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Jean Valjean, a Frenchman of good character and great strength, is convicted of stealing a loaf of bread, an act that sets in motion a lifetime of misery for Valjean, as he is pursued by the uncompromising and brutal lawman Javert. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
So stealing a loaf of bread gets you years in a squalid prison, rowing a galley with a thousand other poor souls that never goes anywhere. Some justice. And if you miss a parole appearance, you get a monomaniacal cop named Javert who has no life other than chasing you down. So, if you're like Val Jean, wouldn't you get mean and anti-social too. And when invited out of a storm by a priest, no less, it's only natural that Val Jean looks to steal what he can. But then, a funny thing happens. When the cops bring him back with the stolen goods, the priest gets him off the hook by saying the stolen candlesticks were a gift. It's an act of mercy, something the law has never shown him. Now Val Jean sees that life might be lived in a kinder, gentler way. And when he leaves and comes to the literal and figurative fork-in-the-road, he remembers the words of humane wisdom given him by the priest. Traveling in a new direction, he becomes the good man he has always been, waiting to be brought out. Now, if only he could get that merciless cop off his trail, life would be good.
Fine dramatization of Hugo's great plea for social reform in 19th century France. I wonder what our own Depression era audiences saw in the story, given the oppressive conditions of the 1930's. March is compelling as the reborn Val Jean, while Laughton makes for an unforgettably quirky Javert. But I wonder too, what would change if the aristocratically handsome March played Javert, with the very unphotogenic Laughton as Val Jean. That would challenge our comfortable stereotypes and make for a more interesting and humane message. Then too it's unfortunate that someone in production felt the audience wouldn't get the spiritual message without being hit over the head with heavenly choirs and light beams from above. I guess that was done for box-office returns. But too often Hollywood has reduced the profound to the hokey, thereby corrupting the message and turning spirituality into a mere matter of stage craft. Nonetheless, the moral remains a telling one, as relevant now as it was 70 or even 170 years ago. Law exists only on paper, while justiceas they saydwells in the human heart. It is not a truth Javert, the slavish servant of the state, can live with. Hugo was not only a great writer, but a very good man, as well.
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