Amazing Grace

May 22, 2008 at 4:39 pm (books, Film and television)

In an effort to track to its source my preoccupation with the hymn “Amazing Grace,” my husband and I watched the film of the same name last week. I was ready for a Sunday school lesson in period costumes, but actually, we enjoyed the movie quite a bit. Its structure was somewhat confusing, and there were a few inevitable moments of didacticism, but the uncanny ability of British filmmakers to recreate – no, to channel – their own history overcame any lingering reservations.

We thought Ioan Griffudd was fine as the tireless abolitionist William Wilberforce, and it was a pleasure, as always, to see some of the lions of British acting, like Michael Gambon and Albert Finney.

[Michael Gambon as Lord Charles Fox in Amazing Grace; and as Inspector Maigret in the Mystery! production]

Gambon is my favorite Maigret, and as for Albert Finney…well, for me, he will always be the impudent, life-loving, sexy, and utterly irresistible hero of Tony Richardson’s 1963 film Tom Jones.

[Albert Finney, above left, as John Newton, William Wilberforce’s pastor and composer of the hymn Amazing Grace; and below, as the irrepressible rapscallion who, in the words of his creator Henry Fielding, “was certainly born to be hanged.”* ]

(From time to time, in his column for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley revisits the classics. Here’s his take on Tom Jones, both the novel and the film.)

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I expected to see explicit depictions of the slave trade in Amazing Grace, but there were none. Instead, scenes were described in detail horrific enough to make your blood run cold. You cannot help asking yourself how human beings could be so pitiless in their treatment of their fellow creatures. Alas, the answer, blunt and cruel, comes back readily enough: There was money in it.

In his book The Reason for God, Timothy Keller discusses the British abolition movement in a chapter entitled “The Church Is Responsible for So Much Injustice.” Keller’s thesis is that while there is truth in that statement, it is likewise true that Christianity has served to motivate believers to correct that same injustice. He notes that historians are genuinely puzzled by the drive for abolition because “…most historians believe all political behavior is self-interested.”** This movement was anything but:

“When the abolitionists finally had British society poised to abolish slavery in their empire, planters in the colonies foretold that emancipation would cost investors enormous sums and the prices of commodities would skyrocket catastrophically. This did not deter the Abolitionists in the House of Commons. They agreed to compensate the planters for all freed slaves, an astounding sum up to half of the British government’s annual budget. The Act of Emancipation passed in 1833, and the costs were so high to the British people that one historian called the British abolition of slavery ‘voluntary econoside.’

And yet they did it. Why? To rid their country of a blot on its moral conduct, and to help rid the world of a hideous evil. And, Rev. Keller avers, because they were impelled to do so by the tenets of their Christian faith.

Our library has recently acquired a new biography of William Wilberforce by William Hague. And Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2005, has long been on my (ridiculously long) to-read list.

At the conclusion of Amazing Grace, the Irish Pipe Band offers a stirring rendition of the hymn. You can see and hear it on the post Weekend Miscellany II.

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*The Fieldings were yet another example of a preternaturally gifted British family. In addition to being a novelist, Henry Fielding was also a magistrate. When he died in 1754, he was succeeded by his half-brother John. The latter was known as “the blind beak of Bow Street:” despite being without sight, he was supposedly able to identify some three thousand miscreants by their voices. Sir John Fielding is featured in an exceptionally fine series of historical mysteries written by the late Bruce Alexander.

**In an essay entitled “The Animal People,” Joy Fielding makes a similar observation concerning those who campaign for the humane treatment of animals:

“They appear to be ordinary, caring, middle-class Americans marching for justice. Yet has any group in this country ever had such an extremist agenda, based utterly on non-self-fulfillment and non-self-interest? The animal people are calling for a moral attitude toward a great and mysterious abd mute nation. Their quest is quixotic; their reasoning, assailable; their intentions, almost inarticulateable. The implementation of their vision would seem madness. But the future world is not this one. Our treatment of animals and our attitude toward them are crucial not only to any pretensions we have to ethical behavior but to humankind’s intellectual and moral evolution. Which is how the human animal is meant to evolve, isn’t it?

The complete essay can be found in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals by Joy Williams.

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