Death takes many forms, but none more snappily dressed than Mr. Brink, who appears in the 1939 film On Borrowed Time wearing a double-breasted suit and fedora. Brink, played by Cedric Hardwicke, has come for Gramps, a wheelchair-bound Lionel Barrymore. But Gramps can’t go because he is now the sole guardian of his young grandson Pud, who was orphaned after a previous visit by the officious Brink. So he tricks Brink into climbing a fruit tree in his yard to fetch him one final apple to eat before they go. Unbeknownst to Brink, Gramps has been granted a wish that enables him to keep tree-climbing intruders from coming down until he frees them. And so Gramps is able to gain a temporary reprieve, but with mounting complications as the tree-bound Brink is no longer able to make his appointed rounds.
The film works a neat reversal on the “forbidden fruit” story in the early chapters of the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis. You will recall the Lord had warned Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit from a certain tree in the Garden of Eden, or they would surely die. The first man and woman are as guileless as newborns, which in a way they are – certainly no match for the wily serpent who seems to have been placed there expressly to trip them up. The serpent entices them to eat the forbidden fruit, which gets them kicked out of the garden, and eventually earns them a visit from Mr. Brink -- or whatever he was calling himself in those days.
On Borrowed Time – as well as the novel and stage play on which the film is based – are supposedly inspired by an ancient legend that Death finds himself trapped in an old woman’s pear tree blessed by St. Polycarp to trap thieves who would steal the fruit. I have been unable to track down the source of this legend, but it is clear Mr. Brink has many antecedents in myth and popular culture. In the early days, Death often took the form of a god or an angel, usually of fearsome aspect. In the Book of Exodus, the Lord God did his own dirty work, sweeping through Egypt in a single night and striking down the firstborn of every Egyptian household, right down to their livestock and slaves. During the plague years in Europe, Death was often portrayed as a skeletal figure leading a danse macabre of figures from all walks of life, from kings to paupers, as they danced hand in hand on their way to the grave. This was the origin of the archetypal figure we now call the Grim Reaper.
However it was portrayed, death was never pictured in the abstract but always as Mr. Death in some form. But why do we personify death, which, after all, is essentially a biomedical phenomenon? Freud once stated that our own death is unimaginable to us, but if so, it is not for lack of trying. We need something – or rather, someone – we can relate to, however tenuously. At its most fearsome, the figure of death is silent and implacable, laying a boney hand on some poor soul whose time is up. But increasingly death seems willing to engage with those whose lease on life is about to expire. This is not to say he is prepared to extend his terms. Still, the more adept of his intended victims have been able to exploit the opening to their advantage, using tricks, bribes or cajolery to buy a little time at least. The medieval knight played by Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal famously engages a shrouded death figure in a game of chess, a scene inspired by a 15th-century painting by Albertus Pictor in the Täby Church outside Stockholm.
Although death is usually pictured as humanity’s mortal enemy, he can sometimes appear as almost a friend, as in the Emily Dickinson poem that begins,
Because I could not stop for Death·–·
He kindly stopped for me·–·
The Carriage held but just Ourselves·–·
In William Ferris' Depression-era play Death Takes a Holiday, Death disguises himself as a Russian prince so he can rub shoulders with humanity for a little while and find out why people are so afraid of him. He tells a Foreign Legion officer that "religion builds fantastic pictures to still the fear and to make life seem less hard. But has it never occurred to you, Major, that death may be only more simple than life, and perhaps more desirable?" In a 1962 Twilight Zone episode, Death takes the form of a young Robert Redford, who comes for an ailing old woman who has barricaded herself in a dark basement apartment. He eventually sweet-talks her into opening the door and coming away with him. If our demise is nothing more traumatic than strolling off arm in arm with the likes of Robert Redford, then we might rightly ask, “O death, where is thy sting?”
1 Corinthians 15:55