As faithful readers of this blog know, I am a film buff. I therefore was pleased when Dr. Peter Dans, a friend of mine and commenter on the blog, brought to my attention his book Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. Peter is a medical doctor and a former professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. Go here to learn about his professional activities. He is also a faithful Catholic, a skilled writer and an all around good guy. However, I am here to review the book and not to review the author!
Published in 2011 by Sheed & Ward, the book is a fairly comprehensive look at how film has portrayed Christians and Christianity from 1905-2008. The book proceeds chronologically with chapters devoted to films of the silent era, films of the forties, etc. The chapters open with a general overview of the film period being discussed and then a look at selected films. The films are not limited to those self-consciously religious, but also those in which religion is a major plot element. Thus the Oscar winning film Sergeant York (1941) is included because of its examination of the religious conflict that World War I hero Alvin C. York had to resolve before he could in good conscious fight for his country. Dr. Dans also looks at the impact of the films examined, for example in regard to Sergeant York he mentions that the film was denounced by the isolationist Senator Nye as propaganda to get America into World War II. Some of the facts that the author discusses were news to me. For example I have watched the film Song of Bernadette (1943) about Bernadette Soubirous and Lourdes but I was unaware that it was based on a book written by Franz Werfel, a Jew, who made a vow to write a book about Bernadette when he and wife were hidden from the Gestapo by nuns and families at Lourdes. In regard to Going My Way, 1944, Dr. Dans reveals that Pope Pius XII was so taken by the film that he granted a private audience to Bing Cosby and credited the film with helping to spur priestly vocations. I like it when a book gives me information that I was unaware of, and this book accomplished that task.
The book is not limited to films that have become well known. For example there is a section devoted to one of my favorite westerns, Stars in My Crown, 1950, in which Joel McCrea portrays a Union veteran who becomes a Protestant minister and his travails as he brings religion to a town and fights the Ku Klux Klan.