Elizabeth and John say good-bye as John leaves to go to war. When the war ends, Elizabeth receives a telegram that John has been killed in action. She finds comfort in Larry and they marry....
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Robert Z. Leonard
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A bookish historian is married to a steely Southern belle who raises horses, an animal that he doesn't care for. However, the cute young neighbor girl doesn't feel that way about him and makes no bones about letting him know it.
Elizabeth and John say good-bye as John leaves to go to war. When the war ends, Elizabeth receives a telegram that John has been killed in action. She finds comfort in Larry and they marry. John returns 20 years later, disfigured, with a new identity, Erik, and an adopted daughter, Margaret. John/Erik and Elizabeth accidentally meet and he learns that he has a son, Drew. John must then decide whether or not to reveal his true identity. Written by
I am stunned to see the vast majority of commentators describe this great film as "typical," "sentimental," and "melodramatic." That is to completely overlook the various philosophical and psychological aspects of the movie. Isolationism. Pacifism. Opposition to global hegemony and tyranny. All of these are at the essence of the dialog and the story. The need for humans to deny the temptation to live in the past and to embrace the future is the core of the movie - in addition to its TITLE. Reason must overcome emotionalism.
That is made especially apparent in the scene where Kessler (Orson Welles) implicitly compares Mrs. Hamilton (Claudette Colbert) to his young charge, Margaret (Natalie Wood). While Mrs. Hamilton lost her husband on another continent, the Nazis murdered Margaret's parents right before her eyes. She is terrified by a "popper" because it causes her to "relive" the sound of bullets, the smell of gunpowder and the sight of blood - her parents' blood. Kessler gently coaxes Margaret into pulling the string on a second "popper" to prove that she doesn't need to be a victim of her fears. She can learn that it is not dangerous, but a mere "toy." She can overcome.
The climactic scene between Kessler and Mrs. Hamilton is equally fabulous. The tension steadily mounts as Mrs. Hamilton presses Kessler to admit that he is her husband. Until his direct denial, the dialog is so sublime that it makes sense whether delivered by the woman's lost husband or by "Mr. Kessler." But it is not sentimental. To the contrary, Kessler's powerful philosophical arguments and psychological insights compel Mrs. Hamilton to reassess her life and come to the realization that it has been, is, and promises to be good. To throw that away for a memory would be sheer sentimental folly. "Embrace the good life you have" is the very clear message.
Generally the acting is superb, however, in particular this is possibly Orson Welles' finest performance. There are no obvious double-takes or overly-long stares that are dead give-aways in most films that deal with a character with a hidden identity. This is a fabulously subtle performance. Welles' makeup is a little obvious and theatrical, but is not a distraction.
In an incredible - and incredibly overlooked - performance, Natalie Wood convincingly portrays a young Austrian girl who speaks German as her native tongue, has lost both parents to Nazi violence and is suddenly thrust into a strange new country. Her performance is one of the best juvenile performances in all American cinema.
The Max Steiner score is also very good, although I wish it had been a little more sub rosa. Just turning down the volume of the score to make it a little more subtle would have improved the film a little. However, it beautifully captures the mood of each scene.
This movie has layers upon layers. It contains paradoxes and ironies that are profound enough for real reflection. The characters provide profound contrasts in philosophy and psychology. The device of having a husband apparently die (but in actuality refuse to return home because of his "broken" condition) provides ample opportunity for sentimentality. But that device is merely the springboard for a much richer exploration of the meaning of life and our place in the world. To fail to recognize this is to minimize this fabulous film and miss its point.
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