Missionaries in Movies
Before Scorsese's SILENCE, a complex cinematic history of spreading the so-called Good Word.
Spare, slowly paced, its visual beauty offset by some grueling scenes of torture, Silence is that rarest of cinematic objects: a commercial narrative film that actually asks difficult questions about religious belief, and does not answer them with either simple “inspirational” pieties or blunt secular debunking. It takes faith seriously while allowing that sometimes—particularly in circumstances of extreme peril—practical compromise must out-rule the supposedly higher path of stubborn self-sacrifice, even martyrdom. The fact that it’s a challenging movie has been reflected in the decisions of year-end awards bodies to date, with Silence so far appearing in numerous Top Ten lists, yet grabbing few singular prizes. Nonetheless, the patience it demands will be rewarded for adventuresome viewers.
Popular views of missionaries have shifted greatly over the course of cinematic history. When the movies began, it was a given that bringing “the Good Word” to “heathen” people was an inherently virtuous thing. In more recent decades, however, there’s been acknowledgement—even within many Christian communities—that invading foreign cultures with Western practices and beliefs can cause traditional ways to be irretrievably lost. At worst, missionaries have sometimes simply been used as a flying wedge to open up poorly defended territories for colonialist exploitation. Yet missionary work continues to flourish around the globe today (with the Roman Catholic church’s greatest growth these days being seen in African nations), hopefully with greater sensitivity than in the past,
Here’s an overview of some notable missionary depictions at the movies:
In Hollywood’s “golden age,” the church was seldom treated with anything but reverence—sometimes tempered by mild impish humor (older priests were often portrayed by a character actor of the “twinkle-eyed Irish rogue” type), but never ridiculed or criticized outright. Typical was this 1944 prestige production from a popular novel, with Gregory Peck at his most beatific as a Scottish priest reviewing his long decades of selfless service trying to bring Christianity to embattled peasants in China’s Chekhow Province. Similarly, Ingrid Bergman played a British missionary to Chinese villagers in 1958’s The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
Movies being movies, Hollywood often couldn’t stop itself from introducing “love interests” and sexual tension into stories ostensibly about clerics who’ve taken a vow of chastity. Most famously, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s visually sumptuous 1947 drama (made just before their even bigger hit The Red Shoes) had Deborah Kerr as an Anglican nun stationed in the Himalayas who discovers that physical and cultural isolation only heightens her maddening sense of erotic deprivation.
On a lighter note, John Huston’s 1951 The African Queen found Katherine Hepburn as an upright, uptight Methodist missionary who replaces one “man in her life” (i.e. Jesus) with the coarser likes of Humphrey Bogart’s river-boat captain in WW1-era East Africa. (Their dynamic was reprised, delighting no one, by Madonna and Sean Penn in 1986 mega-flop Shanghai Surprise.)
More subversively, Mae West played a woman of ill repute who assumes a dead missionary’s identity to escape the law in Klondike Annie (1936), a plot gimmick that stirred considerable controversy at the time. By contrast, no one cared—or possibly even noticed—when busty bad girl Virginia Mayo posed as a missionary to hoodwink tropical-islanders out of pearls “as black as sin, as black as this girl’s dreams” in 1955 Technicolor campfest Pearl of the South Pacific. Watch out when (as the trailer warns us) this “gaudy woman” meets “primitive emotions unleashed!”
Probably the best-known drama about missionaries in recent decades, this 1986 historical epic was director Roland Joffe’s immediate follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Killing Fields. Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro, Aidan Quinn, and Liam Neeson are among those on different sides of an often violent struggle between Spanish Jesuit priests, Portuguese slavers, and native tribesmen in the remote mountains of 18th century Brazil. This loosely fact-based tragedy aims for greatness without achieving it, though many remain fans of Ennio Morricone’s memorable score.
Somewhat lesser-sung but more admired in many quarters is Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe (1991), set a hundred years earlier. Another scenically beautiful film, it’s a fictionalized account of Jesuit missionaries trying to convert natives—and survive winter—in the wilds of Quebec when it was part of the colonial territory not known yet as Canada, but rather “New France.”
