Movies and the Culture Wars

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Movies and the Culture Wars

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The 63rd Golden Globe Awards in January 2006 shocked some people with four awards validating director Ang Lee's movie Brokeback Mountain. Academy Award nominations followed, and this story about two homosexual cowboys received considerable media attention and promotion around the world. The movie attempts to warm the audience to a sensual relationship between two married men. These are not the cowboys of your parents' era.

My generation could hardly imagine John Wayne falling in love with another cowboy. I don't think it would have made Clint Eastwood's day either. Yet Hollywood producers try to convince us that we must lighten up. Cowboys used to be quintessentially masculine role models that spoke of a lifestyle that defined bedrock values including displaying men as leaders of traditional families.

Shaping our culture

There was a time when movies validated traditional Christian values rather than pushing the limits of what many thought to be appropriate. We have come a long way from the epic Civil War picture, Gone With the Wind, first shown on the big screen in late 1940. At the time this cinematic showpiece was accused of pushing the limits when Rhett Butler said a four-letter word and left his shirt unbuttoned. Many movie theaters boycotted this risqué rendition of Margaret Mitchell's tale of sacrifice and hardship during America's bloody Civil War.

The makers of movies and television shows have often been accused of moving society along a liberal path, all the while insisting that they just reflect the latest trends.

For Christians, this is another test of our bedrock values. Either we spot the slippery, moral slide, or we float slowly along with the murky current of change. At the end time, the Bible reveals that the state of mankind will become worse and not better. "But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived" (2 Timothy 3:13).

A movie comparison

A good illustration of this remaking of American values is revealed in two different movies based on a similar script: Academy Award winners High Noon in 1952 and Unforgiven in 1992.

Peter Gibbon, in his book A Call to Heroism, makes the case that people today have a different view of heroes and a different culture to evaluate them. He compares these two movies produced 40 years apart. In the earlier version, Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of a U.S. marshal in High Noon. Forty years later, Unforgiven also won four Academy Awards including Best Picture.

High Noon opens in the morning sunshine with a wedding, while Unforgiven opens in the night rain in a brothel. High Noon starts with a kiss; Unforgiven with the slashing of a prostitute. Will Kane, the hero of High Noon, is a U.S. marshal; Will Munny, the hero of Unforgiven, was a reformed killer and alcoholic reduced to pig farming. High Noon was set in the town of Hadleyville; Unforgiven in a town called Big Whiskey whose sheriff, Little Bill, was a sadist.

High Noon ends with order restored. Unforgiven ends essentially as it opens–in the dark and rain, in sorrow and violence, with anarchy ascendant. High Noon was about physical bravery and moral courage, about overcoming fear and fatigue, about doing the right thing no matter what the cost. Unforgiven was about weakness and revenge (Peter Gibbon, A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision of Greatness, pp. 144-145).

What's the message?

A day at the movies offers a titillating opportunity to experience the latest adventure with high-tech graphics and special effects, including dynamic digital sounds. But the most critical part of high profile entertainment is the message that is communicated. Movies have often been an accurate commentary of culture. Directors feel they are reflecting the world around them. Arguably, the film industry picks up on marginal themes and moods that often shape the attitudes of others.

More and more people use sensate imagery to form their values rather than the written Word of God that makes them think through a scenario and compare it with the moral laws given to mankind. Powerful images, especially those coupled with high technology, sound and glamour, can move the emotions and taunt the conscience. Are you wise enough to notice the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, provocations?

A few days ago, my wife and daughter were watching a 1942 black-and-white film about famous baseball player Lou Gehrig, The Pride of the Yankees, with swelling big band sounds and formal clothing (men wore ties and ladies were in dresses). My initial inclination was to see what else was on (a bad habit of mine), but I soon realized this was not a cheap, old movie (starring Gary Cooper and Babe Ruth), but a touching tribute of courage, love and responsibility. I don't advocate that we go back to black-and-white Turner Classics, but audiences don't need crassness and vulgarity to entertain them. Good values can entertain and also inspire!

How to make a difference

The issue here is who defines values. Is it Hollywood or the Holy Bible? The way to make a difference is to boycott the type of material that degrades Christian values. There was a time when the majority of people recognized when something was outside acceptable bounds. The "bounds" seem to be moving more and more with some advocating that "bounds" are archaic.

The current interest in culture wars is encouraging, when we consider the number of people who feel some things in our culture have gone too far. But how far the entertainment industry will go largely depends on the next generations of ticket buyers. Patrons can vote with their wallets and decide what to put into their minds.

Perhaps there are a few people reading this who might want to make a few movies of their own, based on vertical themes that inspire and teach. How wonderful it would be to have access to good, wholesome entertainment that takes the high road of morality and virtue. The future belongs to our young adults. If you want to win the culture wars, speak up and make it clear what you want to see at the movies. VT