I recently came back from teaching 15 and 16 year old boys at Camp Indecon and one of my best classes centered around the 1997 movie, The Edge. We intensely discussed the film’s story and characters, and the meaning of many scenes of dialogue. This film features an amazing hero and my campers wanted to understand him.
Written by David Mamet, directed by Lee Tamahori, the film stars Anthony Hopkins as a billionaire on vacation in Alaska who gets lost in the wilderness with two ‘friends.’ He must find his way back while fighting off a Kodiak bear – and one of his ‘friends’ who’s after his wife and his money. Alec Baldwin plays the other main character, Bob, and Elle MacPherson is Hopkins’ model-wife, Mickey. The gorgeous Alaskan scenery is a perfect backdrop to this drama.
The movie has a gripping, highly plotted story, well-drawn characterizations and sharply written, purposeful dialogue (typical of a playwright). It is a delight of tight construction, meaningful dialogue and foreshadowing. But what I found truly unique was Anthony Hopkins’ character, Charles Morse. I have never seen a character like him in any other movie.
In the story, he’s been coaxed into a trip to Alaska by his wife, who’s on a photoshoot. Although he’s a brilliant businessman, he’s never been in the woods or done anything remotely rugged. He demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge in an early scene: the lodge owner bets Charles $5 that he doesn’t know what’s illustrated on the back of a paddle that has a panther carved on the front. Charles answers “A rabbit smoking a pipe.” The other characters are amazed that he knows the right answer. He explains the illustration “The rabbit is not afraid because he knows he’s smarter than the panther.” This foreshadows the movie’s action, which amply demonstrates the meaning of this Indian proverb. In the ending scene, Charles and the lodge owner revisit the proverb, which now has a life-changing meaning for Charles.
But Charles’ uniqueness doesn’t lie in his encyclopedic knowledge. It lies in how he uses it. He is the person with the least experience at physical challenges, and yet he is the one that others depend on. He saves lives because he’s always thinking, rational, perseverant and purposeful. He epitomizes what David Kelley calls “The Entrepreneurial Life.” Here’s a transcript of a scene that shows this attitude:
Bob shows the other crash survivors, Charles and Steve, that he inadvertently took with him a piece of paper which would have helped rescuers find them. Bob says “I’m afraid we’re in for a bit of a walk.”
Steve, in an increasingly angry and panicked tone says to Bob “What does that mean? What the fuck does that mean??”
Charles breaks into the argument with: “I once read an interesting book. It said that most people lost in the wilds, they die of shame. “
Steve says in a confused tone “What??”
Charles replies “Yeah, see they die of shame – ‘What did I do wrong, how could I have gotten myself into this?” and so they sit there and then they die because they didn’t do the one thing that would have saved their lives.”
And Steve replies in a petulant, angry tone “And what is that, Charles?”
You’ll notice that he’s does two things with these statements: first, he makes an important point to his fellows about what they all should be doing; second, his puzzling statement distracts them from arguing so that they will actually start to think. This is the leitmotif of his character – he keeps his mind on the problems, the many, many problems they encounter navigating the rugged Alaskan wilderness in their attempt to find their way back. He only loses his resolve once and, by that time the other two have learned from him how to coax him back to determination. He is confident, optimistic, extraordinarily fair, kind, generous, magnanimous and yet very realistic. He clearly knows the motives of others and yet is not distracted from his purposes by how he feels about those motives.
One startling course of action requires him to overcomes tremendous fear: killing a Kodiak bear which is stalking them.
He figures out how to do this from an old book received as a birthday present. It has illustrations of Indian ways, including ways to kill a bear with only the most primitive weapons. He resolves to do this even though he’s been seriously scared by a Kodiak bear while in the lodge. To maintain the resolve to kill the bear, he recites adamantly “What one man can do, another can do.” He is a marvelous hero to experience.
Most viewers find Charles last words perplexingly self-deprecatory and just plain wrong: “My friends died saving my life.” But I think they’re perfectly rational and consistent with the whole of his character, situation and actions. I’ll be glad to share my interpretation with anyone once they’ve watched this movie.
Anthony Hopkins is one of the few actors who can convincingly portray high intelligence. What part could he play in the Atlas Shrugged movie? Hugh Akston?
Originally published in The Atlasphere.
Trained in psychology, Marsha Familaro Enright is a writer