Thanks to the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is a household name to many Americans. But his story is a radical one. He has big dreams that are left unfulfilled. He doesn’t “stay true to himself.” He gets kicked down over, and over, and over again. Although the protagonist of the film, he is decidedly unheroic, by modern standards. If George Bailey’s story was told in 2018, he would leave Bedford Falls to chase his dreams, he would self-actualize with a sidekick angel who helps him find the power within himself, and most likely he would defeat the evil Mr. Potter and kick him right out of town.

But none of these things happen. In many ways, It’s a Wonderful Life is a story of frustration. It’s not a wonderful life at all, not for George Bailey. If you’ve seen the movie—and you probably have, as it’s quintessential Christmas viewing—you are aware that after a lifetime of suffering, George gets to the end of his rope near the conclusion of the film. Broken and drunk in a bar, he cries out to God, and his guardian angel comes down to save him. In this pivotal moment, there is a little bit of twisted theology: a guardian angel bent on earning his wings sent on a “mission” to gain them through helping a desperate human—as if God deals in petty work incentives. But we can forgive the film writers for this bit of silliness in the same way we wink at a show like The Good Place, because the desire for wings is not really what the visit of the angel Clarence is about. Nor is the movie about what Clarence goes on to show George, which on the surface—and thanks in large part to the title of the film—seems to be a message of, “Look how good your life actually is—how good it has been all along. You don’t really want to kill yourself… do you?” This message also carries with it a certain amount of guilt. “Shouldn’t you be thankful, George, for all the good things in your life? Don’t you feel grateful now?”

At face value, it’s certainly not a bad message—that life is precious, even when we can’t see it, that our lives touch many people’s lives. And if this was all It’s a Wonderful Life was about, it would still be a good movie. But It’s a Wonderful Life is not a good movie, it’s a great movie, and the title theme, as illustrated by the events of the final quarter of the film, leave so much unexamined.

If we’re not willing to give of ourselves for the communities in which God has placed us, what will be the cost of the absence of our virtue?

Earlier that night, on Christmas Eve, George Bailey stood on a bridge ready to kill himself. And nothing Clarence showed him changed his circumstances. The good things in his life hadn’t seemed good at the time, and some of them weren’t good—not for him. Clarence may have helped to change George’s perspective, but Clarence did nothing to change the fact that George Bailey lived a life of circumstances he found personally challenging, oftentimes demeaning, and terribly unfulfilling.

Clarence saves George’s life and earns his own wings, and George gains perspective. But I think George learns a lot more that fateful Christmas Eve—more than the simple lesson that he has a life worth living and friends who love him, whose lives he had touched. When Clarence shows George what Bedford Falls would have been like if George had never been born, he reveals to him much more than just what a wonderful life George had lived: Clarence shows George how much his personal virtue had impacted a community, even though it had cost George so much. Herein lies the better message of It’s a Wonderful Life, but the better message is also a harder message. Die to yourself, daily. Die, and die again. It’s a story of how one man stood in the gap for one small town, shielding its soul from a sure slide into certain depravity. What George Bailey gave of himself, time and time again—and often reluctantly and to his own personal detriment—became the lifeblood of the people of Bedford Falls.

Most of the film is devoted to showing us these things about George’s life. From the deafness he suffers in one ear—physical disability—to having to miss out on college—loss of opportunity—to taking a job he despises at the building and loan—professional dissatisfaction and loss of dreams—to personally backing his clients in time of need—financial hardship—to moving into a money-pit house he hates—self-sacrifice for his wife… Every step of George Bailey’s path is one of virtuous self-denial. Sometimes he takes these steps with great reluctance, but he takes them because his conscience won’t allow him to do otherwise. He takes them because he must not allow the avaricious Mr. Potter to take over Bedford Falls, and, for whatever reason, he is the one person positioned to stop Mr. Potter. It’s a role George didn’t ask for, a role he never wanted, and a role he could have walked away from at any time if he’d ever chosen to be true to himself, but he doesn’t. George Bailey gives everything he has for his community, and even then, it demands more. It seems to demand his very life.

