11/04/2011

MEMORIES & NOSTALGIA: I'VE BEEN REWATCHING "THE THORN BIRDS" (1983)

Long ago, there was a bird who sang just once in its life. From the moment it left its nest, it  searched for a thorn tree. And it never rested until it found one. Then it began to sing more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. And singing, it impaled its breast on the longest, sharpest thorn. But as it was dying, it rose above its own agony to out-sing the lark and the nightingale. The thorn bird pays its life for that one song and the whole world stills to listen and God, in His heaven ~smiles. As its best was bought only at the cost of great pain. Driven to the thorn, with no knowledge of the dying to come. But when we press the thorn to our breast, 
We know........
We understand.....
And still......we do it.

This story is so bittersweet!  But ... isn't that the way of life?
I was only 15 or 16 when I read it first, one of my best favourites of all time.  I was the perfect victim,  since like all teenagers in the history of humankind,  I was  experiencing the "sling and arrows" of unrequited love. So that became for me one of those books you’ll never forget and always compare to others.  The Thorn Birds, (1977) by Australian writer Coleen McCullough , was a miracle to my teenage thirst for passionate stories. Maybe , I was too young for explicit sex scenes or for that  terribly sad , unattainable love, but looking back, I'm happy I was that  free to read how much and what I chose. My parents worked long hours and I was brought up by  my lovely grandparents . I read so many books at the time, always longing for new  words , feelings, stories and knowledge.
I read it in Italian, of course, Uccelli di rovo.  The Thorn Birds. I was so touched and impressed by the title image, so tragic and lyrical at the same time (see the opening quotation above) and that is just what has remained in my heart and mind all this time: the thorn birds' story , all the suffering which passionate love can bring with itself. 

Meggie Cleary (Rachel Ward)
Love between mothers and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters,  a man and  a woman ... all these relationships are doomed, haunted by suffering , as if a person ought to pay with pain and sorrow as a compensation for love and happiness. At least,  in this novel, that is what happens.
I've received The Thorn Birds DVD,  in the original English version,  last Christmas as a gift from a nice friend,  who loves period drama and movies as much as I do.  However,  only this last weekend I made up my mind and felt  ready to rewatch this gripping family saga dating back to the 1980s and based on a book from the 70s. Nostalgia, melancholic mood, tissues at hand. I didn't remember how beautiful this story was. Actually, I had forgot much! 
I saw all the episodes back to back: afternoon, evening, part of the night. I couldn't stop. All those thrilling memories! 

By the way, I fell in love with Australia , more than with Father Ralph , while reading or watching. And I dreamed of moving there ( since I already wanted to learn English at the time). I used to ask  my granny (yes, my granny, not my mother) "Will you come with me? Would you like to live in a farm with me?" I was serious, mind. Not joking at all. And I went on dreaming  of going to Australia for years. 
Still dreaming though. Never been to the South of the world.
Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain)

The story

Set primarily on Drogheda, a fictional sheep station in the Australian outback, the story focuses on three generations of the Cleary Family and spans the years 1920 to 1962.
Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain) is a young, ambitious priest who, as punishment for insubordination, was relegated to a remote parish in Australia. Ralph befriends Mary Carson (Barbara Stanwyck), an elderly wealthy widow who owns Drogheda.  Mary,  doesn't bother to conceal her desire for him and  frequently goes to great lengths to see if he can be induced to break his vows. Mary is a controlling, calculating, shrewd, and strong-willed woman used to getting her own way. She becomes angry when she realizes that she can never have Ralph and begins plotting his destruction: she knows Ralph's weakness is ambition. 

 When Mary's only brother, Paddy, and his family, the Clearys, arrive at Drogheda from New Zealand,  Ralph becomes fond of them but finds himself particularly drawn to Meghan "Meggie" Cleary. Meggie, the only daughter in a large family, makes Ralph the centre of her life. Frank, the eldest son, has a troubled relationship with Paddy, but he is almost worshipped and spoilt by Fee, his mother.  Just after arriving in 1921, Fee reveals she is pregnant again, prompting a violent quarrel between Frank and Paddy, and an out of control Paddy reveals the truth about Frank - he is not his own  son.


Long ago, Fee was the adored only daughter of a wealthy and prominent New Zealand citizen, Roderick Armstrong. She fell in love with an older married politician and became pregnant with Frank. Frank was a baby when Fee's father arranged her in marriage to Paddy, a dairy hand on the Armstrong estate, and paid Paddy to take Fee and Frank and relocate to another part of New Zealand because she had disgraced the family. Because he resembles her lost love, Fee adores Frank but seems indifferent to her husband and other children.

