Theology On Film
Consider three examples of films of different genres (other than explicitly religious films such as biblical epics), which have been identified as containing religious allusions. What functions do these allusions serve? (Consider issues both of directorial and audience reception.)
Ever since the development of the creation of the Daedalum by William George Horner in 1834 (later to be renamed the Zoetrope in 1867 by William Lincoln), the world of moving pictures has gradually gathered steam and one hundred and fifty years later it had reached such a stage that humans and extra-terrestrials had been seen hand in hand on huge picture screens. In the history of cinema there have been millions of different stories on millions of different topics. At UGC Cinema’s in the United Kingdom alone, on 19th April 2004 there is a guess about 35 or so films shown throughout the entire country at any one time. Added to this the demand for film channels on satellite television and the thousands of films available on Digital Video Disc (DVD) and Video Home System (VHS) tape, and the film industry in the last fifty years has been overly productive. How many of these new ideas are actually that new and how many more are based on stories as old as two thousand years ago.
In Hollywood nowadays there are specific definitions of particular types of production. On the Internet Movie Database in a section entitled “Genre Browser” there is a list of these different “genres”. As a way of differentiating between specific films and allowing people to choose films to suit their mood, Holywood created the notion of the genre and according to the Database, these different types of film number twenty, although often a film might be labelled under more than one category (“Donnie Darko” from 2001 for example is categorised as Fantasy, Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller AND Mystery). The one flaw with this categorisation on the Movie Database is that one classification missing is that of Biblical picture.
Since the start of Hollywood, one thing has been consistent and that is an almost religious element to everything that takes place. It can be argued, and it occasionally is, that every story ever created is based on one of five key plot descriptions. Using the example of the Spaghetti Western, all the films tend to revolve around the stranger who one day appears in the town. This man teaches everyone to appreciate and value life as he fights off the evil bad men of the town and he cleanses the surrounding area. Added to this a section of the film where the man often appears to be near death, only to be in essence “Reborn” and instantly the film’s plot becomes reminiscent of the story of Jesus.
The link between Hollywood and religion is so great that websites such as “Hollywood Jesus” appear which seem to find religious meaning in practically every piece of cinema around today. In one section of this website in fact there are three years worth of discussion amongst the public about which films mean the most religiously to them. The list of films mentioned here is long and winding but as well as including distinctly religious films such as “The Last Temptation Of Christ” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, the list also includes more obscure suggests such as “Gremlins”, “Chocolat” and even “Speed”. This website appears to imply that any film which might include a story of morality, happiness and looking after each other is a religious piece.
The notion that every film that is produced has some form of religious significance is absurd, since I doubt very much that the producers and scriptwriters of most films have any real intention of religious linkage. The creator of “Speed” never intended for a religious website to see any sort of religious meaning to his film. The creator of “Speed” planned to create a roller coaster ride staring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in which a bus is sabotaged and a policeman is forced to fight an evil bomb expert to prevent any civilians being harmed. The person who places “Speed” on the website is potentially ridiculing the website but it is hard to tell. The suggestion however is that “Speed” is religious because the bomber is led by greed and God sends Reeve’s officer of the law to defeat him. This suggestion is farcical, but it proves the point that ultimately every film created can be suggested as having a religious motive. With this in mind, it’s worth considering three distinctly different films and discussing the suggestions of religious significance to them. By doing this it is possible to demonstrate that any links between religion and many films is purely coincidental and completely irrelevant.
In “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, we are introduced to the young character of the title name. Ferris is fast approaching High School Graduation and decides that since it is approaching the end, he is going to take his ninth sick day of the year and go out into the wide world and experience life. Ferris sets events into motion where his friend Cameron Frye, a boy with parent problems who believes himself to be constantly ill, and Ferris’s girlfriend Sloane Peterson both are able to join him as he travels in Cameron’s father’s Ferrari into Chicago. During the day Ferris arranges a top class meal in a fashionable restaurant, he dances on a float during a parade and he teaches Cameron the truth about life and in effect saves his friend and delivers him from evil.
