Monday, April 25, 2011

A Tribute to Blythe and Hendley

It is long past time to pay my respects. There’s a special movie I saw a long time ago, and two special characters that I have wanted to write about ever since I began this blog.

Say hello to Blythe and Hendly. They’re Allied POWs in The Great Escape. If you have not seen this movie yet, I urge you to see it. And don’t read the rest of this post, because spoilers abound.

In these two, I find the most endearing friendship in the movie. If you can’t remember, Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) is the forger among the POWs. He’s a wispy, quiet little man, with a keen eye for German documents. Working day and night, he creates fake passports and other documents. A true introvert, he would spend his days bird-watching if there was no war.

In every way he contrasts with his cellmate, Flight Lieutenant Hendley (James Garner). He’s big, canny, and assertive. He is “the Scrounger”, and gets materials for the other POWs by hook or by crook. He swindles German officers and guards with a smile. With a wink he slips wrenches and rations to the other POWs. You don’t hear much about his history in America, but I can just see him telling a joke to a dozen people at the bar, and making them all fall off the bar-stools laughing. He knows what makes people tick.

As the time nears to break out, Blythe goes blind from too many nights of squinting at papers in dim light. He’s desperate to make sure no one finds out. Blythe wants to be a part of the escape. He doesn’t want to hang back, even if that was the safer road.

Blindness is hard to hide. Bartlett, the leader, catches him with a simple test. It’s pathetic to watch. Blythe had laid a coin on one end of his room, and practiced walking to it, “seeing it”, and picking it up. Bartlett isn’t stupid. When Blythe takes the coin, Bartlett calls him back and trips him easily. A blind man cannot crawl through a tunnel, or sneak through the forest quietly, or evade the German army. Bartlett forbids him to take part in the escape.

And then Hendley makes his sacrifice.

“Blythe isn’t blind so long as he’s with me,” he said. He offers to escort Blythe out of the camp, and out of Germany. Bartlett accepts.

What a humble, beautiful sacrifice. It’s surprising Hendley had any bond with Blythe at this point. They have next to nothing in common. They were cellmates, but their conversations were never that animated. They had little in common. Why did Hendley reach out? Did he feel that much pity for quiet little Blythe? Or had he truly become his friend, and was reaching out as any true friend would?

Blythe begins to back out later, but Hendley convinces him to stay with it. Now it is set in stone. They both sit in the room. It is brightly lit. Somehow you can feel the weight of the looming jailbreak, dense and dark in the air. My heart is thumping at this point. And a light comes up in my eye when I see Hendley- confident, crafty Hendley- pledge his life to Blythe. Frail, quiet little Blythe.

Together they go. As the escape attempt falls apart, Hendley guides Blythe through the forest, and through the Nazis that come after them. They seize the airplane. They fly to the Swiss Alps! The triumph is unlike any other triumph in the movie.

Except that it’s not a triumph. They run out of gas and crash-land. The Nazis swarm in, and before Hendley can reach Blythe and warn him, the guns go up and shoot Blythe down.

Hendley was in enough danger on his own, but he chose to take this withdrawn, blind man with him. It would have taken courage for me. It would have taken humility. If I was as resourceful and energetic as Hendley, I would have been annoyed to be saddled with Blythe. I would feel like a 12-year-old told to take his little brother with him to a party. It’s so petty, but Hendley must have felt it. Just a little.

Yet he shows nothing but compassion and companionship. He dares to sneak through the might of the Third Reich, and do it with this feeble man with him. He chose it, freely. He chose the burden, and he transformed it into the most touching friendship among all of the POWs.

Can this story teach you something?

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