This (very!) long essay was entitled “Religion and Film” when it was first published as an entry in the Encyclopedia of Religion, Communication and Media (ed. Dan Stout, Routledge, 2006). BYU’s department of Theatre and Media Arts conducted a semester long film retrospective the next year, under the title “Spirituality and the Moving Image.” I think that Sharon Swenson coined that phrase. I am stealing it…
The history of the religious film does not, or at least does not yet accurately reflect the range and diversity of the world’s religious practice and possibility. The beginnings of cinema, and the first many decades of its evolution coincided with a continuing period of western political and cultural preeminence. Accordingly in early film the Judeo-Christian, speaking very broadly, dominates to a disproportionate degree. It is true that since these beginnings a more diverse array of ideas has found expression. Still, since the scholarly record substantially depends on things to which our attention has been drawn, on the films and traditions to which we have access, then in the West, and in this western account, an imbalance of attention and therefore of perception remains. Perspectives that would redress this imbalance have not always, or even very often been broadly or sufficiently disseminated. In the cinema generally, and in this instance with regard to religious expression in film, many subjects that have been explored by filmmakers and by filmmaking communities await proper scholarly treatment.
RELIGION IN EARLY FILM
Starting in the late 19th century, the earliest projected films were predominantly actualities, precursors to the modern documentary or non-fiction film. There is a creation’s morn sense of wonder to these films that set them apart as expressions of devotion, however much they may also have been commercial and ideological objects. As the century turned and the actuality gradually gave place to the narrative film, this religious feeling began to be more consciously and calculatedly evoked. The earliest film narratives did not have a coherent, comprehensible syntax. While cinematic grammar evolved, producers and audiences alike turned to familiar themes and stories, borrowing from them the clarity and sense that were not yet a consistent characteristic of the medium.
The life of Christ, and the Passion particularly, was a very common source of this sense. As film in the midst of the century’s first decade began to signify more clearly and consistently, Christian stories, produced primarily but not exclusively in France and in the United States, continued to shore and brace. Now they lent a legitimacy that, for reasons both commercial and ideological, producers were anxious to attain. Together with adaptations of respectable theatrical and literary properties, religious films in several national settings were used to raise both stature and profile of a medium that for many seemed suspect, an expression and dangerous incitement of lower impulse and lower classes alike.
Religious film (still almost exclusively Christian) continued to perform these linguistic and legitimizing duties as fast forming grammar was applied to longer and more elaborate story structures, as film production became increasingly rationalized and industrialized, and as the various motion picture combines became more sophisticatedly and aggressively capitalized. Increasing cinematic sophistication, commercial calculation, and religious content are evident in a series of Italian spectacles, produced between 1911 and 1914 and set in the Classical and early Christian era. A kind of historical dialectic emerges between these productions, a conversation in which the pagan, declining and falling grandeur of Rome (The Last Days of Pompeii , Cabiria ) is set against and succeeded by Christ’s more excellent, still cinematically grandiose way (Quo Vadis ). The aesthetic and conceptual influence of these productions was strongly felt in the cinema of the United States which, with the advent of WWI, perfected the mass production of film and assumed more or less permanent commercial dominance.
American productions like DW Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (1914) and Intolerance (1916), and Thomas Ince’s Civilization (1916) reflected and in many ways extended the cinematic ambition and confidence of their Italian forebears. The religious undercurrent continued and expanded metaphorically into the present; both of the latter films use religious setting and sentiment to express anti-war feeling and argue an isolationist policy, going so far as to enact Christ’s second coming to confirm their positions and conclude their narratives.
This august advocacy did not end up affecting American foreign policy (or helping the box office returns); after this, in commercial settings, religious precept would for the most part be expressed in more generalized, seemingly apolitical and unexceptionable ways. In a combination of conscious design and blind evolution, individual expression and plain industrial process, the American film industry gradually laid down a set of core, consensus values. These were to inform and underpin a cinema that was at least implicitly religious for decades to come. They were also to establish, whether in compliance or opposition, in the US or internationally, parameters and possibilities for spiritual affirmation and inquiry that in many ways still prevail today.
The American religious film in this period takes two main forms, though they are not exclusive of one another. The Sunday School Film was rooted in Victorian morality and derived many of its practices from the early (1908-13) productions of D.W. Griffith. Its sensibilities were exemplified in many of the films of Mary Pickford (ie. Daddy Long Legs , Pollyanna , Little Annie Rooney , Sparrows ), as well as in productions like Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) and Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921). The Sunday School film was a commercially conservative, ideologically conformist entity that espoused the standard virtues, or exposed the usual vices through contemporary tales that were occasionally cloying, and often quite pretty and powerful. Alongside the Sunday School Film the Biblical epic (ie. The Ten Commandments [1923, and also featuring its own modern Sunday School story] and King of Kings ), or the epic of the Biblical era (Ben Hur ) have the reputation of being expensive, grandiose affairs that appropriated the authority of its source and period to tell, and to sell a rather easy, ecumenical view of Christian verity…