By Paul F.M. Zahl
Christians who love movies can spend a lot of time looking for “crumbs from the Master’s table” within works that really aren’t particularly Christian. We’ll spot a moment of pure grace in a PIXAR film or a flash of redemption in a contemporary drama and be interested, and maybe happy.
There is nothing wrong with locating “anonymous” seeds of hope within popular art that emerges from our surrounding and often alien culture. But I seem to have come upon a treasure trove lately, within an earlier period of Hollywood production — not the Silent Era by any means! — of movies that are more directly, hence less obliquely, Christian. Each of the four highlighted below has a definite Lenten theme, and each comes from what is now referred to as Hollywood’s Golden Era, with famous stars and A-plus production. Two of them were completely new to me when I caught them recently. The other two were familiar, a little, but more for their stars than for their subject.
The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961)
Starring Spencer Tracy, this movie portrays a grizzled and somewhat embittered, alcoholic Roman Catholic priest who has just been replaced by a younger man in his cure on a Polynesian island. What he doesn’t know is that a volcano is about to erupt and it will fall to him, together with four hardened convicts, one of them played by Frank Sinatra, to try and rescue a group of schoolchildren who live up the mountain. The Devil at 4 O’clock is a spectacular drama concerning sacrifice, redemption, and reality. It is also easy to see, whether you stream it at home or buy the DVD.
The Left Hand of God (1955)
This one is also spectacular and ambitious — Christianly ambitious. The Left Hand of God stars Humphrey Bogart and Gene Tierney, and concerns an American flier downed in China during the Second World War who must masquerade as a mission priest for reasons the movie spells out. The Left Hand of God is not a perfect movie but it uncovers the “apostolate” that may be latent in us all. “Bogey’s” performance is touching and brings things together movingly at the end. Once again, the movie can be streamed or purchased on DVD.
Journey into Light (1951)
This one should surprise you. It stars Sterling Hayden as an Episcopal rector whose life falls apart, and his faith with it. He leaves his parish and begins a journey of embittered self-discovery that takes him to the Los Angeles bowery, where he becomes “one” with a class of hopeless men who, like him, have fallen very low. The story of his re-discovery of himself and of God is both touching, realistic, and surprising. This one stunned me in the best way. It is not available yet on DVD but can be found in its complete version if you look on the internet. Here is a Lenten movie which is Five Stars!
And finally, The First Legion (1951)
Who’d have thought these last two were even made — so direct are they in their transformative yet true-to-life portrayals of men and women in the midst of pain and regret? The First Legion stars Charles Boyer and takes place in a Jesuit house in which a supposed miracle takes place. Questions are raised about this public and stunning event; and the Jesuit priests, who are rife with church politics and jockeying for their own preferment, must discover the truth. The ending of this movie is a surprise, and extremely affecting. It is not available yet on DVD nor streaming; but, just like Journey into Light, a complete version is easy to find on the internet if you look.
Each of these four is a Hollywood wonder, with Journey into Light being my first choice, because it concerns an Episcopal priest (and also a kindly and pastoral Episcopal bishop) and digs deep for the seeds of hope. Enjoy!
The Rev. Paul F. M. Zahl is a retired priest, and was formerly rector of All Saints’ Church, Chevy Chase, Md. and dean of Trinity School for Ministry. He is the author of many books.