Excerpt from
Patterns of Bias in Motion Picture Content:
by John W. Cones

Religious Bias

Especially Christianity--Contemporary Hollywood motion pictures also clearly portray a general anti-religious slant, although early films took a more supportive approach. As Neal Gabler points out in his book An Empire of Their Own, ". . . the Jewish immigrants who founded the film business wanted more than wealth and power: they felt a powerful craving for acceptance as mainstream Americans . . . With this goal in mind, the films of Hollywood's Golden Era invariably portrayed clergymen in a sympathetic light . . . " In more recent years however, ". . . Hollywood has swung to the opposite extreme--presenting a view of the clergy that is every bit as one-sided in its cynicism and hostility as the old treatment may have been idealized . . . " Although, some have suggested that a drastic change occurred in Hollywood following the final demise of the Production Code in 1968, my own review of Hollywood films about religion indicate that prior to 1968, at least two parallel approaches to religious topics were represented, one sympathetic to mainstream religious beliefs (although limited to biblical stories), the other antagonistic. The thing that appears to have changed, is that after 1968, the films that are antagonistic to religion clearly predominate.

That year, What's That Knocking at My Door? (1968) starred Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune, Anne Collette in the story of ". . . a young Italian Catholic whose 'Madonna complex' and rigid views on sexuality prevent him from making a commitment with his girlfriend, who'd been the victim of a rape." Martin Scorsese directed. Also, in 1968, Rosemary's Baby starred Mia Farrow as an ". . . innocent wife sold by her ambitious husband to a cult of devil-worshippers." Roman Polanski directed.

Then in 1970 The Ballad of Cable Hogue featured Stella Stevens as a prostitute who takes up with Jason Robards, " . . . a worn-out prospector who talks to God . . . " and David Warner as " . . . a disturbed preacher." Marjoe (1972) was a " . . . documentary about Marjoe Gorner, a charismatic former child prodigy on the evangelist revival circuit." Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith directed. As we shall see, the fundamentalist Christian evangelists have been a common target of Hollywood. Marjoe was followed by Tommy (1975) whose makers say it " . . . is an attack on the hypocrisy of organized religion." The movie tells the story of a " . . . blind deaf-mute (who becomes) . . . the pinball superstar of all time. . . but the people around him begin to commercialize on his fame . . . "

The following year, Art Linson and Joel Schumacher team up in Car Wash (1976) to provide, among other things, a satirical portrayal of a television evangelist." Another '76 feature, Carrie portrays ". . . shrill religious fanaticism" in the character of Carrie's mother, a character who has ". . . translated her own psychotic fear of sexuality into a twisted personal religion. She punishes the girl constantly, locks her in closets with statutes of a horribly bleeding Christ, and refuses to let her develop normal friendships."

That was also the year (1976) of Nasty Habits, a U.S./British production that provides an " . . . acerbic satire on Watergate set in a convent." Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed. That was followed in 1979 by John Huston's Wise Blood, a " . . . searing satire of Southern-style religion . . . " or, as Scheuer states, a film about a " . . . psychotic who preaches a gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ Without Christ." Also, in 1979, Hardcore starred George C. Scott " . . . as a Calvinist, (who) . . . searches for his runaway daughter through a trail of sex films to San Francisco. Writer-director Paul Schrader allowed Scott to be excessively violent in his quest, possibly a comment on how a man with a mission can forget his principles so quickly." Schrader was " . . . the son of strict Calvinists of Dutch-German descent . . . the director indicated he had modeled George C. Scott's character as a Calvinist father searching for his runaway porno-movie actress daughter after his own father." That same year, Stanley Kramer directed The Runner Stumbles (1979) starring Dick Van Dyke as " . . . a priest who falls in love with a spirited nun."

In KGOD (1980) Dabney Coleman " . . . turns a money-losing local TV station into a hot property selling God to the ripe-for-the-fleecing masses of Southern California." Rick Friedberg directed. Also, that year, director Gary Weis' Wholly Moses was denounced by " . . . Orthodox Rabbi Abraham Hecht . . . as 'a savage mockery of our God, Bible . . . and our teacher and prophet Moses . . . " It represented one of the few Hollywood films that attracted the public condemnation of Jewish religious leaders.

