This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
Thanksgiving is almost here again, and as soon as it is over, Christmas movies will abound on television. While more Christmas movies exist than anyone could ever count, Hollywood has not been as generous to the Thanksgiving holiday. Fortunately, we still have a few Thanksgiving gems to cherish, one of the best of which is John Hughes’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles starring Steve Martin and John Candy. Released in 1987, not only is it a hilariously goofy buddy comedy, but it is also a touching parable about loving one’s neighbor.
Traveling marketing executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) wants nothing more than to get out of New York City and go home to his family in Chicago for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, his plane home has to make an emergency landing in Wichita, Kansas, due to an extreme blizzard, and he finds himself stuck with an obnoxious shower ring salesman named Del Griffith (John Candy) who is also heading to Chicago and will not seem to leave him alone. Del offers for Neal to stay overnight in a motel room he has booked while the weather calms down. Neal cannot stand Del’s presence, but he decides that sleeping in the same room as an annoying goofball for one night is much better than spreading out across the filthy airport floor. Little does he know that Del has booked the last room in an extremely cheap motel, and it only has one bed.
Horrified by this new sleeping revelation and fed up with Del’s excessive chatter mouth, Neal begins to meanly deride the poor fellow. Quite hurt, Del responds:
“You wanna hurt me? Go ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”
These words pierce the heart that lies beneath Neal’s selfish cynicism, and he realizes how unkindly he has treated Del. He calms down and is able to fall asleep despite the awkwardness of the sleeping situation. Little does he know that this night is only the beginning of his time with Del.
Further transportation mishaps delay Neal and Del’s journey to the Windy City even further and force them to hop on both a train and a series of automobiles (thus completing the title of the film). Neal tries multiple times to get rid of Del, but fate and a series of hilarious incidents continuously bring them together. As they spend more time together and nearly get killed a time or two on the expressway (“You’re going the wrong way!”), Neal gradually learns to cherish Del’s company and appreciate him for the chatty but endearingly sweet man he is. The two men share laughs together in another motel room and talk about the love they have for their wives, which seals their friendship and helps them forget about their past bickering.
Finally arriving in Chicago on the evening of Thanksgiving, Neal parts ways with Del at an elevated train station and heads home to his family. On the way home, he fondly remembers all the hilarious fun he had while traveling with Del, and he realizes that he will really miss him. He then begins to piece together some cryptic things that Del told him along the journey, and he suddenly becomes quite worried that his friend has nowhere to call home.
Neal goes back to the elevated train station and finds Del still sitting there. He asks, “Del, what are you doing here? You said you were going home.” Del sadly admits, “I uh… I don’t have a home. [My wife]’s been dead for eight years.” Moved with love and pity for his vagrant friend, Neal invites him to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. Immensely touched, Del comes along with Neal to his home and is ecstatic to meet his wife and kids. As the film ends, Neal looks immensely happy not only to finally be home with his family, but also to have discovered the profound joy of neighborly love.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles poignantly teaches us all the value of loving our neighbors, and in this way, it is truly a film that can help bring us closer to Christ. Yes, Neal and Del are imperfect, sometimes vulgar human beings, but they ultimately have good hearts that lead them to care for each other and become unexpectedly good friends. This holiday season, let us take the example of these two characters to heart and strive daily to love every person we encounter, especially those who may try our patience. We never know what unexpected friendships God may have in mind for our happiness.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.