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  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.
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.
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’  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.