We All Have Something to Learn from Alastair Sim
BY JUSTIN CASE
Alastair Sim, one of the great actors of all time, though long gone, may represent the hope of mankind. Here’s why.
Cynicism has, unfortunately, replaced the human warmth and good feelings that once pervaded much of the world at this, the darkest time of the year. The winter solstice season, when planet Earth in its northern latitudes turns away from the sun (wish it wouldn’t do that), leaves us groping for light switches at hours of the morning when, earlier in the year, we shaded our eyes from sunlight and then later walked about in shirtsleeves. It comes upon us all too quickly, this time of year does, as weeks turn into months, and suddenly we’re immersed in winter’s cold gray shades. Night falls at an hour when it ought to be day. The dark and cold can even produce melancholy, and some have even coined a clinical term (overly so) for such a state, Seasonal Affective Disorder—SAD.
No more hiking up to Cottonwood Lake in the Crazies or lolling on the deck by a sizzling grill with a pitcher of mojitos. You all know the routine. It’s one that has gone on for ages, ever since humanity opened her eyes, looked skyward, and saw the rotations of the heavens heralding in their vast mystery that the gods of fecundity and spring had flown off to Cancun for the season, leaving hobgoblins, spirits of Celtic mischief, their run of this world.
No great challenge then understanding that we were in need of a light to shine in the darkness—some warmth and hope, or at least a bit of yuletide cheer. Imagine living close to the land in say, 325 AD, with the prospect of winter in northern climes a far more ghastly specter than it is now, even in Montana, one rife with influenza, pneumonia, hunger, and biting cold (a ghost of Christmas past). And so it became a time to celebrate all that is good and holy (when all seemed dark and foreboding), to bring light as a reminder of eternal spring into one’s hamlet and hovel—and happily a savior had been born to help people along and illumine their way, availing faith, a sense that spring, warmth, and light would return. Doctrines aside, the sentiment was welcome among the folk (when not fending off bubonic plague), this light in the darkness and the hope of its resurgence, and so the idea caught on—prompting folks, at least once a year, to put animosities aside and raise a glass to universal good will (nothing like some Twelfth Night wassail to take the chill off a frosty relationship).
Enter Charles Dickens, the Oliver Stone of the Victorian era (a man of the 1860s, while Stone finds himself lost in the 1960s). Dickens had a flare for social commentary, his best of times/worst of times, and wrapped up his view of how things are and ought to be as intricate, finely detailed packages, epic novels that paint tapestries of events, dialogue and themes that haunt us to this day.
Fast forward to the movies, and the film adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim. We will skip over the other versions and interpretations of the life and times of Ebenezer Scrooge, because they fail to capture the author’s sentiment so well and fall by the wayside. Even performances of George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart pale in comparison. And in these days of streaming video, you, my friend, nestled in the warmth of hearth and home with your tree a twinkling on a dark wintry night, the wind lashing, the snow flurrying, may imbibe as holiday cheer the bittersweet yet ultimately epiphanic nectar offered by Dickens while beholding this story in its cinematically antiquated form (released 60 years ago this winter), a tale crafted that somehow captures the now vanishing yuletide ideal—told from those dark days of Victoria and cast upon the streets of a bleak London, when hope was often a commodity precious as gold (throw in some frankincense and myrrh).
What’s the big deal with this movie? Watch it closely, especially the folds of expression in the haggard face of Alastair Sim, as he personifies the character drawn so meticulously in the Dickensian imagination (Sim bears a resemblance to John Fryer, by the way, when smiling at least—notice how you never see them together in the same place).
Set a stage, if inclined, as winter’s dark curtain falls. Turn the lights down, extinguish that Rat Pack Christmas CD, then burn a candle in the corner of your room, pour a hot toddy, curl beneath a woolen blanket, and watch with Ghosts of Christmas as the hour strikes midnight.
Scrooge was a crusty old curmudgeon, self-victimized by lost love and avarice. His was a life poorly lived, not in pounds and shillings, but in spirit, until he realizes the poverty of his heart in relation to Victorian England and its shivering masses—as the spirit admonishes him so intensely while Scrooge considers the demands of business:
Humanity IS your business.
His, afterward, was a life made new, redeemed, even at his advanced age, an old dog learning how to roll over, as it were, and it is Alastair Sim (with a hand from Dickens) whose performance reminds us of the many ways in which we, ourselves, might become warm light shining in cold darkness.