Lost Horizon (1937)

Movies about Heaven, such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Stairway to Heaven (1946), sometimes begin with a prologue that bespeaks of timidity, almost apologizing to the audience for the movie they are about to see, as if to say that the story to be told might not be true.  This would seem to be rather unnecessary, for movies are usually understood to be fiction unless there is an assertion to the contrary.  The purpose of such a prologue is not to keep a naïve public from being misled into thinking that the movie they are about to see depicts Heaven just as it really is, but rather to forestall criticism, to keep people from analyzing the movie too closely and laying bare its absurdities.

Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon is not a Heaven movie, but it is similar, a kind of Heaven-on-Earth story, and so it is that we are not surprised to find that it too begins with a prologue:

In these days of wars and rumors of wars—haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?  Of course you have.  So has every man since Time began.  Always the same dream.  Sometimes he calls it Utopia—Sometimes the Fountain of Youth—Sometimes merely “that little chicken farm.”  One man had such a dream and saw it come true.  He was Robert Conway—England’s “Man of the East” —soldier, diplomat, public hero—

This movie is definitely about a place, Shangri-La, that is a combination of Utopia and the Fountain of Youth.  As for that little chicken farm, the only thing I know about chicken farms is what I saw in The Egg and I (1947), and there does not seem to be much connection between that movie and Lost Horizon.

Although the prologue says that Conway’s dream came true, the association between this movie’s story and a dream has been established, which is another distancing device sometimes used in Heaven movies, such as The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945).  The idea is that if it is a dream, then that should make it immune to criticism, because we all know that dreams do not make a lot of sense. Only a pedant would fault it for being illogical.

The prologue goes on to establish the setting and circumstances.  It is 1935, in Baskul, China, which is in the middle of a revolution. Robert Conway (Ronald Coleman) has been charged with the task of evacuating ninety white people from the city.  The last plane to leave has just five passengers:  Conway; his brother George; Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), a paleontologist; Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), a plumber who built up a thriving utilities company, but then was accused of being a swindler when the stock market crashed; and Gloria, a consumptive prostitute, whom the doctors told a year ago she had six months to live.

The remark in the prologue about Conway’s rescuing “white people” has a racist ring to it, which does not surprise us for a movie made in 1937, but interestingly enough, Conway is contemptuous of that attitude.  He asks George, who apparently is Conway’s amanuensis, if the report he sent in said that they saved ninety white people.  When George says it did, Conway says, sarcastically, “Hooray for us.  Did you say that we left ten thousand natives down there to be annihilated?  No, you wouldn’t say that.  They don’t count.”

Conway goes on to talk about what he will do when he becomes a foreign secretary.  He has a plan to thwart all his nation’s enemies.  He says he will disband the army and sink all the battleships.  When the enemy arrives at the border, they will be so confounded by his nation’s refusal to fight that they too will lay down their arms.  Of course, Conway realizes he is being impractical, saying he will fall right in line and do what is expected of him, because he hasn’t the nerve to do anything else.  Note that Conway is not saying his plan would not work, only that he knows how much resistance there would be to it.  In other words, the mind of Conway is utopian even before he gets to Shangri-La, which, as it turns out, is not a coincidence.

This is the sort of thing I was talking about when I said that the prologue was meant as a preemptive strike against the kind of criticism one would normally level against poppycock.  I don’t suppose I have to say it, but World War II is just four years away from when this story takes place.  If England had done what Conway said he would do if he had the nerve, does anyone believe the Nazis would have just said to themselves, as Conway suggests, “These people seem quite friendly.  Why should we shoot them?” after which they too would have laid down their arms?  Of course not.  They would have marched right in, taken over the government, and turned England into a vassal state.  But, you see, we are not supposed to make such criticisms.  We are supposed to play along with this fantasy.

What the passengers don’t realize, but eventually find out, is that Fenner, their pilot, has been murdered, and there is another pilot, “Chinese or Mongolian,” flying the plane in a direction opposite from where they were supposed to be going, which was toward Shanghai.  Eventually, just as the plane is reaching its destination, it runs out of fuel and crashes, killing the pilot.  But a rescue party arrives shortly, led by a man named Chang (H.B. Warner), for they have been expecting Conway and the others.  After a short climb, but through a treacherous snowstorm, they reach the entrance of Shangri-La.

