30 Greatest Movies of All Time – Pt. 3 – #21 through #30
Well, here we are at the home stretch! These three last posts have been the most difficult I have ever written. This was hard! What I mean by that is it was hard to narrow it down to just 30 movies. There are so many movies that I would like to have in my top 30, but they are not here! These other 30 just got in the way!
You may wonder why I started with my top ten and then went to the next ten and the next ten instead of going the other way around. This happened by accident. I was planning on just giving my top ten movies in one post, but I couldn’t stand to leave so many movies out so my top ten became twenty, and then eventually thirty!
At any rate, here we go:
21. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Another Frank Capra Classic that you simply cannot miss if you are human! In 1939 it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, but only won 1 (Best Writing, Original Story). But remember folks, this was one of the greatest movie years of all time with Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz stealing seven of the ten! But I still say Jimmy Stewart got robbed for best actor by Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips)!
At any rate, Jimmy Stewart plays a young, morally upstanding, idealistic, but a bit naïve “Jefferson Smith” from an unnamed mid-western state where its (corrupt) Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper (played by Guy Kibbee) has to pick a replacement for one of the state’s Senators, “Sam Foley,” who had just recently died. Enter the man behind the curtain, Jim Taylor, played to chilling perfection by Edward Arnold. He not only owns the most powerful newspaper in the state, but we find out he has bought and paid for the governor, senators, and much more in order to ensure he consolidates all power and influence with his own financial and even political ambitions in mind.
Taylor pressures the governor to choose a hand-picked “stooge” – Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) – who is hugely popular with young people in his state (as head of the “Boy Rangers”), but is seen by Taylor to be a country bumpkin whom Taylor thinks will be easy to manipulate during what would be expected to be a very short and uneventful tenure in the Senate. Taylor just needs someone who will keep quiet and not interfere with any of his on-going corrupt ventures using the political influence he owns.
And so the governor obliges. Jefferson Smith becomes Junior Senator Jefferson Smith.
Jefferson Smith is overwhelmed and a bit intimidated at the thought of being a Senator, but his love of country, brought out beautifully when “Jeff” takes a personal and unplanned tour of Washington D.C. upon his arrival. Gazing at the statues of Lincoln and Jefferson, and seeing “the dome” of the Capital for the first time, Senator Smith is champing at the bit to get started, but he doesn’t have any idea of just how to do it!
Much to his relief, “Junior Senator Smith” was to be mentored by his state’s “Senior Senator Joseph Paine” (played to perfection by Claude Rains, of “Casablanca” fame). Paine had been a friend of Jefferson Smith’s own father. In fact, they came to the Senate together and fought many fights together before the elder “Mr. Smith” was killed in what appeared to be a hit – shot in the back at his desk at work. Paine and Smith were famous way back when of fighting for “the little guy” and against the corrupt establishment.
Painfully, we discover that Senator Paine had become corrupt after the loss of his friend the elder Smith and was owned by Taylor. His days of championing what he and Jeff’s father used to call “hopeless causes” were long gone. Now, he mostly did Taylor’s business for kickbacks. But he doesn’t want Senator Smith to discover the corrupt side of Washington so he suggests the good Senator propose a bill. And so Senator Smith does. He proposes a bill to authorize funds by way of a loan to buy sufficient land in his home state to build a camp for boys that would be paid for by the boys themselves. And it would be open to boys all over the United States.
Here’s where the fun begins. The land Senator Smith determines to be ideal for his camp just happens to be land already set aside for a dam and graft scheme for Taylor and his machine that was not quite ready to go public yet, but Senator Smith’s plans would throw a wrench into the entire scheme. Or worse, it might shine a spotlight on the illegalities that had already begun in order to bring the scheme to fruition.
Senator Paine tries everything he can to keep from having to crush Smith’s dream, even trying to back out of the graft scheme with Taylor, but he is pulled back into the mix a la Vito Corleone with threats from Taylor. “Painfully,” (Senator “Paine” is a perfect moniker for this corrupt politician), Senator Paine stands up on the floor of the Senate and accuses Senator Jefferson Smith of corruption, claiming Senator Smith already owned the land on which his “camp” would be built, thus accusing him of corruption. And the Taylor machine has already gone before to produce phony evidence up to and including a forged bill of sale.
Smith is crushed! He doesn’t understand the entirety of the situation, but he now knows that his idol and mentor – friend of his father – is corrupt. He leaves the building and plans on running away and going back home.
Enter Senator Jefferson Smith’s assistant played wonderfully by Jean Arthur, “Clarissa Saunders.” She’s been around a while in Washington and she has seen the corruption firsthand. And it has caused her to become jaded. But seeing Jefferson Smith at work had served to restore her faith in humanity and in what just one person may be able to do if he would only be willing to stand up against the corruption with integrity (the Capra touch!). She encourages him to stand up and fight. And he does!
In what becomes one of the most famous scenes in motion picture history, Saunders convinces Senator Smith to launch a filibuster (after teaching him what a filibuster is, and how to accomplish it!), that would postpone the appropriations bill and give Smith time to prove his innocence.
I won’t give away the ending for those who haven’t seen it (like I have with most of my movies in my last two posts… Sorry!). But the Taylor/Paine machine throws everything at Smith and it appears all is lost. Smith is “crucified” on the Senate floor (the Capra touch, once again), only to rise from the dead… well… you’ll have to see it to see an ending that is one of the most glorious to ever come out of Hollywood!
It’ll restore your faith in God’s providence and the goodness of humanity, if you’ve lost it! If you haven’t, it will have you ready to go out and fight the good fight for truth, justice… and all that is good!
22. Saving Private Ryan
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards in 1998, winning five of them, this epic war movie, set during the time of the Normandy Invasion of the allies in WWII, tells a story of courage and virtue that is truly timeless. Warning! The opening 27 minutes are not for the faint of heart! In fact, it’s brutal depiction of war may be a bit over the top at times, but it certainly achieved the obvious intentions of director, Steven Spielberg, and writer, Robert Rodat. It is one of the most realist depictions of war in motion picture history.
The picture follows United States Army Ranger Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and a squad of Rangers played about as well as you will ever see acted in any war movie past or present as they search for a paratrooper, “Private James Francis Ryan,” who is the last surviving brother of four servicemen. His three brothers had been KIA. In light of the loss of the five Sullivan brothers (yes, the same Sullivans from my #18, “The Fighting Sullivans”) who died together when the USS Juneau, aboard which they were serving together as sailors, was sunk Nov. 13, 1942, the United States Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, decides to make sure the “Ryans” did not become another case like the “Sullivans.”
