These “Word of the week” pieces have become rather less frequent in recent months, for no particular reason. I have drafted several posts without finalizing them, but there are still over 170 finished pieces (and over 100,000 words of text) dotted throughout this site about words that have been in the news or come to my attention in some other way, often for the first time. Sometimes these pieces are about words that I have been familiar with for a long time but they have cropped up unexpectedly in a handful of places. That’s how it is with the word “crucify”.
As I’m sure you know, the literal meaning of “crucify” is to nail someone to a cross, as a means of punishment. It’s a particularly brutal form of punishment and usually, but not always, results in death. Over the last week there have been two old films broadcast here in the UK that feature or mention leading characters being crucified. In each case, the person survived.
The first of these films was “A Town Like Alice” (1956), broadcast on BBC4 in honour of its star Virginia McKenna, who has just turned 90. During the course of the film’s action in Malaysia, Joe Harman (played by Peter Finch) is crucified and left to die by Japanese soldiers, but he survives and is reunited with McKenna’s character (Jean Paget) in the closing minutes. The second, off-screen, crucifixion was in “The Man Who Would be King” (1975), shown on Film4 yesterday morning. Michael Caine’s character (Peachy Carnehan) recounts that he was crucified but freed the following morning when he was found to be still alive.
I had not planned to watch either of these films, and had never seen “A Town Like Alice” before. It started immediately after the Diamond League athletics highlights that we were watching.. On Sunday morning I was just flicking through TV channels, getting away from politics and cookery programmes, and chanced upon “The Man Who Would be King”. I last saw it over 35 years ago, and didn’t remember that Peachy had been crucified.
Apart from films about the life of Jesus (or indeed, “The Life of Brian”) the only other example I can think of where a character is crucified is “The Long Good Friday”, so my encounters with two non-biblical crucifixions in under 72 hours have prompted this piece. In “The Long Good Friday”, a security guard is found nailed to the floor, prompting a classic line from Harold Shand (played by Bob Hoskins), along the lines of “You don’t go crucifying people on Good Friday”.
The non-literal meaning of “crucify” implies, at the very least, severe criticism. It’s how, I assume, John Lennon meant it in “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, the Beatles’ final UK chart-topping single, #1 on this date in 1969. I remember, as a child, being shocked when I first heard it. That opening line of the chorus (“Christ, you know it ain’t easy”), spat out every time, was unlike anything else that I had ever heard in a pop song. And so was the final line: “The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me”. We had come a long way from “She Loves You” and “I Feel Fine”.