(Image attribution: still from It’s A Wonderful Life, National Telefilm Associates, public domain)
It’s a Wonderful Life has been in my mind a lot recently. Not least because a few weeks ago I had the privilege of playing George Bailey in the climactic scene, as part of a “Christmas Showcase” put on by Spotlight Playhouse in Berea, Kentucky. My wife’s been talking about the movie a lot as a metaphor for our lives, and she was really upset that it got voted down in a poll of Christmas movies one of our friends ran on Facebook. And, of course, it was on TV on Christmas Eve.
My FB friend and fellow ASP member Carlo Mariano recently posted a link to an article by K. B. Hoyle on It’s a Wonderful Life making the case that the popular understanding of the movie as a joyful affirmation of the meaningfulness of life doesn’t really express what makes the film so great. According to Hoyle, the “better message” of the movie is about self-denial and self-sacrifice for the sake of the community: “Die to yourself, daily. Die, and die again.”
Hoyle points out that George spends most of the movie making decision after decision that sacrifices his own desires and dreams for the sake of what is good for his family and his town. Tellingly, she invokes Macaulay’s ballad retelling of the Roman story of Horatius at the bridge (a poem I loved in my childhood), offering his life in defense of his city. Similarly, she concludes, we should live lives of “civic virtue,” offering ourselves up on behalf of our communities instead of trying to be “true to ourselves” in an individualistic fashion.
I think this is all true, but at the same time I think that dismissing and denying the uproarious joy of the ending as not really central is a mistake. God created us for joy. Just telling us to keep plugging the gap and sacrificing ourselves creates people with gritted teeth and set brows who as often as not wind up turning into self-righteous prigs who hate and despise the people they are sacrificing themselves for.
So I think the apparently superficial happy ending is also essential to what makes this a great movie. Yes, the “angel earns his wings” theme is silly (and for some reason typical of mid-century Hollywood movies about angels, probably because they were created by people whose lives were dominated by the studio system and who imagined heaven as a sort of idealized MGM). And to be sure, we can’t be assured that if we ever get in real trouble the people we have helped will turn out and rescue us. It’s nice if they do, but George would have been doing the right thing even if Mr. Potter had been right and the people he had helped had ridden him out of town on a rail.
And yet, the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t just a bit of Hollywood sentimentality. It’s a shining example of what another mid-20th-century storyteller, J. R. R. Tolkien, called “eucatastrophe.” It’s the fitting ending, the ending that should happen but doesn’t, in our broken world, always happen. It’s the moment when George’s long obedience finally gets the response it deserves, as the people he has helped turn out to save him from disgrace and acknowledge what he has meant to them.
I’m a big fan of what many people consider “depressing” movies. I’ve been watching the three-part film series by Masaki Kobayashi (set, as it happens, around the same time as It’s a Wonderful Life), called in English The Human Condition. The films tell the story of Kaji, an idealistic young Japanese man during WWII, who tries to act morally in a society consumed by imperialistic, nationalistic madness.
In the first film, he works for a factory in Manchuria that uses forced Chinese labor, seeking to make conditions better for the workers while still trying to produce the efficient results that will meet his superiors’ approval and keep him out of the army. It doesn’t go well, either for him or for the Chinese he is trying to protect.
In the second movie he is in the army, where the same pattern repeats itself. He tries to stand up for fellow recruits who are being brutally hazed, and again, he fails. At the end of the film, as the Japanese are being overrun by Russian tanks, Kaji kills one of his fellow soldiers with his bare hands because the other man has gone crazy and is giving their position away to the Russians.
And the third movie doesn’t get any brighter–it ends with Kaji dying alone in the snow. It’s an unsparing, bleak masterpiece.
The bleakness of the films comes not only from the vicious opposition Kaji faces from his fellow Japanese, but from the way he gradually crumbles under pressure, continually making compromises, seeking to preserve his own life, and even at the end of the second movie confessing himself a “monster” after he brutally kills a comrade. At one point in the first movie, one of the Chinese laborers tells him “you have less faith in humanity than you want to believe you do.”
And of course the same could be said of George Bailey, though he shows it in more minor ways, as when he lashes out verbally at his daughter’s teacher. Hoyle recognizes this, speaking of George’s “brokenness.” Tolkien, too, describes Frodo “failing” at the end, a failure that Tolkien seems to find pretty much inevitable. Sometimes trying to be faithful results in being broken. Sometimes it really is an impossible task. And often, as with Frodo, we have to depend on others in order for our broken faithfulness to have its effect.
The Human Condition demonstrates how hard–perhaps impossible–it is to act morally and effectively in a society where pretty much everything militates against you. It’s a sober, realistic deconstruction of our fantasy of the lone hero against a corrupt culture. But on the other hand, the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life shows the proper goal and result of moral action: the formation of a community where people build each other up and affirm each other’s dignity.
George’s reward, at the end, is not merely an arbitrary plot device to make us feel good (though it is a plot device and it does make us feel good). It’s the natural result of his actions throughout the movie, actions that have been nourished by the real though imperfect virtues of small-town America and which have in turn reinforced those virtues, making Bedford Falls not into a utopian paradise but into a place where at least to some extent virtue can flourish and receive its proper reward.
We are made for joy. We are made for community. A vision of moral action in which we are only the givers and never the receivers, in which we are expected to grit our teeth and act heroically with no reward, is a vision that, in spite of its apparent nobility, actually results in corrupting moral action into an expression of pride and self-assertiveness. Christian virtue, grounded in humility and charity, is about receiving as well as giving–about acknowledging our vulnerability and our need for support and affection.
Christian virtue is not that of Horatius. It is not Stoic virtue. It is the virtue of the Son of Man who, on the eve of sacrificing himself for the life of the world, wept alone in a garden and longed for the affection and support of his friends. Hoyle says that the message of It’s a Wonderful Life (and by extension of Christianity) is “Die, and die again.” But the fuller Christian message is, “Die, and live again.” Not only in a life beyond this, but over and over again in this world. Those who give up fathers and mothers and wives and children will, Jesus says, receive a hundredfold even in this life: not in some crass form of worldly prosperity, but in the joyful affirmation of a beloved community.