Directed by Frank Borzage
The United States of America
By 1948, Frank Borzage, that old master of Hollywood, that
unapologetic romanticist whose work triumphed during the Twenties and
Thirties, had fallen by the wayside. The man who had won the very first
Academy Award for Directing in 1927 was now struggling to secure
projects. Perhaps Borzage’s brand of earnest melodrama turned sour in
the mouths of a generation who had struggled through the hell of World
War Two. As the years marched on, war-time idealism melted into
nihilistic cynicism. This was no longer a time when a director who
concluded an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms
with doves and church bells could flourish. And yet, as his career began
to crumble, Borzage managed to release one more true masterpiece; a
film that reconciled his passion for lovers facing adversity with the
nightmare psychoses consuming America ego. That film was Moonrise.
The opening few minutes of Moonrise
set the tone for the rest of the film. It begins with the execution by
hanging of a man accused of murder. The proceedings are shown via
shadows that seem chiseled onto the wall behind the gallows. As the
hangmen pulls the lever, smash cut to the crib of a newborn. A grim
outline of a toy doll literally hangs over the bedsheets as the
criminal’s infant son, Danny Hawkins, wails and wails. Jump cut to Danny
as a schoolboy forced to endure the taunts of his classmates. “Danny
Hawkins dad was hanged! Danny Hawkins dad was hanged,” they chant as
their ringleader Jerry Sykes wraps his hands about his throat and
pretends to choke himself to death.
Another cut, another few years pass.
Danny’s torment continues. And finally, one night as Jerry beats him
senseless, two things break: Danny’s mind and Jerry’s skull.
who know Borzage purely by reputation as a romanticist may be shocked
by the jagged, neo-expressionist visual grammar used in these scenes:
extreme shadowplay, stilted frame compositions, and high-contrast
chiaroscuro lighting. But Borzage had been using such techniques for
decades, having first picked them up from his contemporary F.W. Murnau
while they were both working at Fox in the 1920s. Though Borzage’s films
were rich in sentimentality, they demonstrated acute stylistic acumen.
As the film continues, Borzage continues to reveal bold stylistic
techniques. One of the most apparent is his consistent use of crossfades
between charged images: a young woman wringing her hands in church into
an old woman’s hands knitting; a paranoid man’s face into a raccoon.
Indeed, Moonrise is not a film that can simply be watched passively. It demands to be watched, not merely observed.
Danny’s desperate act of murder, the film charts his mental decimation,
emotional reconstruction, and psychological reconciliation with his
actions. A few kind souls help in his rehabilitation. The first is Mose,
a retired brakeman who lives in self-imposed isolation in the woods
with his hounds and guitar. Played with great dignity by Rex Ingram,
Mose may be a kindly old Black Man who helps the White Protagonist, but
instead of solving Danny’s problems, he helps force him to confront
But the other is sweet Gilly Johnson, a
schoolteacher who quickly forms the other half of Borzage’s romantic
universe. It is here that we find the major difference between Moonrise
and many of Borzage’s other films: the forces that seek to tear the
lovers apart. Often these forces are external ones such as World War One
in A Farewell to Arms (1932), the sinking of a lavish ocean liner in History Is Made at Night (1937), or the rise of Nazism in The Mortal Storm (1940). But in Moonrise
the adversity springs from Danny’s tortured mind. It manifests itself
physically, such as an early scene where traumatic flashbacks cause him
to crash a car while she was in the passenger seat, and mentally.
During a coon-hunt with Mose he has a minor breakdown while shaking a
raccoon out of a tree. Borzage cuts to a pile of logs next to a
cabin...a pile suspiciously similar to the one where Danny murdered his
tormentor. Does Danny project himself on the raccoon? If so, then what
does it say about his desperate attempts to capture it?
internal dilemma of coming to terms with a forced act of violence takes
on new meaning when evaluated in the context of post-World War Two
American society. One of the cornerstones of film noir were
protagonists who were damaged, either physically or mentally, by their
time in the armed forces. If we consider Danny’s psychoses as
allegorical, then Moonrise becomes more than just a dark melodrama; it enters the realm of bona-fide film noir.
Consider Danny as America: haunted by the specter of a violent tragedy
(Danny’s father’s hanging/World War Two), the protagonist is goaded into
violence (murder/World War Two) by an incessant attacker (Jerry
Sykes/the Axis) that leaves him broken, beaten, and bruised.
course, this is merely one possible reading. While it isn’t absurd to
believe that Borzage may have deliberately made such comparisons, there
is no doubt that at the end of the day his primary concern in Moonrise
was Danny Hawkins and Gilly Johnson. Their love is no panacea, but it
offers hope that Danny can rebuild his life. And therein is Borzage’s
secret: the belief that despite everything the world may throw at you,
love can be a force for salvation and goodness. His romanticism does not
deny the world, it burns in spite of it.