Films about Faith
In the classic movie era a religious film could made without stirring up the kind of controversy that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) did just a few years ago. While several movies exist which feature sham artists that use religion and/or people’s belief in God against them for financial gain there are also many that retell biblical stories celebrate Christianity or portray a person’s spirituality and faith in a higher power which dictate their actions beyond just war dramas (“there are no atheists in foxholes”) one of the best being Sergeant York (1941). These are some other notables:
The Sign of the Cross (1932) – from the producer-director that gave us two cinematic versions of The Ten Commandments; Cecil B. DeMille also produced and directed this pre-code biblical epic about the beginnings of Christianity near the end of the Roman Empire e.g. Nero (Charles Laughton) fiddles while Rome burns. The great Roman warrior-hero Marcus (Fredric March) falls for a Christian girl (Elissa Landi) during a time when those that believed in the teachings of Jesus secretly identified themselves to one another by scratching a mark resembling His cross in the sand. Claudette Colbert portrays Emperor Nero’s wife Poppaea who covets warrior Marcus. Ian Keith plays the equally jealous Tigellinus who manipulates the weak Emperor into asserting that the Christians are to blame for Rome’s burning in order that they might be rounded up and fed to lions bears & alligators (and even crushed by elephants) as entertainment for spectators in the Colosseum. Another version of this story is Quo Vadis.
The Green Pastures (1936) – a series of Old Testament Bible stories uniquely retold (and sung) in more contemporary settings by an all-Black cast including musical accompaniment by the Hall Johnson Choir. Rex Ingram plays De Lawd (God) and Adam (Myrtle Anderson plays Eve) while others portray the angel Gabriel Noah (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson) Moses & Pharaoh and Cain & Abel; Clinton Rosemond also appears as a prophet. Songs sung by the choir include: Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho and de Walls Came Tumblin’ Down De Old Ark’s A-Moverin’ Let My People Go Run Sinner Run Death’s Gwinter Lay His Cold Hands on Me and When the Saints Come Marchin’ In.
One Foot in Heaven (1941) – nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award this drama based on Hartzell Spence’s book about his father – a Methodist minister – is wonderfully played by Fredric March an actor whose name is not as well known by contemporary audiences as several of his less talented peers (despite his winning two Best Actor Oscars); Martha Scott plays his faithful wife Hope. The story spans many years in the life of the pastor his spouse and their family chronically their service to several communities. It was directed by Irving Rapper and features a screenplay by Casey Robinson. One of the most memorable subplots involves Beulah Bondi as a wealthy member of his congregation; her money is needed for a church upgrade but she’s upset that Spence shares time with her poor gardener (ubiquitous character actor Harry Davenport) because she feel that religion is proprietary.
The Song of Bernadette (1943) – Jennifer Jones won her Best Actress Oscar playing the title role in this historical drama about a young weak nineteenth century French girl from a poor family that sees a vision which everyone assumes is the virgin Mary. Initially thought to be a “kook” by her own mother (Ann Revere) and shunned by church officials (Charles Bickford and Gladys Cooper) Bernadette grows stronger making daily trips to see the vision which cause a sensation that the town’s business council (Lee J. Cobb and Vincent Price) decides must be addressed.
The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) – Gregory Peck earned his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination playing Father Chisholm a Catholic priest sent to China to establish a parish; later Ingrid Bergman would play a similar role as a missionary in a remote Chinese village run by Robert Donat’s Mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958).
The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) – a sequel to the Academy Award winning Best Picture Going My Way (1944) – which should also be on this list – this story follows Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) to his new assignment at the titled church (in dire need of better facilities) where Sister Mary Benedict (Bergman) works with school children. Henry Travers plays a businessman who’s just built a brand new building across the street; he wants the church to be leveled for a parking lot which threatens the closure of the parochial school. Though the Father and the Sister don’t always see eye-to-eye on how to deal with this and other congregational issues (just like Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald’s characters didn’t in the first film) the two develop a mutual respect that helps them to deal with Travers et al.
Green Dolphin Street (1947) – while this drama that earned a Special Effects Oscar is overlong and pretty average it does contain a powerful show of faith by Marguerite (Donna Reed) whose “calling” leads her to scale a perilous vertical tunnel to reach a statue of St. Peter and a convent which she would join. Lars Hanson’s character also found his calling at the end of the silent drama Captain Salvation (1927).
Stars in My Crown (1950) – Joel McCrea plays gospel preacher Josiah Dozier Grey in this excellent Western drama directed by Jacques Tourneur. After fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War Grey settles in a small rural town where he emphasizes (sometimes at the point of a gun) fair treatment and ethical ways to his parishioners and nephew (Dean Stockwell). Ellen Drew plays the preacher’s wife; Alan Hale portrays an immigrant settler that doesn’t attend church services but supports what his friend Josiah is doing in the community. Juano Hernandez plays a free black man that Ed Begley’s character wants to run off so badly that he organizes a KKK rally. This forces the former Confederate soldier turned preacher into a position of standing up to the riotous group with his nephew and Hale’s character by his side to prevent a lynching.
Martin Luther (1953) – Niall MacGinnis plays the reform minded German priest whose theology challenged the Pope’s authority and the Roman Catholic Church which led to his excommunication and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
A Man Called Peter (1955) – Richard Todd plays Peter Marshall Jean Peters his wife in this biographical portrait of the Scottish-American preacher who served as Chaplain of the United States Senate. The film directed by Henry Koster (The Bishop’s Wife (1947)) earned cinematographer Harold Lipstein his only Academy Award nomination.
One Man’s Way (1964) – a fictionalized biography of Norman Vincent Peale the world-famous minister lecturer and best-selling author.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog