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 News of the World  

Theme:  You Belong to Me

On Christmas Day 2020 Universal Pictures released News of the World, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks. This is the first western for the venerable actor and he gives an award winning performance as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a man who stumbles upon a lost orphan (Helen Zengel) and makes the fateful decision to take her home. Set in 1870 Texas during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, the slow moving story of death, loss, and redemption has timely lessons for America of the 2020’s.

News

The very first scene of the movie News of the World tells a story in itself. The camera peeks through an opening and exposes the scarred back of Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd while he is dressing. The battle scars are a metaphor for the damaged souls of the people who pay a dime to hear the Captain read them the news. The news reflects a world broken by war both civil and cosmic. In such a world the news consists of death, disease, destruction, flood, racism, hatred, and oppression.  And yet people looking to escape their own bleak existence even for an evening, come to listen hoping . . . always hoping for a story with some “good news”.

Lost

After leaving Wichita Falls, Capt. Kidd comes upon an overturned wagon on the trail; alarmed he cautiously begins to scout the area and comes to find the very embodiment of the news he’s been reading; a black man hanging from a tree with a sign attached to him declaring Texas is for whites. A noise startles him and he makes the further discovery of a young white girl dressed in Indian garb. His first words to her are, “Who are you”?  Her first words to him are, ”Home . . . I want to go home”.  Like the scarred back telling a much larger tale, this simple exchange is the heart of the story and the cry and condition of lost humanity.

The girl child has had her identity stolen not once, but twice by evil.  First the slaying of her German family and loss of her name, Johanna, and then the slaying of her Indian family and loss of her name, Cicada. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the movie is her cry of desperation to the Indians across the river, “Wait for me . . . don’t go”.  She’d rather go back to the old identity of daughter of Turning Water and Three Spotted than to be left lost and orphaned again.  This forlorn cry moves the Captain to tell his friend who has called the child “cursed” that he will take her to her German kin. “The little girl is lost and she needs to be home.”

Johanna/Cicada is not the only lost person.  As the story unfolds the audience learns Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd lives in exile from his home.  He has a wife in San Antonio who died during the war from disease, but he falsely bears a responsibility for her death believing himself “cursed” by his participation in the war. For five years he has moved from town to town living a life in exile from his past and his God.

Journey

The decision to take Johanna to her German relatives in Castroville (near San Antonio) sets the twosome on a path into their pasts; they are both going home. However there are four hundred miles of dangerous roads and lawless territory before they reach journey’s end. The movie lumbers along at the pace of their wagon, interrupted by bouts of action. It follows the structure of a Hero Journey with the hero/heroine’s descent into an “ordeal” after being tested and tried by enemies and allies.

 As they travel they share their stories as best they can; the first English word the Captain teaches Johanna is story. He recounts his story with words line upon line; she simply sings hers in song which is circular like the life cycle of the cicada she is named for.1   The Captain just wants to move forward in a line to forget the past but the wise child tells him one must remember the past in order to move forward.

The ordeal or the inner most cave of the mythic Hero Journey is the lowest most dangerous crisis the hero/heroine must face. Christopher Vogler describes it as the critical moment when the hero must die or appear to die so that he can be reborn again.2   Johanna/Cicada has two ordeals to face; first the cabin where her family was brutally slain and then her “death” and separation from the Captain in the sandstorm.  In both cases she walks out with the reward of being reconciled with her painful past and two families, ready to embrace a new home she mistakenly thinks will be with the Captain.

Thinking he is doing what is best for the girl, he leaves Johanna in Castroville with her next of kin, an Aunt and Uncle who are cold, indifferent, pitiless, and thoughtless people.  He must face his own inner most cave in San Antonio alone.  Walking into his old house the way Johanna did her cabin, he picks up a reminder of his lost life in his wife’s talcum powder jar.  Flooded with memories as the child was with her straw doll, he leaves the house and goes to his oldest friend who tells him the truth and breaks the spell he has lived under these five years.  Finally he goes to the garden in the church yard to be reconciled with his wife at the foot of her cross.

Cross

The cross brackets the movie in symbol and meaning.  It opens the story when the Captain finds Johanna and he places a hurriedly made wooden cross on the grave of the black freedman he buries. Then it closes the story with the crucifix on the wall of the church showing just who’s cross it is and, lastly, back in the garden with the beautiful intricate iron cross of his wife’s grave.

The cross of Jesus Christ the sinless Lamb of God was a crude wooden cross forged to hang criminals on by Roman soldiers. It speaks of the original fall and curse of death on mankind and the agony of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world.  However it also speaks triumphantly of the love of God who overcame the curse, destroying the power of darkness by becoming incarnate Himself in order that he might by his blood redeem his Bride, and through resurrection from the dead bring life once again to the lost exiled orphans of the world, giving them a new home, a new family, and a new identity. The deepest meaning of the cross is the Triune God saying, “You Belong to Me.”

Home

The word home is synonymous with words like abode, dwelling, house, and residence; all emphasizing a place in which to live. The etymology of the word home opens up the meaning to include a place to lie down, to rest, and more importantly a family and household members. Home isn’t just where you belong, it’s also to whom you belong.

Johanna’s first words to Capt. Kidd were, ”Home . . . I want to go home”, but home was not with the Leonbergers in Castroville. They did not want her; she did not belong to them.  Standing at his wife’s grave the Captain suddenly understands the truth:  Johanna (meaning God is gracious) is the family he always wanted to have with his wife. Returning to Castroville he finds the child tied to a pole for having tried to run away.  Repenting he tells them all it was his mistake, he is sorry, she doesn’t belong there. To Johanna in Kiowa he tells her, “You belong to me . . . you belong to me.”

Good News

The movie ends with Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd and his assistant Johanna Kidd finishing a reading to townsfolk with a final news story. This one is good news of a man who was dead and buried, who rose from the dead three days later very much alive.  A bride on the way to her wedding heard him knocking (Revelation 3:20) and the wedding party opened the grave and invited him into the feast.

Good news not only of the world but for the world!

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Notes:

  1. The life cycle of seven species of cicadas goes from an egg which hatches into a nymph. The nymph falls and nestles into the earth where it stays feeding on tree root sap for 13-17 years. Rising from the ground the adult cicadas sing their song, mate and start the process all over. Cicadas are often symbolic of resurrection, renewal, and rebirth.
  2. Christopher Vogler “ The Writer’s Journey”
  3. Merriam-Webster .com Dictionary

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