There are just too many remarkable performances in this film to talk about all of them, but Tom Hanks (Captain John Miller) is brilliant as a former school teacher, now Captain in the Army, placed in charge of this unit of Rangers tasked with finding and “saving Private Ryan.” Captain Miller is anything but a war monger. He is a simple and naturally virtuous man whose motivation to do all that he does is basically threefold. First and foremost, he just wants to live to get home to his wife. And there is profound sense of truth, beauty, and goodness in this most basic and loving drive to Captain Miller. But then we also discover he has a deep sense of purpose and duty that drives him to do all he can to fulfill his mission and take care of his men. Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, and Jeremy Davies all perform amazingly well as members of the squad, many of whom make the ultimate sacrifice (including Captain Miller himself who is KIA) in their quest to save Private Ryan, but of particular note is Tom Sizemore (Sargeant Mike Horvath), Captain Miller’s right hand man who serves as the Captain’s NCO and voice for the Captain to his men, and his men to the Captain. And Barry Pepper who plays a devout Christian and sharpshooter who quite powerfully brings together his faith and military service. Check it out and you’ll see what I mean!
But to me the most powerful and memorable scene in the entire movie comes at the end when the scene is set in modern times. Private Ryan, now elderly, brings his family to visit the “Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial” and they discover Captain Miller’s grave. It is a powerful moment. Mindful, no doubt, of Captain Miller’s dying words to him all those decades before: “James… earn this. Earn it!” Ryan then snaps to attention and salutes, expressing an overwhelming sense of appreciation and gratitude for the sacrifices those 8 men made to save his life during the war. He then turns to his wife and with tears in his eyes he pleads with her: “Am I a good man?” She looks at him puzzled, but he then insists that she answer the question. “Am I a good man?” And she says, “Of course you are.”
He simply had to hear from his wife that he had honored the dying wishes of his commander and friend, Captain John Miller.
And get a hanky or two ready!
23. Cool Hand Luke
Nominated for 4 Academy Awards in 1967, “Cool Hand Luke” won one Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (George Kennedy, who played “Dragline”). Paul Newman was nominated for Best Actor and should have won, but… so it goes.
Warning! There is one very unnecessary scene that your “Clear Play” or any filtering system should take care of. When the prisoners are out on a chain gang, a very busty woman washes a car in plain sight of the men, scantily clad, in order to drive the men crazy on the chain gang. Other than that, we have a truly wonderful story and movie here.
Set in the late 1940’s, or perhaps early 50’s, “Cool Hand Luke” is Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman), a decorated war veteran (WWII), who in the beginning of the movie is seen drunk and cutting the tops off of parking meters in the middle of the night, seemingly inviting the police to come and arrest him. Or, at the very least, he seemed not to care. There is no attempt to either hide as he was cutting or to run when a police car pulls up. He is sent to a Florida prison for two years.
The prison is run by a brutal warden, “the Captain” (Strother Martin), and a seemingly emotionless monster (and sharpshooter) as “Walking Boss Godfrey” (Morgan Woodward). The “walking boss” is the guy who would watch over the prisoners when they were out on chain gains and he would shoot any who might attempt to escape. His eyes are always covered by mirrored sunglasses. And then you had “Carr” (Clifton James) who was the “floorwalker,” or the guy to tells the rules to the new inmates and would happily send any violators to the horrid “box.” The Director Stuart Rosenberg did a great job in moving the audience (he so moved me anyway!) to despise these monsters who were in charge of the prison!
From the start, Luke seems not to fit into any category. And that becomes what is truly good, beautiful, and profoundly true about Cool Hand Luke. He is the non-conformist who does not fall in line where there is a desperate need for someone to be a non-conformist who does not fall in line!
The punishments Luke receives seem to always far outweigh the “crimes,” which were often not “crimes” at all. His real “crime” seems to be his non-conformity that often ended up revealing the hypocrisy of the status quo. Thus, the extraordinary punishments were more to shut him up than to really punish a misdeed.
The reason why he went to prison in the first place was a misdemeanor. From what we know of Luke Jackson, he just didn’t like the idea of having to pay to park somewhere! He just doesn’t conform to often arbitrary “rules.” Then, he doesn’t obey, or at least stretches, the prison rules seemingly whenever he can. But in the process, as I said above, he tends to expose how arbitrary, and often unjust these “rules” truly are.
In fact, he escapes from prison three times. But to give you a sense of how this “breaking of the rules” is not something truly deleterious, one of the times he escaped, it was only after he learned of the death of his mother, and after the prison guards placed him in “the box” until after his mother was buried out of a fear that he would attempt to escape. Not exactly the best way to allow a person to mourn, eh?
Earlier in the movie, his mother who was then dying of emphysema, came to visit him in prison. She was an obvious “non-conformist” herself – chain smoking as she was dying – like mother like son. But one could sense Luke really did love his mother, though it was, let us say, not expressed in the most conventional of ways.
But at any rate, the escape attempts are more than just understandable when you consider “the box” and the other horrible and unjust things that were going on in that prison. And the box, just so you know, was “a box” to be sure. With little room to move, little air to breath, no way to bath or relieve oneself with any sense of dignity, and very little food to eat. The treatment of the prisoners in general was unjust. “Cool Hand Luke” was exposing this injustice in a powerful way. But this exposure led to unbelievably brutal treatment, ultimately, to beat down this one man who was willing to stand up to the inhumanity of it all.
And yet, there is more to the story than Luke just exposing hypocrisy. Luke’s attempts at resisting got him punishments so brutal that they would have broken just about anybody… except Luke! Most would simply “give in” in order to “get along.” But not Luke! Cool Hand Luke was indomitable. And what was particularly enraging to the powers that be was his sense of humor through it all. They would beat him, and abuse him in ways unthinkable, and yet he would come up smiling! Oh, that smile! It drove them crazy! But it served as a source of hope to those who were also experiencing the brutality and injustice of “the system!”
“The establishment” was not just the guards and powers that be who were in charge of the prison. Luke also refuses to obey the established pecking order in the prison and among the prisoners themselves. And this got him into trouble as well, a la a fight with the leader among the cons, “Dragline,” played by George Kennedy. Dragline was enormous, much larger and stronger than Luke. Thus, in the fight, Dragline simply pommeled poor Luke. But here is where you really see the core of “Cool Hand Luke.” He keeps getting up! No matter how many times Dragline knocks him down, he just keeps getting up and even swinging back, though ever more feebly as the beating would drag on and on. In the end, it would be Luke’s tenacity – his refusal to give up – that would earn him the respect of Dragline and the rest of the prisoners. In fact, Luke would become a hero, or really an anti-hero, because he never wanted to be a hero at all, to all those around him who experience similar injustices. They could see a sense of hope for them in this odd man who just could not be broken!
