Heavens Above!

Heavens Above! Charter Film Productions 1963.

Before watching the movie:

I used to think it would be nice to go into a movie knowing nothing but the title, genre, and who’s in it. Sometimes I still do, but the whole point is to not have any expectations, and that makes writing about my expectations difficult.

Peter Sellers is funny, but rarely as funny as in The Pink Panther series. I find the concept of a priest getting in trouble for ministering to all alike regardless of class/money interesting, and I want to see why such treatment would get the poor upset.

After watching the movie:

The staid parish of Orbiston Parva appoints a new Vicar, but finds themselves with the wrong Rev. John Smallwood due to a clerical error (perhaps the subtlest pun in the history of film, at least the way it’s played). The rich folk have theirs and neither rich or poor trust each other, and that’s the way they like it, but Smallwood comes to town with crazy, heretical ideas like feeding the poor and serving God. On his first day, he invites a large poor family under eviction to live with him at the Vicarage, and the indignity only increases from there. He reaches the heart of the wealthiest lady in town, who decides to sponsor a church handout of any food to all who ask, collapsing the town’s grocery industry, and condemns the town’s livelihood pharmaceutical for marketing with religious phrases and asserting itself as more important than religion, all while the Establishment desperately try to reassert the natural order.

This is one of Sellers’s more unusual roles. He plays an earnest, soft-spoken man with an accent I can’t name, but similar to Liverpudlian (Beatles), who doesn’t realize that actually taking the Bible seriously runs completely counter to the modern Proper Order of Things. I suppose many of his most famous roles are earnest characters, but the accent stood out to me. He’s also much more competent than the roles I’m thinking of.

Speaking of accents, the film opens with an unnecessary narrator spiel in bad American accent about Orbiston Parva (Orbiston Pahver, as the clearly faked accent pronounces it). It also takes rather a long time to properly end. After the climax, it takes several minutes to get Smallwood to where he ends up, but I wouldn’t call it unnecessary so much as in need of tightening.

This is, at its heart, a satire of modern organized religion and politics, which is, as I saw on a rerelease cover for it, far ahead of its time. When would you expect a movie about wealthy conservatives corrupting religion to keep society suited to their own needs, and an experiment in taking the love and charity parts of the Bible to their (flawed) conclusion to have been made? Actually, I suppose the early 60s did have a similar sentiment to what we see today.

As I said, the model Smallwood’s parish runs on is a slightly flawed interpretation of Biblical charity. In Orbiston Parva (which has an even odder name than most British towns and seems to be Latin for “Little Worldtown”), the entire town goes on the dole from one fabulously wealthy old woman, as moderated through the church. Even if it wasn’t in the middle of a rigid capitalist society, it would have eventually collapsed because it’s failing to even be the anarchic commune it’s trying to be, since nobody is actually producing anything. There’s a big difference between a breadline and “from each as he is able, to each according to his need”. Still, the main point of the satire/allegory is that the status quo is only what’s best for the wealthy, and possibly that the poor can’t be trusted to fix it themselves.

I do try to keep politics and religion out of this blog. I guess I knew what I was getting into with this movie.


Watch this movie: For a thought-provoking and rather funny classic satire.

Don’t watch this movie: If you prefer Peter Sellers as a pure buffoon.

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