Friday Fundamentals in Film: Secondhand Lions

Secondhand Lions is both a great addition to this blog series and a well-received film by the young men in our bi-weekly viewing group. The viewing group has largely followed the order of the original class I taught a few years ago while the blog series has gone on to feature additional movies. This week I decided to overlap the two and feature the same movie in both. As such it was a change of pace for the class in that it’s not a war movie or a western, but a comedy. Even the movie makes many important points about honor, honesty and “what a boy needs to know to be a man.”

The story is about a young teenage boy, Walter (Haley Joe Osment), who has grown up without a father – and with a never-ending series of lies from his irresponsible and self-serving mother. In her latest scheme she dumps him for the summer with his eccentric great uncles, Hub (Robert Duval) and Garth (Michael Caine) McCann, about whom many local rumors and legends have circulated about their supposed wealth — and how they came by it. Walter’s mother has two objectives; get some time away without the responsibility of having Walter around, and the hope that Walter might find out where the brothers hide their money.

Garth and Hub don’t appear to be especially upright examples of virtuous men as they live in a poorly maintained house on a remote farm or ranch in the wilds of Texas and their main form of entertainment is taking potshots at the series of opportunistic traveling salesmen that come their way. As the days and nights go on, however, Walter starts to hear an amazing tale of adventure, courage, romance and justice spun out that almost sounds too good to be true, especially after his experiences with his mother. While Walter fears being abaondoned, his uncles (especially Hub) fear becoming useless. While Garth appears willing to settle down and act his age, Hub is still restless for his lost love and not ready to surrender to the expectations of old age. As Garth explains it to Walter, “A man’s body can grow old but the spirit inside of him doesn’t.”

Naturally their fears are mutually answered in each other, especially as Walter gets curious about the mysterious speech Garth says that Hub gives to young men on what they need to know to be good men. It could all get pretty syrupy but for a brisk plot and a series of great scenes that advance the story and message. In particular, the scene were Hub, Garth and Walter stop for barbeque at a roadhouse and have their meal interrupted by a young ruffian and his gang who decide to have a little sport with the “old men.” Viewing the youth as no more of a bother than a mosquito, Hub continues his discussion, telling Garth and Walter:

Here’s a perfect example of what I’ve been talking about. Since this boy was suckling on his momma’s tit, he’s been given everything but discipline. And now his idea of courage and manhood is to get together with a bunch of punk friends and ride around irritating folks too good natured to put a stop to it.

Naturally this means the rumpus is soon on, and the leader of the group asks Hub who he thinks he is. Suddenly taking the young man by the throat, Hub stares down into his eyes and delivers the second-best monologue in the movie:

I’m Hub McCann. I fought in two world wars and countless smaller ones on three continents. I’ve led thousands of men into battle with everything from horses to swords to artillery and tanks. I’ve seen the headwaters of the Nile, and tribes of natives no white man had ever seen before. I’ve won and lost a dozen fortunes, killed many men and loved only one woman, with a passion a flea like you could never begin to understand. That’s who I am.

After administering a thrashing to the gang Hub brings them back to the farm to tend their wounds and they listen raptly (in sight of, but out of the hearing of, Walter and us) as he ultimately gives them “the speech” that Walter so longs to hear, but is still excluded from hearing. Later, after being confronted by Walter, Hub agrees to give the boy “just a piece” of the speech, promising to deliver the rest when he’s older. The part he shares is the number one monologue in the movie:

Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil. And I want you to remember this, that love…true love…never dies. You remember that, boy. Doesn’t matter if they’re true or not because those are the things worth believing in.

Ultimately Walter’s mother returns, accompanied by an unsavory new boyfriend. When the boyfriend outrageously steps over the line, Walter has to draw upon the seeds of courage and self-respect that have been planted over the past few months to face her (and get her to face herself) as he makes his case that his best hope for the quality of the rest of his life is to stay with his uncles instead of following her to Las Vegas. Since the movie is told as a flashback, Walter obviously stays with his uncles and grows up. We can assume that he ultimately hears the rest of the speech from Hub on “what a boy needs to know to be a man” but this is never shared with the audience except for the excerpt above.

Typically in this series I include a series of questions and points to ponder for readers to consider or share with others. There were some questions I asked the boys last night about the underlying themes of the movie (including some of the plot elements I haven’t covered here), but I think I will leave you with the same “homework” I gave to them. I told them the next time we get together they need to come back to me with at least one thing they think went into the rest of the speech we didn’t hear. If you want to help us out, leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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