As soon as they pass through the portal, the wind stops and the temperature appears to be like that of a nice spring day.  As they look upon the fertile valley below, Chang, who manages to go through the entire movie with a look on his face and a tone in his voice of insipid serenity, says, “You see we are sheltered by mountains on every side, a strange phenomenon, for which we are very grateful.”  Seconds later, Lovett, while taking in the wonder of Shangri-La, says, “Magic.”

This is the first time, but it will not be the last, that the explanation for Shangri-La vacillates between one that is natural and one that is magical.  On the one hand, we all know that a valley surrounded by mountains will not cause a change in climate of that magnitude.  On the other hand, if the explanation for this place is purely magical, then this will undermine any notion that what goes on in this valley can be extended to the rest of the world, which, as we find out later, is the whole point of kidnapping Conway.

Conway asks Chang what religion they follow in Shangri-La.  Chang replies that they believe in moderation: “We preach the virtue of avoiding of excesses of every kind.”  We recognize this as the fundamental ethical principle of ancient Greece, formalized into a complete theory by Aristotle.  However, Chang goes on to say that they even avoid the “excess of virtue itself.”  This makes no sense, as Aristotle pointed out a long time ago.  Once you define virtue as avoiding excess, it makes no sense to say that one of the excesses to avoid is virtue.  But this is no place to get into the finer points of the Nicomachean Ethics.  More importantly, this is an atheistic religion, although no one in the movie actually characterizes it as such, for there is no mention of God.

Conway approves of this ethical religion, saying, “That’s intelligent.”  Chang then moves on to the nature of their government.  Reading between the lines, we gather that there is a ruling class, to which Chang belongs, and then there are the natives, the subjects they rule over.  Class membership is apparently hereditary.  No mention is made of holding elections, so this seems not to be a democracy.  Chang says that they rule over the natives with “moderate strictness.”

It is not clear exactly what the nature of this strictness is or how it is enforced.  According to Chang, they have no soldiers or police because they have no criminals.  They have no criminals because there is a sufficiency of goods.  But then, where does the strictness come in, moderate though it may be?  Chang’s vagueness on this point obscures the absurdity of what he is saying.  Let us take a particular example.  Let us assume the strictness he refers to consists, in part, of a law against stealing.  But no one ever steals, because everyone has everything he might want.  Because no one ever steals, there are no police to arrest those who do.  But that makes the law against stealing pointless.  How can you be strict about a law no one has any inclination to break?

In any event, Conway comes up with an example of something that people might want to possess that sufficiency will not take care of:  women.  There may be plenty of women in the valley, but women are not fungible.  It is in the nature of things that a man will find he wants one woman in particular, and if he cannot have her, he will be miserable, even if there are plenty of other women about that he might have instead.  When asked about disputes over women, Chang says it rarely happens, but when it does, the men who are in dispute over a particular woman are quite courteous about the whole thing, the result being that the woman goes to the man who wants her the most.

You see, in the outside world where Conway is from, England in particular, it is left up to the woman to decide which of two men she prefers, if she wants either one of them at all, which she may not.  This unenlightened custom causes much grief, in that no matter how much a man might want a woman, he may never get to possess her.  How much better it is in Shangri-La, where women have no say in the matter!

All right, women aside, there is so much plenty that no one ever commits a crime.  But someone must produce these goods.  For example, certain people must grow the crops that produce the abundance of food.  Even in Shangri-La, farming is bound to be hard work.  Why should the natives spend their days planting and harvesting crops so that others can have all the food they want without lifting a finger?  Chang, who, I guarantee you, is not one to ever get behind a plow, says, “We have no money as you know it.  We do not buy or sell or seek personal fortunes, because there is no uncertain future here for which to accumulate it.”  In other words, the farmer does not sell his crops, he just gives them away.  So, why would a farmer produce more than what is needed to feed himself and his family?  Why should the natives work extra hard so people like Chang can have everything they need for free?  Perhaps this is where the strictness comes in.

