The Seventh Cross
By Ed Chasteen
Why has the name of that movie and its star stuck with me all these years? I was eight years old when I saw it. I’ve seen thousands since. A handful I recall. None with the clarity of that one.
It was night in Cleburne, Texas in the summer of 1944. Mother, Dad, Jerry, Pat and I went together to the picture show at the Yale Theater. For a dollar and twenty-seven cents we sat in the dark to watch Spencer Tracy in The Seventh Cross.
More times than I know over the ensuing 68 years I have mentioned that movie by name and star when any topic even remotely related to movies has come up. No one has ever seen it. Or heard of it. I searched Tracy’s filmography on line. I didn’t find it. The library didn’t have it. Or know of it. Folks began to smile at my mention of The Seventh Cross. A manufactured memory they must have thought.
A few years back my wife and I bought a big screen TV. She records a lot of movies off Turner Classic Movies. The on-screen menu tells her what’s coming. One recent evening it showed up: The Seventh Cross, starring Spencer Tracy.
We watched it last night. And I understood not only why I could not forget it, but also how profoundly it shaped how I see the world and how I try to live in it.
Bobbie saw it too. We watched together. Near the movie’s end, as Spencer Tracy as George Heisler, an escaped prisoner from a German concentration camp, describes his view of life, Bobbie says to me, “That’s you. Is that where you got it?”
The story is set in 1936 Germany. Hitler is rounding up any Germans who oppose his Nazi plans. These Germans are put into concentration camps. The movie begins with the escape of seven men from such a camp. The first escapee is caught within hours. The prison commandant orders him tortured and tied to a cross. He has seven total crosses erected, one for each escapee. Within a few days, the first six are captured and tied to a cross. The seventh is for George.
George has been brutalized in prison. He has grown hard and cynical. He trusts no one. Believes in nothing. But now he is free. To survive, he needs people. After several narrow escapes, George makes it to his hometown. Many friends have disappeared. The woman who promised to wait for him has married and refuses to help. A man he thought his friend is now successful and does not dare help.
In desperation, George goes to someone he remembers but does not think strong. He intends only to ask to stay the night. As they talk, George’s story spills out.
George never sees that friend again, but unbeknownst to George that friend, at great personal risk to himself and his family, sets in motion a series of harrowing events involving many people, most of whom George never meets, that eventually lead to George’s escape from Nazi Germany. And as the story ends, the camera fades to that seventh cross, empty still, a potent symbol, reminding us that though evil is persistent and sometimes powerful, the quiet and stubborn resistance of good-hearted ordinary people will always deliver us from its clutches.
As he must leave a loved one he will never see again, George says to her the words Bobbie said were mine: “I have a debt to pay to the people who healed me. There are some whose names I’ll never know. I have a debt to pay, not only for their help but for what they taught me. Today I know something I never knew before in my life. I know that no matter how cruelly the world strikes at the souls of men, there is a God given decency in them that will come out if given half a chance. That’s the hope for the human race. That’s the faith we must cling to. The only thing that will make our lives worth living.”
This message has been playing on a subterranean back channel of my mind, inaccessible to conscious thought, since that long ago night, infusing my life with direction and purpose. I will be forever grateful.