When viewing “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, it is perhaps worth considering just how much religious linkage there is possible to this film. When Ferris is first getting away with his escape from home and from having to head into school he sets up a detailed network of tools in his home which will make it appear that he is constantly asleep and ill. Ferris in effect performs a miracle in being able to deceive everyone of his health. Then when he convinces his friends to go for a meal in the rich restaurant, he performs a trick that convinces the restaurant’s front desk clerk that he is in fact a rich wealthy gentleman who is easily able to sue the restaurant.
As well as performing particular miracles in allowing him and his friends to enjoy themselves, Ferris talks to Cameron and teaches Cameron to stand up to his father, a man who is more concerned about his beloved Ferrari than he is about his own son. Cameron in fact accidentally ends up destroying this car, but when asked if he needs help, Cameron states that he is “not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong, I’m going to defend it.” When we last see Cameron, it appears that he has recovered from his depression and thanks to his friend Ferris; he has achieved a sense of focus and salvation.
The other members of the cast in the film also provide a form of religious linkage. In the main enemy, Ferris has Ed Rooney. Rooney is Ferris’s school Principle and has the ironically correct idea in his mind that Ferris is not in fact ill. Rooney spends the entire film attempting to catch Ferris out and it is his hatred of Ferris and his attempts to see him destroyed, not to mention his position of power which is threatened throughout the school by Ferris’s popularity, which places him on a par with the Jewish Leaders who eventually got their wish in having Jesus executed.
The key difference between Rooney and the Jewish Leaders (aside two thousand or so years) is that Rooney fails to catch Ferris. The reasoning behind this is that unlike the Judas in Biblical times, Ferris’s own Judas, his jealous sister Jeanie eventually relents and in fact supports him, despite her knowledge of his guilty. Jeanie is in fact taught to support Ferris and not to question him by Charlie Sheen’s cameo character in the police station who never acquires a name, but who could be argued as being Jeanie’s Guardian Angel who teaches her the error of her ways.
As has been shown, there are countless similarities between “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and the story of Jesus Christ. Ultimately however, how much of this is intentional and how much is coincidental. When we begin to start looking for links, they appear to become all too clear, when they might not actually exist. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is an amazing comedy masterpiece staring Matthew Broderick (Ferris), Alan Ruck (Cameron) and Jeffrey Jones (Rooney) from 1986 that feels as fresh in 2004 as it did when it was first created. Simply put though, it is just a comedy about friendship that is all. Any religious linkage is unintentional.
Again another film, which could be implied as religious in certain constructs, is the 1993 movie “Tombstone”. In this piece we are introduced to the Arizona town of Tombstone. An outlaw gang known as “The Cowboys” dominates the whole surrounding territory, when one day the legendary Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil and Morgan appear on the train with the aim of settling down. The Earp family are unable to avoid danger however and after Wyatt’s brothers accept the badge of Sheriff of Tombstone, it is not long before Wyatt & his dying friend Doc Holliday join them in the legendary fight at the OK Corral.
From the offset it becomes painfully obvious just how little religious significance there is in “Tombstone”. As suggested though, it’s possible to find religious meaning in practically every film around. In this piece therefore it is possible to suggest a slightly rearranged version of events in reference to the story of Jesus. For starters, if we assume that the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp is dead to begin with, then it is only after the death of his brother Morgan and Virgil’s departure, that he is in fact reborn as he attempts to gain revenge. In fact it might have made more sense to look at the religious significance of Earp in relationship to Kevin Costner’s inferior “Wyatt Earp” of the following year. The reasoning behind this is that Costner’s film begins at an earlier point to “Tombstone” and as a result contains his retirement and the death of the lawman inside him. In “Tombstone” however, the film begins after the death. The point remains however that yet again it is possible, albeit not as obviously as in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to find a religious link in this film. Especially if it is viewed that Virgil’s acceptance of the Sheriff post, despite an agreement with Wyatt, could be considered an act of betrayal and could be linked to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.
In “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Tombstone” there are two films, which have never been implied as having any major religious significance but when examined, could be seen to perhaps contain a link to the story of Jesus. With these two films, one comedy and one western, is the reminder that if you wish to see religious significance in something then it is often possible, even if only coincidental. One film that shows this more than anything is “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”.
