A Review of Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners

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 Christians in the Movies

 

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.

 

 

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14 Comments

  1. Behold Wiki’s rather antiseptic rendering of Werfel’s experience at Lourdes:

    “Werfel left Austria after the Anschluss in 1938 and went to France. After the German invasion and occupation of France during World War II, and the deportation of French Jews to the Nazi concentration camps, Werfel had to flee again. With the assistance of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille, he and his wife narrowly escaped the Nazi regime and traveled to the United States.[1] While in France, Werfel made a visit to the shrine of the Our Lady of Lourdes at Lourdes, where he found spiritual solace. He also received much help and kindness from the Catholic orders that staffed the shrine.[1] He vowed to write about the experience and, safe in America, he published The Song of Bernadette in 1941.”

    Prayers on the way, Art.

  2. Art,

    May the divine assistance be always with you. You are on my list for daily prayers.

    On topic: In honor of All Saints, I will dig up and play our copy of the DVD of “The Boondock Saints.”

  3. This was an enjoyable and thoughtful review, and I’m now interested in picking up a copy of the book. My only question is: how could you leave out any discussion of “A Man For All Seasons” (1966)? –I do hope it’s in the book!

  4. I think you’re being a little hard on “The Last Temptation of Christ.” I know it was savaged by evangelicals because of the idea that Jesus had doubts and was shown as a man with human frailties.

    I also considered it to be a prodigal son kind of story.
    Spoilers ahead.

    What I like about the story is that the most tempting thing the devil could offer was the life that we all have. To be a normal man, with a job and a family and not have the salvation of mankind on your back. More tempting than bread to a starving man and more tempting than all the power in the world.
    Kind of means we are already beating the devil.

  5. Excellent review. I will make a point of getting hold of a copy.

    Regarding “The Last Temptation of Christ”:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/14/movies/blasphemy-or-artistry.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

    http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/04/movies/l-second-thoughts-on-last-temptation-011488.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/04/movies/l-second-thoughts-on-last-temptation-013788.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/04/movies/l-second-thoughts-on-last-temptation-377488.html

    I am very far from a wholehearted admirer of the late Fr. Greeley but I wholeheartedly agree with him here.

    Regarding “The Passion of the Christ”. I consider any work inspired by “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich” (by Clemens Brentano) to be at least as problematic as “The Last Temptation”.

  6. I remember the controversy over “Last Temptation”. I never saw it in the theater but my husband got me to watch it on video years later. His favorite part of the movie was… the soundtrack by Peter Gabriel!

    (Spoiler alert)

    The most problematic part of the film for me was NOT the one that was the focus of the most public outrage — the dream/vision sequence in which Jesus imagines being married to Mary Magdalene, with all that goes with it, if you know what I mean. That was clearly NOT presented as something Jesus actually did but as a “what if” dangled before Him by the devil.

    No, the most offensive aspect for me was the depiction of Jesus as making crosses for the Romans and as willingly taking part in crucifixions — because this was a depiction of Him as actually committing grave sin in an attempt to get God the Father “off his back,” so to speak. That, and Harvey Keitel portraying Judas with a definite Brooklyn Jewish accent (ok, that wasn’t so much offensive as just laugh out loud hilarious).

    Although the film overall is a tedious waste of time, I do have to give it props for portraying the actual crucifixion in a much more realistic, blood ‘n’ guts manner than most films up to that time had done. However “Passion of the Christ” now far surpasses it in this regard.

  7. Elaine Krewer wrote:

    “No, the most offensive aspect for me…”

    Wholeheartedly agree. Although I suppose even this could be spun as an extreme form of “rendering unto Caesar”…? It has been many years since i last watched the film.And yes it is very tedious.

  8. “…I do have to give it props for portraying the actual crucifixion in a much more realistic, blood ‘n’ guts manner…”

    The most terrible and beautiful crucifixion scene is in “Ben Hur”. Our Lord hanging dead on the cross is fleetingly illuminated by lightning flashes and then, again fleetingly, reflected in a bloody pool of rainwater. Reminiscent of Dali’s”Christ of Saint John of the Cross”. Stunning…

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