Secondhand Lions: a movie review

“If you want to believe in something, believe in it. Doesn’t matter if it isn’t true.  You believe in it anyway.” Hub McCann (Robert Duvall) in Secondhand Lions

The recent death of country music star George Jones, reminded me of Robert Duvall’s Oscar winning performance in Tender Mercies (1983), the story of an alcoholic country singer who finds redemption with the help of a woman, as Jones did toward the end of his life.

The truth is, I never much cared for Jone’s music, but Robert Duvall is one of my favorite actors.  I started thinking of Secondhand Lions (2003) which also stars Duvall and is one of funniest and most satisfying movies I’ve ever seen.  I have the DVD and watched it again yesterday.  Now I’m wondering why it took me so long to write a review.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

It’s the summer of 1962 when Walter Caldwell, on the cusp of adolescence, is dumped by his irresponsible mother, Mae, at the remote Texas ranch of his two great uncles, Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth McCann (Michael Caine).

secondhandlions - mom

“The last thing we need is some little sissy boy hanging around all summer,” Garth tells Mae.  Hearing this, Walter’s misery is palpable.  The first part of the movie shows how the trio eventually bonds.

The McCann brothers are rumored to have a hidden fortune, which brings a stream of salesmen and conniving relatives to their door. Hub and Garth spend their days shooting at salesmen, until Walter suggests they listen to one to see what he’s selling.


After listening to a seed salesmen, the trio plants a garden, only to learn they’ve been duped and sold nothing but corn seed.  The result is a huge cornfield they never really wanted.  The uncles also order a lion from a circus supply dealer.  They plan to hunt and kill it to hang its head over the fireplace, though Walter reminds them they don’t have a fireplace.  The lion turns out to be an aged female who is too sick to crawl out of her crate.  It wouldn’t be sporting to shoot her, Garth observes.

Secondhand lions - lion

Walter names the lion Jasmine, after a mysterious woman whose fading photo he finds in an attic trunk.  He nurses Jasmine back to health, and she takes up residence in the cornfield, the closest thing to a jungle in west Texas.  The lioness proves her worth by scaring away a family of greedy relatives, who campaign to have Walter shipped to an orphanage.

The movie would be pleasant enough – and forgettable enough – if it simply dealt with two lonely old men and a fatherless boy filling a void in each other’s lives, but deeper themes comes into play, notably the tension between ideals and what’s real, between story and truth and memory.

At the time Walter found the photo of Jasmine, he spied Hub sleepwalking down to the pond each night, where he brandished a toilet plunger like a sword, challenging invisible enemies.  Garth begins a long story of Hub and Jasmine, that’s like something from the Arabian Nights or a Douglas Fairbanks movie.  Hub rescued Jasmine, a desert princess, from a rich sheik in the Sahara after the two brothers were shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion at the start of World War I.

Garth continues the story in several segments, and Walter finally persuades his uncle Hub to finish it.  He tells Walter how he ran off with Jasmine.  How her jilted suitor, the sheik, sent assassins after the pair until Hub tricked him out of a hundred pounds of gold and defeated him in a duel.  Jasmine died in childbirth a few years later , and Hub never loved another woman.

Just then Walter’s mother returns in the dead of night with her latest boyfriend who claims to be a detective on the trail of the McCann brothers, a pair of infamous bank robbers who left an accomplice named Jasmine to die by the side of the road after she was wounded during a robbery.  When Walter challenges the story, the “detective” hits him.  His time with the uncles has changed Walter, who fights back, and with the last of her strength, Jasmine the lion, rushes to defend her “cub.”

Jasmine’s heart gives out in the struggle – “She died with her boots on,” says Garth.  Mae still wants Walter to come with her, but he’s learning to stand up for himself.  “I want to stay here,” he says.  “For once in your life, do something for me.”

Seventeen years later, Walter is a successful cartoonist, who draws a strip called “Walter and Jasmine,” the adventures of a boy and his lion.  The sheriff calls with bad news – his uncles, both 90 years old, have died in a hair-brained accident – with their boots on.  Walter both weeps and laughs when he learns the details.  The sheriff hands Walter the brothers will, which reads, “The kid gets it all.  Just plant us in the damn garden, next to the stupid lion.”

In the final scene, an oil company helicopter lands, and the son of the sheik from Jasmine’s story steps out.  “I was in Houston on business when I read the news,” he says.  “My father always talked about your uncles.  He called them his most worthy opponents, but I thought they were only stories.  So they really lived?”

“Yeah,” says Walter.  “They really lived.

There are many levels to this seemingly simple movie.  On one hand, some of the antics are hilarious.  It’s also a sensitive coming of age tale.  With the notable exception of Harry Potter, most such stories and movies over the last decade have centered on girls’ awakening.  Unlike Potter, however, Secondhand Lions reflects some of the features we know belonged to classic men’s initiation rites, such as “leaving the house of the mothers to join the fathers.”

But finally, what makes this movie great, and of universal interest to me, is its take on what is real and valuable in the stories we tell.  As Hub says to Walter:

“Sometimes, the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most: that people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power, mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love, true love, never dies.  You remember that, boy.  Doesn’t matter if they are true or not.  A man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing in.”

A solid five stars for this movie.  I haven’t counted lately, but I’m sure it’s still up in my ten best for all time.