100 Film Favorites – #95: “Secondhand Lions”
(Tim McCanlies, 2003)
Let me be the first to admit that I have a soft spot both for movies where an older protagonist reflects nostalgically on their childhood (see: “The Sandlot”), and for movies where an eccentric figure has adventures and ultimately achieves prosperity due to his or her ecccentricities (see: “Bean: The Movie,” “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” and honorable mention to “Bubble-Boy”).
“Secondhand Lions” is both. It begins with Walter, the protagonist, receiving a call at his office about the death of his uncles. The film then flashes back to his childhood, when a young Walter (played by Haley Joel Osment) is sent by his greedy mother to live with his reclusive great-uncles, in the hope that the boy may discover the mysterious fortune the uncles are rumored to be hiding inside their farmhouse.
Walter is quiet and bookish, and initially his two rough-and-tumble uncles want nothing to do with him. They are content simply to sit on the porch, firing shotgun blasts at the many traveling salesmen who come to call. Also, one of the uncles is played by Michael Caine doing an American accent. The movie is probably worth watching for that alone.
Over the course of the summer, Walter endears himself to his uncles for two reasons: 1. His presence at the house infuriates other gold-digging relations hoping to ingratiate themselves with the recluse brothers, and 2. Walter is genuinely curious about his uncles’ life story. A significant portion of the film features Uncle Michael Caine recounting to Walter the tale of how he and his brother attained their fortune, as soldiers in the French Foreign Legion who have a string of battles with a conniving sheik. These story-within-the-story scenes are even more over-the-top than the main narrative, and are shot in the style of the 30s action serials which inspired Indiana Jones.
Not quite sure whether I should spoil the ending here, but I’ve already done it in previous posts, so here goes. Eventually, Walter’s mother returns, and Walter rebuffs her attempts to weasel the fortune away from the uncles. Walter opts to remain living with his uncles, with the proviso that they stop pursuing their dangerous stunts until he finishes school. The film then returns to the “present,” where adult Walter (now the author of a successful comic strip based on his adventures growing up on his uncles’ farm) is being notified of the uncles’ deaths. The brothers, now 90 years old, have flown their homemade biplane into the side of a barn and died instantly. Walter returns to their farm to settle the estate. Shortly after he arrives, a helicopter bearing the logo of an oil company lands nearby. An Arab man and his son emerge from the chopper. The man introduces himself as the grandson of the sheik, revealing that he, too, was inspired as a child by the exploits of Walter’s uncles. The man’s young son then pipes up: “You mean the men from Great-Grandfather’s stories were real? They really lived?”
“Yes,” replies Walter, “they really lived.”
I can’t deny that “Secondhand Lions” is among the most sentimental films I’ve ever seen. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve noticed of late that there’s a whole bumper-crop of criticism and cynicism at work in the world today, and sometimes it’s refreshing to see a bit of sentiment. In the words of Walter’s Uncle Hub,
“Sometimes the things that 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. No matter if they’re true or not, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”
It is my wish, both earnest and sentimental, that you would all do your part to live a little larger-than-life. There’s treasure out there to be found, flying machines to be built, and secondhand lions to buy.