In 1982 Steven Spielberg released “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and even twenty two years later it is still incredibly popular. Spielberg had previously dealt with religious material in the first Indiana Jones film (“Raiders Of The Lost Ark”) and with this seems to have appeared an assumption that perhaps “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a modern retelling of the story of Christ. As with the previous two cases, the argument is a strong one.
In this film we are introduced to young Elliot, a boy who feels isolated since his brother is too old to spend time with and his daughter is far too young. One day Elliot is outside his house playing when an alien confronts him. This alien, E.T., is marooned on Earth when his mother ship disappears without him. E.T. who is implied as being of a similar alien age bracket as Elliot, becomes his friend and the two grow more attached as their minds begin to connect telepathically as well as their friendship.
On the Hollywood Jesus website, an article about E.T. refers to the appearance of E.T. on Earth as being similar to the birth of Christ. E.T. who is chased almost from the offset by Scientists (hence the mother ship leaving early) is helped by three children to hide. As the website suggests, the Scientists are designed as representing King Herod and the children are meant to represent the Three Wise Men who attended Christ’s birth and were meant to report to Herod.
The film progresses as the children teach E.T. about the Earth and life, but it is with Elliot where the main link is. With the previous telepathic link comes one of the best scenes from the film. Whilst Elliot is at school, E.T. hovers around the empty house looking around. After drinking a few beers, E.T. ends up drunk, and this is passed onto Elliot. After this, E.T. is viewing the television and witnesses a key scene from “The Quiet Man” staring John Wayne. Elliot in the classroom ends up repeating this scene with a girl he likes. The relevance of the scene in the classroom however is pointed at by the Hollywood Jesus website in that Elliot releases the frogs his biology class is due to dissect. The reasoning behind this is potentially due to his fear of scientists dissecting E.T., Hollywood Jesus however points to this scene as being reminiscent of “the plague of frogs from the book of Exodus”.
One of the most obvious links to religion in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and something which if wasn’t planned as looking religious, turned out to look more implied than anything else, was E.T. healing Elliot. As well as a particular link between the two beings, at one point Elliot accidentally cuts his finger. At this point E.T. outstretches his own finger and touches Elliot’s, causing the cut to heal. This incident points directly at Michaelangelo’s picture of God and Man as the two’s fingers touch, implying a sort of unity.
Eventually the scientists catch E.T. and the scientists who have taken over the family’s home are caring for both himself and Elliot. It is at this point where E.T. dies. Elliot himself refers to the scientists as killing E.T. when they produce heart resuscitators, and perhaps this again is a reference to the Scientists as those who would execute Jesus on the cross. As with Jesus again, E.T. is in effect reborn and with the aid of the three Children (and the elder brother’s friends) escapes. E.T. contacts his home ship who return to the planet and as E.T. walks aboard the ship and it takes off, it feels in effect like this being who appeared, taught everyone about life, died and then was reborn has ascended to the heavens.
In “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” people create a definitive link between the story and with the story of Jesus Christ. In contrast however, the presence of a religious link between Jesus and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Tombstone” is present, although has never been commented upon. For a film to have a religious relevance is ultimately not that difficult. The problem however is that often these relevance’s are not intentional and purely coincidental. One respondent on the Hollywood Jesus website claims that the reason for this religious linkage to appear in every film is that Jesus is inside us. Without raising independent religious viewpoints, it feels more possible that by simply hearing the story of Jesus so often, sometimes that story implants itself into “new” stories without any intention.
All three main films mentioned are entertaining films from different genres with an amazing line up of actors including Matthew Broderick, Kurt Russell and Drew Barrymore (albeit as a child), but to look for any sort of link to Jesus in these pieces is to look for the purely coincidental and to assume religious motivation in everything.
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 “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
 “The Last Temptation Of Christ” (1988)
 “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965)
 “Gremlins” (1984)
 “Chocolat” (2000)
 “Speed” (1994)
 “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)
 “Tombstone” (1993)
 “Wyatt Earp” (1994)
 “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
 “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (1981)
 “The Quiet Man” (1952)