There is a great and dramatic scene after his second escape, when Luke is re-captured and brought back to the prison and beaten into submission that becomes the most important of the entire film. The guards make Luke dig a deep ditch, and then re-fill it, and then beat him, and then make him dig the ditch again, and re-fill it, and then beat him, over and over again until he is “broken.” Or, at least, so it seems. And Luke himself does later say that he was truly broken, at least, for a time, through this brutal series of humiliations and beatings that lasted for hour upon hour. And all of this occurs, mind you, in front of all of the other inmates who had idolized “Cool Hand Luke” because of his nonconformist ways and because the “system” could not break him. It would be after being “broken” in front of all of the other inmates, that the warden and guards truly thought they had “won.” They even further humiliated Luke in front of the inmates in order to ensure they would be completely demoralized when the guards began to use Luke as a “trustee” to do their bidding. That was the ultimate expression of complete domination. And it was precisely at that point when the inmates lost faith in Luke, no longer idolizing him as they once did. At this point, you could see how the sense of joy Luke brought to the prisoners with his spirit of resisting the establishment, ebbed away.
One cannot help but notice the Christ parallel here. And this was not lost to the makers of “Cool Hand Luke” either. Keep your eyes open for the Christ parallels placed into the movie by its makers. Very cool! I’ll say no more!
At any rate, it was just when you are wondering whether Luke really was broken, and for good, that Luke uses his status as a trustee to steal a truck from the prison and escape yet again! And this time, Dragline decides to go with him!
Joy returns to the prison!
After the escape, Luke and Dragline decide it best to separate and go their separate ways. Luke finds a church and has a dramatic conversation with God about his situation and that conversation is quite profound! I’ll leave that to you to watch and ponder. Dragline is quickly re-captured and then enlisted by the authorities to convince Luke to give himself up. And this sets up the final and climactic scene of the movie.
The Church is surrounded. Dragline is sent in to encourage Luke to give himself up. But Luke would be defiant to the end. Luke walks over to a window of the Church and begins by recounting a famous line from the warden himself (we first hear it at the very beginning of the movie) in a mocking way, and with that characteristic smile on his face, “What we have here is a failure to communicate…” and the warden then orders Godfrey to shoot. And Godfrey doesn’t miss. He never misses. He shoots Luke in the neck. And down he goes.
Luke is bleeding badly, but conscious. And the warden wants to ensure his demise so he orders him to be taken not to a closer hospital with most likely better facilities, but he orders Luke to be taken to the prison hospital much further away. But there are two really cool things that happen in the final part of the movie that you want to note.
- Just before the ambulance pulls away, you see Luke turn his head and smile with his big, bright, and what became a defiant smile. To the end, Luke is never broken!
- Back at the prison, and sometime later, after Luke’s implied death, Dragline is telling stories and you see a photo of Luke he had sent to the inmates after one of his escapes prominently displayed, symbolic of the fact that Luke’s status as hero and idol was not only restored, but his inspiration continues – and is perhaps even more effective – even after his death.
Inspiration more effectual after his death? Sound familiar?
This movie is truly brilliant and on many levels. A Japanese film, directed by Yojiro Takita, and written by Kundo Koyama, “Departures” won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 2008.
Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki) is a master cellist in an orchestra that loses its funding leaving him unemployed. He cannot bring himself to tell his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), so he pretends he is still working while he desperately seeks a new job. He answers a want ad in a newspaper with the simple heading of “Departures” thinking that it would be a job offer for an airline or travel agency or something like that. He discovers it is actually an ad for becoming a “Nokanshi” or one who prepares the dead for burial.
There is a taboo in Japanese culture about having anything to do with the dead so he immediately rejects the offer. But a combination of desperation for work and meeting the man who placed the ad, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) would change everything. Sasaki, an old sage who has been performing what we discover to be a truly sacred work of preparing the dead for burial (and helping the family of dead as well to deal with the reality that is death), has grown through his experiences into a spiritual giant, but very much grounded in reality. His knowledge of and acceptance of death has created in him a profound love for and understanding of life.
Sasaki places the ad to find a successor to whom he can communicate his knowledge and expertise as he knows his time to step down is approaching. And even though Kobayashi at first rejects the offer, upon discovery of the nature of the offer, Sasaki seems to know that Kobayashi is “the one.” Sasaki has a wonderful and mystical quality about him that would draw Kobayashi in, even though Kobayashi seems to be a very reluctant participant in the whole affair. At least at first.
This movie employs comedy (there are a few scenes are really hilarious!), drama, and a multi-layered story-line that will have you riveted throughout. But ultimately, the message of the movie is you really cannot experience the fullness of life until you confront, accept, and reverence death. It is a profoundly spiritual movie that is respectful of religion (including the Catholic Faith, by the way, but you have to see the movie to see just how!), and the dignity of the human person. It is truly a message for our time.
You will want to keep an eye on how Kobayashi is reluctantly, but gradually, drawn to both the old sage, Sasaki himself, and to the work itself that would ultimately transform his life and transform him into not only the successor of Sasaki, but into a sage himself. He will begin to take on and grow into the wisdom and depth of his mentor/master through his growing in an understanding and appreciation of the sacred nature of the work.
It is truly wonderful to watch and see how Kobayashi moves from being absolutely repulsed (in his very first job he has to deal with a dead body that was partially decomposed and would cause him to vomit and almost quit at the very start!), not really wanting to do the job at all, and just trying to get through it for a paycheck, to seeing the truth and beauty about what it is that this work is about. In confronting the truth about death and the dignity of the human person, Kobayashi discovers in a profound way the truth, beauty, and goodness of life itself! And like his mentor, who has a way of helping people not so much with words as with his reverence for each and every person with whom he interacts (living or dead!), Kobayashi begins to do the same, with beautiful and profound results! Beautiful, folks!
I guarantee you; You will love this movie!
25. The Count of Monte Cristo
In 2002, Jim Caviezel, starred in this that is an absolute gem, yet largely unknown. It was not nominated for a single Academy Award, which I find absolutely astonishing. Caviezel performs off the charts as Edmond Dantes, the Second Mate of a French merchant ship. He and his supposed “best friend,” Fernand Mondego, played to perfection by Guy Pearce, also a member of the crew of the ship, representing the shipping company, are forced to seek medical help for their captain by anchoring at the island of Elba. Unbeknownst to them, this was the island to which Napoleon Bonaparte (Alex Norton) had been exiled. And this almost cost them their lives when the exiled emperor’s guards attacked them upon landing. It would be Napoleon himself who would call off his guards… and we would later find out just why.
Napoleon agrees to allow for the use of his own doctor if Edmond would agree to deliver what Napoleon calls a “personal” and innocuous letter to a “Monsieur Clarion.” And so he does.
Back in Marseille, Edmond was rewarded for his bravery in attempting to save his captain and was promoted to captain which would mean enough of a pay increase that he could then marry his beloved, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), whom we discover Fernand also “loves” (though it would be more accurate to say he “lusts” for her).
