THE PILGRIM (Charles Chaplin, 1923)

Religious lunacy and hypocrisy in the American landscape: these are Charles Chaplin’s targets in his sharp, satirical, refreshing The Pilgrim.
     Charlie’s introduction to us is his image on a wanted poster; Charlie has escaped from prison. His striped prison clothes are discovered by a bush. Hilarious cut: Next we see—or, I should say, first we see—Charlie walking down a street, feigning meditation, in his parson’s garb. When he buys a train ticket, he grabs hold of the cage bars by reflex. Charlie will have to break bad habits in order to prevail in his current disguise. When an eloper approaches him to wed himself and his sweetie, Charlie, fearing capture, runs away. Ironically, his own awakened romantic heart is what will transform his “criminal” nature, moving even the sheriff who captures him to release him into Mexico at the Texas border.
     It is in Devil’s Gulch, Texas, that Charlie masquerades as the new pastor, the Reverend Mr. Pim, trying to steal the collection boxes and pantomiming a ridiculous sermon—but any more ridiculous than a real church sermon?—about David and Goliath, in which he identifies as David vis-à-vis the America that oppresses and incarcerates him. The congregation is confused by Charlie’s antics, but a young boy who has been bullied throughout the service by his bourgeois mother applauds wildly.
     “America is here or nowhere,” British author Thomas Carlyle said when asked why, given his love of freedom, he did not move there. At the end of Stagecoach (1939) John Ford suggests that “America” is always somewhere else—in Mexico, as it happens. To Chaplin at the end of The Pilgrim, it turns out there is no America. Nearly thirty years later, this tragic insight proved prophetic in the writer-director-star’s own political life.

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