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Reviews of Movies about Saints

By Gary F. Zeolla

 

A while back, TCM aired three movies about "saints." These three movies made for interesting viewing. So in this article I will review each of them. These are all older movies, as are all of the movies shown on TCM. But that's why I like them, as they don't have the explicit sex and violence or foul language of most of today's movies. And TCM airs its movies commercial free.

I am sure TCM will show these movies again sometime, and they are probably available from the wide variety of movie services around today. So a review of these movies is pertinent for the Christian looking for some family-friendly viewing.

But before getting to the reviews, let me give one caveat. I don't particularly like when the term "saint" is applied to specific people who are considered especially "holy." All believers in Christ are considered "saints" in the Bible. I address this point in the chapter on Catholicism in the Second Edition of my Scripture Workbook. However, TCM used the term "saint" to describe the three people featured in these movies, so that is why I am using it in in that sense in this article.

 

The Big Fisherman

 

"The Big Fisherman" is a 1959 movie. It was produced by Rowland V. Lee, who also produced "The Robe." I review that movie at Reviews of "Classic" Jesus Movies - Part One. But as for "The Big Fisherman" I recorded it off of TCM because the caption on my digital cable guide described it as, "A story based on Lloyd C. Douglas' s novel, which centers on Simon Peter (Howard Keel), who became one of Christ's apostles."

But when I got around to watching it later, I almost didn't watch it due to the introduction to the movie by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. He said that despite the name, the movie is not so much about Simon Peter as it is about Fara (Susan Kohner ), the made-up estranged daughter of Herod Antipas (Herbert Lom). Moreover, Ben Mankiewicz specifically said the movie was not accurate to the Bible, nor even to the novel that it was based upon. But I did go ahead and watch it, and I am glad I did. It turned out to be a very uplifting movie.

Fara is estranged from her father because her mother Arnon (Marian Seldes) caught Herod in bed with Herodias (Martha Hyder). Her mother took Fara, then about ten years old, to Arabia. There she somehow grew up to be considered to be a princess. But she always held animosity towards Herod because of what he did to her mother, and not just her, but her entire village. Several men from her village had gone to Judea to try and kill Herod, but were killed themselves instead. So after her mother's death, Fara travels to Judea herself to attempt the assassination.

But along the way, she meets up with John the Baptist (Jay Barney). When John is first shown, he is in the Jordan River preaching to a crowd. And his words are taken straight from the Bible. But only about a minute of such dialog is given. But still, that much is Biblical. But then, his encounter with Fara is pure fiction. He helps her and sends her on her way.

After that, Simon Peter is finally shown, about 45 minutes into the three hour movie. So Ben was correct that for at least the first part of the movie, it was more about Fara than Peter. But after this, both are depicted about equally.

As for the title "The Big Fisherman," I it thought was due to Peter being "big" spiritually, but it is actually due to him being big physically. The actor playing him is taller and heftier than all the other characters in the movie. And at the start of the movie, he is depicted as being a very brash, hot-tempered man. He is also depicted as being rather "anti-God." He says he believes in God, but doesn't think He concerns Himself with our day to day lives.

When he first hears about "The Nazarene," Peter just dismisses Him as being another religious fanatic. And throughout the movie, Jesus is always referred to as "The Nazarene." The name "Jesus" is never spoken, and Jesus is never actually shown. This is because, as Ben explained in his introduction, the producer considered Jesus to be "beyond the comprehension of man."

But Jesus is heard preaching, and like with John the Baptist, what He preaches is taken straight from the Bible. Through the course of the movie, at least ten minutes of such preaching is heard, including probably all of the Sermon on the Mount. So again, that much is Biblical.

But again, what is not Biblical is Fara meeting up with Peter. Peter befriends her and takes her into his home. At his home is also his mother-in-law (Beulah Bondi), who is named Hannah. Peter's mother-in-law is mentioned in the Bible as living in Peter's home, but she is not named (Luke 4:38). But what is not Biblical in the movie is Peter's wife is said to have died, while Paul specifically tells us Peter's wife was still alive and even traveled with Peter (1Cor 9:5).

Peter's employees in his fishing business are John (Brian G. Hutton) and James (Tom Troupe). But when they hear and rave about Jesus, Peter gets enraged with them and fires them and physically pushes them out. Meanwhile, Fara gets employed in Herod's palace, translating "ancient Greek scrolls." These are obviously the Septuagint, the third century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that I am currently translating myself.

