Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Hollywood's Touch of Evil

by Frederick W. Marks


Cogent analysis of the moral weakness in many "otherwise good" movies, plus a list of truly great films.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, June 1999

Vision Book Cover Prints

A revolution is brewing in the field of public entertainment. More and more people are using VCRs to bypass morally objectionable TV and movie fare. Not only are the greatest films of all time being shown in living rooms across the country for a mere pittance, but today’s rebels are also taping the best of television, playing it back at their convenience, and “fast forwarding” ads that may be tiresome or sexually suggestive.

The only question is how does one go about finding the all-time best? Descriptions on video jackets are apt to be self-serving. Neither can one count on Academy Awards. Some rental outlets have a browsing section labeled “Classics,” and this can be helpful. But who decides which films rate “classic” status? Sea Hawk (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) are dramatically flawless. But of the three, two glorify remarriage after divorce, while the third, Sea Hawk, makes Span iards —and by implication Catholics in general—seem cruel, exploitive, and benighted in their attitude toward slaves and native Americans. No matter that Protestants are unique in the extent to which they dispossessed the Indians, forced them onto reservations, and treated them as subhuman. Indians and slaves alike had rights under Spanish rule. In the case of the latter, their families could not be sold apart, they were not prohibited from intermarrying with whites, and they could earn their way to freedom. Not so under the English.

Normally, videos are not arranged by year of appearance, but each has a date on it, and it’s safe to say that 1937-57 was the golden age of cinema. Production after production was riveting. What’s more, thanks to the Hayes Code and National Legion of Decency, the principals kept their clothes on. It was the age of Gone with the Wind (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Blackboard Jungle (1955). This does not mean, however, that films of the period necessarily upheld Catholic values. The Good Earth (1937) associates religion with superstition, ignorance, and greed. In The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), John Wayne plays a valiant Marine who, on his way to war, hears a girlfriend say that she’ll pray for him. His answer: “Let’s not get religion!”

Something else worth noting about “golden age” films is that while they outshine the output of other periods by a factor of roughly 3 to 1—and I’m thinking here of such gems as Holiday (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Casablanca (1942), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), African Queen (1951), I Confess (1953), Twelve An gry Men (1957), and Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)—great performances form a bridge across time. Thus we have The Guns of Navarone (1961), Man for All Seasons (1966), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Enchanted April (1991). Every one of these titles is sterling entertainment as well as eminently suitable for family viewing: and to their number may be added The Miracle Worker (1962), Mary Poppins (1964), Murder on the Orient Ex press (1974), Breaker Morant (1979), Ghan di (1982), Lean on Me (1989), Little Women (1994), and Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995).

Viewers who assume that all will be well if John Wayne stars in a movie, or if its director happens to be Catholic, are in for a surprise. Red River (1948) casts Wayne as a lovable tough guy who appropriates cattle and land that don’t belong to him, then prays over the corpses of the people he kills. In Harm’s Way (1965) presents Wayne once again as the hero, this time in the role of a divorced naval officer who beds down with an assertive nurse, also divorced. In Donovan’s Reef (1963), the Duke is directed by John Ford and the setting is a French Catholic island where a skirt-chasing, gold-digging governor as sumes a place of prominence in the Christmas pageant. Police officers and members of the clergy look silly, undignified, and ineffectual, while Donovan’s Saloon, the backdrop for much of the action, is a haven for gambling and loose women. One must wade through sexually suggestive language and imagery before reaching the finale in which macho Donovan (Wayne) spanks the heroine over his knee.

Ford has been described as a “devout” Catholic with a brother in the priesthood. But what he does to the French in Donovan’s Reef he does with regularity to other groups associated with the Church. Italian immigrants are bibulous and hysterical in Arrowsmith (1931), and in The Quiet Man (1952) starring Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, the Irish come across as brawlers and drinkers. Ford is fond of stereotypes. In The Fugitive (1947), it is Mexicans who take the rap as ignorant, superstitious, and wild. Alcohol, dancing girls, and official corruption make for a totally lop-sided picture, and the hero, a priest, while intrepid and generous, is also passive and aimless. He never says Mass, and when he tries to encourage someone on his deathbed to go to confession, the man remains stubbornly indifferent. Hardly an advertisement for the priesthood.

