9 FRENCH FRIES AND YELLOW RIBBONS
Vince Gilligan has admitted that his pitch to studio executives for cash for Breaking Bad was, ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface.’ Today finding someone who believes that Goodbye Mr Chips qualifies as a literary masterpiece and who regards James Hilton as a writer of exceptional merit is not easy. The search is as difficult as locating Shangri La, the nirvana that the author imagined for The Lost Horizon, his other huge seller. Goodbye Mr Chips is a class ridden and sentimental tale. The book romanticises life in an English public school and overlooks an education system that disenfranchises the majority of the population. Hilton wrote in a chatty style designed to offer emotional comfort to readers. Although the overall themes of Goodbye Mr Chips have weight, the frequent observations and asides from Hilton are smug, albeit sometimes perceptive. Goodbye Mr Chips describes the full working life of an adult, and despite the extra words the tale on paper is more slight than it should be.
Both Goodbye Mr Chips and The Lost Horizon require a transcendental love affair as a catalyst for the hero. In Goodbye Mr Chips the marriage of his schoolteacher hero is described as ‘a triumphant success’. This unequivocal intrusion into the imagination of the reader confirms the weakness of Hilton. Modern readers may be sniffy about literary style but Goodbye Mr Chips and The Lost Horizon are remembered for a reason. These two books, but none of the others written by Hilton, were iconic. To utilise another favoured phrase of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, James Hilton twice found the ‘lightning in the bottle’, something that made his stories resonate.
To be able to speculate on what justifies not a life but an existence Breaking Bad needs Walt to have a dual identity or alternatives. There are three Mr Chips, the shy man who exists before his marriage, the happy and confident chap who is married and the amiable and empathetic schoolteacher that exists after the death of his wife and new born child. Rather than have gangsters on the prowl Hilton in Goodbye Mr Chips maintains English reserve and merely lets his schoolteacher fall in love and have a brief marriage. Kathleen is an interesting character but after she dies the only steam that is left in the book is that which comes out of the kettle that boils the water for the afternoon teas that Chips takes with his pupils. Somehow, though, the damned thing stays inside the head.
Ernest Raymond is not regarded as a literary giant but he not only managed a great title and something special with We The Accused but also created Mr Olim a schoolteacher and volatile bully that terrorises his pupils. Mr Olim is a superior book to Goodbye Mr Chips. Before the book has ended the reader understands that Olim had no need to be popular. Instead he was dedicated to education and was willing to use whatever means necessary to keep his pupils alert.
A weakness of Goodbye Mr Chips is that it assumes that the popularity Chips achieves after his transformational marriage must confirm that he is now a superior human being. It denies his previous valid existence. Yet the book has poignant moments. No one can read Goodbye Mr Chips without wondering about how to lead a life and what awaits at death. This, of course, is where Vince Gilligan came in with his existential fancies.
Once Walt cooks some crystal meth his lower middle class humility and fatalism soon encounter Walt Whitman and ambitious transcendentalism. The murderous monster comes later. A major surprise for English viewers is the stoicism of husband and father Walt in the opening episodes of Breaking Bad. Walt has what Goodbye Mr Chips presents as a British characteristic, reserve and self-effacement. For the British the Americans were the people who arrived in Britain during the second world war. They had chocolates, cigarettes, cash and nylons, and more persuasive words for English women. It takes effort for the British to imagine Americans making sacrifices and being shy, quiet or lonely. In establishing himself as a kingpin drug dealer Walt becomes vicious and nasty. He is, though, always paying a price even if the cost amounts to nothing more than being anxious or stressed. In Breaking Bad even bad alter ego Heisenberg, makes sacrifices.
The movie Since You Went Away drips with sentiment but is accomplished. It has to be seen for the dance hall scene alone. The black and white photography of Stanley Cortez has never been equalled. In that movie the burdened hero is a woman whose husband is away at war. She is obliged to hold her family together. It did not need a world war, though, for the Americans to create stiff upper lips. John Ford directed a trilogy of movies that is recognised as ‘the cavalry pictures’. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was the second of the three. John Wayne plays ageing hero Captain Nathan Brittles. No one in the film is a schoolteacher but Brittles is an obvious mentor to the men and women around him. They will be his legacy. Captain Nathan Brittles is approaching retirement, and although at the end of the film he helps to prevent a war with the Native Americans his final days are marked by two failures that are beyond his control. Captain Brittles, like Mr Chips, has led an anonymous and lonely life. He has been loyal to a bureaucracy obliged to neglect him. If Brittles is not without self-respect, there will be little consolation for his final days.
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is an elegiac essay about ageing, the fading of personal powers and how acquired knowledge and skills ultimately become redundant wisdom. When Walt takes that final bullet for Jesse and grins, he may be smiling at his lucky escape from what lays ahead for the rest of us. Not everyone will be convinced that She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was influenced by Goodbye Mr Chips but something from the Hilton novel or the MGM movie lodged in the mind of John Ford. Six years after he completed She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Ford directed the much inferior The Long Gray Line. This movie had Tyrone Power play an athletic instructor who spent thirty years at West Point. The film is not an accomplished effort. The poetry of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is replaced by sentimentality. For Vince Gilligan and John Ford the themes of Goodbye Mr Chips resonate more when some distance is maintained between their own ambitions and the intentions of James Hilton.
Both Ford and Hilton used their work to capture what they thought were national virtues. For Ford there was American self-reliance and strength. The characters of Hilton are stoical, tolerant and have impeccable manners. Both men may have romanticised their homelands but Ford needed his fantasised alternative Ireland to keep his demons at bay, and Hilton left for America to make money. Hilton became an American citizen in 1948. He was born in Leigh in Lancashire. The ground of the local Rugby League team is called Hilton Park but that is a coincidence.
In Breaking Bad, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Goodbye Mr Chips violence is important to all three stories. The least violence is in the Western. Captain Nathan Brittles has to prevent a war, and whilst the liberal attitude should be applauded there is still action that holds the movie together. The writers on Breaking Bad are unabashed about adding corpses. We lose count. In Goodbye Mr Chips the only action occurs on a mountain when Chips attempts a rescue attempt. In the movie Greer Garson does not need to be rescued. In the book Chips breaks his ankle and Kathleen rescues her rescuer. The main violence in Goodbye Mr Chips is elsewhere. The boys take their knowledge of Greek and Latin to the first world war, and the story is punctuated by news of ex-pupils that have been lost in battle. Chips may have English reserve. Its military have no such inhibitions. The clash between Chips and an Army officer is momentary but it hints that Hilton understood some of the weaknesses of British society. Ford agonises about the hypocrisy of authority. Gilligan and his writing team dig into the flaws of all their characters. In that sense those in power are offered a form of excuse. They are no worse nor better than the rest of us.
The life of Mr Chips has been described as mediocre but this is incorrect. There are occasions when his self-esteem suffers but Chips is an educated man working with the educated. He meets an attractive woman half his age who loves him, and his career finishes well. If his life is sad, it is because he forgets to chase the promise that might be in the sky. There is an early scene where an anxious Chips fails to notice the giant air balloon that has excited the schoolboys. That other existential hero Mary Poppins insisted that the kite in the sky had to be followed. The lady could be relied on but, of course, she was unaware of what would happen to Walter White.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.