The 1935 classic A TALE OF TWO CITIES is a brilliant version of the Charles Dickens novel. In the story, Sydney Carton, an alcoholic British lawyer in 1780 falls for Lucie Manette, whose father spent 18 years in prison for helping peasants abused by a wealthy French family, led by an evil Marquis. Lucie is being courted by Charles Darnay, who has denounced his uncle, the Marquis, and renounced the family name. Lucie marries Charles after Sydney saves Charles from being convicted of treason in England. When the French Revolution breaks out, the leftist revolutionaries trick Charles into visiting Paris to wipe out his whole family.
Now and then a movie is made that entertains and presents a profound message at the same time. A TALE OF TWO CITIES is such a movie. It exposes the cruelty of both the French aristocracy and the French revolutionaries. It contrasts this cruelty with a story of sacrificial love that focuses on Jesus Christ and His Resurrection. Ronald Coleman gives a memorable, heartbreaking performance as Sydney Carton. A TALE OF TWO CITIES is a must-see masterpiece.
(CCC, BBB, ACACAC, V, AA, M)
Dominant Worldview and Other Worldview Content/Elements:
Very strong Christian, biblical, moral worldview promoting sacrificial love centered on Jesus Christ, His Resurrection and Christ’s words in John 11:25, “I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” with a very strong message against mob/leftist tyranny
No obscenities or profanities
Some French Revolution violence and one fight between two women, use of a guillotine artfully displayed without showing close ups of its use, a villain is shot dead after a fight, an evil man is stabbed by another man, and a boy is killed by a cruel aristocrat’s coach and horses
Alcohol use and drunkenness
Smoking and/or Drug Use and Abuse:
No smoking or drugs; and,
Mob revenge, greed, cruelty, and corruption but rebuked.
The causes and effects of the French Revolution come alive through this cinematic rendering of the Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, published in 1859. As we will see, there’s more to A TALE OF TWO CITIES than the bloodstained blade of the guillotine.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES could also be called A Tale of Two Worldviews. France’s revolution of bloodshed and the deification of man, the “citizen” and “the people,” were in stark contrast to the American Revolution that perpetuated a Christian moral order. As the late Rousas J. Rushdoony writes, “The concept of a secular state was virtually non-existent in 1776 as well as in 1787, when the Constitution was written, and no less so when the Bill of Rights was adopted. To read the Constitution as the charter for a secular state is to misread history, and to misread it radically. The Constitution was designed to perpetuate a Christian order.”
France’s revolution against oppression opened a Pandora’s box of vice and corruption. Pornography was let loose in this once-civilized nation. Strange new cults appeared with attendant sex rituals, black magic and satanism. Depravity became fashionable while homosexuality became “respectable.” The homosexual community was openly courted by France’s power brokers. Even the police cooperated with the perverse lifestyle of the homosexuals. Prostitutes were admired, and there was increased crime through all levels of society. Reason was proclaimed a goddess in Notre-Dame Cathedral and in other churches in France.
“In Paris, the goddess was personified by an actress, Demoiselle Candeille, carried shoulder-high into the cathedral by men dressed in Roman costumes.”
With this historical background, we enter the world of mob rule – the French Revolution as told by Charles Dickens. In A TALE OF TWO CITIES, we find Dickens preaching “a simple and traditional moral message: as a man sows, so shall he reap.” France had sown the wind, and now she would reap the whirlwind. However, the real message of Dickens is one of redemption.
The movie opens in 1775 with England and France quite unaware of the tumult that will rise up in the land of the Bastille. The oppressive government has taken its toll on the nation. Men and women are imprisoned without just cause. It is this situation that sets the stage for our story.
A Mr. Lorry, representing a London banking firm, is en route to Dover where he is to meet Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan), the only surviving daughter of Dr. Manette, 18 years a prisoner in the bastille at the hands of Marquis St. Evremonde (Basil Rathbone). She is told that her father is not dead as she supposes. He had been incarcerated by the French government while she was yet an infant. The London banking firm that Mr. Lorry represents has been safe-guarding the small fortune that had been invested by Lucie’s father.
Dr. Manette has just been released, and Lucie accompanies Mr. Lorry to Paris to meet her aged and frail father for the first time. His imprisonment has taken its toll, however. The once-vibrant and skilled doctor sits at a shoemaker’s bench able to do little but stare. The doctor is escorted to London, where he is nursed back to health by his loving daughter.
On the ship, Lucie Manette meets a young French aristocrat, Charles Darnay (Donald Woods), a relative of the despised Evremonde family, the same family under which Dr. Manette suffered untold hardship. It is this relationship that will bring the movie to its rising Christian climax. Charles, however, has renounced his family name because he hates the way his family and his uncle, the Marquis, treats the peasants.
Upon his arrival in England, Charles Darnay is charged with spying for the French. The Manettes are called as witnesses against him. However, a clever lawyer, Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman) is called upon to defend the falsely-charged French aristocrat. Through a bit of intrigue, Carton learns how Darnay had been set up for the charge of treason. The man who brought the false charges against Darnay is confronted by Carton, who strongly resembles Darnay, on the basis of mistaken identity. Darnay is released.
The movie is now focused on the wasted life of Sydney Carton. He sees in Darnay what he himself had wasted. Both men are often received at the Manette home. In the course of time, both men fall in love with Lucie, but it is Darnay’s affections that she returns. While outwardly showing little grief over the loss, inwardly Carton begins to examine his wasted life and laments over what could have been. A wasted life is about to be transformed into a self-sacrificing life.
In France, the seeds of revolution are being planted. There are many who want to water the seeds with the blood of aristocrats. One women in particular, a Madame Defarge, has awaited the day of reckoning with controlled agitation. Her knitting records an accounting of the horrors inflicted on the people by the oppressive aristocrats. Highest on her list is the Marquis St. Evremonde and all those acquainted with him, including Charles Darnay, Lucie and their daughter. Madame Defarge is present at the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789.
For three years, the expiating blood of the guillotine drips. It seems that injustice knows no boundaries. The aristocrats are not alone in their brutality. The mob has replaced the court.
Lorry is sent again to Paris on banking business. Darnay is called to Paris to act as a witness in defense of an old and faithful servant who served in the Evremonde household. He was linked with the Old Regime, and thus, he too had to die. Lorry, being an Englishman, is safe. However, Darnay is arrested as an aristocrat.
They soon learn that he is also an Evremonde. He must stand trial for the “sins of the fathers.” Madame Defarge is pleased. Dr. Manette, Lucie and the little girl travel to Paris in defense of Charles. They believe that Dr. Manette, once a prisoner of the Bastille at the hands of the Marquis St. Evremonde, will have some influence over the court. During the trial, Darnay and Dr. Manette convince the bloodthirsty mob that he, Darnay, is a friend of the people. He had renounced his uncle’s bloodletting and had forsaken his French entitlements.
However, Madame Defarge is present at the trial. She will have no part in a verdict of innocent. It seems that her sister and her family had been ruined by the Evremondes. She must call into question the testimony of the good doctor who had forgiven and accepted Charles, not counting the sins of the fathers to him. He showed his forgiving spirit by giving Charles Darnay his own daughter in marriage. Madame Defarge offers in evidence a letter written by Dr. Manette, written while he was suffering under the oppression of the Evremondes, swearing revenge on the Evremonde family. The jury votes for the death penalty.
Meanwhile, Sydney Carton is also in Paris. He learns of the trial and the execution. There is no way of escape for Charles Darnay. Carton blackmails a man who has access to the prison where Darnay is being held for execution. Carton visits Darnay, drugs him, changes clothes with him, and has Darnay carried out. In the end, it is Carton who gives his life so Darnay might live and be reunited with his wife and daughter.
On the way to the guillotine, a seamstress who also must go under the blade is startled by the fact that Carton has taken the place of Darnay. “You’re going to die in his place. Why?” Carton responds, “He’s my friend.” These words of Jesus from John 15:13 come to mind: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for a friend.”
A TALE OF TWO CITIES brilliantly captures the essence of the novel by Charles Dickens. The heart of the story is the transformation of Sydney Carton from a drunk, uncaring failure into a man who can feel Christian, sacrificial love and find purpose in his life. The movie explicitly ends with the words of Jesus in John 11:25, “I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton gives by far the best performance in the movie, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. In fact, Coleman’s performance in A TALE OF TWO CITIES is one of the best, most memorable, most heartbreaking performances by an actor in the history of movies.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES has a profound Christian message, but the portrayal of France before and after the revolution is almost hard to watch. It’s reminiscent of the Russian revolution portrayed in David Lean’s production of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. It’s a time and place you can be glad you didn’t experience.
Sadly, the movie’s lessons are being ignored today. There are a few people more interested in making money than in caring about anyone else, but there are also people calling for a war on all authority, not just the wealthy. The solution to injustice is not a war on authority, or even a war on the rich. God tells the Hebrews in Leviticus 19:15, “Do not pervert justice; do not show favoritism to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a revival of Christian, biblical values that lead to real Justice for everyone. It is the Gospel of Jesus that inspires the rich to care about others, and the poor to avoid the poverty caused by immorality. In reality, spiritual and moral decline is what creates evil rich people and evil poor people. Revival helps bring people out of poverty through both heartfelt generosity and making more productive life choices. Passing a strong Christian worldview to your children is every bit as vital to their future as keeping terrorists from spreading hate and violence in America’s streets.
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