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FIRST-PERSON: Hollywood’s lost images

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–Although Hollywood films seem nearly bereft of Christian symbolism nowadays, throughout the years spiritual imagery has played an enormous role in entertainment — most notably in Tinseltown’s golden age which extended from the 1930s to the ’50s, with many religious epics slipping over into the early and mid-’60s.

The 1935 version of “Les Miserables” provided a profound sampling of Christ’s teaching. Early on, a scene features a priest confronting French police with their prisoner, a thief who has stolen the only finery the monsignor possesses, some expensive dinnerware. Rather than accusing the man of robbery, the clergyman announces the thief was given the utensils. Furthermore, the priest scolds him for forgetting to take the silver candlesticks, which he then gives to the bewildered convict. Due to the man of faith’s compassion, our story’s protagonist turns his life around, serving God and man.

In Charles Laughton’s 1939 version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Esmeralda, a lowly gypsy girl, enters a cathedral to pray. She is surrounded by finely dressed, haughty aristocracy, each praying for their individual desires. We are taken aback, moved, enlightened and perhaps convicted by this girl’s selfless entreaties. She exemplifies Christ’s instruction to pray for others. It is a noble prayer, one that undoubtedly caught the attention of the addressee.

1953’s “The Robe” has a Roman centurion, Richard Burton, haunted by his participation in the execution of Christ. One significant scene has the Roman giving a donkey to a Hebrew boy. It is probably the finest gift, if not the only one, the child has ever received; yet, the next day he bestows it to another peasant boy. This visual signifies, “It is better to give than to receive,” and startles the soldier into an awareness that there is something to this new religion.

The entertainment industry’s product during its formative years was basically composed of morality messages — and images. Often dramas, cowboy sagas, sci-fi tales, even the horror genre typically illustrated the conquest of good over evil, and lifted our spirits to a devotional level. In 1942’s “Cat People,” a scene stands out as the hero holds up a cross and tells the menacing foe to “leave us alone in the name of God.” Slowly, the possessed leopard retreats. True, it would have been more meaningful for us Christians if he would have said, “In the name of Jesus,” but certainly the inclusion of the cross represented the Savior’s power over demonic forces.

Cecil B. DeMille (“The Ten Commandments”) and John Ford (“How Green Was My Valley”) incorporated theological allusions into their work based on their own religious heritage. Other filmmakers who may not have been as devout as DeMille and Ford still acknowledged faith’s tug on those sitting in the blackened theaters. “Boys Town,” “One Foot In Heaven,” “The Song Of Bernadette,” “Going My Way,” “Quo Vadis,” “Friendly Persuasion,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Tender Mercies” and “Ben Hur” not only touched American audiences, but garnered critical acclaim. (Those listed were nominated and several won Best Picture Oscars.)

Beginning in the late ’50s and through the mid-’60s, “epics” were a box office staple. Competing with television’s impact on moviegoers, the studios searched for a way to draw a dwindling audience back to the cinema. Wisely, producers realized their advantage over TV was size. Bigger is better, they reasoned. And where better to find a bigger subject worthy of Cinemascope, Cinerama or Vista Vision than the Bible? “The Ten Commandments,” “The Robe” and “Ben Hur” each contained messages and visuals that touched the soul.

True, during these past few decades the medium has been used more as a voyeuristic tool, allowing us to vicariously live out our baser instincts. Occasionally, however, Christian imagery can be found in the movies. 1993’s Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” is replete with images that profess a need for spirituality. Caution: this is an R-rated movie. I am not attempting to promote it for family viewing. But along with some very brutal visuals and language, it does contain redemptive messages. For example, when Schindler vows an end to his adulterous ways, the touching moment takes place in a church. The setting symbolizes a spiritual healing, allotting that the offense has been absolved with the aid of Christ. Wow, now that’s an image.
Phil Boatwright provides the synopsis and content of new theatrical and TV-made films, so you can decide if they are suitable for your viewing. For details, check out Boatwright’s website at www.moviereporter.com.

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  • Phil Boatwright