When George Bailey cries out to God, God’s answer is not an easy one. Die to yourself some more, George. Continue doing the hard things. Dive into the river and save an old man from drowning. When George pulls Clarence out, Clarence shows him that although the price he paid for virtue was costly, he was the one man who could pay it, thereby standing against a great tide of evil. For all the lives George Bailey touched throughout his life, what he really held back through his (often small) virtuous actions was utter depravity and darkness. He saved countless lives, he prevented financial ruin, he elevated the lowly, he prevented the establishment of institutions degrading to women, he built a community for families where instead there would have been a graveyard. For as costly as George’s virtue was to him personally, the absence of his virtue would have cost his community far more.

Virtue should have a communal aspect. In our age of roaring individualism, this is something we might need to be reminded of. In Rome, the word virtus—from which we derive virtue—denoted greatness, valor, and courage, and a virtuous Roman was often one who did great service to the state (it was a male trait—the female equivalent was prudence). In watching It’s a Wonderful Life, I was reminded of a legendary Roman who did for Rome as George Bailey did for Bedford Falls, although in far more Roman fashion.

Once in a time of great need, Horatius, the Keeper of the Gate, stood forth and volunteered to protect the bridge over the Tiber River into Rome in the face of a horde of invaders set on sacking the Eternal City. The forces defending Rome needed time to hew the bridge down, and if no one protected the bridge to buy them time, the destruction of Rome was certain. Horatius, knowing he was most likely going to his death, said that if two others would stand with him, he would stand at the bridge and fight.

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.        220

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods,
“And for the tender mother        225

Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,—    230

To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?
“Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,        235

Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three:
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?”    240

Two others stood with Horatius at the bridge, and they held back the invading horde until their allies were able to cleave the bridge from under them, at which point Horatius’ two supporters fled back to safety, leaving him to defend the falling bridge alone.

Alone stood brave Horatius,
But constant still in mind,—
Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
And the broad flood behind.
(“Horatius at the Bridge”)

And when it looked like Horatius would die as the bridge collapsed, he threw himself into the Tiber River and swam to safety, having saved Rome through his virtus.

Horatius lived, and the people of Rome sang songs and wrote poems about him—they even built a statue of him. The ancient Roman historians insist he existed, although we don’t know if he did or not. Whether a real man or a character in a story—as George Bailey—Horatius was another man on a bridge. He was not there to kill himself in desperation and brokenness, but he was there willing to die to stand in the gap for his people and his community. His virtue ended up costing him far less, but it was—at least for one important moment of his life—of a very similar sort to the slow and faithful and costly virtue of George Bailey.

What does costly virtue look like? Costly virtue sometimes does look like brokenness, and when we practice virtue, we might find ourselves, as George, weeping at a bar. In practicing costly virtue, we imitate Christ, who was no stranger to giving all he had in service to others—to giving all he had to not just hold back evil, but defeat it. And when we find ourselves broken because of the cost of our virtue, that is also an imitation of Christ, who wept and sweated blood in a garden. It probably won’t look like actually giving up our lives—not for most of us in the West—but George Bailey gives us a good picture of what it might look like for the average, struggling person. Giving that last dollar when we need it for ourselves, forgoing that vacation we’ve saved every last penny for, sacrificing our life-long dreams. The world says we are nothing if we don’t live for ourselves, but God says we must die to ourselves in order to live. Like George Bailey, we may never leave our “Bedford Falls,” but if we’re not willing to give of ourselves for the communities in which God has placed us, what will be the cost of the absence of our virtue?

Are we willing to be the George Baileys for our own communities? George, who was no less brave than Horatius, even if it brought him to a place of brokenness. Are we willing to stand at the bridge and give in tangible ways to our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies? To give whether they deserve it or not, and whether or not it benefits us? To set aside our ambitions and our dreams, to sometimes defer our own hope for the sake of the hope of others? Jesus kept no hope back for himself when he sweated blood in the garden of Gethsemane and gave himself over to be the hope of the world. It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that virtue is a strength of moral character. It calls us to lives of virtue as well as lives of civic duty. It says, essentially, that a life of personal virtue should lead to a life of civic virtue as well. For the Christian, this should cause us to stop and ponder: how does our personal virtue impact our communities for good, or our lack of virtue impact it for ill? We cannot pretend our lives touch no one. Intentionally or unintentionally, do we stand at the bridge? It’s not silly, it’s not cheap, and no angels will get wings when we choose the virtuous path—nor will anyone build statues to remember us by—but God can use one person at the bridge to turn back encroaching darkness. And that’s what makes a life well-lived one that’s truly wonderful.


