Prayer and churchgoing wasn’t always a Hollywood rarity, of course.
Back in the first half-century of cinema, when the studios were run by Jewish moguls, none of them seemed to have any compunctions about financing and releasing movies with Catholic themes. There was a regular stream of movies from every studio that featured priests and nuns doing good work, and many were huge box-office hits, such as “Boys Town” (MGM, 1938), “Going My Way” (Paramount, 1944), “Come to the Stable” (Twentieth Century Fox, 1949) and “The Nun’s Story” (Warner Bros., 1959), to name just a few.
Other Christians were more often represented in generic form, but occasionally a specific religion was depicted, such as Quakers (“Friendly Persuasion,” 1956, Allied Artists) and, yes, Mormons (“Brigham Young,” 1940, Fox).
But even without a specific connection, the idea of seeking spiritual redemption or uttering a prayer or even going to church on Sunday, however generic the proceedings may be portrayed, was not uncommon. A wide array of movies with no specific religious component were uplifting and life-affirming. Think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), a film with which most everyone is familiar. Prayer, an angel and heavenly conversations all play a part and are treated naturally, without irony.
Today, a feel-good movie with a happy ending is rare enough; a movie that depicts families happily attending church or earnestly praying is an anomaly.
In fact, when shows about faith or religion or Bible stories make money or earn big ratings, the common word used to describe their success is “surprise.” Thus, “The Bible,” the History Channel miniseries that earned huge ratings last year, was not just a hit, it was “a surprise hit,” according to many follow-up stories.
Why should it be a surprise? Whatever believers may think of the show — and let’s face it, any entertainment-based movie/TV show about the Bible is bound to get some of it wrong in someone’s view — we are just happy to see this kind of programming at all.
At least that’s how I feel. Although my personal vision of Jesus Christ or God or the prophets of the Old and New Testaments may never be quite captured by actors in movies or TV shows, I still enjoy seeing them for both entertainment and reflection.
The old studio Bible epics are still fun to watch, from “The Ten Commandments” to “King of Kings” to “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to those fictional films that do not so much relate biblical accounts as reflect on their influence, such as “Ben-Hur,” “The Robe,” “Quo Vadis?” and the opening narration of “Spartacus,” to name but a few.
Now, you may be thinking, but didn’t I just see a trailer for a movie about Jesus? Yes, “Son of God” is opening in theaters next weekend, but that’s not a major-studio product, despite its being released by Twentieth Century Fox. It’s also not an original film, in that it is an extended version of the story of Jesus from the aforementioned History Channel miniseries, “The Bible.”
Like faith films production in general today, which is a niche unto itself and almost always produced independently, “Son of God” is a passion project by believers who were tired of Hollywood ignoring the subject. And it wasn’t until the series was so successful that the idea of expanding one aspect for theatrical release came about.
More interesting for this discussion is Paramount Pictures’ “Noah,” a major-studio production that opens March 28, with three Oscar-winning stars (Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins), an A-list director (Darren Aronofsky, “Black Swan”), loads of computer-animated special effects and a mega-budget.
It will be interesting to see how it does at the box office, of course, but more interesting for moviegoers who are religious and consider the Bible to be a testament of God’s dealings with his people will be how the film relates a faith-promoting true story.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." Website: www.hicksflicks.com
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