God is making a comeback in movies, and this time, it’s personal. After several years free of biblical cinema, 2014 may well be remembered as the year that Hollywood found religion again. First up is Son of God, produced by Touched by an Angel’s Roma Downey and her husband, Survivor mogul Mark Burnett (perhaps the apostles will vote Judas off the island). Then we’ll be getting the rather awful-looking domestic drama Heaven Is For Real, followed by the potentially promising yet probably disastrous Aronofsky project, Noah. Somewhere in the mix will be a highly reverent Mary movie, before the year is capped off with Ridley Scott’s Exodus, which will no doubt be epic, and with Christian Bale as Moses, probably rather shouty.
Bible themes are nothing new in movies, of course. For decades, Hollywood did a brisk business in godliness. Overtly Christian themes and conservative family values were hallmarks of many melodramas, especially after 1934, when studios began self-censoring their movies to ensure that they received an official seal of approval from the Hays Office. Crime could no longer go unpunished, adultery all but disappeared from the screen, and God was around a lot, usually represented by a kindly clergyman (Bing Crosby in Going My Way, Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces, Spencer Tracy in Boys’ Town, Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom), a devout nun (Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus, Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of Saint Mary’s), a saint (Bergman again in Joan of Arc), or an angel (Angels in the Outfield, Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife).
It is a great irony of Golden Age Hollywood that studios frequently run by Jewish moguls did everything they could to cater to gentile tastes (and prejudices), promoting the ideal of Christian (usually Protestant) Middle America. Louis B. Mayer kept the sentimental Andy Hardy series going because it fulfilled the vision of nice, white, Christian, middle-class, small-town Americana, a place where Mickey Rooney was respectful of his elders and always did the right thing in the end. Even the Dead End Kids were about as threatening as puppies.
Mind you, a lot of people loved Andy Hardy, and inspirational films with strong family values (The Blind Side, Remember the Titans) and liberal doses of spirituality (Field of Dreams, The Green Mile) tend to do well in the United States. The success of Passion of the Christ (2004) is on a different level, and contrast its reception with the wrath that awaited interesting films like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999). I can only think of one avowedly atheist film, Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying (2009), and it didn’t do well. It seems audiences weren’t in a rush to see a sarcastic Englishman imply that their beliefs were ridiculous.
I suspect that Alex and Steve Kendrick are big fans of Andy Hardy and many of the other overtly religious Hollywood movies of yesteryear. The Kendrick Brothers are a pair of Christian filmmakers intent on using cinema as an extension of the pulpit, but unlike the cynical religiosity in old Hollywood, I don’t doubt the sincerity of their productions. The two most recent of these are Fireproof (2008) and Courageous (2011).
As an experiment I thought I’d take a look at these two films to gain a better understanding of Christian cinema today. After all, neither of these productions cost more than $2 million USD to make, but each generated more than $30 million at the box office. As might be expected, Fireproof and Courageous are quite simplistic, preachy, and largely inaccessible to the unconverted. There is a certain evangelical zeal about both films, and both feature characters who have a come-to-Jesus moment – but are they really targeted at those who live outside of the fold?
Both movies are set in Albany, Georgia, which looks like the sort of idyllic small town you only see in movies. After having seen Fireproof and Courageous, Albany appears to be stuffed with hard-working Christian firemen, cops and nurses, some of whom are struggling with their faith. There doesn’t seem to be any other type of person living there, unless you count the drug-dealing gangsters in Courageous – the sort of crooks that might terrify the Dead End Kids but wouldn’t last thirty-seconds in The Wire.
Fireproof is about Caleb, a local fire chief considered to be a hero by everyone but his wife, Catherine. After several years, their marriage is on the rocks. Actually, it’s about to go up in smoke according to the film’s unintentionally hilarious tagline. Caleb is a bit of an asshole at home. He patronises Catherine; he doesn’t pick up around the house; he surfs the net for porn; he yells at her all the time (they have arguments like sports cars: they go from nought to sixty in three-seconds). But she also harbours some of the blame for the distance between them, apparently. She nags, and is uncomfortably portrayed as a bit of a bitch. At the same time Catherine is talking about divorce, she’s also clearly making eyes at a kindly doctor at the hospital where she works.
Just when it looks as if there’s no hope for Caleb and Catherine, Caleb’s father challenges him to a “love dare”: 40 days of tasks (each tied to scripture) that will bring him back to her. 40 days: just like Jesus in the desert. The challenge is rooted in the idea that marriage is forever and is a vow before God: divorce isn’t just bad for you, it’s an insult to God. At first Caleb goes through the motions without really committing, and it doesn’t work. Then he’s challenged to let God into his heart, and suddenly he’s the world’s best husband, trying his hardest to win Catherine’s forgiveness. And he’ll do whatever it takes, including smashing the computer to bits with a baseball bat. Take that, Porn!
You’ll guess how it all turns out. The script is simple-minded and patronising, and the characters speak in ridiculous metaphors. They also speak very slowly and distinctly, probably to make it clear that the message they are conveying is deeply important, or perhaps just because they’re bad actors. The film’s characters talk a lot about the fireman’s code – Never leave a partner behind – as a metaphor for marriage. The film is also filled with some odd racial stereotypes, the most confronting example being that of the African-American nurses at the hospital, heavily portrayed as being of the sassy “unh-huh, girl, you know it” variety. All up, Fireproof is a silly movie that will appeal to lovers of devotional romance novels.
After Fireproof, I wasn’t sure I could take Courageous, but it’s a markedly better film. It’s better-written, better-acted and better-shot, and this time the jokes are deliberate. Fireproof looks like a cheap TV movie; Courageous looks like a proper film. It still isn’t any good, but it deserves points for effort.
It’s about what happens when fathers don’t mentor their children properly, and it’s filled with scary statistics about the number of young men who drift into gangs and drugs because their father wasn’t around. Depending on your view, the film either has an important message about fatherhood (one that Barack Obama supports, if memory serves: I recall that he had stern words for absent fathers in the 2008 campaign) or it’s an apology for old-fashioned patriarchy. It’s rather sexist: none of the men’s wives appear to work outside the home, and childbearing and child-rearing seem to be their only virtues. And while I was watching it, as with Fireproof, I couldn’t help but think how implicitly homophobic the film is, there is a strong subtext that a gay or lesbian couple could not provide the appropriate environment to successfully raise a child.
Director and co-writer Alex Kendrick is also the star of Courageous. He is Adam, a hard-working officer in the Sheriff’s Department who spends his time with his partners/buddies patrolling the streets of Albany, chasing down car-thieves and drug-dealers. At home Adam is failing to mentor his teenage son, and he’s missing out on making a connection with his daughter. His colleagues face similar problems. After tragedy strikes, Adam and his friends draw up a “Father’s Resolution”: a promise to God that they will be men of honour who will lead their families with integrity.
As with Fireproof, there is a lot of simplistic moralising about family and community that I imagine would go over well with the target audience. The same wise black fireman from Fireproof is back as a wise black cop and devoted but stern father, who won’t let his daughter date anyone he doesn’t approve of. At some point he gives her a ring, implied but not overtly stated to be a purity ring, and I can only imagine what would happen if this poor girl got knocked up before marriage. Most disturbingly, it’s a given within the film’s messaging that these men will “give their daughters away” to other men, and only to those who show the proper respect and love for God.
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