Thursday, November 29, 2012


I enjoy history and biography, and one of my favorite film genres is the historical docudrama or biopic, especially if the writer and director stay pretty close to the facts. (But, I agree that all history-writing is interpretation; I don’t mind a bit of creative interpretation.) I’m thinking of movies like “Shadowlands,” "The King's Speech," and (a gem you’ve never heard of because it went straight to DVD) “Einstein and Eddington.”

(Okay, I admit that these films would all feel at home on “Masterpiece Theatre,” but, as a forty-year MT aficionado, that recommends them to me all the more.)

Every once in a while an historical account or relationship begins to take shape in my brain as a film. Alas, I’m no screenwriter, but here are three I offer to anyone who is. I would love to see high-quality, (even “small”) films made of the following:

Edward Thomas, left, and Frost
I. The story of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas.  The American Frost and Brit Thomas met in London in 1913, before either of them had become recognized as a poet. They rambled the English countryside together, and their brief friendship was deep and consequential. Thomas, after much agonizing, enlisted in WWI (though he did not have to) and was soon killed in action. A dramatic hook for the screenplay: The poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which was later to become one of Frost’s most famous, was written in response to Thomas’ uncertainty about enlisting, and may have had an influence on his fateful decision.* 

Bishop Henry Whipple
c. 1862
II. The Bishop and the President. Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, befriended the Dakota in the years leading up to the 1862 war known as “The Sioux Uprising.” During the conflict, more than eight hundred (white) members of the bishop's diocese were killed, and Whipple was among those who treated the wounded. Nevertheless, after the war, Whipple personally lobbied President Abraham Lincoln with the result of reducing the number of Native leaders to be executed from three hundred to thirty-eight (still the largest mass execution in US history).

Screenwriting hooks: 1) Whipple was “friend” to both Lincoln and the Dakota chief Taopi. 2) Lincoln examined the trial transcripts of the three hundred sentenced to hang, and wrote out the reduced list of thirty-eight with his own hand. Lincoln's judicious magnanimity was highly unpopular in Minnesota, and nearly cost him the 1864 election in that state. (He said, "I will not buy votes at the cost of a man's life.") Whipple’s advocacy for the Dakota was equally unpopular. In the archives of Whipple's Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior, in Faribault, Minnesota, is a photograph of Dakota tipi's pitched closely around the church -- an illustration of the closeness of this relationship.** 

Bonhoeffer in prison, 1945.
III. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Spoke in the Wheel. Outside of the circle of those who are drawn to Bonhoeffer by his work in Christian ethics and moral theology (highlighted by his martyrdom by the Nazis), his story is only dimly known, usually concentrating on his minor role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. (But not minor enough  to prevent his execution.) What is even less well-known is that Dietrich’s brother, Klaus, and two brothers-in-law were also executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was a leader in the "Confessing Church," that branch of Christianity that remained true to it's faith while the majority of German Lutherans signed on to a pledge that essentially said, "One Church, One Fuhrer, and out with the Jews." Bonhoeffer established and bravely led a seminary of the Confessing Church until it was closed down by the Gestapo. Through his brother-in-law's connections he then accepted a position in the Abwher (military intelligence) where he worked behind the scenes on behalf of condemned Jews and to slow down the machinery of destruction. It was in this capacity that he joined his brother-in-law and others, including high-ranking officers, in the plan to assassinate Hitler. He lived what he said: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” He was arrested for resistance activities and executed at Flossenburg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945, just days before the end of the war. He was thirty-nine years old.

Chapters for a screenplay: 1) Bonhoeffer's urbane, secular family – headed by his father, a distinguished professor at the University of Berlin – were surprised and bemused by Dietrich’s decision for a vocation in the church. 2) During an academic year in New York, Bonhoeffer, who had thought that America had “no theology,” met Frank Fisher, a black theologian and fellow student, who became a friend and introduced him to a completely new world: the cultural riches of Harlem and jazz and the vivacity of the black church. Fisher and other American friends tried to encourage Dietrich to sit out the war on this side of the Atlantic, but as the storm clouds gathered, he felt he had no choice but to go back and play his part against the madness.  3) Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, and he considered his part in an assassination plot to be deeply sinful, yet, as he later wrote from prison"Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God's question and call."  Bonhoeffer considered that he was "sacrificing his principles" in the struggle against evil.  4) While imprisoned and awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer became “pastor” to an assortment of fellow-prisoners from a variety of countries and backgrounds (including some of the guards). Without taking too much dramatic license, the film could show this motley assembly all gathered around the sacrament of Holy Communion --offered by Pastor Bonhoeffer.***

In the great sweep of history, these are small stories about big people, deserving of a small film by a good screenwriter.

*The Guardian makes a good case for the connection between The Road Less Traveled and Edward Thomas' decision in this fascinating article.

**This recent episode of This American Life is a thorough, provocative, and moving account of the 1862 "Sioux Uprising."

***The New York Review of Books recently featured this article on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "The Spoke in the Wheel" is also the title of a biography by Renata Wind.

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