Christian Cinema as National Cinema
by Anne Morey
H.B. Warner as Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
The project that brings me to the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities is a history of Christian filmmaking in the United States. In order to offer a survey of the relationship between the American film industry and the uses of the religious text, I am examining films made by Hollywood and by filmmakers adjacent to it who have achieved national theatrical releases for their products; in the process, I consider what difference it makes that manifestations of religious belief converge with both economic behavior and with entertainment, and what consequences this convergence has for religion, Hollywood, and our understanding of the place of each in public life. Some parts of this story of the twinning of film and Christianity are well known, but there is no book-length survey that looks at the history of American filmmaking through the lens of its relationship with Christianity as both a narrative and social force. The most fruitful examinations of Christian creativity in contemporary American public life have hitherto focused on broadcasting, music recording, and publishing. This study focuses on film because it has historically been a unified industry with a small coterie of producers confronting high economic barriers to entry and consequently desirous of addressing a national audience. The economics of film, in other words, mandate participation in a national discourse in ways that the niche marketing possible to publishing and broadcasting does not. In short, my book argues that the history of the American film industry may be told in miniature through its relations with American Christianity.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Christianity also appears to be a recurring element at moments of institutional crisis within the American film industry. As William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson demonstrate in their examination of Vitagraph’s The Life of Moses (1910), the religious film simultaneously justified film attendance on the sabbath and created appreciation for the assimilationist desires of America’s Jews at the moment that the success of the nickelodeon was generating a kind of urban backlash against film attendance among the young. The 1915 Mutual v. Ohio Supreme Court decision that determined that film was an imitative art that deserved no protections against prior restraint is bookended by two D. W. Griffith films that manipulate religious rhetoric, The Birth of a Nation (whose conclusion invokes the figure of Christ) and Intolerance (which contains an extended sequence set at the time of Christ). Later, another religious film, Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle, incited the suit that overturned the Mutual decision in 1952. Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings (1927), as Richard Maltby has observed, appeared when opposition to the American film industry was created by the industry’s ability to retail big-city values where they were not wanted; in other words, religion helped to naturalize the movement of film into small-town American life, as it had earlier in urban settings.
Perhaps above all, the narrative of the installation of enforcement mechanisms by 1934 for the Production Code (the film industry’s self-censorship organization) can be read as one in which religion was the solution to an institutional crisis in the film industry. The Production Code represented the failure of liberal Protestant attitudes toward the film industry and the triumph of Catholic approaches to textual regulation, as both Maltby and Francis Couvares have noted. Religion’s utility to Hollywood continued into the 1960s, with the biblical spectacular forming a reliable product at a moment when audiences had declined by half, as they did between 1948 and 1958, making the economic penalties for misjudging public sentiment considerable. Religious filmmaking even combines with technological innovation; for example, CinemaScope, the widescreen format that was designed to lure adult audiences back into theaters in 1953 debuted in the religious blockbuster The Robe.
Religious filmmaking in America thus possesses a lengthy tradition, one substantial enough to permit the development of a number of different subgenres: the action/adventure religious picture such as Matthew Crouch’s Revelation-based The Omega Code (1999) and Megiddo (2001); the Christian musical such as Godspell (David Greene, 1973) and Jesus Christ, Superstar (Norman Jewison, 1973); the Jesus biopic such as From the Manger to the Cross (Sidney Olcott, 1912), King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965), and Joshua (Jon Purdy, 2002); the Christian art film such as The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), which might be classed with European art films that explore religious life and belief in unconventional ways, along the lines of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary (1985); and the religious horror film such as Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), to name only a few. While the religious spectacular of the type of Ben-Hur (Fred Niblo, 1925; William Wyler, 1959) has become relatively uncommon since the 1960s, other forms have crowded in to take its place. Moreover, the religious film’s debt to secular genres has led to a wide variety of narrative and archetypal styles, so that if The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille, 1933), say, bears a close affinity to King Kong (1933), Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) resembles an assortment of non-Christian films that similarly expose the heroic protagonist to unbearable physical suffering, such as Mad Max, Braveheart, or the second Terminator film.