Chang admits, almost reluctantly, that there is buying and selling of sorts when it comes to acquiring goods from the outside world, mostly cultural goods like books and works of art, which they are able to pay for because, as Chang puts it, “Our valley is very rich in a metal called gold, which, fortunately for us, is valued very highly in the outside world.”  Now, you might be wondering why Chang can’t simply say, “We have a lot of gold in this valley.”  This is just one example of the ways this movie tries to impress us with the childlike naiveté that characterizes the mentality of even the ruling class in Shangri-La.  Chang has to talk in a way that indicates a lack of sophistication in worldly things such as “this metal called gold.”  It would not do for him to evince a keen awareness of what an ounce of gold will fetch on the open market.  And yet, it is exactly such knowledge that would be needed to keep from overpaying for the goods brought in from the outside.

Conway says, “There is something so simple and naïve about all this that I suspect there’s been a shrewd guiding intelligence somewhere.”  Just as we are left uncertain as to whether it is the surrounding mountains that account for the climate, or whether there is something magical about the place, so too is there uncertainty as to whether the peace and tranquility of Shangri-La is due to something magical or to the influence of someone who designed this society to operate that way.  If the latter, then it is possible that someday all the world may be like Shangri-La; if the former, then this magic will never extend beyond the valley.

Chang reveals that it all began with a Belgian priest named Father Perrault, who stumbled into the valley in 1713.  One leg was frozen, and since there were no doctors among the natives, he had to amputate it himself.  Later, the natives told him, when he learned their language, that that was unnecessary, that his leg would have healed on its own, owing to the salubrious nature of Shangri-La.  The natives don’t have doctors because the perfect body in perfect health, having a life expectancy well beyond what is typical for the rest of the world, is the rule.  This is borne out by the way Gloria appears to have recovered from her tuberculosis.  (She also appears to have recovered from being a slut, looking clean and wholesome.) And once again, Chang attempts a natural explanation rather than a magical one, saying, “Climate, diet, mountain water, you might say.  But we like to believe it is the absence of struggle in the way we live.”

Conway expresses amazement, but Chang in turn expresses surprise that Conway is amazed.  Referring to books that Conway has written, in which he has “dreamed and written so much about better worlds.”    “Or,” Chang continues, “is it that you fail to recognize one of your own dreams when you see it?”  Once again, an association is made between Shangri-La and a dream.  It is a communist dream, of course, like the one envisioned by Karl Marx:  there is no God, there are no capitalists, and there is practically no state, for it has all but withered away.

Being that Shangri-La is like Conway’s dream (or is Conway’s dream?), he is naturally content to stay in Shangri-La.  But his brother George wants to get out and back to civilization, even to the point of threatening violence.  To find out whether there will be porters coming that can take George out of this place, Conway agrees to meet with the High Lama, who turns out to be Father Perrault (Sam Jaffe).  From him Conway finds out that Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt) is the one who suggested that Conway be brought to Shangri-La.  (She happens to be the woman Conway has already decided that he wants so much that he expects any rival to courteously let him have her.)  The reason for his being brought to Shangri-La is that the High Lama, now over two hundred years old, will soon die and needs someone to take his place, and that someone is Conway.  Just as the “religion” of Shangri-La reminds us of Aristotle’s ethical philosophy, so too does the government of this place begin to remind us of Plato’s Republic, in which a philosopher king is in charge of things.

The High Lama had an apocalyptic vision once in which civilization is destroyed by machines of war.  Conway’s task as will be to act as a curator, preserving culture in the form of books and works of art, so that he will be able to emerge after the destruction and lead the entire world to become like Shangri-La, fulfilling the “Christian ethic” of kindness.

The next day, in talking with Sondra, Conway marvels over the way he does not mind the fact that he was kidnapped:  “I’ve been kidnapped and brought here against my will.  A crime, a great crime, yet I accept it amiably.”  Well, Conway may accept the whole thing amiably, but I doubt if Fenner would have been quite so forgiving.  You remember Fenner, don’t you?  The pilot who was murdered as part of the kidnapping plot?  Apparently the ethical religion of Shangri-La permits the crime of murder as long as it is done in moderation.  In any event, Conway seems to have forgotten all about him.