37 Comments

  1. Excellent words, K.B., most excellent. This film is practically liturgical viewing for my family for the precise purposes you point out. Without running the risk of gilding the lily, I’ll add three more angles to your well-expressed point on George’s virtue.

    1. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is the Christmas carol that little Janie plays on the piano right before her father has his breakdown and during the film’s resolution. It has always struck me as odd that one particular lyric is not sung in the film: “Mild he lays his glory by.” Of course, the original object of that lyric is Jesus himself, but I find it too fitting and too appropriate for George’s life to be coincidental. As a part of dying to himself daily, George also laid his own glory by, and Bedford Falls was all the better for it.

    2. In Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, Galadriel asks Gandalf why he has chosen to travel and ultimately side with the halfling Bilbo Baggins. His response may as well have been uttered for George Bailey’s condition as well:

    “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”

    3. As you point out, George’s intrinsic virtue accumulates over time, and it reminds me of N.T. Wright’s definition of virtue from After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters:

    “Virtue is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices requiring effort and concentration to do something which is good and right, but which doesn’t come naturally. And then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required automatically. Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature.”

    Thank you for advocating this facet of the Christian walk. To quote Father James in John Michael McDonagh’s film CALVARY, “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues.” Hopefully, your article will help rekindle and fan that flame.

    1. Brenden: Wow, what an insightful and beautiful contribution to the article. I am happy that I came back and re-read the article and thought to scroll down and read what you’ve written. Beautiful!

    2. Thank you Brenden and KB. You may have saved MY life, which makes you my angels. I am a faithful, believing Catholic so in reality I would not have taken my life, but your writing (both of you) opened up the truth of my situation in a way that can only be from God’s grace. I have been in so much despair lately. Thank you again.

    3. Thank you for your beautiful additions to this great post. Sometimes it is hard to keep hoping and trusting when the world seems to be against everything I believe and stand for. It helps when I read strong words from people of character who are also standing for truth.

  2. Explains a bit why I cannot watch one of my favorite films for now. I glaringly see the divide between the very costly virtue and the plague of being of the George “Wishes he had never been born” Bailey mold. A few years ago, I realized something about the film… it ends with the Bailey’s +1 against Potter. It would only be a matter of time until Potter +1’s against the Bailey’s. It is exhausting. Then perhaps in the past year or two, I have had pointed out to me that God prepares good works for us to do while on Earth which no one else is able to accomplish. (Ephesians 2:10) It is not possible to merely “transfer to someone else’s credit” the good works. Therefor I must exist in order to accomplish them. The words of Bill Crowder still ring in my head, talking about life: “It is not about outcomes.” Yea Bill, well I am sort of exhausted of Doberman Pinscher jaws clamped to my rear end. Brings to mind the end of a Theodore Roosevelt quote “… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” And that brings to mind Revelation 3 citation to the Church in Laodicea: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” Yea, terrific… seems either I get vomited out, or I have a Dobe attached to my rear end… lots of good options to select from. As the band 4Him sings, “Walk On”.

  3. Thank you! To add another thought to your wonderful analysis the key moment for me in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is when George runs to the bridge and begins to pray “Help me Clarence. Help me. Please Clarence. I want to live again. I want to live.” It is futile prayer. Nothing happens. In the next instance he prays, “Please God. I want to live again.” Now with his prayer directed at God George’s prayer is instantly answered. We know this because it immediately begins to snow as it had in the early scene when George jumps in to save Clarence.” It’s a tiny but momentous moment in the film. My favorite Christmas movie.

  4. Although these have been my thoughts, you have put them down so very eloquently! Thank you for this as it helps me to verbally describe the thoughts and feelings in a deeper context to my five girls. What a blessing.

