Thursday, June 30, 2022

Crime Month: Sometimes, they're too pretty to be bad, right?

Crime Month: Live by Night (2016)

I always find it interesting how filmmakers attempt to make criminals the heroes of their films. In The Godfather films, the police are corrupt and the Corleones are surrounded with worse gangsters so they don’t look so bad. Often in films, we're supposed to sympathize with crooks who have a personal code, like Robert DeNiro’s thief in Heat. Or, sometimes, in films like Bonnie and Clyde, the killers are just so darn pretty the filmmakers want us to overlook their crimes.

In 2016’s Live By Night, we're offered several ways to believe Ben Affleck’s Joe Coughlin is a sympathetic character -- and it is Affleck’s character. He not only plays the role, he directed the film and wrote the screenplay based on Dennis Lehane’s novel. Though Joe is a thief and a killer, Ben wants to be sure we feel for the guy.

To start, Joe serves in World War I and is convinced of the idiocy of that war, especially in the way that world leaders kill people with impunity. Joe comes to believe there's no reason to respect government authority. He says, “The rules we lived by were lies and weren’t obeyed by those who made them.” (This isn’t a new argument for lawlessness in movies. by the way. It was made more subtly in the great 1939 gangster film The Roaring Twenties for James Cagney.) Joe doesn’t want to bow to any authority, even criminal authority, saying, “I don’t wanna be a gangster. Stopped kissing rings a long time ago.”

Joe falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the mistress of crime boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). When blackmailed to keep the affair secret, Joe refuse to pay and instead decides to flee to California from Boston, pulling one last heist to finance the trip. Instead, Joe is caught and sent to prison for three years. 

When he gets out, Joe swears vengeance on White and signs up to work for another crime boss, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), in order to have the resources to seek revenge.

Joe is sent to Florida, where the real machinations to make the audience root for him start: he opposes the Ku Klux Klan. The local sheriff’s brother-in-law, R. D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), is a member of the KKK and he tells Joe he doesn’t like “Papists.” Joe tells him he hasn’t been inside a Roman Catholic Church for years, but this doesn’t matter to Pruitt, who becomes even more hateful when he learns Joe is dating a black Cuban woman. Pruitt starts a campaign of terror, bombing and shooting up Joe’s casinos.

Affleck was safe in assuming that audiences would cheer his character's vengeful campaign against the Klan after Joe is threatened for being a “N” lover. He drives the Klan out of the city of Tampa and gains great political leverage -- enough that he seems sure to be able to build his casinos without opposition.

But opposition comes from a very unexpected source.

Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) considers going after Joe, so Joe takes extreme measures. Figgis’s daughter, Loretta (Dakota Fanning), had gone to Hollywood to be a star. Instead, she got hooked on heroin and was photographed in compromising positions. Joe showed the Sheriff those photographs and told the Sheriff his daughter would come home safely, but only if he (Joe) was treated well. The film makes it clear Joe didn’t harm Loretta in any way, and he feels really bad about using her for blackmail purposes, but a guy’s got to do what a guy’s got to do.

Loretta comes back to Tampa a changed woman. She becomes an evangelist, not hiding, but building her ministry upon her recent sordid experiences. She claims she is newly married, to Jesus Christ. She preaches against sin, particularly the sin of gambling. “Gambling destroys the spirit of man. The gambler fritters away the gifts of God.”

Joe attends one of her crusades and is not pleased about these rants against games of chance when he is looking to build a casino. He arranges a discussion with Loretta after one of her meetings. He asks her whether she could tone down the anti-gambling rhetoric and promises a generous donation if she does so.

Loretta tells Joe her father had told her there was good in him, but that his offer of a bribe makes her doubt. She tells him, “You profit through the evil addictions of others… But you can free yourself of that evil.” It's not something Joe wants to do.

He again asks her to stop speaking about gambling, but she responds, “I will, if God rewrites the Bible to say gambling is not a sin.” There really isn’t anything in the Bible that specifically condemns gambling. You could take Bible passages that talk about the wise use of money and conclude that gambling isn’t wise, but it is never directly condemned in Scripture.

Loretta’s preaching has an impact.  Local politicians refuse to give permission for Joe’s casino. Joe knows his boss would want him to come down hard on Loretta, but he doesn’t have it in him.

