(Spoilers and ethical-religious rant ahead)
Stories about kind old men and their old-school ways are compelling because most of us have compassion for our elders and have some notion of a desire to honor them. Because of that, stories of old guys with principles are usually a hit. Think about Up, and Mr. Ferguson’s duty to his late wife Ellie (you need to see Up). Old guys are good for endearment.
The Last Lieutenant (1993) is an enjoyable drama by Hans Petter Moland. We find Second Lieutenant Thor Espedal retiring from the the merchant marine, but he has served in a military capacity before. He was a Second Lieutenant, a rank now obsolete in the Norwegian armed forces. “Kitten,” as his wife calls him, is happy to be home and retired, and his wife is certainly glad to have him home. Sadly, the next day, Norway is invaded by the Nazis and Espedal is duty-bound to find a way to oppose the invaders. He leaves his wife on an errand of idealistic lunacy, only to find the army in disarray – its leaders are cowards and no one of principle is to be found anywhere at all. Along the way, he is mocked for his age and ridiculed for his antique Cavalry uniform. Espedal takes matters into his own hands, manages to cobble together a rather loose unit of his own, and engages in some brief training and semi-official combat. Its all exciting for his troops until things look bleak.
The film takes place in historical context during the early days of WWII. The invasion of Norway and Denmark began n early April of 1940. This story is set in the midst of the takeover. It is very loosely inspired by the actions of 2nd Lt. Thor Hannevig, a member of the Norwegian Reserves. As a combat and action movie, the film falls flat, but as a drama it offers a bit of story that, in my world, makes a great study of worldviews and can shake up the blind patriot and typical neo-con quite well. This is because the film takes us along on a truly Quixotic journey that has all the makings of a noble tale of principle, but has no driving cause nor transcendent value in the end. Espedal believes duty to country is primary over all other duties, and his endearing candor and old-school charm make him eventually a man worth following. At least for a while. As with all men who inspire, there absolutely must be some greater transcendent reason to fight and follow leaders to death other than just bare patriotism. As a Christian reviewer who believes only God can possibly be the ultimate reason for all things and the source of absolute truth, I cannot find a compelling reason why Espedal was a martyr for nothing.
Espedal’s discussion with God in a late scene is telling. He is not a man of faith and thus his faithfulness cannot be motivated by anything other than a self-illusioned sense of worth and ethics. His own delusions demonstrate he has no grasp on the all-important creature-Creator distinction and cannot, then, function in any sort of truly noble manner. All of his nobility is self-derived and fails. It is a logical truth that no moral superior cause can exist apart from an ultimate sources of truth, everything else is merely opinion and relativism. So, ultimately, he is a conflicted old man with no real cause but his own internal notions of duty, which can not be judged good or wrong, right or correct, if there is not a single, objective truth proposition in the form of God. Ethic break down immediately if we can all hold our own ethical standard. Espedal becomes merely one cause in an ocean of personal causes. He is merely a notion among notions. Had he stood for a transcendent, absolute truth, then patriotism might have a root in something worth while. But as a generally faithless man, he cannot stand for anything but self and self-notions, which are ultimately worthless.
Espedal has a conversation with God. If this was Hollywood, I could confidently say that the story sought to show the silliness and antiquarian nature of such a concept as God, That’s what Hollywood does these days. But in their zeal to tear down God, they often shoot themselves in the foot unawares, and that is always a nice study to behold. In the his conversation with the director’s notion of God, Espedal gives his academic assent to God when he claims everything must be done with love. He says to God “that was your invention.” While acknowledging the source of the greatest motive of them all, he does not submit to nor grasp onto the source of love as his own motivation for existing. Thus, he ultimately proves to be a failure. Godless heroes are never good role models nor heroes, because ultimately their motives are either for self or for some notion of an idea separated from ultimate truth, and no sort of motive like that is noble.
Espedal makes his allegiance known when friend Krogh is killed in a German bombing attack. While everyone mourns, the pastor figure, merely a theological student ‘ordained’ by the authority of “Country, Army and Espedal,” attempts to read from the Bible at the funeral. Espedal stops him. This is a far more powerful window into Espedal’s character than most will imagine.
In the end, he remained the last man standing, but for what end? To inspire pagans? To stir up patriotism apart from transcendent meaning? If there is no God, no meaning outside of self, then nothing matters at all because we are all merely biomass reacting to and running on chemical reactions. So who cares about right or wrong? Who gets to say what is noble and good? No one cares, because the next country over, there will be a different standard of good that decries the actions of foolish martyrs. Espedal was a fool who said in his heart there is no God. When a film makes that bold statement, I cannot connect with the character as the director wishes.
Yes, we long to root for his bravery and commitment to his notion of blind and meaningless patriotism. Yes, he’s a likable throwback and has that grandfatherly face we all love. But since Espedal’s patriotism is merely a self-driven placebo for a futile idea of the greater good, it is meaningless. Espedal is a noble character by the world’s standards, and when I see stories about men like this I often marvel how great a Christian they might have made. In the end, they go the way of all flesh, and do not inherit the Kingdom.
This is a film about a man, not so much a war movie. Its a sad film if you happen to be sensitive to Godlessness. If you are merely a heathen or pagan who says it is noble to stand up “for King and Country” as Espedal did, I only wonder why? Norway is no better or no worse today for Espedal’s self-sacrifice, and he is of no account eternally and temporally. He was a man who lived and died for his own ideas, and no one really cares about that kind of stuff.
As a compelling story, its a worthy watch, maybe three and a half stars out of five. To those who wish for a bit of truth and greater good, its a flop that merely serves as another Don Quixote moment, a worldview example, and a tale that stirs up the sorrow.