Favorite Religious Movies

I don’t much care for biblical epics. I think I must have seen every one of them that came out in the 1950s on the big screen (where they belong) from The Robe in 1951 to The Story of Ruth in 1960. I saw Solomon and Sheba the week after Christmas in 1959, about a month after seeing Ben-Hur.

There is one biblical epic you owe it to yourself to see: the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille The King of Kings. Not only does it represent the acme of silent movie making with gorgeous black and white photography and fabulous lighting, it’s probably one of the most influential movies ever made. For an idea of how influential consider this:

Lastly there is Cecil B. DeMille’s “The King of Kings,” the spiritual predecessor to “Jesus.” Its viewership was estimated at over 800 million people by 1959. Because it was produced as a silent film, Protestant and Catholic missionaries alike were able to use it for decades to share the Gospel with non-English-speaking peoples. According to DeMille’s autobiography, during the Korean War Madame Chiang Kai-shek sent an emissary to DeMille seeking a copy of the film to show in P.O.W. camps.

The most powerful story related by DeMille about the influence of “The King of Kings” involved a Polish man named William E. Wallner. Living in Danzig (today Gdansk), Wallner saw “The King of Kings” in 1928. Greatly moved, he decided to devote his life to Christian ministry.

By 1939, Wallner was leading a Lutheran parish in Prague. Shortly after Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, a doctor in Wallner’s parish was sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Wallner shared with DeMille how the doctor, a Jewish convert to Christianity, encouraged his fellow prisoners “to die bravely, with faith in their hearts.” As a result, the doctor became a target of Gestapo officers.

Although struck with an iron rod until one of his arms had to be amputated, the doctor would not be quieted. Finally, as DeMille’s autobiography recounts, “one Gestapo officer beat the doctor’s head against a stone wall until blood was streaming down his face.” Holding a mirror before the doctor, the Gestapo officer sneered: “Take a look at yourself. Now you look like your Jewish Christ.”

Lifting his remaining hand up, the doctor exclaimed, “Lord [Jesus], never in my life have I received such honor—to resemble You.” Those would be his last words on Earth.

Distraught by the doctor’s proclamation, the Gestapo officer sought out Wallner that night. “Could Pastor Wallner help him, free him from the terrible burden of his guilt?”

After praying with him, Wallner advised, “Perhaps God let you kill that good man to bring you to the foot of the Cross, where you can help others.” The Gestapo officer returned to the concentration camp. And through the aid of Wallner and the Czech underground, he worked to free many Jews over the years that followed.

On July 30, 1957, Wallner met with DeMille and spoke about the impact “The King of Kings” had on his life and all who came in contact with him. Wallner ended his account to DeMille by declaring: “If it were not for ‘The King of Kings,’ I would not be a Lutheran pastor, and 350 Jewish children would have died in the ditches.”

However, there are religious pictures that I like and some that I love. They are mostly small pictures and stories about changing hearts.

So, for example, I think that Lilies of the Field is a brilliant picture. If you’ve never seen it Sidney Poitier plays an itinerant handyman who’s conned by a group of German nuns in the desert of the American Southwest into building a chapel for them. The great thing about the picture is the way it shows the hand of God working in human hearts. At the end of the picture every single person in it has changed for the better.

I love Big Fish. You might not think of it as a religious picture but, indeed, it is. The world is not what you think it is. It is bigger and grander than you can imagine and the stories that the old people told you are true. Not only is it Fellini-esque but I find it very touching.

Speaking of the world being different from what you think it is, I should mention two pictures written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan: Wide Awake and Signs. Wide Awake is a nice little picture you should seek out if you’ve got the chance. It was made just before The Sixth Sense. I know that fifth graders don’t talk the way the main character does at the end of the movie but it’s a great speech anyway.

I’m not sure what I can tell you about Signs. It’s an alien invasion movie. It’s a movie about faith lost and found. I think it’s one of Mel Gibson’s best acting jobs. Right after The Year of Living Dangerously. Signs is corny but, then, I’m pretty corny. I think it would have been better if he had never shown the aliens just as Tourneur’s Mark of the Demon would have been better if they’d never shown the demon (as Tourneur intended—the studio tacked it on). I think that everything that Shyamalan has made since Signs is eminently forgettable but his first three or four pictures should secure him at least a footnote.

Check out Black Narcissus. Like many of Michael Powell’s pictures it’s a pretty scary picture. Not scary as in blood and gore and things that go bump in the night but scary as in the conflicts in human hearts can be pretty frightening. I also love the way that Black Narcissus looks. That glorious,vivid, surreal British Technicolor.

Now that I mention Michael Powell, check out A Matter of Life and Death, one of my favorite pictures of any kind. A religious movie, but not in any conventional sense.

Also Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Pretty much everything you need to know about Shinto.

And Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. Probably the movie he’ll be remembered for.


I forgot to mention Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown. Joel McCrea plays a preacher in the American Southwest in the 19th century. Great cast. Good story. Magnificent scene and speech near the end of the picture.

12 comments… add one
  • Brett Link

    I’m divided on Signs. Some of the dialogue is just wincingly painful to listen to, and the aliens don’t make any sense (they’re allergic to water and invade a planet full of it), but I do generally enjoy the film when I watch it.

