It's widely recognized that Hollywood is typically unsympathetic to religion. That may not always have been true — think, among many examples, of such films as "The Song of Bernadette" (1943), "Going My Way" (1944), "Joan of Arc" (1948) and "Ben-Hur" (1959) — but, in recent films and television shows, religious believers are commonly portrayed as hypocrites, lunatics, joyless fanatics and/or oppressive tyrants.
There are, however, more than a few Hollywood films that have treated religious faith positively, and this column will highlight six of them.
Angelina Jolie's 2014 film "Unbroken" (PG-13) is based on Laura Hillenbrand's astonishing 2010 biography of Louis Zamperini, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption." The movie covers his success as an Olympic athlete, his near death from a bomber crash into the sea, his survival of 47 days adrift on a raft in the Pacific Ocean and his excruciating ordeal in Japanese prison camps. But it omits the post-war Christian conversion that, in a very real sense, saved Zamperini's life — the "redemption" that appears in Laura Hillenbrand's title and that, for many readers, is the most powerful part of her remarkably powerful book.
"The Scarlet and the Black" (1983, not rated) is a made-for-television film. Based on J.P. Gallagher's 1967 book "The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican," it stars Gregory Peck as Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, Sir John Gielgud as Pope Pius XII and Christopher Plummer as SS commander Herbert Kappler, head of the Nazi police in occupied Rome. It's based on real history.
The Irish-born O'Flaherty, a priest and Vatican official, ran an underground operation that historians credit with saving approximately 6,500 Jews and downed Allied pilots from Nazi capture. "The Scarlet and the Black" tells the exciting story of O'Flaherty's cat-and-mouse game with Lt. Col. Kappler, who, though he knew what the priest was doing, couldn't arrest or kill him because of the Vatican's status as an independent but neutral city-state. However, a still more amazing true story appears at its conclusion: Father O'Flaherty's role in Kappler's ultimate redemption.
Sir Thomas More was considerably more ambiguous in real life, but, in Robert Bolt's 1966 screenplay "A Man for All Seasons" (based upon Bolt's identically-titled 1960 stage play and not rated), More (who is now a canonized Roman Catholic saint) surely ranks among the most inspiring heroes ever filmed. Bolt also wrote the screenplay for "The Mission" (1986, PG), which stars Jeremy Irons, Aidan Quinn and Liam Neeson, among others. A visually beautiful film inspired by the tragic history of the Jesuit missions in 18th-century Paraguay, "The Mission" is another tale of redemption — the repentance of a mercenary and slave trader named Rodrigo Mendoza (portrayed by Robert De Niro).
The famous repentant slave trader John Newton is a supporting character (played by Albert Finney) in the 2006 film that bears the title of his most famous hymn, "Amazing Grace" (PG). (The movie also includes current superstar Benedict Cumberbatch as English Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger.) But, as it should be, the movie's focus is on the English politician William Wilberforce, whose conversion to Evangelical Christianity eventually impelled him to lead the successful fight to abolish the English slave trade.
Two very recent films are also worthy of special mention in this context:
Mel Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge" (2016, R) stars Andrew Garfield as the devout Seventh-Day Adventist and pacifist Desmond Doss, who, because of his heroic actions as a medic during the World War II Battle of Okinawa, became the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. It's a harrowing film. The battle scenes are grimly realistic — as they must be, in order to allow the light of Desmond Doss's heroism to shine as clearly as possible against the darkness of human evil. As inspiring as Doss' physical courage, however, is his moral courage in the face of mockery and bitter derision as he resolutely maintains his principles.
Andrew Garfield also stars in Martin Scorsese's "Silence" (2016, R), which brings to the screen the late Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo's difficult but rewarding 1966 novel bearing the same title. Garfield's Portuguese Jesuit Father Sebastiao Rodrigues enters 17th-century Japan during a time when Japanese Christians, and the priests who sought to serve them, were being subjected to vicious and deadly persecution. Believers watching "Silence" will be challenged and inspired by its story.