Meanwhile, George has fallen in love with Maria, who detests Shangri-La as much as he does.  We are supposed to think of them as being wrongheaded, as deserving punishment if they leave Shangri-La.  Eventually, they convince Conway that all he has been told about this place is a lie, and that furthermore, they need his help to leave with the porters that have just arrived.  Reluctantly, he consents to go along.  But after they get beyond the realm of Shangri-La, Maria, who claimed that the story about her actually being almost seventy years old was a lie, that she was only twenty, suddenly transforms into an old woman and dies.

Well, that puts the kibosh on the natural explanation for why people live so long in Shangri-La.  It’s not just climate, diet, mountain water, or the absence of struggle that allows the inhabitants to enjoy a long life with a youthful appearance.  If that were it, we would have expected Maria to grow old in appearance slowly, just as if she really were only twenty.  Her rapid transformation into an old woman is reminiscent of Larry Talbot changing from a werewolf back into his human form at the end of The Wolf Man (1941), which also required a magical, supernatural explanation.  But if it is all just due to the magical influence of the place, then what hope is there that the way of life in Shangri-La can someday be extended to the rest of the world?

George is so repulsed by Maria’s transformation that he runs away, falling over a cliff to his death.  Conway manages to make his way to civilization.  But he temporarily suffers from amnesia.  When he recovers, he tells his story, and then decides to try to get back to Shangri-La, apparently succeeding in the end.

Why this amnesia?  Why couldn’t Conway simply get back to civilization and tell his story immediately? Its purpose is to underscore the idea that maybe it is all just Conway’s dream.  In other words, if a man walks out of the mountains and says, “Boy, wait till I tell you where I’ve been,” we figure that he is telling us about something that really happened.  Or he knows it didn’t happen, and he is intentionally telling us a tall tale.  But if a man suffers from amnesia after having disappeared, we might reasonably wonder, given his abnormal mental state, if he just dreamed it all.  Once again, if it is just a dream, then we are supposed to admire the man who had this dream, as if dreaming about world peace were some great accomplishment, and accept it without criticism.  And that means we are supposed to admire this movie and accept it without criticism.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Ray Harryhausen has provided the special effects for many movies, some of them quite good.  In Clash of the Titans, however, one gets the feeling that instead of the special effects being used to dramatize the story, the story is guided by the desire to display some special effects.  The result is rather lackluster.  The story in the movie, however, such as it is, is a big improvement over the original myth.  In fact, this movie, when compared to the source material, provides an excellent example of the need to modify ancient tales in order to make them suitable for modern audiences.

As for the story in the movie, much is driven by the lunacy of the gods.  When the unmarried Danaë (Vida Taylor) has a child (Perseus) out of wedlock, her father, King Acrisius (Donald Houston), feels that he and all of Argos have been dishonored by her sin.  He is especially put out by the fact that he had locked her in a room where no man could get at her beautiful body, but she got pregnant anyway.  (In the original myth, Danaë’s son was destined to kill Acrisius, which was his motive for trying to keep her away from men, but in the movie, Acrisius is simply jealous of her beauty.)  To purge the dishonor, he condemns his daughter and her child to die in a coffin set adrift at sea.  Zeus (Laurence Olivier), it turns out, was the father, having visited Danaë as a shower of gold.  Zeus is horrified that Acrisius of Argos would commit a murder, so to punish him, he has Poseidon (Jack Gwillem) unleash the Kraken, a sea monster, to wipe out the entire city of Argos.  At the same time, Danaë and Perseus are saved.

When he grows up, Perseus (Harry Hamlin) falls in love with Andromeda (Judi Bowker), who is under the spell of Calibos (Neil McCarthy), the hideously disfigured son of Thetis (Maggie Smith).  Perseus chops off the hand of Calibos, who then begs his mother for justice. She is reluctant, because she suspects her son wants revenge rather than justice.  But when Queen Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips), the mother of Andromeda, dares to claim that her daughter is more beautiful than Thetis herself, that is just too much.  As punishment for insulting her beauty, she demands that Andromeda be sacrificed to the Kraken.  Almost as an afterthought, she says that this will give her son justice too.  So, Andromeda must be punished for what Perseus did to Calibos as well as for a remark made by her mother, a remark, by the way, which happens to be spot on.  A running theme through all this is that guilt and punishment are not individual matters; instead, punishment may fall on anyone who is associated with the person who committed the misdeed.  Unfortunately, this insane notion of justice is frequently found in the myths of ancient religions, and there are still vestiges of such even today.

