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Onward Christian Movies
by Lucius Shepard
January 25th, 2003

When stripped of its religious context, analyzed in terms of its narrative content alone, The Holy Bible contains some of the richest and most spectacularly mounted fantasy tales ever conceived. That they have been elevated to the status of myth, of spiritual text, and—by some—of absolute literal truth does not diminish this fact. It might be said that The Bible is, indeed, the source material for all Western fantasy writing. Certainly one can perceive the seeds of the modern disaster novel in the story of Noah and the Arc, and the tale of Christ Himself, that of a child humbly born who is called to a great purpose and difficult ordeal and terrible sacrifice, may be seen as the archetypal model of the moral quest, a plot that in one way or another informs all high fantasy, from Tolkien on. The stories of Moses, of Ezekiel and the wheel . . . these and a number of others each have generated entire sub-genres of fantasy literature.

The Bible's influence on film has been somewhat less profound. In Hollywood the religious picture has evolved from sweetly faithful films such as Song of Bernadette to historical epics like The Robe, DeMille's The Bible, and Ben Hur, movies that accentuate the action elements and either play down or bowdlerize the spiritual aspects of the stories; and thereafter to an endless stream of horror movies, beginning with William Friedkin's The Exorcist and proceeding on through ever more feeble imitations and variations on the theme. Along the way, of course, there have been films that broke these molds, including several biopics about Christ, most of them risible, notably the horrid King of Kings, which the late writer and critic James Agee suggested should be retitled I Was a Teenage Jesus. A number of movies have appropriated some element of Biblical lore to further plot, the most accomplished being Steven Spielberg's campy actioner Raiders of the Lost Ark. The most intriguing of all these pictures, a film that is actually about a portion of The Bible and thus the most pertinent to this review, is Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, which tells the story of Sharon (Mimi Rogers), a hedonistic, sexually promiscuous woman who finds salvation in the days preceding the Rapture, the day when God looses the riders of the Apocalypse and calls the faithful home to heaven, causing people all over the word to vanish. Tolkin's take on this portion of scripture presents a rather bleak view of divinity, portraying God as a willful, cruel master who ultimately demands of Sharon the Abraham-like act of murdering her young daughter, an act she subsequently regrets to such an extent that she rejects God and so dooms herself to eternal torment. The Rapture should have at the very least associational interest to devotees of science fiction and fantasy in that it offers David Duchovny's best filmwork to date—Duchovny plays Patrick, Sharon's lover and, eventually, husband. Albeit intellectually imprecise and flawed in execution, it is nonetheless a very watchable film concerning The Book of Revelations, an artifact that—whether or not one strips away all religious context—might be classified as The Greatest Horror Story Ever Told.

The Apocalypse, the Rapture, and the entirety of The Book of Revelations have provided the subject matter for a great many Christian novels. By far the most successful of these is the Left Behind series, which as of this date numbers ten volumes, with more on the horizon. Created by a writer, Jerry Jenkins, in tandem with a fundamentalist expert on The Bible, the Reverend Timothy LeHaye, purporting to adhere strictly in its fictional progress to prophecies contained within The Book of Revelations, the series has thus far sold in excess of fifty million copies worldwide and recently has spawned two movies, Left Behind and Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force, both starring Kirk Cameron, late of the alleged television comedy Growing Pains, in the role of Buck Johnson, a TV journalist (he works for GNN) who might be described as "literally crusading." As is the case with its evil (to fundamentalist sensibilities) twin, the Harry Potter books, the Left Behind series is a phenomenon whose massive appeal beggars legitimate explanation. Both projects are marginally written, though J.K. Rowling has gained sufficient artistic cachet so as to be awarded one of the genre's many bowling trophies. Both treat of subjects that have been handled far more compellingly, more charmingly. Both rely upon conventional fantasy structures and break no new ground as regards level of invention. LeHaye-and-Jenkins' books are somewhat more standardized and more primitive than Rowling's. Reading them, one gets the idea that the authors are obeying rules set forward by some august institution such as the Famous Writers School: No sentences longer than four inches unless they comprise a list, and so forth. Nevertheless they both thrive in the same simplistic, mega-accessible, commercially viable atmosphere and so demand to be judged by equivalent critical standards. A significant difference may perhaps be perceived in the fact that whereas the Rowling books are primarily aimed at children, the target audience for the Left Behind series is the Christian reader.