The portion of the Septuagint she appears to be translating is one of the prophets, as she translates a passage about the downfall of "the evil ruler." This worries Herod as he assumes it is talking about him. Of course, the reason Fara took a job at Herod's palace was to look for a chance to assassinate him.

But eventually, Fara and Peter both hear Jesus' preaching. And this changes both of them. And their transformation and the aftermath thereof is what makes this movie uplifting. But I don't want to give away any more of the narrative, as this is where the movie really gets good.

Bottom line, "The Big Fisherman" is Biblical in that it does present several minutes of preaching by John the Baptist and Jesus that is taken straight from the Bible. And it is Biblical in the sense that it shows how Jesus can change a person. But most of the action is pure fiction. But then, the movie is based on a novel, not the Bible per se. But for its Biblical moments and uplifting storylines, I would highly recommend it. It is an exciting and heart-warming movie.

 

Francis of Assisi

 

The caption on my digital cable guide describes this movie as, "Story of the 13th-century saint, who founded the Franciscan order. " It is a 1961 film, starring Bradford Dillion as Francis of Assisi, along with Dolores Hart as Clare, a lifelong friend of Francis, and Stuart Whitman as Count Paolo of Vandria, who befriends Francis at the beginning of the movie. It is 105 minutes long.

When introducing the movie, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz says that like most saints, Francis began his life living in an unchristian fashion, a life of "wine, women, and song" as he put it. This is depicted in the film, but rather quickly.

The action really starts when soldiers come into Francis' town and draft all of the young men into the army. Francis and his new friend Paolo set out with the army. But after an initial skirmish, Francis audibly hears a "voice" telling him to turn back. He does so, but then is rather quickly arrested for desertion. But after three months in a dungeon, and after Paolo is promoted, Paolo pardons him and others in the dungeon.

After this is when Francis again audibly hears what he believes is God's voice telling him to fix the local church, which is falling apart. So he begins collecting rocks for the work from the townsfolk. He is joined by others in the work, and that is the beginning of the Franciscan order.

When one of his followers says their new order needs rules to follow, he turns to the Bible, and quotes the following three passages:

Jesus said to him, "If you desire to be perfect, be going away; sell your possessions and give to poor [people], and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! Be following Me!" (Matt 19:21).

"You* shall not acquire gold nor silver nor copper coin in your* money belt, nor a traveler's bag for [the] journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor staffs, for the laborer is worthy of his food" (Matt 10:9, 10).

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, he must deny [or, disown] himself and take up his cross and be following Me" (Matt 16:24; ALT3).

Francis summarizes these verses by saying the three tenants of the order are obedience, poverty, and chastity.

With his then 11 followers, Francis travels to Rome to get approval for the new order from the pope. At first, the pope is hesitant to sanction the order as he says its call to absolute poverty is too demanding. He says that Francis and his small band of followers might be able to follow it, but as the order grows, not everyone will be able to do so. But Francis argues that the tenant is taken straight from the Gospels, so to deny it is to deny the Bible. The pope agrees and sanctions the order. But the pope's misgivings later prove to be correct. After the order grows to over 2,000, and during Francis' absence, the order acquires property and possessions.

The reason Francis was absent was he was meeting with a Muslim sultan to try to bring peace to the Holy Land, which was then under dispute, with crusaders fighting against Muslims for control of it. Francis befriends the sultan by showing he is about peace, not war.

Upon his way back, he meets up with Paolo, who is one of the crusaders. They disagree completely over the situation, with Paolo wanting to still battle the Muslims while Francis wanting to negotiate peace.

Also contributing to the end of their friendship is Paolo wants to marry Clare. But Francis says she has told him that she "respects" Paolo but does not want to marry him. She instead wants to dedicate her life to God. And that is what happens. She joins a female order, with vows similar to the Franciscan order, including chastity.

An interesting point that Ben Mankiewicz mentions in his introduction is that a couple of years after playing Clare in this movie, Dolores Hart gave up acting and actually did become a nun. I mentioned this to my parents, and they remembered it. They said there was quite a stir at the time about why a successful actress would give it all up to become a nun. But as my mom put it, "She got the calling."

