Secondhand Lions: A Study of Belief and Truth

“Sometimes, the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most.” ~Uncle Hub, Secondhand Lions (2003 movie story by Tim McCanlies)

The movie Secondhand Lions, starring Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, and Joel Haley Ozment, is a drama-comedy long on entertainment, wit, and hilarity. The rough and coarse Uncle Hub (played by Duvall) becomes an unlikely mentor  to the young and troubled Walter (played by Ozment).  Soon after his arrival at the uncles’ home, Walter discovers that Hub sleepwalks, wandering each night into the pond outside where he thrashes the water violently and gazes off into the distance.  Uncle Garth (played by Caine) narrates Hub’s amazing African adventures to Walter as they observe all this.  By morning, Hub evidences no memory of his activities and remarks that he can’t understand why he feels so tired after a night’s sleep.  Garth and Walter share the secret between themselves.

A scene in a barbecue shack foreshadows the turning point in Walter’s life.  Walter and the two uncles are enjoying lunch after Hub’s escape from the hospital where he was being treated after a sudden collapse at the feed store.  Just as Hub is giving Garth a piece of his mind about the state of the world and teenagers in particular, a gang of punks walks in and the leader begins insulting Hub.  Garth, realizing that this is a preamble to Hub’s taking on the whole gang, tells Hub, “Just don’t kill him.” Walter looks on in astonishment as Hub grabs his young attacker by the throat and introduces himself:

“Hub McCann! I’ve fought in two world wars and countless smaller ones on three continents! I’ve led thousands of men into battle with everything from horses and swords to artillery and tanks! I’ve seen the headwaters of the Nile —  and tribes and natives no white man had ever seen before!  I’ve earned and lost a dozen fortunes — killed many men — and I’ve loved only one woman with a passion a flea like you could never begin to understand! That’s who I am.”


Mae, a “floozy widow woman,” drops her son, Walter, off for the summer with his crazy uncles, Garth and Hub. They are both in their nineties. Rumor has it that the aging uncles have a fortune stashed away somewhere on their property. Mae tells Walter to be sure to find out where it is while she’s away at court reporting school in Fort Worth.

After she drives off, Walter asks the taciturn uncles if they can hear the telephone ring while they’re outside in case his mother calls. “We ain’t got one,” they tell him. He then asks to watch television and is stunned to find that they don’t have one of those either. “No television!” he responds, unbelieving. “What do you do?” Within moments, Walter is amazed to see them sipping iced tea on the porch while shooting at salesmen who drive up to sell them things they don’t want or need.

Before long Walter’s distant cousins arrive, vexing Garth and Hub with questions about a will. When they learn that Walter has come to stay, they view him as an unwelcome competitor and insist that the uncles place him in an orphanage. Hub tells them to mind their own business. Walter runs away and finds out that his mother lied about going to court reporting school. Garth and Hub find him and let him know that he is welcome to stay for a while, especially since his presence “pisses off the relatives.”

Walter starts going out in the middle of the night after learning that Hub sleepwalks. He watches an astonishing scene each night as Hub wanders into the pond’s edge, sword fights with something unseen, and searches for something in the distance. When Garth finds Walter outdoors on one of these occasions, he explains the reason for it all. He tells of their adventures in Africa as young men, how Hub fell in love with a beautiful woman named Jasmine, and how he rescued her from a sheik. The brothers became rich from the spoils of the sheik’s household. Hub and Jasmine shared a brief but happy life together after which she died. Hub still searches for her in his dreams.

Eventually, Mae returns with a new boyfriend and announces that they are taking Walter back to start a new life. She and her boyfriend inform Walter that the uncles were really notorious bank robbers, that Jasmine drove their getaway car, and that the money really doesn’t belong to them. Walter refuses to tell his mother and her boyfriend where the money is, even though he knows its location by this time. The boyfriend begins abusing Walter and a chase ensues between man and boy. Walter’s pet lion named “Jasmine” comes running out of the cornfield where she has been hiding, mauls the man, and dies happily of a heart attack. She was an old lion from one of the uncles’ sporting plans that went wrong in the middle of the story. In the end, Walter convinces his mother to do what’s best for him, for once in her life, and let him stay with his uncles.


Knowing the story’s plot, we can now back up to where we first came in. We left Hub throttling a greaser who interrupted his quiet enjoyment of a barbecue meal with Garth and Walter.  After whipping a gang of four who are now “in no shape to go home,” Hub drives them back to the house, invites them to stay for dinner, and gives them his favorite speech for straightening out wayward youth, “”What Every Boy Needs to Know About Being a Man.”

Walter longs to hear this speech now that his admiration has steadily built for Uncle Hub. According to Garth, he is still too young to hear it. However, soon after this episode Walter expresses his doubts about truth to Hub. What Hub tells him next sets the stage for Walter’s choice at the end whether to believe Garth’s incredible tales of Africa or his mother’s and boyfriend’s accusations about the uncles and how they got their money.

Walter: Those stories about Africa – about you – they’re true, aren’t they?”

Hub: Doesn’t matter.

Walter: It does, too. Around my mom all I hear is lies. I don’t know what to believe in.

Hub: Well, damn, if you wanna believe in somethin’, then believe in it! Just because somethin’ isn’t true that’s no reason you can’t believe in it.

It’s a long speech I give to young men. Sounds like you need to hear a piece of it. Just a piece.

Sometimes, the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most: That people are basically good. That honor, courage, and virtue mean everything. That power and money, money and power mean nothin‘. That Good always triumphs over Evil. And I want you to remember this, that love – true love never dies. … Doesn’t matter if they’re true or not, you see. A man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believin’ in.

If certain virtues such as honor, goodness, justice, mercy, and love make life worth the living because they civilize the world we live in, how can we go wrong by believing in them for their own sake? Some beliefs produce good neighbors, good families, good cities, towns and nations — because they make peaceful and cordial relations possible, and they produce people we can trust. Trust is hard to find nowadays. Perhaps it is really as simple as Uncle Hub says, that we should believe in those things because those are the things worth believin’ in.

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