It was an innocent suggestion, made in the most innocent of days. The Longfellow family was enjoying the earliest hours of Christmas morning in 1860, their Massachusetts house ringing with children’s laughter as, outside, the church bells rang in the holiday.
Frances Longfellow turned to her husband and told him that he should write a poem about Christmas.
“Christmas is already a poem, Fanny,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow told her. “It doesn’t need my help.”
Most of America would’ve sided with Fanny, though.
Henry, who penned “Paul Revere’s Ride” And Evangeline, was the rare poet who mattered. His works were known not just by Ivy League literature professors, but by the guy who cleaned the professor’s chimneys. Back in the day, some said that Longfellow wasn’t just the country’s most famous poet: He might be its most famous person.
That Christmas, it would indeed seem as though America’s poet and his family had everything that could be wished or hoped for. Henry’s income paid for necessities and luxuries alike. Henry and Fanny were still deeply in love. Their home echoed with laughter and song.
But it was the last Christmas they would know such joy.
If you listened carefully underneath those peeling bells, you could hear the thunder of war drums. Abraham Lincoln had been elected President just the month before—a leader that the slave-owning South would not tolerate. The Civil War was only months away. Charley Longfellow, Henry’s oldest son, would love to join the Union army, if only his father would let him. But Henry once lost a daughter. He’s not about to lose a son, too.
And while Henry couldn’t know it then, another sort of devastation would visit him in the year to come—one that would scar him physically and emotionally, one that would leave him in a state of despair.
Christmas is already a poem, Henry said. But the Christmas of 1861 would be a very different day. Christmas that year needed all the help it could get.
And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was in no shape to give it.
Editor’s Note: While the events documented in this movie took place more than 150 years ago, they’re not necessarily that familiar to most folks. And some are critical to the content sections that follow. There will be spoilers ahead.
Longfellow, of course, was a real poet—though today, few of us know much more about him than his name. I Heard the Bells gives this semi-forgotten literary lion new life, telling us something about his triumphant, sometimes tragic, story.
We learn, for instance, that he was one of the era’s best-known abolitionists, writing poems that pleaded for the cause of the South’s enslaved population. (One of his poems is dramatically read by a former slave during a dinner party.) He instilled that zeal into his son, Charley, who wanted to fight for the Union cause. Henry never wanted his son to fight in the war, and I think we can laud both Charley’s willingness to serve and Henry’s desire to protect his son.
But Fanny just might be the film’s best hero. I Heard the Bells stresses that she’s pretty talented in her own right (Henry credits her for editing his poems), and she’s perpetually encouraging Henry’s own work. “We need poets to change the world, Henry, not politicians,” she tells him.
Fanny is also deeply religious. Entries that Henry finds in her journal prove as much. He reads that, for her, taking her first communion (and thus entering the community of Christ) was a life-changing moment. “I seemed already a new creature,” she writes.
Given her deep faith and character, Fanny’s death rocks Henry’s own faith mightily.
Even before Fanny’s passing, Henry doesn’t seem as though he’s a big fan of church. He thinks the pastor is “creepy” and seems thrilled when the Christmas Eve service is over, preferring to frolic outside in the snow with his youngest daughter. But when Fanny died, Henry later admits to the pastor, his faith seemed dead as well. (The pastor insists that she, and God, are very much alive, and Henry can spend time with both through their writings.) Though Henry still clings to vestiges of faith, he’s clearly not sure of much of anything in Fanny’s aftermath. “If God gave me the voice of a poet, then why did he take away my poetry from me?” He thunders at one point. “I will never write again.”
Still, he believes enough to be horrified when he clashes with Charley over his secret enlistment into the army. “This is not God’s will for you!” Henry tells him.
“You still believe in that?” Charley shoots back. “What do you think He was doing when [Fanny died]? Was He sleeping? … I will not put [hope] in a God who’s sleeping. Or a God who’s dead.”
But when Charley is injured in the war, he’s taken inside a ruined church, where he sees the church bell lying beside him. When he recalls that time later, he admits, “I was scared that I was right … about God being dead.” He says, though, that he had a near-miraculous revelation there as well. And as we listen to his story, we catch a glimpse of a stained-glass window that Charley saw in that church, the glass adorned with a depiction of Jesus.
Henry too has a spiritual turnaround. As he writes for the first time in a while (near what looks like a piece of wood that says “I will not forsake thee), he ultimately shouts, “My poetry lives! My God lives!” The poem that he writes, “Christmas Bells,” contains several Christian allusions and statements, especially in its triumphant closing stanza. And the movie itself ends with a quote from Longfellow’s “The Musician’s Tale; The Saga of King Olaf”:
The dawn is not distant,
Nor is the night starless;
Love is eternal!
