The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Quo Vadis (1951)

The Sign of the Cross, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and released in 1932, is based on a play of the same name, produced in 1895.  It is said to resemble the novel Quo Vadis? which was published around the same time, and which has been made into several movies, notably Quo Vadis in 1951. That movie is more spectacular, being filmed in technicolor, which allows us to see how beautiful Rome was.  But The Sign of the Cross is a pre-Code movie, and as such, it has a quality not captured by this later film.

And then there are the historical facts of the matter.  Liberties are taken in both movies, of course, but what is more important lies in the differences between these two movies and what they choose to emphasize, regardless of what may or may not be historically accurate.

The Sign of the Cross begins in Rome in 64 A.D., on the third night of a great fire, during which thousands of people have died.  The Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) is playing a lyre.  Suddenly, one of the strings of his lyre breaks, spoiling his whole evening.  He collapses in his throne, distraught.

As is often the case in such movies, Romans are played by British actors, such as Laughton, especially if they are degenerates, but good Romans tend to be played by American actors, in this case Fredric March, in the role of Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome.

In Quo Vadis, Nero is played by another British actor, Peter Ustinov, while Marcus Vinicius, a good Roman, is played by Robert Taylor, an American actor.

Ben-Hur (1959) has British actors Jack Hawkins and Hugh Griffith, along with Stephen Boyd of Northern Ireland.  Charlton Heston, an American actor, plays the title character, who is a Jew. Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov play Romans in Spartacus (1960), as does Laurence Olivier, another British actor. The good guy is played by Kirk Douglas, an American actor. In The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) we have Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Anthony Quayle, all from the United Kingdom, including more I haven’t bothered to list. In The Passover Plot (1976), Donald Pleasance plays Pontius Pilate, and of course he is a British actor, as is Malcolm McDowell, who played the title emperor in Caligula (1979).  The television miniseries I, Claudius (1976) used British actors Derek Jacobi and John Hurt for Claudius and Caligula respectively, much in the way the never-completed version of I, Claudius in 1937 used Charles Laughton and British actor Emlyn Williams for those roles.

We are so used to seeing these British actors playing evil or decadent Romans that we almost forget to ask ourselves why.  An American actor could play such a part just as well, as does Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Gladiator (2000), although this is more than made up for by the British actors Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Derek Jacobi, who are also Romans in this movie. If foreign actors were needed to play the roles of Romans given to sin and corruption, so that American actors would play the decent Romans for the most part, then I should have thought those foreign actors would have been Italian, Rome being in Italy, after all.

Failing to see any reason why British actors dominate the field when it comes to playing Romans, I was tempted to guess that it was just by chance that Charles Laughton was selected to play Nero in The Sign of the Cross, and he did such a good job that Hollywood has been picking British actors for such roles ever since.  The only other reason I could think of why British actors have been so regularly asked to play the parts of decadent, if not degenerate, Romans is that there is an American prejudice about the British people, suspecting them of being very much like those Romans.

One such suspicion may have something to do with homosexuality.  In his book Pre-Code Hollywood:  Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, Thomas Doherty says that one way movies could indicate that a character was a homosexual was to have him be British:

Associated with the upper ranks of the British class system and the backstage worlds of theater and high fashion, the mincing gestures and perfumed wardrobe of the nance had been staples of vaudeville sketches, legitimate theater, and the silent screen in the 1920s….

Sound gave the nance a voice:  a high-pitched trill, often British in inflection or vaguely foreign in accent. [page 121]

Whether this association of the British with homosexuality was based on reality or merely an unwarranted American prejudice, I cannot say.  But lately, it seems that this association has found its way into heterosexual relationships as well, and this brought about by the British themselves.  It all started when I saw the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), which is set in England. It is directed by Matthew Vaughn, a British film producer, and stars Taron Egerton, a British actor, playing a superspy. Toward the end of the movie, a beautiful princess tells Egerton that after he saves the world, “We can do it in the asshole.”  Boy, does he ever hurry up and save the world, returning with champagne and two glasses, at which point the beautiful princess presents her butt for penetration.

Now, I can certainly understand anal sex for homosexuals.  And in times past, it may have been practiced by heterosexuals as a form of birth control.  But the idea of this movie seems to be that anal sex is a treat for male heterosexuals, the best form of sex with a woman any man could possibly want, but which the princess reserves only for someone who is special.

One movie like that, by itself, means nothing.  But several years later, a woman who is a friend of mine recommended the television show Fleabag (2016-2019). So, I decided to give it a try and rented the DVD. In the pilot, in the very first scene, the title character has met some man in a nightclub and they agreed to meet back at her place to have sex.  Much to her surprise, the man inserts his penis into her rectum. When she wakes up the next morning, she sees him looking at her with worship in his eyes. You see, no woman had ever let him do anal on the first date before.  She is the ideal woman. His character is the “Arsehole Guy,” played by a British actor.  And Fleabag is played by a British actress. And the story is set in London.

I pressed the eject button and sent the DVD back.  I wanted to ask my friend what she thought about that scene, but I never worked up the nerve.

Just recently, I watched the movie The Forgiven (2021).  At some point in the movie, a woman asks a man whether a prostitute he availed himself of did anal. “What’s the point of a hooker if she doesn’t do anal?” he replies.  The idea seems to be that the world is full of women from whom you can get vaginal sex, but if you want it really good, if you want the ultimate form of sex that most men only dream of, the ecstasy for which there is no equal, then you may have to pay a prostitute for that. But if she doesn’t do anal, she’s worthless.  You might just as well settle for ordinary sex with ordinary women and get if for free.  The woman he is talking to jokingly threatens to tell his mother he said that.  “My mother would be fascinated,” is his reply.  It sounds as though he thinks his mother might like to try a little anal sex herself.

“This must be another British production,” I said to myself, as I hit the eject button.  I was right.  The director is British, and there are several British actors in this movie as well.  With this third example, I’m starting to wonder if using British actors to play Romans has something to do with this British obsession with anal sex, something long suspected by Americans, but only recently made explicit in these movies.

But I digress.  Returning to The Sign of the Cross, the movie presents us with a choice. If you lived in the first century A.D., would you rather be a pagan or a Christian?  At first, I thought I might prefer to be a pagan, since they seem to be having a good time, what with all the feasting and drinking; although the one thing I wouldn’t want to drink would be a glass of milk, for I would wonder where it came from, having seen the Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) bathing in a swimming pool full of asses’ milk.  That’s icky, but as film critic Joe Bob Briggs might have pointed out, you do get to see most of her breasts. And then there seems to be lots of fornicating going on, so that’s a big plus. Being a Christian, on the other hand, would seem to be a drag.  The Christians are plodding in their movements, heavy in their speech.  But according to the movie, the Roman soldiers are trying to find them and kill them, so I guess we can’t be surprised if they aren’t having much fun.

The Roman soldiers are trying to kill all the Christians because they believe in a “dangerous superstition,” refusing to recognize that Nero is a god.  But in addition to that, Tigillenus, head of the Praetorian Guard, warns Nero that the people might blame him for the fire, especially since Nero says he is glad Rome is burning.  Nero suggests that the blame be shifted to the Christians, making it easier to root them out and have them all killed.  This is what they do.

In the midst of all that, we have a love story between a pagan and a Christian, where Marcus Superbus falls in love with Mercia, a beautiful woman, whose parents were coated with pitch and burned as torches to light up one of Nero’s orgies. Unfortunately, a child that lives in the same house she does is captured and subjected to unspeakable tortures, forcing him to tell where all the Christians will be meeting that night.

Note 1:  The corresponding child in Quo Vadis is not tortured, nor is he later sent to his death in the arena as he is in The Sign of the Cross. Instead, he escapes from Rome unmolested with the help of Saint Peter.

At the meeting that the child told about, there is a Christian who had seen Jesus and heard him speak.  He tells of what he learned:

For me, for all men, he lifted the black mist from the face of God.  And there was no longer the God of wrath, but only a loving father.  All that we had been taught before about the great spirit became suddenly a new understanding, a compassionate God to whom we could turn.

