“Lord, please let me soul come to maturity before it is reaped.”
The Phantom Carriage by Victor Sjostrom is one of the best silent films I have seen. Every time I would go to a Barnes and Noble that sold DVDs I would always see The Phantom Carriage. The other day I took at the DVD to see what the film was about. The plot sounded so interesting I had to see it. From beginning to end the film is just so brilliant. The way the plot plays out is so good and so well done from the direction to the acting.
On New Year’s Eve in a small Swedish town, a young Salvation Army sister Edit is dying in her mother’s home after a year of being sick with consumption. She asks Sister Maria to look for a man named David Holm (Sjostrom) she must see him before she dies. Sister Maria goes to look for him at his home but only his wife is there and she looks sad and miserable. The wife goes with Maria to see Sister Edit and just breaks down and cries when she sees the dying young woman.
In the graveyard three drunkards are sitting around waiting for the New Year. One of the men asks the other if they heard about the Phantom Carriage that is driven by the last person to die on New Year’s Eve. He tells how his friend Georges was a happy go lucky fellow but last New Year’s Eve he became worried and upset. He told a group of men the story of how the one who drives the phantom carriage must do so for a year and every day he does his duty to him it is like a one hundred years. Unfortunately Georges is the one who dies at the last stroke of midnight that year.
A man runs over to the graveyard and finds David among the drunken men. It was David who was telling the story of the Phantom Carriage. The man tells David that Sister Edit is dying and wants to see him. He just laughs in the man’s face and says that he is not going. The man leaves but the two other drunkards tell him he that he should go to Edit. David becomes angry and the three men get into a fight. David is hit on the head by one of the men and falls onto something on one of the stone slabs and dies. Georges comes riding over in the Phantom Carriage and calls David’s soul to rise out of its prison. Georges tells David that he must face the consequences of his evil ways.
David used to be a good man with a loving family and a young brother. Georges was the one who is to blame for David’s horrible slide into alcoholism. David was thrown in jail for drunken behavior. Before he was to be released the warden showed him that his brother has been thrown in jail as well when he murdered someone while he was intoxicated. The warden tells David he should do the time for his brother since he was the one who introduced him to drink. David is truly sorry for what he has done and willingly accepts to do the time. When he is released he cannot wait to see his wife and children. But when he returns home his wife and children have left him. He is extremely upset that his wife has left him without facing him, he could have handled it if she had faced him instead of just walking out without a word. While David searches for his wife his hatred for her grows as well as his revenge.
David’s revenge and hatred was brought with him in his wake when he arrived in the small town. On New Year’s Eve he goes to a Salvation Army house for the night. Sisters Edit and Maria are the caretakers. The house has just opened and David is their first guest. Edit has no problem helping David she sees him as a man sent by God for them to take care of. Edit spends the night sewing his jacket. Maria has warned her that she should not being so that because of all the germs and filth that are it. In the morning David wakes up to find his cot all mended. At first he seems to be happy about it but very cruelly rips it in front of Edit. She tells David very calmly to come back next year because she prayed to God for him to have a good year.
The year is miserable. David is so far from the man he used to be. He is cruel and nasty to everyone around him. He is sick with consumption and does not care who catches it. David goes to a Salvation Army rally where Edit is. He goes just to make fun of everyone and is yet again cruel to her. His wife is there as well. Edit goes to her not knowing who she is but when she finds out she tells David and has them reunited. The reunion goes well for a while then David falls off the wagon and is a miserable drunk yet again. His wife tries to leave him but she collapses and cannot get out of the apartment. Eventually she does leave him and lives in a small shack with her children.
Georges tells David that he must see Edit before she dies. He ties David up and brings him to the house. Edit sees Georges as Death and begs him for a reprieve telling him to come back tomorrow because she has to see David one last time to save his soul. Georges tells her it is too late for David. David manages to come near her bed. He feels terrible to see this innocent caring young woman die because of him and how awful he was to her. Georges tells her soul to be released from its prison and Edit dies.
After the sad scene Georges takes David to his wife’s home. He makes David watch as his wife plans to poison herself and the children because of him. She cannot go on living because of him and what he has done to not only her life but that of Edit’s. David cries out praying to God not to let his wife kill herself and the children. He begs for forgiveness and mercy with all his might. Georges sees that David really does mean what he has to say and that was all his had to see. Georges takes David back to his body and is brought back to life. David runs to his wife to save her. He tells her he saw Edit die, the wife does not believe him and he breaks down crying saying he wants to truly change but she does not believe him. The wife tells him that seeing him cry she does believe that he wants to change.
The film is so much better than I have described it trust me.
Victor Sjostrom wrote the screenplay, directed the film, and also starred in it. The man did a magnificent job. His direction was perfect as well as his acting. I liked the character of David because he was the anti hero. You hatred him for being so mean but at the same time you wanted him to find happiness you do not want him to remain dead you want him to right all his wrongs. He made such a wonderful film. All the actors were not bad at all. So many actors and actresses during the silent era over emoted using histrionics which is why some people stay away from silents (and I do not blame them sometimes the bad acting is way too bad to sit through) but in this film there is not one person who does.
The scenes of the ghosts where you see them as transparent figures are chilling. The coloring of the film just adds to the creepiness of the figures. The film is put into the horror category just because of the ghosts. But I look at it as a horror of a person having gone astray and for a short time thinking he could not redeem himself and truly become a better person to those around him. That to me in itself is a horror and a hell worse than anything I can imagine.
The Phantom Carriage is one of the best silent films or any film I have watched. I think I have said more than enough about how great it is that I cannot say anymore. I can only suggest that you see The Phantom Carriage for yourself to see why I like it so much (youtube).