Saturday, August 27, 2022

Top Ten Movie Churches Novel Adaptations

The month of September will be Authors Month here at Movie Churches, so we'll be looking at clergy and churches brought from the page to the screen. In preparation, we thought we’d look back at our favorite films that originated as novels. Remember. our steeple ratings don’t correlate to the quality of the film, just to the clergy and churches in the film. Regardless of their steeple ratings, we think all ten of these films are worth checking out. (Most of the novels these films are based on are worth checking out as well. Since we’re just featuring movies based on novels here, favorites like Babette’s Feast and Ordet weren’t included.)

10) Contact (1997)
Carl Sagan was certainly a better scientist than novelist and certainly was no theologian. But this film was a fun work of science fiction and raised interesting questions about faith. Jodie Foster gives a great performance as an astronomer battling the idea that there might be something beyond the material universe, and Matthew McConaughey is the most unorthodox clergy figure we’ve featured.

9) Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Robert Bresson’s film is rightly remembered as a classic, but the priest in the film is an annoying jerk. Still, it well captures this time and place in France and the challenges of ministry.

8) Moby Dick (1956)
This Herman Melville’s work is arguably the greatest American novel. But that book, which goes into long digressions about theology, philosophy, and law, is not really what's been adapted here. Ray Bradbury’s screenplay is more like an adaption of the Classics Illustrated Comic of the story, concentrating on the nautical adventure. I’m okay with that.

7) War of the Worlds (1953)
Along with Contact, this makes two science fiction novels by atheists, and yet this film presents a church as a place of refuge and comfort, and God is ultimately the hero of the tale.

6) The Trial (1962)
Understandably, this film based on Franz Kafka’s fever dream of one man’s senseless persecution doesn’t find much hope in the church or any other institution, but the priest is one of the few people that shows any genuine concern for “K.”

5) Black Narcissus (1947)
This is such a visually powerful film it almost comes as a surprise that it's based on a novel. But look it up: Rumer Godden published the book in 1939. She also wrote The River which was made into a stunning film by Jean Renoir.

4) All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
This is one of those rare times when both the film and the novel it's based on are considered classic, and it would be hard to say one is better than the other. They're famed as perhaps the greatest anti-war works. (Does anyone set out to make a pro-war novel or film? Well, maybe Joseph Goebbels…)

3) The Hunchback of Norte Dame (1923, 1939, 1996)
I very much appreciate several film adaptations of this novel, so perhaps I should get around to reading the Victor Hugo classic sometime. If the book is anything like the films (silent, talkie, animated, black & white, color…), the clergy won’t come off well.

2) A Clockwork Orange (1971)
This a film that is greatly loved by some and greatly despised by others. It's violent, sadistic, and perverse. Those are qualities in the book as well, but it can be much tougher to take on the screen. The arguments for and against the importance of free will have perhaps never been made better than in the book and the film.

1) Wise Blood (1979)
It usually sounds pretentious and annoying when someone says, after watching a film, “The book was so much better.” We've all heard people argue the book is always better, an argument easily disproved with Jaws and The Godfather. But Flannery O’Connor’s novel is better than this film. It’s a great book about the futile attempt of a man to run from God. Considering the difficulty of the task, John Huston makes a pretty great attempt here. (FWIW, Huston also directed the above-mentioned adaptation of Moby Dick.)

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A World War Two Movie Church

A Man Called Peter

During World War Two, the Canteen Musical was a popular film genre. Canteens were places that provided food and entertainment for soldiers, usually on leave or preparing to go overseas. In 1944 alone, studios released Hollywood Canteen (about movie stars entertaining service men), Stage Door Canteen (about Broadway stars entertaining service men), and Cowboy Canteen (about service men being entertained on a dude ranch). All of these were based on actual service projects to honor those going to battle.

In A Man Called Peter, a portion of the film recalls a canteen created in a Washington D.C. church. During World War Two, the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church opened its doors for a “Saturday Evening Canteen” with “Songs” and “Jokes.” (I noticed that the film also showed trays of donuts. A consistent thing, perhaps because it was true, is that these films always show donuts served.) According to the film, the pastor of the church, Peter Marshall (Richard Todd), got into some hot water for this.