In Ford’s Wings of Eagles (1957), big man Wayne plays the part of a husband who regards a broken neck as cause for marital separation, telling his wife: “I’ve never pitied anyone; don’t pity me.” Subsequently, he engages a “Catholic” housekeeper who at tends Mass and confesses her sins but leaves his house sloppy and covered with dust. Wayne improves on the occasion, as scripted, by knocking the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Alfred Hitchcock, another “Catholic” director, is justly famous for a long line of suspenseful flicks. But when one probes underlying values, one finds that Vertigo (1958) is laced with sex and violence; it also takes adultery lightly and portrays nuns as grouchy and unattractive. North by Northwest (1959), taut enough to be nominated for three Oscars, contains steamy scenes and a twice-divorced hero who thinks nothing of committing fornication. Portions of Psycho, released the following year, are plain tawdry.

Earlier in the decade, I Confess (1953), focusing on a fearless padre’s refusal to break the seal of confession, was as uncompromisingly Christian as it was thrilling. Alas, it is the exception, for the very next year came Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder with its cordial treatment of marital infidelity. An unfaithful wife becomes a target for murder but winds up in the hands of her extra-marital partner, free to live happily ever after. 1954 was also the year of Rear Window, whose heroine (Grace Kelly) tells her laid-up boy friend that she intends to join him overnight at his apartment. This she does, unpacking her nightclothes in front of him.

A year later, Kelly starred in yet another Hitchcock hit, To Catch a Thief, this time alongside Cary Grant. On her first date, she walks up to her beau and plants a kiss on his lips. A day later, she tells him, “I’ve been waiting . . . for you to mention the kiss I gave you,” and soon after this, she announces that she’s “in love” with him. She wears an immodest dress and employs sexual innuendo at a picnic. Still, she is cast as a role model, and her knight in shining armor, ever so cool, lives in self-indulgent luxury.

Finding Wayne, Ford, and Hitchcock unreliable, one might perhaps search out some of the better-known movies with religious themes. But here again, the results would be mixed. The Nun’s Story (1959) and The Sound of Music (1965) deal with attractive girls who leave the convent, and while Miracle of Mar celino focuses on a group of well-meaning monks who adopt an orphan, the monks are pathetically simple-minded. Joan of Arc (1948) with Ingrid Bergman opens with a solemn pronouncement that “the Church of Rome” made “its utmost reparation” for Joan’s execution by raising her to sainthood. This is misleading at best, for it was not “the Church” that wronged Joan so much as a handful of clerics cravenly beholden to Eng land. The institutional Church can no more be held responsible for what happened to Joan than Jesus may be held to account for Judas’s betrayal. Joan of Arc, unfazed, projects an image of swollen, greasy hands turning over the leaf of what appears to be a report on canonization followed by the picture of a corpulent, devious-looking friar interrogating a maiden in chains. As another case in point, the Jesus featured in King of Kings (1961) is disheveled and dissolute-looking; the meatier portions of his message are glossed over; and Mary and Joseph are unappealing.

In The Song of Bernadette (1943), handsome tribute is paid to Lourdes; the acting is first-rate with an all-star cast; and the miracle comes across as undeniably authentic. Never theless, every actress who goes before the camera in the garb of a nun, with the exception of Jennifer Jones (Bernadette), is sour and crabbed. While Bernadette’s real-life superior did in fact bear down rather hard on her, there is only one thing to say of her fellow sisters: they were warm and friendly, just the opposite of what one sees in the film version. Going My Way (1944) traces the career of a “progressive” priest played by Bing Crosby who not only does away with meditation, indispensable for anyone serious about the religious life, but also sheds his clerics on occasion. Although the acting is stellar and certain scenes are irresistible, a young couple, whose pluck is played up by the director, circumvent parental consent in their decision to marry. They also appear to live together before the wedding. Traditional morality is linked with intolerance and lack of imagination, even as piety is equated with rigidity and lack of practicality. It is all quite subtle; one might almost say subliminal. But this is the way Hollywood operates.

The same sort of lightweight, “nice-guy” type of clergyman played by Crosby in Going My Way figures in two other religious “classics,” Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) and Miracle of the Bells (1948). Here, as elsewhere, the priest’s central role as confessor, Eucharistic celebrant, and preacher of the word is rarely, if ever, shown. Imagine a film chronicling the life of a prize fighter that managed never to show its subject in the ring! In Miracle of the Bells, suave, debonair, and successful Bill Donegan makes a point of telling the man in black, almost as an aside, “I haven’t been to church since I was seven years old.” Since Donegan is clearly an individual we are meant to admire, religion, once again, takes it on the chin.

