Major Barbara is one of George Bernard Shaw's mid-line plays - everyone knows Pygmalion and Man and Superman. But few people have heard of Major Barbara or The Devil's Disciple. I became a fan of GBS after watching the The Devil's Disciple. Intelligent and thought-provoking, I've watched a BBC production of it several times because I think it's very well written and really interesting. So I'd learned to give Shaw the benefit of the doubt, and a chance to introduce me to new opinions and bon mots.
I read Major Barbara several years ago, and thought it was a mess. I hoped that this production would clarify what the hell Shaw was getting at. Unfortunately, this movie only made it clearer that the play is a mess of ideas about religious idealism, munitions, and money.
Let's start with Wikipedia's summary of the play:
The story concerns an idealistic young woman, Barbara Undershaft, who is engaged in helping the poor as a Major in the Salvation Army in London. For many years, Barbara and her siblings have been estranged from their father, Andrew Undershaft, who now reappears as a rich and successful munitions maker. Undershaft, the father, gives money to the Salvation Army, which offends Major Barbara, who does not want to be connected to his "tainted" wealth. However, the father argues that poverty is a worse problem than munitions, and claims that he is doing more to help society by giving his workers jobs and a steady income than Major Barbara is doing to help them by giving them bread and soup.
This is actually clearer than the articulation given the themes in this production. Since Rex Harrison is playing Barbara's fiancée Adolphus Cusins (Barbara is Wendy Hiller), he has to have a larger part (and he's funny and charming, as he should be). I suppose it could be argued that the play offers thought-provoking material about saving souls with dirty money, but the characters within the play keep changing their minds and changing sides until you're so confused you don't give damn about any of them (although the father is consistent: he's made his money in munitions and he's the devil offering money to the Salvation Army). But Barbara and Adolphus change course without warning or apparent reason multiple times. The whole thing is a silly mess, and not even as funny as Shaw usually manages to be.
As far as I can tell, the moral of the play is "Haha - suck it idealists, money trumps conscience any day of the week!"