Raggedy Man, Chariots of Fire, Cutter's Way
• The best films of the current season have been those dealing with some unambitious theme, some small segment of life, which, through compassionate and imaginative handling, is made to reverberate with larger implications than those specifically treated in the film itself. The latest example is RAGGEDY MAN. The background is World War II—which though it is never seen is never forgotten—from employees "frozen" in their jobs to the clothing and mores and music ("Rum and Coca Cola") of the period. It's a small, dull Texas town, and Sissy Spacek plays a divorced wife with two small children eking out a living as the lone operator of the town's telephone switchboard. Local rednecks try to prey upon her loneliness, but she repulses their advances; then by accident comes a sailor (Eric Roberts) on a three-day leave, whose life briefly joins hers and makes her come alive again. Other plot elements are interwoven as well, with several startling developments when one least expects them—such as the one (which will not be revealed here) giving significance to the title of the film.
What makes this film eminently worth seeing is a happy mix of elements: finely drawn characterizations, a clear and engrossing story line, and an unerring sense of the time and place, as exhibited in small, telling details, which the usual run of film makers would not have thought to include and which evoke in the viewer a strong upbeat feeling even after leaving the theater. Through it all we learn not only what it was like to be a civilian in the boondocks in 1944, but what it is like anywhere, anytime to be a single parent with children, to be lonely, to be fearful, and to be in love.
• In his exhortation to "Young Men of a New Age" (preface to Milton), William Blake wrote, in one stanza, "Bring me my chariot of fire." Much later Blake's poem was set to music, and the song has become famous in Britain; so the significance of the title, never mentioned in the film, would not be lost on Englishmen but on almost everyone else.
English or not, however, almost anyone can expect a very enjoyable experience from seeing CHARIOTS OF FIRE. Yet an outline of the subject would hardly inspire most people to see it: a historical record of the Paris Olympic Games of 1924, with two British track champions, Harry Abrahams and Eric Liddell, as the chief protagonists. Abrahams, the son of Lithuanian Jewish parents, but English to the core, races in order to succeed in the face of a residual anti-Semitism present in English society; Liddell, the son of a Scottish missionary to China, races in order to serve God. (In real life, he returned to China as a missionary shortly after the races and was killed by the Chinese communists in 1949.) The background of each of them is developed in revealing touches, and we get to know them both well before their paths cross halfway through the film.
In some works of art the parts are greater than the whole, the parts not meshing together or being subordinated to the whole design; in this one, however, the whole is greater than the parts. Each part, by itself modest and unambitious, contributes unfailingly to the whole effect and with never a hitch: "everything works." The atmosphere of post–World War I is recreated in deft touches, such as the sight of battle-scarred faces and a lingering contempt for those who did not serve. The script is excellent throughout, incisive without being arty or self-conscious: Abrahams's retort to the Cambridge headmasters when they accuse him of lacking team spirit is one of the picture's many literary gems. The characterizations too are faultless: there is Ben Cross as Abrahams—troubled, sensitive, articulate, determined, courageous; Ian Charleston as Liddell—devoutly religious, but never hypocritical or ostentatious, serene in his faith and the confidence it gives him, entering a race as a thank-offering to God; and Ian Holm as Abrahams's trainer—in what other film could the simple act of pushing his hand through a straw hat in celebration of victory draw applause from an audience? At last Britain has again produced a film that lingers in the memory, and is worthy of a wide international audience.
• Completed some months ago under the title of the book, Cutter and Bone, the film found no ready release and has now appeared in various art theaters under the title CUTTER'S WAY. Touted as the most-imaginative and best-directed film of the year, it nevertheless requires considerable staying power to enjoy it throughout. From afar off, as it were, one can appreciate some brilliance of dialogue and an occasional stab at the jugular in characterization. But the characters—well enough acted by Jeff Bridges, Lisa Eichhorn, and John Heard—still emerge primarily as sociological case histories.
There is a murder-mystery plot that is so tenuous that for whole stretches of the film nothing whatever develops in it and it almost becomes forgotten. The main plot has to do with interactions of the characters, who are not all that easy to empathize with: if one is imbued with the work-ethic, one quickly concludes that they are all consumers rather than producers and are always feeling sorry for themselves because they can't consume more. Perhaps the fact that one of them is a wounded war veteran is supposed to provide a justification for their lifestyles—at any rate, many people in the audience appear to side enthusiastically with them: when the veteran plows his uninsured car into a neighbor's, demolishing it, and leaves the neighbor to pay the bill, cheers arise from the audience. But then, much of the audience appears to consist also of nonproducing consumers grasping at any suggested justification for their way of life.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts was recently published by Prentice-Hall.