Later on, when they are about to face death in the arena, several of the Christians begin wishing they still had that God of wrath, one who would make short work of the Romans, much in the way he helped the Hebrews slaughter whole nations in the Old Testament.  But given their present situation, the most they can realistically believe in is a God of compassion, one who won’t do anything to protect them, but will at least feel sorry for them.

Tigillenus shows up with his men, who start killing the Christians.  They would have killed them all, but Marcus and his men arrive and put a stop to it.  Those still alive are taken prisoner, including Mercia.  They will still be executed, but now it will happen in the arena.  Marcus manages to get Mercia out of the prison and bring her to his house. He offers her freedom, but she would have to forget about the other Christians as they go to their death, which she says she cannot do.  And she would have to have sex with him without the benefit of marriage.  She says she’d rather die with the rest of the Christians.  Friends of Marcus, who are in the next room enjoying the banquet he is having at his house, come in and interrupt their argument. Marcus gets a wicked woman named Ancaria to do the “Dance of the Naked Moon,” trying to seduce Mercia, but she is not amused, let alone seduced.  Maybe Marcus thought a little lesbian lust would put Mercia in the mood for love.  In any event, Ancaria’s dance is spoiled as they hear Christians singing on their way to the arena dungeon. Marcus tells everyone to leave, after which he and Mercia begin arguing again. Then Tigillenus shows up with orders to take Mercia to the arena dungeon too.

Still not giving up, Marcus tries to get Nero to make an exception to his decree that all Christians must be put to death, letting him have Mercia, but Poppaea disapproves and chastises the easily manipulated Nero. She is in love with Marcus and wants Mercia out of the way.  Nero says Mercia might be spared if she publicly renounces her faith. He then hastens away, saying he doesn’t want to be late for the games.

The games!  This is where you know you could never be a Roman, witnessing the gruesome cruelty presented in the arena.  But fortunately, you can be an American watching the depiction of said spectacles in a movie like this one, and not feel the least little bit of guilt.  But even more fortunately, the movie was not filmed in Smell-O-Vision.  A sign advertising the games promises that the arena will be perfumed between events, and we actually see such perfuming being done.  We hear a typical Roman married couple arguing about the seats they will have.  They have their son with them, about ten years old, I’d say, because it’s never too soon to introduce your children to the games.  The wife complains they will be sitting up so high that they won’t see much, but the husband points out that at least the smell of Christian blood won’t be so strong.

Of course, we know that it is more than blood they will smell.  When gladiators kill one another, or when slaves or Christians are killed by one means or another, their corpses will have their final bowel movement, as the feces are let loose into their pants or onto the floor of the arena. Somehow, I just don’t think perfume would be able to fully cope with the foul stench of death that those games produced.

But even without the smell, the games depicted in this movie are the worst I’ve ever seen.  We hear a Roman say that there are a thousand coffins ready for the dead.  In addition to gladiators killing one another, we also have barbarian women and pygmies engaged in mortal combat.  Then we see elephants crushing the skulls of bound slaves. A beautiful, scantily clad woman is tied up as crocodiles are released so they can devour her.  A naked woman is tied to a pole, and a gorilla is let into the arena.  As he looks at her, the camera shifts to the audience, and from the reaction shot, we know that the gorilla is ravishing her.

As a matter of fact, the worst part of these games is the audience reaction.  As a slave slowly dies from having been gored by a bull, his arms reaching out for mercy, the audience is hysterical with laughter. Lovers, on the other hand, are sexually aroused. The intense emotions they experience as they watch gladiators being disemboweled is channeled into the love they have for each other. They gaze longingly into each other’s eyes with sweet affection as they hear screams of death coming from the arena.

Note 2:  Writing for the New York Times in 1951, Bosley Crowther, in reviewing Quo Vadis, makes a comment that I can scarcely countenance:

“And for such awesome exhibitions as the historic burning of Rome or the slaughter of Christian martyrs, which was common in Nero’s time, there has never been a picture that offered the equal of this. Even the previous excursion of Cecil B. DeMille in this realm in his left-handed version of ‘Quo Vadis?’, the memorable ‘The Sign of the Cross,’ had nothing to match the horrendous and morbid spectacles of human brutality and destruction that Director Mervyn LeRoy has got in this.”

I’ll admit that the fire is spectacular.  But when it comes to the games, it is exactly the opposite of what Crowther says here. It is The Sign of the Cross that has the “horrendous and morbid spectacles,” while Quo Vadis is relatively tame in comparison.  I can only suppose that he saw a version of The Sign of the Cross that had been severely edited after the Production Code started being strictly enforced in 1934.

Furthermore, none of the events described above have any corresponding scenes in Quo Vadis: there are no gladiators killing one another, no mortal combat between barbarian women and pygmies, no elephants crushing skulls, no crocodiles eating a beautiful maiden, and absolutely no gorilla raping a naked woman.  We see only scenes of Christians being killed.

Finally, the sentiment of the audience in Quo Vadis begins to turn against Nero, disapproving of his slaughter of the Christians, unlike the audience in The Sign of the Cross, which is with him all the way, cheering, laughing, lusting.

It is also unnerving to listen to the Christians being held in the dungeon as they await their turn in the circus, the climax of events, where they are to be devoured by lions. Only Mercia seems to believe wholeheartedly, although even she starts to break at one point.  All the rest of the Christians are terrified, though they do manage to sing as they are being led to the lions.  To say they only half believe would be saying too much. Rather, their cries to God are pathetic, a desperate clinging to a hope that provides no comfort, like men who at the moment of death cry for their mothers.

Note 3:  In Quo Vadis, the Christians go to their death in peace, knowing that the kingdom of God awaits them.  After it is over, Nero walks through the arena to look at what remains of the bodies of the dead Christians.  He is appalled at the way their corpses all have smiles on their faces. Perhaps this was required by the Production Code, which frowned on showing Christians having doubts, questioning why God does not save them, and experiencing agony in their final moments.

Marcus tries to get Mercia to renounce her faith, saying that Nero will spare her for Marcus’s sake if she does, and then he promises he will marry her.  But she will not renounce her faith.  Poppaea has saved her for last, the other Christians having already met their end.  As Mercia prepares to enter the arena, Marcus chooses to go with her. He is an atheist, but if he cannot believe in any pagan god, he tries to believe in Christ, if only because he believes in her.  Together, they enter the arena, and as the doors close behind them, a light shining on those doors forms the sign of the cross, assuring us that they will go to Heaven.

Well, I don’t know about that, but those Romans definitely deserved to burn forever in the fires of Hell.

Note 4:  Marcus Vinicius and Lygia (Deborah Kerr) in Quo Vadis correspond to Marcus Superbus and Mercia in The Sign of the Cross. When Lygia’s giant slave kills a bull in the arena, where she was tied to a pole, the audience cheers for them and signals thumbs up, with only Nero signaling thumbs down.  But Nero is thwarted when soldiers loyal to Marcus win the day.  Marcus and Lydia, who were married by Saint Peter, are spared, and they live happily ever after.

The Sign of the Cross ends with Nero and Poppaea triumphant.  In Quo Vadis, however, Marcus declares that henceforth, General Galba will be emperor of Rome. Having been deserted by the Praetorian Guard and the people, Nero strangles Poppaea and then commits suicide.

So, it’s thumbs up for The Sign of the Cross, and thumbs down for Quo Vadis.

The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man begins with a prologue, not a written one, but a scene with Alfred Hitchcock at a distance, barely visible in the light on a dark street, saying that the movie we are about to see is “a true story, every word of it.”  Then come the credits, followed by a disclaimer where this is directly contradicted:

The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.

So, there!

The story is about a man named Christopher Emanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who works at the Stork Club in New York as the bass player in the orchestra. When he gets off work, while riding the subway, he looks at an advertisement for an automobile promising family fun.  For some reason, there is no advertisement suggesting that a bachelor might have fun with an automobile. But then, I guess a bachelor doesn’t need an automobile to have fun.

Then he looks at an advertisement for a bank, claiming to be a family bank. There is no advertisement claiming to be a bank for bachelors, so I don’t know where they would go to borrow money.  But then, I guess bachelors don’t need to borrow money from a bank.