TA brief history of Hollywood’s relations with the religious film—and, to some extent, with the religious filmmaker—makes more obvious the continuities and breaks in the film industry’s own tradition of religious filmmaking. Religious outsiders, as I have argued in another context, have historically hoped for access to the bully pulpit of Hollywood. The history of denominational filmmaking is more complex than can be explored here, but it embraced mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, for example, who noticed declining membership in the 1910s and 1920s particularly among young people. Methodists consequently parlayed a history of the illustrated, improving lecture into a brief flirtation with feature filmmaking. Such attempts at religious filmmaking by religious groups remained by and large outside the mainstream and never spoke to Americans in large numbers. Despite the apparent weakness of such filmmaking, however, religious pressure groups were at intervals able to call Hollywood’s attention to the usefulness of the mainstream religious narrative with films such as DeMille’s The King of Kings, which was something of a milestone in church/film industry cooperation..
It appears, somewhat unexpectedly, that with the installation of the Catholic-influenced Production Code, big-budget religious spectaculars such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments (DeMille, 1923), which had been a recurrent feature of super-A picture production in Hollywood in the 1920s, disappeared. It is something of a cliché in histories of American religion to say that the Scopes trial (1925) caused evangelical Protestants to withdraw from the public sphere for twenty years or more. Whether or not that was the case, at more or less the same moment the leadership of a variety of mainline Protestant denominations was discredited because of its too close dealings with the Hays Office, which oversaw film industry self-regulation. Into the gap created by the absence of a Protestant presence capable of shaping film narratives or film institutions stepped a newly energized and visible Catholicism. This vigorous Catholicism not only provided a rationale for the Production Code, but also took narrative shape in the guise of the numerous sympathetic portraits of priests in films such as Boys Town (1938) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). Such films present the priest as rescuer of a broken society just as Father Daniel Lord, one of the authors of the Production Code, might be construed as the clerical savior of a broken film industry.
Hollywood revived the big-budget religious spectacular in the very changed economic and social climate of the late 1940s and 1950s, a span of fifteen or so years that brings us the surfeit of riches constituted by the second Ten Commandments (DeMille, 1956), the second Ben-Hur, The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953), Quo Vadis? (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951), and other similar works. The fit between the film industry’s changed economic structure and the usefulness of the biblical narrative structure has been well explored by film scholars, who see a host of reasons for the vigorous return to religious filmmaking (see Pauly and Sobchack). Causes range from the desire to find pre-sold narratives that will take advantage of the differences between film and television (such as the widescreen process introduced in The Robe), to a desire to continue to make films that will travel well to the hinterlands even as the Production Code’s authority was clearly in decline (a return to the 1920s formula of sexual explicitness contained within the Trojan horse of suitably pious subject matter), to a desire to use the Holy Land as the backdrop to Cold War allegories or to an exploration of the new post-1948 political realities in the Middle East. So dominant was the formula, in fact, that an unsigned editorial in The Christian Century eventually observed that these films, while often recommended from the pulpit, were serving the interests of the industry rather more than they served the interests of believers, commenting that “father has not seen as much to excite him elsewhere as he has at movies which the churches tell him to see” (“Bible” 1235). The later 1950s and 1960s didn’t see an abandonment of religious filmmaking, but the fit between the religious narrative and the film industry became less cozy as Hollywood adjusted to significant new institutional realities. Indeed, the Paramount Decree of 1948 set up the legal and economic structures that reduced barriers to entry into the film exhibition and distributions markets, which in turn began to undo the framework of the Production Code, permitting more foreign and more risqué films access to America’s screens. The film industry also gradually made its peace with television. One might argue that television became the natural home of the religious film from the 1960s onward, with annual revivals of films such as Ben-Hur (typically programmed for Easter Week) and productions such as Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, a made-for-television mini-series.