Fee and her beloved Frank

To Meggie and Fee's sorrow, Frank leaves to become a boxer. Not long after Frank runs away, Fee gives birth to a baby boy named  "Hal"  but she shows little interest in him. Hal dies at the age of 2.
With Frank gone and Hal dead, Meggie clings to Father Ralph more than ever, especially because her mother goes on ignoring her.
Time goes by, Maggie is 18 and extremely attractive. Father Ralph starts avoiding her and this makes her suffer much.


Crucial things happen on Mary Carson's 75th birthday: she changes her will in favour of the Catholic Church, she curses Father Ralph for rejecting her attentions and dies that very night, possibly by suicide.
Mary's fortune is not only Drogheda, as Ralph and Paddy thought, the sheep station is merely a "hobby", a diversion from her true financial interests. Mary's wealth is derived from a vast multi-national financial empire worth over thirteen million pounds  and will insure Ralph's rapid rise in the church.  She also provides for her disinherited brother, promising him and all his descendants a home on Drogheda as long as they wish. The lawyer urges Ralph to destroy the will but to no avail. Just as Mary predicted, Ralph chooses his own ambitions over Meggie.
Tragic events haunt the Clearys' now happier routine at Drogheda: Paddy and his son Stuei are killed during a devastating fire on the station in a period of drought. Father Ralph comes back and the passionate connection between him and Meggie is out but he still refuses her. 


Meggie is angry with Father Ralph, who always says he loves God more than her, and when she hears he is going to Rome to follow his ambition to become a cardinal, she accepts to marry Luke O'Neill, a new station hand (Bryan Brown)  Although his motives are more mercenary than romantic, she marries him. She soon realizes her mistake. Luke finds Meggie a live-in job with a kindly couple, Luddie and Anne Mueller, and leaves to join a gang of itinerant sugarcane cutters in North Queensland. He is gone most of the time and rarely sees his new wife. Hoping to change Luke and settle him down, Meggie  becomes pregnant and bears Luke a daughter , Justine  Luke however seems very annoyed and still remains away at the cane fields.

 
In Rome, Ralph is advised by Archbishop Vittorio that he must face his temptations or he will always be controlled by them. Father Ralph learns of Meggie's whereabouts from Anne Mueller, and joins her for several days on Matlock Island. There, finally, the lovers consummate their passion, and Ralph realizes that despite his ambition to be the perfect priest, his desire for Meggie makes him a man like other men. Ralph loves Meggie, but still returns to the Church ,  again choosing his own ambition over her. 
Back home on Drogheda, Meggie gives birth to a baby boy, Dane. Fee, who has had experience in such matters, realizes that Dane is Ralph's son and reveals this to Meggie. The relationship between Meggie and Fee becomes even worse as Meggie warns Fee never to reveal to anyone, especially Ralph, the truth that he is Dane's father, or she will be as merciless and neglectful to Fee as she had been to Meggie.

Justine

Dane
Nineteen years pass. Dane, now 19, decides much to Meggie's dismay, to become a priest. Ralph, now a Cardinal, becomes a mentor to Dane, but somehow fails to recognize that the young man is his own son. Dane admires Ralph greatly but  is also unaware of their true relationship. Meggie surrenders to her fate: she stole Dane from God and now he wants him back. Meggie will soon learn how true her fears will turn ...
Justine begins a relationship with Rainer "Rain" Moerling Hartheim (Ken Howard), a handsome and charming West German politician. Justine, however,  is unable to return Rain's obvious affection for her because of the deep scars left by her mother's neglect. Rain remains patient with Justine for several years.

 
Warning : if you don't know the whole story and feel you want to read or see it, you'd better stop here! 
 

Dane and Justine decide to go on a vacation in Greece after  Dane, now 27,  is newly ordained priest, He convinces Justine, now 28, that she should allow Rain into her heart. A short time later Dane drowns while trying to rescue two swimmers. His body is flown back to Drogheda, where Ralph conducts the funeral. In a moment of anger  Meggie finally tells Ralph the truth,  that Dane was his son , in anger she damns him and leaves him to his own devices and sorrow. 
Fee and Meggie make peace after Fee finally admits she had neglected her daughter and warns  Meggie she is just repeating her own mistake:  Justine has been  neglected by her. 
Now Meggie decides to open her heart to her daughter and make peace with Justine, who finally accepts the advances of Rain. 
The movie ends in late December 1962 as Justine and Rain fly off to begin their lives together.
Meggie goes to check on Ralph in the rose garden. The two are finally reunited when Ralph  realizes all he has sacrificed, how much Meggie has had to endure because of him. She  forgives him just  before he dies in her arms. They have lived like the thorn birds of the story Ralph used to tell Meggie when she was a child.
 

