Three Flicks for Holy Week
by Tom Donelson on April 22, 2011 at 2:29 PM
Cecil DeMille combined showmanship, debauchery and reverence in many of his biblical features. An early important figure in early Hollywood, DeMille was a storyteller and in his 1932 now forgotten, Sign of the Cross. De Mille told a timeless story of love and persecution. De Mille, like Mel Gibson 72 years later with Passion of the Christ, was not shy about using violence and sex to advance his message of Christianity triumph. The movie began with Nero, played by Charles Laughton, reciting poetry as Rome burns and throughout the film, Roman debauchery was contrasted to Christian virtues. And in Cecil DeMille’s films, violence and sex gained the edge in air time when compared to virtue. Using various tricks, his cinematographer managed to make mob scenes larger than they actually were and as additional treats for the audience; there were Christians being eaten, orgies, sex, both straight and gay, and plenty of murder and palace intrigues.
After witnessing the burning of Rome, Nero was adviced to blame the Christians and begin wholesale reprisals and Christians found themselves in hiding. There was one scene that when two Christians were identified by a mob, they denied their faith and pretended to be philosophers. De Mille noted that even among Christians, courage was not always present in the face of death. A Roman Imperial Prefect saved them from the teaming mob. The reason for this had nothing to do with justice but that the Prefect caught the eye of a Christian woman, who was defending the two Christians (one of whom is her stepfather) against the mob.
The Prefect, named Marcus Superbus, pursued the woman and this only got him in trouble with the Emperor, his rivals in the royal court and the Empress, who desired him. Marcus found himself pitted against his main rival Tigellinus and the Empress, Poppaea. We were treated to two worlds, those of the Christians hiding in the underground and the Romans, who constantly seemed to be engaged in political intrigue and orgies. DeMille appeared to have fun with debauchery and in one scene; the seductress Ancara conducted the infamous “Naked Moon” dance, which combined eroticism and lesbian lust. Ancara lap danced around the Christian Mercia in an attempt to seduce the young woman into Lesbian sex acts, while other Romans look on in delight. Her dance is eventually drowned out by the hymns of Christians on their way to arena and death.
As the climatic scene approached, we saw the apprehension among the Christians as they face their doom. In the Colloseum scene, DeMille featured all of Roman life in various camera sweeps. The Roman gladiators saluting as they parade past Caesar, spectators waging on the various events, and a victim’s mother quietly sobbed. All were guilty of the coming carnage and no one escapes blame. A thug like Nero only existed with the tacit support of the public and the blood lusts of the Colloseum are done for the public’s benefit. We saw Roman society at its worst as the audience watched animals tear their victims apart and armed gladiators fought each other to the death and all is concluded in a circus of blood.
An interesting scene worth mentioning was the famous bathtub scene. The Empress bathed in milk and near the side of the tub, two cats slurp the contents up. Empress sat in the tub and talked to one of her ladies in waiting. After a short discussion about Marcus, she invited her friend to join her in the tub. We witnessed the aide disrobed and the camera pans away-leaving the rest to our imagination. Ah, Only Cecil DeMille could come up with just a scene that leaves one wondering of what could be happening without the need to show it.
Marcus's job was to eradicate the Christians but he’s seduced by Mercia. He wanted her but on his term, not hers; tempting her with the luxurious lifestyle but in the end, it was he who surrendered to her will. When he attempted to convince her to give up her faith, her faith forced him to follow her to their death. Claudette Colbert, who would later gain fame for her work in light comedy, was the best thing about this movie. She combined sexuality with meanness and showed that Nero was not the only one in the royal court capable of brutality and intrigue.
Cecil DeMille understood his audience. He sneaked sex and a little flesh into his classics and while it was tame by our standards, there was certain eroticism in this movie that left much to the mind. Sign of the Cross succeeded not because of the violence or the sex but because DeMille respected the faith of his audience and used the film to show the virtue of those who prefer death rather than denounce their faith. Good triumphs over evil. The theme of this movie is forever timeless.
Released 72 years later, Mel Gibson’s Passion of The Christ showed the divide that existed in America at the turn of the 21st century. This was not a Movie for the faint hearted as it treated the audience to a two-hour torture of Jesus. For many Christians, Christmas was the time that we all worship a baby in a manager while we give each other’s gift. On Easter, we celebrated the resurrection while plunging into the Easter Candy. Good Friday was the forgotten day except in this movie as we viewed the real torture that was Good Friday, from the first time that Jesus is punched to the final scene when he finally died. The Resurrection was but a 15 second ending as we see Jesus walk out of the tomb, with the holes in his hands.
You do not walk out of this movie with an outrage but a sadness and remorse. Just as DeMille castigated the average Roman for complicity in the torture of Christians, Gibson castigated us for complicity in Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ duty was to take our burden of sins and put it on his shoulder. At the beginning of the movie, Satan tells Christ that no man can take the burden of all upon his shoulder. Every whip lashed that hit his skins, you are reminded that we are the ones who are doing the whipping. Every soldier or civilian that took his shot of Christ was symbolic of us all for we all are taking our shots. When the Roman soldiers tore the skin literally off Jesus, they laughed and enjoyed the moment.
Throughout the movie, Gibson flashed back to moments in Jesus life including the last supper as he told his disciple what must transpire. We witness the betrayal of Judas and Peter. Judas descended into madness before his inevitable suicide and Peter, after his denial, tells the Mother Mary that he does not deserve forgiveness for he had denied Christ. These two men are contrasted in the Bible. After his betrayal of Christ, Judas couldn’t forgive himself or seek Christ's forgiveness. Christ forgave Peter.