  5. I love this movie and have watched it many times. The concept that angels were once humans is something that I have trouble with. Many people believe that when they lose loved ones, their dearly departed become angels. I have heard it said repeatedly, at funerls, and as consolation messages for the bereaved, that God just needed another angel. If you study the Bible, you will find that angels were messengers, helpers, warrior’s etc. But they were never human. Most people get their theology from Hollywood. While this is a good moral story, I feel it greatly misleads people concerning the nature and actual purpose of angels. One of the best books I have read on the subject is Angels, Angels, Angels by the late Reverend Doctor Billy Graham.

  6. Your comment on George Bailey is fantastic. My wife introduce me to the movie many years ago. Everytime I watch it there is always something flesh/new that speaks to my heart.

    No only George sacrifices, he also was tempted along the way – money, sex, and power. How often we are tempted to veer off with the promise of “better” or “relief”. Make bread out of stone;jump, angles will catch you.

    This Xmas after watching it, I thought that George could easily turn into Potter – a frustrated old man with no friends – with one small decision that seems to save the day. Listening to the conversations with Potter is almost like George having a dialogue with himself – all the internal struggles and frustrations.

  7. What a wonderful synopsis of both the movie and the character of virtue. I grew up believing that Mahatma Gandhi was a great man. Then I read his autobiography and realized he was an ordinary man who made a series of great decisions. In that manner, greatness is available to George Bailey, Rosa Parks, and each of us.

  8. I wish I could have led a similar life I would’ve considered it a wonderful life. A friend of mine told me something that I really took to heart what she told me was just remember the life you’re leading right now is the life others just dream of. Think of that for a little while.

  9. K.B. – Very interesting article, and not the least of which is that It’s a Wonderful Life is my second favorite movie of all-time. However, I think you missed one key point: George’s dream was to travel and go places, and ultimately, build things. But, his realization is partly that he did just that. Not the travel so much – lol – but the building things. His skyscrapers came in the form of Bailey Park. He may have thought he wanted to build huge things, but his contribution to his community – and ultimately the world (“not every heal was in Germany or Japan”) – were huge things and in essence were those big dreams. That’s one of the key points of the movie. George wanted success and he had just that! He impacted people’s lives way more than if he built a skyscraper or two in New York. That’s part of the realization. To my knowledge, Frank Capra long believed that each man’s life touched so many others and that’s exactly what he conveyed with the film. Does George not look happy and fulfilled at the end? I think part of that is lost in this piece, which was interesting and detailed nonetheless. Belated MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY AND HEALTHY AND PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR in 2019! GOD BLESS and STAY FRESH!

  10. An interesting analysis, written from the viewpoint of 2018. However, the movie was not made in 2018. It was made right after the largest war in the history of mankind. Nations (and their populations) were still suffering, and grieving the loss of so many people and their potential. Jimmy Stewart was a combat veteran and likely suffering from what we now call PTSD. He had flown missions, watched friends’ aircraft explode and crash, returned to empty seats at the mess hall table and empty racks in the the sleeping quarters. His peers had, in so many cases, shared that experience. This movie is one that helped this wounded generation start to understand the specialness of each of us, and the inter-related impacts we have on the lives of others. George Bailey, in the end, understands that the focus is and must be on the good in our lives, and in the lives we have touched. We don’t / can’t / won’t get everything we may want (reality) but that doesn’t mean we failed in life.

  11. Thank you for this perspective on the movie and description of virtue. Something us everyday Christians need to hear. And Brendan, I see you feel likewise. Let’s talk up our virtues inspite of our sins. Merry Christmas all twelve days.

  12. I’m sharing this with my son in Scotland, who is into film studies, and my dear friend in Ghent, NY, who loves this movie above all else. If she reads this marvelous analysis, she will know how her faith has helped that little community.

  13. Excellent and truly inspired. Much here to reflect on and ponder within ourselves May the Holy Spirit strengthen each of us who are baptized in Christ to lead virtuous and self sacrificing lives.
    Thank you for this article!!
    -KR

  14. What an outstanding piece. You are a gifted writer and well understand the foundation of the Christian life in a world that says we are to live first and foremost for ourselves. Thank you!

  15. Thank yo for your words and assurance that I enjoy this film for the right reasons. and thank you to my American friend for 52 years history (!) for sending me this clip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *