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In 1891 Rudyard Kipling was best known for his short stories about the British army in India and his excellent poetry (THE BARRACK ROOM BALLARDS). He decided to write a novel, set in the Sudan in the Mahdi revolt (slightly older than contemporary time - about 1884 - 1889). His hero, Dick Heldar, is a war correspondent artist who is wounded in the head by a Sudanese soldier (who is killed by Heldar's friend Torpenhow a moment later). Heldar is invalided to England, where he expands his reputation as a war artist into a military genre painter. He meets a girl (Maisie) who he romances. But then he learns his eyesight (which has been giving him problems since he was wounded) is fading. Heldar determines to paint his masterpiece - the painting to give him immortality. Rather than a military subject it is a painting of a woman as personifying "Melancholy". The painting's model is Betty Broke, a young Cockney girl who Torpenhow has been living with. But Betty is attracted to Heldar, and hopes to become his girl. Then she learns of Maisie, and she destroys the painting. Heldar has gone blind just before this, and reveals the painting to Torpenhow and Maisie thinking that it is the brilliant work he completed. When a vengeful Betty tells him she destroyed it, Heldar...seeing his life is over, returns to the Sudan and his friends, and dies leading a charge against the enemy.
This is the basic story of THE LIGHT THAT FAILED. The William Wellman film from 1939 is basically following this story, and tells it well, having a cast headed by Ronald Colman as Helgar, Walter Huston as Torpenhow, Ida Lupino as Betty, and Murial Angelus as Maisie. Dudley Digges, Ernest Cosart, Halliwell Hobbes, and a host of other Hollywood character performers give excellent support to the leads. It is an ultimately tragic story, well done, well told.
But the film, ironically, fails to have the impact of the novel. That is because Kipling made the story a study of one element that the movie just examines one trend of - it is a novel about failure. Every person, every institution, every impulse in the story fails to be achieved. It's not just Heldar...it's everyone!
First, although at the time the novel was written the events in the Sudan (although a still continuing war) seemed destined to bring about the eventual result - the collapse of the Mahdist Revolt. It did eventually fail at the battle at Omdurman in 1898 (which is shown in the movie versions of FOUR FEATHERS), but it was slowly being squeezed to death in the campaigns in Egypt and the Northern Sudan from 1884 onward. The death of Gordon (the subject of the film KHARTOUM) showed that the Mahdists were capable of beating the British, but the Mahdi died of plague within six months, and the Khalifa was not his equal as a charasmatic leader. So the fact that the Sudanese soldier gives such a crippling injury to Dick is worthless - a fact brought home by his death immediately afterwards at the hands of Torpenhow. However, it is a long and arduous road to the defeat of the Mahdists. The great British Empire (reeling from the early defeats of Hicks and Gordon) also can suffer failure.
Torpenhow's action only avenges Dick (and only in that he is protecting Dick from injury). He thinks he saved Dick's life. He hasn't succeeded - Dick's injury is a damaged optic nerve which leads to his blindness. Torp's action just delays the inevitable. Torpenhow is also unable to save Dick's masterpiece from Betty, and has to watch as Dick dies in battle in the end.
Dick returns to England and starts making his artistic name as a genre painter. And a successful one. But Torpenhow and the Nilghai (Dudley Digges, in the movie) point out that Dick was original at first, when he showed the grit and dirt of real military life - now he is prettifying it. Dick has been selling out. His artistic abilities are beginning to fail. Also the public, fully "supportive" of their men in the armed forces, don't want the real dirt and blood to appear - it's unpleasant. Their sense of realism is sacrificed by their hypocrisy. It too fails.
Dick's artistic independence (in the novel) is gained at the expense of the news agency that used his talents for their news reports from the front. When they try to browbeat him into returning to the front he rejects their attempts - so much for the power of capitalism.
The relationship with Maisie is due to her ability as a painter - she is trying to be one. But she is a mere dabler. In fact, she becomes very self-concious of her inferiority and it affects her romance with Dick. Also (Kipling is ironical here) Maisie has a really talented female roomate who draws and paints as well as Dick, but Dick only has eyes on Maisie - her roomate is too timid to tell him how much she likes him! She fails as does Maisie.
Civilization in England is in for a knockout too. As his sight starts troubling him, Dick goes to a great Harley Street physician for help. The doctor (representing science and knowledge) can't prevent his losing his eyesight.
Betty does have a moment of evil triumph over Dick, destoying his painting, but it costs her. In the novel Betty actually reveals the truth to Dick at a moment that he is seriously considering living with her for the rest of his life. She suddenly realizes that in telling him of what she did to his work his offer is dead...and since she is little better than a whore, the last chance for her to have a decent life has just collapsed. Her life is set for a downward trend of poverty - it too is a failure.
Dick's final act is his only constructive action to achieve some posthumous fame - by dying in battle. But it is fame based on death, not on achievement. A final acceptance of his failure as well.
The theme of failure is a real downer, and the film may have wisely jettisoned most of this by concentrating only on Heldar. But it even soft-pedalled it with Heldar's tragedy. In the novel the painting of "Melancholy" was his one chance at artistic immortality. Instead, in the process of developing his reputation as a genre artist, Dick paints a picture of a riderless horse of a dead soldier. This picture is widely exhibited, and well received (and, ironically, it mirrors his own horse, as he lies dead in the Sudan - at the feet of Torpenhow in the movie's conclusion). But it reminds the audience that even if the "Melancholy" was maliciously ruined by Betty, Dick lived long enough to paint another masterpiece that will live. The painting forshadowing his own end is a brilliant idea, but it cheapens the actual effect of Kipling's novel's tragedy.
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