Love vs. Honour; Donnie Brasco and Sling Blade

Article excerpt

MAURICE YACOWAR is Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Calgary. He provides the critical commentary on the Criterion laserdisc editions of Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein.

Two excellent new films provide contrasting takes on an archetypal conflict: between love and honour. In Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco, the dilemma involves a kind of love between a Mafia functionary and an FBI undercover agent posing as the eponymous hoodnik. In Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade, a retarded murderer finds a way to unite love and honour when he kills the town bully. In some respects, these new films deal with a dilemma as old as humanity, in which love and death are destined for a romantic rendezvous.

IF this theme seems familiar, perhaps it is because Thomas Hurka touches on many of these issues in the preceding article. He opines that Casablanca is a more moral movie than The English Patient. In the old classic, the hero (Bogart) eschews his one great passion (Bergman) to go fight the good fight (versus the Nazis). In Anthony Minghella's widely esteemed new film (and in its source, the Michael Ondaatje novel), the spin-coat (i.e., a turncoat who keeps on turning) Hungarian Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) betrays his current people (the Allies) for a plane, in order to return to his now-dead beloved in a desert cave. Professor Hurka inspired a heated debate on the editorial page of the Globe and Mail, and most readers sided with the newer movie. They argued that humanity and love are more important than the slavish pursuit of national causes, however idealistic. They did not cite the Nuremberg convention.

Of course, this love-honour debate is one of our oldest dilemmas. One assumes that King David rassled with it for a few seconds before going for Bathsheba -- and dispatching her inconvenient hubby. Even before that, the esteemed patriarch Abraham may have worked through it before passing off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister so that a powerful king could enjoy her more freely. Or maybe not: he did it twice. If not then, perhaps he felt torn between his love for his only begotten son Isaac and his sense of duty towards Jehovah, when God demanded the boy's sacrifice. But our biblical texts don't spell out for us motives and psychology. Those are modern inventions, like fibre-optics. The implicit conflict between love and duty was left for later literature to propound. When it did, the preferred value was usually duty. That is the safer moral to wave. It proffers a value other than self-indulgence.

As usual, Shakespeare covers it all rather thoroughly. For example, there's a five-line transition scene in Othello (III, ii) where we see the island ruler coolly at work. Nothing much happens. The Moor is efficiently doing his job before his jealousy overtakes him and he puts out Desdemona's lights. He even claims to kill his beloved because of the call of duty: "Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men" (v, ii). Again, Professor Harold Goddard has sharply summarized Antony and Cleopatra as "the power of personality [A. and C.] versus the impersonality of power" [the Caesarean section]. For John Dryden, on the other hand, if those lovers' story was All for Love, it was The World Well Lost.

We don't always get Shakespeare's complexity in the debate. When Jonathan Swift, impatient with literary conventions, visits the romantic heroine, he comes away shocked that "Celia, Celia, Celia --!" performs a bodily function that apparently generations of shepherds and their poetasters never realized.

Unlike the many historical cases one might adduce (the Duke of Windsor, for example, or Eddie Fisher), in the perennial film myth a code of honour usually transcends the personal interest -- i.e., Love. Indeed when we do get a hero who is nakedly self-interested, such as Budd Schulberg's Sammy or Mordecai Richler's Duddy, we're supposed to strike a critical detachment from them. …