Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Pilgrim

The Pilgrim posterAt the end of The Pilgrim, Charlie Chaplin makes a series of brief forays across the border separating the US and Mexico. At first, his international travel is purely accidental. For the border is nothing but a signpost in the middle of a scrubby area of open space. Chaplin's character, the eponymous pilgrim, leans upon the post until suddenly realizing he has mistakenly strayed into Mexico. So he hurriedly returns to the US and leans on the same post from the other side. How easy it is to slip across the frontier, even without knowing what you have done!

The Pilgrim still
But the pilgrim has been brought here for a purpose. The bulk of the film has shown how he broke out of jail and headed for Texas disguised in parson's clothes. Arriving at a small Texas town, and taken to be the local church's long-expected new man of the cloth, he mugs his way through a sermon on David and Goliath and is then taken to his new digs, with a family of suitably respectable church-goers. An old prison buddy sees the pilgrim, however, and tags along thinking that a heist is in operation. And even though, in priestly garb, it is the reformed ex-con hero who foils his former cellmate's attempt to steal the family's money, nonetheless his past catches up with him. And so the sheriff takes him away. But the man of the law has obviously a soft spot for this reluctant criminal, which is why he has taken him to the Mexican border.

Realizing that Charlie is now steadfastly law-abiding, and is not about to run off south on his own accord, the sheriff has to devise some stratagem to get the pilgrim off his back. He asks him to pick him a bunch of wild flowers, first from just over the border post and then from much further out into the Mexican scrub. With Charlie sent on this wild-goose chase, the lawman then spurs his horse and heads away. . . only to discover his bedraggled convict chasing him up the trail, waving a bunch of blooms over his head.

In the face of the pilgrim's stubborn refusal to take a hint, the sheriff gets of his horse and physically kicks him into Mexico. Which is when Charlie realizes what's going on, and in the middle of the desert starts thinking of the future. "Mexico: a new life. Peace at last!" But no sooner is this thought vocalized than up from the bushes rise a couple of bandidos engaged in a fearsome firefight. Spooked, the pilgrim races back to the frontier, before realizing that he can't go back to the USA, either. So the film ends with Charlie waddling off into the distance, straddling the boundary line and with one out-turned foot facing Mexico, the other the USA.

Again, then, this is a movie that undoes the notion of a Latin utopia safe from either crime or the law. But every time that this fantasy is revealed as baseless, its ubiquity and force are also underlined. The dream of some Latin "outside" is so prevalent that Hollywood endlessly has to reinvent it, if only then to dash it to pieces, to show us that the best a character can do is to straddle the line between inside and out, hoping that neither side notices.

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