Two Film Depictions of Enlightenment
"The Razor's Edge" (20th Century Fox, 1946) is the first Hollywood treatment of the 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, which tells the story of American fighter pilot Larry Darrell, played by Tyrone Power. A wealthy member of high society back home, Larry's experiences abroad compel him to leave his money, power, and fiance behind, and seek to understand the meaning of life. He works his way across the Atlantic on a steamship, then takes whatever job he can find, in whatever location he turns up in.
His quest for truth eventually draws him to India, where he becomes the disciple of a holy man (played by character actor Cecil Humphreys). At this point, the film delivers some surprisingly cogent theology. In their first meeting, the holy man tells Tyrone Power of the three Hindu paths to enlightenment: devotion, work, and knowledge, but that ultimately, all three paths are the same. This is the same teaching provided by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, which is Hinduism's most treasured scripture.
After a period of training, the holy man sends Tyrone Power to a hut high in the mountains, to live alone for a time, in contemplative meditation. Eventually, the holy man visits Tyrone at the hut, and senses that he has experienced something profound.
Of course, there is a cinematic problem here. How do you visually depict a person's moment of enlightenment? How can the filmmaker convey to the audience that Larry's entire way of thinking has shifted?
A 1984 remake of this story (see below) will attempt to depict the actual moment. But in the earlier version with Tyrone Power, the filmmakers have the character describe the experience to the holy man, and to us, the audience.
Having achieved the wisdom he sought, Tyrone declares he could stay with the holy man forever. Here, the holy man instructs his student that the enlightened must return to the world and not remain cloistered.
This is the exact sentiment expressed by philosopher Joseph Campbell in what he identified as the third stage of enlightenment, a process he termed "The Hero Cycle." Everyone who attains enlightenment goes through these three stages, Campbell asserts, even saviors and prophets such as the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad (and even modern day literary heroes such as Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars"). The first stage is withdrawal from the world in order to seek the truth. The second stage is the period where enlightenment is received. And the third stage is a return to the world, to share wisdom with others. "It is not necessary," the holy man proclaims, "to leave the world, but to live in the world, and to love the objects of the world not for themselves alone, but for what there is in them of God."
"The Razor's Edge" (Columbia Pictures, 1984), stars Bill Murray as the seeker Larry Darrell. This version of the film does not delve into theology as deeply, but attempts to depict Larry Darrell's moment of enlightenment in a brief, wordless scene.
As instructed by the holy man, Bill Murray carries some books of scripture and a small stack of firewood to a hut high in the mountains, to read and meditate. The hut proves to be nothing but a lean-to, perched on the edge of the snow-covered mountaintop. It is here where Larry has the epiphany that changes him forever.
In this film remake, the moment of enlightenment is rendered very simply. Larry builds a fire to keep himself warm, and delves hungrily into the book, eager to discover the truths that have so far eluded him. In time, the fire dies out, and Larry, shivering with cold, realizes that the book can serve him in a way he never imagined.
Tearing the pages from the book, he sets them afire and warms his hands over the flames. Bill Murray delivers a surprisingly moving performance here, with such an expression of love and thankfulness as he puts the book of verse into the fire. Though it is an over-simplified dramatization of the "moment of enlightenment," I think it does succeed in showing a shift in perception. When Larry Darrell leaves the hut behind, (as occurs in the earlier version of the film), there is a sense that he now understands himself in context with the virtually endless world of Himalayan mountains and birds in flights - that his spirit has learned to recognize itself in the Spirit of eternal creation.