Loretta asks again to meet with Joe, and she tells him that she wonders whether the things she preached were true. Joe tells her it was her crusade that killed his casino, and she takes some comfort in that. She tells him, “I don’t know if there is a God. I hope there is. And I hope He’s good. Wouldn’t that be swell?”

She tells Joe, “We’re all going to hell.” Later, presumably because she can no longer live with her guilt over what she did in Hollywood, she cuts her own throat.

Joe is upset by this but goes on with his life in crime for a time. He retires when he can, and faces a tragedy of his own. But he never forgets Loretta.

And the audience doesn’t either, because she is by far the most sympathetic character in the film, earning a Three Steeple Rating.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Western Month Goes Up in Fire and Brimstone


A wise pastor once wrote that every person (at least every worshiping person) has a worship language. Usually, it's the language in which the person first began to worship -- if you first prayed and sang in Spanish, you’ll tend to find Spanish the most meaningful language for prayer and singing your whole life.

Churches started by immigrants in America certainly followed this pattern. At first, the native language of the immigrants would be used in worship (whether that be Norwegian or German or Chinese), and that language would be used by that founding generation. Their children would worship with a mix of their parents' native language and English. The third generation would worship in English. For this later generation, English would be their worship language because it was the language in which they'd understood what they heard.

For some reason, the Reverend (Guy Pearce) in 2016’s Brimstone founds a church of Scandinavian immigrants and insists that the church services be in English. This just doesn’t make sense. It’s very insensitive pastoral care. Of course, this pastor is also an incestuous murderer, but I didn’t want to completely gloss over this insensitive aspect of his pastoral care.*

Brimstone is a story told in four acts, but those acts are not presented in chronological order. The third act, Revelation, is presented first. Exodus, the second act, does come second. The first act, Genesis, comes third. The fourth (and final) act, Retribution, does come last.

In Revelation, we meet “Liz” (Dakota Fanning), the young wife of a frontier husband, Eli (William Houston). He has a son with his former wife, and together they have a daughter. I found it strange that Liz becomes upset when Eli teaches his son to shoot a rifle. Rifles were essential tools on the frontier. Come on, even the Amish use rifles for hunting. Liz is mute, though she can hear. We don’t learn why this is the case until much later in the film.

The family goes to church, and Liz is visibly upset when she hears the Pastor’s voice. The congregation sings the hymn “Abide With Me” (which is sung time after time in the film in other church services and by individuals). Why does this happen in so many Westerns?  One hymn is used again and again (often “Bringing in the Sheaves”) Why not use several different hymns with similar themes? It’s not like the production needs to pay copyright fees for using these songs. 

But soon, the Reverend comes to Liz’s home, kills the family’s sheep, threatens her daughter, and guts her husband with a knife. He tells Liz he killed Eli because Liz loved him. Liz and the children flee the house to the safety of her father-in-law’s home in the mountains.

In the second act, a younger Liz (who can still speak) is sold to a brothel by a family of Chinese immigrants. Liz learns to adjust to her brutal new world until one day, a man comes to the brothel and pays for all the women in the house. It is the Reverend, who has bought out the house just to get to Liz. When he kills a friend of Liz’s, Liz slices his throat and runs away. (We already know this doesn’t kill the Reverend.)

The third act, Genesis, reveals the beginning of the story. We see the Reverend shame his wife in front of his congregation (which sings “Abide With Me”, of course). The minister complains that his wife doesn’t satisfy him sexually. But when the wife offers to sleep with him, he refuses. (He here disobeys Paul’s instruction in I Corinthians 7 that a husband should not refuse his wife, or a wife her husband). And here we learn that Liz is the Reverend’s daughter and that he wanted sex with her, rather than his wife.

Long ago we made it clear in this blog that murder is a disqualifier from a positive Movie Churches Steeple rating. It should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. Incest is also a big negative.

In the last act, there is the final bloody confrontation between Liz and the Reverend, who. has long since proved he is not a good pastor.

So as we’ve been saying all along, the Reverend in Brimstone deserves our lowest Steeple Rating of One Steeple. Oh, the heck with it. The minister of Brimstone earns our first Zero Steeple Rating. (Consider, we didn’t even rate Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter a Zero Steeple Rating. So that is an achievement of a kind -- and somehow still more than the Reverend deserves.)