One of the striking aspects of current religious filmmaking is an alteration in the sociology of the filmmakers involved. No longer do we have, as the ur-religious film director, the gentlemanly if pathological DeMille, whose Episcopalianism was less important to him than the successful deployment of a formula of sex, sin, and redemption (or, as his niece Agnes DeMille pithily termed it, “women rolling around on bulls”). In the late 1990s, successful entrepreneurs from religious broadcasting began to move into larger-budget filmmaking; Crouch, whose father runs Trinity Broadcasting Network, is an important example here. Gibson, needless to say, was in 2004 the consummate Hollywood insider who elected to deploy his earnings from previous films in the making of The Passion of the Christ. Often, the creators of religious films today are committed evangelical Christians; Gibson represents something of an exception to this trend as a devout Catholic of a rather radical stripe, inasmuch as he and his father, a former priest, evidently adhere to a brand of Catholicism that rejects most liturgical and social reforms within the Church since the Council of Trent (Noxon 52). Notably, his Passion was nonetheless an extraordinary crossover success with evangelical Protestant audiences.
What appears to have changed in the past sixty years in the sociology of makers of Christian films, then, is that the filmmakers are now Christians first and filmmakers second. Nor is publicly proclaimed belief a bar to prominence in industries that previously had little time for committed Christians. In keeping with the changed demography of American Christians as explored by scholars such as D. Michael Lindsay, now when evangelicals acquire wealth and prestige, they no longer forsake the denominations they started in, in striking contrast to the practices of successful citizens of a hundred years or more ago, when achievement of social position urged its possessor to move on from, say, Assemblies of God to Presbyterianism as a mark of social rise. The major consequence of this change may be a decline in ecumenism in religious film narratives. Indeed, King of Kings was far more ecumenical in production and sentiment than is Gibson’s The Passion—rabbis, among other religious leaders, were consulted, and the tone of the film was as inclusive as possible. The two Ben-Hurs are similarly philo-Semitic, again in contrast with the divisive climate created by The Passion. Franklin Foer reports of the 1979 Warner Bros. release Jesus (Peter Sykes and John Krish) that, even though it was manufactured by an evangelical for use in converting unbelievers to Christianity, it tends to be presented via lecturers to audiences in ways that attempt to demonstrate the continuities or similarities between Christianity and the faiths practiced in the regions where converts are being sought.
Another way of characterizing the change in successful religious filmmaking is to suggest that the religious film hoping to reach a national audience can afford to be more narrowly denominational in its address than hitherto. Writing in 2007, Frances FitzGerald estimated that 75 million Americans, roughly 25 percent of the population, could be described as evangelical Protestants, a term that covers an admittedly wide spectrum of belief and practice, from Mennonites to Charismatic Episcopalians (31). Nonetheless, this 25 percent may represent a relatively cohesive set of taste cultures and expectations where certain kinds of popular religious narratives, such as adaptations of the Narnia series, are concerned. The economics of this market are clearly well worth serving, as Walden Media’s repeated investment in the Narnia franchise has demonstrated.
In an intensely American slippage between commercial behavior and electoral behavior, the very strength of the Christian market must be seen in the light of what I have elsewhere termed “the plebiscite at the box office.” I have argued of the 1920s and 1930s that outsiders wishing to colonize Hollywood tended to figure such efforts precisely in terms of an election whose results were to be measured by ticket sales. The history of subcultures vis-à-vis mainstream popular culture in the United States has been, to some extent, one of the market place as polling place, in which commercial clout translates to political power. In Crouch’s words, “I truly believe that once the Christian community understands that they have a vote by buying a ticket, they will become the country’s largest single market” (Peyser 45). It is, of course, precisely this electoral rhetoric that suggests that Christian cinema might serve as a national cinema on some level, partly because the assumption that the devout buy movie tickets for the right narrative has always been a means of identifying stories acceptable nearly everywhere within the nation, and partly because religion itself has been a means of disciplining the film industry in ways that assisted its project of maintaining a national audience. As Maltby observes, the Production Code, which substituted Catholic textual regulation for the Protestant preference for economic regulation of the industry, also obviated audience research, effectively serving as a contract with moral preceptors in communities all over the country, promising that Hollywood’s products would not, in the main, corrupt or debase. One might note further that Hollywood’s more pluralistic approaches to religion-infused narratives before the 1970s was itself a way of binding up the nation. Consider Boys Town again, which is detached from the specific doctrines of Catholic belief but attached to the person of the sympathetic priest. While it is obvious that Boys Town is the expression of the vision of a Catholic priest, Edward Flanagan, his biggest backer is a Jewish pawnbroker, and the film makes clear that the organization permits every boy to worship in his own fashion.
There is another sense in which the “national” label needs to be explored with reference to Hollywood’s Christian products. When film scholars use the term in conjunction with geographical or social designations such as Britain or Japan, they are signaling that they wish to organize a discussion of that cinema so as to explore long-term narrative, technological, or formal preoccupations or strategies, or the specific political economy of a particular film-producing nation as it might bear on what gets produced and how, or the institutional structures particular to the film industry in question. The American film industry may be the world’s most studied, but it is not necessarily discussed as a national cinema in a limited sense because its reach, historically, has been global. It was arguably the world’s only global cinema between the First World War and the 1960s, when a variety of Asian cinemas began to extend their range, at least economically, beyond their national borders. However defined, any national cinema is nonetheless capable of scooping up a story from a different “national” tradition and indigenizing it. If one wants an example of this productive cross-fertilization, one need look no further than the transcultural permutations of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), which was westernized in two senses as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Bollywoodized as Sholay (1975), among the highest-grossing Indian films, before returning, most recently in the American context, as A Bug’s Life (1998).
The prospect of examining film narratives from the Bible in a national/transnational context has been, to say the least, daunting because many national cinemas can obviously claim these narratives as part of their patrimony. But not all narratives, or perhaps better put, not all renditions of these familiar narratives, will be recognized as operating within the national vein. I have been fascinated for some time by the survival into the 1960s of somewhat creaky nineteenth-century chestnuts as a dominant feature of mainstream religious filmmaking, which tends to be stylistically conservative at the same time that it requires stories that exceed the confines of the canon of Biblical tales. So, for example, Ben-Hur, The Sign of the Cross, and Quo Vadis, which were published respectively in 1880, 1895, and 1896, become the models for what we might call the New Testament historical novel, in which fictional characters interact with Christ or with figures who knew Christ. This narrative strand is not narrowly national—consider the origins of each work’s author, again respectively: American (Lew Wallace), British (Wilson Barrett), and Polish (Henryk Sienkiewicz). Moreover, adaptations of these works begin to circulate in both Europe and the United States in the early twentieth century, when the film industry was without doubt at its most international. What then is particularly American about these narratives, beyond the establishment and persistence of an idiom that continued to be practiced in the United States well into the 1950s with the publication and filming of Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe (1942/1953)?
A provisional answer would suggest that these works came to represent what a New Testament historical narrative should be, to the exclusion of other kinds of storytelling. When the American public was offered narratives such as The Miracle or The Last Temptation of Christ that emerged out of a different tradition of filmmaking, one less dependent upon linear plot structure and the delineation of a character whose motivations were clearly articulated and sympathetic, religious audiences found the products blasphemous. Behind the rejection of these films may be a preference for a different kind of storytelling as much as a loathing for the specific kind of content they offered their viewers. In other words, these nineteenth-century chestnuts proved durable because they chimed with the story-telling traditions of the American cinema—one might even say, given the large number of adaptations of these foundational texts, that they are partly constitutive of that filmmaking tradition, at least where the problem of representing divinity is concerned. Walden Media’s contemporary success with the Narnia franchise may similarly mark the naturalization of a new set of religious texts with crossover appeal to evangelical audiences, and thus a new forum for the exploration of the functions of taste in this regard. Indeed, one of the questions I need to examine is the degree to which our understanding of the mainstream religious film is separable from spectacle and the spectacular. The Christian screenwriting group Act One also confronts this problem. They oppose the spectacle-driven approach of directors such as Crouch for something a little less blood-and-thunder. Another way of expressing their aims might be to suggest that they hope to create films that might evangelize in subtle ways, without dramatizing canonical events such as the Crucifixion or the Apocalypse in order to terrify the unbeliever.
