Secondhand Lions (2003): A Conversation with Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, Haley Joel Osmen, and Tim McCanlies

A film-review assignment can change your life.

In fact, ten years ago this month, a film-review assignment changed my life.

In August 2003, I took my first step into a larger world — the wild, wild world of film junkets.

At the time, Hollywood was increasingly interested in Christian moviegoers. And since Christianity Today‘s film coverage was drawing the attention of a large audience, they were seeking to engage that audience by giving CT’s reviewers special privileges. So, over the next few years, I would find myself invited, all expenses paid, to Los Angeles, where I would have access to the cast and filmmakers of several movies. I would come back with a lot of material to use in features and film reviews.

This was intended, I’m sure, to encourage positive press. The truth is, I liked very few of the films I was invited to cover… and I said so in my reviews. No wonder… the invitations eventually slowed to a standstill.

But it was that first film junket for Secondhand Lions, hosted by the fledgling publicity company Grace Hill Media, that brought me to the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills; that introduced me to Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, and Haley Joel Osment; that introduced me to a community of film critics who would become good friends; that led to articles published in Paste and Christianity Today; that led a flight attendant and writer from Atlanta to read those articles and call me; that led to my sharing samples of my creative writing projects with her; that led to me meeting her good friend Don Pape, who would end up securing publishing contracts for the novels.

Yeah, I just noticed today, as I was updating my CV, that these Secondhand Lions pieces were published in September 2003.

So… just… wow. Feels like a lifetime ago. I have been so blessed because of this bizarre chain of events, and I am exceedingly grateful to all who were involved.

So it feels right to bring this back to the headlines to mark a significant anniversary in my life as a moviegoer, a writer, a film reviewer, a novelist, and a believer that prayers are heard and answered — sometimes in strange, mysterious, and extraordinary ways.

In fact, since most of my dreams came true during the last decade, I’m daring to dream again. To dream, to pray, to hope that someday, if it would help make the world a better place, and if it would please the Great Storyteller, I’ll be employed full-time doing what I do best: writing and teaching. Because what’s life without a dream? Maybe it’ll take ten years, maybe twenty, and maybe it’ll never happen. But I have no doubt that my life is in the hands of a Storyteller with an excellent sense of humor.

My formal review of the film was published in Paste Magazine.

I also commented on the film in this installment of my long-running Christianity Today column, “Film Forum.

My conversations with the cast and director, though, were published in a follow-up “Film Forum.”

Here is the relevant excerpts from those two Film Forums.

Following HolesSecondhand Lions is the year’s second unexpected family movie success story. Haley Joel Osment, Robert Duvall, and Michael Caine are impressing parents with their roles in director Tim McCanlies’s whimsical story about a boy who finds much-needed father figures in his two eccentric uncles. The film has comedy, adventure, mystery, wild animals, and hidden treasure. It also has memorable performances, an unpredictable script, and a lot of heart. Last week, Film Forum featured early reviews. This week, more have come in, and so have impressive box office numbers.

At an early screening of the film, I joined other critics from the religious press to chat with Tim McCanlies and his cast. McCanlies does not look like a Hollywood filmmaker. He’s an exuberant, down-to-earth Texan who clearly loves storytelling.

I’ve been a writer for fifteen years in Hollywood and I had all these pent-up things I wanted to say,” he says, referring to the many lessons learned by the young hero. “I guess I crammed it all into one script.”

Young Walter is just the latest in a long tradition of big-screen kids who are either orphans or single-parented. When a critic asked McCanlies why this film and his previous family movie, an animated feature called The Iron Giant, have both been about fatherless boys, he explained. “When I was growing up, my father was in the military, so I was on my own a lot. People joke and ask, ‘Why do kids in animated films have no parents, or only one parent?’ And the glib answer is, “Well, that’s one less person you have to animate.”

There are a lot of themes weaving through Lions. Did the director have one central idea he was trying to communicate? “In this case, I was really trying to get at what it is that men teach boys. This is a story about men that are sort of used up—’secondhand lions’ if you will—and this kid who really needs them and how they save each other.”

