Films That Lighted My Path

[This is the tenth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

After breaking up with Stephanie, I left the guru Gulliver and our joint enterprise, the bookshop Dulcinea. I was twenty-five years old and had a thin résumé: a B.A. in economics, an interest in literature, and a desire to continue studying the so-called Work of the Russian spiritual master G. I. Gurdjieff. Although disenchanted with Gulliver the man, I had not abandoned my interest in Gurdjieff the system. Fortunately, my brother had hooked on with another teacher of Gurdjieff. I moved to Massachusetts to live with my brother and to study with his teacher, who accepted me into his circle. Meanwhile, I tried to develop a writing career. 

It seems typical of many Gurdjieff groups that they engage together in projects. Dulcinea had been such a project. My brother and his teacher were engaged in another such project. They had bought an old theatre and were showing vintage movies while mounting a stage show for families. None of this interested me particularly. I thought I wanted to be a writer. But because the theatre offered “Films to Remember” six nights a week, and because I could see these films free as a guest of my teacher, I became a regular customer. Strangely, the films that spoke loudest to me—like the books that made the most impact during these years—were Christian films. I thought I was an ex-Christian in search of an “esoteric” solution to my religious quest. But sometimes you don’t know what you really want, or need.

Many of the movies that moved me were what we might call spiritual today. In this loose, baggy category, memory places “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), about contact with extraterrestrials; “Breaker Morant” (1980), about the meaning of virtue; and “Tender Mercies” (1983), about what can hold a family together.

But religious films—and, because it is the ground on which I was brought up, I mean Christian films—seemed to move a place inside me that wasn’t under lock and key. The first of these that I remember was a film that became a repeat hit at the theatre: Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972). Today—in a world of almost instant home-viewing—it would be unthinkable for a cinema to bring back such a dated film and be repeatedly successful with it. But this was an era before VHS, cable, DVDs, and streaming.

“Brother Sun, Sister Moon” was a movie for its time, portraying saints as hippies. A sun-kissed, hyper-romantic story of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, it shows the pair rebuilding churches and founding single-sex communities while English folk balladeer Donovan strums and croons. Francesco runs dreamily through sun-dappled fields letting wildflowers flow like water over his hands. The film is filled with so many soulful, teary faces it was easy to parody, which I sometimes noticed the staff of the theatre doing. Laugh as one might, the film me back to Umbria and my first view of the cross of San Damiano in 1971 while traveling with Gulliver and Jacky. It reawakened my interest in Catholicism.

In fact, “Brother Sun” was only one of the films that revived Catholic Europe in my memory. My Europe, thanks to travels with Gulliver, was one where churches and cathedrals, monasteries and convents towered over secular buildings. They were the landmarks that stood up in my heart.

Several films returned me to that landscape, including “The Song of Bernadette” (1943), about Lourdes, and most notably Ermanno Olmi’s “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” (1978). “Tree” is over three hours long. It is in Italian, with English subtitles, but long stretches are silent with orchestral accompaniment. The story concerns a communal dwelling place for four working families in the farmlands near Bergamo a century ago. They toil at the whim of the owner, working his land and handing over to him most of the hard-won crop.

Each family lives its drama. One prepares for a wedding. Another is headed by a widowed mother who prays for a miracle. The title story turns on a father whose little boy goes to school, a rare honor in that rural culture. The boy breaks his clog one day; the father cuts down one of the landowner’s trees to make proud new shoes for the budding scholar; and the family is evicted for the venial offense.

While others were bored silly, I was enthralled by “The Tree of Wooden Clogs.” Ostensibly a tragedy of injustice, the film showed me a community of faith—a community distinctly different than the one I had known at Dulcinea. “We have to take care of one another,” a character says, and with one exception—a wolf in the sheepfold—all do. Faith underlies the caring. In the opening scene, a priest advises the father to send his boy to school, though it will mean one less hand on the farm. Later, the boy repeats a rosary with his mother as he drops off to sleep. Buoyed by faith, in the face of injustice, the banished father resolutely loads a few sticks of furniture, his wife, and his children on a rude wagon and harnesses the horse before dawn, heading into exile.

My analysis of “Tree” is subjective, of course. Where I see a Catholic movie, others saw a socialist one, about cruelty to workers. Regarding “A Man for All Seasons (1966),” Fred Zinneman’s film about St. Thomas More, there was no such debate. This was my favorite film of those years, and because it did well, the theatre played it repeatedly.

“A Man for All Seasons” shined a light on the Anglican church of my youth and its violent origins. I had grown up with the cadences of the King James translation: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” I had boomed out great Lutheran hymns alongside Dad. Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott was the one sure bit of German I had retained from two years of study in school. Now, no great student of history, I understood for the first time that there had been something in England before Anglicanism, something original. I saw that while received history (and my mother incidentally) sided with Henry and his daughter Elizabeth, justice was on the side of Thomas More, the friend Henry had beheaded when the king went all horny for Anne Boleyn. I was magnetized by the witness and martyrdom of Thomas More: “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

“Chariots of Fire” (1981) is British, though not Catholic—the drama of two runners who competed for England in the 1924 Summer Olympics. Eric Liddell was a devout Protestant, Harold Abrahams a secular Jew. As played by Ian Charleson and Ben Cross, they are Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in track spikes. Eric has the boyish charm, zeal, and family dedication of Mickelson; Harold is, like Woods, grim, all business, and more successful by the standards of his day. The film is framed by Harold’s funeral, attended by Great Men of England. Eric’s life ended on mission in China.

I don’t know that I ever saw “Chariots of Fire” with my father—I did scarcely anything with my father after leaving Whambam and running off to Europe with Gulliver—but God, would Dad have loved that movie! The whole manly competition thing, the whole postwar stiff-upper-lip British thing. “Chariots of Fire” is “Onward Christian Soldiers” for athletes, and “Onward Christian Soldiers” was Dad’s favorite hymn.

According to a journal I kept at the time, the film “placed greater demands on me than any other in my experience.” I contrasted “Harold’s emptiness” with “Eric’s fullness,” then compared the film to “A Man for All Seasons”: “Thomas More doesn’t have such an alter ego, not so fully developed anyway.” Today, I would say that Henry VIII was Thomas More’s alter ego, but I was right about Henry’s not being so developed in the film.

Though physically I looked more like Eric, in my late twenties I am afraid that I had more of Harold’s grim determination. In retrospect, I think now that I was in shocked mourning for my years with Gulliver. But I yearned for running streams.

My favorite scene in “Chariots of Fire” is that between Eric and his sister Jennie, when she upbraids him for paying too much attention to running and not enough to the Lord. Eric assures his sister that when the Olympics are over, he will become a missionary, her wish for him. Then he says the line that sings: “Jenny, I believe God made me for a purpose; but he also made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure. . . . To win is to honor Him.”

I felt an unaccountable calling in those words. I had no God in my life in those days, and no certain vocation either. So I kept writing and reading books and watching films, with an unvoiced prayer that vocation and faith would find me.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “Aftermath: Dreaming of Gulliver,” click here

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