Sunday, September 26, 2021

October: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Screen

October is coming, which is always a frightening time here at Movie Churches. There's no shortage of horror films that use clergy as characters and churches as settings. Often the villains in these films are minions of the devil: werewolves, vampires, and most certainly demons. This coming month, we won’t settle for the little guys. Instead, we're going to look at films that feature their boss, Satan himself.

There are plenty of films that feature demons and possession, the most famous being The Exorcist along with one of its sequels, The Exorcist III. We've also talked about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite, and The Nun. We’ve seen clergy confront the forces of darkness in Prince of Darkness, Pastorela, The Unholy, The Omen, The End of Days, The Calling, and The Way of the Wicked.

But this month, the films we’ll look at have the Top Hell Dog, the Infernal Kahuna, the Blazing Boss, yes, Big Bad Beelzebub. Just don’t expect to see the guy wearing red tights and carrying a pitchfork that they featured in Hellbound Train (though that would be awesome). In these films, the Archfiend is a little more subtle. But just a little.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Old School Sports

Knute Rockne, All American

The DVD box for Knute Rockne, All American features one of the supporting players very prominently while the title character is merely one of eight characters in a much smaller picture. 

This makes marketing sense, of course. Pat O’Brien, the actor who played the famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, is little remembered except by the aging fans who watch Turner Classic Movies. The actor who played George Gipp, the Notre Dame all-star football player, is better remembered. Not as an actor, particularly, but he was the 40th president of the United States. When people do remember Ronald Reagan as an actor, this role and the line, “win just one for the Gipper” tends to be what they think of. This film and Bedtime for Bonzo where he played papa to a chimpanzee.

If this were a blog on politicians in films that would all be very interesting. Since this is a blog about clergy and churches in movies, we really can’t spend time on Dutch and his ties to the Gipper. We won’t even focus much on the star of the film, Pat O’Brien, or his character’s gridiron innovations such as the forward pass and shifting lineman.

No, we must focus on the early 20th-century clergy at Notre Dame University, the ones who worked with Knute Rockne. We have to focus on the college president, Father John Callahan (Donald Crisp), who's portrayed as a faithful supporter of Rockne from his days as a student through his career as a coach when he became an American icon; and the professor of chemistry, Father Julius Nieuwland (Albert Bassermann), who encourages Knute to pursue a life of science.

Though Callahan and Nieuwland seem to be good men, the thing that struck me watching the film is the story wouldn’t be significantly different if the film was set at a secular school rather than a Catholic University. Father Callahan cherishes Rockne as a coach, as most any college president cherishes a winning coach. And Father Nieuwland appreciates a good student with a good mind and encourages him to pursue what he considers to be a more worthy goal than sports. But they perform their roles as president and professor pretty much as they would if they weren’t clergy.

Actually, that isn’t completely true. We do, at least, see Father Callahan perform a couple of priestly duties. When Knute’s first son is born, he performs the christening. And when Rockne dies, the priest gives the eulogy. But the priests rarely discuss matters of faith in the film, let alone matters specifically the Roman Catholic faith.

When Rockne is trying to decide between becoming a football coach and a career in chemistry, the two priests discuss his future. Father Callahan says, “Who can say for certain what a man was really born to be? That’s God’s will. Someday Knute will find his place in the world, and when he does, whether it be science or not, I have a feeling it will be the one he was meant to do.” So, sure, if you believe in God’s will, what happens must be it. But it’s a rather banal way to describe it.

Father Nieuwland has similarly vague things to say. He says, “Anyone who follows the truth in his heart doesn’t make a mistake.” He doesn’t seem familiar with the prophet Jeremiah who said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

Neither priest advises Knute to make his decisions a matter of prayer, which would be a fairly standard clerical thing to say. Nieuwland also says, “Anyone who helps mankind, helps God.” He seems to be making the point that football and chemistry can both be helpful to people and God likes that. The same can be said about almost any legal and moral profession, so it doesn’t provide much in the way of direction.

But again, for a film set in a Roman Catholic college, there isn’t much religion. I don’t think I remember hearing that fellow, Jesus, mentioned at all. God is mentioned as worth caring about, but I’m not sure where He would fall in the order of priorities between Him and football and education and America -- all lauded highly in the film.

Knute is always concerned with providing a good moral example to his team and encouraging his team, in turn, to set a good moral example for the kids out there. When a gambler comes to visit, Knute boots him out saying, “I won’t let gamblers ruin football like they ruined horse racing and baseball.”

Late in the film, Knute goes to Washington D.C. to testify when legislators debate about the dangers of football violence for the morality of the nation. Knute testifies that Father Callahan had considered moving to hockey, “but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for putting wooden clubs in the hands of Irishmen.”

