The Invention of Lying (2009)

I just barely made it through The Invention of Lying (2009).  It struck me as a one-joke movie.  In the world in which this movie is set, no one can tell a lie.  At first, this might sound like a good thing, for when we think about lying, what usually comes to mind are the lies that are immoral, the ones in which you deceive someone for your benefit but at his expense.

But while focusing on these forbidden lies, we sometimes forget about the lies that are permissible, the ones in which there is nothing immoral about telling such a lie, but neither would it be immoral to tell the truth, as when someone asks us a personal question. We may lie to protect our privacy, or we may share that information as we see fit.  And then there are the obligatory lies, the lies we tell when being honest would be immoral, as when we lie to keep from hurting someone’s feelings.

The first part of The Invention of Lying emphasizes what life would be like if no one were capable of telling lies that are obligatory.  People in this movie go around insulting other people, saying things that are hurtful.  Of course, even in a world where lying was impossible, people could still avoid hurting others simply by not saying anything.  So, in this parallel universe, people are not only incapable of telling lies, neither are they capable of just keeping their mouths shut.  Apparently, there is a compulsive component to this inability to lie.  By not telling someone he is fat and has a snub nose, by just not commenting on his looks at all, that is apparently a form of deception itself.

The same can be said for the permissible lies.  When Mark (Ricky Gervais) arrives for a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), she just blurts out that she had been masturbating, even though unprompted by any question as to what she had been doing just before she opened the door.  So, just as no one can refrain from insulting others by merely saying nothing, neither can they protect their privacy by saying nothing either.

But listening to people insult each other or reveal personal information just wasn’t that funny.  And I thought, “I can’t watch much more of this.”  But then it turned into a two-joke movie, as could be expected by the title.  Presumably, through some kind of genetic mutation, Mark finds he is able to lie.  At first, he tells lies of the forbidden kind, as when he lies to the bank teller about how much money he has in his bank account, and then withdrawing more than he really has on deposit.

At this point, it should be noted that in a world where nobody is capable of lying, that does not mean no one is capable of being mistaken, which is to say, people might inadvertently say things that are false.  At the very least, the teller at the bank had to conclude that the computer was wrong when it said Mark had less money in his account than he claimed.  For this reason, the words “true” and “false” should still be a part of their vocabulary, even if the word “lie” is not.

And yet, the fact that someone might unintentionally say something false, either because he misunderstood what someone else said, or because his memory is faulty, never seems to occur to anyone. Therefore, the people of this world are excessively gullible, believing whatever anyone else tells them.  And that leads to the third joke in this movie. When Mark’s mother is dying, it occurs to him to tell her a pious lie, a lie that we tell others for their own good, usually of a religious nature. He tells her that she has an immortal soul that will go to Heaven when she dies, and that she will be with God.  He does not, however, use those words.  He speaks of the “man in the sky” and a place where everyone will have his own mansion. Whether a pious lie is one that is forbidden, permissible, or obligatory is debatable.

The lie about the mansion is interesting. There have been a lot of conceptions of Heaven throughout the centuries, but I have never before come across one where someone can go into a room by himself and close the door behind him. It’s almost as if a desire to be alone would be some kind of sin. So, this movie gets credit for allowing solitude and privacy to be part of the eternal reward, even if it is a lie.

Word gets out about what he told his mother, and this leads to his becoming the founder of religion. Not merely a religion, mind you, but religion itself.  In a world where no one can lie, religion is impossible, and everyone is a de facto atheist. At least, that is the underlying assumption of this movie. But it is too cynical to say that the founders of religions were lying. More likely, they were just delusional.

Because people in this world are gullible, they don’t half-believe in God and Heaven the way most religious people do. Instead, they believe all the way.  A lot of people lose all interest in this world, just marking time until they get to live in their mansion.  And while the man in the sky gets credit for all the good stuff that happens, he also gets blamed for the bad, for infecting children with AIDS, for example.  People pray for God’s cure for God’s disease.

Anna does not want to marry Mark because their children will have half of Mark’s genes, which means they will probably be fat and have snub noses.  But she finally realizes that she loves him, which matters more than having genetically superior offspring, and so they get married.  The final joke of this movie is that Mark is the one with the superior genes, in particular, the gene that allows one to tell a lie, which is passed on to his chubby, snub-nosed son. As this lying gene spreads through the gene pool, and more and more people start telling lies, the world will become a better place.

When the Production Code was in force, a movie like this would never have made it to the big screen, being regarded as sacrilegious.  Once the Production Code came to an end and was replaced by the ratings system, blasphemy in the movies showed up almost as quickly as pornography, starting with Bedazzled in 1967. But while that movie was something of a shock at the time, The Invention of Lying is able to pass as a harmless comedy. If you look for them, you can find religious critics that are offended by this movie, though one senses that they have long since resigned themselves to the secular, unbelieving world in which they must live.

God’s Not Dead (2014)

Once I have decided to watch a movie, for whatever reason, there is only one piece of information I want to know in advance, which is when the movie was made, because that provides the context that might be needed to appreciate the movie and understand it.  Of course, I already have other pieces of information in advance, such as the title, but basically, I like to watch the movie without having any more foreknowledge than necessary.  And thus it is that when I decided to watch God’s Not Dead, I did so with little appreciation for what I was letting myself in for, other than that afforded by the title and the date of production.

Regarding the title God’s Not Dead, it is obviously an allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead in The Joyful Wisdom and again in Thus Spake Zarathustra.  This can be interpreted in various ways, but I think we can eliminate two possibilities:  first, Nietzsche did not mean this literally, that God used to exist, but then he died; second, he did not mean that no one believes in God anymore.  One reasonable interpretation is that Nietzsche was talking about the intelligentsia, scientists and scholars, especially those that populate the universities.  Sure, the masses are just as gullible and superstitious as always, but the intellectual elite have dispensed with the concept of God long ago.  If we accept this interpretation, then God’s Not Dead is an appropriate title, for the anti-intellectual thrust of this movie is that the enemies of Christianity are primarily college professors, who sneer contemptuously at the devout.

Normally, when I review a movie, it is neither necessary nor desirable to talk about myself.  But this calls for an exception.  I majored in philosophy in the late 1960s, and my favorite philosopher was Nietzsche.  Needless to say, I was an atheist and have been ever since, although now my favorite philosopher is Arthur Schopenhauer.  It was just one university that I had experience with, and it was a long time ago, but I never experienced anything like what was depicted in this film.

The movie is set on a college campus.  Josh Wheaton is a freshman.  He signs up for an introductory course in philosophy.  He is warned by another student not to take the course from Professor Radisson, but he is undeterred.  During the first class, Radisson says he doesn’t want to waste time debating the existence of God, so he demands that every student in the class write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and sign it.  Josh refuses to sign it.  I must admit, Nietzschean atheist though I was, I wouldn’t have signed it either.

Radisson tells Josh that for twenty minutes in the next three classes, he will have to defend the proposition that God exists, with the implication that if he fails in this endeavor, he will flunk the course.  On the first day that he has to defend his belief that God is not dead, Josh essentially advances the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which is that an eternally existing God is needed to explain how a contingent world arose out of nothingness in a Big Bang.  On the second day, he advances the teleological argument for the existence of God, also known as the argument from design. The thrust of this argument is that God is needed to explain life.  Evolution alone will not suffice. On the third day, he addresses the problem of evil, in which the all the sin and suffering of this world seems to be inconsistent with the existence of an all-powerful, loving God.  His answer is that evil is the price we pay for having free will, which includes the freedom to accept Jesus as our savior, which will allow us to dwell in Heaven for eternity.  He also presents the moral argument for the existence of God, which is that God is needed as a foundation for morality.

Naïve me.  I thought that Radisson’s presentation on the first day was just a pose. I thought what would happen was that in the end, Radisson would give Josh an A for having the courage of his convictions, for being able to defend his views in front of the classroom, knowing that he was being judged by a militant atheist. Boy, was I wrong! That became clear after the first presentation, when Radisson becomes physical and threatening, presumably because he feels threatened by Josh. (Maybe I should have suspected something when I saw Radisson’s goatee, which is often seen in popular images of the Devil.)  After the third day, Josh gets the better of Radisson when he asks him why he hates God, and we find out that he hates God because God let his mother die when he was young. Then Josh asks him how he can hate someone who doesn’t exist. Golly! Radisson never thought of that.

The rest of the movie shows how sweet and wonderful Christians are, and how mean and selfish atheists are, including Chinese communists.  Of course, not everyone who believes in God is sweet and wonderful, only those who believe in the real God, because a Muslim kicks his daughter out of the house when he discovers she is an apostate who secretly listens to sermons on Christianity.

Radisson is hit by a car, receiving fatal injuries.  But that’s all right, because God kept Reverend Dave in town by not allowing any car he got into to start until he was needed at that intersection where Radisson was hit.  And so it is that in the long tradition of atheists in movies, Radisson repents and lets Jesus into his life just before he dies.

I learned something from watching this movie.  I learned that it was made by Pure Flix Productions, a company that specializes in the genre of Christian-friendly films.  At the beginning of this essay, I said that I try to keep my knowledge about a movie to a minimum before I watch it, except for such things as the title and the date in which the movie was made.  I now add one more item to that list.  From now on, before I watch a religious movie, I want to know if it was produced by Pure Flix, because I doubt that I will ever want to see another like this one.  It is one thing to watch religious movies, of which I have seen many, but it is quite another to sit through something like this.

Scott Foundas, writing for Variety, argues that the idea that Christianity is under siege is a bit paranoid:

Though you wouldn’t exactly guess it from the surveys that repeatedly show upwards of 80% of Americans identifying themselves as Christians, “God’s Not Dead” wants us to know that Christianity is under attack in the old U.S. of A. — attack from the liberal, “Duck Dynasty”-hating media, from titans of industry leading lives of wanton decadence, from observers of non-Christian faiths, and worst of all from the world of academia, with its self-important evolutionary scientists and atheistic philosophes.

But the statistic he cites is misleading.  Of the 80% that identify as Christians, many of them do not go to church, and of those that do, many of them give little thought to religious matters the rest of the week.  They are casual Christians, the default attitude of most characters in a typical movie.  It is those that believe too much or too little that Hollywood has been at pains to put in a bad light.

If Hollywood has been hard on atheists, it has been downright brutal when it comes to the religious, unless the movie is set in biblical times.  While atheists typically have to repent (or be miserable if they do not), devout and pious Christians rarely exist as major characters, unless they are mentally weak. Priests are treated well, as long as they are pragmatic and somewhat worldly, but when religious characters start taking things too seriously, they are portrayed as hypocrites, as in Rain (1932), as evil, The Night of the Hunter (1955), or as fools, The War of the Worlds (1953).  A good example of how both atheists and the godly are typically treated in a Hollywood movie is Inherit the Wind(1960).  While the atheist (Gene Kelly) in that movie is put down as being lonely and miserable by the agnostic (Spencer Tracy), no less, he still manages to have some dignity by the end of the movie, and thus he gets off light compared to the two religious characters. One of them is a reverend (Claude Akins), whose fanaticism has made his so heartless that he condemns most people to Hell, including his own daughter.  The other (Fredric March) is utterly humiliated, reduced to whimpering like a little child, while his wife, whom he calls “Mother,” rocks him in her arms, calling him “Baby.”

