I can't say that I am entirely familiar with the events portrayed in Mrs. Soffel beyond what I read about it in William Coles' novel, `Another Kind of Monday' (except that it was based on a book called `The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel,' by a man named Arthur Forrest, who wrote for small, trashy magazines around the turn of the century, similar to The National Enquirer, magazines which were not very accurate but were packed with information), so I'm not entirely sure how much of the film is a presentation of true events and how much was glamorized for the pulp magazines and glamorized again for the movie. What I do know is that the movie is based on true events, and as a loose adaptation of reality, I think it succeeds pretty well.
Mrs. Soffel is the wife of a prison warden who is supervising the sensational case of the Biddle boys, two disarmingly attractive and charming boys who are sentenced to hang for a murder that they claim to have never committed and that the movie never tells us for sure whether they did or not. Since she takes on the task of being the divine counsel of the boys while on Death Row (meaning she reads certain Bible verses to them to keep them calm), she is in close contact with them for an extended period of time and, as is to be expected with a criminal good looking enough to be portrayed by Mel Gibson, she falls in love with one of them. This is the foundation of the whole premise of the movie, but if you're already wondering how a God-loving wife of a prison warden could possibly fall in love with a convicted murderer on Death Row, let me just transcribe here a poem that he wrote for her while in prison:
`Just a little violet from across the way
Came to cheer a prisoner gimmeattahere in his cell one day.
Just a little gimmeattahere flower sent be a loving hand,
As a kindly meaning that true hearts gimmeattahere understand.
God has smiled gimmeattahere upon it and the sender gimmeattahere fair,
And soon that little gimmeattahere token, wrapped in hand so gimmeattahere neat,
Rests quietly in the gimmeattahere grave,
For which a heart that's true gimmeattahere does beat.'
Very sweet, and since it's Mel Gibson, this honest woman doesn't realize or even consider the possibility that he wrote the poem during a sudden abundance of free time in an effort to get close to her and inspire her to help them escape.
I have a particular fondness for movies that show people cleverly escaping from prison (and/or bravely enduring it, both of which Paul Newman does in Cool Hand Luke and, even better, Papillon), so I though the idea of sawing through the prison bars and holding them in place with candle wax was brilliant, and the escape was wonderfully pulled off. There are a lot of people who criticize the film for doing little more than making a comment on women's roles at the turn of the century (and as many others who criticize it for almost making such a comment and then not making a real commitment to any specific point of view). I don't really think that something like this should be held against the movie, because it makes you THINK about women's roles at the turn of the century. There is a very distinct value to movies that make just enough of a statement about something in order to get you to think about it and come to your own conclusion.
Kate Soffel, the title character, is stuck in a marriage to a man with whom she is not necessarily unhappy as much as she just disagrees with his moral character, convinced that he does not take the content of his profession seriously enough beyond just the fulfillment of his duties. She knows that she is a subordinate to him, which is why, after she protests the hanging of the Biddle Boys (this is just a little nickname that I made up for them
) he suggests that she go away for a while to clear her head, to which she responds, `Go ahead and write to Elsie, or your mother, or wherever you want to send me.' Later, there is a fire in Ed Biddle's cell (the one she falls in love with), and Mrs. Soffel screams for the guards to come, and they drag him out of his cell barely saving his life. As they are dragging him away to the infirmary, Ed chokes to Mrs. Soffel, `You should have let me die,' to which she responds, `I won't.'
She's already made up her mind about what she's going to do.
The escape itself is wonderfully entertaining, even though clearly contrived. It's more than a little convenient that the prison is absolutely silent (apparently the Biddle Boys are the only prisoners in the entire place), and there is a nice booming sound anytime an approaching guard enters for a periodic walkthrough, slamming a heavy steel door on his way in and on his way out. They might as well have had a bell for the guard to ring to warn them anytime he was coming. He also runs his nightstick across the bars as he passes through one time (interrupting Ed's and Jack's frantic sawing), foreshadowing a discovery of their plan, although such a discovery never happens. But things like this do not take away much from the movie as a whole, because the important scenes work so well.
(spoilers) Just before the escape, Ed suggests to Mrs. Soffel that it might be helpful to them if they had guns, and she gets angry, refusing immediately to the request and, as she says, `You think you can sweet-talk me into anything!' forgetting that she is saying this to a prisoner through bars that he and his brother have been able to saw through, using saws that she provided for each of them. Evidently he CAN sweet-talk her into anything! It is also a wonderful scene when the warden is faced with the task of explaining where his wife is at a press conference concerning the escape of the Biddles.
Again, back to the fact that the movie doesn't take an immediately discernable standpoint on women's issues, it at the very least does not present flat characters. There is a scene after the escape where the movie introduces the possibility that she doesn't after all, want to go with them. Ed jumps off the train that they have hitched a ride on, and Mrs. Soffel is hesitant, first telling Jack to go first (hinting that she may just stay on the train and be rid of them forever once he jumps), but ultimately she goes with them, accepting her fate as she leaps from the moving train.
If the movie does not make a specific comment on women's role at the turn of the century, it most certainly does make a strong comment about the flaws of law enforcement. The film, as is to be expected, ends with the Biddles lying in snow soaked in their own blood and Mrs. Soffel in prison, but as the Biddles lie there dying, one of the men goes to fire the final shot to kill Ed but is stopped by a fellow officer, who puts his hand on the man's arm and says, `Leave him be, he can't hurt nobody no more.' Given the fact that the Biddles are likely innocent, the slow-motion panning shot of all of the heavily armed men who just gunned down a couple of young brothers fleeing for their freedom and their very lives makes you wonder who is really hurting who.
As a side note, I would also like to mention that this is one of those extremely valuable films that Mel Gibson made before the Lethal Weapon series turned him into a Rambo-style Hollywood badass, doomed to make one goofy action film after another, which vainly tries to capture the success of the excellent Lethal Weapon movies (which was, as all series' are, a diminishing one from the first film, although the rate of descent was not as precipitous as many other series I've seen, like Austin Powers) and, to a lesser extent, the Mad Max films. Another of his meaningful early films to check out is the staggering anti-war film Gallipoli, which stands with Mrs. Soffel as one of the most effective dramas he's ever made. Bravo.
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