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Ruggles in America: Charles Laughton Recites the Gettsyburg Address

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laughton-465-(1)1Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the Gettsyburg Address, the speech given by Abraham Lincoln after the battle which left 7,000 American soldiers dead and 40,000 wounded.

Given its power and permanence, it may seem strange to memorialize it by pointing to an obscure comedy film from the 1930s. But it’s one that stirs all the right sentiments.

In Ruggles of Red Gap, the great Charles Laughton plays Marmaduke Ruggles, an English manservant who has been gambled away by his master (a duke) to a pair of unsophisticated “self-made” millionaires from America (Egbert and Effie). Ruggles sails to the New World, settles in with his rambunctious new employers, and hilarity ensues.

Though filled with colorful characters and bizarre humor, the film’s themes and reflections on freedom are bold and beautiful, contrasting the constraints of age-old hierarchies with the virtues of American entrepreneurialism.

At first, Ruggles endures a good deal of culture shock, but soon enough, we learn he is more than a little appreciative of his newfound freedom and opportunity. At the climax of the film, he decides he wants to be “his own man” — a goal that Egbert and Effie readily approve.

For the underlying inspiration, Abraham Lincoln is the go-to:

The driving humor of the scene is that it is the English butler, not the American millionaire, who knows the speech. The same one who has benefited from such fruits fails to appreciate the promise of liberty and all that it entails.

Today, more than 80 years after the scene was constructed, how true is that same disconnect?

We are surrounded by unprecedented prosperity and opportunity, but do we appreciate the sacrifices that came before it? Lincoln foresaw a “new birth of freedom,” but how well have we preserved it?

Today and tomorrow, throughout all our endeavors, let us be witnesses to liberty and the flourishing it ought to provide. “It is for us the living,” Lincoln reminds us, “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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