Reflections on "angel films"

Stuart Fernie

The following article was written with reference to "It's a Wonderful Life", "The Bishop's Wife", "City of Angels" and "Angel-A".

Why are angel films popular with both producers and audiences? Perhaps because they appeal to our desire to believe in something greater than the world we see before us. To think of angels descending to offer help is comforting and offers security. They may also quite simply appeal to our better natures and our desire to help others.

In each of these films, the angels involved don't just take care of business by dishing out miracles, they succeed largely through inspiration - encouraging and helping their "proteges" to see things differently and to change their outlooks and lives accordingly. They help or allow their wards to see the bigger picture, to get their problems into proportion, and to appreciate the fact of being alive - something we tend to take for granted, and a gift we frequently squander. This may be a further reason why these films appeal to us, since help in the form of inspiration is accessible to us all.

Another element shared in most of these films is the angel's desire to share in human feeling and love. In "The Bishop's Wife", "City of Angels" and "Angel-A" the angel is envious not, of course, of our problems, but he/she becomes envious of the feelings which may lead to those problems, leading to a desire to become human. This is, I believe, an essential element in these films - not only does it emphasise how lucky we are to experience these feelings at all, but it lends drama and import to the figure of the angel. Without some kind of inner conflict the angel would simply be doing a job and there would be little real interest in him/her.

In "It's a Wonderful Life" the essential lessons are about proportion and influence. George Bailey (James Stewart) feels his life has been of little consequence, and he has had little if any experience of life outside Bedford Falls. Clarence (Henry Travers), our angel, helps him realise that experience and influence can be achieved in big and small ways - what counts is what you learn from the experience you have, and what you do with it. Clarence helps George see that in fact he has had an essential influence on the lives of all those he has met, out of all proportion with what he sees as his actual input, and which has allowed people to conduct their lives with dignity.

George is ready to commit suicide over the relatively small sum of $8000. Of course the sum is unimportant - it's what it represents to George that matters, and that is the end of his family run company. George is so wrapped up in his problems that he gets them out of all proportion in terms of their objective significance in his life. Clarence helps George see that his life has meant considerably more than the cash that is missing. He helps George see the bigger picture, appreciate what really matters, and put his financial problems in proportion. In the end, George is saved by the generosity of others who have, through time, been inspired and helped by George's generosity of spirit.

George's change of situation is achieved not by a miracle, but by a change of spirit inspired by Clarence. Granted, Clarence used miraculous means to achieve that inspiration, but he did not interfere directly with the situation - he simply enabled George to see things differently, and George responded.

Although Clarence shows no envy, a certain dramatic interest is introduced by making him a vulnerable old man who has thus far failed to "gain his wings". Success in this mission will allow him to collect his wings and achieve full angel status.

"The Bishop's Wife" is unquestionably one of my favourite angel films. Cary Grant is simply perfect as Dudley, the angel sent to help Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), though not, perhaps, in exactly the way Henry anticipates.

Dudley is supremely calm and confident of his place and contribution in life. He has complete belief in himself and is ever positive and optimistic. He achieves his mission not by way of miracles (though he does indulge in some audience-pleasing miraculous antics on the way), but by showing compassion and understanding, and by offering help, thus encouraging others to do likewise.

Once again problems are put into proportion and what really matters is brought into focus, but another dramatic element is introduced, and one which will be revisited in many other angel films - jealousy of emotion, love and attachment.

Emotions can lead to problems, but bring great joy as well. Here Dudley is envious of the love between Henry and his wife Julia (Loretta Young), and this adds a whole dimension not just in terms of dramatic interest, but one which urges us to appreciate what we have and to keep a sense of proportion whereby we retain a sense of relative importance and don't allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by fear and particular problems - we must remain aware of the bigger picture. We are invited to see this through Dudley as he appears to have everything, yet he himself feels he has nothing without the kind of bond of love he has witnessed between Henry and his wife.

"City of Angels" could be accused of being "slight". There isn't a particularly strong or complex plot, there isn't an awful lot of action, and what character development there is, is signposted several miles off, so there are few surprises, except perhaps at the end. Yet it is one of the most engaging and charming of angel films, due largely to the acting, but also due to the understated writing and direction which deal with themes which are hardly normal cinematic fodder, and yet make them interesting and vibrant.

Here the theme of emotional envy is developed about as far as it can go, with Seth the angel (Nicholas Cage) abandoning his divine status in order to truly and completely love Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), a human he encountered while on a mission.

Other themes are touched upon as our angels inspire others or keep them on the right track, but here they are decidedly spiritual and this allows some development of the age-old question of the limitations of science and knowledge when it comes to completely explaining various events. If science can offer understanding, but fail to control everything, where does it fit in the grand scheme of things? This isn't really developed and no solution is offered, but the question is asked through Maggie's failure to save a patient despite doing everything she could be expected to do.

Where "City of Angels" really scores is in its visual celebration of the senses, emotion and life. We are clearly being encouraged through Seth, Nathaniel Messinger and Maggie to appreciate the very fact of being alive, to savour every moment and to make the most of our (limited) time on Earth.

In "Angel-A", Luc Besson's recent film, angel Angela (Rie Rasmussen) tries to help Andre (Jamel Debbouze) effect change in his life by altering his outlook, inviting him to see the bigger picture, and to get his problems into proportion. She wants him to remain true to himself and his nature and not to compromise himself to an increasingly seedy society.

All this she sets out to achieve by way of building his self respect rather than by producing miracles. In the end, Andre sets out to do the same for Angela, suggesting perhaps that we can all find our own angels or sources of inspiration.

Angela wants Andre to cease living in fear and to see beyond the projected self-image of others, and to recognise equality among men. We all role-play in society - we all play parts in others' lives, but Andre has allowed himself to be governed by others' perceptions and has compromised to such an extent that he has virtually caved in and given up on himself.

Angela helps him gain self respect and recognise weaknesses as well as strengths in others, thus he no longer feels inferior. In the end he has been freed from fear and the need to accommodate others. He has learned to recognise his own value and break from his former vision of society and his place in it.

An entertaining and intriguing mixture of "traditional" angel tale and Besson's common theme of the nature of society and the place of the individual within it, this film is set against the stunning black and white backdrop of Paris, and the story is told with his usual energy and humour.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it of some interest. I would, of course, be happy to discuss the films mentioned above, or the thoughts contained in this page, in greater detail. I can be contacted at  

Stuart Fernie


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