Secular Movies with Spiritual Value

Inspired by discussions of Randy Astle’s presentation on how film criticism can help improve Mormon film making, and reading the interesting Notes of a Mormon Filmmaker blog, I decided to write about movies that have touched me spiritually. These are not particularly religious films and some were never meant to be more than secular entertainment. Yet, they still touch the mind and soul in a way that transcends the medium, material, and creators. Watching the movies is an experience beyond a viewing. They remain with me and sometimes have been transformational. They are art and greater than art.

Lawrence of Arabia. I struggled to decide if this one should be included because it is the most secular of the movies with spiritual value to me. There are others with stronger spiritual themes, but it is my overall favorite movie and that can’t be ignored. Other movies I have seen twice as many times, are more exciting, quote and mention in casual conversation, and would be expected to be a favorite if asked. Still, none of them are pure artistic genius in my mind with a character as rich and textured as any Hamlet production. When I think of near celluloid perfection, I think of this one. That impression has to count for something.

Miracle on 34th Street. Christmas is always a special time of year when gifts are exchanged and thoughts turn to a little baby in a swaddling clothes that will grow up to become the Savior. Despite the movie’s hero as Santa Clause, its theme is about more than children’s faith in the mythical character. It asks the eternal question of how faith can be maintained when life becomes harsh and we all grow up. The ending might be wrapped and tied in a bow like a forgettable present, but the message lingers. We must remain as innocent and caring as little children even as we mature in experience if we are to hold onto the best of human nature.

The Seventh Seal. Dark and brooding as the black and white film it was shot, the film seeks to examine the light in a shadowy world. Some moments are comical in a desperate bid to break from the madness of a reality where death is all too soon waiting. Overall it is a search for the meaning of life that mostly leaves the viewer to decide what the film concludes.

Groundhog Day. This movie is a deceivingly simple and light hearted comedy. Behind the antics of the actor and his character is the story of transformation and repentance. There is even the examination of death and suicide behind the farce and slapstick. A hidden classic.

Field of Dreams. Every time this comes on television I have to stop and watch at least the first part. It has more Mormon themes in it than many of the secular films I could have included. There is a study of revelation in action, a prophetic character grappling with his message, and the thin line that separates the dead from the living or the past from the present. Ignoring the few disagreeable political statements within the story, the rest is a wonderful spiritual treat that transcends the whole production.

The Green Mile. Brutal and crude mixes with the sublime and touching. That is the point of the movie and book it was based. It looks at the strange ways of miracles that can happen when least expected. Hidden behind the darkest of life and humanity can be the inexplicable hope of a miracle worker condemned by circumstances and others. For a brief moment those who pay attention to the miracles can be forever changed for the better.

2001 – A Space Odyssey. and 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Both films must be watched together. We are not alone in the Universe and our destiny is not always our own to decided.

Star Trek – The Motion Picture. Similar in theme as 2001 and 2010, it inverts the question of who controls our destiny and for what purpose to what destiny does human choices create?
We can bring our destruction or exaltation depending on how we decide life issues.

Star Wars Trilogy. Forget the overdone prequels, these three are the original great movies. It includes topics of love, war, forgiveness, growth, Priesthood, uses of power, family ties, sin, repentance, and more. Yet, it is fun and exciting as any summer blockbuster.

These are among my favorite movies that I have watched and continue to return to over the years. Others might list It’s a Wonderful Life or Chariots of Fire, both fan favorites having spiritual messages. I am sure there are more that can be listed than what is here. Next time I will discuss movies based on religion, including Mormonism, that are my favorites.

Note: Geoff B. has a series of posts on this topic specific to Mormonism. For those interested it includes:

Groundhog Day
Catch Me if you Can
The Family Man
Contact
Prince Caspian
The Book of Eli

21 thoughts on “Secular Movies with Spiritual Value

  1. The Princess Bride-Wesley triumphs against Fezzig, who is stronger, Vincini, who is more intelligent, and Inigo, who is more skilled, because he has love on his side.

    Labyrinth – Teaches the value of studying your scriptures, the lack of value in material possessions, the importance of standing up to evil, the power of friendship, and the overarching value of family.

  2. If I was to add the Narnia series, then I would also add The Lord of the Rings. They certainly are favorites of mine, but strangely I don’t personally feel a spiritual connection when watching. Saying that doesn’t imply others don’t, but I can’t really articulate why the appeal isn’t religious or spiritual when I know that was the writer’s intentions. As I said above, some movies that are intended to be spiritual don’t touch me like they do other people.

    Stacey, good choices. I enjoy both movies and would love someone to examine why “The Princess Bride” is a Mormon favorite. I have known Mormons to treat it like others do a cross between the ritualistic “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and quotable “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in reaction to repeated viewings.

  3. The Christological symbolism in Children of Men struck me very strongly when I saw it for the first time; a second viewing yielded the same result.

    Wit, starring Emma Thompson, is a brilliant meditation on life and death and what they mean.

    Also, for reasons I cannot articulate, watching Bright Star is always a religious experience for me. (Perhaps because it is preoccupied with Beauty, which is usually connected with Truth at some level. But that’s just a guess.)

  4. Jettboy, I have written several posts called “non-Mormon Mormon mivies.”. I included Groundhog Day and “the Family Man” (nicholas cage) on that list.

  5. Chariots of Fire always comes first to my mind in this category. I am not sure I have ever seen a more straightforward defense of religious principle. It is a beautifully made film as well.

    Contact (1997) is the most recent film I know worthy of comparable recognition. Two other films I would like to mention are Cast Away (2000) and Hero (1992), although their connection to religious principle is not quite as transparent.

  6. One I would add to the list: Contact.

    I wrote a whole series on the spiritual value of this movie. If you have any doubts (or if you don’t mind a spoiler), watch this clip:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSzyO86Npj0&feature=player_embedded

    Also, this article might add some interesting context to the discussion:
    http://www.saramayhew.com/blog/index.php/2011/02/secular-storytelling/

    I don’t agree with his conclusions, but I think that the distinctions he makes are real ones.

  7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is proof R-rated movies can make help you feel the spirit. Princess Bride. Field of Dreams. There’s a ten minute section of Children of Men that always makes me break down, I have a hard time nailing down if it’s actually spiritual though.

  8. Many recent superhero movies (not necessarily including sequels), as only John C. Wright can explain.

    The Santa Clause has some nice lines about faith. “Seeing isn’t believing; believing is seeing.”

    It’s too fresh to say it’ll become a classic, but I find Inception just overflowing with humanity, goodness, beauty, and truth.

  9. jjohnson, is it the part where they’re leaving the building after the baby was born, where everyone goes silent?

  10. Bingo. Starting a couple of minutes before they leave when everyone goes silent in the building and the long walk out. My my laughs every time we watch it because I start sobbing and just become a mess even though we’ve seen it four or five times.

  11. I’ve always found watching Ben-Hur and It’s a Wonderful Life to be very spiritual experiences for me.

  12. A general authority actually suggested to my mission president that we watch Chariots of Fire for a zone conference, so that’s just what we did and I was duly touched. So I second Mark D on that one.

  13. Best line overheard on BYU campus:

    -Did you like “Groundhog Day?”
    -No. It reminded me too much of my mission.

  14. My mission president discussed Braveheart at a mission conference, so that’s got to count for something…

    And Children of Men is awesome for reasons totally unrelated to the gospel–it features music from King Crimson, one of the most influential rock bands ever (and certainly the most influential rock band that has absolutely no chance at making it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

  15. Carlos U, that is a good line. Tim, I liked both of those movies. Let’s hope your mission president saw the Cleanflicks version of “Braveheart.” :)

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