In the face of such cinematic history, it is easy to understand why there might be an audience for films in which a man can be genuinely religious in the modern world without suffering the ordinary indignities.  It is important that it be a man, by the way. Women have always been allowed to be religious in the movies, where it is implied that their purity of heart is the result of a foolish and impractical nature.  Their piety is tolerated by the men who understand the way the world really is.  That is why the hero of God’s Not Dead is Josh, a male college student, rather than a coed.  Having a woman be the defender of Christianity would not have stood the movie in stark contrast to the usual Hollywood depictions of religious characters the way having it be a man does.

And so, while I didn’t care for this movie, I understand why there might be a felt need for films of this sort.  I do not begrudge those who want to see movies like God’s Not Dead from having their Pure Flix, any more than I would begrudge them their places of worship.  We don’t have to watch these movies if we don’t want to, and if we do, we know it will be like sitting in Sunday School and not like attending a seminar in the philosophy of religion.

Contact (1997)

Long before I saw the movie Contact, I had known people who made some sort of connection between intelligent life on other planets and the existence of God.  It’s hard to say what that connection was exactly, because no one ever presented it as a valid argument, consisting of premises about extraterrestrial beings and ending with the conclusion that God exists.  No such argument was ever forthcoming, because it would have been palpably absurd on its face, even to those who were advancing it.  Instead, they just seemed to feel that the existence of aliens had religious significance, but they could never quite to bring themselves to spell it out.

Apparently, it was people just like that who made Contact.  The movie is mainly about making contact with extraterrestrials through the transmission of signals through space, but religious stuff keeps showing up, not because there is any logical connection between the two, but simply because people in the movie seem to feel that connection, even though that feeling never seems to rise to the level of coherent thought.  Mostly what we get is the association of ideas.

For example, Jodie Foster plays Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer.  When Ellie was a young girl, she had a ham radio.  At one point, she asks her father if she can contact her deceased mother through her radio.  And after her father dies, she tries to contact him through her radio.  So an association is made between radio transmissions and life after death.  We regard this as merely a child’s desperate hope of finding her parents again, which would be just fine as a stand-alone scene.  But further such childlike associations recur throughout the movie.

While listening for signals from outer space in Puerto Rico, she meets Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who is an almost-priest whose spirituality expresses itself as a concern for human values that he believes are being jeopardized by technology.  Ellie and Palmer have sex, and in the afterglow, during a little pillow talk, he says:  “So I was lying there, just looking at the sky. And then I felt something. I don’t know. All I know is that I wasn’t alone. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared of nothing, not even dying. It was God.”

There it is in a nutshell:  He looks up at the sky; he has a feeling of the sublime; so there must be a God.

By this time in her life, Ellie has become an atheist, one of a long list of movie atheists destined to find God in the final reel.  She says, “And there’s no chance that you had this experience because some part of you needed to have it?”

Her remark is to the point, of course.  Most people have a religious need.  That need is satisfied by whatever their parents told them when they were children, and that suffices for life.  If they lose their faith in the teachings of childhood, their religious need will manifest itself in something else, sooner or later.  But some people have no religious need at all.  They simply quit believing whatever they were raised to believe, and nothing ever takes its place.  They look up at the sky, and all they see are stars.  If they think about life on other planets, it inspires no religious awe.

As a way of forestalling objections, Palmer says, “I’m a reasonably intelligent guy, but this…. My intellect couldn’t even touch this.”  And that’s the end of that.  His epiphany transcended such things as reason and common sense, so it cannot be subjected to critical thought.

Later in the movie, when the world finds out that signals from the vicinity of the relatively close star Vega show signs of intelligent life, we are informed that attendance at religious services has risen.  And we see Robert Novak on Crossfire saying, “Even a scientist must admit there are some pretty serious religious overtones to all this.”

It would be tedious for me to object to every piece of poppycock in this movie, but I cannot let this one pass.  A lot of religious people believe that intelligent life on this planet can be explained only if there is a God.  Let us assume they are right.  In that case, there being another planet with intelligent life on it is no big deal.  What God did once, he could easily do again.  On the other hand, atheists believe that evolution can completely explain intelligent life on this planet.  Let us assume they are right.  In that case, evolution could produce intelligent life on another planet just as it did on this one.  In either event, one more planet is just one more planet.

Ellie and Palmer get into a debate about the existence of God.  She appeals to the principle of Occam’s razor:  “Occam’s Razor is a basic scientific principle which says: Things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be right. So what’s more likely? An all-powerful God created the universe, then decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or that he doesn’t exist at all, and that we created him so we wouldn’t feel so small and alone.”

Palmer says he would not want to live in a world where God does not exist.  Ellie, in turn, says she would need proof.  Palmer asks her if she can prove that her father loved her.  She is stumped.  I don’t know why, because all she has to do is apply Occam’s razor one more time.  Her father acted as though he loved her, and the simplest explanation for that is that he really did.  God, on the other hand, acts as though he doesn’t care.

Anyway, it turns out that the aliens have sent us schematics for building a transportation machine that will allow someone from Earth to visit that planet orbiting Vega.  After a lot of paranoid politics and neo-luddite terrorism, Ellie gets to go.  She zips through a wormhole and ends up in a world based on what is in her mind, memories of a beach in Pensacola and of her father.  The alien who has taken on the image of her father explains everything to her, how lots of civilizations from different planets have interacted this way.  Ellie wants to know why more people from Earth can’t see what she’s seen.  The alien answers, “This is the way it’s been done for billions of years.”

In other words, this advanced civilization does not ask why things have to be this way, and so Ellie shouldn’t ask why either.  We are not supposed to question the ways of the aliens just as we are not supposed to question the ways of God.

When Ellie gets back, it turns out that while she has been gone for eighteen hours by her time, only a split second has passed here on Earth.  This is the reverse of the usual twin paradox, in which more time passes for the people on Earth than it does for the astronaut traveling at speeds near that of light, but the reason for this anomaly soon becomes clear.  It is so that her story can be doubted.  Because she ostensibly was only gone for a split second, a lot people don’t believe her story about what happened.  In particular, Michael Kitz (James Woods), who is sort of the villain of the piece, calls her story into question.  He says she just hallucinated it, that the whole thing is a hoax.  He demands that Ellie produce proof, and she cannot.  He appeals to Occam’s razor, no less, and indignantly asks if we are supposed to accept her story on faith.

Now we know why this movie has the aliens demanding that just one person go on that trip to Vega instead of having the Vegans come to Earth.  It puts Ellie in the same position as someone who believes in God but cannot prove it.  Had the Vegans come to Earth, everyone would have seen them on television.  There would have been no doubt as to their existence.  But this way, the aliens leave no proof of their existence just as God has left no proof of his.  So all the objections earlier enunciated by Ellie about God are turned against her with respect to the aliens.  Ellie’s response to these objections harks back to the mystical experience Palmer had while stargazing, almost a beatific vision.

Since this is the way things have been done for billions of years, then here is the way it must have all begun.  There was this first ancient civilization, call it Civilization 1.  They discovered there was another civilization on another planet more primitive than their own, call it Civilization 2.  So, they decided to let exactly one person from Civilization 1 make physical contact with exactly one person from Civilization 2.  They knew that the one person so contacted would not be believed by most people from Civilization 2, except for those willing to take things on faith.  Why the people of Civilization 1 thought faith was important, we don’t know and never shall.  When Civilization 2 discovered a Civilization 3, exactly one person from among the faithful of Civilization 2 made physical contact with exactly one person from Civilization 3, and he was not believed by those of Civilization 3, except by those who have faith.  And they did it this way because that was the way Civilization 1 did it, and people of faith know they are not supposed to question why things are the way they are.  Then Civilization 3 did the same with Civilization 4, and so on and so on, until we get to our present civilization here on Earth.  And it all makes about as much sense as a religion in which God leaves no proof of his existence and then requires faith in him for salvation, without which one is condemned to the eternal fires of Hell.  Why God thinks faith is important, we don’t know and never shall.

For those who are inclined to infuse the existence of aliens from other planets with religious significance, this movie is for them.  For those who have no need of religion, this movie will make them feel like an alien from another planet.

The Ledge (2011)

The Ledge is a good example of what happens when a story is made to fit the Procrustean bed of a preconceived philosophical dilemma.  Actually, make that a preconceived sophomoric philosophical dilemma.  The result is that characters in this movie find themselves in situations that would never really happen, and even if they did, they do things that no one would ever do, and even if someone was dumb enough to do these things, we wouldn’t care, because no one cares what happens to people that stupid.

The movie has two plots, and the principal characters of each intersect on the ledge of a skyscraper, where one man, Gavin, is about to jump, and another man, Hollis, is a detective trying to talk him out of it.  The movie begins with the Hollis-plot.  Hollis goes to a fertility clinic to donate some sperm, whereupon he finds out that he is sterile owing to a genetic defect, and has been so all his life.  This means that the two children his wife had were not his.  As we find out through subsequent scenes interspersed with the Gavin-plot, Hollis and his wife were wondering why they could not have children.  So, they went to a fertility clinic to be tested.  His wife Angela went by herself to get the results, at which point she found out that Hollis was sterile.

Get ready for some unbelievable stupidity.  First, Angela did not tell Hollis, because she was afraid she would lose him.  In other words, we are to believe that she thought that once he found out that he was sterile, he would no longer love her.  All I can say is that any man who would stop loving his wife because he found out that he was sterile is a husband worth being rid of.  But the whole thing is preposterous.  Couples go to fertility clinics all the time, and when one of them turns out to be infertile, they have all sorts of choices available to them, such as adoption, surrogate mothers, or in vitro fertilization, but divorce is not usually one of them.

Second, if you can get past that, here is another stupidity.  Angela decided to have children anyway, and to make sure they looked like Hollis, she decided that Hollis’s brother should be the father.  So, she had Hollis’s brother go to the fertility clinic to be tested to see if he has the same genetic defect, right?  And when it turned out that he was fertile, she had him donate sperm so that she could be artificially inseminated, right?  Wrong!  She had an adulterous affair with Hollis’s brother until she got pregnant.  And that worked out so well that when she was ready to have a second child, she started having sex with him again.

