Tuesday, September 09, 2008
Movie Review: Heavens Above!
John and Roy Boulting produced, wrote, and directed several of the finest British satires ever filmed. Incorporating clever social criticism, witty dialogue, and ever inventive premises, their films attracted top-notch talent--often the cream of the crop of UK cinema. Critically lauded and popular with audiences, the films of the Boulting Brothers proved time and time again that a modest budget was no roadblock to success. Like the Cohen Brothers that followed them, the Boultons used many of the same actors and actresses from film to film. Those who have seen two or three quickly pick up on the sight gags, running jokes, and director's trademarks that distinguish a Bolton Brothers movie from other movies of the period.
Heavens Above! was the third in a series of a ambitious trilogy which set its aim on major institutions in British society. The trilogy began with Private's Progress, a satire of the army, and was then followed by I'm All Right, Jack, which lampooned industry and trade unions. Heavens Above! is often considered to be the weakest of the three, largely the fault of its bizarre ending, which is silly, contrived, and altogether incongruous with the rest of the picture. It has been speculated that the Boultings simply ran out of ideas by its conclusion and couldn't come up with a suitable way of tying together loose ends. It's a real pity because the first hour and a half makes some remarkably philosophical, fully realized points that were obviously the product of much time and contemplation. Though the last few minutes render the film slightly flawed--one mustn't overlook the flashes of genius which are more applicable to today then they were forty-five years ago when the film was first shown to audiences.
While Heavens Above! was written primarily as a satire of the church, its screenplay incorporates some very blunt criticisms of materialism and consumer culture. A businessman, curtly dismisses the plea of a client who appeals to his sense of fairness and propriety. "There are no gentleman in business," he snaps. Even harsher are the wholesale condemnations of class conflict, congregational snootiness, and elitist attitudes. Vicar John Smallwood (Peter Sellers) upbraids his new parish, accusing them all of not being genuine Christians and living lives of spiritual flabbiness--totally unwilling to secure their own salvation in heaven due to their selfishness, laziness, and all around complacency. Through following the life of and the works of Smallwood, the focus of the film's most deliberately scathing commentary focuses squarely on the church itself for being just as asleep at the wheel and immobilized by inefficiency as its members. The Church of England's lethal combination of incompetent bureaucracy and marked hypocrisy constantly negates the very doctrinal mandates it preaches from the pulpit. The unassuming and unprepossessing Vicar Smallwood, by contrast, lives his life unashamed of what his superiors might think, speaks his mind no matter the consequences, and stands in great contrast as an example of a religious leader who walks the walk and talks the talk, too.
Though admirable in many ways, Smallwood's excessive piety and blind trust in the inherent goodness of mankind does lead him to make a major mistake. By taking into his pastoral residence a large, poor gypsy family used to making its living by unscrupulous means, Smallwood invites the scorn of his neighbors, influential members of his congregation, and his own superiors. The father of the family is a con artist, despised as little more than vermin by the locals, yet the Vicar's singular desire to reform the man's children, baptize the unconverted, and teach Christianity to the vulgar bunch of hooligans blinds him to the fact that they do not respect his hospitality, exploit his good nature, take every opportunity to steal, and run a variety of scams behind his back.
The idealistic Smallwood entices a rich widow in his parish to forsake her fortune for heavenly riches. Her substantial wealth is tied up in a company which manufactures a laxative advertised as a curative for all ills, which also happens to be the town's largest employer. After being accused by the vicar of caring more for the health of her earthly life than the status of her soul in the afterlife, the chastened woman decides to devote her share in the business to provide free food at market for all who would wish to have it. While at first the effort is perceived as an exercise in generosity, the combined efforts of the experiment in Christian charity drive the local grocery and butcher to the brink of bankruptcy. In addition, and with the purest of intentions, Vicar Smallwood uses a well-attended sermon as an opportunity to condemn the feel-good pill produced by the local factory as little more than a cheap replacement for the role of God in the daily lives of the populace. Smallwood's rhetoric becomes picked up by the press, distorted by hyperbole, and transformed into a major media sensation.
The resulting fallout causes the sales of the pill to drop dramatically, giving the company no other choice but to drastically reduce its workforce, laying off employees left and right. This in turn causes unemployment to rise as high as sixty percent in the town, giving rise to angry demonstrations in the street, a few choice bigoted remarks, and several open public displays of violence. Having no choice but to intervene, else this novel concept catch on across the country and bankrupt the entire nation, the British government insists that Vicar Smallwood be removed from his post and moved elsewhere. The widow ceases to furnish the good free of charge and the company is saved by a judicious name change.
The movie's most shocking declaration posits that if every person changed his or her lifestyle and in doing so underwent a religious conversion, living directly according to the purest wishes of Jesus Christ, the world would go broke. One can easily understand how genuine altruism combined with the demise of individual desire for profit and material gain could easily bankrupt the economic workings of the free market system if adopted wholesale. While the practice advanced by the rich woman is rooted upon the noblest of intentions, quickly the all-too-human tendency to take advantage of naive generosity rears its ugly head. A cautionary tale, Heavens Above! warns us the audience to be neither too trusting, nor too kind towards those who would take the selfless help of others and use it to serve their their own selfish gain.
I sincerely wish that Christian conservatives who advocate no separation whatsoever between the church and the state could see this film; incorporating religion into commerce proves to be an ruinous economic disaster. Those espousing a conception of Jesus as stodgy conservative fixture might do well to contemplate that the pure ideal of the religion they hold dear is, at its core, radically socialistic. Moreover, Heavens Above! argues that the role of religion for an individual is beneficial, but that if religion were adopted wholesale by everyone it would eviscerate the societal framework, plunging the entire planet into utter turmoil. The separate spheres of secular and religious in combination are not just deeply destructive, they are wholly incompatible with each other.