For examples of cinema that show genuine respect for the clergy, one must turn to Boy’s Town (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), I Confess (1953—already mentioned), On the Water front (1954), The Hoodlum Priest (1961), The Scarlet and the Black (1983), and The Jeweler’s Shop (1990) based on a play by John Paul II. Such movies exist. But they are few and far between.

Still another film genre that falls short of its potential seeks to showcase important events and figures of the past. Few productions in recent years have been as disdainful of the historical record as Amadeus (1984) in which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, regarded by many as the greatest musical composer of all time, and an ardent Catholic to boot, is painted as frivolous and foulmouthed. Equally libelous are: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Marie Antoinette (1938), They Died with Their Boots On (1941—the story of Custer’s last stand), Song of Love (1947), The Bar barian and the Geisha (1958), The Wind and the Lion (1975—on the presidency of Theo dore Roosevelt), Jefferson in Paris (1995), and Titanic (1998). The entire lot are little more than a tissue of historical nonsense whose principal function, aside from entertainment, is detraction.1 With box office re ceipts the be-all and end-all in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, few Hollywood producers are any more interested in truth than in goodness.

As one might expect, indecent footage is often peddled under cover of “art.” The “overall theme” is said to be moral or the work as a whole is pronounced “well done.”2 Thus we are bidden to applaud Forest Gump (1997), portions of which pander to the prurient interest. St. Alphonsus Liguori, a saint for our time, once said that “the eyes must be mortified. We must abstain from looking at any object that may give occasion for temptation.”3 John Bosco, also a saint speaking to Everyman, put it in the form of a question: “Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just be cause it was offered to you in a golden cup?”4

Certain films trade on violence and this has drawn its share of criticism. What needs to be borne in mind, though, is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the use of force, especially in self-defense. Christ himself fashioned a whip of cords and used it to drive money changers from the Temple, even as he insisted that any man who so much as looks with lust at a woman is guilty in his heart of adultery (Matt. 5:28). St. Paul, ringing additional changes on the theme of purity, de claimed against scurrility in conversation (Eph. 5:3-4). In short, it would be a mistake to lump violence with obscenity as twin evils. Yes, movie guides should pan excessive violence, as well as profanity. But immodesty, sexual innuendo, sodomy, and glorification of remarriage after divorce (usually by resort to worst-case scenarios) should come first on the list of proscription. Conversely, we ought to know when marital fidelity is highlighted, as in The Yearling (1946), The Gunfighter (1950), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), and Jane Eyre (1996).

Catholic ratings have ceded scandalous amounts of ground to the “prince of the air” (St. Paul’s name for the devil—Eph. 2:2). Typical is the National Catholic Register’s sequence of headings: #1: “justifiable”; #2: “questionable”; #3: “objectionable”; #4: “reprehensible”; #5: “hazardous.” How anyone can regard films that fall below “questionable” as anything but morally “hazardous” is hard to understand. Recently, I came across an article in an ostensibly Catholic paper that “detested” Frank Capra’s classic of classics, It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the most wholesome, amusing, and uplifting films of all time, while recommending, as an appropriate topic for teen discussion, Schindler’s List (1993), which stands condemned by the leaders of Jewish Orthodoxy for its nudity.5

One last example will suffice. Michael Medved found in the movie Priest (1994), “the most profound hostility to the Catholic Church that I have seen in the last fifteen years of reviewing,” while Cardinal O’Connor called it “as viciously anti-Catholic as anything that has ever rotted on the silver screen.”6 The United States Catholic Con ference’s Department of Communications, on the other hand, saw fit to give it a rating of A-IV for films that require “caution” but are “not morally offensive”!7

Do we reject realism when we refuse to get out our binoculars and inspect anything and everything that moves? A true realist knows his limitations. Can we be accused of “imposing our views” on movie producers? Is it not they who are imposing on us and, in the pro cess, poisoning our environment? It can be shown that media moguls have an agenda that is diametrically opposed to the Judeo-Chris tian ethic.8 Because they assume there must be something wrong with anyone who chooses voluntarily not to become sexually in volved, rare is the hero who is at once unmarried and chaste (Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Sherlock Holmes, and Poirot notwithstanding), rarer still the single woman in her prime who does not throw herself at the opposite sex and toss kisses around on the cheap.

