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Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Salvation Army At The Movies by Rob Brettle

Major Barbara

When I started looking into the Salvation Army in film, I like many assumed that appearances were uncommon and only a few films would have an Army presence in them. I’m sure that there are still more films to add to the list. One fact which is of interest – the Salvation Army has been shown in films, whether the principal storyline or a passing reference, in every decade since the production of films began. The earliest film is “The Salvation Army Lass” produced in 1909, which we are privileged to be able to see later on, right through to “The Man Without a Past” produced in 2002, and applauded at the Cannes Film Festival amongst other places.

To begin to deal with this huge number of films, I have sought to categorise them. If you were to go into the streets and ask ordinary members of the public how they perceive the Salvation Army you will get a number of answers. Some will say people who collect money, charity workers, open-air services, nice people, comforting the bereaved, Christmas carolling and so on. Some will say the Army are naïve do-gooders, some will say they remember our service to troops in the last war, some will say people to do not know how to have fun, some will say we are inconsequential. All of these perceptions have appeared in film.

The role of comforting the bereaved was shown in the 1952 film “The Brave Don’t Cry”; a film of a mining disaster in Ayrshire where Salvationists are in the crowd at the pit head, and the Army Officer is seen greeting all the survivors as they are rescued.

The Salvation Army also appeared in the TV series Tenko. In this clip we are in Singapore at the end of the Second World War and some of the characters pay a visit to a Salvation Army run clothing store. I feel this shows the Army in a good light as the Major has a cheerful friendly disposition. Salvation Army Goodwill services have also appeared in the recent 2002 film “Like Mike” where one of the principal characters obtains from trainers from the Salvation Army thrift store, and the 2001 film “K-Pax” has a character who had obtained a pencil from a Salvation Army hostel.

The Social side of the Army has been a particularly common theme amongst film makers. In 2002 Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki produced a film which was acclaimed at Film Festivals around the world – “The Man Without a Past”. Basically a man arrives in Helsinki and is beaten to near-death by muggers. When he regains consciousness he finds he has lost his memory and drifts into the world of the city’s underclass. There he meets, and subsequently falls in love with, an Army Soup Kitchen volunteer played by Kati Outinen. The Army’s other social aspects have appeared in, amongst others, the silent 1916 film “Gutter Magadalene”, the Swedish silent film “The Phantom Cart” produced in 1921 and the 2002 Icelandic film “Falcons” which features the Army guesthouse in Reykjavik.

We now move onto the most common expression of the Salvation Army in film – that is of the Salvation Army band. In a great many American films set during Christmas you will be able to hear to dulcet tones of an Army band carolling. Our next clip comes from the 1991 film “Christmas on Division Street”. The Army’s role in this film is very much a cameo to the central action and shows one of the characters playing with the band.

Other carolling clips can be seen in the 1991 film “Bernard and the Genie” and the 1992 film “The Merry Mishaps of Mr Bean”.

The fact that carolling is also linked to money has not escaped film makers either. In the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street” there is a debate as to whether Santa Claus is real between two lawyers. One of the lawyers interjects “look at the Salvation Army – they have a Santa on every street corner and they’re making a fortune”.

Another portrayal of the Band is the open-air meeting, dear to the hearts of many of us. In the next clip, from the 2000 film “The Last of the Blond Bombshells” we see a former World War Two Jazz player now playing with the Army band – look out for the money reference at the end of the shot.

Open airs have also been seen in the 1966 film “The Wrong Box”, the 1935 film “The 39 Steps” and the 1956 film “Around the World in Eighty Days”.

The Army on the march has also been portrayed in the 1929 silent film “Pandora’s Box” and the 2000 film “The Grinch”, though the latter is a somewhat stylised version.

Perhaps the three most widely-known films which have a predominant Salvation Army story line are “The Belle of New York”, “Guys and Dolls” and “Major Barbara”. If we had more time I would have liked to show these three films in their entirety because it is very difficult to summarise them in the time available. However, I shall show just one clip from “Guys and Dolls”. This is the famous scene where the gamblers give a challenge to Sky Masterton, played by Marlon Brando. Sky has just said he can get any woman to go to Cuba with him, and the challenge is that the woman should be Captain Sarah Brown, played by Jean Simmons. The film follows his attempts to woo Captain Brown.

Incidentally it is worth stating at this point that a number of high-profile actors and actresses have appeared in Salvation Army uniform at one stage or another. In addition to Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando in “Guys and Dolls”, we also have Vera-Ellen in “The Belle of New York”, Jim Dale in “Hot Lead and Cold Feet”, Clark Gable in “Laughing Sinners”, Wendy Hillier and Rex Harrison in “Major Barbara” and Cary Grant in “She Done Him Wrong”.

Almost as well known is the 1909 film “The Salvation Army Lass”. Linda Arvidesen heads the cast in this short film (15 minutes) about the Salvation Army slum-work in the United States. This is the first firm produced with a Salvation Army theme.

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