First Appeared in the Crown Chronicle July 2006
Crown Article by Al Anderson
Five Glimmers of Light in a Vast, Muddy Sea
Movies have been around for over 100 years, but when you consider the tens of thousands of films that have been made, its astounding how few of them acknowledge God, the Christian faith, or the everyday life of the church. The argument that movies simply reflect our culture simply doesn't hold up. For example, polls show that a majority of Americans attend church once a week, and yet, how frequently do movie characters attend church? Movie characters who do go to church are almost never regular attenders, and usually show up at church only for a wedding or a shootout.
Furthermore, if a church and church service are ever depicted in a movie, the church is invariably a picturesque, 100-year old stone building, and the service is a ritualistic affair officiated by a mild-mannered milksop wearing clerical garb. The wedding scene in The Princess Bride (Wuv. Twu Wuv.) is a fairly typical example. I don't know what percentage of regular Christian churchgoers actually attend such a church, with such a service, but I think it's safe to say the percentage is incredibly small.
In the movies, have you ever even seen a church service that takes place in a modern building? Have you ever seen a megachurch? Have you ever seen a pastor who did not wear clerical garb? Have you ever seen casually-dressed churchgoers (casual meaning no shirt and tie)? Have you ever seen a pastor in a movie who looks like he may have, once upon a time, actually played a sport? Have you ever seen a congregation singing from words projected on a wall, rather than from a hymnal? Have you ever in a movie seen a congregation singing a song written in the last 50 years, and accompanied by instruments other than a pipe organ? Have you ever once seen in a movie such things as between-service fellowship time, a child in a Sunday School class, or a wacky Youth Pastor? Although these are things that you could find every week in the majority of evangelical Christian churches in North America, I'll wager you've never seen such images flitting across the silver screen.
The simple reason that Christian faith is not accurately portrayed in the movies is that the people who make movies have rarely set foot in an actual church. This is, sadly, not a new phenomenon. Left-wing politics (check out the idyllic government-run camp in The Grapes of Wrath) and secularism have always played a big role in the movies (when Maria in The Sound of Music is worried about her new job as a governess, she encourages herself by singing that she has confidence in confidence alone-apparently, her training to be a nun somehow failed to include prayer). It's atrocious that so few mainstream films with Christian themes have ever been made, although I suppose we should grateful that Christian themes have ever appeared in the movies at all.
Occasionally, however, some glimpses of spiritual light appeared in the movie classics of yesteryear. Excluding the obviously religious films, such as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments (which are great films), I've thought of five ostensibly secular films that demonstrate strong spiritual values and are well worth checking out. I include some spoilers in the descriptions below, but these movies are so well done that you'll still feel their impact, even if you know what will happen. Here are the five films, presented in order of release:
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
If you've only heard about Jimmy Cagney, or seen impressions of him (You dirty rat!), but have never actually seen one of his movies, this is the one to see. In this film we have the pure, unadulterated Cagney-a cocky, fast-talking bundle of energy, completely mesmerizing us every minute he's on the screen.
Two boys grow up as best friends in the slums of New York City, but when they steal some fountain pens Rocky (Jimmy Cagney) is caught, while Jerry (Pat O'Brien) runs faster and makes his escape. From that point on their lives take very divergent paths. Rocky becomes a notorious gangster, while Jerry becomes a priest. Despite their different paths in life, Rocky and Jerry's friendship and respect for each other hasn't died.
At the end of the film, Rocky has been sentenced to death in the electric chair. Jerry goes to visit him with an even heavier burden on his heart: all the neighborhood kids idolize Rocky, and want to emulate him, and if Rocky dies bravely he'll become a martyred hero, and Jerry might never be able to turn those boys' hearts to God. So, Jerry asks Rocky one last favor: to die yellow, to pretend to be a coward so the boys will despise his memory. Rocky is amazed and offended. He says Jerry is asking for too much. His reputation for courage is all he has left.
As they walk to the death chamber, Rocky seems as cocky as ever, even punching a guard who insults him. Finally, Rocky shakes Jerry's hand in farewell. Jerry kneels to pray. Once in the death chamber, we never see Rocky again, only his shadow and the shadows of the guards on the wall. As Rocky approaches the electric chair, he suddenly and unexpectedly breaks down and starts struggling and yelling and begging for mercy. Jerry alone knows the courage behind what's happening-courage he wasn't sure his cocky pal ever had.
The newspaper headlines tell the story: ROCKY DIES YELLOW: KILLER COWARD AT END. When the neighborhood boys ask Father Jerry if it was true that Rocky died a coward. Jerry wistfully answers, It's true, boys. Every word of it. He died like they saidLet's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could.
