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Blog // Travel
November 13, 2006

Gentlemen’s Agreement

Last night I managed to see the 1947 film Gentleman‚Äôs Agreement, as part of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival. Whilst not a classic, this film starring Gregory Peck, is often quoted (perhaps more often than it is seen), for it’s treatment of Anti-Semitism. Directed by Elia Kazan and based on a best-selling novel by […]

Last night I managed to see the 1947 film Gentleman‚Äôs Agreement, as part of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival. Whilst not a classic, this film starring Gregory Peck, is often quoted (perhaps more often than it is seen), for it’s treatment of Anti-Semitism. Directed by Elia Kazan and based on a best-selling novel by Laura Z. Hobson, the film scooped a number of awards and nominations at the 1947 Oscars, including best-film, best direction and best Actress in a Supporting Role for the scene-stealing and in the end heart-melting Celeste Holm.

Watching a film like this at the cinema always rasies questions, having grown up watching this era of films as Saturday matinees on TV. I was reminded last night, as I have been several times in recent years, of the power of seeing some of these older films in the format for which they were intended, on the big screen. Gentlemen’s agreement is a film that uses close-ups and medium shots very effective to explore the emotions of characters and their relationships (to each other and to the spaces they find themselves in). We can appreciate this on a TV, but we will always see this best in the cinema.

Also, since this is at times an uncomfortable film, seeing it with an audience highlights the issues in the film. For example, there is a very important scene when Peck’s character (Philip Schuyler Green) first has to explain the nature of Anti-Semitism to his young son (Tommy). The dialogue telescopes rather directly onto current affairs.

Tom: What’s anti-Semitism?
Green: Hmm?
Tom: What’s anti-Semitism?
Green: Oh, that’s where some people… …don’t like other people just because they’re Jews.
Tom: Why? Are they bad?
Green: Some are, sure. Some aren’t. It’s like everybody else.
Tom: What are Jews, anyway? I mean, exactly.
Green: You remember last week when you asked me about that big church? I told you there were lots of different churches.
Tom: Yeah.
Green: The people who go to that church are called Catholics. There are people who go to other churches… and they’re called Protestants. There are others who go to still different ones… and they’re called Jews… only they call their churches synagogues or temples.
Tom: And why don’t some people like those?
Green: Well, that’s kind of a tough one to explain, Tom. Some people hate Catholics and some hate Jews.
Tom: And no one hates us ’cause we’re Americans.
Mrs Green: Ahem.
Green: Well, no, no. That’s, uh…
… that’s another thing again.

Not surprisingly, this scene provoked a number of different kinds of laughter. It’s not just good scriptwriting, it is a set of social and political problems that remain with us today.

I saw the film last night the same was I remembered it – a cutting treatise not just on Anti-Semitism, but on racism in general. The difference being that I am now about 20 years older than when I first saw it, and have the scars to prove as much.

The central theme is that Anti-Semitism continues to thrive not because of the views and actions of “bad” people, but rather because so many “good” people fail to respond; opting for private revulsion over public action. It’s similar to what is called tacit racism. Someone may not be a racist, or may even be quite opposed to it, but by failing to act, by just holding their silence when they encounter it, they allow it to flourish.

This makes them complicit in racist outcomes, even if that is not their intention. I remember becoming acutely aware of this, upon noticing that the church circles I was part of in Australia had a radically less diverse leadership than was reflected in society as a whole. When I tried to discuss this with church leaders, it was met coldly. But if, in fact, those leaders had tried to impose a racist agenda, the outcome would have been no different than the outcome they created by failing to tackle to possibility of racism.

Gentlemen’s Agreement is not a great film. It starts slowly. At times it creaks and the ideology is a little forced (Like The Fountainhead but without the tension and sexual drama). In the end Peck’s character simply makes the wrong romantic choice, which to my mind robs the film of a great deal of power Рredemption comes to easy. But, for its best scenes, for the energy of Peck’s performance, for the relevance to our problems today, it is worth seeing.

For another review, check out Not Coming To A Theater Near You’s review.

[tags] Gentlemen’s Agreement, Anti-Semitism, Racism [/tags]

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