THREE STARS – Classic Quality
In real life, moral choices are often conflicting. Unlike the comfort of an intellectual discussion, in real life most of us are called upon to make a moral choice when the path is foggy or conflicting values are pointing in opposite directions.
In those moments we are forced to listen to a deeper place for guidance. In the most recent movie portrayal of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, his Aunt Polly calls it “listening to your heart.”
Tom’s (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) predicament is one of keeping a vow or saving a life.
Reminiscent of the same moral dilemma in the Bible where King Darius decided to keep his oath rather than save Daniel from the lion’s den, the conflicting values of integrity and compassion are played out in all their difficult passions.
Set within a sultry 19th century Missouri town, the film has a wonderful authenticity which allows us to feel both the struggle of life and the developing friendship of Tom and Huck (Brad Renfro).
Played with alluring charm, Thomas’ Tom is a genuinely likable young man. Having been orphaned and now being raised by his aunt, we feel with him both his sense of detachment from conventional society and his need for shenanigans, though done clearly without malice.
Huck, on the other hand, is an adolescent survivor, raised by a drunken father who, though absent now and in prison, had beaten him as a child. Homeless and uneducated, he is living in the woods fearful of both civilization and friendship.
But Tom wins him over. With charisma to spare, Tom understands people. He knows how his cousin can be silenced when he sneaks out at night, as well as how sneak a kiss from his girlfriend on a romantic bridge.
It is his good heart which is the center of the dilemma.
Having witnessed the murder of the town doctor by a very scary Indian Joe (Eric Schweig), Tom and Huck make a vow, signed in blood, that they will never tell anyone what they saw.
But, as is so true to life, they did not know the future, or know that Indian Joe was going to frame their friend, the friendly town drunk (Charles Rocket), with the murder.
So now Tom is faced with the moral choice: keep his vow to not tell, or speak up at the trial and save his friend’s life.
The fact that his heart tells him it is the right thing to do to save a life.
Moral choices are in fact messy dilemmas. Very few black and white situations actually happen in real life. Most of us struggle to do what is right when determining what is right and what is wrong is not that simple.
Scholars, like Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard, have identified at least three ways people make such choices.
He notes that for a young child, what is right is what you get rewarded for doing, and what is wrong is what you get punished for doing.
But Tom speaks out even though he knows he may be killed by Indian Joe. So he is not making his choice based on some personal pay-off for doing the right thing.
Kohlberg notes that when a child becomes older and enters adolescence, their thinking changes. For them what is right is what their peer group says is right, or what the law says is right.
Morality is seen at this level as a product of society and a decision of the majority.
Though Tom struggles with trying to keep his legalistic oath instead he follows his heart.
It is here that Tom’s morality clearly resides. The town’s frontier-justice of mob rule makes clear that no one cares about the life of the town drunk. He is despised, powerless, and sure to be hung for a murder he did not do. Until Tom does the right thing and puts his own life in jeopardy to care for him, even the town judge is powerless to save an innocent man from hanging.
This model of putting the needs of the vulnerable and powerless person before our own is a clear echo of the teachings of Jesus Christ. When he laid down his life, he communicated by word and example the truth that such love is the highest morality.