The movie continues to drive home the point that Manny is a family man.  When he stops to get something to eat, the man behind the counter asks him, “How’s the family?”  When he gets home, he brings in the milk left by the milkman, which is a nice family touch, but either Manny works really late, or the milkman makes his deliveries extra early.  As he passes the bedroom where his two sons are sleeping, he looks in on them. Then he checks in on his wife Rose (Vera Miles).  The next day, his mother calls, asking him to stop by.  We later find out he has a sister and brother-in-law.  I suppose the idea is that what will soon happen to him will disrupt everyone in his extended family, making it much worse than if it happened to a bachelor who grew up as an only child and whose parents are no longer living.

In looking at the ads mentioned above, it is clear that Manny would love to take out a loan from the family bank to buy the car and have some family fun.  But that is just an idle dream for him.  He pretends to play the horses, marking pretend bets, and then checking later to see how much he would have won.  But his reality is dreary.  He may have to take out a loan, not for a car, but rather so that Rose can have her wisdom teeth removed.  And the reason his mother wants him to stop by is that “Pop” is not doing well.

Manny takes Rose’s life insurance policy to the company to get that loan.  While there, he is mistaken for a man that held up the company on two previous occasions.  They call the police after he leaves, and Manny is arrested and taken to the police station.  A police detective assures him that an innocent man has nothing to worry about, that only the guilty have anything to fear.  And yet, he is repeatedly identified as the man that held up one business or another, including the insurance company.

This is as unsurprising as it is unnerving.  If a Mr. Jones is already known to the witness of a crime beforehand, and he then testifies that Jones committed that crime, we have good reason to trust his testimony.  But if the witness had never seen Jones before the day of the crime, then his testimony to that effect should be treated with a fair amount of skepticism.  I have read of studies in which psychologists staged crimes before a room full of students.  In one, only 14% of the witnesses were able to correctly identify the “culprit.”  In another staged crime, 60% of the witnesses in the classroom, including the professor, identified the wrong man as the one supposedly guilty of the faked assault.  And yet, many an innocent man has been sent to prison on the basis of just such evidence alone.

There have been over a dozen times in my life where someone has mistaken me for someone else, saying he saw me at a store I never go to, or asked me how I enjoyed the concert, which I did not attend.  I usually joke that I hope these doppelgängers behave themselves so that I don’t get blamed for something they did. But when watching this movie, recalling those times where I have been mistaken for someone else makes me squirm.

In a lot of movies, Manny would be arrested, locked up, arraigned, and bailed out in five minutes of screen time.  But Hitchcock takes us through the whole process slowly, so that we experience the dread of handcuffs, bars, hard beds, and angular accommodations.  On the day of his arraignment, he has to show up in court unshaven, which only adds to his humiliation.

After he is bailed out, thanks to money raised by his sister and brother-in-law, Rose begins having a nervous breakdown.  She blames herself for what happened to Manny, but then she blames him, accusing him of borrowing money on a previous occasion so they could go on a vacation they couldn’t afford, something he had already admitted at the police station.  So, it appears that some of Manny’s money problems were self-inflicted, contrary to what we thought at first.

Then, at his trial, the prosecuting attorney, in his opening statement, says he will show that Manny needed to borrow money to pay off the bookies, based on statements he made to the detectives. Manny looks at his lawyer, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), negatively shaking his head to indicate that it isn’t true.  We heard Manny admit that he went to the race track a few times, but that is all. Did the detectives misunderstand him?  Did they purposely make this up?  Or were those supposedly pretend bets in fact real bets, and he was in trouble with the bookies? We never find out, since it ends in a mistrial.

The reason for the mistrial is that a juror expresses his impatience when O’Connor is cross-examining the eyewitnesses.  There are two witnesses, a Mrs. James and a Miss Willis, who both work at the insurance company, and who had picked Manny out of a lineup.  First, Mrs. James identifies Manny as the one that held up the insurance company where she worked.  Then Miss Willis takes the stand.  Manny’s lawyer asks her about the “alleged lineup,” to which there is an objection.  At first, I thought it strange that he would make a disparaging remark like that about the lineup.  We were able to see the men that were grouped together with Manny, and I saw nothing problematic about them.  Perhaps the subsequent dialogue reveals his misgivings:

O’Connor:  Were there any men in that alleged lineup you knew before that night?

[After an objection to his use of the word “alleged,” he continues.]

O’Connor:  How many of the men did you know?

Miss Willis:  One.

O’Connor:  And who was that?

Miss Willis:  Mrs. James’ husband.

Mrs. James’ husband!  What kind of lineup is that?  We saw the scene where the women picked Manny out of the lineup.  So, why didn’t we hear Mrs. James say, “George!  What are you doing here?”

Anyway, O’Connor then begins a tedious process of asking Miss Willis about the men in the lineup, including Mr. James.  He asks what the various men were wearing, how tall they were, and how much they weighed.  Who could be expected to remember such details?  It is at this point that a juror asks, “Your Honor, do we have to sit here and listen to this?”

He took the words right out of my mouth!  If this is the best O’Connor can do, I thought to myself, Manny is in trouble.  Anyway, justified or not, the remark occasions the request for a mistrial, which is granted.

After the mistrial, Rose has a complete mental collapse, staring vacantly off into space. She talks about how “they” will find Manny guilty no matter what he does.  Manny has to put her in an “institution.” However, he voiced similar sentiments himself when two of the men that might have provided him with an alibi turned up dead.  He tells O’Connor, “You know, like someone was stacking the cards against us.”  We don’t take his remark seriously, but it is intended to prepare us for what is to come; for it clearly suggests that there is a baleful, supernatural influence working against him, which can only be thwarted by a countervailing supernatural force for good.

And so it is that in what thus far has been an engrossing movie, there is a complete narrative rupture. Manny’s mother tells him he should pray.  He says he already has prayed.  And we know he has.  When first arrested, he has to remove all the items from his pocket.  One such item is a Rosary. Any man that would carry a Rosary around in his coat pocket is definitely religious.  During the trial, we see him holding the Rosary in his hands, under the table, presumably saying the prayers.  And so far, those prayers have come to naught.  Nevertheless, his mother says, “My son, I beg you to pray.”

Manny goes into the next room where he looks at a picture of Jesus on the wall.  We see him gazing at it as his lips move.  His image is superimposed over that of a man walking down the street.  He comes closer and closer until Manny’s face coincides with the face of the man in the street.  They have roughly similar features.

Well, the man tries to rob a store, and the owners subdue him and have him arrested. At the police station, one of the detectives working Manny’s case notices the similar appearance of that man to that of Manny. The end result is that Manny is freed.

This miracle ruins the movie.  And it is especially presumptuous, given Hitchcock’s claim that the story is true.  Yes, it was probably true that Manny’s mother told him to pray, and right after that the holdup man was arrested.  But given the way it is filmed, there can be no doubt that there has been divine intervention, something Hitchcock could hardly guarantee.  Maybe that’s why there was a disclaimer.

We never minded when we saw Manny praying with the Rosary.  Religious people pray in times of stress. And if he had subsequently been freed when the man was arrested later on in the film, we would not have felt obliged to see that as resulting from a supernatural cause.  But the scene involving Manny’s face superimposed over the holdup man as Manny prayed to the picture of Jesus makes it impossible to interpret that as anything other than a genuine miracle.

In Chapter XV of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the author reflects upon the fact that the degree of credence we accord to miracles depends largely on when they are supposed to have occurred.  He admits that in the early days of Christianity, the intervention of God was more necessary than it is today:

If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous na­tions to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church.

And so it is, Gibbon goes on to say, that it is only with reluctance that even the most devout will admit to miracles in present circumstances:

In modern times, a latent and even involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active con­sent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the variable order of Nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity.

And if Gibbon was right when saying this in the eighteenth century, then all the more so is this true in the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries.  People might still accept miracles that occurred in subsequent centuries, but Gibbon’s expression “visible action of the Deity” is significant.  What counts as a miracle no longer is something utterly contrary to what can occur in nature, such as when Joshua made the sun stand still.  Rather, it is something compatible with natural causes, but ascribed to the hand of God nevertheless.  We might say of such miracles that they involve the invisible action of the Deity.  When an airplane crashes, and all are killed except a baby, some may say that it was a miracle the infant survived, but we know that the skeptical will have no trouble attributing the event to mere chance.

