09/20/2012 08:24 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

God In Hollywood: A History

This just came in from one of my HuffPost readers:
"I'm fascinated by the upcoming trend in movies: Religion! Seems that Will Smith will be starring in "Cain & Abel"...Russell Crowe will play "Noah" for director Darren Aronofsky...and "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary is scripting a new Paul Verhoeven film about Jesus. ("Robo-Messiah," anyone?) Even Warner Bros. is getting into the act with "Pontius Pilate"--a project that Nikki Fink's website says reads "like a Biblical era Twilight Zone episode." Is this a sign of the End Times?"

Dear Reader:

None of this is a sign of anything new. Always there have been movies--in fact, a lot of them--labeled religious. As early as 1912 a portrayal of Jesus appeared in a film "From the Manger to the Cross." Film icon D.W. Griffith showed us Jesus in his 1916 epic "Intolerance." Mary Pickford, the most popular actress of her day, appeared in "Sparrows" in 1926. Mama Mollie (Pickford) is seen holding a sick child in her arms. Falling asleep, she does not see Jesus stride in, lift the dying child, and depart. Mama Mollie awakens to find the child in her lap is dead. As if in a dream, she smiles thankfully.

In that same year audiences saw Cecil B. DeMille's classic "King of Kings" with actor H. B. Warner playing Jesus, although he was never seen in closeups.

In the years that followed religious films basically appeared in four different categories. First came movies that portrayed Jesus. Next came spectaculars like "The Ten Commandments," "David and Bathsheba," "Samson and Delilah," "The Silver Chalice," "The Robe," "The Miracle of Fatima," "Demetrius and the Gladiator," and "The Left Hand of God." Next came a limited range of experimental dramas--often daring and off-beat--including "The Fugitive" and "Edge of Doom." Frequently referred to as the finest religious film of them all is the French "Monsieur Vincent." Critics applauded its absence of pious platitudes or sentimentality.

The fourth category contains portrayal of clergy and other religious figures. Perhaps the best of these was Karl Malden's portrayal of a fighting social activist priest in "On the Waterfront" in 1954. A decade earlier, "Going My Way" memorably showed Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as two priests who share an unforgettable scene witlh a music box that holds a bottle of Irish whiskey. Spencer Tracy was immortalized by his role as Father Flanagan in 1938's "Boys' Town." On the distaff side, Ingrid Bergman starred as a screen nun in "The Bells of St. Mary's," Jennifer Jones won an Oscar for "Song of Bernadette," and Deborah Kerr played nuns in both "Black Narcissus" and "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison."

Not all religious films drew big grosses or good reviews. In 1953 The New Yorker's critic chided actor Montgomery Clift for his priest portrayal in "I Confess." It said he was "ill-advised to portray the priest as a sort of bemused juvenile, plainly too abstracted to lead one lamb, let alone a flock."

Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" is likely the most conspicuous religious film of all time. It depicts the life of Moses and thel biblical event of the Exodus. As a young man I worked in the motion picture industry in Hollywood before entering a theological seminary in 1951. I remember a casual, easygoing friendship with DeMille. He was 75, I was 35. I regarded him as an elder, a friendly but somehow remote and legendary figure. Because I had departed Hollywood and was now a student in a seminary, he was particularly interested in my reaction to his film. He also made the assumption that it would be favorable. So lhe invited me to the New York premiere of "Thel Ten Commandments" in order to review the picture. More, he asked me to dinner in a Gotham restaurant preceding the premiere. I felt that my objectivity in writing a revew might be compromised if I were to receive this hospitality. So I declined the dinner.

What I particularly remember is that honesty required me to write an unfavorable review of "The Ten Commandments." It stunned me that DeMille portrayed God's actions as, in fact, simply how DeMille saw and interpreted them. I felt strongly that DeMille simlplistically superimposed his own view in a minefield of creative controversy that instead required mutually serious and honest debate. I never saw DeMille again after my review was published. I felt we were engaged in a serious debate about incredibly significant issues which, in fact, still continue to reverberate today. What I'm saying is that I felt the matter was not in any sense meant to be personal.

So it came as a shock just the other day when I came across a photograph of DeMille and myself that was taken during the filming of "The Ten Commandments." We're standing together. Looking at it now, I wonder: were we able to communicate as human beings? Frankly, I don't know. He was terriblly serious about his business which was making movies. Certainly, he did it as well as anyone. Frankly, I was terribly serious about my life and work, too. I was trying to be responsible. An issue like "The Ten Commandments" mattered a lot to me. After all, it was a film that would be seen by millions of people around the world. It would have a lasting effect on issues of faith in incalculable ways.

All of us leave an epitaph of one sort or another after we depart. DeMille was enabled to bequeath a special kind. In the classic film "Sunset Boulevard" he portrayed himself--a world famous film director. He's at work on a big film in the Hollywood studio where he's worked for years. On a particular day a fading former star, played by Gloria Swanson, visits the set. As the host--and as someone who understands her situation and feelings--DeMille is warm, caring, generous., and outgoing. That's how I choose to remember him.