Last night, a small group of us gathered in the social hall at St. John's to watch a favorite movie from my childhood, Lerner & Loewe's musical adaption of the classic Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novella The Little Prince.
The story recounts the literal and metaphorical journey of a pilot (portrayed by Richard Kiley the Man of La Mancha) who meets a sweet but strange little boy (Steven Warner) after being forced to land his plane in the midst of the Sahara Desert.
The pilot, who had turned to the skies a cynical loner after his early human engagements proved unsatisfying, is at first impatient with the quixotic child's questions and demands ("please draw me a sheep!") that distract him from his frantic attempts to repair the plane before meager supplies of food and water run out. However, the prince's sketchy details of his own circumstances compel the child inside the adult to unravel this mystery. His own early artistic attempts having been stifled by the adults around him, the pilot, finally with an appreciative audience, concedes to produce picture after picture, his skill improving along the way, as a means of drawing out the Prince's story.
We move through the drawings into a combination of early 1970s camera tricks and animation to recollect the Prince's travels from his own small planet (with three knee-high volcanoes, please clean daily) and a single, self-absorbed rose (Donna McKechnie) in an attempt to understand, what else, the meaning of life. Along the way his encounters with "the grown ups" prove just as frustrating as the pilot's had been. He finally alights on Earth, and his first interaction -- with a snake, amusingly portrayed by choreographer Bob Fosse -- leads him to speculate that all earthlings might be snakes. When he recounts this aloud, the pilot says nothing, but his expression speaks volumes. The older man is concerned by the prince's vocal contemplation of an offer the snake made of a "quick trip" home again, by nature of a sting.
The prince, thinking guiltily of his rose, whom he had been disappointed to learn was not as extraordinary as she had claimed, is drawn inexorably back to the snake and his promise of a means to return to his little planet. The pilot, having become quite "tamed" himself by this maddening but beguiling little boy, races after him in a panic, but is too late. In a reversal of roles, the Prince becomes the calm teacher and comforts his grieving friend with the advice that -- because he won't know which star is the Prince's -- he should associate them all with him, to always feel his presence.
There is much going on here. Saint-Exupéry was himself a pilot, and I wonder how much of the portrayal of the narrator is autobiographical. I know I could go look that up, right now, but I am content to wonder. I hadn't seen this movie in decades, and watching it again was like discovering a forgotten photo album, because as each conversation or musical number unfolded, I remember us watching it as kids and romping around the living room to the lively soundtrack.
It was interesting to share the experience with a room of mostly strangers (besides the Archwarden, I was delighted when a high school friend unexpectedly turned up after seeing the event on Facebook) in a church setting. Other than a passing reference to "the Lord" by Fosse, there is no overt scriptural context, but it is easy to draw parallels to another young man who baffled and infuriated "the grown-ups" during his brief sojourn on Earth, and left us forever changed when he accepted his fate with surprising resolve, and departed with a similar promise that he is always with us.