Increased reliance by artists on sex and violence signals the end of a culture. It happened in Greece, it happened in Rome, and it is happening today in the post-Christian West. Counterfeit greatness rears its ugly head practically everywhere nowadays, and we need not be apologetic about rejecting it. If fornication is glamorized, as in Camelot (1967) and Titanic, why subsidize it through the purchase of theater tickets and video rentals? In the same way, video stores with “adult” al coves should be boycotted—such “adults,” as we all know, are merely children who never grew up. Finally, prudence dictates that we steer clear of any movie that cashes in on nudity, however minimal. The work may be great from a thematic standpoint, even artistically great. But it will not be great for us. No birthday cake, however enticing, is “great” if its recipe calls for a shard or two of glass. No cup of tea, however delicious, is “great” if it contains a drop of botulism. The cry that “everyone’s doing it, everyone’s viewing it” will not deliver us from occasions of sin. St. Philip Neri once remarked that “in the matter of purity, there is no greater danger than not fearing danger. When a person puts himself in an occasion, saying ‘I will not fall,’ it is an almost infallible sign that he will fall, and with great injury to his soul.”9

As a new millennium dawns, there is much about the future that appears hopeful from a material point of view. But when it comes to quality of life measured in non-material terms, we would be less than honest were we not to admit that we live in a toxic swamp. The air that we breathe is fetid for lack of even the most elemental standards of decency, and viewers of all ages are short on oxygen—cinematic oxygen. Here, then, is a list of 125 films that are not only morally superior in relation to other Hollywood products, but also top-flight entertainment (parentheses indicate a status just short of great):


David Copperfield


Tale of Two Cities


Little Lord Fauntleroy
The Story of Louis Pasteur


Captains Courageous
The Life of Emile Zola
The Prince and the Pauper


Angels with Dirty Faces
Boy’s Town
You Can’t Take It with You


Dodge City
Gone with the Wind
The Little Princess
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The Wizard of Oz
(Made for Each Other)


Edison the Man
Santa Fe Trail
Shop Around the Corner
(Knute Rockne, All American)
(Abe Lincoln in Illinois)


Sergeant York
Hold Back the Dawn
(Meet John Doe)
(Pot O’Gold)


(The Magnificent Ambersons)


(Song of Bernadette)
(Shadow of a Doubt)


The Keys of the Kingdom
National Velvet


(The Bells of St. Mary’s)
(Song to Remember)


Destry Rides Again
It’s a Wonderful Life
The Yearling
Great Expectations


I Remember Mama
Joan of Arc
State of the Union
Oliver Twist
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(Miracle of the Bells)


The Heiress
Kind Hearts and Coronets
Madame Bovary [perfectly clean]
(All the King’s Men)
(Come to the Stable)


Asphalt Jungle
Last Holiday
(The Gunfighter)


African Queen
The Great Caruso
The Lavender Hill Mob
Christmas Carol
(Cry the Beloved Country)


High Noon
Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima


Captain’s Paradise
I Confess
(The Living Desert)


(On the Waterfront)


Blackboard Jungle


The Catered Affair
The King and I
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
The Man Who Knew Too Much
The Ten Commandments


Bridge on the River Kwai
Twelve Angry Men
Witness for the Prosecution
(Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison)


(The Big Country)


Ben Hur
Diary of Anne Frank


(Elmer Gantry)


The Guns of Navarone
The Hoodlum Priest
(Pocketful of Miracles)


The Miracle Worker
Lawrence of Arabia
(The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)


(Lilies of the Field)


Mary Poppins
My Fair Lady


The Sound of Music
(Patch of Blue)


Man for All Seasons


(True Grit)






Murder on the Orient Express


The Man Who Would Be King


Enemy of the People


(Breaker Morant)


Chariots of Fire




The Scarlet and the Black


(The Karate Kid)


Anne of Green Gables


Babette’s Feast


Lean on Me
My Name is Bill W.
(Driving Miss Daisy)


(The Jeweler’s Shop)


Enchanted April


Howard’s End


Strictly Ballroom


Little Women


Mr. Holland’s Opus
Sense and Sensibility


Jane Eyre


(In This House of Brede)



A cassette recording of the above article may be obtained from: Keep the Faith, Inc. 10 Audrey Pl., P.O. Box 10544, Fairfield, N.J. 07004. Price: $5.00 postpaid (Canada: add 50ยข).