Anyway, Perseus has to figure out a way to kill the Kraken and save his beloved Andromeda.  After much to do, he learns that he must obtain the head of Medusa, a gorgon whose look will turn any living creature to stone.  Perseus chops off her head and returns in time to let the Kraken get a good look at it, turning him to stone.  Andromeda is saved, and she and Perseus marry and live happily ever after.

Now compare that with the original story. When Perseus set out to get the head of the Medusa, he didn’t know Andromeda from Adam.  He just needed a wedding present for a king who was getting married.  Perseus got the head, put it in a bag, and headed for home, hoping he would be in time for the nuptials.  On the way there, he saw the beautiful, naked Andromeda tied to a rock, while being threatened by Cetus, the other name for the sea monster.  He decided to save her, but first he made sure nothing happened to his wedding present by putting it behind some rocks for safekeeping.  Then he killed Cetus with his sword.  Having seen Andromeda naked, he just had to have her, so they got married. Then he grabbed the bag with the head in it and headed off for the wedding that started it all.

The story is vastly more complicated than that, especially since different versions stand in contradiction to one another.  But the point is that the story in the movie is a definite improvement, and so much so, that it proves that we should not be terribly concerned with how faithful a movie is to the source material, so long as the movie is enjoyable.  Unfortunately, Clash of the Titans, while an improvement over the original myth, is only fair.

The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)

The Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring starts off with a prologue telling the history of a bunch of rings, but of one ring in particular, how it was forged, who had it, what he did with it, who got it next, and then it was lost and then it was found, and then it turned up over here, and on and on and on. By the time that was over, I had already lost interest. What followed only made things worse. In a world where anything can happen, one quickly becomes bored. It all reminded me of a video game, in which you have to take an item from point A to point B, overcoming obstacles along the way. Once you get to point B, you move up to level 2, which is a new region, with new creatures, with strange new powers, all of which may assist or hinder you in getting to point C, whereupon you move up to level 3, and on and on and on.

This movie is set in a world sort of like our own, as it was during the Middle Ages, reminiscent of Norse mythology or the Arthurian legends. In such a setting, we expect the dialogue to be different from twenty-first century English, and we certainly don’t want to hear any modern expressions or slang. And so a kind of generic heroic-epic speech is employed, to give the flavor of a different era. And that is fine, but it should not be overdone. Unfortunately, they overdid it. For three hours, we hear this unrelenting heavy manner of speaking, in which almost everything that is said is fraught with ancient mystery and future destiny, until it just wears you out.

For some strange reason, movies set during Medieval or faux-Medieval times seem to have a disproportionate share diminutive folk, be they midgets, dwarfs, elves, trolls, gnomes, or, in the case of this movie, hobbits, which are the main characters. These hobbits have the biggest, ugliest, hairiest, dirtiest feet in this world or that, and they don’t even have the decency to cover them up by wearing shoes, like almost everyone else in the movie. No matter what else happens to these Hobbits, the movie keeps reminding you of their big, ugly, hairy, dirty feet, as if you could possibly forget. Nothing is explained about this in the prologue, which would have been one piece of information worth having, nor is it explained in the movie. I have read that in the book, it is said that Hobbits do not need shoes, because the bottoms of their feet are thick and leathery, while the tops are covered in fur. Well, that’s fine for them, but what about us? They should have some consideration and wear a pair. Fortunately, they did not force us to look at the big, ugly, hairy, dirty feet of a female hobbit. That would really have grossed me out.

The Lord of the Rings:  The Two Towers is the middle movie about Middle Earth, whatever that is supposed to be. Is there an Upper and Lower Earth, a Right and Left Earth, or what?

Anyway, as I watched the hobbits still on their mission to get the ring somewhere to do something with it, I could not help but wonder why all the evil people didn’t just make another ring, if they wanted one so badly. I mean, what one person did once, surely another person could do again. I’m sure there is some perfectly good, unbelievable reason why other evil rings cannot be made, but by the end of this second part of the trilogy I was frankly past caring, because it had been six hours by that point, and I was really tired of it all.

