We have stories within stories, where Esmeralda is loved by the poet Gringoire, but loves the soldier Phoebus instead. When Phoebus is killed by Frollo, Esmeralda is brought to trial for the crime. We see further evidence about the cruelty of 15th century superstition when she is tortured into confessing, and when the King, meaning kindly to help her, insists on a trial by ordeal instead, wherein she must pick the correct dagger while blindfolded to be found innocent. She chooses incorrectly, and therefore she must be guilty. The King is sorry, but whatever his fascination for the printing press and the education of his people, he is still a man of his times who believes in such things as trial by ordeal. It is a telling thing that her condemnation is read aloud in Latin, which the common people attending the trial do not understand.
The Archdeacon, a kindly and intelligent figure, and Frollo’s brother, is played by Walter Hampden. The character is not originally found in Hugo’s novel, but was added as a result of Hollywood’s Code of the day that the clergy not be depicted as evil or fraudulent. With the Church abetting, willingly or unwilling, so much of the destructive superstition of the day, we need to see at least one representative who is a decent person. Hollywood evidentially felt that rounded things out a bit.
With Esmeralda imprisoned, the printing press comes to the fore again as Gringoire uses the forces of the printing press and public opinion to free her, but Frollo orders the press destroyed, calling it the ultimate evil. Others in Europe of 1939 also feared a free press.
Perhaps one of the most stunning scenes in motion pictures is when Quasimodo scrambles off the heights of the Cathedral, and grabbing a rope, swings down to the public gallows in the square and lifts Esmeralda to safety, climbing up to the bell tower as an unseen chorus erupts into a soaring hymn of “Hallelujah” and he lifts her high and screams, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”
The Church provides sanctuary to political prisoners, even if it winks at torture and trial by ordeal.
It is not until the quiet moment when Quasimodo speaks with Esmeralda, now safely living in the bell tower, we see how tortured a soul he really is. Mr. Laughton’s ability to suspend our belief under what must have been pounds of makeup is extraordinary, and we see through the disfigured body and the grotesque face to the heart of this unhappy young man. Her presence brings him great happiness, and yet he confesses until he saw her he did not know how truly ugly he was. She breaks his heart, just by being someone so far above him in perfection. How universal in this gut wrenching emotion among the handicapped, the different, the outcasts. Laughton captures it cruelly, perfectly.
Now forces are at work that bring the nobility, the king, the beggars, the thieves, the Church, the courts, and the printing press to a violent clash. Gringoire finally gets out a pamphlet to demand Esmeralda’s release and to accuse the nobility of their crimes. The King is impressed, “This bold new way of appealing by printed petition is creating a kind of public opinion that is forcing decisions even on kings.” What might his reaction be to the Internet?
When the mob attacks Notre Dame, Quasimodo becomes an army of one and fights them off with stones, building materials, and a vat of boiling lead. He rescues Esmeralda in a terrifically acrobatic and suspense fight in the bell tower with Frollo, but his reward is only loneliness when Esmeralda leaves with Gringoire.
“Why was I not made of stone like thee?” Quasimodo asked the grotesque gargoyle he clings to, and we are left feeling equally bereft as triumphant when the camera pulls back in a spectacular shot of Notre Dame, in all its architectural detail, to a further chorus of hallelujahs. Quasimodo becomes so small as to be indistinguishable from the gargoyles, and the massive cathedral overshadows all, all of the public square, all Paris, over all the entire 15th century.