In his new book, Generous Justice, Tim Keller has just controversially suggested that if you are not taking an active part in helping the poor, then you are not taking your Christianity seriously. Indeed, you are something of a hypocrite. Sullivan’s Travels is the story of a young, rich, and idealistic movie director who wants to make a film that will help the poor without being a hypocrite.
Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is interested in making his films preach social justice messages to his audience and poverty is his next subject. When confronted with the fact that, because of his sheltered life, he has absolutely no idea how the downtrodden experience hardship, he immediately resolves to join them as an act of self-education.
He is warned against trying this from all sides. But most thoughtfully of all, his own valet explains to him that the caricaturing of the poor and needy in film helps nobody. “The poor already know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” Poverty causes suffering, and it is a problem for humanity that is never going away.
But Sullivan is still resolved, and with nothing but a bunch of raggedy old clothes on his back and ten cents in his pocket, he sets out on the road to live the life of a tramp, and more importantly, to experience the hardship that the poor experience every single day. His ensuing journey reminds one a little of Pilgrim’s Progress.
Adventurous and romantic as the journey sounds, his goals prove harder to accomplish that they might at first seem. He still has a life-line to use whenever he gets into too much trouble, and the temptation to keep on using it proves to be too strong. But Sullivan is also stubborn and persistent, and eventually, along with the help of a down-on-her-luck girl (Veronica Lake, in her first starring role), he does spend some time experiencing deprivation of food and shelter. He feels what it’s like to be cold and hungry, to be used by the rich (for their own purposes) in order to make themselves feel better, to be exhausted and to have no place to rest his head, and to be an unwanted stranger in a hostile environment.
Experiencing all of this does make him want to help the poor, but it’s still not quite enough. There’s something about his experience that doesn’t quite match up with the tragedy and hardship suffered by others that he still has no real connection with. While things eventually do get worse and Sullivan even experiences injustice—an injustice in the legal system that applies only to the lower classes of society—the fact remains that, unlike everyone else there, he still has way out.
But unexpectedly while in need, Sullivan is given kindness in the form of the help of a fellow prisoner (Jimmy Conlin) and in the form of a little entertainment offered to outcasts by a church. The admonishments that we are allowed to hear a preacher deliver to his congregation, right before their act of kindness, is one of the most practical applications of God’s grace that I have ever heard on film. It is experiencing this, not by experiencing the hardship, the cold and the hunger, that finally changes Sullivan’s priorities.
Loving the poor and needy means doing something more than occasionally helping them just enough so that you feel good about yourself afterwards. The Coen Brothers said their O Brother, Where Art Thou? was almost the sort of film they imagined Sullivan making at the end of Sullivan’s Travels. There’s a reason for that. Different films are meant to be enjoyed for different reasons. A film, just like any other human creation, can be a means of sharing joy with others. And if joy is something that can be shared, a question this film asks you is—how do you go about actually sharing it? That is the question Sullivan ultimately finds himself preoccupied with.