All right, let’s move on to the Gavin-plot.  Gavin hires Shana at the hotel he manages.  She and her husband Joe just happen to live on the same floor of a nearby apartment.  Joe is a Christian fundamentalist to an absurd degree, whereas Gavin is an atheist.  Joe finds out that Gavin and Shana are having an affair.  He calls Gavin on the phone and tells him that either Gavin or Shana must die for having committed adultery.  If Gavin does not jump off the ledge of the skyscraper by noon, Joe will shoot Shana.  Joe says he has the courage to die for his beliefs.  This test will determine whether Gavin has the courage to die for his beliefs.  Actually, if he jumps, Gavin will not be dying for his beliefs, but to save the life of the woman he loves.  But by this point, the whole idea is so dumb that we don’t really care. Anyway, at noon Gavin leaps to his death, and that is so dumb we don’t really care either.  After all, any normal person would have simply called the police and told them what the situation was.

There is a subplot about Gavin’s roommate Chris.  Gavin took pity on Chris and let him move in with him when he lost his job on account of being HIV positive.  Chris has a lover whom he wishes to marry, but the rabbi won’t perform the ceremony.  Therefore, religion, be it Christianity or Judaism, is shown to be bad.  Atheism, on the other hand, is shown to be good.  There is a ludicrous scene where a maid in the hotel finds out her father died and becomes hysterical, and Gavin gets down on his knees and pretends to pray to God to save her father.  That is so we will think him magnanimous.  And when Gavin leaps to his death to save the woman he loves, knowing there is no afterlife, that is supposed to prove just how noble he is.

To an atheist like me, you might think that The Ledge would be refreshing, considering all the movies that have portrayed atheists in a bad light.  But the movie was too lopsided and simplistic to be of any value, either intellectually or aesthetically.

After it is all over, Hollis goes home, intent on reconciling with his wife and accepting her children as his.  Angela wants to say grace, but Hollis says, “No, not tonight.”  The idea is that he’s had all the religion he can stand for one day.  However, they will presumably say grace in the future.  As to whether they will be having Hollis’s brother over for dinner any time soon, I cannot say.

Brideshead Revisited:  The Book and the Adaptations

The message of Brideshead Revisited  is that people who don’t believe in God are superficial.  Charles Ryder, the narrator of this novel, exemplifies this principle.  He is all about art and the pleasures of the palate.  That is to say, his interests are in the realm of the appearances.  He leads a sensuous existence.  He becomes fascinated with the Flyte family.  They are a bunch of Catholics, though of various sorts, from the devout to the lapsed.  But in any event, believing in God as they do, their lives have depth and significance.  Almost unconsciously, Ryder is drawn to the Flytes for that reason.

If Ryder were just a man who enjoyed the arts and liked to dine on good food and drink, it would not be so bad.  But he lays it on so thick, with language so flowery and ornate, that one cannot help but think that he takes himself way too seriously.  For example, when he encounters Lady Julia Flyte after not having seen her for some time, he says:

She was not yet thirty, but was approaching the zenith of her loveliness, all her rich promise abundantly fulfilled. She had lost that fashionable, spidery look; the head that I used to think quattrocento, which had sat a little oddly on her, was now part of herself and not at all Florentine; not connected in any way with painting or the arts or with anything except herself, so that it would be idle to itemize and dissect her beauty, which was her own essence, and could only be known in her and by her authority and in the love I was soon to have for her. Time had wrought another change, too; not for her the sly, complacent smile of la Gioconda; the years had been more than ‘the sound of lyres and flutes’, and had saddened her.

I don’t know about you, but if I found myself sitting at a table with someone who talked that way, I would plead a headache and bolt for the exit.  Her head was no longer quattrocento indeed!  And did you catch the bit about la Gioconda?  He’s not satisfied with comparing her to the Mona Lisa, which would be absurd enough for anyone but Nat King Cole.  He has to refer to that painting by its Italian name, just to put us ignorant philistines in our place, who had to Google the name to find that out.

Of course, Ryder talks this way because the author, Evelyn Waugh, put those words into his mouth.  Perhaps this was Waugh’s way of ridiculing people like Ryder who don’t believe in God, showing them to be affected as a way of compensating for a life that is hollow and without significance.  But then, since Ryder’s narration takes place after his conversion to Catholicism, it appears that if someone is insufferably pretentious to begin with, his believing in God isn’t going to make much difference.

As far as the adaptations go, there is a change that I found interesting.  When Ryder is dining with the Flyte family in the novel, Sebastian refers to Ryder as an atheist, but Ryder corrects him, saying he is an agnostic.  The 1981 mini-series follows the novel in this.  But the movie version produced in 2008 reverses the dialogue, so that when Sebastian says that Ryder is an atheist, “Bridey” (Lord Brideshead) says, “An agnostic, surely,” to which Ryder emphatically denies being an agnostic and asserts that he is indeed an atheist.

I suspect that the reason for this reversal of terms is due to the change in connotation of the word “agnostic” between 1945 and 2008.  At the time the novel was written, the word “agnostic” was sufficiently scandalous and shocking for a character like Ryder.  By the late 1960s, it had lost its edge.  It suggested someone who was wishy-washy, someone who didn’t want to appear naively religious, but was still hoping for some kind of afterlife all the same.  By the turn of the twenty-first century, this shift in meaning had become even more pronounced.  Only by changing Ryder into an atheist could his conversion to Catholicism actually seem to amount to something.

The Spiral Road (1962)

It’s not easy being a movie atheist.  More often than not, you will end up being humiliated in the last reel.  But of all the atheist-humiliation movies ever made, none have surpassed The Spiral Road.  There is no substitute for seeing this movie in all its glory, but in the meantime, I will try, in my own small way, to give the reader some sense of this film and the slow, relentless way it reduces the big, swaggering atheist to a sniveling, sorry spectacle of a broken man.

The movie is set in the Dutch East Indies in 1936.  As required by their medical school contracts, several young doctors arrive in Indonesia to spend five years treating the natives for tropical diseases, such as cholera, plague, and leprosy.  The brightest of these, a gold medal winner with high honors, is Anton Drager (Rock Hudson).  On the day of their arrival, the doctors are told they will attend a dinner where they will meet the hospital staff and their families.  At the dinner, Mrs. Kramer, the wife of the director, tells Drager that the social life in the Dutch colony can be quite enjoyable, but he says he didn’t come to this part of the world for dance lessons or to join the Country Club.  She says, “You make it sound like a fate worse than death.”

“I don’t believe in fate,” Drager replies.

Most people would regard Mrs. Kramer’s remark as merely a manner of speaking, but Drager cannot let the remark pass without taking a firm stand against such a notion.  This would be like someone saying, “We can thank our lucky stars that it didn’t rain today,” to which someone says with a straight face, “I don’t believe in astrology.”

“What do you believe in, Dr. Drager,” she asks.

“Anton Drager,” he replies.

After an arrogant answer like that, one suspects that Mrs. Kramer might not be too disappointed that Drager has no interest in the social life in Batavia.  Through subsequent conversation with her and then with her husband, we learn that Drager is quite ambitious.  He wants to work with Dr. Brits Jansen (Burl Ives), who is the best in the field of tropical medicine, but who hasn’t published anything in years.  Drager hopes to publish jointly with Jansen, so that when he returns to the Netherlands after five years, he will be very much in demand in the field of research, for which there will be significant remunerative benefit.  Kramer agrees to send Drager to Jansen.

On arriving in the area where Jansen usually works, Drager meets Harry Frolick, a river master, and Captain Wattereus of the Salvation Army.  Frolick goes out of his way to mock Wattereus’s religion, becoming so physically aggressive about it that Drager has to grab Frolick and push him away, knocking him to the ground.  After Frolick leaves with a prostitute, Drager remarks, “Well, that was a ridiculous exhibition.”

“Poor Harry,” Wattereus says.  “He’s going through a hell all his own, trying to prove God doesn’t exist.  For if God doesn’t exist, Harry’s sins don’t exist.  That’s why he’s so violent and unhappy.”

Drager disagrees, saying, “To me, Frolick is just a poor idiot who can’t hold his liquor.”

Now, either explanation could be correct, for all we know.  It could be as simple as Drager says.  But then, such extreme hostility toward religion on Frolick’s part makes us suspect he is an atheist who is still struggling against the remnants of religious upbringing that are still within him.

This is a recurring theme throughout the movie:  explanations involving people’s beliefs in the supernatural versus physiological explanations only.  Now, these explanations in terms of beliefs depend in no way on those beliefs being true.  Even if there is no God, Wattereus’s explanation for Frolick’s behavior in terms of his internal struggle against religion could still be correct.  But Drager seems incapable of making such a distinction, as if operating under a perverse sort of logic:  the supernatural does not exist; therefore, explanations in terms of the supernatural are false; therefore, explanations in terms of people’s beliefs in the supernatural are false; therefore, only physiological causes can explain human behavior.

As another example, when Drager catches up with Jansen, who is in a village trying to eliminate the plague that has beset a village, Jansen tells him that he will often have to appeal to magic to deal with the natives.  As easy as this is to understand, Drager appears to be unconvinced.

Later, when Drager tells Jansen of his dispute with Wattereus over the correct explanation for Frolick’s behavior, Jansen says, “I take it you don’t believe in God.”  Now, just as you do not have to believe in God to accept Wattereus’s explanation, not accepting that explanation does not mean you are an atheist.  So, there is no logical reason why Jansen should conclude that Drager does not believe in God.  As a matter of fact, Drager says he does not believe in God, so Jansen’s conclusion turns out to be true, but that does not make his reasoning valid.  So what is going on here?  The movie is equating an explanation in terms of beliefs with holding those beliefs.  By identifying atheism with a simplistic understanding of human nature, the atheist can be dismissed as a fool.

Along these lines, when it comes to physiological explanations, Drager is shown to be excellent.  He is able to diagnose leprosy at a glance, which amazes Jansen.  In other words, the movie makes it clear that in the realm of the physiological, Drager is brilliant.  Therefore, when his physiological explanations alone do not suffice, it follows, according to the thinking underlying this movie, that his atheism does not suffice.

After learning that Drager is an atheist, Jansen says that atheism is fine for civilization, but there are no atheists in the jungle.  This is a variation on the old saw that there are no atheists in foxholes.  People who make that sort of argument reason as follows:  people need to believe in God, especially when they are afraid of dying; therefore there must be a God.  This is just one more conflation of the efficacy of a belief with the truth of that belief.

The whole reason the subject of Wattereus came up in the first place is that he runs the nearby leper colony, and Drager and Jansen are taking the man Drager correctly diagnosed as having leprosy to live there.  Jansen tells Drager that Wattereus and his wife Betsy are his best friends.  When they get there, it turns out that Betsy has leprosy.  She is behind a curtain surrounding her bed, so we are left to imagine that she has been horribly disfigured by the disease and is in much pain, as well as being blind.  Jansen gives her an injection to make her sleep.  Outside the hut, Jansen tells Wattereus, “She’s worse.  There she lies dying, mutilated, rotting away, and I can’t do a thing about it.”

Later, when Drager and Jansen are alone, Jansen tells how when he first met them, they were already out there, taking in lepers, but they were doing nothing to protect themselves, because, Betsy said, “God protects us.”  But he took one look at her hands and knew that she had the disease.  “Well,” Jansen said to her, “Your God’s made a fool of you…, because you’ve got it.”

He says he almost got satisfaction in telling her.  She was tending to a leper when he told her, but she just looked up at him and smiled. “I’ve never seen such beauty and peace,” he says.  In other words, Jansen was much like Drager when he first came to the jungle, and this is just one of the ways in which living in the jungle makes people believe in God.  It’s that same reasoning again:  Betsy’s love of God is so strong that not even the knowledge that she will slowly be ravaged by a horrible disease can dispel her feeling of blessedness; therefore, there must be a God.

When a movie presents you with a setup like this, you know that the subject of mercy killing will inevitably arise.  Drager asks Jansen if he ever thought about putting her out of her misery.  Jansen says he did once, about three years earlier, but he couldn’t do it.  Drager offers to do it himself.  Jansen then explains why he couldn’t do it. He says he had the needle to her skin.  She could still see and talk at that time, and she knew, so she asked God to forgive him even for thinking about it.  That was when he realized that “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh way.”  Jansen says that he realized he must not play God, and he makes it clear that it would be wrong for Drager to do so as well.

This is not much of a moral dilemma.  If Betsy did not want to be euthanized, then that was her decision.  What we would like to know is what Jansen would have done if Betsy had begged him to kill her.  Would he still have said it was wrong to play God?  But that kind of scene belongs in a completely different movie.  This movie is not interested making us think.  It is interested only in presenting us with an utterly lopsided advocacy in favor of God and religious belief, and in showing us just how wrongheaded the atheist is.

After several months, Els (Gena Rowlands), Drager’s fiancé, shows up for a visit.  After one thing and another, they decide to get married.  During the ceremony, the bride and groom are both supposed to repeat after the minister a ritual affirmation that includes the phrase “in the sight of God.”  Drager tries to leave it out, but the minister isn’t having it, so Drager is forced to utter it.  It would have been more realistic if Drager had simply repeated the phrase the first time with indifference, as most atheists would, but this is a movie atheist, don’t you know, so such things matter to him.  Later, Els says it was sneaky of him trying to leave God out of the ceremony.  He jokes, “I was in a hurry.”

Jansen does not like to work with married men in the jungle, but Els eventually convinces him to take Drager back.  He agrees.  It turns out that during the intervening months, Drager has been compiling Jansen’s notes on leprosy into a coherent manuscript.  At first, Jansen is angry, but after reading most of it, he agrees that it is good.  But Drager tells him to read the last chapter, in which Drager concludes that management of all medical centers presently under control of religious and charitable organizations be taken from them and turned over to the administration of the government health service.  In particular, Drager believes that Wattereus is too sentimental, allowing people to stay in his leper colony long after their disease is in remission, causing the colony to be overcrowded.  But Jansen points out that their families will never take them back, that the leper colony is the only family they have.  Through the discussion, it becomes clear that Drager really doesn’t care about people beyond their role as patients with a disease to be cured.  All he really cares about is getting back to Holland and publishing the manuscript jointly with Jansen, as a means of becoming a successful researcher.  Jansen takes the manuscript away from him and says he will have him replaced.

The replacement is brought up by Inspector Bevers, who tells Drager that before he can take him back, they will have to check on Frolick.  When they get there, the camp is deserted, except for Frolick, whose hair and beard make him look like a wild man.  It is clear that he has gone mad.  He tries to kill Drager with a machete, and Drager has to shoot him.  Back in Batavia, Kramer is trying to understand what drove Frolick mad.  Drager says it was a psychotic state induced by excessive use of alcohol.  We have already seen that Frolick was an alcoholic, and there were bottles of gin everywhere.  But Bevers has a different theory.  The madness was caused by Burubi, the witchdoctor.  True, Burubi probably supplied Frolick with the gin, but we also saw a dead lizard surrounded by a circle of blood, as well as an effigy of Frolick cut into pieces.

So, here we are again:  Drager insisting on a purely physiological explanation; Bevers saying that black magic was involved.  It is a cliché to point out that voodoo can’t harm you, if you don’t believe in it; but if you do believe in it, it can kill you.  Superstitious natives have been known to go into shock and die when presented with an effigy of themselves with a pin stuck in it.  Through isolation and excessive alcohol, Frolick’s mind had deteriorated to the point that he came to believe in the witchdoctor’s black magic.  But Drager cannot accept this simple truth.

Drager is still stressed by having to kill Frolick, but he and Els decide to go to dinner.  Wattereus happens to be in town for his monthly checkup, and he joins them.  He laments that he might have been able to do something for Frolick.  Drager replies that all he had to do was work a miracle, turning whiskey into water.  That’s a pretty good line.

Wattereus argues that it was not the alcohol that drove Frolick mad.  Rather, after the natives deserted him, Wattereus continues, Frolick was forced to stand alone, and that’s what broke him.  Throughout the movie, there have been remarks by Drager to the effect that he is a rugged individualist, someone who relies solely on himself.  Now Wattereus is implying that this kind of stance toward the world is untenable.  He says of Frolick, “He cut himself off from God, and from people, at least the love of people, the only sources of strength a man can call on.”

This is another conflation that this movie makes, and it makes it in a big way:  love of God and love of people.  The idea is that because the atheist thinks he does not need God, it follows that he thinks he does not need people.  Of course, Drager is an atheist who, as a matter of fact, thinks he does not need people, but that is only because the people who made this movie wanted him to be that way.  Not only is there no logical reason why the two should be related, they are not so related as a matter of fact.  But in this movie, love of God and love of people are inextricably intertwined.  This is emphasized by an epilogue at the end of the movie, a quotation from the Bible, I John, 4:12, that makes this connection:  “No man hath seen God….  If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

But Wattereus is not through.  He moves on to the next step:  “And he was defenseless against the wilderness.  But then we began in the wilderness, all of us lost and afraid. But with a choice:  to take the spiral road upward, leading to God, or to remain in the darkness and degenerate back to the animal.  I know how terrifying it is to look into the face of a human being, someone you know, but can no longer recognize, and to see in it the image of what we can become.”  In other words, Frolick was not practically unrecognizable because he hadn’t shaved, bathed, or combed his hair in a month, but because he didn’t believe in God.  It was his atheism that caused him to become like an animal.

Drager has another explanation.  He tells about how just before he came out to the Dutch colonies, a God-fearing, gentle shopkeeper committed a brutal sex crime.  It seems he had been receiving hormone treatment for chronic prostatitis, and an accidental overdose was apparently responsible.  And so, Drager continues, if an injection can turn a saintly man into sinner, then the reverse should also be true.  Eventually someone will discover the right chemical to turn a sinner into a saint.  “It will be the first biochemical explanation for faith, like putting God into a test tube.  Religion would become nothing more than a matter of glands.  One simple shot.  Ten cc’s of saint serum and heaven on earth.”

After Wattereus leaves, Els chastises Drager for humiliating him, but Drager is clearly fed up with it all, saying he just wanted to clear the air:  “You heard him.  Spouting all the spiritual gibberish about poor Harry, the man without God, punished for his sins, struck down by some heavenly fist.”

Els says that was not what Wattereus meant, saying, “All he said was we all need faith in some power greater than ourselves, that we need each other, that without it we’re alone, and we can’t live alone.  No one is strong enough.”

Els is right in one respect.  Wattereus was not saying that God will strike down people who don’t believe in him, but rather that man cannot live without believing in God.  Drager says it’s the same thing.  On that they disagree.  But where they do agree is on the conflation, just reiterated by Els, of loving God and loving people, needing God and needing people.  But here too there is disagreement, a disagreement of attitude toward that conflation, with Els saying we need God/people, and Drager saying he doesn’t need God/people.

Drager says, “I’ve heard stuff like that since I was a kid, and it scared me then.  Love one another, love God or he will destroy you.  I heard it all.”  He tells how his father, who was a hellfire-and-damnation preacher, would “beat me regularly trying to teach me to love God.”  Drager says he was afraid at first, but then he stopped it once and for all.  At the age of ten, while his father was ranting from the pulpit, Drager says he dared God to kill him, saying to God, “I don’t love you, God.  Do you hear me?  I hate you….”  He says he kept that up every Sunday for a month.  But nothing happened.  And then he knew, “God couldn’t touch me.  He couldn’t hurt me.  And if he couldn’t hurt me, he couldn’t help me.  Nobody could.”

Note the conflation right at the end:  God can’t help me, therefore people can’t help me.  Needless to say, when he explicitly follows up on this by saying he doesn’t need anyone, Els draws the conclusion that he does not need her.  He is reluctant to go that far at first.  She says she wants to understand what is happening to him.  He says he is angry that Jansen won’t let him publish the manuscript with him, and he is upset that he had to kill a man.   And he tells her that he had an affair with a native woman while in the jungle, “No words, no questions.”  In other words, he may need sex, but he does not need the person that goes with it.  Finally, he tells Els that he does not need her, that she should go back to Holland.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, something has happened to Dr. Sordjano, who happens to be a Muslim.  Drager is sent to check on him, to bring him back if he is still alive, and to shut down the camp.  When Drager, Inspector Bevers, and their crew arrive, they find a situation similar to that of Frolick.  When Sordjano dies, Drager refuses to leave, saying, “I’m not Frolick, and I’m not Sordjano.  I don’t need liquor, or a prayer rug, or the Bible.”

After Bevers leaves, Burubi starts with the black magic, causing the men who were left with Drager to desert.  After several weeks, Drager is reduced to the same state that Frolick was in, shaggy hair and beard, wild look in his eyes.  When he sees his reflection in the water of a stream, he does not recognize himself, and he fires his gun at it.  This recalls Wattereus’s comment about looking into the face of someone you know but don’t recognize, seeing the image of what we can become without God.  Later, when Drager gets stuck in a pond, he sees his face again and says in horror, “It’s me.”  Then there is the scene we all knew was coming.  He prays to God, asking for help.  Immediately thereafter, he calls out to Els, establishing the conflation one more time of needing God and needing people.

Well, God sure acts fast, because just then a rescue party shows up.  Drager collapses in Jansen’s arms.  Later, back in Batavia, Els is by his bedside.  He is delirious but holds her hand tightly.  He starts calling out her name, louder and louder, so that Jansen and Wattereus come running in to see what is happening.  Just then, he comes to, takes Els in his arms, and says, “Thank God.”  He says that, he does, right there in front of God and everybody.

Boy, if he could have just held out another five minutes in the jungle, his dignity would have been saved, and we would have been spared the most degrading, atheist-humiliation scenes ever filmed.

Atheists in American Movies

For no special reason, I began reflecting on the evolving treatment of atheists in American movies, and the next thing you know, I was writing this essay.

As one might expect, for a long time it was pretty much standard that if someone in a movie was an atheist, he would have to end up believing in God before the movie was over.  A good example of this is 7th Heaven (1927).  An exception to this rule might be The Godless Girl (1929).  Of course, having the woman be the atheist in a movie is exceptional all by itself, but for the present purpose, her praying to God toward the end of the movie is only tentative and conditional, not unequivocal as in San Francisco (1936).

With Strange Cargo (1940), a few new wrinkles are added.  First of all, the atheist in the movie is not explicitly declared to be such.  He is referred to as “superman” (in the Nietzschean sense), so it is safe to infer his atheism. Nevertheless, whenever the atheism of a character in a movie has to be inferred, he may be able to evade the standard treatment in the movies for explicit atheists at that time.  Second, God exists in this movie as a character. Whenever it is made clear in a movie that there is a God, the atheist is thereby refuted, so his admission that there is a God is not necessary.  Third, this atheist is a minor character, for which the rules can be relaxed, just as during the heyday of the Production Code, not every gangster had to be punished, only the protagonist or principal villain. Fourth, it is implied that the atheist will come to a bad end.

In Angel and the Badman (1947), we have another atheist who does not have to admit to the existence of God by the end of the movie.  However, he does start to have doubts about his atheism.  And he is also a minor character.

These exceptions reserved for minor characters came to be extended to major characters by the late 1950s.  In The Quiet American (1958), the protagonist remains an atheist throughout the movie, but things end badly for him and he is unhappy. In the 2002 remake, however, things end happily for the protagonist, but he is no longer an atheist.

Agnostics are treated differently than atheists. An agnostic already admits that there may be a God, so all he usually had to do back then was admit to the possibility just a little bit more.  Two good examples of this are the movies based on the agnostic Clarence Darrow, Compulsion(1959) and Inherit the Wind (1960).  In both cases, the Darrow character emphasizes his agnostic position at the end.  The atheists in those two movies, however, are subjected to the new rules.  They do not have to admit that God exists, but they have to either have doubts or be unhappy or both.

During most of the 1960s, things were still pretty rough on movie atheists, but they were allowed to be more blasphemous than ever before.  In The Spiral Road (1962) and Cool Hand Luke (1967), the protagonist in each movie is allowed to defy God, challenging God to kill him.  When nothing happens, the protagonist takes that as proof that God does not exist.  For such blasphemy, however, a heavy price had to be paid.  In each movie, the protagonist, with tears in his eyes, begs for God’s help by the end of the movie.

The Best Man (1964) is an interesting transitional movie.  Two men, played by Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, are vying for their party’s nomination for president of the United States.  They both want the endorsement of a former president, played by Lee Tracy.  Tracy asks Fonda if he believes in God.  It turns out that both men are affiliated with a Protestant church, but they are both atheists.  Cliff Robertson, on the other hand, definitely believes that there is a God.  Fonda’s character is basically a good man, aside from his philandering, while Robertson’s character is unscrupulous, even though he is faithful to his wife.  Usually, it would be the atheist who is portrayed as not having any scruples, but not here.  In a sense, the movie does not end happily for anyone:  neither Fonda nor Robertson gets the nomination, and Tracy’s character dies of cancer.  But while Robertson’s failure to get the nomination is exactly what he deserves, the bad outcomes for Fonda and Tracy do not come across as punishment for not believing in God.  Fonda and Tracy never express any doubts about their atheism, but this is especially notable for Tracy, in that this is the first movie in which an atheist knows he is about to die but still remains an atheist, accepting his death as final.

In 1968, the Production Code, which required that religion not be mocked, came to an end.  And so, it is not surprising that a new era of atheism in the movies began around that time.  In particular, Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969) is the first movie in which the protagonist is an atheist at the end of a movie that ends happily.  Well, he is in prison when the movie ends, which would be an unhappy ending in a drama, but as this is a comedy, we don’t take that seriously. Furthermore, he is carving a piece of soap to look like a gun and asks whether it is raining outside, so we figure he is going to escape anyway. In general, with this movie there began a new outlet for atheism. Comedies with atheists in them who express no doubts and do not end up being unhappy started being made on a regular basis, many of which were also made by Woody Allen.  It may be that atheists in comedies seem to be less threatening than their counterparts in dramas and thus do not require refutation, as it were.

In the 1990s, two new outlets for atheism in the movies emerged.  One is biography, such as The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999).  Inasmuch as biographies are (supposedly) about things that really happened, they are more difficult to object to than a piece of fiction might be, although objections no longer seem to be a consideration by this time. The second outlet is the documentary, such as Hell’s Angel (1994). Documentaries are (supposedly) about reality too, but they tend to advocate a particular position, even to the point of being argumentative. This argumentative element has become even more pronounced in the present century, entering into fictional films as well.

Argumentative movies about atheists introduce a new characterization of the nonbeliever.  He hates God.  In The Ledge (2011), a religious fanatic and an atheist get into an argument about the existence of God.  At one point, the Christian says, “What did God do to you to make you so angry at him?” In God’s Not Dead (2014), a Christian student in a philosophy class is debating the existence of God with his professor, who is an atheist, and he finally gets the better of this professor by asking, “Why do you hate God?” This is an argumentum ad hominem  attack, of course, but it is a special form of that fallacy, which may be termed psychoanalytic, in that the reasons the atheist gives for not believing in God are said to be rationalizations of his hatred of God, whom he blames for his miserable life.  Perhaps this ad hominem attack is just turnabout’s fair play.  After all, atheists have long argued that religious belief arises out of a fear of death, rather than some dispassionate contemplation of the cosmological or teleological proofs for the existence of God.

Many of the old formulas still apply, of course.  There are still movies in which atheists either finally admit there is a God or end up being unhappy.  In The Sunset Limited (2011), for example, which is definitely argumentative, we have the latter situation.  Black (Samuel L. Jackson) is a Christian who loves life, and White (Tommy Lee Jones) is a miserable atheist who wants to commit suicide.  White’s atheism is depicted as obtuse.  He willfully refuses to consider the possibility that God exists because he just doesn’t want to.  Though he is a college professor who has read over forty thousand books, yet he has never read the Bible.  This is artificial.  A lot of atheists have read the entire Bible and are more knowledgeable about what is in it than many Christians.  But White is the way he is in this movie because that is the way the author, Cormac McCarthy, wanted him to be.  All the better to refute the atheist as wrongheaded.

As a side note, atheists in movies are mostly men, but invariably white.  Just try to imagine this movie in which the roles are switched, with Tommy Lee Jones playing the joyful Christian and Samuel L. Jackson playing the pigheaded, miserable, suicidal atheist.

In many cases, however, atheists are free to say and do what they want with impunity.  Nevertheless, a lot of people have strong negative views about atheists, believing they are untrustworthy and prone to immoral behavior.  For this reason, it is difficult for an atheist to be in a movie without that fact becoming a major consideration.

Let us try a thought experiment.  Imagine that early in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), someone casually asks Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) if he believes in God, and he replies, “No, I’m an atheist.”  Then imagine that everything else in the movie is just the same.  Other movies one might try imagining the protagonist mentioning just casually that he is an atheist while the rest of the movie remains the same are Rocky (1976), Superman (1978), and Forrest Gump (1994). This is hard to do, because the fact of the protagonist’s atheism would demand that it be dealt with in some way, falling under the principle of Chekhov’s gun.

Finally, all the atheist movies we have considered thus far are set in this century or the last.  An exception to this is the movie Agora (2009), set in the fourth century A.D.  In the typical sword and sandal epic in which Christians are present, the Christians are invariably good.  Jews are good to the extent that they are contrasted with Romans, but less so when contrasted with Christians.  In Agora, almost everyone falls into one of three groups:  pagans, Jews, and Christians.  They are all evil, but the Christians are the worst.  The hero of this movie is Hypatia, an atheist devoted to science and philosophy.  For this reason, she is murdered, or perhaps I should say “martyred,” by the Christians.  In short, this is the first movie set in ancient times in which the hero is an atheist and the villains are the Christians.

7th Heaven (1927) and Seventh Heaven (1937)

The 1927 movie 7th Heaven begins with a prologue:  “For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights—from the sewer to the stars—the ladder of courage.  In the slums of Paris—under a street known as The Hole in the Sock—”  This sequence of prepositional phrases breaks off here, and the movie proper begins.  Presumably, this was intended to be inspirational, but there is a hint of blaming the victim in that message.  In other words, if someone is in the depths, the sewer, as it were, then it’s because he is a coward.  Nor is this cowardice on his part something he cannot help, but rather, he could choose to be brave and rise to the heights, if he wanted to.

Anyway, Chico (Charles Farrell) works in the sewer in Paris shortly before the outbreak of the Great War.  He aspires to rise, literally and figuratively, to the position of street cleaner, but with seemingly little hope of doing so.

Diane (Janet Gaynor) is mistreated by her older sister Nana.  Well, I suppose “mistreated” is a bit of an understatement.  When we first see them together, Nana is lashing Diane with a bullwhip, apparently because Diane is not happy about the way they steal stuff to support themselves.  That is what you might call melodramatic.  Then Nana sends Diane out to fence the watch they just stole and then to get some absinthe.

While Diane is gone, a priest shows up at their apartment.  Nana tells him she is not interested in hearing him spout religion, but he has a different mission.  It seems that Nana and Diane have an uncle and aunt who have returned from the South Seas.  They are rich and they want to take their two nieces into their home.  The next day the aunt and uncle show up with a Colonel Brissac.  The aunt takes Diane in her arms, but the stern uncle first wants to know if they have been good girls.  Diane admits they have not been good girls.  Well, that’s too bad.  Now the uncle wants nothing to do with them.  Did I mention that this movie was melodramatic?

After the uncle, aunt, and Colonel Brissac leave, Nana becomes furious with Diane.  I must admit, she does have point.  I mean, it was one thing if Diane felt bad about stealing.  But when all she had to do was tell a little lie, saying that she and Nana had been good girls, and they then would have escaped the squalid conditions in which they lived, I had to wonder if maybe Diane didn’t deserve a whipping.

Apparently, Nana certainly thought so, because the next thing you know, she is chasing Diane through the street, whipping her.  When Diane falls down, Nana starts choking her.  She is saved by Chico, who threatens to kill Nana if ever she whips Diane again.  Nana leaves.  Chico walks away from Diane, who is still lying in the gutter.  A friend of Chico’s praises him for saving her life, but he says that a creature like that would be better off dead.  Harsh, but if Diane were to have to live that way for the rest of her life, she would be better off dead.

However, he starts to feel sorry for her.  He picks her up and brings her over to where his companions are.  Then he offers to share some of the bread they have, but she shakes her head no.  He tells her that her problem is that she is afraid to fight, which recalls the message of the prologue.  He, on the other hand, says he is not afraid of anything, regarding himself as a remarkable fellow.  He then turns to one of his friends, asking him if he believes in “Bon Dieu” (the good God).  When his friend indicates he does, Chico asks if this Bon Dieu made the woman he just saved, born to be beaten and strangled in the gutter.

He is, of course, advancing the argument from evil:  If there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is the world full of so much evil, so much sin and suffering?  But just as we are thinking that his atheism has some depth to it, he reveals a rather naive attitude on the subject.  He tells his friend that he gave God a chance twice.  First, he went to the finest church in Paris, paid five francs for candles, and then prayed to be taken out of the sewer and made a street cleaner.  But God didn’t do it.  Second, he spent another five francs, asking God for a good wife with yellow hair. “The only thing Bon Dieu threw my way,” he says, “is that!” indicating Diane (who is a brunette).  “That’s why I’m an atheist,” he says.  “God owes me ten francs.”  In this way, the movie is saying that the objections that atheists have about religion are childish.

The priest that brought the supposedly good news to Nana about a rich uncle and aunt overhears Chico’s lament.  It just so happens, the priest tells Chico, that he has been made a street cleaner.  So, it looks as though God paid off on the first deal.

Meanwhile, Diane finds the knife Chico was using to cut bread and tries to use it to kill herself.  Chico stops her and asks why she tried to do that.  She gives an answer similar to the remark he made earlier, that her life is not worth living.  But now he talks her out of it.  In other words, his tough talk is just talk.

Then it turns out that Nana has been arrested.  Out of spite, she points the finger at Diane, saying her sister is no better than she is.  The policeman starts to arrest her.  But Chico stops him, saying she is his wife.  The policeman says he will let her go, but he takes down Chico’s address so that a detective can check on him later to see if they really are married.

At this point, we figure that stealing must not be all that Nana was doing.  Presumably, the policeman caught Nana engaged in prostitution, for the only reason Diane’s being married would stop the policeman from arresting her would be if he suspected her of the same thing.

In any event, Chico agrees to let Diane stay with him until the police are satisfied.  Of course, he is a perfect gentleman and sleeps on the floor, letting Diane sleep alone in his bed unmolested.   Eventually, the two fall in love and decide to marry.  She says there must be a God, because he brought Chico to her.  He tells her not to worry her pretty little head about that.  He will be the one who has all the big thoughts.  Later, however, he says he will give God another chance, depending on whether their marriage remains true.

But then war breaks out, and Chico is compelled to enlist.  They agree that every day at eleven o’ clock, they will communicate with each other spiritually, saying, “Chico, Diane, Heaven.”  After he leaves, Nana shows up and starts trying to whip Diane again, but now Diane has the courage to fight, thanks to Chico’s encouragement, and she gets the bullwhip and starts going after Nana, who runs away for good.

After several years, Diane gets word that Chico is dead.  Colonel Brissac, who has been trying to get Diane to have sex with him, says he will take care of her.  The priest tells her she must not question the will of God, but she does question it.  Essentially, faith in God in this movie correlates with one’s fortunes:  when good things happen, there must be a God; when bad things happen, there is no God.  Presumably, we are supposed to regard this as being just as simplistic as Chico’s becoming an atheist when God didn’t deliver after he spent all that money on candles.  We are supposed to believe in God regardless of our fortunes, good or bad.

Brissac takes her in his arms to comfort her. Suddenly, Chico shows up.  He is not dead.  At first, we fear that he will be angry seeing Diane in Brissac’s arms, but it turns out he is blind.  Diane goes to him.  He says that all the big thoughts he had were really the Bon Dieu, saying, “He was within me.  Now that I am blind, I see that.”  Well, I’m not blind, so maybe that’s why I don’t understand that at all.  Anyway, she says she will be his eyes.  But Chico says he believes his blindness is only temporary, because he is a remarkable fellow.  Inasmuch as a heavenly beam of light then shines upon them, we can suppose that Chico is right.

The overall thrust of this movie is that we should have faith in God because things will all work out in the end.  It is an optimistic theology, to say the least.

In the 1937 remake, Seventh Heaven, things are really sweetened up.  First of all, the prologue of the original movie is replaced by this:  “On the lower left slope of Montmarte hill lies a sinister square called ‘The Sock.’  It’s wretched inhabitants, crowded like rats, live between Heaven and Hell, for their evil street is stopped suddenly by a church.”  And so, instead of saying that salvation depends on the courage the individual, the prologue in this remake lets us know that it depends on the church.

Chico is played by Jimmy Stewart.  It really is hard to take his atheism seriously.  Although Stewart came to play some edgy roles in the movies after World War II, at this stage of his career, he was still just an “Aw, shucks!” kind of guy.

Anyway, we are introduced to Chico’s co-worker (John Qualen), identified as “Sewer Rat” in this remake, as he takes refuge in the church when being pursued by the police for stealing a watch.  There was no such scene in the original.  Rather, in the original, we are introduced to Sewer Rat down in the sewer, looking up through the manhole so he can see up some woman’s dress.

The part about the rich uncle and aunt willing to take Nana (Gale Sondergaard) and Diane (Simone Simon) into their home, provided they have been good girls is eliminated in the remake.

As for Brissac, he is no longer a lecherous colonel, but rather a youthful sergeant.  While we suspect he is in in love with Diane, he is too much of a friend to think of taking advantage of her.

Finally, Diane is not in Brissac’s arms when Chico enters their apartment.  Rather, Diane enters the room and finds Chico alone.  They embrace.  Their faith in God is restored.

The Quiet American (1958, 2002)

Sometimes the remake of a movie is set in the year in which it is made, which requires an updating of the story, as when the 1932 version of Scarface was remade in 1983.  But it is an entirely different matter when the remake has the same setting as the original, and yet the story has been significantly altered.  In that case, the change must be largely attributed to the change in attitude toward the events of that time and place.  This is the case with The Quiet American.  The matter is further complicated when the remake is truer to the novel than was the original.  And cutting across all this is the fact that the novel, written by Graham Greene, who was English, was not well-received here in America, owing to its negative portrayal of the title character.

The 1958 version of this novel is set in Vietnam in the early 1950s, when it was still a French colony, and when it was the French who were fighting the communists.  Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave) is a middle-aged British journalist stationed in Saigon.  His lives with Phuong, a much younger Vietnamese woman.  Fowler doesn’t believe in anything.  He has no political affiliation, he doesn’t care which side wins the ongoing war, and he doesn’t believe in God.

When the movie opens, he is brought to a police station and interrogated by Inspector Vigot regarding a young man who is referred to in the movie only as an “American,” sometimes as the “young American,” and, of course, sometimes as the “quiet American” (Audie Murphy).  Even at a restaurant where everyone is being introduced, he remains unnamed.  He is an idealist.  He speaks of the Third Force, in addition to the French and the communists.  It represents the idea of the Vietnamese deciding for themselves how they want to live.

When Fowler, Phuong, and the American first meet, they go to a restaurant where men entering without a lady must accept a dinner-and-dancing companion supplied by the restaurant.  The American doesn’t want to have such a companion, whom he regards as a prostitute.  It is explained to him that these women are not prostitutes. In fact, Phuong used to be work at the restaurant as a companion when Fowler first met her.  When the American asks what happens to these young women when they are too old for the job of companion, he is told that they end up being prostitutes.

Because prostitution is a kind of doom hanging over young women who do not marry, the fact that Phuong is only Fowler’s mistress means that she may eventually be back where she was, or worse.  Fowler cannot marry her, because he is already married.  He is separated from his wife, whom he no longer loves, but she will not give him a divorce on account of her religion, referred to as “High Church” and “Episcopalian.”  When Phuong’s sister, Miss Hei, sees Phuong and the American dancing, she sees this as a chance to get Phuong married.  Inasmuch as the American has fallen in love with Phuong at first sight and, as we later find out, wants to marry her, Fowler begins to feel threatened.

The American avoids Phuong until he has a chance to tell Fowler that he loves her, so as not to be sneaky about it.  He would leave her alone if they were married, but as she is only living with Fowler, he believes that makes a difference, especially since he agrees with Phuong’s sister that Phuong needs the security of marriage.  As the American puts it, “We both have her interests at heart.”  To this Fowler replies: “I’m fed to the teeth with your brothers-under-the-skin dribble about cellophane-wrapped security for the atomic future. I don’t care that about Phuong’s interest. You can have her interest.  I want her. I want her with me. I’d rather ruin her and be with her than worry about her interest.”

In other words, the American cares about Phuong and wants what is best for her, even saying at one point that he wishes Fowler could marry her.  That is, he would be willing to give her up knowing that she would be taken care of.  Fowler, on the other hand, has the exact opposite attitude.  His love for her, if you can call it that, is of the most selfish kind.  The remark that he would be willing to ruin her is no mere hyperbole, for that is likely to be her fate if she stays with him.

This fits with the stereotype of the atheist:  someone who is selfish and amoral.  Also part of the stereotype of an atheist is that of being unpleasant.  Fowler is churlish and rude, unlike the American, who is easygoing and forgiving.  Some might argue that while this attitude toward atheists was prevalent in the late 1950s when this movie was made, this is much less so today.  However, as we shall see, the remake is confirmation that this attitude still prevails.

Right after the confrontation, a cable arrives for Fowler telling him that the newspaper he works for is promoting him to foreign editor, which means he will be working in London.  That, in turn, means the end of his relationship with Phuong.  He does not tell her, however, intending to maintain their relationship right up until the time he has to leave her, even though, as we can figure out for ourselves, if he were to be honest with her and break off the relationship immediately, she might be able to marry the American.  But, as noted above, he doesn’t care about that.  In fact, he even remarks to the American that these Vietnamese people have no concept of the future, because they just live from day to day.  In other words, if Phuong has no concept of the future, then Fowler doesn’t have to worry about her future either.  It is a ridiculous rationalization.  Furthermore, it is a demeaning, racist remark, suggesting that the Vietnamese are no better than animals in this regard.  And, as if this attitude were actually worthy of the time it takes to refute it, we might note that Phuong’s sister had enough of a concept of the future to worry about what would happen to Phuong in the years to come should she fail to find a husband.

Fowler writes to his wife, telling her of his situation, and asks for a divorce.  Phuong notes that he never asked his wife for a divorce before.  When he tells her he will have to return to England, she offers to return with him as his mistress, but he rebuffs the offer, saying she would be uncomfortable there not being married to him.  But we know that he cares nothing about her interests.  He is the one who would be uncomfortable.  When he finally gets a reply from his wife saying no to a divorce, he lies to Phuong, telling her his wife has agreed.  He does this merely to put off the day when he will lose her.

A communist leader convinces Fowler that the plastics that the American has brought into the country are being used for explosives on the part of an independent general and his army who are not on either side, giving the expression “Third Way” an ominous meaning.  Fowler never cared about the war before, but now the thought that the American is contributing to the carnage in some way changes everything.  Now he becomes conveniently outraged and willingly enters into a conspiracy against him.  He seems completely unaware that it is his own selfish motives that make him willing to act against the American.  He sort of convinces himself that this conspiracy might not end in the American’s death, but we know that deep down he knows better.  This is ironic, because earlier in the movie, the American saved his life instead of leaving him to die.

Fowler agrees to get the American to meet him for dinner at a certain time so that the communists will know when they can find him on the street.  Fowler then gives the American the opportunity of not meeting him for dinner, but the American says he will be there.  This allows Fowler to tell himself he gave the American his chance, and that it is all in God’s hands now.

God?  That’s right.  Just as Fowler conveniently started caring about all the people dying in the war when he was told that the American was involved in it, so too does this atheist now allow himself to suppose that there is a God who will intervene if that is his will:  “There was no harm in giving him that one chance. But what was I hoping for? Did I, of all people, hope for some kind of miracle? A method of discussion arranged by Mr. Heng which would not be simply death. It was no longer my decision. I had handed it over to that somebody in whom I didn’t believe. You can intervene if you want to. In so many ways:  a telegram on his desk; his dog can become ill; the minister can want to see him; his work, whatever it is, can take up the time.”

This is a new one.  By the late 1950s, we were used to seeing atheists in the movies finally admit that there is a God after all, usually because they were in the equivalent of a foxhole, but seeing an atheist somewhat disingenuously say to himself that God can save the American if he wants, thereby absolving himself of any guilt, is not exactly the kind of capitulation that movies commonly depicted.

Anyway, God does not intervene.  The communists abduct the American and kill him.  Furthermore, it turns out that the communists have played on Fowler’s ignorance, getting him to confuse ordinary plastic material, which the American was bringing into the country to make noisemakers for the coming Chinese New Year, with plastic explosives, which the American has nothing to do with.  And they played on his fear of losing Phuong to the American.  The reason the communists kill the American is to kill the idea of a Third Force that he brought with him, the simple idea that the Vietnamese people should be able to decide how they want to live.

Inspector Vigot arrests everyone who was involved in the murder except Fowler, even though he has figured out Fowler’s complicity and his motives.  He hands Fowler a cable, in which his wife says she agrees to a divorce.  Elated, he rushes to the restaurant where Phuong works once more as a dinner-and-dance companion to tell her they can now get married.  But she knows what he did and what kind of man he is, not anything like the American who truly loved her.  She refuses to have anything to do with him, preferring instead to accept the fate that awaits the women who work at that restaurant.

Now that Fowler no longer needs to pretend to himself that God might intervene to prevent the American from being killed, his atheism returns.  He says, “I wish someone existed to whom I could say I’m sorry.”  Vigot offers to drive him to the cathedral, but Fowler just turns and walks away.

As noted above, Fowler’s acknowledgement that there might be a God was disingenuous and self-serving.  And it was dropped as soon as it no longer served that function.  In other words, this may be the first movie in which the protagonist is still an atheist at the end.  There had been movies before where the atheist was still an atheist by the end of the movie, provided he was a minor character.  In Angel and the Badman (1947), the doctor remains an atheist, although his dogmatic certainty has been replaced by doubt and bewilderment at what he cannot explain.  And in Strange Cargo (1940), the atheist is a villain who seems headed for eternal damnation.

In short, this movie is transitional.  Whereas before 1958, if the protagonist was an atheist when the movie started, he had to acknowledge the existence of God by the movie’s end.  Beginning with this movie, he could merely suffer the fate previously reserved for minor characters who were atheists:  beset by doubts or meeting a bad end.  We are not sure if Fowler’s doubts were genuine, but he definitely is unhappy right up to the end.

The 2002 remake is set in the same place and in the same year, but it was made decades after the end of the Vietnam War that was fought by the United States, whereas the original was produced before that war started.  As a result, a twenty-first century perspective naturally finds its way into the story, which is something of a paradox since the remake is more faithful to the novel than was the original.  In the 2002 version, the quiet American has a name, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), as in the novel.  No longer a man who just wants to help the Vietnamese find a way to govern themselves, free of the French and the communists, the quiet American is now a CIA agent, as in the novel.  And his plastic material is not harmless, but is actually used to make the bombs that kill and maim innocent civilians, as in the novel.  And so, the generic American who in his own small way tried to make this a better world, with whom the audience of 1958 would have wanted to identify, has become a specific kind of American, one that most of us would disown, as in the novel.  In this remake, Pyle represents those other Americans, the ones that got us into a war that, in the opinion of this movie, was as immoral as he was.  Once the quiet American has become the bad guy, Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) becomes the good guy by default.  He is still a little on the selfish side, but in the end, he and Phuong are together and will live happily ever after, as in the novel.

But in one way, the 1958 version was more faithful to the novel than the 2002 remake.  All the stuff about Fowler’s atheism was in the novel, whereas it has been completely purged from the remake.  In order for Fowler to be an atheist in the 1958 version, he had to be a louse who ends up alone and miserable.  But in order for the 2002 version to make Fowler the good guy and for it to end happily for him, it was necessary to omit all that stuff about his not believing in God.

In short, while a change in how we feel about American involvement in Vietnam may have been responsible for most of the differences between the two versions of the novel, there is one difference that arises from an attitude that has not changed, and that is the prejudice against atheists.

 

Rope (1948), Compulsion (1959), and Swoon (1992)

Early in the twentieth century, there were several crimes that shocked the nation.  There was the assassination of President William McKinley, shot to death by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.  There was the case of “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was charged with the rape and accidental death of actress Virginia Rappe by means too sordid to be repeated here.  And there was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, ordered by Al Capone, which resulted in the machine-gun deaths of seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side Gang.  In each case, the crime involved someone well-known to the public:  a president of the United States, a movie actor, a notorious gangster.  And each of the crimes had a motive that people could understand:  ideology, sex, power.  But there was another crime involving people no one had ever heard of for a motive that didn’t make sense.

What was shocking about the crime in question was that it was a thrill-killing of a fourteen-year-old boy by two young men of exceptional intelligence from wealthy families.  The boy was Bobby Franks.  The killers were Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.  As if this were not enough to capture the nation’s attention, they were represented by Clarence Darrow, famous defense attorney, soon to become even more famous for his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial, which became the basis for the movie Inherit the Wind (1960).  The fact that Loeb and Leopold were both Jews may have contributed to the fascination people had with this crime, in that it could feed off attitudes of antisemitism.  Added to that was the fact that they were homosexuals, regarded as a perversion in those days, one that Darrow himself said contributed to their act of murder.

Rope (1948)

The first movie based on these events was Rope, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which in turn was based on a play by Patrick Hamilton.  It distills the story down to its essence.  Two characters, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), correspond to Loeb and Leopold.  They murder a friend of theirs, David, to prove that they are Nietzschean supermen, men with superior intellects, unfettered by moral fictions of right and wrong.  Brandon revels in what they have done.  Phillip, on the other hand, immediately starts feeling guilty.  As Nietzsche would say, his character wasn’t equal to the deed.

Those who are alert to such things can tell that these two men are homosexuals.  As for me, I wouldn’t know that to this day if I hadn’t read it somewhere.  I thought they were just friends.  And there is even a reference to the fact that Brandon once dated Janet, David’s girlfriend, put in the movie just to fool people like me, I suppose.  As another hint, the actors Dall and Granger were either homosexual or bisexual, but I would never have figured that out on my own either.  Just one more proof of my heterosexual blind spot.

But while the suppression of their homosexuality might be regarded as an unfortunate requirement by the Hays Office, its full expression in this movie would have had the effect of displacing the influence of Nietzsche on these two men, and suggesting instead that it was their homosexuality that was the real reason for their crime.  What was then regarded as a sexual perversion might in turn have been taken as an explanation for their perverted understanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Or maybe that was the point, and I’m just being naïve again.

Anyway, the two men stuff David’s body in a chest, and then throw a party with food and drink set on the chest for the guests, consisting of David’s father, David’s aunt, Janet, Janet’s previous boyfriend, and Rupert, a college professor from whom Brandon and Phillip first learned about Friedrich Nietzsche and his concept of the superman.  Rupert is played by Jimmy Stewart.

Jimmy Stewart?  You mean George Macready or Otto Kruger wasn’t available for this role, and Hitchcock had to pick an actor whose persona absolutely precluded the possibility that he was anything but a paragon of moral rectitude?  As a result, when Rupert holds forth on his view that those who are superior have the right to kill those who are inferior, we never take him seriously for a moment.  And as if Stewart’s persona were not enough for us to see through his discourse on murder, Rupert’s flippant words and frivolous manner would have made it clear that he was being facetious even if Macready or Kruger had played this role.

But when Brandon takes over the ideas being advanced by Rupert, he is quite serious.  David’s father remarks that Hitler also agreed with Nietzsche’s theory of the superman, to which Brandon replies that he would have hanged all the Nazis, not because they were evil, but because they were stupid and incompetent.  I guess he was contemptuous of them because they lost the war.

Little by little, Rupert begins to suspect that a real murder has taken place, eventually leading him to lift the lid of the chest to see David’s body.  When he does so, his philosophy flips like a Necker cube.  Suddenly announcing that he is now ashamed of his belief that the superior few have the privilege of killing those who are inferior, he starts talking about morality, love, and God.  And then he makes reference to the fact that society will punish Brandon and Phillip for the murder they have committed.

So, he goes to the telephone to call the police, right?  Wrong!  Having taken possession of Brandon’s revolver, Rupert goes to the window, opens it, and fires three shots in the air.  That way when someone on the street below hears the shots, he will go to a telephone and call the police.  And why would that person on the street use a telephone to call the police?  Because he doesn’t have a gun to fire three shots in the air.

Compulsion (1959)

Of the movies that have been based on the Leopold-Loeb murder, the best by far is Compulsion.  The names were changed to allow some latitude for the sake of storytelling.  Richard Loeb is Arthur “Artie” Straus (Bradford Dillman); Nathan Leopold is Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell); and Clarence Darrow is Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles).

Because this movie was made in 1959, there is no indication of a homosexual relationship between Artie and Judd as there was between Loeb and Leopold.  (At least, there is no indication that I’m aware of, but I suppose to others it is as obvious as in the movie Rope.)  Furthermore, there is no reference to Judd’s being sexually molested by his governess when he was twelve, as was the case with Leopold.  But aside from a few liberties taken here and there, the movie does a pretty good job of sticking to the facts.

When the movie begins, we see Artie and Judd in the act of burglarizing a fraternity house, in which they steal some money and a typewriter.  As they drive away from the house, Judd says, somewhat lightheartedly, “The perfect crime,” although Artie is contemptuous of the small amount of money they stole.  He is also irritated with Judd’s bungling and timidity.  It is clear that Artie is the dominant character, and Judd likes it when Artie commands him to do things so that he can submit.  As they drive down the road, Artie tries to run over a drunk, to kill him, because, as he explains to Judd, “I damn well felt like it.”

