The Horse Whisperer (1998)
Director Robert Redford believes that a whiff of fresh air and immersion in wide-open spaces are a sure-fire tonic for uptight city slickers. Fourteen-year-old Grace McLean (Scarlett Johansson) is out horse-back riding in suburban Connecticut when she has a freak accident which causes the amputation of her leg and the maiming of her beloved horse, Pilgrim. Grace's mother, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), is a workaholic magazine editor who sees Pilgrim's healing as the key to her daughter's recovery. They travel to a Montana ranch to work with a “horse whisperer,” Tom Booker (Redford), who “can see into the creature's soul and soothe its wounds.”
Soon sparks are flying between Tom and the stressed-out Annie. But they both have a quality in short supply in most Hollywood films, moral intelligence, and they don't give in to temptation. The Horse Whisperer is often overly sentimental. But there's a sincerity and passion in its storytelling, and its heart is in the right place.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
In the 1930s, action-adventure serials were screened at Saturday matinees along with the regular double feature. Director Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) perfectly recreates the spirit of these cliff-hanging shorts in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a scholarly archeologist who's as fearless as James Bond. In 1936, the U.S. government asks him to prevent Hitler from acquiring the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed. Its possession will somehow mystically ensure the Nazis' conquest of the world. Indiana, wielding his trademark bull whip, travels to Nepal, where he's forced to join up with the high-spirited Marion (Karen Allen), a former colleague's daughter.
This constantly squabbling couple moves on to Egypt. After several death-defying adventures, Marion is kidnapped and Indiana must outwit the Nazis to save her and rescue the Ark. The movie treats the religious aspect of its subject matter with reverence and awe.
Lilies of the Field (1963)
God uses unexpected people in surprising ways. Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) is an unemployed construction worker traveling around the Southwest who stops at a small farm to refill his car radiator. The spread is run by five German nuns who are new to America and don't speak much English. The mother superior (Lilia Skala) convinces Homer to help them work the place. After he fixes their leaky roof, they offer thanksgivings for the man whom “God has sent,” singing the rousing hymn, “Amen.”
Mother Superior asks Homer to stay. Weary of aimless wanderings, he begins to build their chapel, giving back his earnings to help them buy food and teaching them to speak English.
But when construction materials run out, Homer disappears and the nuns wonder if he's abandoned them. The Oscar-winning Lilies of the Field is full of laughter and charm, presenting God's intervention in our lives as a subtle and natural thing.
The Wrong Man (1956)
Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock returned to the same themes in his 53 feature films. The Wrong Man has most of the usual ingredients: the normal world of an ordinary man jolted into chaos, an innocent person wrongly accused and the machinery of authority working to grind the innocent down. Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is a bass player at the fashionable Stork Club. When his wife, Rose (Vera Miles), suffers from dental pains, he decides to borrow against his life insurance policy to help her. While at the insurance company, two secretaries mistakenly identify him as a robber. He's arrested and imprisoned.
Believing herself responsible for her husband's situation, Rose cracks up. But unlike most Hitchcock heroes, Balestrero is also a man of faith. He begins to pray — and surprising things start to happen. Based on a true story, the movie is directed in a spare, semi-documentary style which skillfully dramatizes the horrors Manny is forced to endure.
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Young love is often sincere, passionate and foolish, and no story has ever dramatized these qualities better than Romeo and Juliet. This Oscar-winning version, directed by Franco Zeffirelli (Jesus of Nazareth), is the most financially successful of all Shakespeare films. It wisely casts unknown teen-agers as the leads and lets their adolescent innocence and enthusiasm set the romance on fire.
A bloody feud has erupted between two powerful families in Renaissance Verona. As the hostilities progress from ‘ancient grudge to new mutiny,’ a young boy from one clan, Romeo Montague (Leonard Whiting), falls in love with the daughter of the other, Juliet Capulet (Olivia Hussey). Of course, their parents are opposed so they marry secretly. Youthful casting makes the macho bravado of each family's would-be warriors especially convincing as their pointless duels set in motion the tragedy that follows. Realistic location filming and robust performances make this classic tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’ seem as contemporary as ever.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
- February 27-March 4, 2000