Tomorrow on TCM: A New Old Patriotic Classic by a Foreigner
Tomorrow on TCM at 1:30pm (EST), a screening of the 1959 film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple. I’ve seen this movie a couple of times now (after having read the play in my youth) and for me it is becoming something like a patriotic classic, a 4th of July equivalent to a Christmas film.
There are a surprisingly few popular films on the topic of the American Revolution. One theory as to why that is, is that through the bulk of the 20th century, we were extremely close allies of Great Britain. The two World Wars and the Cold War would have been extremely undiplomatic times to make screen villains out of the British. Our best Independence Day film 1776 is about the struggle to write the Declaration of Independence — there are no onscreen English villains. Mel Gibson’s and Roland Emmerich’s 2000 The Patriot overdoes it — the villains are as bad or worse than Nazis. I find it unwatchably brutal and unrealistic. D.W. Griffith’s America (1924) is a good one (note that it came out in that pocket between the World Wars) but it is silent, and sad to say, the audience for such films remains small in 2016. Disney’s Johnny Tremain (1943) is a good one. But you get the point — it’s slim pickings.
Shaw’s 1897 play (his first financial success) is in some ways perfect, in some ways not. Though it’s produced by Burt Lancaster’s production company as a starring vehicle for himself (and co-stars Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier), the real star of the movie (as it is in most Shaw scripts) is Shaw himself. Douglas (as the dashing and heroic titular ne’er-do-well), and Lancaster (as the reverend who too takes up arms against the British) somehow get oddly swallowed up in their own movie. They are doing their usual great jobs in every single way…but somehow, I can’t explain it, they aren’t “there”. The script is not written for them, they are serving the script, a highly unusual spectacle where two such major stars are concerned, and one that reflects positively on them. They’re not there to serve their egos but to serve the script.
Olivier, as General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne comes off best, though his role is smaller, it may be one of his best screen performances. The character is Shaw’s usual stand-in, a droll and wise mouthpiece, and it is through his eyes — in true Shavian perversity — we ironically hear the most patriotic American sentiments expressed. You might call it “Sympathy for the Redcoat”. In fact, it’s so warm and fuzzy that all the publicity photos make it look like the men are all fighting on the same side!
The Irish-British Shaw has devised his two American heroes with a true romantic understanding of our national character: Douglas is the hero as rogue and pirate, a true American type (I always think of Bogart in Casablanca, a cynic who claims to care only about making money by selling drinks, who always does the right thing when push comes to shove). And Lancaster — the religious zealot who also steps out of character to join the cause. And both characters risk everything in order to do so. It’s made me weepy both times I’ve seen it.
One other reason to see it — theatre legend Eva La Gallienne is in the cast, as the hilariously named “Mrs. Dudgeon.”
Why isn’t this picture better known? I can’t say, although the title The Devil’s Disciple isn’t the best in terms of marketing this as a story about American patriotism. It’ll of course mean something to Shaw fans but to everyone else I’m sure it sounds like a horror picture. It ain’t.