The film does portray Knute’s early days in Voos, Norway, showing how Knute’s father took the family to America for the opportunity the United States offered. Knute was raised a Lutheran, but later in life converted to Roman Catholicism. I think that would be a very interesting bit of story to tell, but 1940’s Hollywood wouldn’t touch such a plotline with a ten-foot-pole.

God can be mentioned, but they can’t get too deep in the religious weeds -- which is fine for the film, directed by Lloyd Bacon and written by Robert Buckner (based on the writings of Knute’s widow). The film is even preserved in the U.S. government’s National Film Registry, but they didn’t give us much to write about here at Movie Churches, so the rather bland clergy in the film receive a respectable 3 out of 4 Steeple rating.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Is This How We Play the Game? More School Sports


If you were to listen to some of Twitter's great minds of the atheist variety, you'd think the Church has brought nothing of value to the world; only war, prejudice, and intolerance. I assume people who tweet such things have no respect for higher education because most of the major universities in the United States were founded as religious institutions. I’m writing, of course, about schools such as Princeton (Presbyterians), Yale (Puritans), and Harvard (yet other Puritans). (Harvard did just hire an atheist chaplain -- a choice the founders of the institution might find, um, questionable.)

And then there is Notre Dame, still very much a Roman Catholic institution and also one of the most respected universities in the country. It’s a school respected for its academics but loved for its football team. Going back to the days of Knute Rockne (widely regarded as one of the greatest coaches in football history which led to retellings of his story on the silver screen with Pat O’Brien and Ronald Reagan). The football team still has a tremendous following, and NBC has a contract to show all their games on their streaming service.

This love of Notre Dame football is the basis of Rudy -- and the foundation of the true story behind the film. It's the story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, who wanted to play Notre Dame football more than anything else in the world. This seemed rather unlikely as he was a small guy and a terrible student.

In the film we see Rudy (Sean Astin) in his high school years at a Catholic school in Joliet, Illinois, giving his all on the football field but not so much in the classroom. The priest who taught civics told Rudy the opposite lesson to that taught in almost all sports films. He told Rudy that dreamers don’t accomplish things in this life, but instead, “The secret to happiness is to be thankful for the things the good Lord has bestowed upon us. Not everyone was meant to go to college. You don’t have the grades to go to community college, much less Notre Dame.”

This priest takes a group of students to visit Notre Dame, but refuses to let Rudy on the bus. Since Rudy has no chance of attending the school, he believes Rudy is just coming to sightsee and gawk.

This might not be how priests are supposed to act in sports films, but I’m not going to be too hard on the guy. Our society, particularly the media, often looks down on those who pursue blue-collar jobs though these are honorable and vital jobs. The steel workers in Rudy’s family do important work. The advice the priest gives Rudy is not bad advice. But Rudy has something that keeps him following his dream even after this decent little speech from his high school priest.

Rudy doesn’t go to college out of high school. Instead, he works in a steel mill, but when his friend is killed in an accident at the steel mill, Rudy decides he has to give his dream a real shot. At the funeral, the priest implores God to spare Rudy's friend Peter from everlasting punishment. Rudy decides to think of this world and not just the world beyond, so he takes a bus to North Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame is one of the only football programs in the country that encourages walk-ons for the team.

Rudy arrives at the Notre Dame security post early in the morning, well before anything is open. Rudy says to the security guard, “There must be someone I can talk to.” The guard says, “You can always talk to a priest.” (That kind of line almost guarantees a bonus Steeple in our Movie Churches ratings.)

Rudy finds Father Cavenaugh (Robert Prosky), a priest on the campus. When Rudy tells the priest about being there to follow his dream, the priest thinks Rudy wants to be a priest. He is surprised to learn Rudy wants to be a football player. Rudy tells the priest his story, including his poor academic record.

The priest can’t get Rudy into the university, but he tells Rudy, “I can get you one semester, at a junior college, Holy Cross. If you get the grades there, you can go one more semester. Then you might get a chance to go to Notre Dame.” It’s a small chance, but good for the priest for offering it. Rudy takes full advantage of it.

At Holy Cross, Rudy takes a religious studies class where he talks about the inspiration of Scripture with a very low view of the doctrine of inerrancy. A classmate, D-Bob (Jon Favreau), offers to help Rudy with his studies. He tells Rudy that with the priest teaching that class, “all you need to remember is ‘sitz im leben’ and you’ll be good.”

Rudy does well at Holy Cross but still worries about getting into Notre Dame. He goes to one of the university’s chapels to pray, and Father Cavenaugh finds him there and asks if Rudy is “taking [his] appeal to a higher court.” 

Rudy asks the priest if he can help him get in. The priest responds, “Son, in thirty-five years of religious study, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts; there is a God, and I’m not Him.”