What Gibbon said of real life also applies to the movies.  We not only accept, but also look forward to, the depiction of miracles in film as they occurred in biblical times, whether it be that of Moses parting the Red Sea, or that of Jesus walking on water.  But when a miracle supposedly takes place in a movie that is set in contemporaneous times, we do not see a marvelous violation of the laws of nature, but rather an outcome that could have happened naturally, but which the movie encourages us to regard as a miracle, usually because someone prays just before the event takes place, a conclusion we would never have come to otherwise.

For example, in Made for Each Other (1939), a nun encourages Carol Lombard to pray to a statue of Jesus that the serum for her baby will arrive in time to save its life, even though there is a blizzard raging so severe that pilot who is going to bring the serum will be risking his life to make that flight.  She does pray to that statue of Jesus, after which the pilot, who has had to bail out of his plane, manages to get to a farmhouse, where the farmer calls the hospital to tell them the serum has arrived.  Absent the prayer to an image of Jesus just prior to these events, we would never have concluded that God intervened to save her baby.  We’d have simply said to ourselves, “Well, that was a close call!”

After he has been exonerated, Manny goes to the insane asylum to tell Rose the good news, but she continues to stare off into space, saying it doesn’t matter.  He says to the nurse, “I guess I was hoping for a miracle.”  She replies, “They happen, but it takes time.”  The epilogue tells us that Rose was released from the hospital after two years.

Just as we were not bothered by the Rosary and Manny’s prayers during the trial, so too do we think nothing of this conversation about a miracle regarding Rose’s recovery. People speak of miracles figuratively all the time, meaning nothing more than a positive outcome that is unlikely.  So, it is only the literal miracle involving the picture of Jesus that ruins the movie.

There are movies, even those set in the twenty-first century, where miracles are perhaps more acceptable. If the movie lets us know from the outset that it is religious in nature, such as God’s Not Dead (2014), where God, we are invited to believe, keeps a reverend from being able to leave town so that he can get the dying atheist professor to ask for God’s forgiveness and be saved (i.e., so we can see the atheist crawl in the end), the miracle is at least in keeping with what has come before.  It doesn’t matter whether you regard this as a good movie or not.  The point is that the miracle is not unexpected, since we have been prepared for something like that from the beginning.

In the case of The Wrong Man, however, we have not been so prepared.  Up to the point of the miracle, this is the most realistic movie Hitchcock ever directed, and thus the fantastic miracle really seems out of place. When out of the blue, a miracle occurs as a means to resolving a dramatic difficulty, it comes across as a deus ex machina, a contrived and artificial solution to a problem that seems unsolvable.  In the case of The Wrong Man, however, the miracle could have been left out, and we would have accepted the arrest of the man who actually held up the insurance company as something that could easily have happened. So, we get the disadvantage of a deus ex machina, as something contrived, without any benefit, since there was no need for such a drastic solution to Manny’s problem in the first place.

In addition to movies that announce their religious themes up front, I suppose it is worth mentioning that we never object to miracles in a comedy, as in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  And whatever misgivings we have about miracles ordinarily understood, in which God intervenes for someone’s benefit, we usually are much more receptive to evil miracles, as it were, as when Satan intervenes for his own wicked reasons, as in The Exorcist (1973).

The problem with depicting a miracle in modern times is not only, as Gibbon says, that we are reticent to accept the occurrence of genuine miracles in the modern age.  It is also the fact that the supposed occurrence of such encourages reflection on the problem of evil, to wit, if there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is there so much sin and suffering in the world?  For a lot of religious people, this is not a problem. They have their pat answers, involving such things as free will, God’s divine plan, and the sin of questioning the ways of God in the first place.

But for others, even those that are otherwise religious, such thoughts are disturbing, precipitating a whole raft of questions they would rather not think about:  Why did God let all these bad things happen to Manny and Rose in the first place, when he could have made sure the bad guy was caught right away?  Why was a prayer necessary to bring about the miracle, and if it was, why did Manny’s previous prayers not suffice? What was God waiting for?  And given the success he had the first time, why didn’t Manny just go back to the picture of Jesus and work up another miracle to get Rose out of the mental institution right away?  (The movie says Rose was all right after a couple of years, but I have read that she never really did completely recover.)

All these questions interfere with our enjoyment of the movie.  And this is regrettable, since the movie would have been just fine with no miracle at all.

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.

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.

The Green Pastures (1936)

It is impossible to watch The Green Pastures simply as a movie.  We cannot help but think of it as an artifact, an historical document reflecting attitudes toward African Americans in the 1930s, inasmuch as this movie has an all-black cast.  Furthermore, the movie is religious in nature, reflecting the understanding that African Americans had of Christianity back then; or rather, the understanding that whites had of the understanding that blacks had of Christianity:  for certainly, this is a movie for white audiences primarily and black audiences only incidentally.  This means that our attitude toward Christianity will intrude on our viewing of this movie just as much as our attitude toward representations of African Americans.

The underlying assumption about African Americans in this movie is that they are a childlike race, holding simple, naïve beliefs.  The movie begins on a Sunday morning, when the children are rounded up for Sunday school.  The preacher tells the children about how things all began, and as he does so, the camera closes in on the eyes of a child, just before the movie presents us with a representation of what was going on in Heaven before the Creation.  In other words, what we are seeing is to be understood as doubly childlike:  the conception of Heaven held by a child belonging to a childlike race. Moreover, the child is a girl, and prejudice against the female intellect may also be at play here, further intensifying the idea that what we are about to witness is foolish, but adorably so.

Presumably, it is this childlike mentality through which Heaven is depicted that permits us to see what no other Heaven movie has dared reveal:  the Face of God.  In all the other Heaven movies, we see only an administrator or some such.  Sometimes we get to see God here on Earth, typically in satires or comedies.  In serious movies, say those of a biblical nature, we are usually limited to just hearing the voice of God or to seeing an angel delivering God’s message.  But to my knowledge, it is only in The Green Pastures that we get to see what Jehovah looks like when he is in Heaven.  In other words, he looks like Rex Ingram.

Heaven as imagined by those in the Sunday school is one in which the angels seem to be having one long picnic and fish fry.  Presumably there is sex in Heaven too, because there are little angel children running about and references to mammies.  And there is even dancing on Saturday night.  I know what you’re thinking.  How could there be a Saturday before the Creation?  But this is just one of the many anachronisms and impossibilities in this movie, which go with the presumed simple faith of the poorly educated “Negro.”  In fact, watching the stories of the Bible told anachronistically is part of this movie’s charm.  It is worth noting that even though all the angels are black, their wings are white.  I guess the association between white and goodness on the one hand and black and evil on the other was too strong to be resisted, even in a movie like this. Angels with black wings would look like demons from Hell.

A more serious question might be the following:  with Heaven being such a wonderful form of existence, why would God create an Earth full of sin and suffering?  But that is a question one could raise without ever having seen this movie.  We cannot expect this movie to solve the problem of evil when theologians have been struggling with that for centuries.  Rather, I prefer to focus on what I believe is a novel answer provided by this movie to a problem that has bedeviled many a Christian.  The Jehovah of the Old Testament is a god of wrath and vengeance, whereas the Jesus of the New Testament is a god of love and mercy.  This would make sense if Jesus were literally the son of Jehovah, distinct from his father.  But as we know, Jesus and Jehovah are one and the same.  Of course, in Revelations, the final book of the Bible, Jesus and Jehovah are united in the way they deal out death and destruction, condemning vast portions of mankind to eternal suffering in Hell, more cruel and bloodthirsty than Jehovah ever was by himself in the Old Testament.  But most people prefer a conception of Jesus as being a god of forgiveness.

Well, in this movie, after years of wreaking havoc on a sinful mankind, drowning most everyone and starting over, only to see people degenerate again into their sinful ways, Jehovah gets fed up and decides to abandon these worthless humans to their misery.  However, there is this man called Hezdrel, who is also played by Rex Ingram, whose preaching is giving Jehovah a headache, so he goes down to Earth to see what is going on.  Hezdrel says that people no longer believe in a god of wrath.  Now they believe in a god of mercy.  Jehovah asks him where he got the idea of mercy from.  Hezdrel answers, “Through suffering.”  Jehovah goes back to Heaven to reflect on the matter.  He realizes that the only way for him to become the god of mercy that people now believe in is if he suffers himself.

