Friday, August 27, 2021

Movie Churches is confused: Is this old or new?

Hail Caesar

I’ve watched the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar a number of times, but this time I watched it after watching some of the Biblical epics satirized in the film, particularly Quo Vadis and The Robe. Among other things, Hail Caesar presents a compelling argument for why such films are so very bland.

The film follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer whose job is to keep the worst antics of the studio’s stars out of the newspapers and to ensure that the studio’s releases don’t offend the “average American.”

The film opens in a church, with Eddie in the confessional booth. Eddie is a frequent occupant of the confessional, concerned about his smoking habit and white lies to his wife but showing very little concern for the lies and crimes that are a part of his job.

His current task is to make sure the studio’s new Biblical epic, Hail Caesar, is not offensive to religious audiences. As a Catholic, Mannix naturally thinks of bringing in a priest but adds, “Let’s also invite a Rabbi and a Protestant padre of some kind.” Which he does, along with an Orthodox priest.

Mannix addresses the clergymen (and they are all men): “We don’t want to send it to market except in the certainty that it will not offend any reasonable American, regardless of faith or creed. Now that 's where you come in. You’ve read the script; I wanna know if the theological elements of the story are up to snuff.”

The response of the Eastern Orthodox priest (Aramazd Stepanian) is not really to the point, “I thought the chariot scene was fakey. How is he going to jump from one chariot to the other, going full speed?”

Mannix is trying to sell the men on the power of movies to educate and exhort people (“Yes, and entertainment,” he adds with a winning smile) and particularly on this production which he insists will be the best telling ever of the story of Jesus. 

Again, the Orthodox priest answers, “Perhaps, sir, you are forgetting the telling in the Holy Bible.” 

Eddie answers, “You’re quite right, Patriarch. The Bible, of course, is terrific.” (High praise indeed.)

Eventually, Eddie asks, “As for the religious aspect, does the depiction of Jesus Christ cut the mustard?”

The Catholic priest (Robert Pike Daniel) answers, “Well, the nature of Christ is not quite as simple as your photoplay would have it.”

“How so, Father?” Eddie asks.

“It’s not the case, simply, that Christ is God or God Christ…” The priest responds.

“You can say that again,” explodes the rabbi (Robert Picardo), “The Nazarene was not God!”

“He was not not God,” the Orthodox priest interjects.

“He was a man!” the rabbi insists.

“Part God,” adds the Protestant (Allan Havey).

“No, sir!” answers the rabbi.

“Rabbi, all of us have a little bit of God in us, don’t we?” asks Eddie, seeking common ground.

When the Catholic priest insists the important thing is to show that Jesus is the Son of God, the rabbi responds that God doesn’t have children. The priest answers, “God has children.”

The rabbi gets sarcastic, “What? And a dog? A collie, maybe? God doesn’t have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry.” 

The Catholic priest answers, “No! No! He used to be angry!” 

The rabbi asks, “What? He got over it?”

The Protestant butts in, “You worship the God of another age!” 

“Who has no love!” adds the priest. 

“Not true,” the rabbi responds, “He likes Jews.”

(I must interrupt here to say the theology of the Catholic priest and Protestant minister is going to dock them some Steeples in our clergy rating. Christianity actually teaches that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New are one and the same.)

The Catholic priest makes another shot at explaining Jesus to Eddie saying, “It’s the foundation of our belief that Christ is most properly referred to as the Son of God. It’s the Son of God who takes the sins of the world upon Himself, so that the rest of God’s children, we imperfect beings, through faith, may enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Not a bad little Gospel presentation.)

Eddie asks, “So, God is...split?”

“Yes! And no,” says the Catholic priest.

“There is unity in division,” says the Orthodox Priest.

“And division in unity,” says the Protestant.

“I’m not sure I follow, padre,” says Mannix.

“Young man, you don’t follow for a very simple reason,” the rabbi tells him, “These men are screwballs.”

Now I wouldn’t call these men screwballs, but for Christian clergymen, they seem to have a pretty poor understanding of Christology, or at best aren’t very good at explaining who Jesus is. Orthodox Christianity teaches Jesus was and is fully God and fully Man. None of the Christian clergymen expressed this doctrine.

Perhaps the real problem was the Christian clergymen going along with the idea of a presentation of the Gospel as uncontroversial. According to the Apostle Paul, the Gospel has always been a scandal, a stumbling block for the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles.

To tell a story of the Gospel in a way that is uncontroversial neuters the story and makes it rather dull. But Eddie’s concern is making money for the studio and protecting the business. Even though his Catholic faith is important to him, he doesn’t consider staying true to the Gospel as part of his job.

But that is one of the most endearing things about Eddie, his devotion to his work. Throughout the film, he considers leaving the studio and taking a more cushy and financially lucrative job in the aerospace industry, but a talk with his priest (as far as we can tell, not the priest in the focus group) reminds him that his job makes people happy and God wants people to be happy. So he stays at the studio because he believes it is what God has called him to do.

So while the presentation of the clergy at the studio meeting is less than impressive (though quite funny), the care that Eddie receives from his priest keeps the Movie Churches rating for the church and the clergy in the film at a rather respectable Three Steeples.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Movie Churches Goes Yet Older School

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

These last three weeks we at Movie Churches have been looking at films set in Rome during the early days of the Christian church. Based on two different novels and a play, each film has pretty much the same plot. A Roman soldier falls in love with a woman and they are separated by their faiths. The major difference is that in Quo Vadis and The Sign of the Cross, a pagan soldier falls for a Christian woman, whereas in The Robe a Christian Roman soldier falls in love with a pagan woman. All of the films portray these couples facing persecution and martyrdom from Rome.

Today’s film, The Sign of the Cross (1932), was made a couple of decades before Quo Vadis (1951) and The Robe (1953), so did those films from the fifties steal from the film in the thirties? Perhaps, but it's also worth noting that The Sign of the Cross was based on a play written in 1895, while Quo Vadis was based on a novel that came out in 1896. (The Robe was based on a novel that came out in 1942.) 

Portions of the Quo Vadis novel were released earlier than The Sign of the Cross play opened, so it's hard to tell who stole from whom -- if anyone did. What I wonder is why couldn’t anyone come up with a different story?

Like Quo Vadis, The Sign of the Cross is set in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero. Both films focus on Nero’s persecution of Christians, who he blames for the burning of the city. In this film, Fredric March plays the Roman prefect Marcus Superbus (as opposed to Taylor’s Roman prefect Marcus Vinicius in Quo Vadis or Burton’s Roman tribune Marcellus Gallio in The Robe. ‘M’ names were popular in the empire.)

March was a great actor. The year before this film came out, he gave a fabulous performance in the lead roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this film, his performance is pure ham. On occasion, he emotes straight at the camera.

Mercia, the Christian woman that Marcus falls for, is played by Elissa Landi, and she's a rather bland character. Marcus risks his career to save her. He later walks with her into martyrdom (just as, two decades later, Jean Simmons would follow Richard Burton into martyrdom). I frankly just don’t understand what is so compelling about this woman, especially when the alternative is Empress Poppaea as played by the enchanting Claudette Colbert.

One way this film differs from the two epics from the 1950s is that those films feature famed Biblical characters, Peter and Paul. This film is, sadly, without any apostles. The closest we get is a character named Titus, a friend of the Apostle Paul, who brings a message from Paul to the church in Rome. It isn’t clear whether this Titus is the same Titus who received the epistle included in the New Testament, but he’s a swell guy.

The Sign of the Cross differs from the previous two epics in other ways. It was made in 1932, so it's not surprising that it was black and white rather than color, and it was made before the Hays Code came into effect. It would have been a different film if it had been made two years later.

Some have accused director Cecil B. DeMille of using the trappings of a Biblical epic to insert racy material into the picture --  of portraying much more sin by following up with some redemption. Throughout the film scantily clad men and women are onscreen, but there are two scenes that would never have been made under Hays. In one scene the Empress takes a milk bath. It is evident that Colbert is indeed naked and audiences watched the screen carefully looking for naughty bits. (Colbert does share the milk with a couple of friendly felines who drink from the side of the tub.) She also invites another woman to join her in the giant pool of milk, and we see the other woman's clothes drop to the side of the tub.

The other notorious scene takes place at a party at Marcus’ home. (The party isn’t called an orgy, but that is the implication). Marcus is frustrated that Mercia doesn’t join in the merriment, so he instructs one of his guests, Ancaria -- evidently a former lover -- to do the Dance of the Naked Moon. (The actress who plays Ancaria is played by an actress with the intriguing name of “Joyzelle.”) The dance has a clearly lesbian focus, with Ancaria caressing the clearly horrified Mercia. This scene was cut when the film was re-released in 1938, along with some of the gladiatorial fighting and scenes of naked women being attacked by crocodiles and gorillas. (These scenes wouldn’t be restored until the film’s DVD release over a half-century later.)

Really, though, our concern here is how is the church presented?

The church is enduring persecution. They meet secretly, signaling to each other by making the sign of the cross in the sand (this is not exactly James Bond-level spycraft) whispering that the meeting will be “at the grove, the Cresian Bridge.”

They try to sing quietly so as not to draw attention (which puzzles a child at the service who wants to sing loudly). Titus brings words of comfort from Paul, but he claims not to be a teacher himself. 

Unbeknownst to the worshipers, the Romans have learned where they are meeting and prepare an attack as the service goes on. (They learned the location by torturing Mercia’s foster brother, Stephan.)

The Romans attack the worshiping Christians with bows and arrows in a rather spectacular scene. Later,  DeMille presents the slaughter of the Christians in the Coliseum as a sporting event, with spectators complaining about their seats.* 

Though many of them seem reluctant or afraid, the Christians all choose to be obedient to Christ and follow Him, even though this leads to their deaths. Mercia is even given a chance to have her life spared if she will deny Christ, and she refuses. So though the Christians are a rather dull bunch, their faithfulness means they earn our highest rating of four steeples.

*A man and woman making their way to their seats have this interchange:
    Wife: “We can’t see anything from this high.” 
    Husband: “Well, the gallery seats were good enough before we were married.” 
    Wife: “We were interested in each other then.”

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Movie Churches Goes Really, REALLY Old School: Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis

Along with the box office and Academy Awards love when the blockbuster Titanic came out, some complained that the film focussed on the love story of pauper Jack and pampered Rose while 1,500 lives were lost in the background. Perhaps James Cameron had Quo Vadis in mind as he wrote the script. While the 1951 epic is ostensibly about the burning of Rome and the persecution of the early Church, it's really about the love between Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), a Roman military commander, and Lygia (Deborah Kerr), a Christian captive, daughter of a foreign ruler.

For me, Titanic holds up well, even if the romance is a tad sappy. The replication of the ship's disastrous sinking is spectacular. 

Perhaps people back in the early 1950s found Rome's burning in the film breathtaking, but I found the effects to be underwhelming -- unlike the burning of Atlanta sequence in1939’s Gone With the Wind which still has quite an impact. The lions menacing the Christians in the arena is nearly comical because of the distance kept between the participants.

Mervyn LeRoy was a good director with actors, and he made classics such as Little Caesar and Mister Roberts. Though LeRoy gets at least two wonderful performances (from Peter Ustinov as Nero and Leo Genn as the emperor’s chief counselor, Petronius), Cameron is the master of spectacle as Titanic (and even intellectually empty films such as Avatar) makes clear. Sure, some very good matte paintings show gorgeous vistas and amazing crowd scenes in Quo Vadis, but the film's more than a bit of a slog at nearly three hours long.

Fortunately, here at Movie Churches, we're not here to judge films, but rather the clergy and churches in films, and this film features the early Church in Rome along with some rather notable clergy: the Apostles Peter and Paul.

