Fifteen years ago I took my wife to the movies to see Cast Away. The film, starring Tom Hanks, is a modern take on the 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I thought it was a good film for various reasons, and was a bit saddened that it did not do better at the Academy Awards.
So why do I mention this film at this point in time? Although it has been around for a while now, it does get shown on television every so often, as it did here again last night. I have been meaning to write about some spiritual lessons that can be gleaned from it, so here I finally go.
While Dafoe was a Christian, and brought Christianity into his novel, presumably the creators of Cast Away were not Christian, and this was just a secular Hollywood production. Still, one can get some biblical themes at least shining through.
Of course a minor problem here is for those who have not yet seen the film – I don’t want to give it all away. So if you don’t want any spoilers, perhaps you should not read the second half of this article just yet. But I won’t give away too much in my first half.
The film describes FedEx worker Chuck Noland (Hanks) who is on a small plane that crashes in the Pacific Ocean. All lives are lost except his, and he ends up on a deserted island, where he must seek to survive. A major subplot is his love of Kelly (Helen Hunt). He wants to marry her, but his busy career has prevented this from happening.
One way to deal with my interests in this film is to bring in G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) at this point. He is one of my favourite writers, and his 1908 volume Orthodoxy is one of my favourite books. In the book he in part describes his journey to faith, and in one chapter he speaks of one of his favourite books, and one of his favourite parts of it.
In the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” he speaks of life as being “not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege”. He specifically refers to Robinson Crusoe and says this about the book:
it celebrates the poetry of limits, nay, even the wild romance of prudence. Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea; the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.
The second half of the film (although it does not take a full half of its length) has to do with Chuck getting off the island and finally being discovered by a passing cargo ship. Four years on from his fateful plane crash, he is reunited with his colleagues at FedEx in Memphis.
But it is the love of his life that makes for the real drama. He learns early on that Kelly has married. He goes to see her at her home one rainy night, while her husband and daughter are asleep upstairs. They embrace, talk briefly, then he leaves. But it is clear that they both still madly love each other.
As he drives away, he quickly reverses and races back, while she runs to the street to meet him. They embrace again and kiss again, and declare their love for one another. But Chuck tells her that she needs to go back home. She now has a family that she must be with, and all the raging emotions in the world should not offset her duty to marriage and family.
So he drives off, not knowing what he will do next. He tells a friend that he lost Kelly twice: first when he did not know if he would get off the island, and second, when he finds her again, but as a married woman. Although a secular spin on what would have been a Christian theme for Defoe, Chuck says this:
We both had done the math. Kelly added it all up and… knew she had to let me go. I added it up, and knew that I had… lost her. ‘Cos I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick, or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when, and how, and where it was going to happen. So… I made a rope and I went up to the summit, to hang myself. I had to test it, you know? Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log, snapped the limb of the tree, so I-I- , I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing. And that’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day my logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I’m back. In Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass… And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?
Here the theme that Chesterton dealt with crops up again. Who knows what the tide will bring in? Chesterton the Christian says the list of recovered objects is a lot like the life itself. He concludes his chapter with these words:
But I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the order and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe’s ship. That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added. The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck: and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires (they are called so in Milton’s Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one.
Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the unutterable things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life; the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way I thought before I could write, and felt before I could think: that we may proceed more easily afterwards, I will roughly recapitulate them now. I felt in my bones; first, that world does not explain itself. It may be miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods: he had saved them from a wreck. All this I felt and the age gave me no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought of Christian theology.
OK, so maybe this article was just another cheap excuse for me to quote more slabs of Chesterton. Well, no apologies for that. But I did (and still do) quite enjoy the film, and if you have not yet seen it, I recommend it. As well as the entire storyline, it has plenty of memorial moments, from Wilson the volleyball, to his self-inflicted dentistry.
And if you have not yet read Orthodoxy, I strongly recommend that as well. It may well still be my most-loved book of all time. And Chesterton may well be my most-loved author of all time. Happy reading, and viewing.