This post is my hopelessly late contribution to the excellent British Empire in Film Blogathon (thank you, crippling four-day migraine). Go check out some of the other fine entries! When you’re done reading this one, of course.
George More O’Ferrall’s The Heart of the Matter is an adaptation of Graham Greene’s wonderful 1948 bummer of a novel of the same name. As a representation of colonial Sierra Leone, where the whole story takes place, it isn’t especially illuminating…except of course for the marked absence of black characters or local events impinging on the plot in any way. On the one hand, it’s not a bad adaptation of the novel—it does a fine job of preserving what is arguably the core of the novel, that is, Scobie’s struggle to do right by his Catholicism in the context of his extramarital affair (and, er, British imperialism). On the other hand, the film has chosen to eliminate any of Greene’s meditation on colonialism or race, which is, in the novel, intimately tied to the narrative of Scobie’s Catholicism. (For instance, in the film, Scobie has an affair with a young white woman, Helen. The novel’s Scobie has an affair with a Sierra Leonean woman, who is, naturally, black.) I try not to judge movies based on how well they do something they weren’t trying to do in the first place. It’s hard, though, to forgive a movie set in colonial Sierra Leone with a colonial policeman as its protagonist that isn’t interested in either of those things. Of course, to act as though those things go without saying is a very colonial attitude. And take a look at the film’s poster with its realistic representation of the white characters and the anonymous, stylized natives below them.
The fine Trevor Howard plays Henry Scobie, a colonial police officer in Sierra Leone during World War II. Howard is a strong argument for watching this film. Conveying the internal struggle of someone wrestling with questions of eternal damnation and the suffering of others is no small achievement and he does a remarkable job. Being properly British, Scobie isn’t given to displays of emotion but we can tell, even when his face goes stony, that he is suffering. Scobie’s stiff-upper-lippiness is in stark contrast to his wife, Louise. Played by Elizabeth Allan in a thankless role, she is shrewish and unstable, partly as a result of the being ostracized by the colonial community. Mostly she’s just unlikeable.
Greene’s protagonist is filled with a sense of duty motivated by the pity he feels for others—his wife, the young woman with whom he starts an affair, the law he’s charged with upholding. This is a familiar theme for Greene. It is the motor that drives the hero in his novel Ministry of Fear, a characteristic which does not show up in the Fritz Lang’s film version (which I wrote about here). It’s nice to see somebody take the Greene malaise seriously. At the beginning of the film Scobie is already in the unenviable position of being married to someone whom he doesn’t love and who makes him miserable and, because he’s Catholic, someone he cannot divorce. (I do wish people would stop misspelling cannot as can not.) Scobie believes he is responsible for the unpleasant person Louise has become. In order to fulfill his sense of obligation to her, he borrows money from an unscrupulous Algerian trader Yusef, so that she can travel to South Africa. Yusef (Gérard Oury) is almost as interestingly complex as Scobie. He is a product of French colonialism and, though he is the closest thing to a villain here, we sense there is a corner of him that wishes he weren’t so corrupt. That corner wants to be Scobie’s friend. There’s an excellent shot of Scobie returning to his bungalow, where Yusef is waiting for him. The staging makes Yusef an unseemly bump in Scobie’s path to the better person he so desperately wants to be, the corruption that spreads itself out over everything in Scobie’s life.
Scobie is convinced that he is responsible for his wife’s misery and for the misery of the woman he truly loves, his mistress, Helen (Maria Schell, sister of actor Maximilian Schell). When Louise, a practicing but less conflicted Catholic, insists Scobie accompany her to Mass, Scobie is faced with a theological dilemma. If he goes to Mass and accepts communion without having confessed, i.e., in a state of mortal sin, he damns himself for eternity. If he doesn’t accompany Louise, she will know something is wrong. Neither can he simply confess his transgression. For his confession to be absolved, Scobie must truly mean it when he promises to stop committing adultery. Otherwise, he remains a mortal sinner. Because Scobie can’t stand the idea of adding to his wife’s misery by exposing her to his affair, he is literally damned either way.
One of the triumphs of Greene’s writing, and, I think, Howard’s acting, is that we sympathize with a character whose deepest-held beliefs are ones we likely don’t share. Indeed, Scobie’s actions may seem unfathomable in their unnecessary self-destructiveness. Partly this is an effect of making Scobie such a sincere and devout Catholic. Howard makes us believe that Scobie’s doomed attempts to live up to his God are necessary, for him. He never expects anyone else to live up to his strict Catholicism—it is his belief, not others’. He believes he is causing others to suffer, and that if he does “the right thing,” he will be able to ameliorate their suffering. It’s the paradox of a kind of magical thinking: the arrogance of believing we have magical power over things we can’t control combined with the selflessness of someone overwhelmed by pity for those around him.
There are some wonderful, less miserable moments in the film, as when Scobie reads to a boy rescued from a torpedoed ship in the British hospital. Scobie is provided a morally uplifting book titled A Bishop among the Bantus: Twenty-five Years in Africa. The boy, who, like many children, has very firm ideas about how the story should go, inspires Scobie to some artistic license so as not to disappoint him.
“Is it a murder story?” the boy asks hopefully. Scobie offers him the title, claiming that Bishop is the name of the hero.
“But you said A Bishop.” Honestly, the child is remarkably alert given that he’s been floating on wreck off the coast of West Africa for forty days.
“What a soppy name.”
“Yes, but then he’s a soppy hero.”
“Heros aren’t soppy,” the boy insists.
“The real heroes are the Bantus.”
“What are Bantus?”
“They’re a ferocious gang of pirates.”
“Does Arthur Bishop pursue them?
“Yes, he’s a secret agent. He—er—dresses up as a seaman and he—er—sails away on a merchantman so that he can be captured by the Bantus, and he discovers all their secret hiding places so that when the time is right, he can betray them.”
“He sounds a bit of a cad.”
“He is. And you know he falls in love with daughter of the captain of the Bantus. That’s when he turns soppy. But there are bags of murders before then,” he assures his now-eager audience, and proceeds to invent a suspenseful yarn about Arthur Bishop pursuing Blackbeard, the Bantu.
It is during this moment of freedom from worry and spiritual conflict that Scobie seems the most himself. It’s no accident that this is also the moment he meets Helen, another rescued passenger, who falls in love with him. I wouldn’t mind Trevor Howard reading me bedtime stories, either, especially if they’re filled with bags of murders and ferocious pirates.
The film uses only ambient sound, so all the music in the film is local to Sierra Leone. It’s quite wonderful and there’s a fair bit of it. Something else in the film from Sierra Leone is John Akar, who plays Scobie’s valet, Ali, the only black part with anything resembling character development. Akar would later become Director of Broadcasting in Sierra Leone. In case you’re wondering, as I was, Sierra Leone achieved independence in 1961.
The movie is streaming free on Amazon Prime and definitely worth a watch.
Don’t forget to read more of the British Empire in Film Blogathon posts!