The film producers of these two franchises have taken widely divergent roads in creating and marketing their products. Preceded by trumpet blasts of Internet buzz and other pre- and post-production unofficial publicity, heralded by kazillions of television and print ads, funded with mega-budgets, cast with top-notch character actors, the Potter films gloriously burst forth on thousands of screens across the nation, accompanied by a deluge of official products and tie-ins. The Left Behind movies present themselves more humbly: cut-rate budgets and a cast of non- and used-to-be entities; advertising limited mostly to word of mouth generated by the books; given a limited release and sold as cheaply priced DVDs and videos. There is no doubt that the Potter movies, albeit bland as mayonnaise, are better in every respect. The Left Behind movies, however, strike me as more interesting in that they are so clearly propagandist in nature—I'm speaking here of propaganda in the best sense of the word. Like the propaganda films of the 1940s that encouraged patriotism, faith in God and country, and constant striving against the Axis menace, the Left Behind movies encourage moral behavior, faith in God, and constant striving against the menace of the Anti-Christ. They are billboards for a cause. All art, of course, is propagandist and coercive by nature. We are a simple species. Authors, filmmaker, artists, they are all trying to sell a message to an audience, one that, no matter how complex, can ultimately be reduced to a slogan.

The producers of Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force have dressed their message in such thin cinematic cloth, they have managed to turn post-Rapture earth into a rather mundane environment. True, there are riots and conflicts, people grieving their mysteriously disappeared loved ones, etc., but this is all portrayed so flatly, it has no great dramatic weight. The sole special effect of note is that the face of the Anti-Christ, Nicolae Carpathia—played as a fuming and rather inept tight-ass, a kind of Biblical Colonel Klink, by Gordon Currie—morphs into faintly hideous aspect. Yet this may be a case in which ineptitude achieves an artful purpose. As I watched I realized that the post-Rapture was being presented in a way that emulated the way a great many of us view the events that surround us—as history televised by CNN (GNN), with interviews and news footage leavened here and there with commercials for the basic Christian message conceived as playlets involving continuing characters. Be it intentional or by happy accident, that format, despite the atrocious acting, the awful dialogue, came to inspire in me the almost drugged fascination one achieves when watching a white Bronco drive slowly along the freeway or cranes digging through the rubble of the World Trade Center. And this made the future history of Revelations, the fantastic tapestry of plagues and apparitions both glorious and monstrous, seem ominously plausible.

The time following the Rapture is known as the Tribulation and the force of the title, numbering four, a nurse, a pilot, a preacher, and the aforementioned journalist, set out, assisted by angelic beings, to make the world aware that Nicolae Carpathia is the Anti-Christ and that his ascendancy to the head of a world government has been foretold by Biblical prophecy. The nurse gives comfort to the dying and goes after Buck in homespun, wholesome fashion that puts those of us addicted to the TVland Channel in mind of Betsy's flirtations on Father Knows Best. The preacher instructs the other members of the force as to biblical prophecy; the pilot becomes Carpathia's personal pilot; and Buck the journalist infiltrates Carpathia's inner circle, a task that appears no more difficult than Col. Hogan tricking Schultz into giving him the keys to the Stalag gate—again, this is redolent of Forties propaganda flicks, which portrayed Axis leaders as bungling and clownish. Buck's overarching purpose is to reach the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where God's Witnesses have manifested: two men who, according to prophecy, will wake 144,000 witnesses to stand against Carpathia. The Wall is heavily guarded, but Buck, aided by an angelic being who warbles "Amazing Grace" in such an ethereal fashion that the guards become enthralled, manages to videotape the Witnesses as they speak God's Truth. When the guards break free of the spell and attack, the Witnesses incinerate them by breathing fire from their mouths.

Will Buck get the Word out? Will the Tribulation Force survive the outlawing of religious practice initiated by Carpathia? You'll have to see Left Behind 3 to find out . . . or read the books, which, now numbering eleven, have led their audience to the brink of Armageddon, the bombing of the ancient city of Petra where a multitude has gathered to await the Glorious Appearing, and the declaration by Carpathia that he is God.

If the Left Behind series were done as a Hollywood project, we might have Brad Pitt as Buck, George Clooney as the hunky pilot, Morgan Freeman as the preacher, maybe Clair Danes as the nurse, and there would be a multiplicity of pyrotechnic miracles and CGI monstrosities, with video games and perhaps even action figures to follow. Buy, the message would say, not—as it does in the movies that have been made—-Believe. That's the salient difference between the two. Film used as a marketing tool or as—in evangelical terms—a mission tool. Both purposes might be better served if Revelations were not treated as a tool at all, but as what it most is: a story with the mythic potency that accrues to all great fantasy. We carry in our cells the story of Apocalypse, a story of monsters, plagues, a great decline, and a war of salvation. The story seems to ridge up the very spine of our history, replicating itself over and over again in miniature. Viewed either as a literal or a metaphorical text, Revelations wields an undeniable power over us and commands our fascination, whether or not we are believers. Thus, though the Left Behind movies are somewhat effective, by attempting to make their central myth too ordinarily credible, by neutering the fantastic and grotesque elements thereof, they must in the end be seen only for what they intend to be: ingenuous and rather crude manipulations of a towering legend.