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FIRST-PERSON: Things I learned at the movies

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–When I was a drama student in college, I read a biography on actor Robert Mitchum. “The only man in this town I wouldn’t want to tangle with is Frank Sinatra,” Mitchum was quoted as saying. “I might knock him down, but he’d keep getting up ’till one of us got killed!”

As I reread that passage, I correlated his observation of Sinatra’s doggedness with that great boxing match we call life. From time to time life has a way of knocking people down. And we can either stay down for the count or keep getting up to fight the good fight. It’s that “keep getting up” metaphor that measures the man.

I think it was a rather profound lesson for a 19-year-old, considering most profound thoughts managed to slip by me at that age. Perhaps it was God in his wisdom lovingly preparing me for future blows with terminology I could understand.

Throughout the years, God has often seen fit to place significant proverbs in my mind’s path by way of film parables. Perhaps the greatest of these awakenings came while watching the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” James Stewart’s George Bailey is given the opportunity to see what his community would have been like if he had never been born. The film reminds us that we touch so many lives and can have a real influence on those souls. The things we say and do will affect others. It is a lesson I am still attempting to master.

When I was 9, Charles Laughton’s version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” aired on a local TV station. While you might consider it a horror movie, in actuality, Victor Hugo’s oft-filmed novel is a classic morality play. One scene that remains etched in my memory has the gypsy girl Esmeralda going into a church and praying for others while those around her greedily petition for themselves. The scene was teaching me that the purpose of prayer was not merely to ask the Creator of the universe to give me a pony.

I discovered other things while seated in a dark, cavernous theater, eating my Jujubes — including amore. I saw “The Sound of Music” six times when it was first released. Even as a kid, the dancing sequence between Maria and the Captain — to me, that was romance! Sadly, most of today’s films place emphasis on premarital lust, relegating romance to TV’s American Movie Classics.

Other movies helped me understand social and moral ethics. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I saw rural life, justice, honor and bigotry through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl. The film didn’t beat me over the head with its themes, but it did make clear what’s right and what’s wrong. Certainly these were issues already being taught by my parents and Sunday school teacher. But the film’s visual images reinforced what positive adult role models were instructing.

A few films today are carrying on in this noble tradition. In 1995’s “Dead Man Walking,” a nun helps a death row inmate on his road to spiritual repentance as he faces his execution. A remarkable piece of film, it focuses on redemption and Christ’s command to love one another. The events of this true story reveal how a heart ruled by patience and faith can “move mountains.” Several ending scenes focus on the outcome of a life dedicated to spiritual truths. And we witness a hurting and ignorant heart changed due to one willing to live Christ’s command — “love one another.” (Caution: While the content in Dead Man Walking is not exploitive, and it is a film that ultimately uplifts the spirit, be warned, it is rated R.)

Yes, I have learned much from the movies. Films have taught, entertained and lifted my soul. Alas, a new morality clearly exists in our society, with the casual presentation of something anti-moral abundant in most TV programs and films. As society increasingly slips away from the fundamentals of biblical teachings, I hope we will remember that the Bible doesn’t apply to parts of our lives, but to the sum total — including how we entertain ourselves. I couldn’t say it any more succinctly than this quote from the Miramax film “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing”:

“Your head is like a gas tank. You have to be really careful about what you put in it, because it might just affect the whole system.”
Boatwright, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., is a Baptist layman, a veteran film reviewer and editor of The Movie Reporter film guide, including its www.moviereporter.com website.

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright