15 April 2012

The Insanity of War and the Humanity of Borgaze's Seventh Heaven

It's difficult to know quite what to make of the human race at times. The capacity for cruelty and insensitivity seems boundless. There has been progress made over the millenia but the Holocaust is far from ancient history and genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda are within this lifetime for most of us. It's not just the wholesale killing either. There is widespread indifference to human suffering when it falls out of a country's "national interest." There is even the perpetuation of old feuds and constant calls for war within these United States. Many of the individuals who of late have presumed to run for the highest office in the land, constantly demonstrate a callousness towards their fellow man that belies their belief in a supposed loving god. Individual acts of violence and mayhem are carried out on a daily basis by damaged minds unable to cope with the perpetual despair that is their lives. But we carry on. And we must.

There is little else to do but to honor one another and strive to lead virtuous lives and, if we cannot exactly spread the word of peace and love and tolerance, at least practice it in our lives and thus lead by example. We are what we do.

One would think that...but apparently not. No. Films are never going to be the answer or even a clue for the mindless. Indeed far too many films serve to feed the notion that violence is an acceptable manner of problem-solving, even a romantic and glorious one. Smiting one's enemies is seen as something noble and necessary because the proverbial bad guy is so easily identifiable and so totally one dimensional and devoid of humanity. There is no subtlety in a punch to the villain's nose, because there is nothing but pure evil to be hit. Rarely, outside the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, are our "real life" foes so unambiguous.


I was deeply touched by a melodramatic tear jerker of a movie today, Seventh Heaven (1927). It is the second in a series of director Frank Borzage's silent films that I am seeing for the first time. It stars Janet Gaynor, who appeared frequently in Borzage's films, and Charles Farrell, who co-starred with Gaynor on 11 occasions. This was the first.

Seventh Heaven is set in Paris, where Diane (Gaynor) plays an abused waif rescued from a cruel older sister and a life of misery by the handsome working stiff, Chico (Farrell). He is, in his own words "a remarkable man." Chico revitalizes the fading humanity in Diane and imbues with her boundless optimism through a recipe consisting mostly of love. He is a total charmer, full of bluster and bluff and positively radiating self confidence.

As has so often been the case in world history, not to mention films, war interrupts this fledging idyllic relationship. For it is 1914 and the world is being swept up in one of its most senseless and cataclysmic infernos. Coincidentally I have just finished back-to-back readings of terrific new books on WWI: The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund and Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars. In very different ways, the books "humanize" the war by introducing the stories of individuals who were swept up in the war either as casualties, witnesses to the horror, demonized conscientious objectors, or those who lost loved ones. You'd be hard pressed to find a better example of humanity's propensity for deadly folly than the Great War.

So with this as a personal backdrop I was particularly taken by the story of a couple in love being torn apart by war. There were countless such instances in the period from 1914-1918, not to mention all the years before and since.

Of course, Chico could not resist the call to war and Diane wouldn't think of dissuading him from going. There is a fundamental (and deeply flawed) belief within societies that answering the call to war on behalf of one's country is not to be questioned. It is a sacred duty. For most, asking the reason why comes, if at all, after years of senseless slaughter, doing or dying is what we do. The brave ones, it seems to me, are those who refuse the call and risk ostracization and prison.

So Chico goes off to war and Diane, only recently having found hope in what had seemed a heartless world, must wait. And wait. This she does dutifully.

It would be wrong for me to reveal the ending, but suffice to say that one way or the other such stories, if told properly, can cause watery eyes and a lump in the throat. (Of course, they are all too often done poorly and evoke smirks or groans.) Farrell and Gaynor were excellent actors. They had the faces for films, particularly in the silent era. They acted entire ranges of emotions through facial expressions. Also, Borzage was a very good director who know how to frame a shot and could occasionally use props and settings quite effectively in furthering a story and mood. His use of the long winding stairway to Chico's apartment -- up towards heaven, was masterful. He also added light touches to the film, including a rotund sot of cab driver.

Yesterday I'd watched a later offering from the same director and stars, Lucky Star (1929) which also involved a hero going off to the Great War, although this time from small town America. Lucky Star was, to me, a fairly good movie but it did feature one of the greatest closing shots I've ever seen. It was an example of both Borzage's ability to frame characters and to build, build, build on emotions. Borgaze played an audience's heart strings like a virtuoso plucking his violin.

I look forward to his other silent offerings which are perched atop my Netflix queue. Those I'm sure will arrive soon. I wish the same could be said of a world that lived in peace and harmony.

Carrying on....

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