Mesa Musings: Classics still deliver messages

I'm a fan of vintage films.

Classic movies, as an art form, teach us much about history and ourselves.

They're a priceless legacy, and are populated by writers, actors and directors who departed Earth years — even decades — ago.

The other day I watched the 1940 film "The Mortal Storm," starring Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Robert Young. It's been called one of the most explicitly anti-Nazi films produced by Hollywood during World War II.

The film, in fact, made Nazi officials so furious that it led to a banning of all MGM films in Germany — a lucrative market — during the war.

Academy Award-winning director Frank Borzage headed the project. Borzage directed many acclaimed films during his long career, and specialized in depicting young lovers in the face of adversity.

Set in a village in the Bavarian Alps in the early 1930s, the movie focuses on a family devastated by the rise of Nazism. The adopted sons of professor Victor Roth both become members of the Hitler Youth.

Roth is portrayed as "non-Aryan," though the film never explicitly identifies him as Jewish. His daughter, Freya (Sullavan), also "non-Aryan," breaks off her engagement with Fritz (Robert Young), who becomes a Nazi officer.

Freya falls in love with Martin (Stewart), an ardent anti-Nazi who's forced to flee to Austria. Victor Roth is arrested by the Gestapo and placed in a concentration camp. Freya is detained, but released. It's clear, however, that her re-arrest is imminent.

Martin makes a clandestine visit to Germany. The only hope for the young lovers is to ski over the Alps and into Austria (which has not yet been absorbed by Germany in the 1938 Anschluss). Fritz commands a unit charged with tracking them down before they cross the border.

Though conflicted, Fritz carries out the order. His marksmen shoot Freya from across the mountain as she and Martin ski just meters from the border. Martin picks up the fallen Freya and skis to freedom, but she dies in his arms just inside the Austrian frontier.

With the Alps as a backdrop, the film closes with a voice-over recitation of the following passage:

"I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'

"And he replied, 'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God; that shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!'"

I'd never heard the verse before and was moved by it.

It's a passage from Minnie Louise Harkins' inspirational poem, "At the Gate of the Year." Harkins, an American lecturer at the London School of Economics, lived from 1875 to 1957. The poem was published in 1908.

King George VI used the poem in his Christmas broadcast to the British Empire in 1939, three months after Germany's invasion of Poland, and six months prior to the fall of France. The words were later affixed to the gates of the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle, where the king is interred.

A modern website columnist, who loves the film, says of the poem: "Although there is a reference to God … the poem is secular in its message."

Really? I find it to be quite spiritual. Its verses render a transcendental champion, and conclude with the words:

"So I went forth and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

"He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone east. So, heart be still! What need our human life to know, if God hath comprehension?

"In all the dizzy strife of things both high and low, God hideth his intention."

The message? God guards our uncertain and unknowable futures. I doubt you'll find that sentiment expressed at the conclusion of a John Malkovich or Quentin Tarantino film, or any other contemporary work.

The very words would be quickly tagged "tiresome and banal."

But, 70 years after release of "The Mortal Storm," I find them refreshing. And more than a little uplifting!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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