Fernand is rabidly jealous and ends up informing the city’s Magistrate Villefort (James Frain) that Edmond had taken the letter from Napoleon, an enemy of the state, bringing about the arrest of Edmond shortly after he had asked Mercedes to marry him and she had accepted. The greatest day of Edmond’s life became his worst.
The letter, we discover, was written to Villefort’s own father, “Colonel Villefort” (Freddie Jones), who was part of a conspiracy to bring Napoleon back to power. He was “Monsieur Clarion.” This would make this letter a matter of treason. Villefort could not have this come to light. Even though it was obvious Edmond had been deceived by Napoleon and told that it was just a personal letter, and Villefort was going to release him, once Villefort discovered his own father was involved in the treason, which could eventually involve him in the mess as well, he promptly burns the letter to get rid of the evidence and has Edmond sent to the “Chateau d’If,” a notorious and absolutely brutal prison created just for political prisoners like Edmond had become.
Edmond actually escapes briefly and runs to his “friend” Fernand for help, and, painfully, Fernand betrays him and turns him over to the authorities. Edmond is devastated. “Why?” he exclaims as he is taken away. The “why,” of course, is Fernand’s lust for Mercedes.
In an interesting twist of plot, Villefort agrees to send word to Mercedes that Edmond has been executed (so that Fernand could sweep in, come to her “aid” and seduce her) in exchange for Fernand assassinating Villefort’s father to get him out of the picture. Edmond is then sent to the island prison and into the sadistic control of its monstrous warden, Armmand Dorleac (Michael Wincott).
Edmond nearly loses his mind because of the isolation and brutality of prison life until he happens to meet another political prisoner, Fr. Faria, who had been in prison for 11 years for refusing to reveal to Napoleon the location of “the treasure of Spada.” He was digging an escape tunnel and accidentally came up into Edmond’s cell rather than outside of the prison.
It is this devout priest who ends up “saving” Edmond in more ways than one. He helps Edmond to 1. Figure out the truth (at least in part) about why he was in prison. They deduce together the motives of the key players involved. 2. Faria teaches the illiterate Edmond to read and to study liberal arts, the classics, the Bible, and the Catholic Faith, as he was permitted to have his books in his cell because he was a priest. 3. He educates Edmond in “the arts of war,” sword fighting, etc. 4. They begin to dig together to escape the prison.
Even though they do get close to reaching freedom through digging, the tunnel ends up collapsing on the good Padre, but before he died he told Edmond where the treasure of Spada lay hidden. Father urges Edmond to use the treasure for good if he should escape, but against Fr. Faria’s wishes, Edmond vows revenge. And revenge he would seek to be sure.
In a daring attempt at escape, after “the priest” dies, Edmond switches himself for the priest’s body in the body bad when the guards come to get it to throw the priest’s corps off the chateau and into the ocean. In his first act of revenge that would come to dominate Edmond’s entire being in the coming years, he pulls Dorleac with him into the ocean. He kills Dorleac and escapes to a small island where he meets a band of pirates who were preparing to execute one of their own, Jacopo (played marvelously by Luis Guzman).
When the pirates discover Edmond running and jumping up and down on the beach, the leader of the pirates, Luigi Vampa (J.B. Blanc), pause from their plans of executing Jacopo and decide to force Edmond and Jacopo to fight to the death for entertainment’s sake. The winner could continue with the pirates and live. Edmond wins the fight due to the training he received from “the priest,” but decides to spare Jacopo who swears himself to be Edmond’s servant for life. Both would become part of the pirate crew until their ship arrives in Marseille.
It would be here in Marseille that Edmond would discover the full truth of Fernand’s treachery. The role Villefort played, etc. And it would be then that he would enlist Jacopo’s help to find the famed “treasure” of Fr. Faria. When they find it, it is more treasure than anyone could have ever imagined.
Like the priest before him, Jacopo urges Edmond not to seek revenge with this money but to “live his life,” but Jacopo vows to stay with him and help him regardless. Unfortunately, Edmond is overcome with his perceived “need” for revenge. Using his almost limitless wealth, he establishes himself as “the Count of Montecristo” and creates an elaborate plan in order to seek his revenge against all involved in sending him to prison, including his own formerly beloved Mercedes, who he wrongly believes was part of the evil plot against him.
The twists and turns of this story are absolutely gripping, but lead to an absolutely amazing ending where Edmond realizes the innocence of his beloved Mercedes, discovers he actually has a son that he did not know about, and comes to see that “the priest” was right (and Jacopo as well) that revenge is not the way of true living. He vows to do only good with his fortune for the rest of his days.
While I do think one flaw of the film is an over-emphasis on vengeance, so that there is an overly truncated telling of the truth that love is the answer, not vengeance, the story is so compelling that its rather significant flaw is truly overwhelmed by the truth, beauty, and goodness of the ending as well as the overall story.
This one’s a keeper, folks!
Mel Gibson is a genius. Set in the 16th century, just before the Spanish would come and ultimately bring Christianity that would liberate the Mayan and Aztec people from the darkness of their very violent and dark religions, Apocalypto presents a believable story of the plight of some of the native Mayan people fighting to survive in the dark culture in which they live. There is a remarkable sense of natural virtue among some of the villagers, and on both sides of the brutal battles that so characterized life among the Mayan people, but it is as though the darkness that surrounds and permeates the culture overwhelms the situation, leaving little room for any real hope for a truly peaceful future.
That is, until, nearing the end of the move, a fleet of Spanish ships arrive offshore, that would spell the end of the dark Mayan culture itself, and the inauguration of a new era of the peace and light of Jesus Christ.
More about that in a moment!
The movie begins in the midst of a Mesoamerican rainforest where Jaguar Paw (Ruby Youngblood) is hunting along with this father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), and a number of their fellow tribesmen. In the midst of hunting they encounter a large group of refugees who were fleeing from the ravages of war. They humbly ask Jaguar Paw if they could be permitted to pass through their territory as they were seeking to find a place where they could start over. They had lost large numbers of their people to a savage attack that characterized the Mayan way of life. It was a savage existence of conquer or be conquered, murder, rape, pillage, slavery, and. of course, bloody human sacrifice to the blood-thirsty gods of the Mayans.
The next morning, Jaguar Paw’s village is raided by presumably the same tribe that had attacked the men from the village Jaguar Paw had encountered the previous day. The raiders are led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo). The attack is absolutely brutal. Flint Sky is killed, the village is burned to the ground, and many are mercilessly slaughtered. Those not killed, among the adults, are taken as captives to be either sex slaves, killed, or offered in human sacrifice, and the children are left behind to suffer and presumably die horrible deaths on their own in an unforgiving and unrelentingly brutal jungle.