In the film, Marshall instigates the canteen and leads in the singing of popular songs (such as “Mairzy Doats”) around the piano. Many from the church volunteered (even a U.S. Senator who attends the church). But one night, an elderly matron of the church, Miss Laura Fowler (Marjorie Rambeau) comes to the church to bring flowers to the Lincoln Parlor on the anniversary of the 16th President’s death (Lincoln attended the church). As she steps into the parlor, she sees a couple kissing! She's appalled and tries to have the canteen shut down due to the scandalous behavior.

Fortunately, Rev. Dr. Marshall is able to explain that the couple had just been married by Marshall himself. The young sailor was about to be shipped overseas, and he and his new bride were enjoying their two-hour honeymoon. The couple had just forgotten to lock the door. The scandal is averted and the canteen is allowed to carry on.

Miss Fowler doesn’t know how easy she has it. 

I was a youth pastor for many years. At various camps and retreats, teenagers were caught doing more than kissing, and I worked as a chaplain in a mission homeless shelter where one of my chief duties was to make sure the restrooms weren’t used for drug deals and other carnal transactions.

Miss Fowler's idea of the church is that it is a place where nice respectable people go to meet one another for the edification to be found in sermons and fine music. Marshall preaches a different view of the church: “Religion is not for sale, it is given away. The Christ of the Scriptures was a manly Christ. He himself was red blooded: he called a spade a spade and let the chips fall where they may…He invited people the church doesn’t usually appeal to. He wants people of all kinds, He want to hear laughter…His big carpenter’s hands stretched out in welcome.” (Marshall’s description of Christ here is rather like the contemporary criticisms of modern American evangelism, equating Jesus with John Wayne, but I still find his vision more compelling than Miss Fowler’s.)

The canteen is just a small part of this film. The rest tells the story Peter Marshall (not to be confused with the host of Hollywood Squares), who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1915 but migrated to America and went on to become a prominent pastor and the Chaplain of the United States Senate.

I’ve included A Man Called Peter (based on Catherine Marshall's biography) in our month on War Churches because of the ministry of his church to servicemen and for one other incident in Marshall’s life portrayed in the film. His wife, Catherine (Jean Peters), gives birth to their only child, a son, on the same day that Marshall was to address the United States Navel Academy in Annapolis.

He leaves his wife and newborn son to give the address. Arriving at the school, he feels compelled to give a different sermon than the one he originally planned. For his text he uses James 4: 14, “Your life is a vapor.” He says this is a “strange statement to find in the New Testament.” I don’t find it a strange statement at all. All of Scripture points to the life’s brevity and the parables of Jesus often have life coming to an unexpected, abrupt end. But nonetheless, Marshall goes on to preach about the need to prepare oneself to meet God because no one knows when this life may end.

The date of Marshall’s son’s birth and his address to the Navel Academy was December 7, 1941. The day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which shortly led to the United States entering World War Two. Death was about to be a tangible reality to the young sailors that Marshall spoke to on that day. And Marshall’s ministry was about to be greatly changed by during war time in the nation’s capital.

Marshall would struggle with mortality in his own life, too. His wife suffered a prolonged illness which kept her bedridden for many months. Marshall also faced his own life-threatening illness (neither illness is specified in the film) but recovered with the help of the prayers of his congregation. But in 1949, Marshall spoke to his congregation about being homesick for his native land of Scotland. He then fainted in the pulpit and passed away at the age of 46.

One might argue that there isn’t much warfare in this film to qualify for including it in our theme of “War Churches,” but according to Ephesians 6, every believer should put on “the full armor of God” to engage in battle against the “forces of darkness.” Because the Reverend Doctor Peter Marshall fought that battle well, we’re giving him and his church in A Man Called Peter our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Two War(ish) films

Invasion U.S.A.(1985) & Ninth Configuration (1980)

“Time waits for no man. Unless that man is Chuck Norris.”

“In the Beginning there was nothing ... then Chuck Norris roundhouse kicked nothing and told it to get a job.”

“When God said, ‘Let there be light!’ Chuck said, ‘Say Please.’”

Chuck Norris jokes have been around for a while, and there's often a tinge of blasphemy in them. Norris in the jokes is always omnipotent, but he's often omniscient and omnipresent as well -- all the qualities of divinity and then some. So it seems strange to have a Chuck Norris film in Movie Churches. Isn’t Chuck the one worshiped in his films? Why would one need a Christian church?

But since we did find a Christian church in a Chuck film, though it showed up quite briefly. That church is going to have to share the post with another church in another film this week. 