The movie ends with Francis being rather disgruntled over how his order is being corrupted, and with his eyesight and health in general failing. He retreats to solitude in a cave, with only Clare checking in on him. But it is while there that he receives the "stigmata." This term refers to the crucifixion wounds of Christ miraculously appearing on a person. He dies shortly thereafter, but in the midst of his followers, and after reconciling to Paolo.

This movie raises lots of questions that each could be entire articles in themselves. So they will just be mentioned here. The first is Francis' claim to have audibly heard the voice of God speaking to him. In the movie, his own father tells him he is crazy, and that is how most people today would probably view anyone claiming to audibly hear God speaking to them.

The second is the vow of poverty. Yes, Jesus did tell one person once, to "sell your possessions and give to poor [people]." But this is never given as a general command for all Christians to follow. And as the movie correctly depicted, maintaining a vow of poverty beyond an individual or a small group of people is very difficult.

Third, is the vow of chastity. This is a standard rule for Catholic priests, monks, and nuns. And Jesus and Paul do give it as an option. But again, it is never given as a rule that all Christians must follow.

Fourth, the Roman Catholic Church is depicted in a rather good light in this movie. But Protestants would point out that at this time the Catholic Church was rather corrupt.

Fifth, the one criticism of the Catholic Church in the movie is for the Crusades. And the movie makes it appear like the Christians are the aggressors while the Muslims are the victims, when in fact the history of violence between Christians and Muslims is much more complicated than that.

And finally, there is the claim of the stigmata. Francis was the first Catholic to have supposedly received this miraculous phenomenon, but after him, many Catholics have claimed to have received it, down to the present day. But naturalistic explanations are easily given for such claims, including for Francis himself.

But putting those potential debates aside, the movie itself is rather uplifting. It shows how God can turn a life around, making an ungodly person into a godly one, and how God can use a person dedicated to Him. So I found it to be rather enjoyable and would recommend it. Catholics would probably most enjoy it, but even my Protestant readers will benefit by it, if they can put aside the above mentioned potential debates and just enjoy watching a movie about a life dedicated to God.

 

Joan of Arc

 

The caption on my digital cable guide describes this movie as, "Ingram Bergman as the peasant who became the warrior-heroine of France. " It was made in 1948. There are two versions, an unedited version that last 145 minutes, and an edited version that is only 100 minutes long. TCM aired the unedited version. It also stars Jose' Ferrer as the Dauphin, who would become Charles VII, king of France.

The movie begins with a scene in a basilica, with a beam of light shining on a painting, and a narrator saying Joan is among the saints. The narrator explains that France is subject to England, in the process of losing the 100 year war. But the English did not count on a young maid, who would bring victory to France.

Then lengthy credits show all of the characters in the various scenes in the movie in chronological order, including the dates of the events. The narrator then says that Joan spent only 19 years on this earth, having been born in 1412. But at 16, she is hearing the voices of saints telling her she is to deliver France. And that is when the action begins.

Joan is kneeling before a statue of a saint. She then talks with her parents. Her mom tells her that her father is disturbed because he has had dreams of Joan traveling with the French army. Joan reveals that she has had such visions for the past four years. She then sets out to a distant town to meet with a French military leader, to tell him just this.

Her uncle, after much disagreement, agrees to take her there. The leader dismisses her claims as the delusions of a young maid. But then two weeks later, he shows up at her house. It seems at the same time she was talking to him, the French had suffered yet another defeat at the hands of the English. So he believes she does have some kind of divine calling, and asks her to come with him. Before leaving, she has her hair cut short and dresses as a man. She keeps the short hair and the men's clothing for the rest of her life.

It is then that Joan is taken to the Dauphin, where she tells him of her of calling to lead France to victory. After much hesitation, he agrees to let her be a "figure head" but she is not to have any authority to give military orders. She is dressed in armor and leads the army to battle. But on the way, she is offended by the gambling and swearing of the soldiers. And she orders that all such activity must stop, and that all of the soldiers are to go to confession. This is met with much resistance, but the soldiers later comply.

Joan somehow arranges a meeting with the leader of the English army. She tells him to surrender as God has delivered him into her hands. But he dismisses her claims, saying God is on England's side, while Satan is on France's side.