Jaguar Paw hides his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and their very young son, Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez), in a pit with a rope extended so they could climb out after the battle is over. However, Jaguar Paw is captured, and one of the raiders cuts the rope leaving his family hopelessly trapped in the pit with no way out as Jaguar Paw is led away captive.
The raiders force the captives on a march through the jungle, where we see a badly wounded captive, Cocoa Leaf (Israel Rios), brutally killed by the merciless Middle Eye. But in another demonstration of at least some natural virtue, we see the leader of the raiders, Zero Wolf, chastise Middle Eye and even threaten him with death if he kills anyone else without permission. I truly admire the way Gibson portrays the brutality of the Mayan culture in all of its darkness, while also portraying goodness and virtue on both sides, though, again, truncated by the limits of what is a very dark culture of death.
“Culture of death?” Hmmmm. Sound familiar? Do you think Gibson was drawing a parallel to our own culture of death? If he wasn’t, she should have!
As the raiders finally reach their destination with captives in tow, we unexpectedly discover their own village to be decimated, not by raiders, but by some unnamed disease. It appears their crops have failed, the forest itself appears to have been razed as well, and many of their people are suffering terribly and dying. Darkness is everywhere and permeates everything.
It is in the midst of this incredible darkness, sin, and disease, that we see a little girl obviously infected herself with the unnamed virulent disease, eerily passing into a sort of ecstasy wherein she prophesies the coming end of the Mayan world that would soon be fulfilled with the coming of the Spanish and Christianity. She also prophesies the death of Zero Wolf. Profound! In this darkest time in the entire movie, where we’ve just seen a level of brutality that is unthinkable, and we are about to see the captive women being sold as slaves, and the men being led to the Mayan pyramid to be human sacrifices, God, and God’s word comes shining through! And it comes through the meekest and most unexpected instrument: a diseased little girl doomed to a terrible and ignoble death!
God chooses “what is foolish in this world to confound the wise” (I Cor. 1:27).
Jaguar Paw and the remaining captives are ordered to be killed as so much target practice by Zero Wolf and his men. In fulfillment of “the prophecy,” Jaguar Paw incredibly kills both Zero Wolf’s son, Cut Rock (Ricardo Diaz Mendoza), and Zero Wolf himself, along with many of his men. Eventually, there are only two raiders left chasing Jaguar Paw all the way to the coast where all three of these men stop everything and seem to be mesmerized by the sight of the Spanish fleet anchored offshore and men approaching the shore carrying a large cross!
The ultimate fulfillment of “the prophecy!”
Meanwhile, heavy rain had begun to fall causing the pit holding Jaguar’s family to begin to fill with water. Jaguar Paw’s wife was forced to give birth to their baby boy in the now-filling pit. But when Jaguar Paw and his two pursuers stopped to look at the incredible sight of the Spanish fleet, the two raiders seem especially mesmerized. They gaze on in fascination allowing Jaguar Paw to escape and save his family.
From its first appearance, the presence of the cross (Christianity) is bringing change and salvation to a lost and blinded people! This is an obvious sign of what it coming.
Sometime later, Jaguar Paw brings his entire family to look upon the Spanish ships at anchor, but Jaguar Paw decides not to approach them, but to go back into the jungle and rebuild. They depart in search of a new home. And doesn’t that just make sense? Jaguar Paw returns to all he knows. To continue to fight for his family and to do what he knows to be right, in the midst of the endless cycle of building, warring, bleeding, and rebuilding. But the ships are sill there, and the cross of Christ is on the way!
27. On the Waterfront
This is a masterpiece, folks! This 1954 crime drama received a whopping 12 Academy Award nominations, winning eight of them, including Best Picture (Sam Spiegel, Producer), Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Director (Ella Kazan), Best Screenplay (Bud Schulberg), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), and more. And absolutely deservedly so.
Johnny Friendly (played by Lee J. Cobb) is a crooked mob union boss who controls the docks down “on the waterfront,” and everyone fears him. Everyone knows, including the police, that Friendly has been involved in multiple murders to consolidate and maintain his control, but anyone with any knowledge of these murders is afraid to testify because of the repercussions. Thus, he must maintain fear on the docks to maintain his control, as well as his freedom from prosecution.
Enter Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando in what, along with “Vito Corleone” in “The Godfather”, was his signature performance), a dockworker whose brother Charley “the Gent” Molloy (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand man. Some years earlier, Terry had been an up-and-coming professional boxer until Friendly had Charley convince Terry to throw a fight so he could win money by betting against him. This was a huge fight for Terry because 1. he knew he could win. 2. It would have made him a contender for a title shot. He gave in for the quick cash and because of the pressure from Friendly and his brother Charley.
As a result, he would never get another “shot.” Rather than having a promising career in boxing, Terry ends up becoming just another bum on the docks (as he will later say), and pawn for Friendly. In fact, Terry is used by “the boss” to convince Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), another dockworker who was going to testify against Friendly, to walk right into an ambush where he was killed so he could never testify. Terry thought they were just going to scare him, or rough him up a bit. He didn’t know they were going to kill him. Terry is horrified, but he is in too deep to do anything about it.
Enter Joey’s sister Edie (played masterfully by Eva Marie Saint), who is devastated and angry about her brother’s murder and convinces “the waterfront priest,” Father Barry (Karl Malden – phenomenal performance) into taking action against Friendly and the union mob.
Friendly sends Terry as his informant at a dockworkers meeting Fr. Barry calls at his church to garner support to take on the mob, but mob henchmen break up the meeting, making sure they instill the fear of the mob in all of the men. Terry helps Edie escape and begins to fall in love with her, the sister of the man he helped set up for Friendly and the reason for Fr. Barry’s involvement along with Edie.
The intrigue begins!
Knowing Father Barry had promised his support for anyone who would come forward against friendly, another dockworker, Timothy “Kayo” Dugan agrees to testify. Friendly arranges him to be crushed to death in an “accident” on the docks, sending another message to the men about testifying against him.
This leads to one of the most iconic sermons, “the sermon on the docks,” in motion picture history and Karl Malden’s finest performance. He reminded the men that Jesus Christ walks among them and that every murder is another cross of Calvary. And when Friendly’s men start attempting to shout down the priest, telling him to “go back to your church, Fadda'” even resorting to throwing tomatoes at him, hitting him in the face, Fr. Barry exclaims, “This is my Church!”
All are moved by the good padre’s speech, but still unwilling to stand up. Terry is still unwilling to speak out as well. He’s still afraid. Here we see it is the priest, not the boxer, who has the courage to stand up to the mob-boss and his henchmen. But this speech coupled with Edie beginning to return Terry’s romantic feelings (she is unaware of Terry’s role in her brother’s death) leads to Terry’s conscience tormenting him. He finally confesses the circumstances that led to his role in Joey’s death to both Fr. Barry and Edie. Edie immediately leaves and wants nothing to do with him!
