Non-Mormon Movies About Religion for Mormons

Last time I discussed secular movies that had themes that could be interpreted with spiritual values. Some of those were intentional and others perhaps part of the natural evolution of the story. This post is about movies that were written specifically about religion. Of course, not every movie about religion is positive and might be to scorn or mock. The list I would like to present take religion and traditions seriously. The two I mentioned last time “Its a wonderful life” and “Chariots of Fire” easily fit into this post. Because they are not my favorites, I will pass talking about them more. As usual this is of a personal nature and others are free to add on or disagree with my observations. We each enjoy art and entertainment for different reasons. The ones I will talk about are movies that I have enjoyed and think influenced my perceptions of religious topics.

The Ten Commandments. There has been more than one movie, either for television or the silver screen, with this name. The most popular and I would say the best is still the one with Charlton Heston as Moses. It has the most spectacular scenery while staying faithful to the Biblical text story. All others with the name are rightfully judged by this production. The Director Cecil B. DeMille actually made a silent version first, incorporating a then contemporary storyline about a man who breaks the commandments and suffers the mortal consequences. For its time the silent version was also lavish, but it isn’t nearly as memorable.

The King of Kings. Sadly, I can only go by reputation on this one, but from the descriptions it sounds like a must see of the genre. As one Internet critic from North Carolina said, “Cecil B. DeMille was a genius who helped turn moviemaking into an art form. With The King of Kings, he also retold the story of Jesus Christ in a serious and emotionally powerful way that has effectively helped spread the Gospel for over seventy-five years.” This version is a silent movie not to be confused with another much later one by the same name. Maybe someday when I have the money, it comes on a classic movie station, or I can borrow it then it will become a favorite. The fact its a silent film doesn’t bother me because two of my favorite movies are of that era. One of them is “The Freshman” staring that classic comedian Harold Lloyd as a bumbling football player and “Metropolis,” the Fritz Lang science fiction extravaganza. Not that they have anything to do with religion, but I just want to mention them as examples for those who fear anything without sound or color.

Jesus of Nazareth. Of the movies about Jesus I have seen, including the later version of “King of Kings,” the celebrated “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and “The Passion of the Christ,” it is the longer made-for-tv miniseries that inspires me the most. Despite the huge production values that are unequal for a movie made for television during its time and the dramatization, the story remains faithful to the New Testament texts. Mormons might argue against some Catholic interpretations, but be fascinated and enlightened by the rest. I love this one and could only wish that it could be remade in up-to-date quality and format.

The Robe. Most of the recognizable religious movies were made in the 1950s, and this one is among the “trio” of best from the era. Most likely no studio these days would ever green light such amazing and unabashedly religious films in Hollywood as before. Once again this film is a cinematic treat to the eyes. Yet, its story is touching and at times soul searching. Based on a best selling novel, it is about the Robe of Christ handed down from the cross and how those who touch it are forever changed. The ending is one that Mormons might interpret with a unique appreciation.

Ben Hur. Charlton Heston is again the lead in this religious film about a Roman slave turned Christian. It is based on a best seller that has a silent version that few have probably watched. It won the most awards ever heard of, including Best Picture, of any film up to that time. The scope of the film and complicated story is well worth the four hour length. No one said the viewer has to watch it all in one sitting, but its possible for those who want to try.

The Bible Collection – 12 DVD Set – TNT. To paraphrase Joseph Smith Jr., there is much to be praised about these films as there are problems with the interpretations. Enjoyable as the Bible stories can be, some of the Bible textual narrative is bent too much for theatrical purposes. Still, considering as was already said that Hollywood has long abandoned any pretense to good religious films, these might be the best modern cinema out there about the Holy Book. Without much argument they are far better than the Book of Mormon movies that well meaning Latter-day Saints have produced.

I am sure there are more movies out there that I just haven’t seen to be able to include here. For instance, I know there is “One Night with the King,” and “The Nativity” that looks good, but just haven’t had the time or will to watch. Any suggestions or your own thoughts would be appreciated. After all, if there is anything praiseworthy and of good report than we should as Latter-day Saints, no matter where it might come from, seek after these things.

8 thoughts on “Non-Mormon Movies About Religion for Mormons

  1. Believe All Things,

    I’m not sure I would include that one as a religious movie for Mormons, or in other words that Mormons would enjoy. For starters, it is rated R for a few reasons that can’t be ignored. I’m not sure it can be considered very spiritual any more than the two movies based on Dan Brown novels.

    Jeff T.,

    I haven’t seen End of the Spear, but I have read some positive critical reviews. That is another I will have to check out someday when it becomes available. I haven’t seen it conveniently rentable around where I live.

  2. I really should see “The Robe” and “King of Kings.” I have seen most of the others you mention. I can recommend “One Night with the King” and “The Nativity.” I also would recommend “A Prince of Egypt” and “Joseph,” both very good cartoons on this subject that adults can enjoy.

  3. One that I really liked was The Story of Ruth, which was made about a year after Ben-Hur. Some of the scenery and costumes might look a little too ridiculous for current sensibilities, especially in the first half in Moab. But the story doesn’t wander too far from the source material and it has some touching scenes.

    Two brief historical notes about The Robe: It was the first movie shot in a widescreen format; all movies before it were done in the 4:3 ratio, like a TV screen. The reasoning was that a wider screen would give viewers something more than they were getting on their TVs at home.

    Also, the evil Roman emperor* in the movie wasn’t nearly as antagonistic against the Christians as the movie portrays. It was his successor Nero that really started the persecution when he needed someone to blame after Rome burned (at the time, the Romans hardly saw any difference between Christians and the Jews that most of their converts had formerly been). And then it was Diocletian later on who really gave the Christians a hard time.

    *Modern people call him Caligula (“little boots” in Latin), though his real name was Gaius. The nickname came from when he was a little boy, visiting the legion camps in his little set of armor. An early historian referred to him by that name, and it hit on so well that everyone has called him that ever since. Which makes no sense to me since there were never any other Roman emperors named Gaius, so it’s not like he needed a nickname to differentiate him from the others.

  4. Add my vote for “End of the Spear”. It is visually beautifull, and very touching.

  5. jettboy—

    I believe it’s on Hulu right now, for free. =)

    Also, although violent at places, I think it’s Sabbath material.

  6. “Ordet” (The Word) directed by Carl Dreyer is probably the greatest religious film ever created — according to most critics. Ebert wrote this marvelous column on his experience with the film:

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080308/REVIEWS08/914866035/1023

    There is Ben Hur by William Wyler and Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli, two notable movies by two notable directors. Both are worth watching for their religious meaning. But Ordet, IMO, goes a step beyond these offerings in the way it challenges the very foundations of our religious assumptions — not by defaming religion but by exalting child like faith above all else that religion could mean to an individual or even an entire culture.

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