*It is our policy here at Movie Churches to give murderous clergy our lowest rating of One Steeple. Even without the vicious killings, the Reverend would not rate highly.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Western Month: It's a Duel!

The Deadly Companions
& God’s Gun (1976)
Some say the term “adult Western” originated in 1953 with the release of Paramount Pictures' Shane. The studio was trying to distinguish their film from the more simplistic entries in the genre such as the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry Westerns where the good guys always beat the bad guys in a fair fight and often sang a cheery song as well. This is rather odd; there were certainly “Adult Westerns” before 1953. Films like The Ox-Bow Incident (1942) and Stagecoach (1939) certainly dealt with grown-up issues, and Cimarron won Best Picture in 1931.;

But “Adult” would become even more “Adult” as the years went on -- particularly “Adult Violence” beginning in the 1960s. One of the prime movers in this shift was Sam Peckinpah, who would go on to make The Wild Bunchone of the most violent Westerns ever made. Another change came in the 1960s with Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns like his trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (They were called “Spaghetti” Westerns because they were made in Italy.)

Today's two films are connected with those trends. The Deadly Companions was Sam Peckinpah's first feature film after working on TV shows such as The Rifleman and The Westerner. God’s Gun was an Italian production, but it was more. It is the only Italian and Israeli (thanks to producer Menahem Golan) co-production that I know of. 

Of course, the films are featured here because they feature clergy and church prominently.

The Deadly Companions opens with three men, Yellowleg (Brian Keith), Billy (Steve Cochran), and Turk (Chill Willis) going to a small town saloon. (Yes, they are the deadly companions of the title.) The bartender serves them whiskeys but tells them they need to drink quickly. He then pulls curtains down over paintings of naked women in the bar. Billy asks him why he’s doing that and is told, “The parson doesn’t like to see them while he preaches. The bar closes when the preacher comes in.”

Yellowleg comments that it’s not Sunday, but the bartender responds that probably no one around has seen a calendar for the previous two years.

The preacher (Strother Martin) enters followed by a group of congregants, men and women. One woman, Kit Tildon (Maureen O’Hara), and her son, Mead (Billy Vaugh) sit in an unoccupied row of chairs. They draw attention.

One of the other woman loudly whispers to her companion, “Imagine, a woman like that coming in church like she’s respectable.” 

Her friend answers back, “She probably doesn’t even know the boy’s father.” 

“This is probably the closest she’s been to a parson.” 

“The nerve to be holding a prayer book.”

The parson doesn’t seem bothered by this gossiping in the church (bar) at all. He’s bothered by something else. “Lord, I see you brought us some new faces, male and female. I’ll be dishing out the Gospels in a minute, but first I’ve got to say something to the fellas with hats on. I’ve never met a man who wouldn’t take his hat off to the Lord. Mister, take it off.” 

Billy and Turk remove their hats, but Yellowleg will not. “You get on with your preaching,” he says as he leaves the church/bar.

We here at Movie Churches are not impressed with a minister who worries more about headgear than gossip and backbiting in his congregation.

The parson asks for a moment of silence, which is followed by a less than melodious rendition of “Rock of Ages.”

The preacher begins his sermon and says, “If anyone reckons they want to go to hell, that person should stand and be counted.” 

Billy takes him at his word and stands. Billy pulls his gun and says, “Any man that doesn’t stand on his feet as well, is going to join me pronto.”

While his gun is drawn, Kit walks up to him and slaps Billy in the face. Billy is impressed and grabs Kit and kisses her, lets her go, and walks out of the bar.

The preacher tells Kit, “Ma’am, I’d like to thank you for your fortitude.” She and her son leave the church/bar into a shootout. And Kit’s son is shot and killed.

Kit wants to bury her son with his father in the town of Siringo. But that’s Apache country, and people urge her not to go there. The mayor offers a free plot in the graveyard, and the parson offers to perform the ceremony. Kit refuses, insisting she will bury her son by his father, even if she has to go alone. (She doesn’t go alone, as the title of the film indicates.)

Spoilers - Eventually Kit does make it to Siringo and finds her husband’s grave by the Mission, and is soon joined by a posse that includes the parson. The parson offers to say “the right words.”

