similar to that of Frolick. When Sordjano dies, Drager refuses to leave, saying, “I’m not Frolick, and I’m not Sordjano. I don’t need liquor, or a prayer rug, or the Bible.”
After Bevers leaves, Burubi starts with the black magic, causing the men who were left with Drager to desert. After several weeks, Drager is reduced to the same state that Frolick was in, shaggy hair and beard, wild look in his eyes. When he sees his reflection in the water of a stream, he does not recognize himself, and he fires his gun at it. This recalls Wattereus’s comment about looking into the face of someone you know but don’t recognize, seeing the image of what we can become without God. Later, when Drager gets stuck in a pond, he sees his face again and says in horror, “It’s me.” Then there is the scene we all knew was coming. He prays to God, asking for help. Immediately thereafter, he calls out to Els, establishing the conflation one more time of needing God and needing people.
Well, God sure acts fast, because just then a rescue party shows up. Drager collapses in Jansen’s arms. Later, back in Batavia, Els is by his bedside. He is delirious but holds her hand tightly. He starts calling out her name, louder and louder, so that Jansen and Wattereus come running in to see what is happening. Just then, he comes to, takes Els in his arms, and says, “Thank God.” He says that, he does, right there in front of God and everybody.
Boy, if he could have just held out another five minutes in the jungle, his dignity would have been saved, and we would have been spared the most degrading, atheist-humiliation scenes ever filmed.