“The Shepherd of the Hills” is a 1941 film based on a novel of the same name. Filmed in gorgeous Technicolor and containing excellent performances by Harry Carey, John Wayne, Betty Field, and others, I’m really not sure why this film isn’t a classic. The plot is simple, but beautiful and moving, one of Director Henry Hathaway’s greatest cinematic achievements. Our story begins in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.
Deep in the Ozark Mountains, buried within the shade of thousands of whispering pines, dogwoods, oaks, and cedars, lay a valley. The valley was old and beautiful. But this beautiful, old valley held a dark and terrible secret. For in the heart of these shady trees and golden sunshine, lived a people in a terrible bondage. While the hills rang with the songs of birds and the golden sun shone down, the truth was seen clearly in people’s faces. Their faces were tired, old beyond their time, and trapped in a seemingly unbreakable bondage of fear.
Into this valley of dark and hopelessness comes the hero of our story, one Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey). The mountain folk initially distrust this tall stranger from the city, as they do all strangers who enter their land. They don’t understand why anyone would come to this country of their own free will, let alone settle down here as the stranger plans to do. Meanwhile Mr. Howitt makes one friend, young Sammy Lane (Betty Field), then begins quietly and steadily to win over the hurting community: a kind word here, a sickness doctored there. As he works, he listens and learns much about the people and their slavery to the darkness.
Mr. Howitt discovers that the people believe all their trouble and heartache has one source: a dead woman. Many years before Sarah Matthews had been a happy woman with a young son and a loving husband beside her. Then one day her husband had left her, no one knew to where. The heartbroken Sarah died not long after. The mountain people believed that Sarah had left a curse on them, one that could only be broken if her erring husband was killed. So they went on, living lives burdened by deep superstition and fear.
The people seemingly most affected by the curse and most shunned by the people of the valley is the Matthews family. Aunt Mollie is the leader of the clan, and she guides her family with an iron hand, overseeing the family’s moonshining business and occasionally letting go with venomous speeches about the other folks in the valley. The person most affected by her tirades is young Matt Matthews (John Wayne). Matt is the son of the late Sarah Matthews, and on him lies the greatest burden of all. Aunt Mollie has been raising him to be the one to do away with his wandering father. Lecturing him with fiery outbursts about his duty to his family, he has grown up under the belief that the only way to end the supposed curse upon his family and the other occupants of the valley is if he sheds the blood of his own father.
Mr. Howitt hears this sad story and sees the effect of it in the lives of those around him. He tells Sammy Lane, “Well, it might be that unhappy land, like unhappy people, needs someone to care for it.” Under his quiet guidance, the people of the valley slowly begin to change. Sammy is able to conquer some of her fears. A dumb-stricken boy begins to blossom. And even young Matt Matthews’ heart begins to soften. But before Mr. Howitt’s message of hope and forgiveness can completely take root, something happens that may change the valley and endanger their new hopes of happiness.
I found this inspiring film to be a beautiful picture of what life is really like for all of us who walk this earth. Trapped in a bondage to sin and death, we go on. Without joy, without peace, without hope. We fear what we know, and we fear what we do not know or understand. Sometimes we feel a temporary sort of happiness, but underneath is a deep, abiding yearning for something greater, something better. We want peace and security and hope for the future. We want a lasting joy to fill that deep hole in our souls, that abyss that constantly cries out to all of us to belong to something or someone. Desperate to answer its cry, we try filling it with many things, anything. But it is hopeless, for only one thing will truly satisfy.
Only One will bring us the happiness, peace, and hope that we so long for. Only One is really a good shepherd. When we trust in Him to save us from the sin and bondage we are trapped in, He can and will move in and work a miracle of grace in our lives. Like the people in “Shepherd of the Hills”, our eyes are opened, our hearts changed. We have joy in the present and hope for the future: deep, abiding joy and sweet, eternal hope. It is really no wonder that both those who trust in Jesus Christ and those who don’t love stories like these. Deep down inside we all know that we were created for something greater. “He has put eternity into man’s heart (Eccl. 3:11)” and filled us with a longing for something better. I only pray that rather than remaining willingly in the darkness, we will, like the people in this story, come forward to the light and find forgiveness and hope.
"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." (Jim Elliot)
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