At the centerpiece of the film, Robert Duvall’s character, Uncle Hub, talks about ethics—but the audience is only privy to half of the speech. Several of us wondered what was in the rest of that speech. McCanlies sighed, shrugged, and said, “Well, it took me a long time to write that first half of the speech. What you hear is just a small part—I think it’s really an eight-hour speech. It was all I could do to come up with the part you heard in the movie. If you just give a speech [in a movie]—’Always be a good person!’—it can be really boring. It needed to be something [Walter] really needed to hear, in a specific rather than a general way.”

And yet, McCanlies’ morals never reach beyond simple ethics of kindness or faith in other people. “Because my father wasn’t around much, I learned a lot of my lessons from books and movies. … Phillip Marlowe [is] a very moral man in an amoral world, who sets his own code. So when I was trying to figure on what this movie is really about, and circled in on ‘What Men Teach Boys.’ As I circled that, [the speech] seemed to be about ‘You should have your own sense of honor.’ Like Raymond Chandler. Even if you’re in an amoral world. Even if people are around you are succeeding from cutting corners and cheating on their taxes and screwing over their neighbors. You should set your own moral code. You can’t argue with a kid that money and power don’t mean anything, because they do. It’s easy for a kid to believe that people are no good, but you should still act as if they are, and you should believe that they are.”

An interesting, if frustrating, philosophy. I wanted to ask McCanlies how we are to know good from evil if every man is free to “set his own moral code.” (Duvall echoed McCanlies’ sentiment, saying that he would like to teach each young man to “be a law unto himself.”) Does he mean to suggest that there is no established moral code to be found and agreed upon? Are we being encouraged to develop something illusory? I also wanted the director to say more about the film’s central message—”Believe in good things even if they don’t seem to be true.”

But he had already moved on to explaining why the film is connecting with adult audiences. “I like movies with young protagonists in them, like To Kill a Mockingbird, that aren’t really kids films. We adults … cynical adults, who are so jaded and don’t sit still for much moralizing … when we’re seeing the world through a kid’s eyes again, we’re more open to that sort of thing. We remember what it was like when we were kids. These movies tend to be period movies too. Maybe adults don’t identify with kids these days because they listen to that ‘silly rap music’ and they dress with pants on backwards.”

Finally, I asked McCanlies what he would say to those more conservative parents who would be offended by the film’s harsher elements. Frankly, I found the portrayals of the two rough-edged uncles to be refreshingly honest. But surely there will be a few parents who complain about their liberal use of shotguns and rough language.

McCanlies replied, “I just write for me at the end of the day. We did that with Iron Giant … we were a bunch of adults making a kids’ movie and we made the movie I wanted to see.”

He quickly added, “I’m offended by certain things too. But if you were so completely scared [of offending people] I think you’d have a very bland movie sometimes. I don’t think any of it is offensive. There are a lot of guns in this … but that’s very Texan. If you drive by the Baptist Church in the area where I live … on Sundays, [you'll see] all of the pickups out there—which is every car in the parking lot—they all have a gun rack. Welcome to Texas!”

Next week in Film Forum, I’ll feature a chat with Tim McCanlies about his film. My full review and my interviews with Duvall, Caine, and Osment will appear in the new issue of Paste Magazine this month.

Other religious press critics are receiving the film with applause and enthusiasm, happy to have a family film they can recommend without apology.

D. James says, “We loved the movie, but did not like some of the language. Our kids are elementary age.”

T. Hollis says, “My family and my sister’s family went to this movie together. We universally loved it. We are all Christians, and while the ‘believe in something even if it isn’t true’ philosophy is wrong; the movie still carries a strong family message throughout. There was too much swearing, but don’t let this detract from a great movie.”

(Beware: Some minor spoilers are contained in the following responses.)

Herb Owen writes, “One thing missed by every critic I’ve read is what I perceive as the message of the film (as demonstrated by the title): just because you’re old and a ‘secondhand lion’ (as was the case with the uncles and the lions), you may have one last job to do. In the case of the lion, it was saving Walter from his attacker. In the case of the uncles, it was raising Walter to be a man. This, to me, is the obvious message of the film and it certainly ‘got through.’ I loved it. I’m going back to see it again.”

