Major Barbara (1941)

GABRIEL PASCAL

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5, 1941Screenplay by , based on his play.  Cinematography by Produced by Music by Production Design by Costume Design by Film Editing by , .

Deborah Kerr, Wendy Hiller and Sybil Thorndike in Major Barbara

Rex Harrison plays a scholar who sees Wendy Hiller speaking the word of God on behalf of the Salvation Army and is immediately smitten. He leaves his studious life behind and takes up the drum to play in God’s marching band in order to be with her, and she, because she loves him back, agrees to marry him. Hiller’s Major Barbara has been raised mainly by her mother in the comforts that her industrialist father (Robert Morley) has provided for them in absentia, but her father returns and visits the humble headquarters where she doles out assistance and understanding to the troubled and struggling lives of London’s striving class.  When he discovers that the Salvation Army is in need of money and has only reached half of its fundraising goal, Morley agrees to write a cheque for the other half, and Barbara’s belief in the integrity of her religious belief begins to crumble: what does it say about this organization that it is willing to take money from a man whose profits have come from creating weapons for war? And how can she marry Harrison when he is being seduced into working for her capitalist father?  George Bernard Shaw’s rumination on England’s class system and the binary divide between scientific and religious thinking is about as subtle as a fire and brimstone sermon, it’s possible that these characters could convince you that they are flesh and blood human beings on stage but on film they are pure ideas in anthropomorphic form.  Shaw was reticent about film adaptations and was difficult about allowing changes to his scripts, but here he smoothes over the stagier action with invented scenes that are more than just empty excuses to step out of doors, and the enjoyment of its challenging narrative is enriched by juicy performances by a stellar cast: next to Hiller’s command in the lead is some exceptional work by as the Army’s morally superior but still practical General, while Deborah Kerr shines in one of her first onscreen roles as one of Barbara’s devoted followers.

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