Predictably, when word gets back to Friendly that Terry might testify, Friendly decides Terry must die unless his brother Charley can talk him into keeping his mouth shut. Charley tries to bribe Terry to no avail. In desperation, fearing for his own life as well, knowing the maniacal Friendly, he even pulls a gun on his brother Terry. It is then that Brando pulls off one of the top ten most powerful scenes in history. It is the famous, “I could’a been a contender” speech. “I could’ a been somebody… instead of a bum, which is what I am…”
Charley can’t bring himself to hurt his brother. He ends up giving Terry his gun telling him to run from Friendly’s men. Terry runs to Edie’s apartment and in another iconic scene moves Edie from disdain to revealing her true feelings for him. And now she understands the circumstances surrounding the murder of her brother.
In the meantime, Friendly has Charley killed and his body hung up in an alley as another clear warning to all, especially Terry. And it was also bait to lure Terry out in the open. And it worked. Terry and Edie barely escape the ensuing attempt on Terry’s life.
Terry has now had it. He is determined that he is going to shoot and kill Friendly, but it is, once again, Fr. Barry who intervenes and keeps Terry from shooting Friendly, persuading him to testify against him instead. And so Terry does implicating Friendly in the murder of Edie’s brother Joey, which leads to Friendly’s ultimate humiliations.
- His own mob boss cuts him off. He is on his own with no mob backing.
- Friendly now faces indictment and a sure conviction for the murder of Joey.
- The loss of his fear-based control “on the waterfront.”
After Terry testifies, Friendly attempts one last time to assert his control on the docks. It fails miserably. Friendly announces that Terry is not to be given work on the docks ever again. He is then shunned by his former friends on the docks. He is nothing but “a rat.” Edie tries to get Terry to just take her and him away, just move away, but Terry refuses. Instead, Terry the cowardly boxer finally and definitively takes his stand. He goes down to the docks during the hour of recruitment (when jobs are given to the union boys needing work).
He is the only man not hired, of course.
Terry then calls Friendly out! It develops into a brutal fight where the boxer is getting the better of it when Friendly’s men jump in and almost beat the former fighter to death.
It is ultimately Terry’s willingness to die for the truth, “another Calvary” you might say, that is the real turning point. Just as Fr. Barry had urged them to do, the dockworkers rise up and throw Friendly “off the docks” (how’s that for symbolism?) and into the river!
Terry is barely able to rise, but struggles to his feet and enters the dock with all of the workers with him. A soaking wet and beaten-up Friendly swears revenge on all of them, but his meaningless threats are simply ignored as they all enter into large garage together with Terry and against Friendly with the door closing behind them.
The secret to Terry Molloy’s strength in standing up to the mob was not his boxing skills, but the moral courage that was enlivened in him through a courageous priest and the woman he loves. Man, I know Capra had nothing to do with this movie, but that sounds awful “Capra-esque,” doesn’t it?
28. Return to Me
There have been a lot of romantic comedies since Frank Capra created the genre in 1934 with “It Happened One Night.” None of them have been able to match that first masterpiece with Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert. Sleepless in Seattle was good, but not close to the level of Capra’s classic. But I will say “Return to Me” starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver came the closest.
Bonnie Hunt (co-writer and director) does a beautiful job in portraying a deep and abiding love between Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) and his wife Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) at the very start of the picture. She is a veterinarian/animal psychologist specializing in great apes, and Bob is… a builder. Yes, folks he is Bob the builder!
For years Elizabeth has worked with a gorilla at the Chicago zoo, Sydney, teaching him sign language, and more, and she has campaigned to get him a larger space and a more natural habitat. Bob has agreed to build the new “home” out of love for his wife and a growing love for Sydney. Elizabeth arranges for a large black tie fundraising evening where all goes well and it looks as though the project will be a go, but then, tragedy strikes. Bob and Elizabeth are involved in a traffic accident where Elizabeth is killed as they are driving home from the fundraiser gala.
Bob returns home with his wife’s blood still on his tuxedo and collapses in a heap. He is absolutely devastated, and we will discover as well that he is absolutely lost without his beloved.
The other half of the dance, Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver should have won an Academy Award! Or, at least a nomination!), is an orphan who has been brought up by her devoutly Catholic grandfather Marty O’Reilly (Carroll O’Conner hits it out of the park!) who is the owner of “O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant” (what a name!). Hunt does a great job throughout the picture of bringing in the centrality of the Catholic Faith in the lives of both Marty and Grace.
And, by the way, the Italian touch added to “O’Reilly’s” Italian Restaurant is brought to bear by Marty’s close friend Angelo Pardipillo (Robert Loggia was born for this part).
Grace has a defective heart caused by an incurable disease and needs a transplant. On the night of Bob and Elizabeth’s car crash, Grace was at the point of death, but she was saved by Elizabeth having been both an organ donor and the perfect match for Grace.
After her recovery and after pondering just what to say or if she could say it at all, she mails an anonymous letter to the anonymous family of her heart donor (through the agency that arranges these things and respects everyone involved to remain anonymous) to thank them for in the midst of their pain, and because of the heroic generosity of their loved one, Grace is now able to live and thrive.
Bob is a wreck. Without Elizabeth, his house becomes a mess, he eats Chinese delivery almost every night and is becoming almost unbearable to work with. One of his best friends, Charlie Johnson, who worked with Elizabeth at the zoo as a veterinarian, finally persuades Bob to go out with him on a blind date/foursome. They end up going to “O’Reilly’s” for dinner.
Bob is totally repulsed by his rude and domineering blind date, but is immediately taken by grace who is a waitress at her grandfather’s restaurant/pub. “Have we met somewhere before?” he says to grace – there seems to be a “heart” connection right from the start – but, unfortunately, Bob doesn’t ask for her number or anything. He’s obviously taken by her, but…
Bob has had enough of his blind date so he creates a phony phone call and claims he has to get out to one of his job sites, and Grace gives him a free dinner to go as he is leaving, as the chemistry between the two is now blatantly obvious. On his way out, he accidentally leaves his cell phone on the counter and doesn’t realize it until the next day.
And now “the dance” begins!
He goes back to O’Reilly’s after hours, and is greeted by Marty, Angelo, another waitress at the restaurant, Sophie (Marianne Muellerleile), and another friend of Marty and Angelo’s, Emmett McPhaden (Eddie Jones), who upon discovering Bob to be single, immediately start trying to arrange a romantic meeting between Grace and Bob anyway they can.
The awkward meeting, the sparks flying, and various intrigue that surrounds the two lovebirds coming together is magical. You really have to see the movie. All is truly magical, until, by chance, after coming over to Bob’s house on a date, grace happens upon the letter she has written to the family of her “anonymous” donor laying innocuously on a table. She is stunned. She has Bob’s deceased wife’s heart! She doesn’t know what to do, so she just leaves making up a lame excuse and leaving Bob completely befuddled.
