A Closer Look at: The Greatest Showman

So Jesus said to the Jew who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  – John 8:31-32
I just watched the movie, “The Greatest Showman” with my wife.  Truth be told, I’m not a musical guy, but my wife is.  That being the case and the fact that we’d heard good things about the movie, we decided to watch it.
It was VERY entertaining!  Even for a musical.  Sorry, I told you, I’m not a musical guy, normally.
Spoiler alert, we’ll be talking about themes and characters that are in the movie.  So, if you want to see it without my observations, you may want to stop reading now!
Here are some of the things that encouraged me.
  • It’s about a man who went through a “rags to riches” transformation.
  • He loved his family!
  • He wanted his children to have a better life than he’d had growing up.
  • He was a man that stood up and helped those who had been abused by “society.” Those who were looked down upon, and taken advantage of, he elevated to stardom!
  • He made a mistake, and those that he had rejected, took him back.
I love themes of reconciliation.  Our God is still in the reconciliation business so it encourages me to see it happen in a mean spirited culture.
In the movie, newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett wrote a scathing review of Mr. Barnum’s show, calling it a circus.   Mr. Barnum, without skipping a beat, embraces the slight and puts “circus” into the shows name.
Later in the movie, Mr. Bennett is transformed after he’s seen the positive impact the show has had on people, especially the performers.  He tells Barnum that what he is doing could be considered a “celebration of humanity.”
(By the way, if you want to read an amazing story, research Mr. Bennett.  His is a TRUE “rags to riches” story.  For instance, he was a Scottish immigrant who created a publication he called the New York Herald.  Maybe you’ve heard of it, today it’s the world’s most read newspaper.)
One particularly important issue addressed in the movie was racism.  In the circus, a persons “race” wasn’t an issue.  This was illustrated with a relationship between a black trapeze artist named Ann Wheeler and a white aristocrat named Phillip Carlyle who gave up everything to be in the circus.
Philip initially is afraid of the relationship because of what society, including his wealthy parents, think and backs away from Ann.  Later, he realizes that they’re wrong and tries to make things right with Ann.  It takes him nearly dying to make Ann realize that it doesn’t matter what others think and they’re to be together.
This “one race, the human race” message is near and dear to my heart, in part because of the experiences my wife and I have had.  Most of you know that my wife is Japanese.  And, believe it or not, we’ve seen racism raise its head from those within the church.
On one occasion I even had a speaking event cancelled because my wife and I were in what the pastor called an “inter-racial” marriage.  He explained that the church by-laws restricted the pastor from allowing anyone in an “inter-racial” marriage to speak from their pulpit or he’d be fired.
All of this to say, I appreciated their stand on the issue.
There’s only one problem.  None of that happened.   The movie is wrong about probably 90% of everything else that’s portrayed.
For instance, Philip Carlyle and Ann Wheeler never existed!  This means that the whole “one blood” message that was shown never happened.  (If you’d like to get an idea of how “inter-racial” relationships were treated “back in the day”, watch the movie entitled, “Loving.”  It’s NOT necessarily a “feel good” movie.  What this couple experienced is pretty eye opening.)
The real P.T. Barnum’s show was not a “celebration of humanity,” far from it.  It very easily could have been billed as an “abuser of humanity.”
Let me just give you a couple of examples that aren’t in the movie to make my point.
Mr. Barnum’s career started at the age of 25 with a lady named Joice Heth.
In a memoir written by Mr. Barnum in 1855 he stated that he bought her, as a slave, so that he could exhibit her.
In 1869 he changed, saying that he bought the rights to exhibit her.  He advertised her as the “Greatest natural and national curiosity in the world.”
She told everyone that she’d been George Washington’s nursemaid and was 161 years old.
Her legs were paralyzed as well as one of her arms.  She was blind, mostly deaf and in many ways, a slave, regardless of how Mr. Barnum characterized it!
He would have her “perform” 6 days a week up to 10-12 hours a day.