11 comments:

Traxy said...

I remember starting to read this book once, when I was a teenager (or tween?) ... but never got very far. Something with a school full of nuns and a redheaded girl who got punished for her hair and being left-handed? Or am I confusing that with another book? *scratches head* Maybe it's due a proper read. Thanks for the tip! :)

Daphne said...

Oh, I loved this show when it first came out and then I read the book and loved it as well. You are making me want to watch it!!

Anonymous said...

AWWWW!!!!
The Thorn Birds was my first 'adult' book: I've read it when I was 12. I think it was the way I learned about the 'facts of life', long before my mom told me (of course she didn't know I was reading that book at the time, she wouldn't have allowed me!)
I absolutely loved it, and it has been one of my favourite books for a long time. I'm afraid I didn't care much for the romantic bits (unrequited love, passion and sufferings), but I enjoyed the adventurous pace - a real saga! - and the characters' depiction: my favourite characters were Justine and the Archbishop. I've been happy to watch the mini when it came out, but I didn't like it as much as the book (as usual!): they cut off so many things, I was quite disappointed.
Thank you MG for reminding me of this little gem: I'd like to re-read the novel, instead of rewatching the mini, though.
xx K/V

arabella_vidal said...

Oh, what memories this has! I watched the TV series first but since I was only 7 or 8, I didn't understand much of it. But I had the chance to check the book out of my college library in my teens. I was amazed at how gripping the novel was, considering that I had never actually been interested in Australia before, except for in geography classes. (So what if I like geography?) I'm glad you made this point about Australia, MG, since the land itself seemed as much a character in the novel as the humans. I remember crying when Ralph went to the Vatican, when Stu and Paddy died, when Frank was jailed. I loved the way Colleen McCullough describes Meggie slowly growing up and maturing and falling in love as I did with Father Ralph. *sigh* I purchased the DVD set with extras some years ago but had to leave it with my sister when I got married. Methinks, I will borrow it.
Have you read McCulloughs historicals on ancient Rome? Brilliant!

alfie said...

This show is really part of my childhood. I adored it - dreamt of Richard chamberlain:) ( was to young to know:))

MARIA GRAZIA said...

Thanks Traxy, Daphne, K/V, Arabella_Vidal and alfie for dropping by and sharing my nostalgic moment!
Guess what! Now I've got the DVD but I can't find my copy of the book anymore. I've got hundreds of books in my house now and I can't remember where "Uccelli di rovo" is now. Maybe I lent it and it never came back! It's time to own and read an original version, now I'm able to do it. I couldn't read English that well when I was 15. :-)

Becky said...

Oh my goodness!!! I am SUCH A HUGE FAN of the Thornbirds! Seriously, I saw your post and sighed. I, like you, am thankful my parents didn't censor my reading for this very reason. You said that beautifully. We may not have understood it all, nor needed to at that point (I read it at 17), but we did understand the complex layers that made up these people. As an adult, I often rewatch this mini-series. Honestly, Richard Chamberlain in Thornbirds and Shogun was my early Richard Armitage! :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing with us this moment, MG! I hope you'll find your copy of the book as soon as possible ;-).
xx E. The Pusher

Anonymous said...

It just goes to show how powerful curses are eg when Mary Carson said she would make Ralphs life hell even if she lost her own soul over it. we need to be very careful what we say to other people as the tongue is a very powerful weapon. In fact I think there is something in the bible which bears that out in the book of James about the tongue being a world of evil and is set on fire by hell. This is what the Thorn birds is all about to me.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I am french and i read the book"the thorn birds"or "les oiseaux se cachent pour mourir"in french long ago and i don't believe in Mary Carson's predictions..i think that Ralph could have made a choice at Mary's death but he was unable to make a choice between Meggie and the church and he destroyed himself,he created his own hell! Nobody needs another human being to be unhappy..we have the power to create our happiness or hell and Ralph chose hell.It is very easy to understand.Meggie waited for him a long time and i'm not sure a woman could wait so long nowadays for the man she would love.No! I think that God gave us freedom and Ralph like Meggie used this freedom in a very bad way..this novel cannot be remade but if i were Meggie i wouldn't be so patient sorry! i would have told Ralph not to see me again if he wanted to leave when he joined her on Matlock island.It is exaggerated that she was glad to see him again later..

Choochka22 said...

I have loved this movie since it first came out and found the character of Justine to be wonderful too! I'm so happy, that in the end, there was real love shown to her by her mum. I adored Howard's character as he loved Jussie from the moment he saw her. What is the term of endearment he used and is it a real word. It sounded like, Hertzela. I have romanticized about this for years. I want a Reiner Harteim in my life :-)