The parties depart and the battle begins. It is a bloody and lengthy battle of the French attacking an English fort. It is actually rather graphic violence for A TCM movie that is rated "PG." The French seem to have the upper hand, until Joan is shot with an arrow in the shoulder. The French initially retreat, but Joan convinces them that she is okay and that victory is at hand. So they restart the attack and take the fort. It is recounted that Joan then leads the French to several other victories, and is declared a heroine of France.

Meanwhile, Charles is being crowned king of France by a Catholic bishop. This is a rather lengthy scene, with the two of them practicing the coronation several times before it occurs. Charles kneels before the bishop when the Bishop places the crown on his head.

Charles then agrees to a peace truce with the English in exchange for a large sum of money. This greatly angers Joan, who says that the English were on the run, and that France should continue the war to full victory. This disagreement is the turning point in Joan's relationship with the French leadership.

This is also where the story gets a little confusing, as it is hard to tell who are the French and who are the English. There is also a traitorous group of French involved known as the Burgundians. But the short of it is Joan is taken captive and charged with heresy. She is tried before a court of both French and English military officials and Catholic clerics, including a bishop.

She confirms that she has been hearing voices since she was 13, and claims these are the voices of saints. She even claims to have had visions of these saints. She very strongly believes this is all of God, and that she must continue to obey the voices. But the bishop declares that her voices are of the devil, and that she is a heretic and a sorcerer. The trial is rather a kangaroo court. Person after person makes charges against her, with her given little chance to defend herself. She is declared worthy of death, but since she is considered a heroine by the people, a campaign is begun to turn the people against her so they will not revolt when she is executed.

She is being kept in a male prison. At one point, she is almost raped by a male guard. This leads to her being willing to submit to the bishop, so she will be moved to a female prison. But she is still taken back to the male prison, but is told to put on a dress. She refuses, and that seems to be final straw. She is then publically burned at the stake.

The movie raises several disturbing questions. First, as with Francis, is the claim to hear voices. Again, today, this would be a sign of a mental disturbance. But unlike Francis, Joan is told by her voices to go to war. And the idea of God or saints telling someone to go to war against others is very disturbing. In the Old Testament, there are many cases of God speaking to people and telling them to go to battle against an enemy. But such seems totally out of place for followers of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

At one point, after the victory at the fort, Joan seems to realize the discrepancy. She is remorseful over all of the loss of lives on both sides. But what did she expect? She was leading soldiers into war, and people die in wars. In fact, the military commanders tell her that they have won a great victory due to her, and that she should be rejoicing, and she should not be mourning the deaths of their enemies. But Joan says God loves both the French and the English. But that does not keep her from leading the French on several more military battles against the English.

Another important detail is the coronation of Charles VII by a cardinal of the Catholic Church. This shows the unification of church and state that was common at the time, or more specifically, how the Catholic Church held sway over secular matters. But that is a concept totally foreign to American ideals today.

And the trial of Joan showed the corruption of the Catholic Church of the time. Joan truly was railroaded into being declared guilty. And being executed for heresy and sorcery is something that today would be totally abhorrent to most Americans. The Catholic Church realized this problem when 25 years later it declared Joan to be innocent and pronounced her a martyr. She was canonized as a saint in 1920. But those points are not mentioned in the movie. It just ends with Joan's execution. I learned them by reading Wikipedia.

In any case, it seems strange how the Catholic Church can canonize two people as different as Joan and Francis. Francis was a man of peace, while Joan was a woman of war. And, as a Protestant, I must reiterate that the whole idea of declaring certain people to be saints is unbiblical. It is especially unbiblical, not to mention disturbing, to have departed saints talking to people telling them to kill other people. Far too many evils have been committed by people claiming that voices told them to commit the wicked acts.

As for the movie itself, the full unedited version is rather long and tedious. Except for the battle scene, there is a lot of talking and confusing events. I did not find it very entertaining, but then, that could be because I was disturbed by the preceding points.

Now the depiction of Joan's strong faith, even in the face of execution, could be considered uplifting. But her faith seemed more to be in her "voices" than in God per se. So even that point I did not find inspiring, but rather disturbing. So I would only recommend this movie for someone wanting to know more about the story of Joan of Arc.

 

Note: Some of the details for these reviews are taken from the respective Wikipedia articles and TCM's Web site.

Reviews of Movies about Saints. Copyright by Gary F. Zeolla (www.zeolla.org), 2013.

 

The above article originally appeared in the free Darkness to Light newsletter.
It was posted on this Web site October 26, 2013.

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