If a thing is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing badly.
This paradoxical witticism of Chesterton was on my mind as I sat down to watch The War of the Vendée, a new film about the forgotten martyrs of the French Revolution. I was pleased that a film had been made to honour the heroes of the Vendée but I feared that it would be a really bad film. Certainly everything seemed to suggest that it would be awful. It was made with a miniscule budget and a cast of dozens as opposed to thousands. How could a couple of dozen actors realistically depict a battle scene or the slaughter of thousands of Catholics by Robespierre’s terrorists? Worse still, the film’s director, Jim Morlino, had decided to use only child actors. Wasn’t this a recipe for disaster? Oh well, I thought as I hit the play button, if a thing is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing badly …
Fearing the worst, I found myself charmed by the film, and was moved to tears of sorrow for the fate of the martyrs of the Catholic Resistance but also to tears of laughter at the moments of comic relief.
As I watched the child actors playing husbands and wives, and even grandparents, I realized that you had to see the film through the eyes of a child in order to see it at all. This is emphatically not to suggest that the film is childish but that we adults have to become childlike in order to enter the kingdom of truth that the film presents to us. We have to suspend our disbelief, walking through the wardrobes of our imagination into a world where the eternal verities shine forth with innocence and wonder.
As I allowed my own imagination to wander through the wardrobe of wonder, I found myself, to my surprise, not in Narnia but in Middle-earth. The romantic and rustic depiction of life in the villages of the Vendée became, for me, a reincarnation of the Shire. Once this connection had been made, the child actors became hobbits, halflings who faced the French revolutionary dragons with an unsophisticated innocence. I am sure that something of this vision was in the mind of Morlino, who depicts the evil Robespierre as being demonically possessed, as no doubt he was. Robespierre is as unsophisticatedly evil as the peasants of the Vendée are unsophisticatedly good.
There is a price to pay for this unabashedly pure approach to the problem of evil, such as a loss of the nuanced niceties that historical accuracy demands (and should demand), but the price is well worth paying. Deep down, at the bedrock level of truth, the French Revolution was as evil as anything that the Fellowship of the Ring had to face. Its bloodthirsty secular fundamentalism set the scene for the bloodletting of the next two centuries. In its insatiable war on the Faith, secularism began with the guillotines and the Great Terror and metamorphosed into the Gulag and the gas chamber. Today, of course, it attacks the Faith and the Family and is systematically exterminating the weak and disabled members of society through the plague of abortion.
Make no mistake, Robespierre was one of Satan’s greatest servants and the villagers of the Vendée were certainly on the side of the angels. As such, we can be sure that both sides in this epic struggle between good and evil now have their reward. Robespierre would be killed by the same orcs that he had unleashed on the Vendée and his fate after death might be too horrible to contemplate. The heroic villagers of the Vendée, butchered in their thousands by the hordes of revolutionary orcs, are now in the company of the saints, martyrs and angels.
By the time that I had finished watching this wonderful film, I had forgotten about the Chesterton paradox that had been on my mind ninety minutes earlier. Instead, another Chesterton quote came to mind. On his death bed Chesterton had emerged from a sort of reverie and had said: “The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness, and every one must choose his side.” In the war between light and darkness, the peasants of the Vendée had chosen the right side. In this film, all shades of shadow are removed so that we can see things in the clear light of everlasting day. To see things in this way is to see them as Chesterton saw them and as the people of the Vendée saw them. In spite of all appearances to the contrary, The War of the Vendée shows us that to see things through the childlike eyes of Chesterton, or Frodo, or the people of the Vendée is to see them as they really are.