Especially wearying is the relentless epic-speak employed by almost everyone in the movie, which has made me sick of hearing the preposition “of.” These people could never say something like, “We need to go through the Lincoln Tunnel” or “We’ll have to cross the Golden Gate Bridge.” They would have to say, “We must pass through the Tunnel of Lincoln” or “We must cross over the Bridge of the Gate of Gold.” And even when they say something that might look like normal dialogue when written on paper, the characters utter all their lines gravely and ponderously, as if everything they say is of the deepest significance.

An exception to this is Sam (Sean Astin), sidekick of Frodo (Elijah Wood). He actually talks normally. As a result, he became my favorite character, the one I most wanted to hear from. And when he made his speech about the goodness of the world being worth fighting for, it had more effect on me than anything else said in the movie, because it was spoken naturally. Furthermore, Sam’s face is easier to take than Frodo’s look of angelic innocence. I wish Sam had had the ring, and one of the other hobbits had been his sidekick, leaving Frodo out of the story altogether.

In The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King, the third part of this trilogy, Frodo finally disposes of the ring.  What follows is the longest, most drawn-out anticlimax in cinematic history.  When the hobbits returned to the Shire and Sam and Rosie (Sarah McLeod) got married, I held my breath.  “Please, please,” I begged the movie, “don’t show me Rosie’s big, ugly, hairy, dirty feet!”  For the most part, my prayers were answered, for we get only the most fleeting glimpse of her feet at a distance as she goes through a door.  Unfortunately, we still had to look, seemingly for minutes on end, at Frodo’s sappy face as he prepared to depart, and that was almost as repulsive.

Field of Dreams (1989)

A movie about baseball can be enjoyed by someone who cares nothing about baseball, but I doubt that Field of Dreams is one of them. It excessively romanticizes the game, declaring it to be the essence of all that is good about America, so much so that it even glorifies the men who threw the 1919 World Series. What kind of statement about America is that?

But if that were not challenge enough, the movie also involves some kind of supernatural reality in which we are all supposed to follow our dreams and fulfill our destiny. But since some people make bad choices, it is the destiny of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) to correct some of those bad choices, including his own, and make everything all right again.

And even that might not be so bad if it were not for the movie’s relentless insipid attitude about the wonder of it all.

The Boy with Green Hair (1948)

At the beginning of The Boy with Green Hair, the title character, Peter (Dean Stockwell), is at the police station with a bald head, refusing to give his name or say where he is from, but eventually Dr. Evans (Robert Ryan), presumably a child psychologist, gets him to tell his story in flashback.  It turns out that Peter is a war orphan because his parents died during World War II trying to help war orphans.  He was staying with his Aunt Lilian at the time of their death.  She passed him off to other relatives, who didn’t want him either and passed him off to other relatives still, one after another, until he finally ended up with someone he calls “Gramps” (Pat O’Brien), but who is not really his grandfather.

Just to make sure that we regard Aunt Lilian as being heartless for getting rid of Peter once she finds out that his parents are dead, we are shown the house that she lives in, which is large and sumptuous, implying that she could easily have afforded to take care of Peter.  But that makes us wonder what happened to the house that Peter’s parents lived in, the proceeds from the sale of which should have been inherited by Peter.  Or were Peter and his parents dependent on Aunt Lilian, living with her because they were too poor to afford their own place?  We never find out the answers to these questions because this is a movie about a child and intended for a childlike audience.  As children never concern themselves with questions of finance and inheritance, the intended audience of this movie is not supposed to be concerned about them either.

Anyway, once Peter settles in with Gramps, the school he ends up going to is having a clothing drive to help war orphans, and as part of that drive, pictures of war orphans are attached to the walls.

One day Peter’s hair turns green.  The night before, Gramps told Peter that he liked to keep a green plant around because his wife, a trapeze artist who fell to her death, used to say that green was the color of spring and represented hope and the promise of a new life.  Of course, green plants are one thing and green hair is another, and thus it is that the other children make fun of Peter at school the next day.  One kid, something of an exception from the rest, asks what is wrong with green hair.  Another kid answers, “How would you like to have your sister marry someone with green hair?” the standard retort of the bigot in response to someone who expresses a more tolerant attitude toward those who are different.  So, Peter’s green hair allows the movie to make a point about discrimination against people on the basis of color, which is just a specific form of discrimination generally.  Hostility toward people that are different leads to war, which causes war orphans.

Peter becomes so miserable about the way he is treated that he decides to run away.  He comes to a spot in the woods where the war orphans that we saw in pictures on the wall of the school have come to life.  They tell Peter his green hair is a symbol for faith and hope, that its function is to make him look different so that people will listen to what he has to say.  In speaking to Peter, the war orphans don’t use contractions.  Instead of merely saying things like, “I wouldn’t cry” and “He didn’t know,” they say, “I would not cry” and “He did not know.”  That’s how we know that what they are saying is of sublime significance.

Without contractions, then, the leader of the war orphans tells Peter:  “Everywhere you go, people will say, they will say, ‘There is the boy with the green hair.’ And then people will ask, ‘Why does he have green hair?’  So, you will tell them.  ‘Because, I am a war orphan, and my green hair is to remind you that war is very bad for children.’  You must tell all the people, the Russians, Americans, Chinese, British, French, all the people, all over the world, that there must not ever be another war.”

Funny that he singles out mostly the Allies of World War II for receiving this message.  I would have encouraged Peter to tell that to the Germans, the Italians, and the Japanese.  Anyway, the point is that since Peter has green hair, people will listen to him, and there will never be another war, which means there will be no more war orphans.

Inspired with his mission, Peter runs around telling everyone that war is bad for children.  However, the children at his school gang up on him and try to cut off his hair.  When that fails, the adults finish the job, after which a bald-headed Peter runs away again, which is how he ends up at the police station in another town.  In the end, Peter decides he will let his hair grow out again so that he can continue with his mission.

Children might have enjoyed this movie when it first came out, and adults might have enjoyed it with them vicariously. But its simplistic message, never very credible in the first place, is drained of what little plausibility it might have once had by the fact that the world has not changed: we are still fighting wars, presumably causing children to become war orphans. The idea of a little boy with green hair wandering around telling everybody that we need to stop fighting wars might have been an expression of hope in 1948 when this movie was made, but now it just seems absurd.

The worst feature of this film is that it is premised on something supposedly noble, but which is in fact quite shameful. Even if one of Peter’s parents, say, the father, felt the need to participate in the war effort, we would expect the mother to stay with her son and take care of him.  But they both figure they have more important things to do than raise their own child.  We are supposed to think of those relatives that kept passing him on to other relatives as being cold and selfish, but after all, they did not bargain on having to raise someone else’s child.

It is actually Peter’s parents who are selfish. They are that strange breed of do-gooder who becomes so enamored with the idea of saving the world that he neglects his own family.  For example, in Luke 14:26, Jesus says, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”  There is no indication in the movie that Peter’s parents were inspired by this passage, but they didn’t have to be. A lot of people come by this attitude naturally.  But I’ll say this much for Jesus.  At least he was a bachelor.  If he had gotten married, had a child, and then abandoned his family because he decided he was meant for better things, it would have been harder for apologists to say that Jesus merely spoke by way of hyperbole.

In any event, without pausing to be sure that Peter would be raised to maturity by a loving relative happy to take care of him if they died in the war, his parents just dumped him on his aunt and took off.  There is one moment in the movie when Peter correctly concludes that his parents cared more about other children than they did him, but the movie insists that he is wrong, and at the end Peter is seen as understanding that they really did love him and that what they did was right and good. As insistent as the movie is in this regard, it still leaves us with a feeling of revulsion for parents who would abandon their child so they could devote themselves to some higher purpose.

Early on in the flashback, Peter tells of when he was five years old, in which we only see the hands and arms of adults.  Had we seen the faces of his mother and father, they would have become real for us, and we would have begun to wonder what kind of parents would do what they did to Peter.  But because they are faceless, they remain abstract, making it less likely that we will condemn them.  Furthermore, we do not hear their voices, which means there is no dialogue in which they tell Aunt Lilian about their plans.  In particular, we do not get to see the appalled look on her face when she is told that she is going to have a five-year-old child on her hands as Peter’s parents head out through the door.