The greatest film portrayal of Stoicism you've probably never heard of
This article was originally written for Creative Cafe, a wonderful eclectic Medium publication for compulsive creatives. I write other posts on Medium which you can see by following me on there or subscribing to my newsletter.
This is an attempt to explain why, almost 50 years after it was released, Harold & Maude still deserves attention.
After its release in 1971, it was an indisputable box office failure, receiving 1-star reviews and failing to earn back its budget.
But with time, Harold & Maude earned its place in the classic film canon. As the decades passed, it grew a cult following and spread from person to person.
It deserves praise, it deserves to live on, it deserves to be seen by another generation. It deserves to be understood for what it is: a philosophical masterpiece that covers some of the key themes in Stoicism. There’s pure wisdom in this film if you’re willing to tap into it.
First, the story. It’s about a guy (Harold) aged about 20, who falls in love with a 79-year-old woman (Maude.)
That tends to put closed-minded people off. Over the years I have coerced and blackmailed numerous friends into watching it with me.
Without exception, they all recoiled when I explained the plot. Without exception, they all ended up loving it. Because it’s not creepy or weird or gross. Harold & Maude is a complex, subtle, funny love story.
Yes, it’s about love.
It’s also about death. Rebirth. Rebellion. Growing up. Learning to live.
It’s a film about pulling yourself out of darkness and into the light, about learning to grasp the truth that we all have a limited time alive and we get to chose how we experience the world.
With that said, here’s why I love this film above all others. (I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers.)
1. It’s romantic as hell. But in a quirky way.
Harold is obsessed with death. His main hobby is faking suicide, usually in front of his socialite mother who is so done with the whole thing.
She sends him to a psychoanalyst. In the first session we see, the analyst asks Harold what he does for fun. What activities give you that special sense of enjoyment?
Harold is silent for a few moments (early on in the film, he barely talks and shows no real emotion.) Then he answers in a whisper: I go to funerals.
Driving a hearse from a scrapyard, Harold spends his days going to the funerals of people he never met. Standing, motionless, unfeeling among the mourners.
Anyone who has ever suffered from depression will relate to his quiet withdrawal, the sense that he is not quite connected to the world, his inability to engage with anyone.
Then he meets Maude at a funeral. She’s doing the same. Unlike Harold, she talks loudly, wears bright colors, and couldn’t care less about what other people think.
Despite his initial reluctance, she breaks through his defenses. Harold hates life. Maude loves life. Maude teaches Harold to love life. Therefore Harold falls in love with Maude. There it is, in Plato style simplicity. Within this film, it makes perfect sense. It would feel wrong if he didn’t love her.
In one of the most iconic scenes, Maude tells Harold she likes watching things growing and changing. As they wander through fields, she says she would like to turn into a sunflower when she dies and asks which flower he would like to be.
He doesn’t know. She insists. So he points to a field of daisies and tells her he’d like to be one of them. Maude asks why. Harold doesn’t know. She insists again. He answers: Because they’re all the same.
With surprise, Maude begins pointing out tiny differences between daisies. Some are taller or shorter, some grow one way or another, some have missing or extra petals.
You see Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this (she points at the daisy in her hand), yet allow themselves to be treated as that (she gestures to the vast field of daisies, blurring together.)
Then it cuts to a shot of a graveyard, the two of them sat among hundreds of identical white tombstones. The implication is clear: we are all individuals, but we’re all going to die. We shouldn’t waste our lives hiding who we are.
And Harold understands. And begins to come out of his shell, talking more, finally standing up to his mother, starting to smile. It's the most palatable presentation of the Stoic principle of memento mori I've come across.
2. Every single shot is a work of art.
You could pick any frame from Harold & Maude, enlarge and hang it on your wall.
Visually, every detail is stunning — from the wide panning shots of tombstones and flowers, to the wonderful 70s cars which appeal to even the most car ambivalent, from Harold’s mother’s over the top backless dresses and feathered hats, to the ludicrous mansion where they live. All rendered in slightly oversaturated technicolour.
It’s pure 1970s. Mint and cream cars. Avocado salad. Girls in patterned dresses with sculptured hair. Hitchhikers wearing crochet. Harold wears tailored suits, silk ties, wonderful coats and round sunglasses. Maude, with her hair in plaits, wears bright flowered dresses, carries a yellow umbrella and wears a yellow raincoat.
At the time, perhaps it would have seemed tacky. Today it’s a time capsule.
3. It’s so, so, so funny — but not in an overt way.
Now I wouldn’t call Harold & Maude the funniest film ever. That accolade goes to Kung-Fu Hustle.
In one scene, Harold floats face down in his swimming pool, pretending to be dead. Again. His mother steps into the pool in her one-piece and swimming cap, starts swimming, glances at him and just rolls her eyes. Then she keeps going and ignores him.
Little details like that eye roll make Harold & Maude absolutely hysterical. Humor doesn’t need to be over the top or too in your face. Yes, that’s what we’re used to today. This film shows comedy can be gentler. It’s there to soften things, to sweeten the final pill.
4. The ending will make you feel like your heart has been put through a wood chipper, then doused with liquid nitrogen.
The first time you watch Harold & Maude the ending is almost unbearable. I initially regretted ever watching it. Even after dozens of watches, it still makes me cry every time. Jon Ronson was wrong, this film is the real psychopath test — anyone who isn’t at least a bit sad at the end has no heart.
Although I would once have said that Hal Ashby (the director) is cruel and callous for ending it that way, my perspective has changed. As I get older, I see it as a happy ending, not a tragic one. It couldn’t end any other way. The ending teaches a wildly important life lesson which I won’t spoil here.
5. Cat Stevens did the soundtrack and it’s absolutely perfect.
It’s the soundtrack that ties the film together, stitching together the humour, romance, tragedy and wisdom. Cat Stevens’ folky lyrics, skipping guitar, and voice that has always sounded both old and young, are perfect. If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out might as well be the film’s tagline — as it is, it’s a beautiful song that embodies their relationship. If you want to be free, be free.
Cat Stevens is said to have made two cameos in the film: first as a mourner at a funeral, second as a hitchhiker. I’m 99.9% sure the hitchhiker is not him and highly sceptical about the mourner too. Yet it’s details like that which make Harold & Maude so fun to discuss.
(Note; I’m well aware that he has since changed his name to Yusuf Islam. However, Yusuf went by Cat Stevens at the time of this film and has stated in interviews that he doesn’t mind people using his former name when they discuss his old music.)
6. Maude is a vibrant, badass role model and we should all be more like her.
How many films include an aspirational, inspiring female character over the age of about thirty? Not many. Maude is wonderful. Beyond wonderful.
Maude is a stoic. She creates her own world. She doesn’t believe we get to own objects, only our own experiences. She is so utterly her own person, refusing to behave in the way people expect a woman of her age to behave, that you can’t help butbe inspired by her. We should all be more like Maude.
7. Bud Cort (Harold) forged his own, unique acting style in this film.
Bud Cort plays Harold beautifully. He’s just extraordinary and so expressive- he barely even needs to speak at all.
8. There’s a much deeper subtext to the whole film.
If you haven’t seen Harold & Maude, this is a potential spoiler but it’s also something most people miss. Only on my third watch did I understand that Maude is a Holocaust survivor. In light of that, her fierce commitment to living life to its fullest, eschewing gloom and always challenging authority make sense.
Go watch it, if you haven’t already. You’ll thank me later. I promise.