The clergy come off much better in God’s Gun (written and directed by Gianfranco Parolini). Lee Van Cleef stars in a dual role as Father John, a priest, and his twin brother, Lewis, a gunfighter.

As Father John talks with a young man, Johnny (Leif Garrett), Johnny’s mother, Jenny (Sybil Danning), calls him to polish the glassware (in her saloon). The priest tells her, “First we thank the God for the morning, then we clean the church, then he can polish your glasses.”

At the church, Johnny sneaks some communion wine but spits it out. He thinks the priest doesn’t see, but Father John laughs and says, “Sick grapes make sour wine.” Continuing to search for trouble, Johnny finds a gun and a holster in the church altar.

Johnny asks, “You think you could teach me to shoot a gun sometime?”

“I don’t know if I can remember,” Father John says, “I’m holding it for somebody. I don’t think you’ll ever meet him (his brother Lewis). He’s down in Mexico somewhere.”

Johnny returns to his mother’s saloon. The Claytons, bad men led by brother Sam (Jack Palance), come to town and make trouble in Jenny’s saloon. One of the gang, Jess (Robert Lipton), shoots a man playing cards and falsely claims self-defense. The men ride out of town, and the sheriff (Richard Boone) makes no effort to stop them.

Johnny tells Father John what happened, and the priest pursues the gang, to the great displeasure of the sheriff who worries it will bring more trouble to the town.

Father John sneaks up on the gang as they sleep, stealing their guns. He then wakes the men, and apologizes, “Sorry to destroy your slumber, gentleman.” He explains he came to return the murderer to town for trial. “Let’s go, young man, I don’t want to miss my morning mass.” He is able to return the man to town, with the help of mysterious shots fired from the trees (which turn out to have been Johnny),

Jess is put in jail, though the sheriff isn’t happy about it, because the Claytons return to town and Jess out of jail. Men from the gang then go to the church and shoot the priest down as he is welcoming parishioners to mass.

Johnny sees this, steals one of the Claytons' horses, and rides off to Mexico to find Father John’s brother Lewis. Johnny finds him and learns some interesting things about the late priest. Lewis says, “Nobody could beat John to the draw, but one day God put a Bible in his hand in place of a gun.”

Lewis, though, continues to use the gun and goes back with Johnny to exact revenge for his brother’s death.

So how should we rate the clergy in today’s Western double feature? The uncharitable parson of The Deadly Companions rates only Two Steeples, but the brave Father John of God’s Gun rates Four, bringing today’s average to Three Steeples.

(Sidenote - Of interest probably only to me, but I, Dean, was in a film with Lee Van Cleef, a low-budget adaption of Saki's short story, "The Interlopers".  In high school, I was hired to play a small part in this film that may not even exist anymore. Van Cleef worked on the film on a different day. We never met, but it does make me playable in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.)

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Western Month Continues: Heaven Only Knows

Heaven Only Knows

As we have said oh so many times, this is a blog about Churches and Clergy in movies. It isn’t about theology, but obviously, the subject comes up on occasion. And my goodness, Hollywood theology is, um, interesting. Heaven Only Knows, to its credit, branches out from the usual Big Screen Bad Theology.

Many films (It’s A Wonderful Life is a prime example) portray angels as humans who have died and gone to heaven. According to the Bible, angels are completely different creations from people, though they have the ability to take on the appearance of people. But they don’t always, or even usually, look like people as far as we know. In chapter six of his book of prophecy, Isaiah describes seeing “seraphim” with six wings: two for covering their faces, two for covering their feet, and two for doing the flying. That doesn’t sound at all like Robert Cummings, but in this film, he portrays the Archangel Michael.

The story begins in some kind of heavenly board room. A group of “angels” (all white men) discuss a problem case on Earth (apparently one of their many areas of responsibility -- and the most troublesome). Adam “Duke” Byron (Brian Donlevy), can’t be found in the “Book of Destiny” and therefore, in the theology of this film, doesn’t have a soul. Adam was born in San Francisco in 1858, moved to Glacier, Montana, and was supposed to marry the minister’s daughter, Drusilla Wainwright (Jorja Cuthright). Instead had become the owner/manager of a saloon/gambling hall. To save Adam, Michael is sent to Earth to see to it that Adam marries Drusilla. Yes, according to the theology of this film, Adam’s salvation is to be found in “the love of a good woman.”

