Christian Movies: Religious Propaganda or Mainstream Entertainment?

By: Tim Cogshell –  Edited and annotated by Andre Soares for Alt-Film Guide

 Christian movies: Starring Nicolas Cage, the widely panned 2014 apocalyptic thriller ‘Left Behind’ was a box office bomb – unlike (relatively) recent popular ‘faith movies’ such as ‘Heaven Is for Real,’ ‘Son of God’ and ‘War Room.’

      As Easter bares down – two films that might be called “Christian movies” opened last week, and I decided that I wouldn’t watch them, write about them, or review them – at least directly.

    I’m not even going to mention their titles here, because I don’t promote propaganda films, and that’s what this recent advent of Christian movies has become: propaganda. After all, since nearly all American cinema is Christian cinema, the New Christian American Cinema is in fact pure propaganda – not cinema.

Worse yet, it bores me.

     So, here’s the thing about what we’ve come to call “Christian movies” –  among them the Left Behind series, the God’s Not Dead series (which has at least two more installments), and a dozen other recent wide releases – which I won’t discuss in detail because they are nothing more than, effective or not, propaganda: they operate under the guise of mainstream entertainment when in fact they are Christian proselytism.

   That in itself is ironic and, again, here’s why: American movies writ large are almost always Judeo-Christian movies. God is such a given in American movies that a film that presents itself as a “Christian movie” can only be propaganda. Once again, that’s because all American movies are Christian movies and always have been.

    Okay, this is a bit of hyperbole, but not much. Think of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – 1915 – where he burned that cross – the Christian cross – for the first time.  The Klan apparently got the idea of cross burning from that evil movie, not the other way around [1]  The entire silent era is lousy with God; the themes of the Ten Commandments were paramount (e.g., Cecil B. DeMille‘s Don’t Change Your Husband, Why Change Your Wife? and Forbidden Fruit). God and his wrath – everywhere.

    The cinema of the Depression and pre-World War II eras gave us, among others, 1938 Best Actor Oscar winner Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan in Boys Town. And Frank Capra, a good Catholic Italian kid who, following the armistice, would come up with his iconic It’s a Wonderful Life, featuring an angel (Henry Travers) getting his wings – a thoroughly Christian movie.

     John Ford‘s 1941 Best Picture Oscar winner How Green is Your Valley has another priest  (Walter Pidgeon as Pastor Gruffydd) looming right in the middle of this Christian classic. In fact, this theme is found throughout the American cinema of the 1940s, even in the seemingly godless noir. Implied or inferred, it was God balancing the books at the end of most of those flicks.

   Christian movies of years past: Charlton Heston starred as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 blockbuster ‘The Ten Commandments.’

     The 1950s made it obvious that the Christian God was what these Hollywood movies were actually about – e.g., Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur. That includes even the Peyton Places and Douglas Sirk dramas, with their Christian consequences sometimes right in the title, as in Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.

Seriously?

     And yes, the 1960s were full of mainstream Christian movies, too. They ranged from Nicholas Ray’s The King of Kings, with Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, to Debbie Reynolds as the titular character in The Singing Nun. Those weren’t atheists dancing around in all those Beach Blanket Bingo movies, either… nope. That was a bunch of Christian kids.  

    God is in the Gidget series, too. The Gidget movies starred Sandra Dee, a bouncy blond. But, notice that for the TV show they cast the more earthy, dark haired, Sally Field. One reason for this is because the character Gidget was based on novelist and show creator Frederick Kohner’s daughter, Kathy.  Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman was a dark haired bouncy young lady.  As it happens, Frederick (and his brother Paul Kohner – the famous Universal Studios Producer), were Jewish, born in what’s now the Czech Republic. So Frederick’s daughter was a lovely Jewish girl who looked a lot more like Sally Field than Sandra Dee. So, Gidget is a Jew. I don’t think Americans could handle that – so Kohner turned the family into gentiles.

No matter, same God, and “it” is in the cast, whether mentioned or not. 

    God may not have directly come up in many of these films, but that’s because the biblical concept of God permeates the overwhelming majority of American movies – and it always has. A Christ-like figure can even be found at the center of Stanley Kubrick‘s Spartacus, set in the century before Jesus’ supposed birth. Jeez…

     Additionally, most American horror cinema depends on the understanding that the Judeo-Christian God is real. Dracula, for instance, is only stayed by holy water and the cross. Rosemary’s Baby – spoiler alert – is an actual demon baby, which to my mind always ruined the movie. But why wouldn’t it be a real demon baby in a film directed by the part-Jewish, part-Catholic Roman Polanski, who, even if an avowed atheist, might be as afraid of going to hell as of going to an American prison? So, the devil baby – admittedly, also found in Ira Levin’s novel – was destined to be real, and Rosemary’s Baby is a true believer’s Christian movie, whether they admit it or not.

    We could also add The Exorcist, The Omen, and their sequels to the long list of Christian horror movies. Big studio action movies, from Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days to Keanu Reeves in Constantine, are implicitly Christian movies. When the devil or one of his minions is the antagonist of a film – that film’s protagonist inevitably becomes a Christian warrior, whether they know it or not.

     Gangster movies, from James Cagney (e.g., Angels with Dirty Faces) to Francis Ford Coppola (e.g., The Godfather franchise), are Christian movies. Think about it…

    This is also true of American television. The Partridges and the Bradys went to church in actual episodes of the show. From Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel to Joan of Arcadia and Lucifer, God has always been real on American TV – thus creating the notion of “Christian television propaganda” as well.

    Ever watch Supernatural or Sleepy Hollow?  Angels and devils and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are central themes. These are Christian television series through-and-through.

Whether you know it or not.