The potentially catastrophic consequences of “Westernizing” indigenous peoples lies at the heart of this parable adapted in 1991 by director Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman) from Peter Mathiessen’s novel. Two modern American missionary couples—one young and idealistic (Quinn, Daryl Hannah), the other older and narrow-minded (John Lithgow, Kathy Bates)—reach a remote Amazon River basin in Brazil in order to convert the local tribes. Their efforts clash with an adventurer (Tom Berenger) who already has ensconced himself in a tribe (which treats him as a “god”), and who has ties to bureaucrats who want the area cleared of inhabitants for gold-mining. Good intentions only lead to illness, madness, death, and disillusion.
A gentler (and more commercially successful) cautionary tale arrived twenty-five years earlier in the form of Hawaii, adapted from James Michener’s best-seller. In the early 1800s, a strict Calvinist reverend (Max von Sydow) and his wife (Julie Andrews, right after The Sound of Music) journey from New England to the titular “paradise,” where their efforts to spread God’s word run into some major cultural roadblocks.
Religious organizations often produced their own films, as a recruitment and fundraising tool as well as to promote their overseas programs. This half-hour 1954 curio was shot on location in southeast Asia for the National Council of the Churches of Christ. Its fictive protagonist is an American businessman who’s resettled in Malaysia (then the Federation of Malaya) to oversee a tin-mining operation. When a servant risks his own life to save the protagonist’s from an attack by Communist “jungle terrorists” trying to force Western interests out of the country, the Yankee wonders why. He learns his “houseboy” is a Christian convert, and realizing upon further investigation that this “country is not so forsaken by God after all,” considers that perhaps he should pursue a calling higher than mere market capitalism.
More recent, feature-length films made by the faithful to dramatize modern missionary efforts include 2005’s well-regarded End of the Spear, about the aftermath of a fatal encounter between Christian evangelicals and Waodani tribesmen in the mid-1950s Ecuadoran jungle. There’s also 2000's God’s Army—about Mormon missionaries in the truly challenging “field” of contemporary Los Angeles—and the following year’s The Other Side of Heaven, with Christopher Gorham and pre-stardom Anne Hathaway laboring likewise in the 1950s Tonga Islands. They’re just two titles in the sizable annals of Latter-Day Saints cinema.
Late Australian auteur Paul Cox directed this 1999 film about the real-life 19th-century Belgian priest who spent his life caring for lepers exiled to the titular Hawaiian isle. He was played by David Wenham, who’s since gone on to such big international products as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, 300, and current release Lion. Supporting players in this sober yet starry tale include Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill, Derek Jacobi, Alice Krige, Kris Kristofferson, and Tom Wilkinson.
For a documentary portrait of the last century’s most famous missionary to the sick and destitute, there’s Ann and Jeanette Petrie’s 1986 Mother Theresa, which chronicles the Roman Catholic nun’s many charitable works in India and elsewhere.
In our era of “prosperity gospel,” mega-churches, and “religious freedom” laws, it should come as no surprise that some modern missionary outreaches have controversial aims and impacts. Roger Ross Williams’ acclaimed 2013 documentary feature trains an eye on American fundamentalist evangelicals whose promotion of vehement anti-gay stances have resulted in the harassment, incarceration, and even execution and assassination of LGBTQ people in some African nations. (Most notoriously, high-profile Ugandan gay activist David Kato was murdered two years earlier.)
There’s been a happy ending of sorts, off-screen. Massachusetts native Scott Lively, arguably the most destructively aggressive proponent of such religious campaigning abroad—as well as the author of a tome called The Pink Swastika that blames the Holocaust on gay Nazis—has been the object of several lawsuits in recent years, for (as one case put it) “violating international law by conspiring to persecute the Ugandan LGBT community.” His organization “Abiding Truth Ministries” is currently classified as a hate group by human-rights watchdog the Southern Poverty Law Center.
For another nonfiction exposé of negative missionary influence, check out The Drums of Winter (1988), which examines the stubborn survival of indigenous Yupik Eskimo spiritual traditions despite a century of well-intentioned Christian suppression. And for a unique U.S.S.R silent-era view of Western meddling in China, there’s the imaginatively animated 1925 China in Flames, wherein covetous Uncle Sam and his capitalist fat cats try to invade the Far East—with considerable help from pious evangelical hypocrites. Needless to say, in this slice of vintage socialist propaganda, religion is (to paraphrase Karl Marx) an opiate designed to distract the masses from their own exploitation, and nothing more.