SEPT / OCT 2012: BY HANNAH PRICE
I fell into a burning ring of fire; I went down, down, down and the flames went higher; And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire; The ring of fire.
Addictions and adultery, anger and apprehensions; they’re all at the forefront of Johnny Cash’s life as portrayed in Walk the Line (2005). For most of the movie, as it was with most of Cash’s early life, he is a lost soul drowning in the midst of a amphetamine sea. However, one of the most important things that make this movie special and uplifting is Johnny’s slow but steady rescue. Love is the instrument of his redemption, the love of June Carter, of her parents, and of God.
Jerry Lee Lewis sums up more than just music when he says “God gave us a great big apple, see, and He said don’t touch it. He didn’t say touch it once in a while; He didn’t say take a nibble when you’re hungry; He said don’t touch it! Don’t think about touchin’it, don’t sing about touchin’ it, don’t think about singin’ about touchin’ it!”
I can’t help but agree, and indeed a good deal of Walk the Line is about a figurative apple in a figurative Garden of Eden. This apple is a relationship two people desire but can’t enter into because of prior commitments; their Garden of Eden seemingly happy home lives with spouses and children. They are both tempted away from their Eden by the roller coaster lives they live as music celebrities. In the end they lose everything they began with as a consequence of their love affair, but they are allowed a measure of happiness at the conclusion.
Johnny and June’s song “Ring of Fire” factors into the movie as both song and metaphor because there are two “rings of fire” that come to consume them, their relationship, their lives, and the entire story. The first thing the “ring of fire” refers to is the addictions that take over Johnny. A large portion of the film depicts his descent into drug addiction, beginning with the innocent taking of a few pills to stay awake during long drives and performances. This small act quickly spirals out of control when Johnny’s hectic schedule leads him to continue to take the pills until he can’t stop. His dependence on drugs leads him to follow strange and dangerous methods to obtain them, including sneaking across the border into Mexico (a failed attempt which lands Johnny in jail). This dependence is a leading factor that causes Johnny to lose his marriage, his tour, his friendship with June (temporarily), positive public opinion and his self-respect. The ugly facts aren’t sugarcoated in this film, drug abuse is shown as it is: a destructor of lives.
Another thing the “ring of fire” refers to is the passionate love that takes over Johnny and June. Their love becomes all consuming, much like the drugs Johnny takes. This love begins before the pair even meets. Johnny is shown as a small boy listening to the Carter family group singing over the radio, preferring June’s solo performances. When he meets June for the first time he gets tongue-tied (and her dress gets tied up in his guitar), but over time the pair falls in love. They spend a lot of time together both onstage and off, at first as compatriots, then as partners, then as a couple. The realization that their love affair is wrong (and seeing Johnny self-destruct due to his addiction) causes June to leave the tour and Johnny’s side. However, as happy endings demand and as it happened in reality, Johnny and June eventually make it back to one another. Their love culminates in the film as an impromptu onstage proposal where Johnny finally wins the hand of the cautiously hesitant June.
These two “rings of fire” propel the story towards a conclusion that would have been disastrous without the redemptive power of love. In the movie, the love that is shown to be the leading factor in Johnny’s recovery is that of the Carter family. Hollywood leaves out the fact that Johnny and the Carters’ Christian faith was the leading life-changing factor, but a discerning viewer can see that God’s love shows through regardless, helping Johnny through the Carters. The small scene in which June takes Johnny to church isn’t enough to accurately portray the monumental affect Christianity had on Johnny’s restoration, but it is enough to remind the audience about its significance.
One of the most moving scenes is when the Carters come to stay with John and help him through his recovery. In a particularly humorous moment, John’s drug dealer shows up at his house and June’s father chases him away with a shotgun. Love and loyalty like this is reminiscent of God’s love, always around to chase away the demons that haunt us. ■