Lygia is the central Christian figure in the film. Though a captured enemy of Rome, the daughter of a barbarian king, she is raised as the foster daughter of Roman General Aulus Plautius (Felix Aylmer). Plautius is an actual historical figure, but there is not strong evidence that he was a Christian as he is in this story (though history indicates his wife may have been).  The family is good friends with that famed traveling philosophy teacher, Paul of Tarsus. At least, that’s how Plautius introduces the Apostle to Marcellus. Plautius is afraid to refer to Paul as a Christian evangelist.

In the film, Paul is visiting the family shortly after a visit to Antioch and Corinth, a free traveler. But since this film is said to take place thirty years after Jesus’ death, approximately 63 AD, my understanding is that the historical Paul would be imprisoned -- but perhaps not. On the other hand, tradition does claim that the Apostle Peter was crucified upside down by the Romans following the city fires as depicted in the film.

Really, if you are going to have clergy in a film, it’s hard to do better than these two apostles, but the characters in the film have significantly different personalities from their presentation in the New Testament. 

We first meet the film's Paul at General Plautius' home. While Marcellus and his friend are visiting him,  Plautius introduces Paul as a “teacher of philosophy” rather than as a disciple of Jesus. Paul goes along with this, saying, “I guess you could call me that.” Later when Paul and Plautius discuss this deception, Paul admits sometimes “strategy is necessary.” He says of Marcellus and his friend, “They are Rome. If we could teach them, we could teach the world.” 

This doesn’t sound much like the Paul who wrote, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

When Lygia talks about her interest in Marcellus, Paul doesn’t seem at all concerned about a follower of Jesus marrying a worshiper of Rome's power. This Paul doesn’t seem like the man who wrote, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?” But it ends up being Marcellus who doesn’t want to share his wife with Jesus rather than Christians worried about Lygia sharing her husband with Roman gods.

The most peculiar thing about the film's presentation of Paul is his attitude toward Peter. He's quite the fanboy. Paul excitedly introduces Peter as someone who was in the presence of Jesus. One gets the feeling he never met Peter before, but the Bible represents them as having a long relationship going back to when Paul became a Christian. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul in Galatia describes confronting Peter for compromising the faith. In his writings, Paul repeatedly tells about having seen the resurrected Christ himself, and is firm in his claim to having been called as an apostle. 

But in the film, Peter comes to Rome to serve the Church with Paul. Together, they lead a worship service, and Peter tells the church the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This Peter is a much more mellow preacher than the Peter of Acts 2, who blames the crowd for killing Christ. Paul conducts a baptismal service, pouring water from a cup on people’s heads rather than immersing them. At first, I wondered if the filmmakers worried about offending Baptists in the audience, but then I realized Baptists back in the 1950s weren’t going to the movies. 

Or rather, Baptists in the 1950s weren’t admitting they were going to movies.

For some reason, Peter is much older than Paul in the film. And Paul seems much more stereotypically Jewish than Peter. But both are portrayed as good men who love their Lord Jesus and desire to serve His Church.

And the Church comes off rather well in the film, too. They preach peace and tolerance in opposition to the tyranny of the emperor Nero. They are willing to be burned, thrown to the lions, or crucified rather than deny their Lord Jesus. So while I found the film to be rather a snooze, the church in the film certainly earns the highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Movie Churches goes REALLY Old School

The Robe (
As we've mentioned a number of times before, we don’t do many Biblical films here at Movie Churches because films such as the 1956 Ten Commandments or any of the versions of Ben Hur don’t have much in the way of church or clergy. (The 1923 version of The Ten Commandments is another story.) Occasionally, though, Sword and Sandal epics set in early AD have one or both of them. One such film is The Robe.

Based on the Reverend Lloyd Douglas’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Robe tells the story of a Roman military tribune, Marcellus (Richard Burton), who participates in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and goes on to become His follower in the early church. Jesus had worn the article of clothing of the title, but Marcellus won it in a game of chance in the shadow of the Cross. The robe plays a role in the tribune’s journey of faith, as does his Christian slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), and his childhood sweetheart, Diana (Jean Simmons).