In 1981, True Confessions provides a negative portrayal of a " . . . monsignor (who) . . . isn't above rigging a church raffle so that a city councilman's daughter will win the new car." The character (played by Charles Durning) is " . . . honored as the Catholic Layman of the Year (but is actually) . . . a grafter and former pimp . . . " He is also a suspect in a murder. The film paints the church as a " . . . hiding place . . . for hypocrites and weary, defeated men." The following year, (1982) Sophie's Choice portrayed Nazi concentration camp officials who quoted Christian biblical teachings in support of what they did. Also, in 1982, Pray TV starred Ned Beatty in all his " . . . evangelical slickness and huckster charm as Reverend Freddy Stone, who spreads God's Word over the Divinity Broadcasting Company." Robert Markowitz directed.

In 1984, The Amazing Mr. X portrayed " . . . a fake spiritualist who's out to bilk a widow of her fortune with the cooperation of her scheming spouse . . . who's supposed to be dead." Beth Henley portrayed " . . . a Bible pusher in Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift (1984)." And in Footloose (1984) " . . . a student transfers into the Bible Belt and brings some big-city influences with him . . . " making the local preacher seem somewhat petty. New York city-born Herbert Ross directed.

Also in 1984, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) starred Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw in a story in " . . . which Indiana must rescue some missing children kidnapped by religious terrorists in the Orient." Stephen Spielberg directed. That same year, in Crimes of Passion (1984) Kathleen Turner is a " . . . fashion designer by day, prostitute by night . . . " She becomes involved with " . . . a deranged preacher (played by Anthony Perkins) who is obsessed with her . . . "

The following year, (1985) King David starred Richard Gere in what Steven Scheuer calls an " . . . ambitious but seriously compromised attempt to do a legitimate biblical epic without an over-reliance on spectacle or Cecil B. DeMille campiness. The film has undeniable grandeur in the first half detailing King Saul's decline. But once the contemporary acting talents of Gere surface, the sweep of the project degenerates into 'great moments form the Bible.'" Australian Bruce Beresford directed.

Also, in 1985, " . . . Catholic schoolboys run amok, chasing girls and running from authority . . . " in the Michael Dinner directed Heaven Help Us. That same year, Second Time Lucky (1985) featured Diane Franklin and Roger Wilson " . . . running around in the buff for most of the movie as reincarnations of Adam and Eve, used as pawns in a game between God and Satan." Michael Anderson directed.

One of the few exceptions to Hollywood's apparent anti-religious bias in its contemporary movies may have occurred in the film Witness (1985). The motion picture provides a sympathetic portrayal of " . . . an Amish settlement in Pennsylvania." The movie is about " . . . adults, whose lives have dignity and whose choices matter to them." American filmmaker Alan Metter returned to the more typical Hollywood handling of religious topics with Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985), a film about a " . . . shy teenager (who) must circumvent her strict papa's rules as well as the tongue-clucking admonitions of her Catholic school nuns, as she tries to dance her way onto the local dance video show."

That same year, (1985) Agnes of God featured " . . . an unbalanced nun who's accused of killing her newborn infant . . . "

In 1986, The Name of the Rose paints a picture of a dark and mysterious monastery where " . . . starving peasants wrestle for scraps of food . . . " at its base and a " . . . series of murders . . . " are taking place within. At one time or another, all of the monks in the monastery are considered suspects. According to Steven Scheuer, this 20th Century-Fox release, starring Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham and Christian Slater, " . . . recreates life among these monks and religious hysterics in the most squalid manner possible . . . " Also, in 1986, Girls' School Screamers features "[s]ix dumb-bunny women and one weird nun (who) take inventory of a haunted mansion's art treasures bequeathed to their school." John Finegan directed. That same year, (1986) The Mission starred Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons in an " . . . account of the missionary work carried on among the Indians of 18th-century South America, and the manipulative church politics that put an end to it." Roland Joffe directed.

The following year (1987) Salvation provides a " . . . glimpse at religious show biz (when a) . . . TV minister is blackmailed by an opportunist whose wife wants to be an evangelical singing star on the tube." Beth B. directed. Also, in 1987, the movie version of Dragnet (starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks) offered " . . . a phony TV preacher . . . and (a) . . . pagan-rite scene, in which oddly assorted would-be pagans stomp around in thigh-high sheepskins, while the Virgin Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul) is prepared for a sacrifice."

Therese (1987) tells the story of a girl who " . . . wanted to enter the strict cloisters of the Carmelite nuns, and when she was refused permission she went all the way to the Pope to finally obtain it." The movie " . . . centers itself around the depth of her passionate love affair with Jesus." The film " . . . makes a bold attempt to penetrate the mystery of Therese's sainthood, and yet it isn't propaganda for the church and it doesn't necessarily even approve of her choice of a vocation." That same year, The Believers (1987) portrays " . . . an ancient religion that rears its ugly head in modern-day American. A police psychologist becomes enmeshed in a strange case involving mystic rituals and discovers his family's safety is threatened."

