Ambushed by Family Movies

“The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mt. Horeb…and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing” (Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Most of us would accept that the description of a movie as “good” is highly ambiguous.  However, we seem to accept the phrase “good family movie” with less circumspection.  Yet might that outward family-friendliness sometimes be cloaking a wolf in sheep’s clothing?  Our junto has discussed the idea of creating opportunities for families to see older movies that will not only entertain but also illuminate – perhaps a moral principle, a historical perspective, or some other truth that sheds light on authentic Catholic living today.  Because unlike the primarily worldly preoccupations of Hollywood, we do in fact “believe in that sort of thing.”  There is no question that older movies tend to lack the extreme violent images, foul language, nudity, overt sexual acts and blatant anti-hero worship of many modern films.  But because they do not assault our sensibilities as crassly, some of their errors are more easily overlooked.  There are many movies of the sort to which we might take our families whose violations of Catholic principles whisper more than shout.  My point is not that we shouldn’t watch them, but that we should always be attuned to error and to pointing out that error to others.

One such is a movie which I have watched and enjoyed many times, the 1943 movie Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (number 3 on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list).  In the end it is a story of conversion – Rick emerging from the abyss of self-pity to first reclaim and then give up the woman he loves for the greater good of the war effort, and the Vichy sycophant Police Captain Renault giving up his position of prestige and power to join the good guys.  Interspersed with humor, drama, the tragedy of war, and an unexpected but highly satisfying ending in which the man does not get the girl, it is no surprise that it ranks so highly on the list of great films.  Yet the morals of the film are highly problematic.

The behavior of Captain Renault is the most overtly immoral – not because he is a toady to the 3rd Reich, not because he takes payoffs from the casino, but because he is an open and unabashed serial rapist.  He pressures desperate women into having sex with him in return for letters of transit allowing them to leave Casablanca.  Any exercise of raw power to force an unwilling woman into a sexual act is rape.  Yet he is witty and charming, and because his evil actions are not seen directly, we are drawn to “like” his flawed character anyway.  As in modern films, this likeability factor obscures our judgment unless we are intentional in examining it.  In some ways it is worse than in a more explicit modern movie because his deeds are largely kept out of the light.  The movie positions us emotionally to laugh at his quips, when a more sober examination should rather move us to feel only a detestable revulsion when he is on screen.  The worst part of this manipulation happens at the end of the movie.  After he turns on the German overlords, we forgive and forget his despicable character.  Captain Renault, the likeable, unrepentant, unpunished rapist with whom Rick strolls away to start his “beautiful friendship.”

Rick’s character is even more problematic, because his actions reinforce some of the prominent moral confusions of our age.  In one example, he has his croupier rig the roulette wheel so that a man can win enough money to pay for letters of transit so that his wife can avoid Captain Renault’s evil ministrations.  We cheer this without stopping to realize that had Rick merely given him the money, that would have been a virtuous deed, but by rigging the roulette wheel he caused innocent parties who were also betting to be cheated of the chance to win.  The movie even incorporates a joke about the honesty of the game.  He used evil means for a good motive, a serious modern error.  I had watched this scene several times before its problematic nature even occurred to me.

But the worst message in the movie is what it teaches about marriage.  Rick pursues a married woman and she ultimately reciprocates.  The fact that there was a prior complicated history between them is moot.  She is married and he now knows it.  Thus his final “noble” sacrifice to give up his true love in the famous scene on the runway at the end of the movie is a moral sham.  Rick decides that Ilsa should stay with her husband because it will help the war effort, not because, well, he is her husband.  We are left to choke up at the self-sacrificing heroism of a man whose secret weapon for fighting the Germans is, basically, to not commit adultery.

There is another Bogie flick from 1941, The Maltese Falcon (AFI #31), that likewise ends with a curious moral choice regarding a woman.  In this ending, the woman Sam Spade loves turns out to be the murderer of his partner.  In the dramatic scene where he tells her he is going to turn her over to the police, he gives her two reasons.  The first is a kind of unwritten code that when a man’s partner is killed, he is “supposed to do something about it.”  The second reason is that if he doesn’t turn her in, she will have something to hold over him in the future.  Curiously absent is any sense of virtue, of the idea that murder cries out for justice.  There seems to be no bigger moral principle at stake then his feelings and his calculation of the odds of her future loyalty.  Once again he does the right thing for the wrong reasons.

A more recent film with which everyone is familiar is Star Wars (AFI #13).  In what sense could a space opera based on good triumphing over evil be a problem?  Novelist Michael O’Brien has this to say.  “The force is neither good nor evil in itself but becomes so according to who uses it and how it is used….Luke and company act according to an admirable moral code, but we must ask ourselves on what moral foundation this code is based, and what its source is.  There is no mention of a transcendent God or any attempt to define the source of ‘the Force.’  And why is the use of psychic power considered acceptable?…Moreover, the key figures in the overthrow of the malevolent empire are the Jedi masters, the enlightened elite, the initiates, the possessors of secret knowledges.  Is this not Gnosticism?”

Star Wars certainly has strong gnostic overtones, and also arguably supports the gnostic idea that the material universe (e.g. the body) is bad, or at least a limitation on the spiritual.  Witness how Obi -Wan allows himself to be struck down by Vader, after which he becomes a bodiless spirit who is, by his own pre-death prediction, more powerful than he was when enfleshed.  His potential was somehow set free by eliminating his body.  In fact, the idea that these Jedi’s survive and thrive in some way after death based on their secret knowledge of the Force while the rest of humanity (seemingly) doesn’t is exactly the soteriology that was pushed by gnostic religions.  And why didn’t the emperor, who was incredibly strong in the Force, also pop back into the picture as a spiritual glow-stick like Obi-Wan and Vader did?  What is the source of their redemption?  That question is ignored, because ultimately “May the Force be with you” is the secular blessing of a godless universe.

