I am not one to malign a movie simply because it depicts an atheist as something other than a good moral citizen. I don’t think that is a befitting criteria to judge an overall film. It may be necessary to criticize a blatant Christian propaganda film generalizing atheists and other nonbelievers as being responsible for all of society’s ills (something Pat Robertson might do). This type of depiction has to do with prejudice, unless it is an excusable satire in which stereotypes are required for laughs. One bad atheist doesn’t spoil the whole lot just as one smelly Christian shouldn’t mean that the entire church stinks (a very odd way of putting it but I’m sure you are now imagining a smelly Christian).
With that said, I do like to examine movies that are morality plays focusing on good religion versus evil no-religion and Dragonwyck, an admittedly enjoyable gothic soap opera, does just that. It features Gene Tierney as the innocent Miranda Wells (the movie poster to the left doesn’t do her justice) and one of my all time favorites Vincent Price as the suffering but scheming Nicholas Van Ryn.
The movie opens with what feels to me as a suffocating existence of holier than thou farm living. Miranda’s father Ephraim, played by Walter Huston, emphasizes prayer and the Bible in all things. When the household receives an invite from Nicholas Van Ryn to allow for one of their daughters to stay at Dragonwyck, a mansion filled with servants and luxury, Ephraim is quick to dismiss it–but Miranda knows how to speak Christianese and says God has talked to her spirit, telling her to go. The whole matter is left up to random scripture picking, which if you don’t know is where you flip through the Bible with your eyes closed and put your finger on a verse (kind of like fortune telling). Whatever verse you pick you attempt to interpret how it relates to your situation. It sounds silly but I saw it done on occasion and I believe I even tried it as a kid. Miranda picks out a verse about Hagar going off into the desert which suggests that Miranda should go to Dragonwyck.
Once Miranda arrives at the mansion she is overwhelmed by it all. It is the life of the rich elite and yet, as the story unfolds, it is the telling of how serfdom was coming to an end, a favoring of the “peasants”. The farmers on Van Ryn’s land are refusing to pay tribute and demand that they own the land they have worked for decades. To make matters worse, Van Ryn has been unable to father an heir and he despises his gluttonous wife who loves sweets more than her own child Katrine. Then there is the ghostly sounds coming from a room with an antiquated harpsichord dwells with a painting overhead of a deceased woman who may or may not be haunting Dragonwyck. The movie does not make it clear if it is only certain characters that hear the noise or if there is actually a ghost, an ambiguity I appreciate and I prefer to think of the family members going mad because of their unhappy lives.
The entire picture of Dragonwyck is meant as a contrast to the hard-working, Bible believing farmers. While I felt Miranda’s family was too stern and judgmental the movie seems to favor them as well as the tenants of Van Ryn. Certainly, I don’t care for the stuffy rich either, but the family of Dragonwych is painted as utterly unhappy with misery around every corner. Van Ryn himself, though the word is not used, is explicitly described as an atheist. Later we find out he is truly a despicable person, almost to be pitied, and it is suggested because of his lack of belief that his only hope lies in power, money, and an heir. When he can’t have them there is no where for him to turn to but drugs.
Oh, and did I mention the murder? I always hate giving away too much, but someone dies within Dragonwyck. At the end of the film, you will be able to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together and see how truly miserable the rich are.
This film was based on a book by Anya Seton and deviates somewhat from the Wiki article I read. I would be curious to read it to see if Van Ryn is depicted in the same manner as the film. Well, if we have to have a miserably unhappy atheist, at least it is Vincent Price in the role.