In the 1987 film Murder Ordained, Keith Carradine and JoBeth Williams are featured in a story supposedly based " . . . on a real-life double murder case involving a small-town sexually promiscuous housewife and a clergyman . . . " Mike Robe directed. Also that year, Heaven (1987) is Diane Keaton's directoral debut. The film was " . . . an offbeat sensory assault that explores the concept of the afterlife from a number of perspectives." According to Steven Scheuer, the film is primarily " . . . a collection of statements about heaven made by some of LA.'s oddest citizens supplemented by various images of heaven clipped from old movies and edited together in a rock-video manner."

The following year (1988), one of the leaders (Charlie Sheen) of the outlaw gang in Morgan Creek's Young Guns (produced by Joe Roth) is an active Christian who prays at various times throughout the gang's travels, while also participating in their killing rampage through the West. Also, in 1988, " . . . Nkkos Kazantzakis' novel The Last Temptation of Christ was brought to America's theaters by Universal. Directed by Martin Scorcese, the film aroused indignation among millions of Christians world-wide for three reasons . . . Jesus' character as portrayed in the film was that of an anxious neurotic . . . the film took great liberties with the wording of key passages in the Gospels (and) . . . in an extended fantasy sequence in which Jesus imagines what his life would have been like had he chosen to live it as an ordinary mortal, he is shown in one fairly explicit scene engaging in sexual intercourse with his wife, Mary Magdelene." To say that most Christians were offended by this movie would be a pale understatement. One Protestant minister, Dr. Jack Hayford, summed up the reaction of many when he charged that it 'casts as mentally unbalanced the man who established the teachings that became the guideposts for an entire civilization. It's an outright distortion of history and a devastating assault on the personal values of hosts of people.'"

Despite the fact (as Ebert rationalizes) that " . . . the film . . . (was) clearly introduced as a fiction and not as an account based on the Bible . . . " the anger directed toward the film and emanating from some segments of the Christian community is partly justified and based on another fact: that films portraying a view of Jesus Christ and Christianity more acceptable to the vast majority of Christians are generally not produced or released by the Hollywood film community. Thus, the production and release of films portraying what most in the Christian community would consider negative portrayals of their religion are nothing more than Hollywood sponsored anti-Christian propaganda. And now that we recognize that Hollywood is controlled and dominated by a small group of Jewish males of European heritage, who are politically religious and not very religious, (see Who Really Controls Hollywood) this conflict over movies becomes an important element of the ongoing U.S. culture war.

Continuing our observation of the movie portrayal aspects of that war, in 1990, We're No Angels starred Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn and portrayed an entire monastery filled with unbelievably dumb priests. Also, in 1990, " . . . writer-director Francis Coppola shows far more sympathy to the Mafia (in 'Godfather III') than to the Church, and the leaders of organized crime display more scruples and human emotion than the leaders of organized religion." In 1990, Jesus of Montreal suggests " . . . that most establishments, and especially the church, would be rocked to their foundations by the practical application of the maxims of Christ." The movie is an " . . . attempt to explore what really might happen if the spirit of Jesus were to walk among us in these timid and materialistic times."

The following year, (1991) Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves portrays " . . . priests . . . as corrupt or drunken swine . . . " At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) provides a negative portrayal of a group of "missionaries from North America . . . " who go to the Amazon " . . . to preach their religion to (an Indian) . . . tribe." Another 1991 offering, Black Robe tells the story " . . . of the first contacts between the Huron Indians of Quebec and the Jesuit missionaries from France who came to convert them to Catholicism and ended up delivering them into the hands of their enemies . . . " The movie basically says that ". . . the European settlement of North America led to the destruction of the original inhabitants, not their salvation."