It’s reported that Mr. Barnum told how on one occasion he gave her quite a bit of alcohol so that she was drunk.   This allowed them to pull her remaining teeth, making her look older.
At one point attendance dropped off because local preachers took a stand and told their people that it was immoral to pay money to look at a slave.  This was during the time that abolition was growing in the country.
In order to outsmart the clergy, whom he is said to have despised, he told everyone that he was an abolitionist.  He was actually touring with Joice because she was a freedwoman and was trying to raise money to get her great-grandchildren out of slavery.  It’s said that this worked and religious people started flocking to the show to help this poor woman.
On one occasion a Boston minister reportedly gave Mr. Barnum $10.00 to help free some of Miss Heth’s relations.  He took the money and later wrote, “I took the money, I could not do less without betraying myself,” he wrote. “That night, a few friends and myself spent it on Champagne and oysters.”  He bragged that he never bought a slave’s freedom, it was all a scam to make money!
Mr. Barnum even found a way to take advantage of Miss Heth after her death.  He had a doctor perform an autopsy and charged 50 cents each so that people could watch.  Approximately 1,500 people are said to have attended.
When the doctor performing the autopsy concluded that she wasn’t 161 years old, and probably no more than about 80, Mr. Barnum told everyone that the corpse was a fake and the real Joice Heth was alive and “performing” elsewhere.
That’s NOT the guy I saw depicted in the movie.
As for his kindness to “Annie Jones,” aka the bearded lady, that he discovers singing in a sweatshop washing cloths.  Well, that’s not even close to the truth either.
First of all, he didn’t find her later in life.  He actually started exhibiting her when she was just 9 months old!  She was originally billed as the “The Infant Esau.”  Her parents were paid $150.00 a week in order to put her on display.
And what about General Tom Thumb whom Mr. Barnum meets as a 22 year old man in the movie? Well, that’s not quite how it happened.
The truth is, he first met him as a 4 years old and made a deal with his parents to exhibit him in his New York show for $3.00 a week.
To his credit, he did increase it to $50.00 a week when the act became popular.
When you research Mr. Barnum you’re not going to find someone that was trying to make the world a better place.  Actually it’s quite the opposite.  You’ll find someone who seems to be trying to make a quick buck off of the suffering and misfortune of others.
Be careful!  When we watch something it is very easy to assume that it is true or even close to the truth.  That’s not the case with this movie.  It is VERY well done.  The film quality is excellent, the acting is great and the story is heart warming.
It’s just not true!
I didn’t even go into the really ugly history that you can find on how blacks were actually treated, including being stolen from their families and sold to the circus.  That’s really ugly stuff and I intentionally kept this pretty generic.
I encourage you to research like this whenever you hear or read about some new amazing find that proves everything that we’ve known to be true to not be incorrect.  That’s what we’re teaching how to do in our Academy of Hope Online classes.  We believe that by teaching HOW to think and not WHAT to think we can prepare a generation to deal with the increasing deception that’s coming before Christ returns.  You will amazed at how easy it is to do and what you will see when you look at the evidence critically.
In addition, we do real world application.  On April 7th we’ll be taking folks through the Chicago Field Museum and teaching them how to use facilities such as these for ministry.  If you’re in the Chicago area please consider joining us.  It’s an all day event.  We’ll teach how to tell the difference between Fact and Opinion.  We then go into the museum and apply what was taught.  We come back, debrief, teach again, and then go back into the museum to apply!
Or maybe you’d like to join us by digging dinosaur bones and seeing for yourself how the actual evidence supports what God’s Word says.  If that’s the case, join us in Glendive, Montana this summer.
Remember John 8:31-32.  “abide in my word”.  If you want to know the truth, seek God’s Word FIRST.  As Christians we’ve been duped too many times by “humbugs” like P.T Barnum because we’ve not allowed the Word to be our authority.  Let’s choose today to seek out truth.  Ultimately, that’s all that matters, and that’s because the truth will set you free.
Stay Bold!
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