What do a musical, a mob movie, and a sports movie have in common? All of them are films every Christian ought to see. This week, we take a look at five cinematic classics that deserve a place on the discerning moviegoer’s shortlist.
In recent years, the market explosion of Christian film has sparked much debate over how Christians should engage with the movies. On the one hand, evangelicals understandably seek a family-friendly, faith-affirming alternative to mainstream Hollywood fare. On the other hand, such films have been criticized for conveying their message at the expense of artistic quality. But is it even possible to create a film that is at once deeply religious and artistically excellent? We here at Summit think so, and we’d like to prove it to you with five examples.
It’s a Wonderful Life
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
While this movie’s portrayal of angels is not exactly biblical, and while it features no gospel presentation or salvation moment, it is a profoundly redemptive story. Its hero is a good man at the end of his rope, a man who has watched all his dreams die so he could give back to others. Facing the prospect of financial and legal ruin, he cries out to God for help. The answer is unlike anything he could have imagined.
Director Frank Capra was hesitant when he first pitched the script to lead actor Jimmy Stewart, because the premise sounded so corny on paper. But Stewart immediately jumped on board, and the rest is history. The actor famously broke down into actual tears when filming George Bailey’s desperate prayer. In his words, “I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn.” Stewart was a devout Presbyterian, while Capra was a devout Catholic. Their collaboration provides a model of robust ecumenism that today’s Christian filmmakers could learn from.
It’s a Wonderful Life has become a beloved classic for its compassion and for its powerful statement about the value of human life. By allowing its main character to suffer and be flawed, it serves as a poignant reminder that the fruit of our labors may not always be easy to see, and the road of life may not always be easy to walk. Of course, that just makes the grace the film ultimately offers all the sweeter.
Fiddler on the Roof
“I know, I know, we are your chosen people. But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
It is impossible to understand the Christian faith without understanding something of the Jewish faith. Fiddler on the Roof gives you a guided tour, through the eyes of a poor Russian milkman with five unwed daughters. His sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad running commentary reveals the blessing and the burden of being God’s chosen people. Now and again, we catch brief glimpses of the mysterious fiddler in the film’s title, who never speaks and never seems quite real. As he keeps his balance, so the Jews keep theirs.
But how do they achieve this feat? Tevye the milkman gives us the answer in one word: tradition! This film chronicles the unraveling of that tradition in microcosm, as forces beyond Tevye’s control turn his world upside down. Musical, comedy, romance and political drama all in one, it clocks in at an epic 3.5 hours, offering a rich feast for the eyes and ears of any viewer. But it should strike a special chord with Christians who have a heart for the Jewish people. We come to love their resilience, their stubbornness, their fierce intelligence and wry wit. We see at once how God could have lost all patience with them, and how He could have wept for them.
A Man for All Seasons
“When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands, like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
Originally a play, this period piece tells the true story of Sir Thomas More, a Catholic statesman who became a martyr when he refused to sanction King Henry VIII’s illicit divorce. Now, you might assume that a play about a 16th-century saint must be written by a Christian. Not A Man for All Seasons. As playwright Robert Bolt explained, he was drawn to More’s story despite his own atheism. The integrity of this brilliant, stubborn, deeply Catholic lawyer commanded his attention and respect. And through his play, it commands ours.
Using nearly all the actors from the original stage production, the film is shot as sparely as possible. The dialogue — by turns humorous, heartbreaking, and chilling — speaks for itself with no music to underscore it. Thomas More’s lines in the play blend material from his real-life letters with Bolt’s inspired additions. As the stakes grow progressively higher, he must explain to his friends and even his own family why he cannot take an oath legitimizing the king’s authority to re-marry. To them, it’s just words on a page. To More, it is the difference between saving or damning his own soul. Though Bolt did not share More’s faith, he captures his conviction with brilliant clarity. Where other atheists might dismiss his execution as a grisly footnote of history, Bolt has turned it into a profound tale of self and conscience that still has the power to challenge viewers today.
On the Waterfront
“Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.”
Speaking of that conscience stuff, here’s a film that in many ways couldn’t be more different from A Man for All Seasons, yet shares some of its deepest themes. We turn from the corruption of an English monarchy to the corruption of an American waterfront union. Based on a true crime expose, it tells the story of how the mob exploited and cowed New Jersey’s longshoremen in the 1940s. The main character is a slow-witted but streetwise young punk named Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), whose eyewitness testimony could put the union boss away for murder. But he’s not exactly running to the nearest cop, and he defies you to blame him for it. Fortunately for Terry’s soul, there’s a priest who has something to say about that.
For Christian viewers, On the Waterfront is an especially welcome reminder of a time when the church and its clergy had a voice in Hollywood. Based on a real priest who fought waterfront corruption, the character of Father Barry is tough, fearless and relentless in his pursuit of the truth. In one scene, he preaches over the body of one of the mob’s victims. When they tell him to “go back to church,” he is ready with an answer: “Boys, this is my church. And if you think Christ isn’t down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another thought coming.” (Watch the scene here.) Meanwhile, he challenges young Terry to stand up and be counted, even if it costs him his life.
Besides its no-holds-barred Christian content, this film offers some of the most memorable performances and dialogue in film history. It should be required viewing, not only for every Christian, but for every American.
Chariots of Fire
“I believe that God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
Many of you probably know the story of Eric Liddell. A Scottish Olympic athlete and devout Presbyterian, he refused to race on a Sunday, even though its 100-meter dash offered his best chance of placing for the British team. Chariots of Fire juxtaposes Liddell’s story with the story of his Jewish teammate, Harold Abrahams. It is as much a character study as it is a sports movie, baring the souls of these two men for us as we learn what drives them to run.
The experience of watching this film is difficult to sum up on paper. Its cinematography and music combine to form moments of aching beauty and deep joy that defy description. Perhaps it is best described as a celebration — of the glory of youth, of clean sport, of friendship between men. Most of all, it is a celebration of a gift. For Christians, it is a challenge to the hierarchy of vocation that some of us are tempted to create. Liddell believed he brought as much glory to God by running a good race as he would by later becoming a missionary to China. His story reminds us that whatever our skill, God is glorified through it. As Liddell’s father puts it in the film, “You can praise God by peeling a spud, if you peel it to perfection.”
For a taste of what makes Chariots so compelling, watch this clip of Liddell’s come-from-behind performance in a nail-biting qualifier sprint (while Abrahams watches from the crowd). Then go watch the whole thing. For any Christian, it is a must-see. For any non-Christian, it is still a must-see.