This examination of Christian cinema as national cinema is poised between the perdurable association between God and Mammon in American culture on the one hand and the changes experienced in genre and social mores on the other. Of the God and Mammon nexus, Stephen Prothero observes that the interpenetration of Christianity and popular culture (which he dates to the Second Great Awakening) has meant that “Americans have been selling Jesus stuff since the early nineteenth century” (146). The excitement of this project stems from acknowledging the continuity of that relationship while also attempting to explain the significance of new developments. The Warren Center’s theme of “Representation and Social Change” is a very helpful backdrop against which to explore the problems I confront in this project. It has been exceptionally productive to talk to people outside the disciplines that I normally inhabit (film studies, English, and American studies) to see what related structural issues emerge in anthropology, history, and sociology. It has been particularly useful to discuss what constitutes evidence or which methods of analysis are most compelling across disciplines. Above all, conversation with the other Warren Center Fellows focuses my attention on the stakes of the project, meaning those questions that cluster around the issue of why scholars should care about the phenomenon of the religious film. Film still represents one of the most public arenas for struggle in popular culture, but it is more than a bellwether for the ebb and flow of the power of specific denominations in American life. It is also a set of rhetorics and business strategies that must shape and address a large and diverse public in order to have a presence in the marketplace. Addressing a public in order to have a presence in the marketplace has also been, as Randall Balmer notes, religion’s task in this country since the inception of the nation. The mutual colonization of popular culture and religion should be a productive site for investigating the consequences of religious storytelling for national life.
Balmer, Randall. Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America. Boston: Beacon P, 1999.
“The Bible Against Itself.” The Christian Century 28 October 1959: 1235-36. Print.
Couvares, Francis G. “Hollywood, Main Street, and the Church: Trying to Censor the Movies before the Production Code.” Movie Censorship and American Culture. Ed. Francis G. Couvares. Washington: Smithsonian, 1996. 129-58. Print.
DeMille, Agnes. Interview in Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film; The Autocrats. Written and directed by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow. Thames Television, 1980.
FitzGerald, Frances. “The Evangelical Surprise.” New York Review of Books 26 April 2007: 31-34.
Foer, Franklin. “The Passion’s Precedent: The Most Watched Film Ever?” New York Times 8 February 2004. Web. 4 November 2010.
Maltby, Richard. “The King of Kings and the Czar of All the Rushes: The Propriety of the Christ Story.” Screen 31.2 (Summer 1990): 188-213. Print.
Noxon, Christopher. “Is the Pope Catholic . . . Enough?” New York Times Magazine 9 March 2003: 50-53. Print.
Pauly, Thomas H. “The Way to Salvation: The Hollywood Blockbuster of the 1950s,” Prospects: An Annual Journal of American Cultural Studies 5 (1980): 467-87. Print.
Peyser, Marc. “God, Mammon, and ‘Bibleman.’” Newsweek 16 July 2001: 45-48. Print.
Prothero, Stephen. American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003. Print.
Sobchack, Vivian. “‘Surge and Splendor’: A Phenomenology of the Hollywood Historical Epic.” Representations 29 (Winter 1990): 24-49.Print.
Uricchio, William, and Roberta E. Pearson. Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. Print.
Professor Anne Morey is the 2010/2011 Warren Center Visiting Faculty Fellow from Texas A&M University.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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