The 2016 summer movie season has seen more than its share of critical and box-office disappointments, and more than its share of controversy. By far the bitterest commotion was over Paul Feig’s sex-swapped remake of Ghostbusters: Advance opposition was spiked with misogyny and racism, while advocates defended Feig’s attention to actresses and female viewers in a Hollywood landscape still heavily skewed toward men.
In comparison, controversy over Warner Bros’ The Legend of Tarzan was relatively muted, mostly limited to critical think pieces indicting the film and the larger Tarzan mythos for racist, sexist, and colonial entanglements.
Issues of representation and diversity in Hollywood films have gotten enough media attention to ensure that most people, whatever they think of their applicability in particular cases or of the politics behind the discussion, are at least somewhat aware of such concerns and questions.
Yet at least one area of representation is disproportionately ignored: how Hollywood deals with religious belief and identity.
Not one of the articles I read on questions of racism and sexism in The Legend of Tarzan noted that the villain, played by Christoph Waltz, is never without a rosary in his hand, not as an aid to prayer, but as a bizarrely weaponized token that he whips about with the precision of a fetishistic Indiana Jones, immobilizing or even strangling victims with it.
Waltz’s villain explains to Margot Robbie’s Jane — whom he has taken captive, and whose desperate attack he easily thwarts with the beaded weapon — that the rosary (made of “Madagascar spider silk”) was a gift to him at the age of nine from his priest. “You must have been close to your priest,” Jane smirks in an apparent pedophile priest joke.
The Legend of Tarzan is not the first American film to link the rosary or Marian devotion with murderous violence. Wanted (2008), starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie, features a murderous villain called “the Butcher” who wears T-shirt with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Outside the Hollywood mainstream, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009) includes a rosary-brandishing killer who sees his deadly work as service to God.
Going further back, an early scene in Road to Perdition (2002) introduces Tom Hanks’ Irish Catholic hitman packing a rosary and an automatic. Here the juxtaposition evokes the contradiction or cognitive dissonance of criminal violence and religious identity combined in one character, a theme more extensively explored in Gangs of New York (2002) and The Godfather (1973).
In Tarzan, it comes off more like “Catholic = creepy.” It’s not necessarily a big thing, but it’s definitely a thing.
In Tarzan’s defense, it can be argued that while using a rosary as a weapon of physical violence rather than spiritual warfare may be sacrilegious, villainous characters do bad things. On the other hand, Jane’s heroine status validates her anti-Catholic joke: The audience is meant to laugh with her at creepy priests.
A few weeks ago the Hollywood Reporter did a story on a poll commissioned by the producers of God’s Not Dead 2 which found that one-third of Republicans say Hollywood generally portrays Christianity negatively, compared to only 5 percent of Democrats.
The story touched on the perceptions, but the substantial topic of Hollywood portrayals (or non-portrayals) of Christian characters, culture, and identity remains neglected.
Religion-themed violence and villainy in Hollywood films are sometimes juxtaposed with religious vocations. Take the ecclesiastical killers in Ron Howard’s Dan Brown adaptations starring Tom Hanks: Paul Bettany’s albino monk assassin in The Da Vinci Code (2006); Ewan McGregor’s Vatican camerlengo in Angels and Demons (2009), murdering the pope and arranging for the murders of prominent cardinals in a plot to become pope.
Another ecclesiastical villain crops up in another pulp adaptation, V for Vendetta (2006): a depraved bishop who is complicit in Mengele-like human experiments and who indulges a sexual penchant for very young girls.
Few if any Hollywood films in the last twenty years or more have managed more anti-Catholic punch than Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). “Every Catholic in England is a potential assassin,” we are told; a Jesuit priest is an actual assassin; and the villain is a manically devout, rosary-clutching, prayer-muttering, cross-bedecked Philip II of Spain.
The climax, as the English fleet destroys the Spanish Armada, is a visual celebration of the iconography of Catholicism in ruins: a rosary floating amid burning flotsam, a large cross sinking beneath the waves. Despite all this, only a few mainstream critics commented on the film’s orgy of anti-Catholicism.
Christian villainy in Hollywood movies isn’t always Catholic. Another “The Legend of…” film, the Antonio Banderas / Catherine Zeta Jones sequel The Legend of Zorro (2005), features a racist killer with a Protestant bent. His cheek is marked with a cross-shaped scar, and he quotes scripture, slings a pair of guns he calls “salvation and damnation,” and considers murdering Latinos to be “doing the Lord’s work.”
That film also posits an ancient Christian secret society called the Knights of Aragon — a sort of Dan Brownish cross between the Illuminati and the Knights Templar, presumably Catholic — secretly ruling Europe and plotting to do the same in America. On the other hand, there are some positive Catholic themes, including a heroic priest and a scene with Banderas’ hero praying in a church before a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
Two years after The Legend of Zorro came another Western with a scripture-quoting killer wielding a “religious” gun: Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade in the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Not only is Wade’s revolver nicknamed “The Hand of God,” there’s a crucifix on the handle. Wade is particularly partial to quoting Proverbs. None of these religious themes are present in the original 1957 3:10 to Yuma.
Wade, though, is a different sort of villain, so much larger than life that his religious affinities aren’t an indictment of himself, but of the hypocrisies of the petty, law-abiding men he defies. In that respect he is like the villain in an older remake of another 1960s film: Martin Scorsese’s 1991 Cape Fear, with Robert De Niro as Max Cady.
In that film the sacred iconography covers the antihero’s body, which is covered with religious tattoos, the most striking of which is an immense cross (often wrongly called a crucifix) on his back, with “Truth” (symbolized by a Bible) and “Justice” (symbolized by a sword) weighed in balance scales.
Other religious killers in 1990s movies include the perpetrators of Catholic-themed killings in Seven (1995) and The Glimmer Man (1996), whose murders moralistically follow a kind of homiletic or catechetical pattern.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) features a corrupt Protestant prison warden who wears a cross on his lapel and glibly quotes the Bible while orchestrating the murder of a prisoner in order to keep the protagonist wrongly imprisoned and maintain his money-laundering operation.
These are just examples of Hollywood movies in which Catholic or Christian faith or iconography is linked to murderous violence or outright villainy, not more conventional examples of negative depictions of faith or religion in movies like Saved! (2004), King Arthur (2004), The Missing (2003), or The Fighting Temptations (2003).
That’s a pretty daunting survey of the last 25 years.
Part 2: What about the positive side of the ledger?
Here is a sobering question: Has there been a single substantial, positive depiction of Catholic faith or identity in a major Hollywood non-horror film in the last 10 or 15 years?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.