One of the most common raps against television and movies is that they portray religion and religious leaders, especially Christians, in a bad light. Negative religious stereotypes can certainly be found on both the big screen and the small screen, but, to be fair, they don't represent the entire picture. The Warner Brothers Network, for example, offers a series called "Seventh Heaven," in which the main character, a minister played by Stephen Collins, presents a role model that's hard to object to. And just recently at the movies we've seen the release of "The Apostle," a pet project of its producer, director, writer, and star, Robert Duvall. The story's main character is a charismatic revivalist preacher, undoubtedly the easiest kind of minister to make fun of, but Duvall scrupulously avoids ridiculing his character's faith. The man himself may have feet of clay, but his religion is not held up to scorn in Duvall's film.
In point of fact, moviemakers have traditionally been more inclined to treat religious leaders with reverence than with disdain. For every unsavory Elmer Gantry in the movies, there are many more kind, self-sacrificing clerics to be seen. For a small sampling, look for these titles featuring exemplary men of the cloth on home video.
"Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938). There's no better place to begin than with Pat O'Brien. He was one of the most recognizably Irish Hollywood actors of his time, with the inevitable result that he was repeatedly cast as cops and priests. By common consent his finest role as a priest was in this vehicle for the "Dead End Kids" (later to be known as the "Bowery Boys"). James Cagney plays Rocky Sullivan, a small time criminal who becomes the idol of the would-be delinquents in his old neighborhood. O'Brien is Father Jerry Connolly, the local priest. It seems that Jerry and Rocky were childhood chums. One took the low road to reform school while the other took the high road to the pulpit. Their struggle for the hearts and minds, and, yes, the souls of the neighborhood kids makes for some great cinema.
"Boys Town" (1938). The other great movie priest of the period was Spencer Tracy. Here he takes on the role of a renowned real life priest, Father Edward Flanagan. Armed with nothing but his faith and his belief that "there's no such thing as a bad boy," Flanagan set up a community for boys in trouble as an alternative to reform school. Flanagan's chief antagonist in the film, an incorrigible kid named Whitey Marsh, is memorably played by a young Mickey Rooney in his Andy Hardy days. Tracy and Rooney's scenes together rank with the best work of their long and distinguished careers.
"Going My Way" (1944). Looking for a laid-back cleric with an unflappable good nature? Bing Crosby had a corner on the market for affable, good natured characters, so it was only fitting that he be cast as Father Chuck O'Malley in this lighthearted entertainment from director Leo McCarey. As the new priest on the block, he inevitably comes into conflict with the older, more rigidly traditional Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). In the end, of course, the charming Father O'Malley wins over the staid Father Fitzgibbon, and a gang of neighborhood kids to boot. The film won an Academy Award as Best Picture as well as garnering Oscars for Crosby, Fitzgerald, and McCarey.
"A Man Called Peter" (1955). Peter Marshall was a Scottish Presbyterian minister whose calling took him to America, where his distinguished career in the clergy culminated in his being named chaplain to the United States Senate. Following his untimely death in 1949, his wife, Catherine Marshall, published the biography of her late husband on which this film is based. Richard Todd is excellent in the title role. It is refreshing to note that the filmmakers devoted significant screen time to Marshall's sermons rather than trying to squeeze in more drama. Perhaps they sensed that someone was looking over their shoulders and that they would be wise not to mess this one up.
It's interesting to note that the trend in screen portrayals of the clergy doesn't turn significantly negative until the advent of televangelism, with its rogue's gallery of poster boys for conduct unbecoming. Could the negative trend be nothing more than the movie screen in its perennial role as a cultural mirror? Just asking.