Happy birthday to the lovely late Lillian Gish … who would be 115 if she were still alive today, Oct. 14. The photo at left is of Gish in her role of Rachel in “Night of the Hunter,” one of my favorite films. She’s my pick as the greatest female movie hero to children until Ellen Ripley came along.
Rachel battled an especially slimy, creepy, grotesque “preacher” as portrayed by Robert Mitchum in the 1955 movie. Rachel is a kind of human “fairy godmother” to lost, abandoned or orphaned children, a older woman who is more than a match for a murderous psychopath with both her wits and her trusty shotgun.
Do you ever find that there are lines from certain movies that often seem to come into your head in all types of situations? “Night of the Hunter” is one of those movies for me.
Just last week, I saw a baby mouse dead in my garage. This was a very tiny baby. And let’s just say I know of a feline suspect nearby who would have been convicted if the case had been taken to trial.
I’m sure the pragmatists of the world would say, “Lucky for you, that’s one less adult mouse you’ll have in your house.”
Not being a pragmatist about this particular topic, I just felt sorry for the tiny mouse and thought of Rachel’s line in “NOTH,” which applies the same to humans and animals:
“It’s a hard world for little things.“
Isn’t it, though? The smaller that something or somebody is, the more predators there are to face. However, when the “protector” of the small things is someone who – at first glance – seems to need protecting herself … well that is a recipe for an ultimately uplifting movie.
Because it shows that “heroes” don’t always have to look the way we have been conditioned to think they must. Rachel’s experience, intelligence, common sense and bravery are all packaged into someone who is small, older and a woman. Three things that, very often, are presented as “weak.” Or at the very least, not strong.
Yet in the lives of the two children who are at the center of this film, the only place they’ve ever felt safe was under the care of Rachel. For them, no one could be stronger.
Fast-forward many years, and we got another cinematic child-protector in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from “Aliens.” Again and again through increasingly greater obstacles, Ripley saves Newt, who grows to believe in her guardian so completely that the little girl says to her with absolute conviction upon being rescued against all odds, “I knew you’d come.”
I saw “Aliens” in the theater more times than I should admit – OK, seven – and many times since on TV. As for “Night of the Hunter,” I’ve watched that several times, too. No secret why I’m so attached to both films.
Both are “horror” movies where a lot of people fail, but one very strong woman prevails. In each case, she goes against an enemy who is bigger and who has no conscience or mercy, but what gives her almost supernatural strength is her desire to protect a child.
It’s so pure a motive for fighting, so noble a cause to kick tail, and I know it touches something that is bedrock in many of us: We wish that it wasn’t a hard world for little things. But since it is, we cheer with all our hearts for the those who make it less hard.