One of the greatest lines in the movie happens here when Grace rides her bike to her best friend’s house, Megan Dayton (played by Bonnie Hunt, who also directed the movie), and exclaims, “What was God Thinking!” She doesn’t know what to say to Bob. Nor does Megan, or Megan’s husband, Joe, played to comic perfection by James Belushi.
Bob and Grace are obviously in love. But Grace, who could not even bring herself to tell Bob about her heart surgery at all, now has to tell Bob that she received the heart of his beloved bride. So she does. And this time it is Bob who abruptly leaves. He is overwhelmed.
Grace is crushed. Bob is crushed. But grace has an idea. Her grandfather had purchased an airline ticket for her to go to Italy, which has been a life-long dream of Grace’s, so she decides to do it then so that Bob could hopefully just forget about her, and both could move on with their lives.
I will leave the story there except to tell you this. Bob cannot stay away and ends up travelling all the way to Italy to tell her he can’t live without her!
After “what was God thinking,” the second best line comes when Bob, after thinking things over, decides his love for Grace is all that really matters. He comes to the restaurant, not knowing that Grace had gone to Italy, and asks Marty if he can see Grace. When Marty tells him, among other things, Bob says, “I miss Elizabeth. I’ll always miss Elizabeth. But I ache for Grace.”
And it’s off to Italy he goes! You just have to see the ending! There are nuns involved, a bike, and… well, you just have to see it!
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards and winning 3 (including Best Picture of 1976, and Best Director, John Avildsen), Rocky is now a certified classic. It is difficult to find anyone 30 or older who has not seen it. It was Sylvester Stallone’s first major motion picture, and, no doubt, his best to date. He wrote the screenplay, and starred in the movie as “Rocky Balboa,” for which he garnered two Academy Award nominations (Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor).
“Rocky Balboa” is a street tough Philadelphia club fighter, trained by “Mickey Goldmill” (Burgess Meredith, nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and who also works as a “leg breaker” for a local mob figure/loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell).
The movie begins with Rocky fighting another club fighter, “Spider Rico,” at a local boxing ring located in the hall of a Catholic Church. Rocky wins the fight, but only gets $40.50 for his trouble.
Such is the life of Rocky Balboa. He earns scraps in the ring and survives on the money he earns as a “leg breaker” for Gazzo.
Soon after his fight with Rico, Rocky goes into the gym to train, but discovers his locker has been taken from him and his gear has been hung out on what is called “skid row.” The locker was a bit of a status symbol at the gym and was only for fighters who had some semblance of a future. Rocky is obviously viewed by Mickey, who owns the gym, as on his way out.
Rocky is furious and goes to see Mickey demanding an explanation as to why he has been placed on “skid row.” Rocky and Mick have it out in front of all of the fighters training in the gym. Mickey screams at Rocky explaining how he is a fighter who has talent, but he doesn’t put in the necessary time to become great. Instead, he works as a “two bit leg breaker” for Gazzo wasting his future.
Rocky tries to brush this situation off, but he obviously can’t get it out of his head. In fact, that night Rocky heads over to a local pet store to try and talk to his love interest who seems bent on rejecting his advances, Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire, who was nominated for Best Actress). He tells her about getting kicked out of his locker as part of the small talk he uses to capture her attention. Adrian is very shy and homely, but Rocky seems to see beneath her glasses and unkept appearance to the beautiful woman beneath it all. Eventually, Rocky will win her over, bring her out of her shell, and they will be together throughout the Rocky series of movies.
Other than his relationship with Adrian, however, Rocky seems to be going nowhere. He seems to be “just another bum from the neighborhood” as he will say later, until he is contacted by “Miles Jergens” (Thayer David), a world-famous boxing promoter who works with the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Apollo Creed. Creed has determined to give a small-time unknown fighter a shot at the greatest title in the sporting world as a gimmick for the upcoming bicentennial year. Being from “Philadelphia,” the place where it all began for America, an Italian, and “snow white,” Creed says, Balboa is the perfect fit. He wants to make it a spectacle for the entire nation and the world.
At first, Rocky refuses Mickey’s request to train him because of their recent brush up, but in a moving scene wherein Rocky first rejects Mickey, screaming even after Mickey had left about how nobody ever believed in him before, but now they all want a piece of him, he then runs after Mickey and accepts his offer. Ultimately, Rocky knows that he needs Mickey.
And then the training begins. The depictions of Rocky in training are replete with great and memorable shots of Rocky’s somewhat unorthodox training camp. Who can forget the famous punching of sides of beef in a freezer, the drinking of six raw eggs, and running through the streets of Philadelphia up to the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum? At first, Rocky can’t make it up the steps without grabbing his side in pain, but by the end of his camp, he runs up the steps without the slightest problem. Rocky has become ready to fight.
Yet, on the night before the fight, Rocky is in bed with Adrian and he can’t sleep. So he quietly leaves Adrian sleeping, exits his apartment, and walks over to the massive Philadelphia Spectrum where the fight will be held the following night. Upon entrance, he gazes up at the massive images of himself and Creed hanging from the rafters and happens upon Jergens the promoter who is, no doubt, making last minute preparations for the bog show. He immediately informs Jergens that the massive likeness of himself opposite of Apollo had the wrong colors on his boxing trunks. They were red with a white stripe, but Rocky was going to actually wear white trunks with a red stripe. Jergens responds, “It doesn’t really matter, does it? I’m sure you are going to give us a good show.”
It doesn’t really matter…
Rocky then walks back home and gets back into bed waking Adrian when he lays down on their rickety old bed. She sees that he is worried and asks if he’s alright. Rocky responds, “I can’t beat him… I can’t win.” And in one of the most profound scenes in the entire movie that really sums up the brilliance of the entire story, Rocky says, no doubt pondering Jergens’ words he had just heard at the Spectrum: “It don’t really matter if Creed opens up my head. I was nobody before… All I want to do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed… If the bell rings and I’m still standin’, I will know once and for all that I wasn’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
And that is exactly what happens. As Jergens would announce to the massive crowd at the end of 15 incredibly grueling rounds where Rocky achieved two firsts – he was the first to ever knock Creed down, and the first to ever go 15 rounds with him – this fight was “the greatest exhibition of guts and stamina in the history of the ring.” Rocky calls out repeatedly for Adrian as he stands in the center of the ring and all await the decision of the judges. Adrian has to fight her way into the ring through the crowd as her brother “Paulie” (Burt Young, also nominated for Best Supporting Actor) runs interference for her. Then, in the background you can hear Jergens declare Apollo Creed the winner by split decision (8:7, 7:8, 9:6), but Adrian and Rocky don’t seem to care. Rocky fulfilled his dream and they then and there proclaim their love for one another as the movie ends.