Invasion U.S.A.
 tells the story of a terrorist army, almost certainly Communists, led by Mikal Rostov (Richard Lynch) in an attack against the United States of America. Rostov boasts, “America hasn’t been invaded by a foreign invader in 200 years. Look at them, they don’t even recognize their freedom, or how it can be used against them.” (Actually the terrorists seem to only attack Florida, with a few stops in Georgia. A shopping mall, a Cuban ex-patriate nightclub, and Chuck’s shack in the Everglades are attacked, and it’s like all of America is attacked.)

The authorities recognize the danger with the shootings and the bombings and such, so they do the sensible thing: go to former C.I.A. agent, Matt Hunter (Norris), and ask him to deal with the problem. Which he is willing to do because the baddies killed his friend, John Eagle (Dehl Berti) -- but only on his own terms. He has to work alone (“I’ll take the assignment, but remember, I work alone.”) So, spoilers: Chuck… I mean, Matt… does take on the enemy forces and wins his one-man war. (Okay, at the end, he does allow the National Guard to help a bit, just out of politeness.)

So where is the church? In the middle of the film, Miami is under martial law because of the terrorist attacks. We see a small family, a father, mother, and daughter, wandering the street. They come upon a church and enter as the minister is praying, “Oh Lord, our God, protect your children in this our time of need.’

A strange thing about this church is that though it's near Christmas in the film, and a nearby mall was quite decorated for Christmas, this church is not. They are, however, doing good church things. The congregation sings “Rock of Ages” and then joins together in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

But all the while, the terrorists are planting a bomb on the church. Fortunately, the plan is foiled by our savior, Chuck Norris. The terrorists try to detonate the bomb, but nothing happens. Chuck calls to them, “Didn’t work, huh?” He throws the bomb their way and calls out, “Now it will!” and it does.

Though it also only has a short segment in a church, The Ninth Configuration puts themes of the Christian faith in the center of the story and throughout the film. This is less surprising when one knows the writer and director of the film was William Peter Blatty, the creator of The Exorcist, a very Catholic and very Christian film. Some might object to a horror film being described in this way, but I would also argue that this film, full of profanity and madness and unexpected outbreaks of great violence, is also very Catholic and very Christian.

Stacy Keach plays Col. Vincent Kane. We are told the Colonel is a psychiatrist sent to an asylum to care for men who left the battlefield because they went mad (fans of the TV show M*A*S*H know this is referred to as a Section 8 Discharge). There are certainly men who act mad: Lt. Frankie Reno (Jason Miller) is trying to direct a production of Hamlet with an all-dog cast. When this proves difficult, he attempts to do the same with an all-sheep cast.

The higher-ups in the military want Kane to discover whether the men are truly mad or just trying to avoid battle in the unpopular Vietnam War.

But Kane focuses most of his effort on Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) who refers to God as “The Big Foot.” Cutshaw was not serving as a soldier, but rather as an astronaut who seemed to go insane before a flight to the moon. When Kane asks him why he refused to fly to the moon, Cutshaw refuses to speak but instead gives Kane his St. Christopher medal.

Eventually, Cutshaw does talk with Kane, engaging in arguments over theology. Kane argues that creation is much more easily explained by God than random chance, but he argues that the best evidence for God is to be found in acts of self-sacrifice. The bulk of the film is Kane trying to prove God to Cutshaw in that way.

But before that happens, Cutshaw asks Kane to take him to Mass. Cutshaw comes to meet Kane at the car dressed rather like Little Lord Fauntleroy. When Kane stares at his string tie and shorts, Cutshaw asks him, “Why would ‘the Foot’ care what I wear?”

The priest preaches from John 10, “If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved. The thief comes only to kill, steal, and destroy, but I have come that they might have life in all its fullness…The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep.”

After the sermon, Cutshaw stands and declares, “Infinite goodness means making a creature that you know in advance will complain.” And then he sits again. The priest and the congregation seem to take Cutshaw’s outburst and dress all in good stride. When Kane and Cutshaw return to the asylum, the patient says to his doctor, “Thanks, I dug it.”

Though neither the church in Invasion U.S.A. or The Ninth Configuration receives much screen time, we like what we see -- and give both churches our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

War Month and The Patriot

The Patriot

To understand director Roland Emmerich’s telling of the American Revolutionary War, it helps to remember that he is also the director of Independence Day. The films have much in common, though ID is perhaps a more subtle film, and the outer space invaders are presented more sympathetically than the British who never stop twisting their metaphorical waxed mustaches in The Patriot.