So Michael goes to Earth and finds himself living in the Wild West. The town of Glacier is in the midst of a feud between saloon owners; Adam Duke vs. Bill Plumber (Bill Goodwyn) and the citizens of the town are caught in the crossfire.

Drusilla calls a town meeting and argues that they should take the law into their own hands and get rid of men like Plumber and Duke. Her father arrives at the meeting, and he is not pleased. The Reverend Wainwright (John Litel) tells the townspeople that he has long prayed they would come together, but not this way. He admits, “It’s easier to feed a man’s evil instincts than feed his family.” He blames the sheriff for not dealing with the problem of the casinos at war, “If a disciple of law and order were on the job, it would be easier to be a disciple of the Lord.” He bemoans the situation but doesn’t offer a solution.

Then the sheriff bursts into the meeting and offers a solution. He says the townspeople should just lay low until the warring parties kill each other off. He says he's heard that the Kansas City Kid has arrived and that he'll probably clear out the riffraff and then clear out himself. 

Drusilla says if the sheriff’s system doesn’t work, they’ll resort to their own system.

Meanwhile, when Michael comes to town, he's mistaken for the gunslinger, who was hired to take out Duke. When instead he saves Duke’s life, Duke hires him. When Duke's saloon, Pair of Dice, is attacked, Michael takes Duke to safety in the schoolhouse. Drusilla, the schoolteacher, is not pleased but allows it.

Duke is looking for some way to get back at Plumber. so Michael tells him he knows a source of great power -- and takes him to church. Duke says, “Don’t you beat the devil?” 

Michael responds, “I try.”

Michael has Duke put money in the offering box. Duke asks how this is all going to help him, and Michael says, “You’ve learned we’re all on a journey together and this (church) is like a post office where we come to get our mail.” Duke realizes Michael is talking about spiritual things, and he is not pleased.

But the townspeople eventually decide to take justice into their own hands and come to lynch Duke. They believe Duke is hiding in the church, but he and Michael have escaped out the back. Rev. Wainwright blocks the mob from entering the church, saying, “I’ve preached for years against the rope and gun.”

Duke goes to Drusilla and asks her to run off with him. She gets him a horse, and they ride out of town, but Drusilla won’t stay with him if he stays in his old life in saloons and gambling halls. She says that’s a life of sin, and Duke asks, “What’s good? What’s bad? The only sin I know is being alive and not doing anything about it.” 

She goes back toward town and finds that the townsfolk have decided that if they can’t hang Duke, they’ll hang Michael, Duke's supposed henchman.

They set Michael on a horse and put a rope around his neck. But no matter how many times they whip the horse, the horse won’t move.

Reverend Wainright comes with his congregation to oppose the lynching. He preaches, “Today I am going to tell you the story of a man who lived, and died and rose again.” Strangely, he never says the name of “Jesus.” Perhaps the studios were afraid that actually saying the Lord’s name would be too much for the audience or would seem somehow sacrilegious. His words fall on deaf ears, and the lynchers still try to get that horse to move.

Duke returns. He cuts Michael down and takes him off the horse. Duke says he’ll go back to town, marry Drusilla, and start a new life. Perhaps even join the church choir. And Michael boards an unscheduled coach that will take him back to Heaven.

So what Movie Churches rating do we give the Reverend Wainwright and his church? He’s been preaching in Glacier for years, but his ministry seems to have had no great impact on the morals of the town. His theology doesn’t seem to be much more solid than Hollywood’s, but he does stand up to a lynch mob. For that, he earns Three Steeples.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Old Old West Posts

This month Movie Churches is visiting the Old West, but this isn't our first Rodeo (or Stampede or Shoot-Out or whatever). We've done posts about Westens in the past, so a Round-up of Westerns seems appropriate.  