The Rev. Douglas seems to have written the novel as a means of sharing his Lutheran faith. 

Producer Frank Ross saw the property's moneymaking potential before the book was published and bought the rights to the novel. He spent a decade bringing it to the screen, and it made him a very wealthy man. 

Screenwriter Albert Maltz saw in the story an opportunity to present his Marxist vision of revolt. Maltz was one of the famed Hollywood Ten who refused to give names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (his name was removed from the credits and not returned for decades). 

It was directed by Henry Koster, a Jew who fled Germany in 1932, who stressed the story’s theme of tolerance.

But when (and if) the film is remembered these days among cineasts, it is chiefly noted for being the first feature film presented in Cinemascope. In the early 1950s, movie studios were in an existential financial struggle with the upstart television industry. Instead of boxy images, Cinemascope's widescreen provided a new vision for storytelling. In an introduction to the DVD version of the film we watched, Martin Scorsese marvels about the movie screen opening wider and wider on his first viewing of the film.

Of course, what we care about here is the presentation of the church and its leadership. Both come out quite positively in the film.

After Demetrius escapes, Marcellus searches for him in the small town of Cana (yes, the place where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding). He encounters a weaver named Justus (Dean Jagger), a leader of the local church. Justus encourages all the believers to treat the stranger from Rome with generous hospitality. Marcellus attends a worship service that seems to consist entirely of one song about the death and resurrection of Jesus sung by Miriam, a paralytic woman who knew Jesus while He was on earth. 

Marcellus asks the woman why Jesus didn’t heal her and she responds that Jesus healed her spirit, giving her love, joy, and hope in place of bitterness and anger. (Though I certainly believe that God allows people to live with illness, such as Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”, I know of no instance in the Gospels where Jesus didn’t perform physical healing when there was an opportunity to do so.)

Marcellus does eventually find Demetrius, who wins the Roman over to the Christian faith. In fact, Marcellus agrees to join his former slave and Simon, the Big Fisherman (yes, that Simon, the Apostle Peter) on a mission to spread the Gospel of Jesus. Marcellus is betrayed by a former companion, and the Romans capture Demetrius. The former slave is imprisoned and tortured. 

When such things happened in the New Testament account, the Church would gather to worship. On occasion, men like Peter and Paul were supernaturally rescued. At times they weren’t. But in this story, Marcellus plans and executes a bold and violent rescue of his friend. It makes for a good action sequence but raises issues of submission to authority and peaceful non-violence that are not mentioned in any way by the men that join Marcellus on his raid.

Though Demetrius is rescued, he is near death. The Apostle Peter (Michael Rennie) is brought in to care for their friend. Peter’s healing powers don’t live up to their full potential as seen in the book of Acts, though. In Acts 3, a lame man is immediately able to jump to his feet upon the word of Peter. In Acts 9, a good woman returns from death to life at Peter's command. The best Peter can do here is make Demetrius not quite so sick and he still needs to be carried about on a stretcher while he heals. (And he does heal. He becomes well enough to star in a sequel to this film the very next year, Demetrius and the Gladiators.)

The example of love, compassion, tolerance, and humility shown by the community of believers changes not just Marcellus's heart, but also his beloved Diane. While assisting Demetrius to escape from Roman authorities, Marcellus turns himself in to buy time for his friend. At his trial before the Emperor, Caligula (Jay Robinson), the tribune claims that he never flagged in his loyalty to Rome (though he did just break a Roman prisoner free) but he also will never deny Christ. He is sentenced to death. And Diana asks to go with him to death. (Though I wasn’t really sure whether this was due to love for the teachings of Jesus or for her man.)

Though The Robe won only two of the five Oscars it was nominated for (wins for Costumes and Art & Set Direction but not for Best Picture, Actor, or Cinematography) but I’m sure the film's makers would be thrilled to know that the Church and its Leaders earned the highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.