George Bellamy discusses alternative Jesus figures in cinema
Let’s talk about Jesus. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to convert you; but as this summer blockbuster season was kicked off by a heavily Christ-oriented Superman, while a remake of Robocop is on the horizon (one of the more radical interpretations of the Christ figure), I feel it’s a good time to discuss Jesus in Hollywood, and give a little praise to the legacy of radical, alternative Christ figures in American cinema.
When discussions surround the treatment of archetypes and heroic tropes coming out of Hollywood, conclusions tend to stress the homogeny of the character-types, where the bland nature of the heroes we come across on the big screen all appear in the same mould. Jesus, however as a figure in cinema is surprisingly diverse in his apparitions, as there’s a wealth of playfulness in the depiction of God’s son and heir to the millions. Films explicitly about Jesus have had a long run of inoffensive conventional approaches, yet radical film-makers have had many opportunities where they have shaped Christ in a mould far more radical than how an action hero have be dealt with. Ken Russell’s The Devils, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ are all worth watching for they ways through which the perspective of a film-maker has an object through which their personalities can create its most extreme expression.
It is common to find that in the architecture of the hero in cinema allusions abound to the qualities and tropes of Christ. The latest Superman film, Man of Steel had several visual references peppered throughout the film, which eventually provided a source of critical derision since the references made had the effect of tapping into an extrinsic source of worth and value, which the character within the film hadn’t justified or really conveyed. A moment where he speaks to a priest on whether it was worth sacrificing himself for humanity had a stained glass picture of Jesus taking up half the shot, screaming the pretence of dramatic meaning without being dramatic or meaningful in any effective manner.
However, when a film uses the tropes of Jesus to complicate or subvert expected understandings of the parallel with Jesus, a film can then use the extrinsic source of theological ideas to add vitality the film at hand. The original Robocop presents a Jesus Americanised with all the horror that prospect suggests. Robocop is a cyborg super-policeman who, with his oversized gun, hyper-scientific suit and passable one-liners, wreaks violent judgment on the creeps of a dystopian Detroit. This doesn’t sound very New Testament but the film has a surprisingly prevalent correlation to Christ’s physical suffering, which emphasises the damage inflicted by immoral bodies of people (be it thugs, corporate institutions or hubristic science) on the good guy trying to be earnest in a corrupt society. There’s even a moment where it looks as if he is walking on water before he goes to save a fellow cop. Cool Hand Luke on the other hand presents a darker use of the Christ-like iconography, where Paul Newman’s inspiration for the spirit and resistance of the people who revere him does not lead to salvation or freedom from oppression, but a pacified dream of hope where the inmates continue to revere the idealised hero but never defeat their oppressors.
Hollywood may not be an environment where the studios are keen to offend their audience with audacious presentations of an alternative Christ-figure, but somehow throughout the years, filmmakers have managed to mingle various ideologies and ideas through using existent genre tropes and religious iconography to great effect.