Of course, there have been a few Westerns where the Church was the focus of the film. In The Twinkle in God's Eye Mickey Rooney starred as an Old West Preacher and in Stars in My Crown, Joel McCrea starred as an Old West Preacher. We even had a silent film about a preacher in the Old West, The Confession. We've had posts about missionaries in the Old West such as The Father Kino Story and Black Robe. Sometimes the Preacher has also been the Bad Guy, as in Sweetwater and 5 Card Stud. There have even been films about church fund-raising: Hellfire and Rolling Home

We've posted about one of the greatest Westerns, High Noon, and we've featured some of the great Western stars: John Wayne, of course, in 3 Godfathers, two of Clint Eastwood's Westerns, Two Mules for Sister Sara and Pale Rider, and some stars that aren't really associated with Westerns such as Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable in San Francisco and Chevy Chase and Steve Martin in The Three Amigos

This month may be Movie Churches' last trip on the dusty trail, so enjoy the ride!

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Movie Churches goes West(ern)

The Mask of Zorro

Liberation Theology, the idea that the church should be primarily concerned about the oppressed suffering at the hands of oppressors, is thought to have originated in Latin America in the 1960s. Nonetheless, while watching The Mask of Zorro it's easy to think that the concept originated in Las Californias of the 1820s. The priests in the film are continually at odds with oppressive government forces on behalf of the poor.

The story begins just prior to the era of Mexican independence in 1821. A mysterious masked man named Zorro appears and fights the Spanish authorities in defense of the peasants. Before his forced return to Spain, the corrupt governor Don Rafael (Stuart Wilson) lays a trap to capture and kill Zorro. Three innocent peasants are scheduled to be executed by hanging.

Don Rafael gives a speech prior to the execution claiming to have been the only one who cares for the people. A friar, Fray Felipe (William Marquez), yells out, “Zorro fought for the people!”

“Where is he now, Padre?” the Governor responds.

Zorro soon makes his appearance, rescuing the trio of men before they are hanged. When one soldier has Zorro in his rifle sights, Fray Felipe elbow butts the soldier in the face, rescuing his hero -- but the rescue is short-lived.

Once Don Rafael has captured Zorro, he discovers the masked man's true identity. He is a Spanish-born nobleman, Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), and the governor takes soldiers to arrest him in his home. In the ensuing conflict, de la Vega’s wife is shot and killed. Don Rafael takes the couple’s baby daughter to raise as his own child in Spain, sending the nobleman and the priest to prison.

Twenty years later, Don Rafael along with his “daughter” Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) returns to California, this time with a plot to make himself a fortune. This inspires de la Vega to escape from prison, freeing the priest Felipe as well.

Don Diego meets a thief, Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), who came to his aid decades before. He agrees to train Alejandro to be the new Zorro so together they can take on Don Rafael and his forces.

Alejandro doesn’t take to the swashbuckling trade immediately. In one of his first attacks on Don Rafael’s men, he is unsuccessful -- but he meets (and fences with) the beautiful Elena. He is forced to flee and seeks sanctuary in a church. Fray Filipe sees him and says, “The years have been far kinder to you than they have been to me.”

Alejandro hides in a confessional and who but Elena should come to make her confession. She tells the “priest” hidden by the wooden divider, “I have broken the Fourth Commandment." 

Alejandro is as ignorant of matters of faith as he is of many things, and he responds, “You killed somebody?” 

She has to explain that she failed to honor her father (it's the Fourth Commandment for Catholics, but the Fifth Commandment for Protestants).

She goes on to confess her sin of lusting after a man (Alejandro himself). Still pretending to be a priest, Alejandro assures her that this was no sin, “Sister, you have done no wrong. The sin would be not doing what your heart tells you to do.” Again, Alejandro shows he is theologically lacking.

Soldiers soon come, and Alejandro must flee again -- but he's seen by Elena who then knows she was not talking to a priest.

Fray Felipe appears once more in the film. Don Rafael, angered that the priest again aided (a different) Zorro, has him sent off to work in the gold mines, where Don Rafael intends to make a fortune by defrauding Santa Ana by keeping the gold for himself. The priest, along with other peasants, has been enslaved into serving under terrible conditions at the mines.

This is why Fray Felipe earns our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples. We see him being whipped as he works on the mines, truly living in the steps of Christ, who was whipped for our transgressions. He acts as the Suffering Servant while Zorro(s) act as Savior for the people. By the film's end, liberation for the people does come.

It's worth noting that the film seems to have a more positive spin on the First Mexican Empire than many in the Roman Catholic Church would hold. In 1834, the government of Mexico nationalized the Missions and gave the property to those with political influence. Those lands became ranchos which were the dominant institutions of Mexican California.