Rudy gets in at Notre Dame -- and gets on the football team. (Otherwise there would obviously not be a movie). We see a couple more priests in the film, one on the sidelines and another praying with the team before a game.

The priests all come off pretty well, as does the school -- which isn't surprising when one considers that this was the first film that Notre Dame permitted to be filmed on campus since Knute Rockne, All American in 1940. Therefore, the priests in this film, for their good work of pursuing higher education and meaningful life, earn our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

This Isn't How We Play the Game: School Sports Month Continues!

The Way Back

The Way Back came out at a very interesting time. Note the date on the poster pictured here. “March 6 Only in theaters.” And yes, that was in 2020. This film opened just shortly before most movie theaters in the United States closed, so it's probably the movie a lot of people saw on their most recent trip to a movie theater.

The night before the full lockdown in Washington State, we went to Rodeo Drive-in in Bremerton. The Way Back was one of our options, but instead, we watched Pixar’s Onward

I did see this film in 2020, on DVD, and last week I checked it out of the library to watch it again.

The Way Back must have been a very personal film for Ben Affleck, though his only hat was that of star. Brad Ingelsby wrote the screenplay and Gavin O’Connor directed, but the story of an alcoholic forced to deal with his problem reflects the actor/writer/director’s public battle with the bottle.

The film is the story of Jack Cunningham, an ironworker who was a high school basketball star. When the basketball coach at Bishop Hayes Roman Catholic High School has a heart attack, the school’s principal, Father Edward Divine (John Aylward), calls Jack and asks him to coach the team. He leaves a message on Jack’s machine (leaving a phone number that doesn’t include "555" and closing his message with, “God bless.”) Jack hesitates but eventually agrees.

Jack's not alone when he works with the team. A math teacher (Al Madrigal as Dan) serves as assistant coach and Father Mark Whelan (Jeremy Radin) is the Team Chaplain. When the chaplain asks Jack how he feels about taking on the job, Jack tells the chaplain, “F***, I’m as nervous as s***.” 

Whelan is quite obviously taken aback.

Jack goes into Gene-Hackman-in-Hoosiers mode and turns a last-place team into a real competitor. He does the old “cutting the cocky star player from the team when he doesn’t follow the rules” routine and works the kids hard, but he also swears like a, well, ironworker. During a game when the team gets sloppy, Cunningham yells at them to “Reach into their shorts to see if they have a pair. Because you’re playing like a bunch of pu****s!” accompanied by a number of F-Bombs.

Chaplain Whelan watches this display aghast. On the bus ride after the game, the chaplain tries to have a heart-to-heart with the coach. Chaplain says, “Jack, I just wanted to have a little chat with you about something that is on my mind. I don’t know if you recall from your days as a student that we have a Code of Conduct at Hayes, and part of that code of conduct includes the use of appropriate language. I know you’re trying to motivate the team but I wonder if there isn’t a different way.”

“So you’d like me to be more Christlike from the bench?” Jack responds.

“Our job isn’t just to win basketball games but also to develop men of integrity and faith. I’d like you to give it some thought,” the priest answers.

Jack tells the priest that there are so many problems in the world he has a hard time believing God cares about the language they use. The priest tells him that as Christians we integrate faith into our lives, so yes, He cares.

Now I understand that in the real world coaches often do use colorful language. My brother had quite the stories about his basketball coach at dear old Piner High. But using F-bombs to insult the officials isn’t going to go over well in any league or level of play. And a religious school should hold its staff to a higher level. If anything, I thought the priest was a bit wimpy in holding Jack accountable. Jack is a lot tougher in holding his players accountable.

But, of course, Jack does have a bigger problem than swearing. He’s still drinking.

It seems quite odd that the rival coaches are aware of Jack’s drinking problem but the priests who hired him weren't. A rival coach mocks Jack for hanging out at the bars. It does seem the school should have done a bit of research and reference checks.

When his assistant coach tells Jack that he found empty beer cans in the coach’s office, Jack first snaps at him for snooping in his office and then comes up with a lame excuse for the cans. But Jack drinks more as the season schedule becomes tougher and family pressures rise. After winning the big game that secures a spot in the playoffs, Jack comes into practice drunk.

Father Divine goes to Jack with the assistant coach and fires Jack. The priest says, “Our decision is final, we have a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol.” 

Jack snarls back at the priest and the assistant coach. Jack goes on another bender and winds up with a DUI in jail. But the team plays on.

The chaplain prays with the team before they play their first playoff game (the first time Bishop Hayes goes to the playoffs since Jack was a player). He prays not for victory, but for the boys to play their best. Before they go out, the team captain drops an F-bomb.