You can almost imagine Jesus saying to himself while growing up:  “Wow, this being a human being is a lot harder than I thought.  Life is just full of misery and suffering.  From now on, I’m going to be more sympathetic to these poor creatures that I created a long time ago.”  And then when he gets nailed to the cross and really finds out about the horrors of existence, he becomes even more determined to be merciful in the future.  In other words, Jesus did not die on the cross for our sins; rather, he suffered on the cross so that he could have some empathy.

Though not explicit in the movie, one might infer from this that suffering in general is not justified as punishment for sin, but rather is necessary for having feelings of compassion.  And so, the misery inflicted on the African slaves in this country and the mistreatment of their descendants under Jim Crow was a blessing:  if God benefited from such suffering, so too did his children.

Now, for all I know, there is some theologian I have never heard of who advanced this theory a long time ago.  But its presentation in this movie is the first I’ve ever heard of it.  Not that I’m buying it, of course, being the atheist that I am, but at least someone has finally tried to explain how Jehovah and Jesus could possibly be the same god.

When Is a Good Man not a Good Man? When He Is a Family Man.

It sometimes happens in watching a movie that one will be struck by something that others may not even notice, something that had it been edited out and left on the cutting-room floor would never have been missed. So it is with the movie 99 Homes (2014).

The movie is set sometime after the bursting of the housing bubble.  It is a time when there is more money to be made evicting people from their homes than building new ones.  In particular, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker who can no longer find work building homes, and as a result, he and his family are evicted from theirs for failure to make mortgage payments.  On the day of their eviction, Nash tells Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the real-estate broker in charge, that he was born in that house. This being said by a man in his twenties, such a house would normally be paid off by that time, which means he probably refinanced the house along the way to help pay the bills.

The Nash family, consisting of Nash, his mother, and his son, quickly put as much of their stuff as they can into their pickup truck and wind up at a cheap motel in the bad part of town.  When he realizes his tools were stolen by the crew that moved his stuff out to the curb, he goes back to his house and gets in a fight. Because Carver needs someone with Nash’s fierce determination to assist him in evicting people, he offers him a job.

At first we believe that Nash will simply be helping Carver do stuff that is legal, however unsavory it may be.  But soon we find that his job also involves scamming the banks and the government, stealing appliances and air conditioners so that Fannie Mae will give them a check to put the stuff back in the house they took it out of.  This makes Nash a little uneasy, as it does us, but bankers have always been fair game in fiction. The idea of the banker foreclosing on the widow with a baby because she is late with her last mortgage payment has been the stuff of melodrama since the nineteenth century, and those who rob banks to get even are romanticized. Nevertheless, when Nash’s mother finds out what he has been doing, she takes his son and goes to stay with her brother, “Uncle Jimmy.”

Eventually, it becomes more than just cheating the banks and the government. When Frank Greene, a homeowner whose family is about to be evicted, threatens to foul up a multimillion dollar deal for Carver by contesting his eviction, Carver gives Nash a forged, backdated document to take to court. Nash really becomes conflicted by this, because this is cheating a family just like his own.  He decides not to deliver the document, but the court clerk, who is in on the deal, snatches it out of his hand and gives it to the judge, who approves the eviction.

This leads to an armed standoff, where Greene fires warning shots from inside his house.  Nash steps out from behind a car and walks onto the grass with his hands up and tells Greene that he cheated him with a forged document. Greene surrenders, and we get the sense that with Nash providing evidence, Carver will soon be heading to prison.

That is the movie in a nutshell.  But an offhand comment made in the middle of the movie caught my attention.  Carver asks Nash why he isn’t married, to which Nash responds that he doesn’t have time for it.  “I don’t trust a man who’s not married,” Carver says.  “Nobody does.”  At first, that would seem to be a preposterous contradiction.  Carver, as we have seen, is not only ruthless in evicting people from their homes, but he is also willing to break the law to do so. He also cheats on his wife.  But then we realize there is no contradiction here. He is not saying that married men are more trustworthy than single men, but rather that they are so regarded.  In other words, a single man might be just as trustworthy as any married man, but it is a fact of human nature that people are more likely to trust a man who is married than one who is not. Carver would prefer that Nash be married, because it is easier for a married man to cheat people than it is for a single man, owing to this prejudice in favor of the trustworthiness of the former over the latter, however misguided that may be.

Well, that would account for the rest of mankind, but why would Carver be more likely to trust a married man when he knows from the example of himself just how misplaced such trust can be?  That leads to a paradoxical distinction between two different kinds of trustworthiness.  Some men can be trusted because they are basically good, and some men can be trusted because they cannot afford to be good.  As Tallyrand said, “A married man with a family will do anything for money.”

If this is what Carver has in mind, that a married man burdened by the responsibilities of a family will not be able to afford the luxury of doing the right thing and therefore can be trusted to do the wrong thing when necessary, then Nash actually is effectively more like a married man than a single one, in that he has his mother and son to support.  (We gather that when Nash was young, his girlfriend got pregnant, had a baby, and then took off, leaving the child with him.) In fact, it is only after his mother and his son go to live with Uncle Jimmy, where they will have food and shelter no matter what happens to him, that Nash is free to do what is right.

In general, whether one is married or has a family without actually being married like Nash, one is not as free as a single, unattached person to do all the things he or she would like, whether for good or ill.  We tend to think of the bachelor as someone who is more likely to indulge his vices or commit crimes, with good reason, I fear, but it is also true that anyone who aspires to be a saint will find family life to be a hindrance.

This is undoubtedly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). You are not supposed to divorce your wife, of course (Matthew 19:19), but you are supposed to hate her.  That might be said of a lot of married men, unfortunately, but I doubt if for religious reasons.  In the parable of the Great Banquet, a rich man invites a lot of people to have dinner with him, which I suppose is analogous to Jesus inviting people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven with him. An excuse offered by one man for declining the invitation was, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come” (Luke 14:20).  In a pinch, a man might be better off castrating himself:  “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12).

Obviously, Jesus was addressing his remarks to men rather than to women, not only because women cannot be eunuchs, but also because he says that a man must hate his wife, not that a woman must hate her husband. Notwithstanding this oversight, women are capable of becoming saints just like men, though there are more officially recognized male saints than female.  On the other hand, from a casual perusal of the movies, it would seem that women make better movie saints than do men.  St. Joan of Arc, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Bernadette get lots of screen time, whereas the only male saint to get that much attention from movie producers is St. Francis of Assisi.  They all pretty much have in common the fact that they are single.  Elizabeth Bayley Seton had been a wife and mother, but one suspects that she would never have made it to sainthood had she not been widowed.

Traditionally, bachelors have always been looked upon as being of doubtful character, in part because they were suspected of homosexuality.  Even when that was not the issue, however, there was the sense that there was something wrong with them.  Of course, by “bachelor” I mean a man who not only has never married but has never lived with a woman as well.  I once knew a couple that had been living together for seven years and had a three-year-old child, but they still counted themselves as being single.  If possession is nine-tenths of the law, cohabitation is nine-tenths of being married, even when common-law status is not invoked.  With women, on the other hand, it has traditionally been different, as if they were more to be pitied than censured.  The “old maid” was usually thought of as a woman unable to attract a man, and the “spinster” was a woman forced to support herself for want of a husband.

The idea of a man being so spiritual that he rises above his sexuality is part of the awe afforded to priests.  The Protestant version of the priest, who likely is married, may strike us as more dependable and down to earth, but he no longer seems special the way a Catholic priest does.  However, it is the entanglements of marriage that really get in the way of one’s spiritual aspirations.  So, what does a man or woman do who wishes to become a saint only after having become married? As a rule, I suppose one gives up the dream of becoming a saint owing to one’s family obligations.  But there are a couple of movies that suggest that abandoning or neglecting one’s family is permissible and even laudable.