Rocky Balboa is the classic “underdog,” down and counted out by everyone. He has virtually nothing going for him and no chance of making anything of himself, but he comes through against all the odds.
We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt like we are down and out. This is why Rocky is the classic that it has become. It strikes a cord deep within all of us. Not only have we all been the underdog, we tend to root for the underdog as well. Rocky is that underdog who we cannot help but to love and root for!
30. Boys Town
Hard to believe a movie this great would be #30, but so it goes. There have been a lot of great movies over the decades. “Boys Town” was nominated for five Academy Awards in 1938 and won two (Best Actor, Spencer Tracey, and Best Writing, Original Story, Eleanore Griffin and Dore Schary).
“Boys Town” the movie is a fictional story, but it is based upon a real man, Fr. Edward Flanagan, and a real place he founded near Omaha, Nebraska called “Boys Town” (now for boys and girls), where wayward boys could come to receive the help they need. In fact, my priestly brother, Fr. Terry Staples, spent his deacon year of apostolic work there. And he loved it. It is a truly amazing and much-needed work.
The movie begins with a convicted murderer asking to make his final confession before his execution. Fr. Flanagan (Spencer Tracey) would be that priest because he was acquainted with him through a ministry he began for indigent men in Omaha, Nebraska. Fr. Flanagan knows lots of men who have fallen into a life of crime and debauchery. In what would become a prophetic and life-changing moment, Fr. Flanagan sits and listens as the condemned man describes in detail his plight as a homeless boy without guidance or even a single friend. He seems to be pleading for someone to understand him as he explains how he was a ward of institution after institution that could never reach the need buried deep in his soul.
His pleas, however, would not change his fate. He would be executed as scheduled.
On the train back to Omaha, Fr. Flanagan hears echoed the words of the condemned man again and again. It is then that he realizes two things. 1. “There is no such thing as a bad boy,” only boys who need help to find their way. 2. He must create a home for boys that can reach them before they end up as this condemned murderer ended his days. He decides to change the direction of his ministry.
Thus, “Boys Town” was born. At Boys Town, the boys run the town. They establish their own government, make their own laws, and have their own justice system. All guided by Fr. Flanagan, of course.
Boys Town is quite a success until the test of tests comes to town in the form of “Whitey Marsh” (Mickey Rooney). Its Whitey’s older brother, Joe, in prison for murder, who actually asks Fr. Flanagan to take Whitey to Boys Town as he fears his little brother is rapidly heading down the wrong path. He doesn’t want Whitey to end up in the same place he ended up. He knows Whitey idolizes him, but he also knows Whitey is idolizing the wrong man, and the wrong way of life.
Whitey is a tough case. He has a chip on his shoulder and plays the part of the tough guy. And even though he has a ways to go to get “the street” out of his system, even after discovering his brother had escaped from prison, Whitey stays at Boys Town and even runs for Mayor. There seems to be some hope here. His campaign motto is “don’t be a sucker,” and is a bit too “wise guy” for the boys of Boys Town and so they elect the humble and handicapped Tony Ponessa (played by Gene Reynolds).
Whitey can’t take the disgrace (in his own mind) of losing and so he decides to leave. Most of Boys Town was probably glad to see him go, except for little Pee Wee (Robert Ball “Bobs” Watson), and, of course, Fr. Flanagan. Pee Wee had come to like and idolize Whitey and so he decides to follow him as Whitey leaves the grounds of Boys Town, intent on never coming back. With tears in his eyes Pee Wee begs him to stay. Pee Wee is weeping when he says, “We’re going to be pals, ain’t we?”
For his part, Whitey is fighting back tears himself as pushes Pee Wee back and tells him to go back to Boys Town. Boys Town and little Pee Wee are obviously weaving their way into “tough guy” Whitey’s heart. But he finally pushes Pee Wee to the ground and hurries across a thoroughfare with tears beginning to flow. Just then, Pee Wee get up for one last try and keeping his friend Whitey from leaving and he attempts to run across the road only to get hit by a car.
In good Micky Rooney overacting fashion (though I warn you, if you’re not careful, you may be shedding a few tears along with him in this scene!), Whitey begs God not to take his little friend Pee Wee. Whitey makes sure Pee Wee gets help, but he doesn’t know whether Pee Wee is going to live or die. All he knows is that he is to blame. This sends Whitey into town in a daze. He is absolutely devastated. He doesn’t know where to go or what to do. But as he is walking late into the night he happens upon a bank robbery where Whitey’s brother, Joe, is the mastermind. Whitey hears a gunshot and attempts to run, but in the midst of the melee that ensues, his brother Joe accidentally shoots him in the leg.
Joe takes Whitey to a church, calls Fr. Flanagan anonymously and tips him off, and then leaves Whitey. Later, when the local police come to take Whitey in, Fr. Flanagan both vouches for him, and takes full responsibility for him, but then Whitey refuses to tell Fr. Flanagan anything because he promised he would not “rat out” his brother (even though he actually knows where Joe and his accomplices are hiding out). But when Whitey is informed that if he doesn’t inform the authorities Boys Town would be shut down, he has a crisis of conscience and doesn’t know what to do. He decides to run away from Boys Town and talk to his brother.
When Whitey arrives at the hideout of his brother and his gang, Whitey tells his brother Joe in a famous scene where Mickey Rooney again famously and characteristically overacts during an impassioned plea, he simply cannot be the cause of the demise of Boys Town. He can’t remain silent! By the way, if you watch this scene closely and keep an eye on Edward Norris, who plays Joe Marsh, you see Mr. Norris cannot keep from smiling (in fact, he appears to be trying not to laugh) during Rooney’s tearful rant. One wonders how many takes it took just to keep him from laughing! At any rate, after Whitey’s impassioned plea, Joe releases Whitey from his promise of silence only asking for enough time for Joe and his boys to get a head start before he informs the authorities. Joe’s accomplices want to kill Whitey, but Joe won’t let them.
Just then, everything changes. Fr. Flanagan and the boys from Boys Town arrive at the hideout. This is a total shock to both White and Joe. Whitey didn’t know that he had been followed by some of the boys who told Fr. Flanagan the whereabouts of the hideout.
Fr. Flanagan and the boys confront and overpower Joe and his gangsters, they are re-captured, and Boys Town is saved. A now committed, and no longer the tough guy, Whitey doesn’t have to run for mayor, he is made mayor by acclamation. And Whitey’s acceptance speech reveals a completely reformed and humble Whitey Marsh.
A young boy from the streets and on his way the wrong way has become an honest and humble young man on his way the right way. And that is what Boys Town is all about!
And that rounds out my top 30 movies of all time!