In a small way, this opening scene and the one that follows give us their motivation for what is to come.  Artie wants to commit the perfect crime, something really dangerous, one that everyone will be talking about, but which the police will not be able to solve.  Judd wants to commit a great crime as the true test of the superior intellect, to prove that they are Nietzschean supermen.  Whatever Friedrich Nietzsche wanted us to understand by his concept of the superman, anytime someone in a movie is an admirer of this philosopher, he typically believes he is free to act in a way that ordinary people would regard as immoral, as in the movie Baby Face (1933).

Artie is thinking of the thrill of committing such a crime.  As Nietzsche would say, he wants the “bliss of the knife.”  But Judd wants to do it “as an experiment, detached, with no emotional involvement,” he tells Artie, “and no reason for it except to show that we can do it.”

The next day, Sid Brooks (Martin Milner), who is a friend of Judd, is late for class.  While the professor is lecturing on the tribal laws of ancient civilizations, he signals Judd, who is already in the lecture room, to create a distraction so that he can slip into class unnoticed.  Judd does so by challenging the professor on whether the leaders he is discussing, such as Hammurabi, Solon, and Pericles, felt obligated to obey the very laws they laid down for others.  Citing Nietzsche, Judd argues that they did not.  When the professor asks about Moses as an example, Judd responds, while looking at his watch, somewhat bored with having to school the professor on the matter, “He had a motley crew on his hands, and he had to get them through the desert somehow.”

The professor asks if Judd can cite a single example of any of these ancient leaders that did not feel obligated to obey their own laws, if Nietzsche can explain that.  “Oh, I think so, sir,” Judd replies, “if you’ve read him, sir” (the professor flinches), “you remember that he conceives the superman as being detached from such emotions as anger and greed and lust and the will to power.”

The professor concedes, with just a touch of sarcasm, that this modern way of thinking is beyond his comprehension, though not, apparently, Judd’s or Nietzsche’s.  Still, he says, even if we evolved into a race of superior intellects, we would still establish our own code of laws.  “Superlaws, sir,” Sid wisecracks, having slipped into class while this was going on, though not unnoticed by the professor.  After class, Sid asks Judd if he really believes there are superior intellects.  Judd answers that he does, which is not surprising, since he has himself as proof of such.  Along with Sid, Judd joins Artie, who is talking to some friends, but soon they excuse themselves, for there is something they had planned on doing.  But they all agree to meet that night at a speakeasy, where we see young people dancing the Charleston.  The Jazz Age is the perfect setting for this story, with its connotations of bootleg gin and loose morals.

Sid works as a cub reporter and finds himself helping out on a kidnapping case, to see if there is any connection to a dead boy found in a culvert, supposedly drowned, but the coroner he interviews makes it clear that the boy was murdered, hit several times in the head with a blunt instrument.  Some glasses fall to the floor, which the coroner thinks belonged to the boy, but Sid figures out that they really belong to the murderer.

Because he had to work, Sid knew he would be late meeting the gang at the speakeasy, so he agreed with Artie’s suggestion to let Judd bring Sid’s girlfriend Ruth (Diane Varsi).  While the others are dancing, we see Judd explaining to Ruth some of the ideas put forward by Plato in his Republic.  In particular, he is talking about the part where Plato thought that the state should decide who mated with whom.  The children would be separated from their parents and raised by the state, so no one would know who gave birth to whom.  Children born by parents not approved of by the state would be put to death.  At first, it seems strange that Judd would be talking to Ruth about Plato instead of Nietzsche.  However, as we know, fairly or unfairly, Nietzsche’s philosophy was appropriated by the Nazis, though long after the Leopold-Loeb murder took place.  Therefore, the fascist elements of Plato’s Republic are being implicitly connected in this movie with the subsequent fascist interpretation of Nietzsche during the Third Reich.

As Judd and Ruth begin to form a friendship, he invites her to go to the park with him where they can observe the birds, for Judd is an amateur ornithologist of some note.  When Artie finds out, he tells Judd this is his opportunity to have the experience of raping a woman, detached and without emotion.  Artie cynically observes that girls never want to talk about it afterwards.  Judd is reluctant.  But then, just as at one point in the beginning of the movie, when Artie commanded Judd to run over the drunk, so too does Artie have to command Judd to rape Ruth.  It might seem strange that someone like Judd, who is all into Nietzsche and his will-to-power philosophy, would want to be the one to obey rather than command.  But commanding and obeying are just two sides of the fascist soul.  What the fascist cannot abide is democracy, equality, cooperation, and compromise.  However, just as he failed to run over the drunk, Judd fails in his attempt to rape Ruth, because she cares more about what Judd will be doing to himself than what he does to her, and such sympathy and understanding is more than he can bear.

One of the great ironies of the Leopold-Loeb murder is the way these two geniuses planned their perfect crime for seven months, and yet they made one stupid mistake after another, so many, in fact, that not all of them could be depicted in this movie.  One that was not included was where they drive the car they rented for the murder to Leopold’s garage in order to clean out the blood.  The chauffeur sees them cleaning out some red stuff, which Loeb says is wine.  (This event was depicted in the movie Swoon (q.v.)).  The most damning piece of evidence was the glasses that Sid discovered.  It had a special hinge that only three people in the area had purchased, and the other two were easily eliminated as suspects.  But the final flaw in their plan comes when the chauffeur says that Judd’s car, the one Judd said that he and Artie had used the day of the murder to pick up a couple of girls, was in the garage all day while he worked on the brakes.  Confronted with all the evidence against them by District Attorney Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall), Artie confesses first, admitting that they rented a car for the kidnapping and murder, after which Judd accuses him of being a “weakling.”

Wilk is hired as their lawyer, with much reluctance on the part of their parents, however, because he is an “atheist.”  Actually, the real Clarence Darrow considered himself an agnostic, as does Wilk in the movie, but one suspects that people who did not like Clarence Darrow preferred the more pejorative term “atheist,” refusing to mince words on the matter.  Given the enormity of the crime committed by Artie and Judd, along with a full confession from both of them, a trial would seem to be pointless, at least from a dramatic standpoint.  And yet, such is the screen presence of Orson Welles that as soon as he walks through the door as Jonathan Wilk, we experience a reversal of attitude, reinforced by the following scene in which we see the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross outside of Wilk’s residence.

Artie and Judd never characterize themselves as either agnostic or atheist, but it would be hard to believe that they were anything but atheists, given their admiration of Nietzsche and their willingness to commit a horrible murder just to prove that they were superior.  Regardless of what the final words actually were between Darrow, on the one hand, and Loeb and Leopold, on the other, it was still necessary in the late 1950s for movie agnostics and atheists to make amends.  The agnostic had to indicate that he still regarded the existence of God as a genuine possibility.  Traditionally, the atheist had to admit that he was wrong, that God really did exist, but by the time this movie was made, it was enough for the atheist either to show signs of doubt or to be miserable.  A similar formula was employed in the above-referenced movie Inherit the Wind (1960).

We see both in the final scene.  After the judge rules that Artie and Judd will not be hanged for their crime, but will spend the rest of their lives in prison, which was the only outcome Wilk could reasonably hope for, the following dialogue takes place:

Artie:  So, we sweat through three months of misery just to hear that.  I wish they’d have hung us right off the bat.

Wilk:  I wasn’t expecting you to fall down on your knees and thank God for deliverance.

Judd:  God?  That sounds rather strange coming from you, Mr. Wilk.

Wilk:  A lifetime of doubt and questioning doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve reached any final conclusions.

Judd:  Well, I have, and God has nothing to do with it.

Wilk:  Are you sure, Judd? In those years to come you might find yourself asking, if it wasn’t the hand of God dropped those glasses.  And if he didn’t, who did?

To that question Judd hesitates, and then has a look of fear and bewilderment.

In the trial of Loeb and Leopold, it was actually the State’s Attorney Robert Crowe, corresponding to District Attorney Harold Horn in the movie, who saw Divine Justice in Leopold’s eyeglasses.  Speaking to him directly, he says:

I wonder now, Nathan, whether you think there is a God or not. I wonder whether you think it is pure accident that this disciple of Nietzschean philosophy dropped his glasses, or whether it was an act of Divine Providence to visit upon your miserable carcasses the wrath of God in the enforcement of the laws of the State of Illinois….  I think that when the glasses, that Leopold had not worn for three months, glasses that he no longer needed, dropped from his pocket at night, the hand of God was at work in this case.

This speculation about the hand of God doesn’t make any sense.  If God was going to get involved, why didn’t he protect the little boy and keep him from being murdered in the first place?  But some people would say that that way of thinking is typical of an atheist like me, who just doesn’t understand that God works in mysterious ways.  So, even if I think Crowe’s (Wilk’s) suggestion presupposes a dilatory deity, most people reading about this case in 1924, or watching this movie in 1959, would have found it perfectly reasonable.

Alternatively, one might go all Freudian and say that Judd had an unconscious desire to be caught.  That would seem to be the significance of Wilk’s last question, “And if he didn’t, who did?”

I think it was just an accident.  We don’t need God or Freud to explain that.  But the main thing is that for those in the audience who needed to see the atheist realize that there might actually be a God, Wilk’s first hypothesis about the hand of God dropping the glasses would have been the preferred interpretation.

Swoon (1992)

Now imagine that the story of Loeb and Leopold is made into a weird foreign film of the sort produced back in the 1950s and 1960s, full of symbolism and anachronisms.  It would be in black and white with subtitles.

Now imagine that the movie is made in 1992 by a weird foreign-film director wannabe right here in America.  In this case, there would be no subtitles.  This the movie Swoon.

Even if you like weird foreign-films, that style completely undermines our ability to accept anything we see in this movie as being a faithful depiction of what actually happened.  With Compulsion, we know we have to make allowances for the Production Code and the liberties that must be taken to turn any true story into a movie, but we believe that most of what we are seeing is true.  With Swoon, we are presented with so much that is absurd, such as Loeb using a touchtone telephone or Loeb and Leopold in bed together in the middle of the courtroom during their trial, that the movie loses all credibility.  We only believe what we already know to be true from other sources.  For example, there is a scene in this movie in which the chauffeur sees Loeb and Leopold cleaning blood out of their rented automobile.  If I hadn’t already known about this from what I had read elsewhere, I wouldn’t know if this actually happened, or whether it was just something dreamt up by the director.

While the homosexuality of the two killers in Rope and Compulsion was only hinted at, and so subtly that it went right over my head, here it gets enough emphasis for all three movies.  And while this might seem to be the movie’s strongpoint, finally depicting on the screen the real nature of the relationship between Loeb and Leopold, it might have the opposite effect from what was intended.  While proudly displaying an honesty and openness about homosexuality that wasn’t possible before, this movie might well have the effect of justifying attitudes of homophobia, leading the audience to conclude that their homosexuality was the ultimate cause of the murder of Bobby Franks, with Nietzsche’s philosophy being nothing but a superficial way to dress up a murder.  Maybe not even that.  Nietzsche is just barely referenced in this movie.