As faithful readers of this blog know, I am a film buff. I therefore was pleased when Dr. Peter Dans, a friend of mine and commenter on the blog, brought to my attention his book Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. Peter is a medical doctor and a former professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. Go here to learn about his professional activities. He is also a faithful Catholic, a skilled writer and an all around good guy. However, I am here to review the book and not to review the author!
Published in 2011 by Sheed & Ward, the book is a fairly comprehensive look at how film has portrayed Christians and Christianity from 1905-2008. The book proceeds chronologically with chapters devoted to films of the silent era, films of the forties, etc. The chapters open with a general overview of the film period being discussed and then a look at selected films. The films are not limited to those self-consciously religious, but also those in which religion is a major plot element. Thus the Oscar winning film Sergeant York (1941) is included because of its examination of the religious conflict that World War I hero Alvin C. York had to resolve before he could in good conscious fight for his country. Dr. Dans also looks at the impact of the films examined, for example in regard to Sergeant York he mentions that the film was denounced by the isolationist Senator Nye as propaganda to get America into World War II. Some of the facts that the author discusses were news to me. For example I have watched the film Song of Bernadette (1943) about Bernadette Soubirous and Lourdes but I was unaware that it was based on a book written by Franz Werfel, a Jew, who made a vow to write a book about Bernadette when he and wife were hidden from the Gestapo by nuns and families at Lourdes. In regard to Going My Way, 1944, Dr. Dans reveals that Pope Pius XII was so taken by the film that he granted a private audience to Bing Cosby and credited the film with helping to spur priestly vocations. I like it when a book gives me information that I was unaware of, and this book accomplished that task.
The book is not limited to films that have become well known. For example there is a section devoted to one of my favorite westerns, Stars in My Crown, 1950, in which Joel McCrea portrays a Union veteran who becomes a Protestant minister and his travails as he brings religion to a town and fights the Ku Klux Klan.
The author notes a change towards Christianity beginning in the Sixties, which began with criticism and ended in open hostility and vitriol. Inherit the Wind (1960) is examined and pains are taken to tell the reader that both the film and the play on which the film was based bore little resemblance to the actual Scopes monkey trial. Francis of Assisi (1961) is noted as one of the last examples of a big budget pro-Christian film. Pete does not share my love of the film El Cid (1961), blaming Heston who he rates as only OK and Loren who he decries as terrible. (Heston and Loren despised each other on sight, although I thought their personal acrimony aided the film as Loren’s character at one times hates, and wishes to have killed, Heston’s character, El Cid, for slaying her father. Loren’s real life antipathy for Heston gives an extra verve to the scenes in which she wishes him dead!) He and I agree that Becket (1964) is a superb film:
Dr. Dans is a man of strong opinions and I like that, even when I disagreed with some of his opinions on the many, many films in the book. Reviewing any work of art is a waste of time unless the reviewer is willing to boldly make judgments and state the supporting evidence, and he does so. I also appreciate his willingness to sit through so many bad Catholic bashing films to make his book comprehensive. I would have to be beaten into submission to sit through Agnes of God (1985), a deeply silly anti-Catholic polemic starring Jane Fonda, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a film so bad viewers should have been paid to watch it, and Priest, 1994, a film whose only saving grace is that its virulent anti-Catholicism was seen by few people judging from its four million box office in the United States. All these films and many more Dr. Dans sat through and I salute him for his intestinal fortitude.
On page 348 the author has two lists that are quite telling. One is for pro-Catholic films and only three films: The Passion of the Christ (2004), Schindler’s List (1993) and the Scarlet and the Black (1983) were made in the last three decades. The second list is the top ten anti-Catholic films and all of them were made since 1985. As Dr. Dans notes in his book, Catholics who care about film and the popular culture have their work cut out for them.
I enthusiastically endorse this book for anyone who loves film, the Church and how faith and entertainment exists. Christ enjoined us to be as innocent as doves and as wily as serpents. As this book demonstrates we Christians definitely need to work on the wiliness of serpents part of the equation, as we have allowed our adversaries to wield film as a bludgeon against us. We can, and I am confident we will, change that.