    Also Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Pretty much everything you need to know about Shinto.

    That movie is a thing of beauty, not to mention one of the most uplifting movies I’ve ever seen. You just feel good after watching it.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Difficult category. A few months ago I saw the Secret of Kells, an animated theoretical backstory on the making of the Book of Kells. Worth seeing.

    Probably watching Prince Caspian this weekend, which I expect to be fine, but I share Tolkien’s criticism of blatant allegory (for which Pullman’s anecdote is worse than the disease). Is LOTR religious?

    It’s a Wonderful Life
    A Man for All Seasons

    The Name of the Rose? I watched this when it first came out, read the novel about ten years later, and mean to see it again sometime to see how it stands up.

    Unforgiven? Pale Rider? A few Eastwood westerns have a pretty clear religious thread in them.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Oops, I meant I’m watching The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

  • The Lord of the Rings books are rather clearly religious, Frodo a Christ figure. I think the movies are somewhat less so.

  • Maxwell James Link

    Depends on how you define religion. I think of most of Hitchcock’s (who is my favorite filmmaker) movies as religious, but they’re not explicitly concerned with religious themes. Same with Eric Rohmer’s movies. By contrast, the Coen’s movie often have pretty clear religious themes, especially recently, but they themselves worship only the cinema as far as I can tell.

    It’s impossible to find nowadays, but To Sleep with Anger is a terrific and subtly religious movie.

    I’d put Night of the Hunter on the list. I might put Crossing Delancey, too, depending on my mood.

    I love Spirited Away, but don’t know if I agree about how religious it is. I like Big Fish a lot too. On the other hand I think Life is Beautiful is a terrible, awful, very bad film.

    I’d probably put Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket on the top of the list. And most of his other movies as well.

    Finally, no list of religious movies is complete without Groundhog Day.

    All that said, I’m not exactly a believer, so take this with however much salt you like.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Frodo? I thought Gandalf was the Christ figure, being resurrected and all. Frodo seems more like the poor human who is tempted and fails (three times), yet is saved by the loving hand of providence at the end.

    BTW/ I think you might have meant either “Curse of the Demon” or “Night of the Demon” unless there is another variant I need to be on the look out for. (I’ve not seen any, but want to)

  • PD Shaw Link

    I tried to rewatch the Greatest Story Ever Told a few months ago, and couldn’t get too far into it. The celebrity casting was a bit excessive. When I first watched this, I probably didn’t recognize any of these people. I wondered if was filmed today, we would have George Clooney and Julia Roberts as Joseph and Mary. Brad Pitt as Pontius Pilate?

  • Yes, Curse of the Demon, although I’m practically sure I’ve seen it shown as Mark of the Demon.

    Groundhog Day is very Buddhist in its way. I like it very much.

    Crossing Delancey is a lovely little picture and, yes, I think it’s quite religious.

  • sam Link

    I’ve always liked The Keys of the Kingdom. Saw La Strada again the other day. It struck me the first time I saw it as a distinctly religious movie. Still does. Black Orpheus is a religious movie — if you’re a pagan.

  • Icepick Link

    When I read the line, “They are mostly small pictures and stories about changing hearts,” I immediately thought of Big Fish. And there it was a couple of paragraphs later….

    Speaking of changing hearts, that’s also how I view American Graffiti. The key scene (to me) has always been when Curt is leaving the radio station. He looks back and realizes that he HAD been speaking to Wolfman Jack the whole time. It puts everything in a new light, especially what the Wolfman had told him about getting his butt out of town and into college.

    And speaking of Curse of the Demon, I remember reading about it in some fan magazine when I was a kid. It might have been Fangoria, but it was definitely a magazine in that tradition. Even the fan-boys thought that CotD would have been better without showing the monster at the end.

  • Icepick Link

    I have to disagree about Signs. The concept behind the aliens was so stupid (see Brett’s comment above) that it ruined even the good parts. (MNS still had the power to make people jump out of their seats for that movie. I remember sitting in a theatre and the whole audience jumping with the first glimpse of an alien – all it did was walk between some bushes and a wall.) Unbreakable was the last decent movie he did.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I would treat the DeMille story of the Lutheran minister with a certain amount of skepticism. During the Holocaust Lutherans and Roman Catholics were neck and neck in their devotion to exterminating Jews. The Nazis continued to pay support to the churches and the churches carefully turned a blind eye.

    Afterward — after it belatedly dawned on these men of God that they had not only encountered “satan” but served his interests enthusiastically — there were a lot of stories concocted.

    The Righteous Among the Nations were indeed sometimes Christian clergy, and they deserve every honor. More often they were ordinary people who somehow managed to look past centuries of Christian hatred and relentless indoctrination and see Jews as human beings.

    I hope this story is true in substance. But it rings false to me. “If it were not for ‘The King of Kings,’ I would not be a Lutheran pastor, and 350 Jewish children would have died in the ditches.” Frankly I find that statement nauseatingly smug and self-serving. And if this man was one of the righteous I hope he never said any such thing.

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