>John Buchan, more formally known as Lord Tweedsmuir, is one of those authors who, with the passage of time, has sadly gone out of fashion. Part of this has to do with a change in attitude that began with the dismemberment of the British Empire, which affected the popularity of British writers such as Buchan (1875-1940), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), and Sir H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925). Their tales of adventure were great fun in and of themselves, but sometimes featured ideas or language which, even if only secondary to the plot, were unfortunately racist in tone.
That being said, I am looking forward to Masterpiece Theatre this Sunday evening, which will be screening a new film adaptation of Buchan’s novel, “The Thirty-Nine Steps”. The most famous celluloid version of the book, as film fans know, is Alfred Hitchcock’s from 1935. Though not entirely faithful to the novel, this is one of the earliest films with the plot device of a man on the run from mysterious forces out to get him, a genre which Hitchcock would arguably perfect in his great film “North by Northwest” in 1959, starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.
I am avoiding any reviews of this new version of “The Thirty-Nine Steps” until after I have seen the film, as I do not want the experience of watching it to be ruined in advance by considering others’ opinions. Nevertheless, I do have to question the casting of Rupert Penry-Jones in the role of Richard Hannay, the hero of many of Buchan’s novels. Hannay, as all Buchan fans know, was based in part on Lord Ironside, a tough, smart, lumbering giant of a military man who was just as likely to challenge you to a boxing match over opposing political views as he was to survive a plane crash and tie up his own wounds as if nothing had happened. Penry-Jones has always been an engaging actor, but he is a bit like a leather club chair in a fancy hotel bar: well-upholstered but not something you can knock about without injuring it.
Buchan was not only a novelist, but a political figure as well, rising to become Governor-General of Canada at the end of his career. His book, “Memory Hold-the-Door”, published in America as “Pilgrim’s Way”, is one of my favorite autobiographies and deals with the events of his childhood and leading through all the way to his arrival in Canada. As one might imagine, he knew everyone worth knowing during his long academic, writing, and military career, and as such it is a nice companion to the autobiography, “To Keep the Ball Rolling” by Anthony Powell, another British writer of not entirely dissimilar background and opinions who, like Buchan, these days is not read as often as he ought to be.
In this sort of secular apologia pro vita sua, Buchan stated (in 1940!) what many in the Christian world are very cognizant of today, as Western Civilization continues to circle the drain. I close this post with his words, in the hope that readers of similar opinions may be interested in reading this fascinating author’s life story for themselves, and draw their own conclusions:
There have been high civilizations in the past which have not been Christian, but in the world as we know it I believe that civilization must have a Christian basis, and must ultimately rest on the Christian Church. Today the Faith is being attacked, and the attack is succeeding. Thirty years ago Europe was a nominally Christian continent. It is no longer so. In Europe, as in the era before Constantine, Christianity is in a minority. What Gladstone wrote seventy years ago, in a moment of depression, has become a shattering truth: “I am convinced that the welfare of mankind does not now depend on the State and the world of politics; the real battle is being fought in the world of thought, where a deadly attack is made with great tenacity of purpose and over a wide field upon the greatest treasure of mankind, the belief in God and the Gospel of Christ.”