Korean War veteran Mike Kowalski whiles away his days camped on his porch in the Michigan suburbs growling a racist’s thesaurus of insults at or about his ethnic neighbours. So, it would a stretch to call him a Christlike figure.
However, by the time Mike (played by an ultra-flinty Clint Eastwood) faces off alone against an armed-to-the-teeth gang that has terrorised its own Hmong refugee community there are some fairly obvious Christian themes being evoked.
Cinema and theology lecturer Rev Dr Glen O’Brien says Gran Torino (released in 2008) is a good example of how Hollywood encodes Christian messages and motifs into films that otherwise wouldn’t at all be considered religious.
“At the end of the film, Mike sacrifices himself for the neighbourhood in a Christlike way,” Glen says.
“He’s even in a cruciform stance when he opens up his arms and lets them shoot him. That heals the violence at the centre of that neighbourhood.”
Glen, a Uniting Church minister and associate professor at the Salvation Army’s Eva Burrows College, pioneered the tertiary-accredited study of film and theology in Australia.
He says church people can have too narrow a view of what makes a movie Christian.
“A film is not Christian because it quotes the Bible and has no swearing or nudity,” he says.
“Movies can have those elements at a surface level, but beneath that they might be raising really important questions of meaning and significance – questions about human identity, the nature of the soul, even about God and the existence of God.
“There are profound and beautifully made films with Christian themes.
“Some are made by people of devout Christian faith; others by insightful pagans.”
Glen cites what might seem an unlikely genre as an example.
“If you think about zombie movies, themes emerge that have fascinated Christian thinkers for two millennia,” he says.
“What is the connection of the soul to the body? What is the nature of the resurrection?
“When a person in a zombie film finds it hard to kill a loved one who is now among the undead (even though it could be seen as a mercy killing) what does that say about our concern about the continuity of our relationships beyond death?”
Blade Runner 2049, last year’s sequel to neon-noir cult classic Blade Runner, is another film Glen believes poses deep theological questions, provided you can see beyond the lurid violence of artificial humans pitilessly hunting their own kind.
“This film raises a lot of questions about the nature of identity and personhood,” he says.
“All the humans in the film are focused on pleasure-seeking, while it is the artificial beings (the replicants) who are asking questions of meaning, identity and purpose.
“So what does it mean to have (or to be) a soul? Is it simply possessing organic life? Or does it have to do with other kinds of qualities?”
Glen believes the negative and censorious view of films historically displayed by churches has, perhaps ironically, prevented them from seeing cinema’s redemptive qualities.
“I like the Warner Brothers social-conscience films of the 1940s,” he says.“Criticised by the churches and the censorship boards at the time as ‘sex and crimes’ films, they actually have a solidly moral core.
“The characters played by Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Cagney in films like The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, or White Heat couldn’t be described as ‘moral’ necessarily, but they were always ‘good.’ In the end they usually made the right kind of choices.
“I sometimes think we could save the world if we just watched the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s.”
Glen believes piety can actually be a creative pitfall for Christian filmmakers or those portraying Christian narratives.
“The New Testament is a collection of creative, imaginative, retellings of the Jesus story,” Glen says.
“The irony is that Christians, for whom that source material matters most, are all too often anything but creative and imaginative in their own recreations.
“They insist on everything being so ‘biblical’ that it becomes a lifeless wooden retelling, where Bible texts are put into the mouth of the characters as dialogue.
“You can see the stiff literalism of works such as the King of Kings, or the recent film Paul, Apostle of Christ.
“A film like Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ is demonised as being evil and blasphemous when it is actually very creative and imaginative and in the balance between the human and the divine.
“In my view, it’s very orthodox as well, there is nothing at all very heretical about that film.”
Glen’s pick of 10 films with Christian significance
Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve (2017)
“Raises a lot of questions about the nature of identity and personhood.”
Director: Clint Eastwood (2008)
“Racist character sacrifices himself for the neighbourhood.”
The Tree of Life
Director: Terrence Malick (2011)
“This can be viewed as a parable of maturity and grace.”
There Will Be Blood
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)
“It shows how religious leadership can be just as toxic, power hungry and manipulative as other kinds of entrepreneurial leadership.”
Director: Robert Duvall (1997)
“A meticulously crafted portrait of a flawed Pentecostal preacher.”
Director: Brian Dannelly (2004)
“At its heart it’s quite Christian in that it resolves in a way that people have learnt to accept one another.”
Director: Martin Scorsese (2016)
“A profound meditation on the philosophical problem of evil.”
The Sign of The Cross
Director: Cecil B DeMille (1932)
“A brilliant black-and-white silent epic that depicts the story of the early Christian martyrs.”
Director: Paul Schrader (2017)
“I haven’t seen this yet, but it comes highly recommended as a film that deals thoughtfully with the faith and experience of a minister.”
Director: Henry Coster (1953)
“A good sword-and-sandal movie about the conversion of a Roman centurion.”
The saga of Ben-Hur, which was the creation of Union US Civil War general Lew Wallace in his 1880 historical novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, is Hollywood’s favourite Christian epic outside the Bible stories.
Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, is betrayed by his adopted brother into Roman slavery. After battles with pirates and some social climbing, Ben-Hur gets revenge against his brother by winning, or more accurately surviving, a chariot race that is largely a deadly demolition derby.
However, some brief encounters with Jesus are the real transforming events in Ben-Hur’s life.
There have been four major movie Ben-Hur adaptations, a TV miniseries and even a cartoon version. Undoubtedly the definitive Ben-Hur is the 1959 blockbuster directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston.
It’s easy to see why this film inspired the saying “Bigger than Ben-Hur”. At the time it was the costliest Hollywood film ever made and the arena which staged the chariot race took 12 months to build. The pay-off was 11 Oscars and the second-highest box office take at that time behind Gone With the Wind.
In 2016 a big screen Ben-Hur climbed on his chariot again. Unfortunately the wheels quickly came off the movie, directed by Timu Bekmambetov, in terms of audience and critical reception.
Theology and film lecturer Glen O’Brian said that while the 1959 film is “magnificent” the remake was totally unnecessary.