Fans of Robert Duvall’s Oscar-winning role in Tender Mercies might find this particular letter interesting. It’s from Allan Hubbard of Paris, Texas, who has an interesting connection to the actor:

“I couldn’t wait to see Secondhand Lions … got there on opening weekend. The cast was great. The story idea was great. [I had] no problems with the production like continuity or anything like that. But the flow of the script? The actual lines delivered, therefore the writing of the film in general? Deplorable. I simply could not believe with so many other things going for it that the script’s details got passed over. I’m really surprised to read the Christian critics are praising the writing.

“I was in a film with Duvall in 1982 … Tender Mercies. I was the little boy, Sonny. Now I’m 31 and still love to watch his very subtle yet amazingly gripping choices. The single most redeeming thing about Secondhand Lions is the speech he gives the punk in the bar about ‘fought two world wars, led thousands of men into battle, and loved only one woman with a passion that a flea like you couldn’t understand.’ Great moment there.”

Frederica Mathewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) describes it as “a sweet story … balanced by a sense of masculine nobility that is virtually never seen in movies.”

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees, calling it “a sweet, life-affirming tale. McCanlies … has struck cinematic gold by illustrating the impact that a father figure can have upon the development of a young and impressionable teen.”

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it “hits all the right emotional notes, resulting in an enchanting story about family and the transmission of values as generations change hands.” He also praises Duvall and Caine as “masters at the top of their game.”

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) objects to the film’s central sentiment, spelled out in a speech that Hub (Duvall) gives to Walter: “If you want to believe in something, then believe in it! Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe in it!” Greydanus objects: “Expressed this way, this is bogus sentimentality, not belief or faith—and this notion casts a long shadow over the rest of the film. McCanlies’s heart is in the right place, but his head could use a little straightening out.”

Nevertheless, Greydanus gives Lions a pass: “What carries the film in spite of these weaknesses … are the appealing relationships that develop between Walter and his uncles, tongue-in-cheek serial-cliffhanger style flashbacks of derring-do … a couple of subversively funny subplots … and some good-hearted themes about responsibility, growing up, and old age.”

The quote that bothers Greydanus actually makes good sense in context, according to Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus). “In the context of the movie, the statement takes on an entirely different meaning: ‘Believe the things that are important to believe, even if “facts,” experience and the opinions of others contradict what you believe: because the appearance of things is only an illusion.’ Secondhand Lions delivers much the same message. It’s a message sorely needed today.”

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) writes that “[a] gifted cast, smart writing and [a] moral compass make this unassuming little film a good one for teens, parents and grandparents to experience together. It is without a doubt the pride of the fall movie season.”

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, “The film’s fairy-tale atmosphere and sentimental soul never detract from its earthy, irresistible humor or off-kilter wisdom.”

John Thompson (Relevant) calls it “surprisingly satisfying. This film flies in the face of most modern, nihilistic, youth-obsessed Hollywood fare.”

“You’ll think about the story long after you walk out of the theater,” promises Holly McClure (Crosswalk). “It’s a reminder of how important it is that a boy have a male role model in his life.”

Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) says the film shows “how disjointed lives can be put into some kind of sensible order with love, virtue, and truth. This is the kind of story that Hollywood should be telling.”

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) calls it “first-rate entertainment. The movie has touches of Don Juan de Marco and Princess Bride, and it is certainly as good as those films.”

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) is bothered by “light obscenities” and what he perceives as the film’s philosophy. He writes, “The idea that people are basically good is a Rousseauian Romantic, liberal notion that contradicts biblical truth and reality.” And yet, he concludes that the movie “will lighten and enrich the hearts and minds of all who see it.”

If you take your family, or see it on your own, let me know if you think this is the “treasure of the fall movie season”, “certainly as good as The Princess Bride,” or a film of “Rousseauian Romantic, liberal notions that contradicts biblical truth.” I’m curious.

 

  • Facebook
About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X