The movie does a wonderful job of establishing that the thing Rocky values most is his reputation as a tough guy-in the end he says it's the only thing I've got left. So when he decides to throw that away, to sacrifice all he has to save those kids, it's not just a powerful moment, but a powerful echo of the gospel.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Because this movie is so familiar, I won't spend as much time on it, but I think the Christian (and politically conservative) aspects of the film have been generally overlooked. Consider these points: (1) It's the only movie I know that starts with people praying (there aren't many movies where people pray at all); (2) It's the only movie I know where the entire plot is presented as God's answer to prayer; (3) Unlike most films, which celebrate daring risks, depraved activities, and exotic actions, it presents normalcy, decency, and dull self-sacrifice as the most heroic virtues of all; (4) It presents a small capitalistic business enterprise, a savings & loan, as a bulwark against the forces of evil; (5) It cleverly hides the design of its plot from us, so we don't know the true significance of all the little details we've seen until we're almost to the end; and (6) It shows that God cares deeply about ordinary people and their ordinary actions. The film is a tribute to the ordinary person, and a reminder that in God's eyes our lives are important and valuable.
So Dear To My Heart (1949)
This is the best Disney film you've never seen, and surely one of the most (if not the most) spiritual. Supposedly, it was Walt Disney's personal favorite.
The story centers around a boy named Jeremiah, who lives with his grandmother in a rural Missouri town around the year 1900. Jeremiah's grandmother (Granny) is a no-nonsense woman who believes in strong spiritual values and strong discipline, and yet few parental figures in films are more endearing. Jeremiah is raising a mischievous black sheep that he's determined to enter into the sheep competition at the County Fair. Before he makes it to the Fair Jeremiah learns a few lessons in life, and even tough old Granny is moved to tears when she sees that Jeremiah has actually taken her lectures against worldly vanity to heart. Other highlights include the cartoon sequences that take place when Jeremiah looks through his scrapbook-one song has an interesting component: Bible references! It's a little startling (yet delightful) to see a Hollywood film depict brief scenes of David and Goliath, and Joshua at the walls of Jericho, and do so as if these are stories that every child should know.
So Dear to My Heart is a delightful, heartwarming film in every respect, and is not only a moral film, but even stretches so far as to actually mention God and the Bible. This is definitely a movie that would fit well in the movie collection of any Christian family.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Although it was a Best Picture award winner, if it were not for the powerful, iconic performance of Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront would probably be totally ignored by the film critics of today, not because of its quality, but because it (like It's a Wonderful Life) is subversively and unmistakably conservative in its point of view.
The conservative aspects of the film are fascinating, and the spiritual aspect that goes in tandem with it is exemplified by one of the secondary heroes of the story, Catholic priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), who is a far cry from the typical milquetoast minister found in the vast majority of movies. Father Barry forcefully tries to get someone to testify against the corrupt union to the Waterfront Crime Commission, but very few are willing to step forward, because those who oppose the evil union quickly end up dead.
Father Berry's sermon over the body of a murdered worker is a classic. While occasionally pelted by rotten fruit hurled by union thugs, Father Berry says that Christ is present everywhere, even in the docks, and He know that men are keeping silent when they should speak out, but with God's help they can defeat evil. Ultimately, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is inspired by Father Barry to sing to the Waterfront Crime Commission, and he fingers the union boss and his thugs as murderers.
The film serves as a powerful illustration of Ephesians 5:11: Take no part in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead expose them.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
At first glance The Night of the Hunter seems like an unlikely choice for this list-it is possibly the most disturbing film made in the 1950's, and for most of it the film seems aggressively anti-Christian. This nightmarish film features one of the most horrifying villains of all time: Harry Powers (Robert Mitchum), a psychopathic murderer who poses as a preacher, and is the embodiment of every negative Christian stereotype. He is a sexually repressed hypocrite who continually spouts religious mumbo-jumbo, and particularly enjoys singing the hymn, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, which his rendition turns into something dark and threatening. Most galling of all, everyone he meets in the small town he visits thinks he's a holy and wonderful Christian man. He quickly marries a naive widow with two children, and soon murders her. As he tries to kill the children too (they know where some money is hidden), they barely escape on a raft that is floating downriver. Relentlessly, Powers tracks them along the shore, warbling his threatening hymn.
The next morning, the children's raft comes ashore next to the house of elderly Rachel Cooper (played by frail yet commanding silent film star Lilian Gish). The most jarring (and pleasing) aspect of the film is that Rachel is portrayed as an authentic, courageous, Bible-believing Christian. When Powers arrives to claim the children, she almost immediately recognizes him as a fraud and pulls a shotgun on him! That night, in the film's most memorable scene, Powers (who has vowed to kill everyone in the house as soon as they fall asleep) is hiding out in the barn ominously singing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Rachel, unperturbed, sits on the porch in her rocking chair, with her double-barreled shotgun across her lap. Unexpectedly, she joins him in the song, singing with great feeling to the end. The message she sends in this powerful moment is that the children not only do not belong to Powers, but the song doesn't either and he can't have it. This is an admittedly creepy, but fascinating and even uplifting film.
This completes our tour of five classic-era films that contain some surprising Christian themes. Overall, the pickings in old movies are surprisingly slim, but let's hope and pray that in this new world of visual information the Word of God and the lessons of the Gospel will someday hold a prominent place.
Al Anderson is the Writer/Director of the Christian comedy film Christian Dating: The Movie! and the drama The Hidden Stranger, as well as the author of the comic Christian fantasy novel The Shepherd's Adventure, or, A Practical Guide to Princess Rescuing. His website is www.alleycatfilms.com