This December, I need Christmas, and its reminder of hope in darkness, more than ever. 2015 has been a difficult year for the world, one of militant extremism at home and abroad. After Charleston, Colorado, Paris, and San Bernadino, I need—just as we all need—a reminder that repressive, exclusionary beliefs aren’t all there is.
That’s why my favorite Christmas movie is one that only incidentally includes the holiday, but includes its themes throughout: the 1955 classic Night of the Hunter.
Night of the Hunter tells the story of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a traveling preacher who, we learn at the start of the film, funds his ministry by marrying widows, killing them and taking their money. While in jail for car theft, Harry meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who killed two men during a bank robbery.
Once Ben is hanged for his crime and Harry is released, Harry goes about courting, marrying and murdering Ben’s guilt-ridden widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). He then works on charming—then torturing—the whereabouts of the loot out of Ben’s kids, John and Pearl.
John and Pearl manage to escape Harry’s clutches, finding refuge with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), an older woman who acts as foster mother to a group of kids. Rachel protects John and Pearl from Harry and helps them recover from the trauma they’ve experienced.
Night of the Hunter is the only film directed by late noted actor Charles Laughton. Laughton, who was gay and closeted, was bitter on the topic of Christianity, believing the Church’s teachings responsible for his sexual repression. In an interview, actor and Laughton biographer Simon Callow suggests that it was Night of the Hunter’s critical stance on organized religion that attracted him to the project.
But whether or not the director realized it, Night of the Hunter is actually a deeply faith-affirming film—one that places two opposing forms of spirituality in stark relief.
Harry is a fundamentalist who uses his natural charm and authority as a “man of God” to influence the people he meets. Laughton uses imagery reminiscent of old Universal Studios creature features in his scenes. In one scene, Harry casts a supernaturally-long shadow across a room. In another, he holds his arms in front of him as he chases the children up a set of stairs. It’s all meant to remind us that Harry is a monster, but unlike Frankenstein, the threat he poses is real.
It’s a threat that presents itself almost daily in the news. 2015 has been a banner year for the Harry Powells of the world. I see echoes of him in ISIS, Kim Davis and Donald Trump. Just as Harry preys on the weak and the under-educated to further his warped crusade, so do extreme fundamentalists prey on fear and misunderstanding to further agendas of intolerance and hatred.
On the other hand, the film presents Rachel Cooper. Rachel’s a Christian, too, but when she talks about the Bible, it’s not to preach fire and brimstone. She tells stories of baby Moses discovered in the bulrushes, and of the escape of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to Egypt. That both of these stories end with the babies in question becoming great Biblical leaders isn’t lost on Rachel—the capacity for greatness in every child is, in fact, her reason for doing what she does.
Rachel, to me, represents the many people of all faiths who do compassionate, righteous work on a daily basis. Unlike Harry, however, they’re not seeking justification or attention—they’re just doing what they’ve been called to do. As a result, you’re less likely to hear about their work. But if you look closely, you’ll realize they are everywhere.
Night of the Hunter ends, fittingly, at Christmas, with Harry caught and sentenced for his crimes, and Rachel and the kids having a happy holiday at home. Quiet, unshakeable love defeats loud, insidious hate. Charles Laughton’s film reminds us all that, even when it looks like the forces of darkness have control, there’s always a light somewhere—a light that’s going to triumph. If that’s not the spirit of Christmas, I don’t know what is.Tweet This