In my job, I work with men in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, so I appreciate employers giving such men a chance. The priests of the school were irresponsible in hiring Jack, but when they recognize their mistake, they deal with it. That’s why  I give Fathers Divine and Whelan a three of four steeple rating.

And on another note, something outside of the film: I read recently that though he previously described himself as an agnostic, Affleck has been attending a Methodist Church with his family. He said, “Faith has served me well in my recovery as an alcoholic.” We at Movie Churches wish Mr. Affleck ongoing success in his recovery.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Taking One for the Team: School Sports Month!

Trouble Along the Way

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation is a book that has been stirring up some waves in the church these days. The book is a critique of views of masculinity in the American Evangelical Church of the 20th and 21st centuries -- all quite interesting stuff -- but it has little to do with today’s film because as it turns out, John Wayne isn’t in an evangelical church but rather in a small Roman Catholic college.

And some of Wayne’s behavior in Trouble Along the Way (1953) is, well, troublesome. I had high hopes for this film because it starred not only Wayne but also the delightful Donna Reed and was directed by Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood, White Christmas, and Casablanca). 

One of the posters for the film has this line, “That All-Man Quiet Man has a new kind of dame to tame!” The aforementioned “dame” is Donna Reed, who comes across a bit like the librarian Mary (if George Bailey had never been born).

She plays Alice Singleton, a social worker investigating football coach Steve Williams (Wayne) for his fitness as a parent. Steve’s wife left Steve and their daughter Carol (Sherry Jackson) when the girl was a baby (she’s 11 when the film opens). Williams is an often-fired football coach who lives in an apartment over a bar. We clearly see that Miss (officer of the court) Singleton's concerns about Williams’ parenting are understandable.

So what does Williams do as Singleton investigates the case? He drunkenly bursts into her office, mansplains to her about why she’s single, and forces her into an embrace and kiss. This is stupid and unacceptable on any number of levels. But since he’s the movie star, this is romantic of course.

Fortunately, this is Movie Churches and we aren’t discussing the Duke in this film. We get to talk about the priest who hires him, Charles Coburn as Father Charles Burke. The priest is the President of St. Anthony’s College. The school is in financial trouble because Burke doesn’t take tuition from over eighty percent of his students. He is very proud of this monetary recklessness.

Not surprisingly, his superiors are looking to close the school because it is $170,000 in debt. Burke tells them, “When I take a vow of poverty, I go all the way.” (Of course, that isn’t how a vow of poverty works. It’s like someone said they were taking a vow of poverty because they were running up debt on a credit card.)

Word gets to the students of the college that the school will soon close, so they gather under his window and sing Auld Lang Syne. The priests who compose the faculty are quite concerned, of course. But he assures them they shouldn’t be afraid because it is only a matter of money, so why be fearful?

Burke asks the priests if they have a Bible and they look about furiously for one. Burke says, “Do you have a Bible in the house or do you have to go to a hotel?” (An admittedly funny line.) Burke then reads Deuteronomy 32:15 but what he reads sounded nothing like the verse when I looked it up. I don’t know what is worse about this Catholic College, that they have so few Bibles or that the President of the school seems ignorant of the Scriptures.

So Burke comes up with a brilliant scheme to save the school. He'll start a football program that will raise money to save the school. This isn’t much worse than fundraising schemes we’ve seen in other church films, such as writing a hit song or betting on horse races. But it’s still a crapshoot and pretty stupid.

Burke hires Williams, a coach with a shady reputation, and gives him a free hand to run the football program. Williams sees an opportunity to make some money and brings some coach friends to come to work with him. He will let the school keep all the gate receipts, but he and his friends will make money selling parking, programs, and concessions.

Of course, they need a winning team to make this work, so Williams recruits players who have played professionally and others who don’t meet the college’s academic standards. But the shady practices aren’t Williams’ alone. Burke puts pressure on the presidents of other Catholic schools such as Notre Dame to play against them. This seems to be not in line with the regular collegiate practices.

It all works for a while, and St. Anthony’s makes money. Williams and his friends make money, too, but his ex-wife notifies the press about Williams’ unscrupulous practices in order to gain custody of their daughter. It becomes quite the scandal in the press.

Burke fires Williams and professes shock, shock! that unethical practices took place in the college’s football program. The only reason he wouldn’t know the problems of the program he began is because he was a fool or he kept himself willingly ignorant. This is not unlike many college presidents in the NCAA. But as Burke says, “You won by going against the very principles we teach!”

After firing Williams, Burke does apologize to him for putting him in a position where the only possible way to succeed was to cheat.

So Burke agrees to resign from his presidency when his higher-ups say they will save the school once it is free of his incompetent leadership. Though John Wayne doesn’t corrupt the evangelical church in this film, he does corrupt college football. But really, Father Burke plays a part in the corrupting as well, earning a sad Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.