How Movies Shaped How I See the World

This piece ran in newspapers in mid-April, 2023


I have always loved movies, and they have left their imprint on me. The movies of my young years (mostly 1950s) helped form the contours of my image of the human world.


I especially loved the Westerns that dominated story-telling of that era. For one thing, I loved how it explored the meaning of “anarchy,” i.e. what it meant to inhabit a world in which the rule of law was tenuous at best. The anarchy of the frontier required the hero to wield a gun (often reluctantly). It was a place where the “white hats” and the “black hats” squared off against each other.

It was said that in the 1950s, the nation was processing the demands of the Cold War. And these dramas rehearsed aspects of the anarchic international system insightfully enough to teach me something about the tragic truth that sometimes righteousness requires a readiness to fight.

Also I liked the integrity displayed by so many of those righteous heroes.

(In High Noon, Marshall Kane would not leave the town to the gangsters, even though he was entitled to leave with his beautiful bride, and even though the townspeople proved themselves unworthy of his sacrifice. When, years ago, I saw that gangsters were gaining power in the America, I was troubled by how like the craven townspeople in High Noon, and how unlike Marshall Kane, a lot of otherwise good people were acting.)

And not least there was the majesty of the Western terrain. (One image – some movie that ended with our hero looking West toward the Rockies — lived in my mind as a sacred landscape, a Garden of Eden.) The Western helped establish my spiritual feeling about the beauty of the earth.

World War II Movies

Born in 1946, I came to awareness while the nation was processing the profound experience of World War II. Movies about that conflict which was fought across the entire planet – and various documentaries appearing on TV – were part of that processing.

(At the same time, America was focused on the Cold War embroiling the whole world in a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.)

WW II and the Cold War combined to implant in my mind the image of humankind engaged in a global struggle over its destiny

WWII’s war between the democracies and the fascist powers, enacted in so many movies, looked like a world-spanning chess-match. The complexity of that global battle also, like chess, taught the importance of good strategic thinking.

And, just as chess pieces come in white and black, WWII was exceptionally conducive to being conceived as a battle between Good and Evil.

The movies themselves usually depicted action at a small scale – perhaps at the platoon level, or perhaps whole battles – and among the important values they conveyed were of teamwork and of courage.

Religious Movies

The 1950s were also a time of blockbuster spectaculars depicting religious themes—both Old Testament (like The Ten Commandments) and the New (like The Robe, Quo Vadis, and Ben Hur).

It is no wonder that movies are such a powerful artistic medium, since they integrate — simultaneously into one experience — so many media that can move us: artistry in language, in story-telling, in visual imagery, in music. When the credits run, we can see that a single movie is the collaborative product of a great many creative individuals, all orchestrated by a guiding hand. When those individual artists are of high quality, the result can blow open the viewer’s consciousness.

So it was for me, on a few occasions, with a few well-made movies that strove to inspire people at a religious level.

One moment in The Ten Commandments that lived especially vividly in my memory.

(This one is in addition to the pivotal moment when Moses has his transformative experience with the Burning Bush—the moment when he is transformed from Fugitive from the power of Pharaoh (his world’s dominant power, who seeks to kill him) into Prophet of the Lord who returns to command that earthly power to let His people go.)

The moment that was most impactful and memorable for me was when Charlton Heston, as Moses, raises up his rod and calls out, “Behold His mighty hand!” while the strength of Almighty God divides the waters of the Red Sea to enable the oppressed “children of Israel” to escape the onrushing army of the oppressor.

That thrilling feeling has ever since fed my yearning to see such a Power for the Good deliver suffering humanity from Evil.

Then there was the moment in Ben Hur – the precise moment when Jesus dies on the cross –when, out of an extraordinarily dark and angry sky, the earth is battered by lightning and strong wind, expressing a cosmic rage at the evil that had been done.

I’ve held onto that image because it has felt so meaningful – even comforting — to conceive of the world as a place where some encompassing Force cares about how we humans are doing in our world.

Powerful images can mold how we think and feel.

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