Life for Ruth (1962)

vt Walk in the Shadow
UK / 88 minutes / bw / Saracen, Allied Film Makers, Rank Dir: Basil Dearden Pr: Michael Relph Scr: Janet Green, James McCormick Cine: Otto Heller Cast: Michael Craig, Patrick McGoohan, Janet Munro, Paul Rogers, Malcolm Keen, Megs Jenkins, Michael Bryant, Leslie Sands, Norman Wooland, John Barrie, Walter Hudd, Michael Aldridge, Basil Dignam, Maureen Pryor, Kenneth J. Warren, Ellen McIntosh, Frank Finlay, John Welsh, Maurice Colbourne, Freddy Ramsay, Lynn Taylor.

When little Ruth Harris (Taylor) is badly injured in a seaside accident, the hospital’s Dr. Jim Brown (McGoohan) tells the eight-year-old’s parents, John (Craig) and Pat (Munro), that she’ll die if she doesn’t have a blood transfusion. Harris, a devoted member of a fundamentalist sect, refuses to let her have one:

Jim: “Religion? What’s religion got to do with it? A transfusion will save her life!”
Harris: “It will deny her everlasting life.”

Sacrificed on the rock of her father’s narcissism, Ruth dies. Jim considers Harris a murderer, and Pat, who’s pretended to share Harris’s beliefs for the sake of her love for him, comes to a similar view. Likewise her parents, Ken (Barrie) and Mrs. Gordon (Jenkins). In fact, just about the only person who believes Harris did the right thing is his father (Keen), also a member of the sect.

Janet Munro as Pat Harris and Michael Craig as her husband John.

Michael Aldridge as Dr. Richard Harvard (left) and Patrick McGoohan as Dr. Jim Brown.

But the cops, in the form of Superintendent Finlay (Warren), aren’t prepared to do anything about it, even though Jim raises a stink:

Finlay: “Religion’s a tricky business, Doctor. Very tricky. Everyone feels, nobody thinks.”

Jim decides to bring a private prosecution under the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act. The first solicitor he approaches, Hart Jacobs (Rogers), refuses the case and in fact takes on Harris’s defense. But the second, Mapleton (Dignam), is more enlightened . . .

John Barrie as Pat’s father, Ken Gordon, and Megs Jenkins as her mother.

Maureen Pryor and Frank Finlay as Teddy’s parents.

Janet Green (here aided by James McCormick) was an extremely intelligent screenwriter, and she tackles this ethical dilemma head-on, refusing to allow viewers on either side of the argument to settle complacently for their preconceptions. Like Jim, I think that parents who let their children die under such circumstances—whether their reasons are religious or otherwise—are essentially murderers, and I’ve written a fair amount on the matter in such books as Denying Science (2011).

Malcolm Keen as John’s father.

But Green’s screenplay, while in the end not changing my mind on the matter, forced me to rethink my assumptions. Is Jim a crusader, assailing Harris for the sake of the next child in the same situation? Or is he a self-righteous humbug meddling in other people’s rights to live according to their own beliefs?

Kenneth J. Warren as Superintendent Finley.

Leslie Sands as crusading journalist Clyde.

Paul Rogers as Hart Jacobs.

That isn’t to say Green settles for the side of mush, either. Even though he let his own daughter die, Harris saved the life of her little friend Teddy (Ramsay), and Teddy’s parents (Pryor and Finlay) consequently regard him as a hero; yet, as Teddy’s mother observes thoughtfully to the boy’s father, Henry, would they still do so if it weren’t for the fact that he’d saved their son? When Pat Harris goes to her old Church of England vicar, Mr. Reynolds (Colbourne), to seek his spiritual guidance, he gives her a very nuanced response.

In the final stages of the movie it’s Harris himself who faces the fact that his refusal of the blood transfusion was self-serving rather than genuinely in the service of God and the dying child. His counsel, Kent (Bryant), has argued in court that Harris was innocent of the crime of manslaughter because his motivation was one of complete integrity, and the jury have agreed with him, declaring Harris innocent, whatever the law might say. It’s then that Harris breaks down in the dock, having finally confronted the truth of his guilt.

Basil Dignam as Mapleton.

Soon after, Jim saves Harris’s life—something that astonishes Harris, because he has assumed Jim sought to persecute him. So Harris has to face a second conceptual challenge as Jim forces him to recognize that there are other valid ethical approaches to the business of living than the one his sect advocates.

I don’t apologize for having explored much of the plot here (although I’ve also omitted great chunks), because it seems to me that, while entertainments are vulnerable to spoilers, this is a substantially more serious movie than that. Green sets out to engage us in an argument, her own thesis in that argument being that the most important ethical knots are untied only with difficulty—matters of morality aren’t resolvable by glib answers like “it’s God’s will” or “it’s self-evidently wrong.” It’s the responsibility of grown-ups to think these things through rather than just trot out trite responses. Indeed, Harris’s eventual capitulation, followed by his realization that Jim values his, Harris’s, life, might be seen as the man at last growing up—something that, because of his simplistic certitude, Ruth will never be able to do.

Maurice Colbourne as the vicar, Mr. Reynolds.

Michael Bryant as John’s counsel, Kent.

On his side, Jim has likewise had to modify his beliefs; he’s had to learn to accept that, while Harris has been the perpetrator of an evil deed, he is not necessarily an evil man—that he was instead a loving father who acted misguidedly and indeed stupidly, but not with malevolence.

Life for Ruth has a splendidly strong cast, even if most of the names, McGoohan a notable exception, may not be especially familiar today. Outstanding among them is Janet Munro as Pat Harris, the dead child’s mother, who delivers an astonishingly nuanced and very moving performance that matches the intellectual integrity of Green’s screenplay.

The score is by William Alwyn, performed by the Sinfonia of London under the baton of Muir Mathieson.

11 thoughts on “Life for Ruth (1962)

    • YouTube is a pretty rich source, as are Jimbo Berkey’s site (although that seems to have stopped adding new stuff) and the Internet Archive. Plus a bad habit of combing the $1 DVD bins.

  1. Glad to see that you’ve found this film, John—it came this close to being included in a series we did three years ago in San Francisco (I opted for a more overtly political film
    from early-60s UK, NO LOVE FOR JOHNNIE, with Peter Finch, as a conflicted pol with serious “woman problems”), but LIFE FOR RUTH really needs to be screened again in a theatre, and right now. It could be paired with another obscure but worthy Patrick McGoohan film TWO LIVING, ONE DEAD (1961), which has a similar dynamic in terms of how the action in the film reshapes our perspective of the characters.

    • Yes, it’s one of those movies where clearly they had not much of a budget but reckoned it was as cheap to film an interesting script as a crapola one. There are certainly visible flaws, but the movie’s well worth watching because of its . . . integrity, to use that old-fashioned word. It takes on an issue of importance and, as you say, doesn’t take the easy route.

  2. I am very familiar with the Dearden / Reloh social conscience films except this one which I saw once as a kid and never since . Great to see you platforming it here – thanks.

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