Set in South Carolina in 1776, the film starred two very pretty male movie stars. Heath Ledger portrays a young colonial hothead named Gabriel Martin, who wants to join the Continental Army. He is the son of Captain Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), who fought brutally in the French and Indian War but refuses to join the side of the colonies against the British. He still regrets the atrocities he committed in the previous war (“I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me and the cost us is more than I can bear.”). 

That choice doesn’t hold. The British kill his son (not Gabriel, yet) and so he goes all Mad Max… I mean Mad Martin, and almost single-handedly takes on the Red Coats.

As the war goes on, the British commit increasingly vile atrocities, and Mel has to be increasingly clever and savage to win the war that George Washington is apparently letting slip through his fingers.

But this blog is about clergy and churches. Sorry, Mel, we need to focus on the Reverend Oliver rather than your wild escapades.

Gabriel goes to the local church to recruit for the Continental Army -- a church where the British have hanged several people accused of conspiring against the Crown. The Reverend tells him, “Son, we are here to pray for the souls of the men hanging outside.”

Gabriel asks the men of the congregation to join his cause but doesn’t get much of a response. A young woman at the church, Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner), challenges the men to live up to the principles of freedom and justice she’s heard them espouse (“I ask only that you act on the words of which you have so strongly spoken.”) And one by one, they stand to join, until most agree to fight for the cause, including the Reverend Oliver (played by Rene Auberjonois who memorably prayed a priest in another war film, M*A*S*H).

The Reverend explains his decision to fight, “A shepherd must tend to his flock, and at times to fight off wolves.” There were certainly Christians who believed the best way to be true to God and the Bible was to stay loyal to England (citing Romans 13’s command to submit to authority), but the Reverend is admirable for his willingness to sacrifice for the cause he believes is right.

Reverend Oliver fights alongside Captain Martin, who has recruited a number of scalawags and ruffians. During a battle with the British, Martin’s men shoot men who were trying to surrender. The Reverend is outraged and brings the matter to Martin, “This is murder!” 

The men defend themselves, ”Hell, Reverend, these were Redcoats. They earned it!” And they ask the Reverend, “What do you know about war? Go back to church!”

But Captain Martin takes the Reverend’s side, “He’s right. In the future, full quarter will be given to British wounded and any who surrender.” When his men protest, pointing to the atrocities committed by the Brits, Martin responds, “You have my sympathy, but your order stands. While you’re here, you will obey my command or I will have you shot.”

One of those men, John Billings (Leon Rippy), opposed the Reverend but eventually becomes a close friend. When Reverend Oliver and Billings are captured by General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), Billings asks the Reverend to write a letter to his wife and son because he is illiterate. The pastor agrees to write the letter, but also asks Billings to join him in prayer. He happily agrees, praying the Lord’s Prayer. (Martin does engineer a rescue of the men.)

When the men go back to their homes. Billings finds that the British have killed his wife and son. The Reverend tries to calm his friend by telling him, “This is not a time for vengeance -- it is a time for mourning.” But Billings turns this pistol on himself, committing suicide.

The Reverend plays a more cheerful role in the film when he presides over the wedding of Gabriel Martin and Anne Howard. But the film doesn’t allow a joyful mood to go on too long.

The most vicious of the Brits, Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), goes to the Reverend’s hometown to retaliate against Martin’s success in battle. He has all the civilians in town gather in the Reverend’s church. He bars the doors and burns down the church, killing all inside. Tavington’s evil deeds are not done, though. In a major battle, he kills both Gabriel and the Reverend.

For his willingness to give up his life for his cause while continuing to serve as a pastor, we decorate the Reverend Oliver with our highest Movie Churches award of Four Steeples.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

War month begins with a Battle Hymn

Battle Hymn

Prayer is pretty basic to the Christian life, and not just life among the clergy. The Apostle Paul wrote that we should “pray without ceasing." When He gave His disciples The Lord's Prayer, Jesus provided a prayer believers recite from memory as well as a blueprint for new prayers. 

In its most basic form, prayer is just talking to God. It's not surprising that even atheists have thrown up plenty of “God, I don’t really think you’re there, but if you are…” from foxholes.

