Sunday, March 9, 2008

Thunder Rock

My favorite cable channel, TCM (Turner Classic Movies), listed Thunder Rock (1942) the other day. Assuming it to be a western, a genre to which I'm not especially partial—with exceptions such as No Country for Old Men, I was about to click past it, when whom should I see on my screen in 1940s black and white but James Mason, a favorite, and Sir Michael Redgrave? He wasn't "sir" then, of course. Had never heard of this film at all, so turned to The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and to my Leonard Maltin guide. It's based on a play that I'd also never heard of, by Robert Ardrey, and concerns Charleston (Redgrave), a disillusioned author and newspaper correspondent in 1930s Europe who tries to convince his British editor of the world dangers that are fulminating in Spain, Italy, and Germany. His editor keeps pooh-poohing Charleston's warnings and prunes all of the essential meaning from his copy.

Charleston, in despair over his ineffectiveness, decamps to America and takes a job as, of all things, a lighthouse keeper on a rocky island in the middle of Lake Michigan. Yes, it is far-fetched, but those who are fond of the likes of Outward Bound or, more recently, The Sixth Sense, may be as intrigued as I was. We get to see dead people! Walking and talking!

Charleston's friend, played by Mason, arrives and tries to convince him that his self-imposed isolation from a world on the brink of war is a mistake and that he needs to continue his crusading stand, but Charleston drives him away. Mason actually has quite a small part and disappears about a quarter of the way into the film. 

There is a plaque on the wall of the lighthouse, commemorating the victims of a Great Lakes ferry that sank in 1849. As Charleston muses on this, a grizzled ship's captain makes an appearance, followed shortly by a poor British workman and his pregnant wife; a determined spinster headed for Salt Lake City; and a distinguished Viennese doctor, his wife, and his adult daughter played by a very young and beautiful Lilli Palmer. These are all the ghosts of some of the shipwreck victims, and Charleston has conjured them up in his mind. The poor workman has left several children with friends in Britain in hopes of making it to California—remember, it's now 1849—where he hopes to strike it rich. The spinster, who has spent time in prison in Britain for disturbing the peace in her crusade for women's rights, has resigned herself to entering into a polygamous marriage in Utah, merely for security. The doctor was ostracized in Vienna for using a powerful anesthetic to relieve the pain of a dying patient and may have been thought guilty of euthanasia. Thus, he had to get outta town.

Charleston gradually realizes that each of these disparate characters had given up instead of trying to soldier through and improve conditions at home. When his head clears, the ghosts have gone and he stands silhouetted against the waves breaking on the rocky island, wind blowing artistically through his hair, looking hopeful and heroic. We assume that he's going back to Britain to stir things up once again. It's possible that this film was directed to some extent at expatriate Britons or other Europeans who went to America when they realized that World War II was about to break out. People should not abandon their ideals or allegiances in the face of danger, although the Viennese doctor may have stood in for the Jews who were fortunate to get out of Austria and Germany at the end of the 1930s while escape was still possible. This, of course, was a different matter altogether; I'm not sure that the film intended this particular parallel. 
Anyway, for special tastes, this is a choice bit of 1940s British wartime moviemaking, worth a look. 

1 comment:

willowmanor said...

Redgrave and Mason are also among my favorites...also the time period. Thanks for the tip. Thunder Rock sounds like a "must see".

I can't live without TCM and that wonderful Robert Osborne.