The Saint of Fort Washington

Dir: Tim Hunter, 1993. Starring: Danny Glover, Matt Dillon, Ving Rhames. Imports. Drama.
The Saint of Fort Washington
I've never been one for politics, nor do I understand the “politics” of many things—especially the politics which apply to motion pictures. So many wonderful films will be lost to the generations that will follow our own. Sometimes a movie's unavailability might be due to music rights, or other business-related issues, and as years pass, there are fewer people who are aware of its existence. To say that The Saint of Fort Washington fits into this category would be a slight exaggeration; the film is accessible on previously owned VHS, Laser Discs and  European DVDs, and is now available domestically from Warner Bros. It features early performances by Matt Dillon, Danny Glover, and Ving Rhames—performances which, in my honest opinion, are their best by far. But for some reason, the movie was just swept under the carpet. I've yet to meet another person who saw it in the '90s, and its Box Office figures were laughable; it's safe to say that it never had a fan base. I'll never understand why, but I would guess that it has something to do with its heart-wrenching realism. It is by far one of the most important dramas about homelessness, mental illness, and religion. Everyone who lives in a large city or has something to say about our country's issues with poverty and the homeless should see it.

In it we find Matthew (Matt Dillon), a young schizophrenic man who is made homeless overnight. A slumlord has leveled his building without permits, which means that collecting his government check is impossible because he no longer has an address for them to send it to. He takes to the streets and by nightfall he's directed to the Fort Washington's Shelter for Men. While in line he sees a man nursing a wounded knee. He takes out his camera, the only thing of value that he has, and snaps a picture. The man, Jerry, (Danny Glover), becomes outraged and tries to damage the camera until young Matthew shows him that there's no film inside. Though Jerry is baffled at how someone could be a photographer without film in a camera, the two seem to have an understanding of one another. While in the shelter, Jerry tells him how the place works and what/who to avoid; what the thugs steal first while you're asleep and who, of the hundreds of men you lay your head next to, is a threat. The ringleader in terror at the shelter is Little Leroy (Ving Rhames), a man who'll stop at nothing to oppress everyone in the shelter and kill whoever gets in the way. By morning Jerry, a willful Vietnam veteran, is back on the streets hustling. Young Matthew can't help but shadow him and feed off his wisdom and street smarts.

Jerry emphasizes the importance of good spirits and good company on the streets. He explains to Matthew that if you act civilized in public, you become unnoticeable to those who detest the homeless. He shows him how to clean windshield wipers for tips. The interactions the men have with people through the window of a car are very interesting. Jerry explains that you must be friendly and talkative to them, even tell jokes if necessary to distract them away from their anxiety long enough to crack a smile and be willing to tip. Though it would seem that having a position in society keeps a person in touch with humanity, the homeless men are living proof that that's not the case.

A father-son relationship sprouts between Jerry and Matthew. They realize that they need each other, and Jerry takes pride in making Matthew feel safe, even when his schizophrenia becomes threatening. In return, Matthew tries to relieve Jerry of his physical pain, an effort which seems to work and thus makes Jerry literally believe that Matthew is a saint. Jerry starts leading Matthew to others who are in suffering, and sure enough, once Matthew touches them, they seem to be temporarily cured.

Once Jerry has taught Matthew everything that he knows, the two make a pact to pool their money together and get an apartment of their own. Jerry wants to go back into business selling produce, but those willing to help him need to see that he's pulling his life back together first. The two work hard saving, but with winter approaching, they're forced to occasionally go back to the shelter. A violent incident between the two and Little Leroy unfolds and they vow to never go back to Fort Washington. As their hope dwindles on the streets and Matthew's vulnerability becomes a hindrance to them both, they are forced to return to the shelter, knowing that one of them will not make it through the night.

The film is largely based on real events that happened, and possibly still happen, in large homeless shelters. Jerry's character is the one that you tend to reason with the most as he makes it a point to state that no-one is untouchable. He's a man who used to have a family, cars, and a business, until his partner gambled away their earnings and he lost everything. He gives a familiar spirit to the kinds of people that many of us ignore and avoid. Matthew is the result of a failed system. His mother changed the locks on their family home, and the government has little patience with his condition. One can't ignore that there are many people on the streets with crippling mental and physical issues, and that makes them threatening to the common person and an easy target for others.

The movie makes many religious comparisons, especially when it comes to Matthew's claim that he hears voices. Jerry points out that St. Joan and Moses both heard “voices” (the voice of God), and were first seen as lunatics. Without them, he claims, there wouldn't be religion and humans would be a race still performing barbaric sacrifices. If one were to let that thought simmer, it seems as though you could make the conclusion that his character argues the need for the homeless; they keep us grounded and remind us, not only of our own mortality, but the possibility of major shortcomings. Re-watching the film after many years gave me that feeling, and while it is sad and at some times disgusting, it is something that many people choose to ignore. The movie plays with your hope of humanity like an embezzler gambles with his clients' life savings. It's not a refreshing catharsis, but catharsis nonetheless.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 3, 2011 5:47pm
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