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‘Hidden Life’ Offers a Rare Insight Into the Right to Not Bear Arms

A Hidden Life Movie
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

A dozen war movies have won the best-picture Oscar, from “Wings” through “The English Patient.” Despite an overabundance of World War II movies through the decades, Fox Searchlight has two that offer original points of view: “Jojo Rabbit” and “A Hidden Life.”

The latter film, written and directed by Terrence Malick, is one of the few movies to explore the world of a conscientious objector, based on real-life Austrian farmer Franz Jagerstatter. He refused to cooperate with the Nazis, saying, “We can’t remain silent in the face of evil. We have to confront it.”

A conscientious objector, or CO, status has never been fashionable in Hollywood, because it’s never been fashionable with the general population.

Example No. 1: Actor Lew Ayres, who worked regularly in 1930s Hollywood. His career nearly ended in 1942, when he was given 4E, conscientious objector, status. The public considered him a traitor, but calmed down when he served 3½ years in the Medical Corps. In 1948, Hollywood showed that all was “forgiven” when he was Oscar-nominated for “Johnny Belinda.”

In the 1960s, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam. Then, as now, the public had severe Islamophobia. The world’s love-hate relationship intensified in 1966 when Ali refused to enter the military, citing his religious beliefs and his opposition to the Vietnam War. By the time he was vindicated in 1971, the public had turned against the war.

Ali and his CO stand have been featured in countless documentaries, including the 1996 Oscar-winning docu “When We Were Kings.” (Ali also played himself in the 1977 “The Greatest,” while Will Smith earned a lead-actor bid for 2001’s “Ali.”)

One of the rare film depictions of conscientious objectors to earn kudos was the 1956 “Friendly Persuasion,” about a pacifist Quaker family during the Civil War. It was nominated for six Oscars, including best pic, director (William Wyler) and supporting actor (Anthony Perkins, his only nomination). “Friendly Persuasion” was also nominated for screenplay, but writer Michael Wilson and the screenplay were removed from the Academy’s final ballot since he was a blacklisted writer.

The next biggie was Mel Gibson’s excellent “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016), winner of two Oscars out of seven nominations in its dramatization of the true-life story of Seventh Day Adventist Desmond Doss in WWII.

Young American viewers never knew the draft, so never thought much about conscientious objectors. But “A Hidden Life” offers the universal battle of a person working to keep his principles, despite the hardships on him and his family.

John F. Kennedy wrote in a letter to a friend, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”

In his Variety review, Owen Gleiberman said Malick is “one of the few film artists to engage seriously with religion, which so often is ignored or dismissed by others despite its prominence in society. … ‘A Hidden Life’ feels stunningly relevant.”

It’s a worthy addition to the catalog of Fox Searchlight, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, its first awards season under Disney. The new owners should be proud, as Searchlight mixes awards (four best-picture wins, dozens of other nominations), with financial savvy. And offers great films in the process.