The greatest story ever filmed

by
23 February 2018

In the Oscar season, Stephen Brown traces the long interconnectedness of film and theology

GLASSHOUSE IMAGES/ALAMY

The King of Kings (1927)

The King of Kings (1927)

“GOD made man because he loves stories.” So said Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate. We could argue that it is our own love of stories which, in turn, provides glimpses of the divine.

Down the ages, human beings have sought to make sense of their existence through the creation of meta-narratives. It is a primary way of doing theology. What John Betjeman called “this most tremendous tale of all” has been re-told and interpreted through many different media. From soon after their invention, motion pictures were used in churches and revival tents, with much early film contains religious or biblical material.

By 1897, films based on Christ’s Passion were not only being made for church use, but became standard fare for the burgeoning secular production companies. Attention to detail varied greatly. The waxworks exhibitor Richard G. Hollaman photographed an idiosyncratic version of the Oberammergau Passion Play on a snowbound roof of the Grand Central Palace, Lexington Avenue, New York. Meteorological inaccuracy didn’t prevent general acclaim from the clergy, and a twice-daily, three-month run at the Eden Musée.

HOLLAMAN was English, but other filmmakers in his native country proved coyer about producing Jesus films. Ironically, The Passion — one of their rare excursions into this genre — was released in 1909, narrowly preceding a ban by Pius X on screening films in churches. To put the in perspective, he also decreed that the tango was immoral; he wasn’t, however, alone in his growing disquiet about the cinema.

Moviestore collection/AlamyMaria Falconetti as St Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Ecclesiastical concern over cinematic variants on the peep-show preoccupation with saucy monks and nuns had probably contributed to this unease. It was, however, the reaction of the popular press in Britain to the release, in 1912, of an American film, From the Manger to the Cross, which finally did for unregulated licence. “Is nothing sacred to the film-maker?” bellowed The Daily Mail, even though objections from the clergy had been few. Nevertheless, the British Board of Film Censorship was hastily established, and religious themes soon headed a list of nine categories of subject that had to be rigorously scrutinised.

Such institutional antagonism to the portrayal of religious figures and movements led to film-companies to exercise self-restraint. British films would not portray Jesus on cinema screens for quite some time. In the United States, D. W. Griffith’s 1916 release Intolerance does feature a section about Jesus, but, during that decade and beyond, films generally either made only fleeting references to him (as in Ben-Hur) or infer that there is a Christ-like figure amid the other characters (as in The Passing of the Third Floor Back, 1918).

It is with Cecil B. de Mille and The King of Kings (1927) that we once again see a portrayal of Jesus on the screen. The script takes great liberties with the Gospel accounts, not only portraying Mary Magdalene as a courtesan, but also suggesting that she is in love with Judas. The intertitles have her uttering lines such as “Harness my zebras, gift of the Nubian king.” The way you tell it is all part of the story, not just an irritating digression.

 

THERE was a renewed interest in biblical themes after the First World War, but often this gravitated to the more spectacular, bloodthirsty, or gratuitous elements of those narratives. For a time, that these stories came from the Bible protected them from the criticism that they might otherwise have received.

On these grounds, for example, Betty Blythe was able to remain scantily dressed throughout her turn as The Queen of Sheba in 1921. “I wear 28 costumes, and if I put them on all at once, I couldn’t keep warm,” she said.

It was in the wake of scandals about stars and risqué films that studios eventually — under growing legal pressures — decided to clean up their act. They appointed Will H. Hays, the US Postmaster General, to head the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Through a series of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” there was a gradual build-up of what became known as the Hays Code. This dominated film production from the 1930s till the 1960s.

Hays, a Presbyterian elder, was aided and abetted by Roman Catholic sources, notably Martin Quigley, a journalist and publisher. He lobbied for an elaborate code that included not only the absence of whatever he deemed unsuitable for the screen, but also adhered to a set of values which — thanks to the assistance of Fr Daniel Lord, a Jesuit — was to all intents and purposes an expression of RC moral theology. Profanity or mockery of clergy was taboo, as were many other matters concerning family life, sexual relations, violence, or the sympathetic elevation of dubious characters.

 

AF archive/AlamyGraham Chapman in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)  IT IS doubtful whether the upsurge in biblical epics from the 1950s onwards owed much to complying with the Hays standards. Rather, it was the competition from black-and-white television which lead to the search for subject-matter that could fill the cinema’s new, wide screens. The Robe (1953), an account of the crucifixion of Christ, was Cinemascope’s first such production. That it made an initial $17.5 million, plus $32 milllion in rentals, undoubtedly encouraged the making of other biblical epics, although nowadays these — God’s Not Dead, for example, or The Shack — have been financed largely by Christian corporations, and have limited appeal beyond churchgoers.

