Friday, April 17, 2009

Knight Without Armour (1937) Revisited

I wonder if anyone reads James Hilton‘s books anymore?

The movies that were made from his books certainly seem to have a longer shelf life than the author’s reputation. But then, Hilton, born in 1900,  was never trying to compete with his generation’s literary stars such as Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene or even Eric Ambler, but his slight stories certainly have found a place in viewers’ hearts. As a line in one of his most enduring works, Goodbye, Mr. Chips goes, he was a man of his time and a particular place writing mostly about those who went out into the changing world from “the heart of England, a heart with a very gentle beat.”

Yet in reading his books again, I find that they do not enshrine the British Empire or idealize a pastoral England, though the best and worst of those elements are a part of his stories. The novels are full of the international, class, labor and political unrest of the first half of the 20th century. They are told from the wistful point of view of a man who wanted to get down on paper his own mixture of impatience with sometimes hide-bound, unjust society that made him and his own rather dreamy belief in the individual’s ability to discover a certain peace within their own lives. To say that he found a responsive audience among the beleaguered reading and movie-going public in the 1930s and 1940s is an understatement.

 James Hilton‘s familiar cinematic yet perhaps forgotten literary world always struck me as an idealistic landscape with a north, south, east and west bounded by Lost Horizon (1937), Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Random Harvest (1942), and and the little known We Are Not Alone (1939), which MorlockJeff described so well here.  Now, thanks to the recent broadcast of a little seen Hilton story on TCM during last month’s tribute to the Kordas, the points of that small literary and cinematic compass might also include Knight Without Armour (1933), a must for those of us susceptible to this storyteller’s gifts, the film of which may feature one of the best retellings of a Hilton book on film–even though it was considered a financial failure in its day and a mixed bag critically since then. After many years of longing to see this movie, one viewing sent me in search of the novel it was based on after reveling in the movie’s romantic but surprisingly even-handed look at one of the twentieth century’s most tragic breaks with the past...More on the TCM Movie Morlocks.


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