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"The Cider House Rules," -- Rotten to the Core
Two reviews of the movie, "The Cider House Rules," paint an ugly picture of this Disney/Miramax film. The first review is printed below. The second review, along with several excellent articles on abortion, can be found by clicking on "The New American" web site. Please read both reviews and spread the word to friends and relatives.
Please call Disney Pictures to register your complaint at 818-560-5151.
An Attractive Cider House Built on Moral Quicksand
by JOHN PRIZER
Coming-of-age stories are chronicles of their protagonists' moral education. The values learned in childhood are tested in the real world as the characters ponder what to do with their lives.
"The Cider House Rules," based on John Irving's acclaimed novel of the same name, is set in a New England orphanage run by the maverick Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine). The time is World War II, and the institution's staff has become a family for these abandoned children, with Larch and his nurses providing nurturing love and moral instruction.
Homer Wells (Tobey McGuire) is Larch's favorite, his "work of art." The boy helps supervise the other kids and assists the doctor in his medical practice, which consists mainly of the delivery of unwanted children and abortions. The youth has become so expert at his duties that he's encouraged to masquerade as a trained physician and treat patients on his own. But he refuses to perform abortions.
In a series of short discussions between Homer and his father-figure, director Lasse Hallstrom (What's Eating Gilbert Grape) and Irving, who wrote the screenplay, present the pro-abortion position, allowing Larch to make a well thought-out argument. Meanwhile, Homer's defenses for the pro-life side are vague. He opposes the procedure only because it's messy and illegal. He seems unaware that the lives of unborn children are at stake.
The doctor has little regard for any of society's rules. "What has the law ever done for any of us," he declares to his staff. He subscribes to a utilitarian kind of ethic. "You have to be of use," he tells Homer.
Larch has no life outside the orphanage, which he administers with efficiency and kindness. When pressures overwhelm him, he inhales ether as an escape.
Homer never attended school, receiving his education exclusively from Larch. He longs to discover the outside world, but his mentor warns that it's too harsh.
The boy seizes his opportunity when an Air Force lieutenant, Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd), asks Larch to perform an abortion on his two-months' pregnant girlfriend, Candy (Charlize Theron). Homer leaves with them to work as an apple-picker on the Worthington family farm run by Wally's widowed mother.
All the other migrant workers are black, but Homer's honesty and open-mindedness win them over. He bunks with them in the barn under the watchful eye of their strict foreman, who has an attractive daughter named Rose (Erykah Badyu).
Wally is shipped out to the Pacific. Candy pines for him and looks to Homer for companionship. Their friendship ripens into romance for which Homer feels guilty, remembering her boyfriend's kindness toward him.
The orphanage board wants Larch to name his successor. But the doctor resists hiring anyone who's properly qualified. He fears any sort of interference with his unorthodox operation, which includes abortions. He wants Homer to take his place and manufactures phony credentials to fool the board. The filmmakers treat this subterfuge with good humor, believing that the institution is a citadel of goodness which should be preserved by any means necessary.
Rose becomes pregnant and threatens to abort herself, using dangerous methods. The filmmakers present this situation as the most important moment in Homer's moral journey. Will he intervene and perform an abortion on the young woman, utilizing the so-called safe procedures he learned from Larch? Or, will he allow her to attempt it on her own and risk her life?
The movie is constructed so that the audience will root for Homer to abort Rose's unborn child. We're meant to see this as the final step in his coming-of-age. The assumption is that he will grow up to be a moral man only if he agrees to become an abortionist. Furthermore, we're supposed to hope he returns to the orphanage and makes these procedures a permanent part of his professional repertoire.
The rules referred to in the movie's title carry a symbolic weight. They're a list posted in the workers' dorm which include common-sense regulations like no smoking in bed and arbitrary ones like no sunbathing on the roof. The migrants' reasons for opposing them highlight the film's relativistic message. "We didn't write them," one worker declares. "We're supposed to make our own rules."
The movie strives to dramatize the gulf between the ideal, represented by the posted rules, and the real which each person, like Homer, must discover on his or her own. The kindly, drug-taking abortionist Dr. Larch is held up as a wise man and a role model.
The filmmakers consider organized religion the enemy. The doctor's nemesis on the orphanage board is a member fired with "enough Christian zeal to start her own country." The movie, along with the doctor, sees this overt profession of piety as a vice, not a virtue - a source of hypocritical finger-pointing and thus a hindrance to doing good as they see it. But the plot's final twists and turns reveal the pro-death logic behind the movie's ideology in a way the filmmakers probably never intended.
"The Cider House Rules" is a well-made Hollywood product. The acting is good, the decor sensitively photographed, and the narrative rhythms skillfully paced. It's received mainly rave reviews and will probably make money. This success may reflect the direction in which our culture has been moving more than many of us want to admit. Like Homer, we're increasingly being educated to discard transcendent moral values when they're inconvenient and embrace a utilitarian ethic.
(** John Prizer is the Arts & Culture correspondent for the National Catholic Register, a weekly newspaper. This MOVIE REVIEW originally appeared in the January 9-15, 2000 issue and is reprinted here with permission. For information about subscribing to the National Catholic Register, please call 1-800-421-3230.)
IN FOCUS - An Editorial Thought about
Rules of the Heart . . .
The titular list of "dos and don'ts" in "The Cider House Rules," in the logic of the movie, can be seen to stand for the moral laws that modern men find so oppressive. But generations of people who have tried to break the fundamental rules of society find that they break themselves in the process.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the existence of a "natural law" that is imprinted on our hearts. While it finds the highest expression of this law in the Ten Commandments, the Catechism points out that the "rules" strengthen and ennoble us, rather than enslave us.
"Where then are these rules written, if not in the book of light we call the truth?" it quotes from St. Augustine. "In it is written every just law; from it the law passes into the heart of the man who does justice, not that it migrates into it, but that it places its imprint on it, like a seal on a ring that passes onto wax, without leaving the ring" (No. 1955).
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