Devastated by the death of his wife and baby daughter, turn-of-the-century news writer Francis Church (Charles Bronson) has become an embittered alcoholic, neither willing nor able to write the heartfelt, socially-conscious articles for which he was once acclaimed. As Christmas draws near, the increasingly cynical and saddened Church contemplates suicide. Meanwhile, Irish immigrant James O’Hanlan (Richard Thomas) loses his job at the docks after brawling with a bigoted co-worker and struggles to support his impoverished family. Surrounded by poverty and sickness, O’Hanlan’s bright and idealistic young daughter, Virginia (Katharine Isabelle) ponders whether there truly is a Santa Claus and whether it is worth believing in him? Seeking answers, Virginia pens a letter to what her father upholds as the most trustworthy newspaper in America. A letter that finds its way to Francis Church.
In 1897, journalist Francis Church published his editorial response to a letter sent by the real Virginia O’Hanlon in The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time. Rather than come up with a cutesy or flippant response to pacify the inquisitive eight year old, Church - who served as a war correspondent during the American Civil War - used the opportunity to address the philosophical issues underlining her innocent question and examine the importance of faith and hope in our everyday lives. Although little known outside the United States, this charming true story became an important part of American Christmas folklore. It was adapted, to Emmy award-winning effect, as a short animated film in 1974 by Bill Melendez, but the 1991 live action version is an equally accomplished and often affecting piece of work. Not least because it features the iconic Charles Bronson doing some of the best acting of his career in a highly atypical role.
At the time Bronson was himself mourning the loss of his wife and frequent co-star Jill Ireland following her long battle with cancer. The producers were aware of this when they approached Bronson for the role but the actor was drawn to the script by its life-affirming message, one quite different from his Eighties action/exploitation beat yet in line with his late wife’s effervescent spirit. He plainly channeled his grief into the role of Francis Church, a man searching for a reason to live after losing everything that mattered. Bronson does revert to type in one scene where he punches out an obnoxious bully (frankly, fans would expect nothing less), but for the most part the film stands alongside another late career triumph in Sean Penn’s exemplary The Indian Runner (1991) as a reminder of what a skilful and sensitive actor he could be when he so chose. It opens with Church ashen-faced as stands solemnly by the graves of his wife and child. Throughout his character’s increasing sorrow, Bronson never cries. Instead he silently crumbles. The sight of the legendary stone-faced tough guy wracked with such palpable dispair proves quite disarming and effective.
As a rumination on the importance of faith the film broaches religion yet for the most part tackles the theme within a broader philosophical context and convincingly argues that hope is a defining characteristic of humanity. It also stresses the importance of community, how empathy can uplift the flagging human spirit, which is of course all part of the Christmas message. Given this is a Christmas movie there are a few corny moments, but it is genuinely moving and tempers the expected sentimentality with an honest appraisal of the hardships of immigrant life. Bigotry, poverty and sickness all play roles in the story. Seeking inspiration, Church ventures onto the streets where he glimpses hardship and suffering but also the very best of the human spirit.
British director Charles Jarrott - who began promisingly with a run of Oscar-winning period dramas and the atypically dark and underrated Disney film The Littlest Horse Thieves (1976) a.k.a. Escape from the Dark, then segued into television after a string of high profile flops - does a fine job intertwining various parallel plots. Alongside the leads, performances are strong across the board including a notable role for Ed Asner. Typecast again as the gruff but good-hearted newsman, it is he who gives Virginia’s letter to Francis Church, knowing it could be his salvation. Aside from Bronson and former Waltons star Richard Thomas, the other notable star here is a young Katharine Isabelle who went on to headline cult horror films Ginger Snaps (2000) and American Mary (2012) and prove a talented if underused actress. She gives a spirited performance here.