The obvious exception was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), which raked in $634 million in the USA alone. Monty Python’s Life of Brian, both revered and despised, poked fun at how easily bogus religions could take off.

 

IN BRITAIN, other religious figures made their mark on film production, which diverged in tone from the prevalent mood of Hollywood. A chief exemplar was J. Arthur Rank, heir to a prospering flour business; but his real interest was in his work as a Methodist Sunday-school teacher. He quickly saw how successful an educational tool the use of biblical films was with his classes. In 1933, he formed the Religious Film Society, and, in due course, it provided many churches and chapels with the necessary equipment for projecting moving pictures.

 

While Rank himself made several specifically religious films (such as Mastership and The First Easter), he was spurred into reaching wider audiences through a campaign headed by The Methodist Recorder. The paper lamented what it considered the film industry’s failure to provide family fare.

Rank took up the challenge, finding allies in people such as a Methodist minister, Thomas Tiplady, who saw the cinema as the greatest invention since the printing press. By using it in the service of Christ, the Church must, he pleaded, put aside all “moral, intellectual, and artistic snobbery”. With the assistance of John Corfield, a young producer, and the wealthy Lady Yule, a person of fervent religious convictions, the British National Films Company was formed.

Its first commercial venture, Turn of the Tide (1935), was based on a Leo Walmsley story, much of it filmed on location in Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire. Feuding fishing families learn to live in brotherly love. The theme well fitted Rank’s desire to extol Christian virtues under the guise of entertainment.

The film didn’t do well. It is a good enough picture, but it suffered from poor distribution. Rank’s response was to deploy his business acumen in creating a classic model of vertical integration, whereby the same company financed the production, distribution, and exhibition of its films.

Rank and Lady Yule went into partnership with Charles Boot — a house-building magnate who had been brought up in the Plymouth Brethren — which led to the formation of Pinewood Studios in the grounds of Boot’s Buckinghamshire country club and estate.

A string of prestigious productions — Henry V, The Red Shoes, Oliver Twist — were made under Rank’s patronage. He would also claim moral intent for films such as The Wicked Lady, as well as the Norman Wisdom and Doctor in the House series. Possibly the same can’t be said of the Carry On films, but soon after the genesis of that sequence, Rank relinquished control of his business empire.

Pinewood had, in fact, already become a studio for hire by other production companies. The miller from Hull may have been criticised for a lack of artistic vision and producing too much middle-of-the-road output, but he did help people to see the cinema as a means of promoting the gospel while entertaining audiences through supposedly secular stories — stories that explored life’s deepest spiritual concerns.

Photo 12/AlamyEnrique Rambal and Sylvia Pinal in The Exterminating Angel (1962)

 

IT WOULD, of course, be a wild exaggeration to claim that there is a religious dimension to all the stories that are told on film, or that this can be attributed solely to the influence of J. Arthur Rank. Philosophical elements are very obvious in the work of some directors who either predated Rank’s entry into the film world or, not speaking English, may have been unaware of him. Other influences, no doubt, impelled them to take a journey of faith.

Carl Theodor Dreyer is a case in point, raised in Denmark as a strict Lutheran. His most famous film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), is an astonishing cinematic achievement. Dreyer — by then no longer a believer — uses an impressive range of techniques to bring about a story of spiritual triumph over death. It is a theme that he continued to explore up to and including his penultimate picture, The Word (Ordet), made in 1955.

Dreyer’s near-contemporary Robert Bresson likewise made films full of theological investigation, also directing one about St Joan. Bresson’s approach was that of a committed Catholic, but he also drew on other Christian influences to engage in a dialogue with a post-Second World War society that was searching for meaning.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951) condenses Georges Bernanos’s sprawling novel to give us a portrait of humanity’s failures and successes in attempting to transcend its limitations. Bresson demonstrates time and again in his movies that we cannot do this alone: the help mysteriously comes from God-alone-knows-where. Diary’s closing words are “All is grace.”

It is unfair, therefore, that some have called Bresson a Christian atheist. That description would better fit Luis Buñuel, a disciple of surrealism. His sparklingly mischievous films, full of social criticism, often make RC clergy a prime target, although he later retracted an earlier statement that he was “thank God, an atheist”.

Works like The Exterminating Angel (1962) — recently made into an opera — continued his exposure of all those obstacles that we place between ourselves and life in all its fullness. Even works such as Viridiana, with its mock-up of da Vinci’s Last Supper, are not so much blasphemous as an ongoing conversation about what St Paul calls “completing in our poor flesh the full tale of Christ’s affliction here on earth” (Colossians 1.24, NEB).

So far as films are concerned, it is precisely that story with which directors — consciously or unconsciously — have repeatedly been in dialogue. That theme will be continued next week, beginning with Ingmar Bergman, whose centenary occurs this year.

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