Over the weekend, Bill invited John, Dave and I over to think about our spiritual journey. We were joined by Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete Hogwallop, and Delmar O’Donnell. OK, so we were getting together to watch the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”
Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, the story sometimes looks more like a cross between The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Wizard of Oz. But, make no mistake, this is a spiritual pilgrimage disguised as a journey through the Deep South during the depression era. Everett, Pete, and Delmar are sinners. This is emphasized by the fact that they are prisoners who have escaped from the chain gang. For me, this is part of the greatness of the story – they begin literally chained together. I enjoy this so much because none of us set out on this adventure alone.
After their escape, they meet a blind Seer who tells us all we need to know about this journey. “You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek. But first… first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see things, wonderful to tell. You shall see a … a cow… on the roof of a cotton house, ha. And, oh, so many startlements. I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto your salvation.”
It doesn’t take long to realize the Seer is right. This is a quest for treasure, where obstacles abound, along with narrow escape. Among the twists and turns, there are plenty of laughs, yet, no scene is entirely comical or entirely tragic. Our three pilgrims are betrayed by kin, participate in a bank robbery, are seduced by sirens, and deceived by a rather refined Cyclops. They stumble upon a baptism where Delmar and Pete are baptized, meet a new friend Tommy who has sold his soul to the devil, stop a Ku Klux Klan rally, and are surrounded by old timey music from start to finish.
The music is fitting, even at unexpected moments, and pulls us along throughout the adventure. You will recognize Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch among the voices. Even our travelers join in the chorus. They record “Man of Constant Sorrow” as the Soggy Bottom Boys (Everett came up with this name in mockery of Delmar and Pete’s baptism).
Delmar and Pete submit themselves to baptism in the early scene but not Everett. He tries to be more rational “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed. Baptism! You two are just dumber than a bag of hammers!” Rational, that is, until the end of the story when he realizes that he is about to die and unable to talk his way out of trouble. Then he kneels to pray “Lord, please look down and recognize us poor sinners… I know I’ve been guilty of pride and sharp dealing. I’m sorry that I turned my back on you. Forgive me. Help us Lord, for the sake of my family. For Tommy’s sake, for Delmar’s and Pete’s. Let me see my daughters again, Lord, help us please.” In another surprising turn of the story they are rescued by a flood. Shall we say that Everett also was baptized in miraculous waters?
The movie, to some degree, is about seeing. Or not seeing. So we meet a blind disc jockey and a one-eyed giant. We also meet a man who lives by the law who sees only through dark sunglasses and is unable to see who has been forgiven of transgressions. Interestingly, it is only the blind Seer who is able to see what is really happening here. This is evidenced most clearly when the miraculously saved Everett sees a cow on the roof of a cotton house. Just as the blind Seer said he would. Perhaps it is only after he experiences salvation that he finally has eyes to see.
My favorite scene comes late in the movie when the Soggy Bottom Boys perform at a political rally and are finally discovered as the artists who recorded the smash hit “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Some will disagree but I am fairly certain this is the best dance scene in any movie ever. Admittedly, this reveals more about me than about dancing.
As with anything else, there is a risk of over thinking this movie. We all have a little bit of Everett in us. Instead, I recommend that you sit back, laugh, sing and enjoy it. And if you have seen it before, it is probably a good time to see it again.