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Old Embers

Old Embers for New Torches: Shadows
By Fritz Spencer
Oct 21, 2008 - 11:38:37 AM

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Shadows - by Tom Forman

Rows of sturdy sunflowers, adding green and gold to our gardens in Maine, are a common enough sight. These spectacular products of nature merit closer inspection, however, since they are truly one of the overlooked miracles of life. Their seeds are laid out in an intricate and mathematically precise pattern, and the design of their stalks and leaves are marvels of engineering. But this is not the most astonishing aspect of the sunflower. The sunflower, along with the flowering trees, holds the same position in the plant kingdom that man holds in the animal kingdom. That is, of all the plants, they are the most-highly developed. In children's tales, these cheerful beings with trunks, limbs, and a round leafy top take on the shape of men and speak.  How very strange that their form resembles a man!

When young, the sunflower bravely sets its face towards the sky, lovingly following the sun. At night, it folds its leaves and slumbers peacefully. When old, it droops its head in weariness, before departing this life forever. Just as we can see the image of man in the humble sunflower, we may sometimes discover the image of the divine in unexpected places.

All this is by way of introduction to what is perhaps the greatest movie ever made. The silent movie Shadows, released in 1922, tells the story of a young preacher, the Reverend Malden, who having failed to achieve his ambition of becoming a missionary to the Far East, arrives at the fictional fishing village of Urkey on the coast of Maine. The noble-minded young reverend lives a blameless life, and is a shining example to his new congregation. But by a peculiar twist of fate, he is caught up in that most dreaded of complications, a scandal involving another man's wife. His predicament is dire, and his prospect is truly hopeless.

Divine providence then intervenes through a most unlikely means, a castaway from the Far East, the Chinese cook, Yen Sin, tossed up on the shores of Maine by a nor-easter. Yen Sin does not receive a hospitable greeting. He is despised by his neighbors. He irons laundry for a living. He is bullied by the neighbor's children. Not knowing the Christian religion, he is despised as an infidel.

But unlike many of his neighbors, Yen Sin is not a man of pious words and sanctimonious behavior. His virtue is real, and not an outward show. And being a man of action, it is Yen Sin who rescues the preacher.

The movie is an unparalleled exploration into certain philosophical and ethical questions. Among these questions are "What is truly noble in human conduct, and what is base? Are our lives predetermined by a supreme being? Do we see the image of God in all men, regardless of color or creed? And most importantly, what is the nature of evil? Is evil real or, as the movie suggests, a mere shadow?"

This wealth of ideas leads to many interpretations. Some viewers see a warning against prejudice. Others see a Christian message. Yen Sin does convert in the end, but only after he has seen the power of Christians to forgive. One key to the movie is the motif of light warring constantly against darkness. At moments of great peril, a flash of light breaks through the gloom, like the light which accompanies Yen Sin on his first appearance in the movie.

The scene of Yen Sin, played by Lon Chaney, desperately shivering next to his indifferent Maine neighbors, is unmatched in all the cinema. There is hardly any movement by the actors, yet the scene is as sublime and moving as a biblical tableau by an Old Master.

One last word of advice: be sure to watch the version on DVD by the Kino Company, which contains a powerful music score by the composer Caesar Franck.


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