So it’s rather baffling why, in the film Battle Hymn, the Rev. Lt. Col. Dean E. Hess (Rock Hudson) is so hesitant to pray, even in a wartime setting. (The film has scenes both in World War II and the Korean War, which is fortunate as this is War Month here at Movie Churches.) The film was based on Hess’s autobiography (also entitled Battle Hymn), and is directed by Douglas Sirk (the acclaimed director who fled Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife).

After an introduction from General Earle E. Partridge, a four-star United States Air Force general who expresses his admiration for Hess and declares the film to be “an affirmation of the eternal goodness of the human spirit,” the story begins with Hess (Rock Hudson) as a World War II bomber pilot over Germany. A malfunction causes a delay in dropping one of his bombs, causing it to land on an orphanage, killing 37 children.

He is wracked with guilt. The film makes it appear that he enters the ministry to assuage his guilt, but Hess had been ordained in the Disciples of Christ Church prior to the war. We see him preaching on a Sunday morning, “A broken and contrite heart the Lord will not despise.”

After the service, one of the church officers gives a mild critique of the sermon. Hess talks to his wife (Martha Hyer) and mourns, “He’s right, Mary. All I seem to be able to do is repeat words from a book.” 

Considering that the book he is talking about is considered the very word of God in his denomination, perhaps he shouldn’t have such a lowly opinion of that work. He seems to be in ministry only to deal with his guilt, but he says, “I’ve tried for two years. When I became a minister, I thought I would find a way to live with it, but I haven’t.” Anyway, he decides to rejoin the military when the Korean Conflict begins. He tells Mary he is enlisting again to fly and fight (“One doesn’t always have to have a clear reason for the things he does, he just feels it.”)

Hess is assigned to train South Korean pilots. One of the American men serving under him is Captain Dan Skidmore (Dan DeFore), a friend he served with in WWII. Dan remembers Hess by his nickname, “Killer”, and has no knowledge of Hess’s work as a pastor. (Skidmore is unpleasantly surprised when he sees a letter addressed to Rev. Hess --from the same church leader we saw earlier). Why would Hess keep his ministry history secret from the other soldiers? 

We learn why when his men discover he's a minister.  They practically revolt, worried that a minister won’t be ruthless enough to lead them in battle. This seems rather absurd. The soldiers have surely seen many military chaplains whose training was the same as theirs, who faced the same dangers in battle they would face. Eventually, they come around to trusting Hess again.

The problem, though, isn't just that Hess hides his calling from the men. He seems to want to hide his faith completely from his men. At their Thanksgiving meal in the field, one of the soldiers stands up and says, “On the farm, my pa always said grace at Thanksgiving. Not that we were particularly religious. Is there someone more qualified to pray?”

The ordained minister stays seated and allows the farmer’s son to pray awkwardly. Later, when that man learns of his superior’s other profession, he’s steamed. “You mean Thanksgiving you just let me fumble around?” 

Hess tells him, “You did fine, Frank. People who volunteer usually do.”

There is another more serious instance in the film where Hess avoids praying aloud. With his friend, Skidmore, they fly into battle against the North Koreans. Skidmore’s plane is hit, and Skidmore is hit as well. He manages to land his plane and Hess pulls him from the cockpit.

Skidmore says to Hess, “Could you pray for me?” 

Hess responds, “I already did.” 

This is a jerk move. If someone is in pain and dying, one doesn’t just say one prayer and be done with it. If someone believes in God, in prayer, they will not just pray once and be done with it. And Skidmore asked for prayer. Many people, even those who don’t consider themselves religious, will find some comfort in hearing a prayer, or perhaps a recitation of the 23rd Psalm. Hess denies his friend this comfort but provides some words of encouragement.

You may be wondering, at this point, why they even bothered making a film about Hess. Well, he was part of two rather worthwhile projects. He helped found an orphanage for Korean children and when that orphanage was threatened by the North Koreans, he helped evacuate the orphanage. These were wonderful acts, but he confesses to a wise old Korean man that while working with the children, “I couldn’t find anything to say, even a prayer.” 

The old man assures him that his acts of kindness are a true presentation of the Gospel. There is truth to that, but many other important participants in these projects weren’t necessarily people of faith. So his work for the orphans was good work, but was it really the work of a clergyman? And after the publication of his autobiography, there were some who accused Hess of taking more credit for “Project Kiddie Car Airlift” than he deserved.

Hess seems to have been a good man, but as a clergyman, the best we can manage to give him for a Movie Churches rating is Two Steeples.