Star Trek is certainly no better when it comes to expressing a true anthropology of man.  Gene Rodenberry was known to be an atheist believer in human perfectibility, and this secular humanism shines through in his creation.  There are numerous problems – I won’t even spend time discussing the obvious one of the creation of a new life form by uniting a machine to a man in Star Trek – The Motion Picture (not that anyone should inflict that movie on his family).  Let’s consider a different one, the character of Spock.  His alienness is highlighted by emphasizing the role of logic (i.e. reason) in his life.  This is what separates him from the humans, whose intuition and “ability to leap beyond logic” (Star Trek – The Motion Picture) is lauded.  Yet it is reason that enables us to live a fully human life of virtue; indeed, to be virtuous is to act in accord with right reason.  Per St. Augustine, “reason is the gaze of the soul” as it seeks truth.  A true human anthropology puts reason at man’s core; any other view is deadly to a Christian.  One can argue that Spock’s more perfect use of reason would actually make him closer to the image of God than his human counterparts in the story.

Star Trek’s ideas of human perfectibility are sometimes more or less obvious.  Jean Luc Picard says in Star Trek – First Contact that “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives….We work to better ourselves…and the rest of humanity.”  That might sound noble if it wasn’t so stupid and dangerous.  This idea springs from a paradigm of a human race without need of grace.  There is no original sin, and all the evils of human nature and history have been vanquished by a few hundred years of technological progress.  It is at best a Pelagian-style heresy, and at worst an atheistic fantasy.  The ironic thing is that without original sin, there can be no conflict between the characters and therefore no story to tell, so it is a worldview that is, at its root, self-contradicting for a storyteller.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, which provides the introductory quote, is 66th on the AFI list.  This immensely popular movie spawned a franchise of three subsequent films (one good), with a fifth now in the works.  And while Indiana Jones is an obviously flawed hero, don’t the good guys defeat evil in the end?  Not exactly.  Let’s start by looking at ends.  Why do the two protagonists, Indy and Belloq, want to find the Ark?  Of the two, Belloq is the only one who even references the divine.  He says it is “a radio for speaking to God.”  This erroneous and frankly silly comment is unfortunately not the only incorrect one about the nature of the Ark.  In an earlier scene, Brody says that “an army which carries the Ark before it is invincible.”  Totally believable – if you know nothing of either God or Sacred Scripture.  To say that God’s Ark must fight for evil purposes is to constrain God, to render Him powerless.  Less theoretically, it is contrary to Scripture itself; for example, the capture of the Ark by the Philistines (1 Sam 4:22).  Hitler’s troops carrying the Ark would have no more success than Hopni and Phinehas did.  So while the filmmakers went to great lengths to properly capture the physical look of the Ark as described in Scripture, they blatantly ignored its reality.  And I confess as a young, ignorant Catholic watching this movie for the first time, I didn’t know much better.  How many uncatechized Christians now think of the Ark as a mystical talisman, God’s artillery, rather than as a holy and visible sign of His love for His people as He dwelt among them?

Despite Belloq’s nod to God’s reality, he shows precious little fear of Him.  That in itself is perhaps not too hard to believe; plenty of Christians today don’t seem to have any concerns about the wrath of God.  But at least the antagonist in the movie believes in God; that isn’t true of our protagonist, Indiana Jones.  In a movie about God’s Ark, he never mentions God.  What he does say is profane.  The quote at the beginning of this paper is dismissive of believers.  He pursues the Ark because “that thing is everything we got into archaeology for in the first place.” Even his language of calling the Ark of the Covenant “that thing” should strike us as offensive.  Regarding its origin, he is dismissive.  “I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus.  I’m going after a find of incredible archaeological significance.”  These words early in the movie set the perfect stage for a conversion story which never happens.  At the end of the movie, after personally witnessing the miraculous power of God, surely Indy will abandon his skepticism?  Alas, no – the film cannot challenge the audience with even a nod toward the possibility of the hero’s worldview being shaken, much less an actual conversion.  All we hear is that “the Ark is a source of unspeakable power and it has to be researched.”  Here is the folly of scientism displayed as wisdom.  The brave hero we can’t help but admire turns out to be a modern atheist for whom no evidence of the divine will ever be enough, as will be reinforced with the discovery of the Holy Grail in the third movie.

Thus one of the most entertaining movies of the last 40 years is a story of good versus evil, sort of.  The only framing of good and evil is a nationalistic one, the Nazis versus the Allies.  The good guy and the bad guy themselves (Jones and Belloq) are surprisingly similar, which the movie itself expressly points out.  Both are brave, resourceful, and obsessed with archaeology.  Both pursue the Ark for selfish reasons, and have a soft spot for the same girl.  One of the few differences between the characters seems to be that the bad guy actually believes in God and the good guy doesn’t.  Not a premise we would normally think of in a “good family movie.”

The bottom line is that I like all of these movies.  Scratch that, Star Trek – The Motion Picture is awful.  But otherwise, these are films that demonstrate the power and attractiveness of their craft.  They are the kind of movies we seek out to watch with our families, and we should be comfortable doing so.  But they are also examples of the hard truth that we can never let down the guard of our Catholic worldview, that even classic, “family movies” can propagate dangerous messages in undiscerning minds.  Perhaps we should seek out movies for our families that not only illustrate Catholic truths, but “good family movies” in which generally unrecognized errors can be exposed.  That may actually provide the better service to our loved ones.

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  1. […] his recent post on “family” films Didymus cautions us to be wary of secular or even anti-Christian elements of some very popular […]

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