  Christian movies: Featuring ‘The Help’ actor Mike Vogel and ‘Parenthood’ actress Erika Christensen, plus Oscar winner Faye Dunaway (‘Network’) and Oscar nominee Robert Forster (‘Jackie Brown’), ‘The Case for Christ’ – about an atheist journalist who sets out to prove the inexistence of God after his wife becomes a Christian – has been a box office disappointment since its April 7 ’17 North American debut.  ‘The Case for Christ’ & ‘God Knows Where I Am’

      I lied. I am going to mention the names of the two new additions to the ranks of Christian propaganda cinema that opened earlier this spring: they are Jon Gunn’s The Case for Christ and Jeff and Todd Wider’s little-seen documentary, God Knows Where I Am, neither of which will be reviewed by me.  How they fare as cinema is irrelevant, as they are propaganda for a cause I don’t want to be propagandized about any more than I already am.

Which is all the time.

As for the sinfulness of lying…  I was raised Christian even though we were all Jewish – and I’m a lifelong atheist.

So, I’ll be fine.

 _____________

Cross burning and ‘The Birth of a Nation’     [1] Note from the Editor: A 1915 release, the epoch-making blockbuster The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel The Clansman, which features a cross-burning incident. The first reported cross burning in the United States took place in the area of Stone Mountain, Georgia, on Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 25, 1915.  As The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation opened on Feb. 8, 1915, at Clune’s Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles.

Image of Nicolas Cage in the 2014 box office bomb Left Behind, part of the recent batch of American Christian movies: Freestyle Releasing.

Image of Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments: Paramount Pictures.

Image of Erika Christensen and Mike Vogel in one of 2017’s Christian movies, The Case for Christ: Pure Flix Entertainment.

DIY Film Fest: 5 movies with major, minor, or moot continuity errors…

by Tim Cogshell | Off-Ramp

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Film critic Tim Cogshell talks Oscars buzz at AirTalk’s FilmWeek at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on February 18, 2015.BILL YOUNGBLOOD/KPCC

Tim Cogshell is film critic for KPCC’s Off-Ramp and Filmweek, and for Alt Film Guide. He blogs at CinemaInMind.

Continuity errors in cinema are legend.  There are a some classic doozies, like the croissant Julia Roberts is chomping in “Pretty Woman” that becomes a pancake.

The errors come in a number of categories, from crew and equipment earnestly working to get the shot they are in, to props magically appearing and disappearing between cuts, to material or narrative anachronisms.

Sometimes they matter, sometimes they don’t — who cares if Rick’s trench coat is wet when he boards the train in Paris?! — and sometimes they make the movie.  Here’s a quick DIY Film Festival of films you might want to see for their dubious continuity – and you can judge for yourself if they break or make the movie.

1. Deep Purple burns Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”

Deep Purple’s “Burn” figures prominently in the background of a scene from writer-director Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” set in 1973.

A precocious teen, Crowe was a writer for “Rolling Stone” in 1975. He spent time on the road with The Eagles, the band on which he based the fake iconic rock band, Stillwater, in “Almost Famous.” And he wrote the definitive cover story on The Eagles. But he got a lot of the music wrong in the movie. That Deep Purple album was released 1974. There are a few of those in “Almost Famous” – along with some T-shirts for tours that wouldn’t happen for another decade.  To fans of classic rock these errors ruin the movie, but most people don’t even notice them.

2. No Justice No Peace for Peebles’ “Posse”

Director Mario Van Peebles 1993 film “Posse” is set in 1898, but a crowd shouting “No justice, no peace” is straight out of 1992, along with the late great Nipsey Russell asking, “Can’t we all just get along?!”

These anachronisms were controversial at the time.  Some critics and audiences – out for a rooting-tooting cowboy movie – called it blunt political commentary that the broke suspension of disbelief … As if casting Big Daddy Kane and Tone Loc didn’t already do that.

3. A slice of American Pie in “Born on the 4th of July”

Don McLean’s “American Pie” is forever associated with Oliver Stone’s “Born of the 4th of July.” The song is played and heard by characters in the film several times … in scenes set 1969.  The problem? The album was released in 1971. Still – would any other song do? The of loss of an American ideal represented in Don McLean’s ode to Buddy Holly is a perfect metaphor for the American ideal lost by Ron Kovic. This movie and that song go together, continuity be damned.

4. YouTube in “The Hurt Locker?”

At one point in “The Hurt Locker,” specialist Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty, says “…. they’re going to put me on YouTube.” Nope. “Hurt Locker” is set in 2004 and YouTube did not launch until 2005, which the producers of this film, which came out in 2008, should have thought about in 2007. Or maybe not, because it won a bunch of Academy Awards in 2009.

5. Hair AND Wardrobe:  “TNT Jackson” and the magic panties

But my favorite continuity mistake of all time is in an early 70s Blaxploitation classic called “TNT Jackson.” It stars stars Jeannie Bell as a young black karate expert out to avenge her brother’s death on the mean streets of Hong Kong.

There are a number of badly staged karate fight sequences in the movie, and Jeanne kicks much fake karate ass in all of them. But this was an exploitation film after all, so one of those fight scenes takes place when the exciting TNT Jackson is wearing nothing but a pair of panties and a wicked afro. During this perfectly fabulous scene, TNT kills the lights to even her odds against her multiple attackers.

TNT JACKSON (1974)

When the lights come back on, the intrepid Ms. Jackson is wearing different panties. They were brown. Now they’re white. The lights go out and come back on again. And the panties change again. You can’t help but notice … because she’s only wearing the panties and the wicked afro. This is a perfectly crazy continuity mistake. And I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.

Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog).  His reviews are archived at:  http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/