Friday, June 24, 2016

Clergy in Crisis: The Sandpiper (1965)

 Richard Burton as an Episcopalian pastor and school principal in 1965's The Sandpiper faces one of the great moral dilemmas: to be true to his wife (Eva Marie Saint) or have an affair with the mother (Elizabeth Taylor) of one of his students.

The film was one of eleven Burton and Taylor made together as they continued to marry, divorce and remarry themselves and others off screen. Directed by the great director of musicals, Vincente Minnelli though it wasn’t a musical, the film introduced the Academy Award winning song, "The Shadow of Your Smile."

I wondered for a bit whether to use this film for Movie Churches since it is about a school principal (or "warden" as he is referred to in the film) rather than a full time pastor. But the Rev. Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton) is an ordained Episcopalian priest, and he does apparently regularly preach in chapel to the students of his boys' school. More importantly, everyone views him as a minister of the Gospel.

Laura Reynolds (Taylor) thinks of him as a Christian, and that is the very reason she doesn't want her son to attend his school. She calls herself a "naturalist" who doesn't believe in the supernatural. She thinks religion corrupts people's spirits, but a judge rules that her ten year old son must either attend Hewitt's school or reform school, so she consents. He tries to assure her that even though chapel is compulsory, you can't force someone to pray.

Laura had been homeschooling her son, Danny. They've both been memorizing The Canterbury Tales (not a great way to keep one's mind religion free). I find it rather interesting that a half century ago, homeschooling is presented as the province of anti-religious free spirits while in the more recent past, people think of conservative Christians when they think of homeschoolers.

Billy Graham had what proved to be a wise policy of never meeting alone with a woman who was not a family member. The Rev. Dr. Hewitt visits Miss Reynolds (she's never been married, a scandal to all) in her home to report on her son. On his first visit he finds her modeling topless for an artist. He sticks around until after the artist leaves so he can talk to her alone. Not prudent.

Hewitt wants information on Laura’s background, so he asks around in the locker room at the Pebble Beach Country Club. One of the men wonders if Hewitt can handle the sordid details, being a minister and all. The man says he had an affair with Miss Reynolds.

Hewitt continues to visit Reynolds and eventually admits his desire for her. They begin an affair. He lies to his wife, claiming to be off at school fundraising appointments. He tells Laura that his wife is a good woman (and Mrs. Hewitt does seem to be kind, affirming and supportive). He tells Laura that he is a hypocrite (good call).

Laura has an artist friend (Charles Bronson) who calls himself "the village atheist" and enjoys trying to bait the Rev. Dr. into theological arguments. Hewitt responds with the proverb about not answering a fool in his folly. When the atheist finds out about the affair, he mocks the Rev. Dr., who attacks him and tries to choke him to death.

So, in his relationships with two defiant non-Christians, Hewitt tries two different methods of communication. Not surprisingly, neither adultery nor violence leads to conversion.

Laura does attend the last school chapel of the year, a time when parents are invited. In a rambling, pseudo-profound sermon, the Rev. Dr. Hewitt announces his resignation. He doesn't confess his sin, but he tells his wife and lover he is leaving them both. I believe all parties will be better off. The Rev. Dr. Hewitt and his chapel receive One Steeple.

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