God is still God, and
His faith shall not fail us;
Christ is eternal!
It’s obvious throughout this biographical story that Henry and Fanny love each other. They’re in a constant state of affection when they’re together, and they sometimes mildly flirt. Henry tells Fanny how beautiful she is.
We learn that Henry was married once before. His first wife died, and Henry tells a clergyman that he feels responsible for her death, because he put his career before her (and forced her to go across the Atlantic with him when she was in a delicate state).
Charley also has a love interest here, whose name is Mary.
I Heard the Bells documents a tragedy and a near-tragedy in the Longfellow family, both of which are rather violent.
First, Fanny’s death. History tells us that she burned to death when her dress caught on fire while Henry was taking a nap. The movie doesn’t show us the explicit details of Fanny’s demise, but it does show her dress ablaze as she screams for help. Henry tries to smother the flames, but he can’t before it’s too late to save her. When her funeral is held, Henry doesn’t attend: He’s laid up in his own bed, face disfigured and his hands bandaged from his own burns. (In real life, Longfellow was famous for his beard—a beard he grew to hide the burn scars on his face.)
Next, Charley. Though Henry tried to call in some favors to ensure his son’s safety, both Charley and a commanding general had a different idea. The general sends Charley off to scout an area around a church, but it proves to be an ambush. We don’t see the bullet that wounds Charley, but do see the young soldier with blood pooling around the middle of his torso. He was shot in the back, and we’re told he nearly died.
We hear an officer talk about how wagons will soon “be stacked with bloody heaps of men.” Charley recalls how the church where he was taken was riddled with a “million bullet holes.” In happier times, Henry pegs a pastor in the face with a snowball. A few men go duck hunting. We hear about how Charles Sumner, a politician and one of Henry’s best friends, was beaten with a cane in Congress for his abolitionist views.
After Fanny dies, Henry turns to ether to cope with both his physical and mental pain. (In real life, we’re told that Longfellow’s post-Fanny drug of choice was an opioid called Laudanum.) Charley accuses his father of not leaving the house except to get more of it.
Wine is served with dinner.
After Fanny’s death, Henry largely withdraws from his family. We see his son, Ernest, helping to take care of his three daughters. And when Henry tells Charley that he can’t leave, that the family needs him, Charley snaps back, “To replace their absent father and dead mother?”
Charley goes behind his father’s back to sign up for the Union army.
We hear Longfellow’s poem “There Was a Little Girl,” which makes a rather disparaging comment about said little girl. (“When she was good, she was very good indeed/But when she was bad she was horrid.”)
Sometimes we lose sight of the meaning of Christmas.
Oh, I think most anyone who might be reading this review has a good idea of why we celebrate Christmas: The birth of Jesus is certainly worth celebrating.
But as important as that event is, all the lights and food and, yes, bells that go along with it can distract us from the context of that celebration.
We celebrate Christmas on December 25, near the very darkest (and for many, the coldest) days of the year. For centuries, it was a bleak, difficult time. Christmas not only commemorated the birth of our Savior, but it reminded believers that with that birth came hope. The world wasn’t always going to be so cold and dark: A light had come into the world.
Today we lose sight of some of that historical darkness. Our streets are lit with Christmas decorations. We talk about the Christmas season, and we associate that with outrageously decorated trees and holiday parties and cookies and television specials and just oodles of anticipation. When we ask someone whether they’re feeling the Christmas spirit, we all know what that means.
Longfellow’s age had its own Christmas season and spirit—perhaps not as lavish or as commercialized as our own, but still there.
But in I Heard the Bells, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow finds darkness in the days before Christmas. Tragedy has covered the season in black. “How inexpressively sad are the holidays,” he tells us. “’Merry Christmas’ say the children. But that is no more for me.”
But in the darkness of the story we see light. We see hope.
I Heard the Bells is a product of Sight & Sound Theatres, an organization known for its lavish stage productions of biblical stories. Most people who’ve gone to one of their productions in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, or Branson, Missouri, rave about them.
Now, Sight & Sound is expanding into the movie business—not stage productions that are recorded and shown on screen, but productions made to be movies from the get-go. I Heard the Bells is the company’s real experiment in that world.
That lack of experience shows here a bit. The movie still feels like a stage production. The stage demands big movements and exaggerated emotion to make it to the back row. Movies, on the other hand, reward a certain subtlety—a product of experience, which Sight & Sound will gain as it finds its footing in this new medium.
Meanwhile the core story—one little known today—carries this film. Longfellow’s journey from joy to grief to rekindled hope is a powerful one—and embodied by the poem that inspired the movie itself.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.