By Paul F. M. Zahl
We are all spending more time than usual at home this month. And probably next month, and maybe the month after that. We are certainly spending less time in church, or at least in the beautiful building we love. That, too, may go on for a while.
So I submit to you four classic movies to entertain you and inspire you during this involuntary form of a Lenten fast.
Three of them tell the tale of a minister or priest trying to lead the people through a time of extraordinary crisis. The fourth presents a marriage that is in search of a miracle. All of these films embody a Christian view of faithful persistence under extreme stress. I hope they can lift our spirits just now.
Oh, and each is easily available, either as a mail-order DVD or streamed over the internet.
War of the Worlds (1953)
This is the original Hollywood version, produced by George Pal and starring Anne Robinson and Gene Barry. It posits the entire human world up against an insuperable and merciless foe — the Martians! But God is not mocked. In the unforgettable conclusion, Gene Barry enters three successive churches in search of the woman he loves. In the last church, he finds her. As they embrace, fully expecting the Martian death ray to destroy the church and them with it, the minister prays our “Prayer for All Sorts and Conditions of Men” from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. At that moment, a miracle takes place.
Note also that a very Episcopal-looking minister is the heroine’s uncle, who confronts the Martians with his prayer book and the Twenty-Third Psalm.
Available as a DVD or streaming.
The Return of Don Camillo (1953)
This is an Italian movie directed by the Frenchman Julien Duvivier.
It concerns a wry and wise Catholic priest in a small Italian town, who mostly battles an elected Communist mayor and city council.
But then a natural disaster happens, and everyone must work together.
And they do!
The Return of Don Camillo feels timely for our time in more than one important way.
It is available as a DVD.
Journey to Italy (1954)
The immortal Roberto Rossellini directed this one, which stars Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. They portray an unhappy married couple who are vacationing in Naples, near Pompeii. After arguing bitterly for most of the film, they encounter a miracle, a bona fide religious miracle.
Some people regard Journey to Italy as Rossellini’s greatest film.
You decide. It is a true wonder of a work of art, in any event. Available as streaming video.
Stars in My Crown (1950)
Here is depicted a small-town Methodist minister who must navigate both an epidemic of typhoid fever and an outbreak of racial prejudice. By the grace of God, he finds the way of Christ and the movie is a tour de force. The minister is played by Joel McCrea, and McCrea’s son told me that Stars in My Crown was his father’s favorite film. I can understand why. See this movie for hope and delight. It is also a family favorite, as the story is told from the vantage point of a 12-year-old boy. Available as DVD or streaming video.
Four film gems, three of them set in a “time of cholera.” Mary and I have gone back to them ourselves – this week, with shutters down and curtains drawn – and they sure helped to restore our hope.
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.