In this era of podcasts and streaming services, vigilant Catholic parents will want to search for cinematic productions that tell absorbing stories without descending into standard societal sinkholes: needless profanity, permissive drug use, cheerless nudity, sympathetic portrayals of sexual depravity, and smirking dismissals of the existence of God.
In many ways, classic movies of the 1930s through the 1960s paralleled the three medieval classifications of Mystery — plays about episodes in the life of Christ; Miracle — plays offering notable events in the lives of saints; and Morality — plays underscoring virtues and the need for holiness in the lives of ordinary people.
To the three classifications above, I am adding a fourth: Mirthful, showing that holiness is not only joyful, it can be downright sidesplitting.
Mystery movie: Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Bar none, this six-hour-long miniseries is the best telling of the life of Christ on film, co-written by Franco Zeffirelli, the film’s director, Anthony Burgess and Suso Cecchi d'Amico. They drew on St. Matthew’s Gospel for the first part, focusing on events as seen through the eyes of St. Joseph, portrayed with gentle dignity by Yorgo Voyagis, while Olivia Hussey’s depiction of the Virgin Mary conveys youthful faithfulness. The Passion narrative generally follows St John’s Gospel.
Joseph’s delight at showing good carpentry techniques to the boys of Nazareth remains a vivid memory, as does the anguished, tortured face of James Farentino as Peter; and Ernest Borgnine’s bitter expression of regret and disgust as the centurion in charge of the Crucifixion, since Jesus had miraculously cured his servant.
When Zefferelli mentioned in an interview that he intended to present Jesus as a real man, a large number of American ministers expressed alarm that Jesus’ divinity might be downplayed. Invited to a special showing, they left enraptured, one clergyman expressing his astonishment at the depiction of the miraculous feeding of the 5,000. Pope St. Paul VI praised the miniseries as well during his Palm Sunday address in 1977.
Minor deviations and telescoping of events take away nothing from the production’s overall excellence. Still, there are two troublesome points to discuss:
- As Jesus, Robert Powell cites John 10:30 when he announces, “I and the Father are one and the same.” However, the words “and the same” are not found in John’s Gospel, but reflect the much later heresy, Modalism, which taught that the Trinity is merely God turning one of three faces or “modes” at various historical periods. What is the Catholic dogmatic teaching recited in the Nicene Creed each Sunday?
- The centurion allows the Virgin Mary and her party to approach the cross. Hanging back, Mary Magdelene (Anne Bancroft) seeks to join them. The centurion kindly asks if she is part of the family. Alarmed, Mary furtively glances at the Virgin Mother, who assures the soldier that she is, indeed, family. Is the sinless Virgin Mary shown committing a sin by telling a lie?
Miracle movie: Joan of Arc (1948)
Sumptuously produced in Technicolor, Joan of Arc (1948) starring Ingrid Bergman is a superb rendering of the saint’s life, vigorously directed by Victor Fleming, who had so successfully helmed Gone with the Wind. Indeed, the cast list echoes that of GWTW by placing actors’ names in their respective locales, Domremy, The Trial at Rouen, etc.
The screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Andrew Solt, based on Anderson’s play, Joan of Lorraine, relies heavily on the court records meticulously transcribed during The Maid’s trial. It becomes plain that the Church trial was political in nature, illegally conducted especially following Joan’s appeal to the pope.
After Joan’s premiere, the movie was pared down three or four times. The print seen on the Internet Archive website, from the UCLA film and television archive, is the fullest restored version I know of.
- Look up the history of the Hundred Years War to see why England and France two, Catholic kingdoms, had been at each other’s throats for wellnigh a century. Discuss with your children how Joan’s faith and the memory of her death helped resolve the conflict.
- Throughout her trial, Joan is called on to dress in women’s clothing. Deuteronomy 22:5 states, “A woman shall not be clothed with man's apparel, neither shall a man use woman's apparel: for he that doeth these things is abominable before God.” Research the original reason for this command. Were Joan’s reasons not to follow Scripture sufficient?
Morality movie: The Left Hand of God (1955)
The Left Hand of God (1955) is certainly one of Humphrey Bogart’s quirkier role choices, the kind played by Pat O’Brien in Bogart’s earlier career at Warner Bros.
It is 1947. A priest in China, Father Peter John O’Shay, arrives, takes charge of a mission and wins the respect of the Chinese Catholics in the village. The American doctor and his wife (E. G. Marshall, Agnes Moorhead), citing reports of unrest, think about leaving; Ann (Gene Tierney), the pretty nurse whose husband’s plane crashed as he brought supplies to the missions, wants to remain with the people for whom he gave his life.
Father O’Shay takes a donkey to visit a Protestant mission in the hills. Soon after, word comes that Mieh Yang (Lee J. Cobb), a fierce warlord, is coming to ransack the village. Days pass and Father O’Shay is nowhere to be seen. Did he flee to save his own life?
- The Catholic Church has sent missionaries to countries since the days of the apostles. Take a quick look at some of the many tribes in Europe and elsewhere to which the Church brought the blessings of Christ.
- Learn about the present state of the Church in China and how it has deteriorated.
Mirthful movie: The Terror of Rome Against the Son of Hercules (1962)
The astonishing success of Hercules, the 1960 Italian production starring muscleman Steve Reeves, inspired a cycle of cheaply made Roman cinema quickly dubbed “Sword and Sandals” epics, often revolving around the legendary Italian hero, Machiste.
Avco-Embassy Productions dubbed into English a goodly number of these films and brought them to American movie houses. Realizing that the character Machiste had little name recognition for U.S. audiences, the films were retitled as being adventures of the descendants of Hercules.
Unifying the franchise, a snappy new theme song was composed to be sung over the titles and screen credits: “The mighty Sons of Hercules would thunder through the years. / These men of steel could never feel the curse of a thousand fears …” I’ll spare you the rest of the overblown lyrics. When business fell off, the features were repackaged for television syndication.
In The Terror of Rome Against the Son of Hercules (1962), Poseidon is the name of the latest great-great-great, etc., grandson of the Greek demigod Hercules. Classical musicians, and a few bewildered theologians, may ask, “Does this make Poseidon a hemidemisemigod?”
Hearing frightened screams nearby, he comes upon Roman soldiers violently attempting to arrest Christians. Leaping into the fray, Poseidon protects the persecuted band. Before the rest can flee in terror, Poseidon bashes in a few skulls while dispatching several snarling soldiers with his short sword.
And yet he is drawn to the new, peaceful Christian teachings. In company with the delectable young Christian lass to whom he is attracted, Poseidon even enters a catacomb to attend Mass. And you can tell they’re at Mass — the priest speaks Latin!
Inevitably, Poseidon embraces the Faith of Christ. Theological perplexities abound in this adventure making it the ultimate “cross”-over movie.
There is nothing here to embarrass children or parents. Have fun with the one-dimensional storyline, stilted dialogue, and awkward acting. Catcalls should be encouraged to make this an audience participation movie.
This film is hilariously bad, yet it can open several discussions with your children about:
- Why were Christians persecuted in the Roman Empire and where are they suffering persecution today?
- The Mass has been celebrated since Pentecost. Show how Acts 2:42 presents a recognizable outline of the Mass.
Sean M. Wright, MA, award-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated television writer and Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita. He responds to comments sent to [email protected].