Michael Tolkin's The Rapture (1991) provides " . . . a radical, uncompromising treatment of the Christian teachings about the final judgment." Tolkin " . . . seems to be saying if this is what the end of creation is going to be like, the we should stare unblinking at its full and terrifying implications." The Fine Line Features film is about " . . . a bored Los Angeles telephone operator (who) . . . fills her nights with sexually dangerous adventures (until she) . . . overhears several co-workers secretly talking about . . . Christ . . . coming back to Earth and (that) they must prepare for his return." The telephone operator " . . . becomes obsessed with this message and gains a faith so strong she becomes an overnight convert (after which her) . . . belief in God is tested time and time again . . . "

Other 1991 films with religious themes, include The Five Heartbeats (1991) which portrays a " . . . minister who thinks jazz and rock 'n' roll are the work of the devil." Also, Cape Fear (1991) presents an evil Robert De Niro covered " . . . with tattoos spelling out dire biblical warnings . . . " and talking with a Southern accent.

In 1992, Bram Stoker's Dracula presents " . . . Vlad the Impaler, who went off to fight the Crusades and returned to find that his beloved wife, hearing he was dead, had killed herself . . . Vlad cannot see the justice in his fate. He has marched all the way to the Holy Land on God's business, only to have God play this sort of a trick on him . . . " (so) " . . . the monarch furiously renounced God and began his centuries-long devotion to evil (Satan and vampirism). Also, in 1992, Disney's Sister Act drops in " . . . a few tasty anti-clerical barbs . . . " and shows Whoopi Goldberg transforming " . . . a collection of largely ancient Carmelite sisters who haven't carried a tune in 50 years into a soulful, rockin' chorus."

The 1992 Ridley Scott film 1492: Conquest of Paradise, portrays the Christopher Columbus discovery of America showing that " . . . Columbus administrates (the New World) ineptly and tries ineffectually to promote a policy of peaceful coexistence . . . (with the natives, but that) [m]inds dominated by military ambition, religious fervor and greed inevitably gain the upper hand and turn the lush tropical settlement into a living hell." Leap of Faith (1992) is another manifestation of Hollywood's relentless attack on Christianity and religion generally. The movie is characterized by movie critic Roger Ebert as " . . . the first movie to reveal the actual methods used by some revivalists and faith healers to defraud their unsuspecting congregations. Ebert points out that [e]arlier movies, from features like Elmer Gantry and Uforia to the documentary Marjoe, have had an equally jaundiced view of barnstorming evangelists, but (as Ebert says) this is the first expose' of the high-tech age, showing how electronics and computers are used to fabricate miracles on demand."

There are at least two problems with this movie, (1) regardless of whether the film's view of religious " . . . revivalists and faith healers . . . " is accurate, it represents a single movie in an entire series of movies that are anti-Christian. In other words, the U.S. film industry, dominated by a small group of Jewish males of European heritage who are politically liberal and not very religious, does not allow the powerful motion picture communications medium to tell the other side of issues relating to Christianity. It relentlessly focuses on what it considers to be the most undesirable aspects of the religion and publicizes those. (2) As explained in this series of books on Hollywood, (my own "expose'" of the U.S. film industry), the MPAA companies and their upper level management are not in any way morally or ethically superior to the " . . . revivalists and faith healers . . . " depicted in Leap of Faith, after all they have been "defrauding" actors, directors, producers, screenwriters, outside investors and moviegoing audiences throughout the world for nearly 90 years. So this movie and others like it, appear to me to be very much like the "pot calling the kettle black". The only difference is that the U.S. film industry controls the world's greatest PR machine and can effectively deceive most of the people most of the time.

Back to the culture wars, a religious theme is also prominent in 1993's, Bad Lieutenant. The film features Harvey Keitel as " . . . a lying, stealing, murdering, drug-addicted New York cop who is seen spiraling downward, out of control, during the last days of his life." The theme of "guilt and its redemption" is the theme that is central to the work of Martin Scorsese and Harvey Keitel. In an interview with Keitel, movie critic Roger Ebert said "[t]hat whole idea of sin and redemption is central to your best characters . . . I know you're Jewish, but I keep thinking of you in Catholic churches."

Finally in 1994, the Columbia release The Shawshank Redemption featured a hypocritical Christian prison warden as the chief villain. Alan Parker's The Road to Wellville (Columbia Pictures--1994) also took several swipes at the 7th Day Adventists. The film was written and directed by Alan Parker, who produced with Armyan Bernstein, Robert F. Colesberry, Tom Rosenberg and Marc Abraham. Director Tim Burton's film Ed Wood poked fun at Baptists and their baptismal ritual. The 1994 20th Century-Fox release Bad Girls portrayed a lynch mob made up of religious reformers. And, the 1994 Geffen Pictures/Warner Bros. release Interview With the Vampire, actually starring Brad Pitt, (along with Tom Cruise), contains several anti-God references and focuses on the nothingness of life. The film was produced by David Geffen and Stephen Woolley, directed by Neil Jordan with the screenplay by Ann Rice.

