Inspired by discussions of Randy Astle’s presentation on how film criticism can help improve Mormon film making, and reading the interesting Notes of a Mormon Filmmaker blog, I decided to write about movies that have touched me spiritually. These are not particularly religious films and some were never meant to be more than secular entertainment. Yet, they still touch the mind and soul in a way that transcends the medium, material, and creators. Watching the movies is an experience beyond a viewing. They remain with me and sometimes have been transformational. They are art and greater than art.
Lawrence of Arabia. I struggled to decide if this one should be included because it is the most secular of the movies with spiritual value to me. There are others with stronger spiritual themes, but it is my overall favorite movie and that can't be ignored. Other movies I have seen twice as many times, are more exciting, quote and mention in casual conversation, and would be expected to be a favorite if asked. Still, none of them are pure artistic genius in my mind with a character as rich and textured as any Hamlet production. When I think of near celluloid perfection, I think of this one. That impression has to count for something.
Miracle on 34th Street. Christmas is always a special time of year when gifts are exchanged and thoughts turn to a little baby in a swaddling clothes that will grow up to become the Savior. Despite the movie's hero as Santa Clause, its theme is about more than children's faith in the mythical character. It asks the eternal question of how faith can be maintained when life becomes harsh and we all grow up. The ending might be wrapped and tied in a bow like a forgettable present, but the message lingers. We must remain as innocent and caring as little children even as we mature in experience if we are to hold onto the best of human nature.
The Seventh Seal. Dark and brooding as the black and white film it was shot, the film seeks to examine the light in a shadowy world. Some moments are comical in a desperate bid to break from the madness of a reality where death is all too soon waiting. Overall it is a search for the meaning of life that mostly leaves the viewer to decide what the film concludes.
Groundhog Day. This movie is a deceivingly simple and light hearted comedy. Behind the antics of the actor and his character is the story of transformation and repentance. There is even the examination of death and suicide behind the farce and slapstick. A hidden classic.
Field of Dreams. Every time this comes on television I have to stop and watch at least the first part. It has more Mormon themes in it than many of the secular films I could have included. There is a study of revelation in action, a prophetic character grappling with his message, and the thin line that separates the dead from the living or the past from the present. Ignoring the few disagreeable political statements within the story, the rest is a wonderful spiritual treat that transcends the whole production.
The Green Mile. Brutal and crude mixes with the sublime and touching. That is the point of the movie and book it was based. It looks at the strange ways of miracles that can happen when least expected. Hidden behind the darkest of life and humanity can be the inexplicable hope of a miracle worker condemned by circumstances and others. For a brief moment those who pay attention to the miracles can be forever changed for the better.
2001 - A Space Odyssey. and 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Both films must be watched together. We are not alone in the Universe and our destiny is not always our own to decided.
Star Trek - The Motion Picture. Similar in theme as 2001 and 2010, it inverts the question of who controls our destiny and for what purpose to what destiny does human choices create?
We can bring our destruction or exaltation depending on how we decide life issues.
Star Wars Trilogy. Forget the overdone prequels, these three are the original great movies. It includes topics of love, war, forgiveness, growth, Priesthood, uses of power, family ties, sin, repentance, and more. Yet, it is fun and exciting as any summer blockbuster.
These are among my favorite movies that I have watched and continue to return to over the years. Others might list It's a Wonderful Life or Chariots of Fire, both fan favorites having spiritual messages. I am sure there are more that can be listed than what is here. Next I will discuss movies based on religion, including Mormonism, that are my favorites.
Note: Geoff B. has a series of posts on this topic specific to Mormonism. For those interested it includes:
Catch Me if you Can
The Family Man
The Book of Eli
The list I would like to present take religion and traditions seriously. The two I mentioned last time "Its a wonderful life" and "Chariots of Fire" easily fit into this post. Because they are not my favorites, I will pass talking about them more. As usual this is of a personal nature and others are free to add on or disagree with my observations. We each enjoy art and entertainment for different reasons. The ones I will talk about are movies that I have enjoyed and think influenced my perceptions of religious topics.
The Ten Commandments. There has been more than one movie, either for television or the silver screen, with this name. The most popular and I would say the best is still the one with Charlton Heston as Moses. It has the most spectacular scenery while staying faithful to the Biblical text story. All others with the name are rightfully judged by this production. The Director Cecil B. DeMille actually made a silent version first, incorporating a then contemporary storyline about a man who breaks the commandments and suffers the mortal consequences. For its time the silent version was also lavish, but it isn't nearly as memorable.
The King of Kings. Sadly, I can only go by reputation on this one, but from the descriptions it sounds like a must see of the genre. As one Internet critic from North Carolina said, "Cecil B. DeMille was a genius who helped turn moviemaking into an art form. With The King of Kings, he also retold the story of Jesus Christ in a serious and emotionally powerful way that has effectively helped spread the Gospel for over seventy-five years." This version is a silent movie not to be confused with another much later one by the same name. Maybe someday when I have the money, it comes on a classic movie station, or I can borrow it then it will become a favorite. The fact its a silent film doesn't bother me because two of my favorite movies are of that era. One of them is "The Freshman" staring that classic comedian Harold Lloyd as a bumbling football player and "Metropolis," the Fritz Lang science fiction extravaganza. Not that they have anything to do with religion, but I just want to mention them as examples for those who fear anything without sound or color.
Jesus of Nazareth. Of the movies about Jesus I have seen, including the later version of "King of Kings," the celebrated "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and "The Passion of the Christ," it is the longer made-for-tv miniseries that inspires me the most. Despite the huge production values that are unequal for a movie made for television during its time and the dramatization, the story remains faithful to the New Testament texts. Mormons might argue against some Catholic interpretations, but be fascinated and enlightened by the rest. I love this one and could only wish that it could be remade in up-to-date quality and format.
The Robe. Most of the recognizable religious movies were made in the 1950s, and this one is among the "trio" of best from the era. Most likely no studio these days would ever green light such amazing and unabashedly religious films in Hollywood as before. Once again this film is a cinematic treat to the eyes. Yet, its story is touching and at times soul searching. Based on a best selling novel, it is about the Robe of Christ handed down from the cross and how those who touch it are forever changed. The ending is one that Mormons might interpret with a unique appreciation.
Ben Hur. Charlton Heston is again the lead in this religious film about a Roman slave turned Christian. It is based on a best seller that has a silent version that few have probably watched. It won the most awards ever heard of, including Best Picture, of any film up to that time. The scope of the film and complicated story is well worth the four hour length. No one said the viewer has to watch it all in one sitting, but its possible for those who want to try.
The Bible Collection - 12 DVD Set - TNT. To paraphrase Joseph Smith Jr., there is much to be praised about these films as there are problems with the interpretations. Enjoyable as the Bible stories can be, some of the Bible textual narrative is bent too much for theatrical purposes. Still, considering as was already said that Hollywood has long abandoned any pretense to good religious films, these might be the best modern cinema out there about the Holy Book. Without much argument they are far better than the Book of Mormon movies that well meaning Latter-day Saints have produced.
I am sure there are more movies out there that I just haven't seen to be able to include here. For instance, I know there is "One Night with the King," and "The Nativity" that looks good, but just haven't had the time or will to watch. Any suggestions or your own thoughts would be appreciated. After all, if there is anything praiseworthy and of good report than we should as Latter-day Saints, no matter where it might come from, seek after these things.
More discussion of this topic can be found here and here.