There was the Political side of the movie as well. With much of publicity before the movie centered on Gibson’s traditional Catholic beliefs and his father's anti Semitic views, the movie itself was not anti- Semitic. But the concerns of many Jews at the release of the movie were understandable. In the movie, some Jewish leaders wanted Christ killed since his words challenged their own power. As for the Romans, Pilate attempted to wash his hands of the situation but can anyone truly wash himself of Christ’s death? For Pilate, this was a political matter and the last thing he needed was an uprising. His wife viewed Christ, as an innocent man and Pilate believe the same. She wanted Jesus spared and he felt incapable of doing that. In the end, he gave in to the crowd and allowed Jesus to be crucified.
Pilate was the most interesting character outside of Jesus and Mary. Pilate attempted to have it both ways. He told the Jewish leaders that he saw no guilt in Christ but he refused to stop the execution and allowed it to proceed. Pilate was as guilty as the mob, maybe even more so since he knew what he was doing wrong.
The cruelest weren’t the Jewish leaders or their followers but the Roman soldiers. The soldiers enjoyed delivering every blow and sense their own superiority over the Jewish people. For the Romans, the torture of Christ represents their domination over the Jewish people. As Jesus moves toward the cross, it was the Romans who became the torturer and murderer of Christ. Pilate allowed the execution to move forward and his soldiers enjoy their work.
Then there was Satan. Satan was ever present throughout the movie. In the beginning, where he tempted Christ to give up his quest and in the final minute of the movie, Satan screamed from the pits of hell before we saw Jesus walk out of the tomb. The use of Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin works beautifully for it gave us the feel of witnessing history. It is not distracting but natural.
As for the two Americas, there is a gulf that can be seen in the pews of local churches. For many, the attack on Mel Gibson and the Passion was less about his movie and more about the perception that Christianity appeared under attack in America. This movie was a devout movie about one man’s attempt to come to grip with the Christ while exorcising his personal demons, demons he still has. It became a symbol of a struggle that is deeper; when two Americas see each other in the mirror, they see polar opposite. They are both mystified by each other. As the years go by, the political feature of the movie will long be forgotten and the attention will be drawn strictly on the subject matter at hand. Movie producers have used Westerns as a mean to impart truths about America and the world but the movie Purgatory was religious allegory with a Western background and presented an unusual treatment of heaven, hell and Purgatory.
The thrust of the movie was that a vicious gang moved into a small town called Refugee. The townspeople appeared to be docile and there was not even a jail as the gang took control. One of the those gang members was a young kid named Sonny, who seemed to recognize or he thought that he recognized many of the townspeople from his reading of various dime store stories about the old West. Sonny really didn’t fit the profile of the rest of the gang for he was not vicious but a kid looking for a piece of glory and this gang would be his ticket to fame.
As for the townspeople, they resembled past dead western villains and gun fighters; people like Billy the Kid and “Doc” Holliday. The catch was that many of these famous Western personalities had been killed, executed or died from natural causes, so Sonny's imagination was merely running wild.
Throughout the gang stay, the various townspeople showed no inclination to resist the gang control of their town. In one scene, the sheriff asked if the gang members would resist from throwing knives into the wall of the Church and when they refuse; he merely stood at the Church wall as the gang threw knives around him. (The last gang member was challenged to throw a knife straight at the Sheriff’s heart but lightening struck him dead.) Sonny was right, that the townspeople were in fact who he thought they are. He did see Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hitchcock, and Billy the Kid among others. Refugee was in fact Purgatory and these former western bad boys and girls were here for one last chance for heaven.
This is what you could call a mystical Catholic film in that it recognized that the road to hell after death was not so simple. An Indian guide had the responsibility to watch over the townspeople and in the case of a failure, take the guilty party to hell.
Sonny discovered that he really didn’t belong with the gang and maybe his own salvation laid siding with the townspeople in their struggle with the gang. As for the townspeople, they were forbidden to act on their impulses for gambling, whoring, cursing and gunplay were forbidden. The old gunfighters were not even allowed to wear guns. The townspeople resorted to non-violent resistances, leaving the question, was the road to heaven associated with pacifism? Sonny overheard that the gang was going to ravage the town to the ground and Sonny determined to stop it or die trying.
In the final scene, as Sonny was alone facing his old gang and outnumbered 15 to 1 as he accepted his fate and impending death. Then Wild Bill Hitchcock joined him in the street and shortly joined by Billy the Kid, and Jesse James. For Wild Bill, Billy the Kid and Jesse, joining Sonny doomed their soul to hell. They were prepared to suffer eternal damnation to protect Sonny in his moment of need. After the classic gunfight, the gang was wiped out but Sonny was killed- only to be raised back for life in purgatory.
As for Wild Bill, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday; they were at the gate of hell before an angel in the shape of stagecoach driver intervened. “The Creator may be tough but he is not blind,” he told the three condemned and he took them off to heaven instead. The driver offered Sonny a seat on the stagecoach to the Pearly gates but Sonny remained in Refugee to be with a young woman that he has fallen in love with (and who was the youngest woman to be hanged in Wyoming when she killed her abusive father in her previous life.) The stagecoach driver merely remarked, “There is a place for you when you are ready.”
What can be learned? For the three gunfighters, they were willing to give up everything to defend a stranger and for that, they were rewarded with eternal life. As the bible says, “whoever is willing to give his life” will see the gate of Heaven. As for Sonny, his turn from evil and wiliness to die to defend others was his ticket as well. The producers of the Movie concede that there are times that sacrifice of one’s life and even a resort to violence can have a positive role, if it is done to defend others. Purgatory Catholic overtones may not appeal to the Protestants but overlook the theology and understand the message- to give one life for others was indeed holy. And Purgatory gives you permission to enjoin a Western during Holy Week.