1 Marie Antoinette depicts its subject as flighty and immoral, while King Louis XVI, the Queen’s husband, is made to look wooden and unintelligent. Both characterizations are false. Nowhere are we introduced to the reforms undertaken by the royals, their battle against ostentation and promiscuity at court, or their valiant effort to tax noblemen. In the same way, the brave and kindly Capt. William Bligh of H.M.S. Bounty is horribly smear ed in different versions of the movie. In Song of Love, Johannes Brahms boards with the Schumann family, declares his love to Clara (Schumann), and after Clara’s husband, Robert, dies, he asks her to marry him. None of this ever happened. Brahms was as honorable as he was devout, and Clara was at all times loyal to her ailing husband. Brahms never lived with the Schumanns nor did he ever propose (see Nancy Reich’s 1985 biography).

The Barbarian and the Geisha fabricates an affair between Townsend Harris, first United States envoy to Japan, and a geisha girl. In fact, Harris owed much of his success to an extraordinarily upright and chaste disposition. A confirmed bachelor whose lifestyle bordered on the puritanical, he went out of his way to lecture his Japanese hosts on morals. The Wind and the Lion, equally spurious, shows an alert secretary of state, John Hay, interrupting a boyish, irresponsible president, Theo dore Roosevelt, who is taking his leisure at a rifle range. In point of fact, it was Roosevelt, not Hay, who managed American foreign policy, and the Marines never marched overland as shown on screen (see my Velvet on Iron: The Diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt).

Twentieth Century Fox paid $8,000 to a fund commemorating the career of William Murdoch, gallant first officer of the Titanic, because it cast him as a taker of bribes, a murderer, and a suicide. Titanic is false through and through, failing, not least of all, to represent the chivalry and religiosity that motivated passengers and crew members alike (see Wall Street Journal, April 18, 1998, p. A14; The Wanderer, May 30, 1998, p. 5).

Lastly, it should be noted that in The Sound of Music, Maria leaves the convent singing happily that “the world will be mine.” This is again false, for as Maria herself states in her charming autobiography, The Trapp Family Singers, she loved the convent and expected to return. The nuns in the movie are pleasant enough, but also starchy and idle—in true Hollywood fashion.

2 In Roth v. United States (1957), the Su preme Court formulated a new test for ob scenity: “Whether to the average person . . . the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.” Since then, all attempts to regulate the media have failed.

3 Quoted in Francis W. Johnston, ed., Voices of the Saints (1985), p. 78.

4 Quoted in Ronda Chervin, ed., Quotable Saints (1992), p. 43.

5 Sandra and Peter Miesel, “Are They the 100 Best?” Catholic Faith and Family, August 2-8, 1998, pp. 4-5.

6 Geraldine Stafford, “Decency and Entertain ment: The Church’s Role,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (October 1996), p. 67.

7 See Henry Herx, ed., The Family Guide to Movies and Videos (1995) published by the Ameri can bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting. Best Years of Our Lives, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn get by without any reference to their glorification, both direct and im plied, of remarriage after divorce while Best Years is written off as “mature themes.” In the case of Schin dler’s List, mincing reference is made to “a few discrete sexual scenes,” and The Shootist (1976), wherein Jimmy Stewart plays a respected doctor who proposes suicide to a terminal cancer victim (John Wayne), is passed off as “mature fare” involving some “glossing over” of the hero’s moral shortcomings.

8 Catalyst, March 1998, p. 7. The country as a whole disapproves of homosexual acts by a far greater margin than does Hollywood (76% to 20%). It is much less likely to concede the right to an abortion (59% to 97%). Furthermore, while only 4% of Americans have no religious affiliation, this applies to 45% of TV writers and executives, and while 85% of Americans believe adultery to be wrong, only 49% of TV writers and executives would agree—reported in Newsweek and cited in Leadership.

9 Johnston, ed., Voices of the Saints, p. 61.

Frederick W. Marks is a research historian and essayist with degrees from Holy Cross College and the University of Michigan. His latest book, A Catholic Handbook for Engaged and Newly Married Couples, was published in 1994. He has taught courses on the fundamentals of the Catho lic faith at the university level, as well as at his local parish, St. Thomas More, in New York. His last article in HPR appeared in December 1998.

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