In any case, even though Michael Medved holds himself out as a very religious person (specifically an Orthodox Jew), and I am not very religious, we do agree that Hollywood films have in recent years been consistently anti-religious. As Medved points out, "[t]he movie industry has ignored the success of films that look favorably on faith with the same sort of self-destructive stubbornness that has led to its continued sponsorship of antreligious-message movies." Of course, this is occurring at a time when the Hollywood establishment still contends that movies are merely "entertainment".

Others besides Medved and myself have expressed similar concerns about anti-religious movies. In the Josephson Institute's Ethics publication, Media & Values founding editor Elizabeth Thoman said: "My concern would be, what is left out, rather than what is shown. Why is normal religious practice left out of entertainment media? The only thing that religion gets are those perverted kinds of strange images with Madonna pushing the envelope, somebody who's very dissatisfied."

Medved, however, also states that "[i]n addition to the obvious antipathy to various forms of Christianity displayed in so many recent movies, Hollywood has also attempted some significant jabs at Judaism . . . however, the ridicule of the rabbis has been less intense than the negativity that is injected into the caricatures of Christian clergy." It would appear to me (based primarily on my analysis of the Roger Ebert and Steven Scheuer reviews) that there is huge disparity between the number of negative portrayals of Christians and Jews in Hollywood movies.

In addition, there appear to be many more positive portrayals of Jewish film characters than Christians in Hollywood films. On this issue, Dr. Prothnow-Stith states that "[t]here should be an issue of fairness considered . . . For instance, If I'm Jewish and I'm willing to make fun of this Baptist preacher, would I be as willing to make fun of a rabbi?" In present day Hollywood (and in the Hollywood that has existed for nearly 90 years), apparently not.

Again, it is a basic issue of fairness and access to equal opportunities in a so-called free, democratic society. My contention is that, even if some segments of our society are not saying what we would like for them to say, it is not in the national interest to stand by and allow any single or narrowly defined interest group to prevent the important messages of others from being communicated through a significant communications medium such as film.

Anti-WASP Films--Since, from a religious perspective, the American South is predominantly Christian-Protestant and of white Anglo-Saxon heritage, the entire body of the films cited in Chapter 6 for providing negative or stereotypical portrayals of people, places and things from the South can also be fairly considered anti-WASP films. Hollywood films, also more specifically portray a more general anti-WASP sentiment (i.e., the WASPs portrayed are not from the South). No attempt has been made for purposes of this publication to quantify those many negative portrayals. But, examples include The Swimmer (Columbia--1968) which starred Burt Lancaster and Janice Rule in the " . . . story about a loser (who) . . . gradually flip[s] . . . out of WASP society because he loathes the life-style and mores of affluent executives." He subsequently " . . . swims his way down various pools in Westport, Conn . . . " The Indiana- born Sydney Pollack ("son of first-generation Russian-Jewish Americans") and New York-born Frank Perry directed and Perry co-produced with Roger Lewis.

Also, The Great Gatsby (1974) was Paramount's " . . . third film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's enduring novel about the Beautiful People of rich WASP society in New York and Long Island of the 1920s . . . (a) rich if emotionally impoverished crowd." Gatsby this time is played by Robert Redford, but film critic Steven Scheuer claims Redford is " . . . too genteel and civilized, given Gatsby's modest background and hustling business career with bootlegging connections." British-born Jack Clayton directed for producer David Merrick. The 1949 version of the film starring Alan Ladd was directed by Ohio-born Elliott Nugent for New York-born producer Richard Maibaum. In another example, the 1980 Warner/Orion release, Caddyshack starred Chevy Chase, Ted Knight, Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Murray in a satire " . . . aimed at the W.A.S.P. set . . . in an exclusive country club . . . " The film was directed by Chicago-born Harold Ramis for producer Douglas Kenney.

Of course, it would be even more offensive if a study of Hollywood movies demonstrated that an industry controlled by a small group of Jewish males consistently portrayed WASPs in a negative manner, although, clearly in the case of WASP film characters generally, there are at least some positive portrayals to balance the overall presentation, whereas the Hollywood anti- South bias seems much more consistently negative (again, see Chapter 6).

Research Project: Arbitrarily select a limited number of years and a body of films to study (e.g., all of the films released by the major studio/distributors). Determine which of those films portray WASP villains as opposed to other villains.

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