Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Great Expectations (1946)

     I’ve talked a couple times on this blog about movie director John Ford, known for making a lot of Western and war films. All his films, whether in black-in-white or in color, were beautifully shot to encompass not only the scenery of wherever the movie took place, which ranged from Monument Valley to the hills of Ireland, but also to display an ensemble cast with powerful emotions from each actor. But Ford wasn’t the only director to shoot his films like this. Another director who shot his films very well was a British filmmaker named David Lean, who is known for creating grand-scale epics such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”. But before he was making those grand-scale epics, he was making small, black-and-white films, many of which were based on works by Charles Dickens. “Great Expectations” is known as the best of these films.

     “Great Expectations” could be called the grandfather of films that focus all on one life, in the same way that “Forrest Gump” or “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” have done in the last twenty years. “Great Expectations”, which I assume follows Dickens’ novel very closely, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t read it yet myself, follows the life of young Phillip Pirrip, an orphan in Britain living with his older sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). At the beginning of the film, Phillip introduces himself as “Pip”, a name that he referred to himself as a small child when he couldn’t pronounce large words and which stuck even into adulthood. But we first see Pip as a child, played by Tony Wager, visiting his parents’ gravesite when suddenly a convict named Magwitch (Finlay Currie) comes up to him and threatens him to give him something to eat. Pip gets a cake from the house and eventually gets him back to him, who eats it very thankfully. Later, however, he and another convict are found and are captured back by the authorities. Pip almost forgets about this incident until much later in his life.

     But until then, Pip is called by Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), a broken-hearted old woman who lives in the attic of her huge mansion with all her windows covered by wood—she hasn’t seen sunlight in years. With her lives Estella, played as a child by Jean Simmons, a beautiful teenage girl who Miss Havisham wants Pip to play with and be friends with. Pip is content at Miss Havisham’s lavish house but does find Estella somewhat mean. Then, one day, he seems to earn her respect: he and another boy hiding in a tree have a friendly fight, which Pip wins easily. Pip almost forgets about this incident until much later in his life.

     But one day, Pip stops going to Miss Havisham’s house to start his apprenticeship with his uncle, at the same time that Estella goes away to the city, to learn to become a lady. But six years later, all these events that Pip saw as a child come back to reward him: one day, a man named Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), who happens to be Miss Lavisham’s lawyer, tells Pip that an unnamed patron has left Pip with a huge sum of money and an opportunity to live in London. Pip accepts, with the huge support of Joe Gargery and his wife Biddy (Eileen Erskine), whom Joe married after Pip’s sister passed away. And Pip moves in to stay with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), who happens to be the boy he fought with many years before. They become great friends, and Herbert starts teaching Pip the ways of a gentlemen. Pip also runs into a grown-up Estella (Valerie Hobson), who has become a lady but has a habit of flirting with many men, even those she isn’t interested in. Soon, Pip becomes discomforted. One day, after Joe comes to visit him and the visit turns out to be very awkward, Pip’s narration confesses: “Let me confess that if I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money. In trying to become a gentleman, I had succeeded in becoming a snob. …All that day, Joe’s simple dignity filled me with reproach.

     Then one night, everything changes. Pip had always assumed that Miss Havisham was his patron. But she wasn’t: it was Abel Magwitch, who made money in Australia and stayed there so he wasn’t caught in England and hanged. Now, he has come back to see Pip, and Pip decides to take him back to Australia, so that another convict looking for him—the other one from the beginning of the film—will not find him. And as Pip and Herbert start rowing Magwitch to safety, Magwitch reveals why he gave Pip a future of what everyone called “great expectations”: Pip reminded him of his daughter, about Pip’s age, who was lost from him when she was very young.

     But to make a long story short, I have to wrap this up now. Pip makes the connection that Magwitch’s daughter is Estella, who has inherited Miss Havisham’s mansion after her tragic death. Pip tells Magwitch this on the boat before he dies of sickness, in peace. Estella was engaged, but her lover broke it off after Mr. Jaggers told her who her father was, and now she lives alone in the mansion attic, with the windows still boarded up. So Pip goes to visit her, and when he finds out that she plans to share Miss Havisham’s fate, he is appalled. And in an incredible ending, he tears down the window curtains, breaks down the wooden boards, and lets sunlight into that room for the first time in years.

PIP: Estella, you must leave this house. It's a dead house; nothing can live here. Leave it, Estella, I beg of you.

ESTELLA: What do you mean? This is the house where I grew up. It's... it's part of me! It's my home.

PIP: It's Miss Havisham's home! But she's gone, Estella, gone from this house, from you, from both of us.

ESTELLA: She is not gone. She's still here with me in this house, in this very room.

PIP: Then I defy her! ...Look, Estella, look! Nothing but dust and decay! I’ve never ceased to love you, even when there seemed no hope for my love. You’re part of my existence, part of myself. Estella, come with me, out into the sunlight. 

     And as they embrace, the two of them leave the mansion happily, with great expectations for the future. Now, I know that this is a lot of information about one movie, but I think that’s the reason why “Great Expectations” is such an excellent film. It tells the story of a life so well, and it’s also an example of how if you do good things early on, they will be rewarded later on, even if it takes time. But the greatest lesson from the film is to not let life fly by, and not to live in the dark. God calls us to live life to the fullest. Jesus himself says in John 10:10, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

     The Apostle Paul compares it in the New Testament to running a race: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” (1 Corinthians 9:24, 26) Paul says to live life to serve the Lord in everything you do: as a Christian, I can’t be running aimlessly! I need to serve God to the best of my abilities in every area of my life. Paul also writes in 2 Timothy what he wants to be able to say after a life of serving the Lord: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (4:7)

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you won’t live your life alone in the darkness, but that you would be a child of the Light, living for Jesus in every area of your life and serving Him in everything you do.

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