In the movie The Boy with Green Hair (1948), Peter Fry (Dean Stockwell) is a war orphan because his parents died during the London blitz of World War II trying to help war orphans.   This is premised on something supposedly noble, but which is in fact quite irritating. When Peter was very young, his parents left him with an aunt so that they could help the war orphans in London. Even if one of his parents felt the need to participate in the war effort, say, the father, we would expect the mother to stay with her son and take care of him; but they both figure they have more important things to do than raise their own child. When the aunt gets word that Peter’s parents are dead, she passes him on to other relatives who don’t want him either. This continues until he ends up with his grandfather (Pat O’Brien).

We are supposed to think of those relatives as being cold and selfish, but after all, they did not bargain on having to raise someone else’s child. It is actually Peter’s parents who are selfish. They are that strange breed of do-gooder who becomes so enamored with the idea of saving the world that he neglects his own family. Without pausing to be sure that Peter would be raised to maturity by a loving relative happy to take care of him if they died in the war, they just dumped him on his aunt and took off.

There is one moment in the movie when Peter concludes, correctly in my opinion, that his parents cared more about other children than they did him, but the movie insists that he is wrong, and at the end Peter is seen as understanding that they really did love him and that what they did was right and good. As insistent as the movie is in this regard, it still leaves us with a feeling of revulsion for parents who would abandon their child so they could devote themselves to some higher purpose.

Another movie along these lines is Magnificent Obsession (1954).  The movie is based on a karmic principle explained by analogy with electricity.  The way it works is that if you do good things for people without letting other people know about it, and you refuse any attempt on their part to repay the debt, you build up a spiritual charge of good karma that rewards you. If you allow them to repay the debt, the spiritual force is discharged. Most people are grounded, never accumulating a charge, because they allow people to return the favor. If you tell other people about your kindness or charity, the spiritual force will dissipate, as with a wire without insulation.

The story begins when the reckless behavior of the rich, irresponsible playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) inadvertently causes the death of Dr. Wayne Phillips, a man who had been initiated into the secret karmic principle. Dr. Phillips was such a good man that he used up all his income and borrowed against all his assets to do good deeds, leaving his wife, Helen (Jane Wyman), and his daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), nothing.  You might be appalled that Dr. Phillips did not provide for his wife and daughter in the event of his death, that he was so caught up in the idea of helping strangers that he neglected his family, grabbing up all the good karma for himself while his wife and daughter are left destitute. And yet, the movie insists that we are to admire Dr. Phillips.

Being a good man and being a good family man may be two different things.

San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco is one-third musical, one-third catastrophe movie, and one-third religious movie.  The musical third is just a showcase for Jeanette MacDonald in the role of Mary Blake.  We don’t really relate to this movie as a musical, and so we become impatient with her numbers while waiting for the catastrophe, the 1906 earthquake.  But this catastrophe, in turn, merely provides the basis for its religious themes of sin, suffering, and redemption.

Clark Gable plays Blackie Norton, who runs the Paradise Club, an establishment catering to vices such as drinking, gambling, and ogling pretty women.  Blackie is an atheist, who, according to his friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), doesn’t believe in anything, which means Blackie is a cynic as well.  However, we also see that he has a good heart underlying his sneering façade, for he shows concern about people getting out of a burning building, offers to make a charitable contribution, pays for an organ for Tim’s church, and plans to run for Supervisor, a political office that will enable him to enact regulations preventing more fires like the one we see in the beginning of the movie.

Tim tells Mary about Blackie’s good heart, saying in general that no one is all bad, an absurdity on which I will not bother to comment.  The important thing about this conversation he has with Mary in this regard, however, is the smug look he has on his face, which only gets worse as the movie wears on.  A lot of people suppose that belief in God and moral goodness are linked together in some essential way, and this was especially true in 1936, when this movie was made.  Therefore, Blackie’s atheism in conjunction with his good heart, we are being guided to believe, is unsustainable.

Mary gets a job in Blackie’s nightclub as a singer.  Her operatic voice seems totally out of place in a joint where people want to indulge their vices, but that is sort of the point.  Soon she is offered a chance to sing in the Tivoli Opera House.  One of the musical numbers sung by Mary during the course of the movie is from the opera Faust by Charles Gounod.  You know the story.  A man sells his soul to the Devil so he can get laid.  Presumably Blackie’s attempt to possess Mary recapitulates Faust’s seduction and ruin of Marguerite, which is why Tim contends with Blackie for Mary’s soul.  After she breaks off her engagement with Blackie, Mary sings in the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, about a courtesan who dies from tuberculosis, possibly suggesting the unhappiness that Mary will experience if she goes ahead with her plans to marry Jack Burley for his money and social position, a man whom she does not love.  Also, Burley will allow her to continue to sing at the Tivoli, while Blackie wants her back at the Paradise.

Early in the movie, we see Blackie and Tim in the boxing ring, in which Tim knocks Blackie to the mat, as he usually does, according to Blackie.  It is important to establish that Tim can lick Blackie in a fight, because later in the movie, when Blackie and Tim are arguing over Mary, Blackie punches Tim, who just stands there and takes it with a hurt look on his face, the blood trickling down from his lip.  In other words, Tim is turning the other cheek in spite of his superior ability at fisticuffs.  If the movie had not featured that boxing scene early on, we might suppose that Tim’s reluctance to strike back is out of cowardice and weakness, that he is hiding behind his collar.

Though Mary loves Blackie, yet it bothers her that he doesn’t believe in God.  Blackie responds, “God?  Hey, isn’t he supposed to be taking care of the suckers that come out of the missions looking for something to eat and a place to sleep?”  Some might answer that it is God that inspires the people that run the missions.  But as Mark Twain once noted, “If  you will look at the matter rationally and without prejudice, the proper place to hunt for the facts of His mercy, is not where man does the mercies and He collects the praise, but in those regions where He has the field to Himself.”

This challenge returns to us toward the end of the movie where God indeed has the field to Himself, for when the earthquake begins, God does nothing to prevent it, and the result is that many people die or suffer crippling injuries.  Of course, we are probably supposed to understand this earthquake as Old Testament style, wrath of God punishment for the Barbary Coast.  As Blackie wanders around looking for Mary, he keeps running into people looking for God.  Mrs. Burley, the mother of the man whom Mary was planning to marry, says of her son’s death that it is God’s will and that it’s God’s help they both need now.  This brings out the great paradox regarding the connection between religion and suffering:  the more suffering people experience, the more likely they are to turn to God; and yet, the more suffering people experience, the more we wonder why an all-powerful, loving God would let them suffer.

Eventually, Blackie finds a place where the injured are being cared for, where Tim is offering them comfort.  One might expect that in the face of all the death and destruction that has befallen the city, Tim would look as grief stricken and overwhelmed as everyone else including Blackie.  But no, Tim has a look of serenity on his face when Blackie sees him, and that look stays on his face right through the end of the movie.  Earlier in the movie, when the Barbary Coast was indulging in all its wantonness—drinking, gambling, carousing—Tim’s facial expression was often grim and disapproving.  But now, with all the pain and misery around him, Tim is in his element.  As the city burns, as people die before his eyes, as he hears people cry out for the loss of their loved ones, Tim is truly at peace.  This is especially so when he sees Blackie.  Now, at last, Blackie will see.  There must be a God after all.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  All this devastation brought about by the earthquake doesn’t prove there’s a God.  At most, it only proves that people need God.  But that nice distinction exceeds the critical acumen of those that made this movie.  More to the point, if people need God, then they need priests like Tim.  For years, Tim had to endure all of Blackie’s scoffing and sneering, but now the day of triumph is at hand.  Blackie is truly humbled, confused by all the suffering and misery that he does not comprehend, as he stands before Tim, who has known all along that this day would come, and whose heart is filled with joy.

When Blackie asks Tim if he has seen Mary, Tim takes him to a place outdoors where survivors of the earthquake have found refuge.  There is Mary, singing “Nearer My God to Thee,” accompanied by those around her, while a mother holds her dead child in her arms until others gently take him away from her and she collapses in tears.  It is all so heavenly.

When Blackie sees Mary, he says to Tim, “I want to thank God.”  And then we see it, the spectacle that exceeds even the earthquake:  Blackie Norton, on his knees, tears in his eyes, giving thanks to God, while Tim looks on smiling sweetly.

When Mary sees Blackie on his knees in prayer, she comes to him, and now we know that Blackie will finally have Mary’s love.  Just then, someone yells that the fire is out, at which point everyone becomes happy, shouting that they will rebuild San Francisco, marching over the hill, back to the city, as they sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  When you consider that within less than the length of one full day, husbands have lost their wives, wives their husbands, parents their children, and children their parents, they seem to be holding up remarkably well, all of which testifies to the power of faith and the glory of God.

The Next Voice You Hear… (1950)

In the movie The Next Voice You Hear…, a mysterious voice interrupts the normal broadcast on the radio, claiming to be God.  This happens in Los Angeles every night at 8:30 for six straight days.  People also hear the voice all over the world in whatever language they speak.  Of course, it is a little more convenient for people in Los Angeles to listen to the broadcast, whereas for people in the other parts of the world, not so much.  Those in London must have had to get their butts out of bed at 4:30 in the morning if they wanted to hear what God had to say.  Those of us watching the movie don’t get to hear what God says at all.  We only hear what others say he said.  But that’s all right.  I’ve only heard what others say God said for years.

The effect that God’s voice on the radio has on people is mainly illustrated by the Smith family.  That would be Joe Smith (James Whitmore), his wife Mary (Nancy Davis), their son Johnny, and Aunt Ethel, who visits occasionally to help out because Mary is about to have a baby.  Of course, “Joe” suggests the name “Joseph,” so I guess we are supposed to see some connection with the parents of Jesus, but I have no idea why.

Family life in the Smith household is a bit irritating, primarily because Joe is bossy and thinks he knows what is best for everyone.  We are supposed to believe they basically all love one another, but watching the way they interact is an overall unpleasant experience.  In fact, Joe is no better when he leaves the house.  He is rude to others on the road, and the way he drives gets him a couple of tickets from a policeman.  At work he always seems to be at odds with the foreman, Fred Brannan (Art Smith).

On the first night that God speaks, Joe is the only one in the family to hear him.  He tells Mary and Johnny about it.  Johnny suggests it might be his friend Eddie Boyle, who has a ham radio, and that maybe he figured out a way to cut in as a prank. Joe says that is ridiculous.  “Would Eddie Boyle’s voice sound like God?”  Johnny answers, “I don’t know.  I never heard God.”  Mary turns to Johnny and says, “That isn’t nice.”

Just before that, Mary had suggested that the voice claiming to be God was part of a mystery contest or maybe an Orson Welles thing, alluding, of course, to that infamous War of the Worlds broadcast that made people believe the Martians had landed.  In other words, it was all right for her to question whether the voice was actually God, but not for Johnny to say, “I never heard God.”  And we do sense there is a difference.  Mary is only questioning whether someone claiming to be God actually is God.  But Johnny’s saying, “I never heard God,” is a little like saying, “I never saw God,” which is just one step removed from saying, “What evidence do we have that there is a God?”  Therefore, it is important for Mom to snuff out little Johnny’s tendency to think critically before it grows into full-fledged atheism.

And that does seem to be what God is worried about.  He is concerned that some people do not believe he exists or that it is really God’s voice they are hearing on the radio.  They want him to perform some miracles as proof.  God says he’ll have to think about that.

This second broadcast begins to make the members of the Smith household fearful.  Johnny even starts worrying about his mother dying while giving birth on account of overhearing Mary talking to Aunt Ethel about the difficulties in having a second child, after which Mary starts crying.  This is an artificial fear, one completely made up for this movie.  Except in special cases where there are complications, a second pregnancy is not more dangerous than the first.  The purpose of this phony danger is to give the Smith family something to be fearful of without making the audience fearful.  No one has ever watched this movie and worried that Mary was going to die.

In addition to that fear, one of the men Joe works with is worried about the miracles that God was talking about.  Also, Johnny accidentally ruins the plug on the radio cord and is afraid to tell his father.  Mary expresses surprise, saying that Johnny was never afraid to tell them about stuff like that before.  Exactly what the connection is supposed to be between all this fear and the voice of God is not made clear.  Maybe it is that people often believe in God because they are afraid, and then they end up being afraid of the very God they turned to on account of their fears.  So, fear is both the cause and the effect of believing in God, the one reinforcing the other.

On the third night, Joe and his family miss the broadcast because of the broken plug, but once the plug is fixed, the radio announcer says they were unable to record the voice.  However, they read a transcript of what God had to say.  God is not only still bothered by all the doubt and skepticism about him, but also all the fear that people are feeling.  Maybe, God muses, people are afraid there will be another forty days and nights of rain.  Minutes later, it starts to rain, accompanied by lightning and thunder.  Johnny says he is afraid, Mary screams, and a fearful Joe tries to reassure them that it is just a coincidence as they huddle in terror.  But it only rains that night, and everyone wakes up relieved to see that God didn’t keep it going for the remaining forty days and thirty-nine nights.

At work, Joe marvels that he didn’t have trouble starting his car that morning, almost suggesting that it is some kind of miracle.  But one of his coworkers tells him that maybe he has been flooding his engine every morning on account of being so uptight, and when he woke up in a good mood that morning, he was easier on the gas and didn’t flood the engine.  Joe has a revelation.  Maybe that’s what God is trying to tell everyone, to just take it easy.

Just as the next night’s broadcast is starting, Mary goes into a false labor, so they miss God.  But the radio announcer reads the transcript later, in which God claims that when he made it rain the previous night, that was a miracle.  In fact, every drop of rain, every snowflake, blade of grass, the sun, the moon, and so forth is a miracle.  Then God enjoins people to perform miracles of their own through understanding, peace, and loving kindness.

Let’s pause here to see what all this is about.  Essentially, the focus of this movie is the discord and anxieties that plague the typical American family, both within, the way they get on one another’s nerves, and without, the way they yell at other people on the road as they drive to work, and the way they grumble about their boss when they are on the job.  You might think God would be telling people to quit fighting wars and to help the starving people of Africa, but this movie is not concerned with people in war-torn countries or people who don’t have enough to eat.  Those people aren’t going to be able to buy movie tickets anyway.  No, this movie is directed at the typical theater patron, the person who lives in a peaceful community where everyone has plenty to eat.  And thus, save for the possibility of death, exemplified by the risk involved when Mary has the baby, all the evils besetting these people are the little frustrations and apprehensions of a domestic life in middle-class America.

Anyway, Aunt Ethel becomes hysterical.  Notwithstanding the benign message from the voice on the radio, she fears the wrath of an angry God bent on punishing all of us sinners.  She says her mother and her sister (i.e., Mary’s grandmother and mother) both died when they had their second baby, and now God will see to it that Mary dies when she goes into labor as well.  Joe becomes angry and starts shaking Aunt Ethel violently, causing Mary to start yelling at Joe.

The next morning, with Mary still seething over Joe’s physical abuse of Ethel, Joe leaves the house for some cigarettes.  He walks by Brannan’s house and asks him what he thinks of the voice on the radio.  Brannan says, “People silly enough to believe in God are silly enough to believe God’s talking on the radio.”  Joe tells him he has no right to say that, and Brannan reminds him it’s a free country.  Joe tells Brannan he is a mean, miserable, old man.  Brannan says that Joe is the one who is miserable:  “Posing as a God fearing man.  You’re just hanging around, praying that I’ll die so you can get my job.”  Joe pretty much admits that is true.  Brannan then says that if God wants to answer Joe’s prayers and cause him to die, he can do it right now.  Joe stares at him, almost wondering if a bolt of lightning will strike any minute.  But of course it doesn’t.  Brannan is a typical movie atheist.  Not only is he cynical, but he is grumpy and something of a misanthrope as well.  At the time this movie was made, it was commonly believed that without God a person would naturally be selfish and mean.

Joe continues on his way to the local bar to get his pack of cigarettes.  When he gets there, he is spotted by his old Navy buddy, Mitch.  Mitch is still a bachelor and is on shore leave with a big wad of cash to spend, in contrast to Joe, who complains that he struggles to make ends meet and that his son Johnny has to have a paper route to buy his own bicycle because Joe can’t afford to buy him one himself.  Mitch is a hedonist.  He tells Joe about all the pleasures of visiting far off places, especially the ones in the tropics.  Unlike Brannan, the grumpy atheist, Mitch is just having too much fun living to worry about God one way or the other.  He laughs at the way people are afraid of living and scared of dying, at the way they are afraid when God speaks to them, and they are afraid when he doesn’t.  It’s because they are afraid that they fight with each other.  “As for me,” he says, “I don’t fight with nobody.  I’m just a hundred and ninety-five pounds of true love for my fellow man.”  They sit at a table getting drunk, with Mitch more than happy to pay for all the drinks.  At one point, when he orders another round, a woman sitting at the bar catches his eye, and he orders a drink for her too, after which she sits down at their table.  She flirts with Joe, but he keeps being rude to her, even though he keeps saying, “No offense.”  Finally, he tells Mitch that he is the voice of evil and that he never wants to see him again, threatening to squash his face if he does.

It might seem a little much for Joe to say that Mitch is the voice of evil and to express his hatred for him.  After all, it is not as though Mitch has ever done anything truly evil, like kill a man or rape a woman.  He’s just a good-time Charley who wants to see everyone get drunk and get laid.  But Mitch’s role as someone who is evil is relative to the focus of this movie, which is the ordinary life of middle-class America.  Just as God is mostly addressing his remarks to families dealing with the miseries of domesticity, so too is Mitch, as the Devil’s spokesman, being evil in making Joe discontented with having a family and a boring job.

Joe comes home drunk.  Mary reads him what God said while he was out, something about not doing what he told them, about not creating miracles through love and understanding, much in the way schoolchildren fail to do their homework.  Everyone makes up, even Joe and Aunt Ethel, except for Johnny, who was so upset by what Joe did that he ran away from home.  Joe goes out looking for him and finally finds him at Brannan’s house, where it turns out that Brannan and Johnny have been friends for some time.

It cannot go without mentioning that times have changed.  For a child to have been spending time in an old man’s house without his parents knowing about it would be a matter of concern today.  But no one worried about such things in 1950 when this movie was made.  Anyway, what is strange is that we are now finding out that Brannan is a really nice man.  This contradicts the impression we had of him before as the stereotypical atheist who only cares about himself.  Furthermore, when Joe gets ready to take Johnny home, he says, “God bless you,” to Brannan, who in turn says, “God bless you, Joe.”  This is the movie’s way of saying that Brannan really does believe in God deep in his heart, which is why he is also a nice guy deep down.

As we learned from Ludwig Feuerbach, talking about God is an indirect way of talking about man.  The God on the radio is worried about all the skepticism concerning his existence.  In Feuerbachian terms, this means that the people who made this movie, as well as much of the audience for whom it was intended, were worried about all the doubts concerning God’s existence, which in turn caused them to have doubts as well.  The movie wishes to reassure us that such doubts are not real, that skepticism is just a pose, because there really is no such thing as an atheist.  Therefore, notwithstanding the appearances, everyone really believes in God.

Joe brings Johnny home, the family is all together again, and they all love one another.  Ethel has written down what God said, which is that he is pleased.  Joe even decides to say grace, which has not been a custom in that house for some time.  The next day, everyone is in church to hear the night’s broadcast, but there is only silence.  The preacher turns off the radio, saying that God has spoken for six days straight, and that since this is the seventh day, God is resting.

Interestingly, this seventh day is a Monday.  So, God rests on Monday now?  Did he take an extra day off somewhere along the way since the Creation?  No, of course not.  Making Monday the seventh day is a way of finessing the question as to which religion God belongs to.  In other words, if the seventh day had been Sunday, the implication would have been that Christianity is the true religion; if the seventh day had been on a Saturday, that would have implied that the true religion is Judaism; and while I doubt that anyone was thinking about Muslims at the time, their Day of Prayer, a Sabbath of sorts, falls on a Friday.  On the other hand, the movie begins with a quotation from the Old Testament about how the word of God had not yet been heard, and it ends with a quotation from the New Testament about how the word of God had been heard, so there does seem to be a bias toward Christianity anyway.

Right there in church, Mary goes into labor.  They get her to the hospital, and in the waiting room where Joe and Johnny sit, we see a picture of a stork on the wall, with the words at the bottom saying, “I’ve never lost a father yet.”  That’s an old joke, of course, and its purpose has always been to make light of a father’s worries and concerns about his wife’s pregnancy.  Indeed, we never really did believe that Mary was in danger of dying while giving birth, that bit about the danger of a second pregnancy notwithstanding.

Had this been a different kind of movie, Mary would have died, and we would have heard that her death is a test of our faith or that we just cannot understand the mysterious ways of God.  But the moral of this movie is that middle-class Americans should not be fearful, for there is nothing to be afraid of, which absolutely precluded the death of Mary or her baby.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Being an atheist, I have always found it challenging to review a religious movie, because I worry that my criticism will be more about religion than about the movie.  This difficulty is compounded if it is not clear what the attitude of those who produced the movie is toward that religion, whether they intended the movie to be a criticism of religion or a defense of it.  In other words, it is not clear to me whether The Virgin Spring, a movie directed by Ingmar Bergman, looks upon the simple faith of some fourteenth century peasants in the same way that parents will smile at their child’s belief in Santa Claus, or whether the movie actually shares that faith in God and encourages us to do likewise.

Anyway, as I said, there is this fourteenth century family of Swedish peasants headed by Töre (Max von Sydow).  His daughter is Karin, who is a blonde virgin.  Well, her body may be pure, but her soul is not.  She is lazy, vain, and spoiled, smug in the fact that she is so cute and adorable that she can do as she pleases.  She has a foster sister, Ingeri, who is a brunette, a bastard soon to give birth to a bastard of her own.  The two of them set out for church to do something or other, and on the way it turns out that the other night Karin was flirting with the man that got Ingeri pregnant.  Though there is no hope that he will marry Ingeri, yet Karin’s dalliance with him infuriates Ingeri.  Just to rub it in, Karin taunts Ingeri for no longer being a virgin, while gloating over the way she will someday be married in all her virginal purity.

They get separated, and soon after Karin comes upon three goat herders that rape and murder her.  The men strip her body of her beautiful clothes.  Later, they ask for lodging at Töre’s house, not realizing he is Karin’s father.  That night, they present Karin’s clothing to her mother as a gift, saying it belonged to their sister.  She tells Töre about it.  He asks Ingeri what she knows, and she admits that she witnessed the rape and murder and feels guilty because she wanted Karin to get her comeuppance.  Töre then murders the three goat herders, one of whom was just a boy, who had nothing to do with what happened to Karin.  Then Töre feels guilty for having committed murder.  The whole family goes out to where Karin’s body lies dead.  When they find her, Töre raises the ancient problem of evil, asking why God let this happen and then let him commit murder, while at the same time saying that he begs God’s forgiveness.

Now, this is what I was talking about.  Are we supposed to approve of Töre’s attitude or should we be disgusted?  I mean, I’m disgusted.  In fact, it is even a little disgusting that he had to wait until his daughter was raped and murdered before questioning how an all-powerful, loving God could let this happen.  After all, God has been standing by and letting girls get raped and murdered for centuries, and it is only now, when his daughter is a victim, that he takes exception to God’s indifference.

It gets worse.  Töre promises to build a church on the spot where Karin died, in hopes of being worthy of God’s forgiveness.  Then, when they lift up her body, water begins to gush from the ground where she lay, becoming a spring.  The family treats the water as if it is a miracle, a replenishing gift from God.  That’s right.  Karin’s rape and murder have been worth it, because now we are going to get a church with a little spring nearby.  Perhaps I should point out that there is no shortage of water in that area, the family having crossed a large stream on their way to get to Karin, so it is not as though the spring will bring needed water to a parched region.  It’s just more water.

Here we go again.  I don’t know whether we are supposed to regard that spring as a real miracle or not.  If it is a miracle, then we have to wonder:  as long as God was willing to perform a miracle, why didn’t he miraculously save Karin instead?  If it is not a miracle, are we supposed to despise or admire the family for thinking it is one?

I give up.  I’ll have to let someone who actually believes in God tell me what I am supposed to make of this movie.