In a previous post I complained about how many films about Jesus are so lame.
I suggested it was because filmmakers tend to be overly reverential with their central character, as well as appearing to be paralyzed about using speculative or non-biblical dialogue (unless their name is Scorsese).
A more satisfying, and frankly more successful, approach is to avoid a sword-and-sandal epic about Jesus himself and opt for a stand-in, a redemptive Christ figure who doesn’t crumble under the expectations of Christian viewers. So to that end, here are some films I think do well at depicting part of the gospel story by using a character who looks like Jesus in disguise.
To begin, allow me to get a couple of my pet-hates out of the way. Firstly, the cruciform sacrifice scene is just downright lazy, if you ask me. Whether it’s Ripley at the end of Alien 3 (1992), or Robert De Niro’s rope-prone boxer in Raging Bull (1980), or the sacrifice of Neo at the end of The Matrix: Revolutions (2003), it’s just all too obvious for my liking.
I really enjoy a film that depicts the salvific effect of self-sacrifice, but I don’t need it shoved down my throat. And nowhere is it more obvious than in Cool Hand Luke (1967), where the religious symbolism is laid on way too thick. I get that Paul Newman’s Luke is a Jesus-like redeemer figure, but do I need to see him lying exhausted on a table, arms outstretched, feet folded over each other (after he won an egg-eating bet, for goodness sake!).
My second pet-hate, is an even lazier device than crucifixion imagery. It’s the trick of giving your self-sacrificing protagonist the initials “J.C.” Whether it’s John Connor (Terminator), James Cole (12 Monkeys), John Coffey (The Green Mile), or John Carter (er, John Carter), do I really need the character’s redemptive role forecast that obviously?
Like I said, I’m good with a Christ figure, as long as I have to work to find her or him.
In all the films in my list, an outsider appears, showing others a new or different way to live, and then making some sacrifice — usually their life — so others may find theirs.
I left off some of the more obvious Christ figures in film. It’s not that Frodo, Gandalf, Aslan, Harry Potter, Neo, and Superman aren’t good examples of redeemer figures. But I’ve gone for more incidental Jesusy characters, individuals you might not immediately think of as Christlike, but who’s story turns out to mirror the gospels in some way.
RANDLE P McMURPHY, IN ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
Jack Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy, a troublesome prisoner, transferred to a mental institution for psychiatric evaluation. There, he encounters a ward full of subdued, brow-beaten, frightened patients, under the iron grip of the quietly tyrannical matron, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). So McMurphy takes it upon himself to loosen her grip — or try to — by leading his timid fellow patients in rebellion.
Like Christ, McMurphy is an outsider, sent from another world, as it were. He’s not like the other patients (he’s only faking his illness to skip jail time).
And also like Christ, all his high-jinks and escape plans are intended to enliven his new friends, to whom he says, “You guys complain how much you hate it here, and then don’t even have the guts to leave! You’re all crazy!”
McMurphy pays the ultimate price for his rebellion. Enraged by Nurse Ratched’s treatment of a particularly vulnerable young patient, he attacks her. He is subdued and lobomotized. In the final sequence, another inmate, Chief Bromden mercifully kills the now-passive McMurphy and busts out of the mental institution, striding off into the sunset to start a new life.
CHANCE THE GARDENER, IN BEING THERE (1979)
Chance (Peter Sellers) works as a gardener in the walled grounds of a rich recluse (who might be his father). He has lived all of his life inside the townhouse and knows nothing of the outside world. When his patron dies, Chance is cast out into the world, able only to speak in aphorisms about gardening and seasons, ill-equipped to deal with Washington in the 1970s.
Not that this bothers Chance. He is detached, calm, secure in his own knowledge, unaware of his limitations.
Through a series of happy circumstances, he is taken into the home of a dying millionaire named Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas). Rand, who mistakes his introduction, “Chance the gardener” as “Chauncey Gardener’, provides him entree into the most elite levels of Washington society, allowing him to not only become acquainted with the president (Jack Warden) but eventually be appointed his unofficial adviser.
And all along, all he does is spout wisdom about plants and pruning, sunshine and regrowth, wowing everyone with what they believe to be otherworldly wisdom.
After Rand’s funeral, several Washington power brokers discuss who they should groom as a potential successor to the president once his term is completed. Eventually, they all agree that Chauncey Gardiner would be a perfect successor.
Like Christ, Chance leaves his father’s house and arrives in our world a stranger, pure and unsullied. And also like Christ, he ‘teaches’ in a style no one had ever seen before. And like Christ, he appears on a trajectory to become the ruler of the world.
That famous last scene, where Chance walks on water, surely confirms it.
ET, IN ET THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
That weird alien with the glowing fingertip is about as Jesusy as you can get in film. He travels from a distant planet, bringing superior knowledge and powers; he gathers a small band of disciples, er, friends, around him; he is persecuted by the authorities; he dies and is resurrected, and leads his friends to a mountain, where he ascends in his spacecraft.
The final sequence, as ET is about to return home, is a real tearjerker. His heart literally glows with love for his earthling friends. Then he embraces Elliott (Henry Thomas) and tells him “I’ll be right here”, pointing his glowing finger to Elliott’s forehead. He could have added, “Even to the end of the age.”
BABETTE HERSANT, IN BABETTE’S FEAST (1987)
This is the story of a Parisian chef, Babette (Stéphane Audran) who escapes the 1830s Communard uprising to work as a servant to two elderly sisters in a frugal Calvinist village in Denmark. Used to the opulence of the Parisian bistro, she submits herself to the sisters’ abstemious life and diet. The austerity of the household requires her to limit herself, to rein in her knowledge of the culinary arts, to be less than she knows she can be.
But when an unexpected stroke of good fortune enables her to leave their service and return to France, she makes a breathtaking decision. She decides to spend every last krone on a lavish, multi-course masterpiece of French cuisine.
Like Christ, Babette comes from a foreign world, limits herself, and offers her friends an ostentatious and sacrificial act of grace and favor.
The whole banquet sequence is a delight. Not only does the food look amazing (some critics called it gastro-porn), but there’s something comical about the refusal of almost all the guests to express how much they’re enjoying it. They stick to their belief that food is a mere necessity, despite the astonishingly intricate dishes that Babette keeps laying before them.
It’s a picture of the Kingdom of God — a banquet so magnificent Babette’s friends can’t even begin to appreciate it.
DANIEL, IN JESUS OF MONTREAL (1989)
The Catholic Diocese of Montreal is concerned that their annual passion play is too staid and uninteresting to attract much of an audience, so they hire Daniel, an out of work actor, to stage a more modern version.
Daniel sets about researching the life and death of Jesus in order to refresh the story. He decides to play Jesus and recruits a rag-tag band of actors and performers to play the disciples and Mary Magdalene. Through his research, and his willingness to truly embody his character, Daniel’s life begins to mirror that of Christ’s. And the more his life emulates that of Christ, the more he is drawn into conflict with the church authorities.
It’s not too subtle, but there’s a touching, even devout, sensibility about Jesus of Montreal. And there’s even a kind of resurrection scene at the end.
ANDY DUFRESNE, IN THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a mild-mannered banker sentenced to life in Shawshank State Penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover, despite his claims of innocence. He survives for 20 years, under the control of the evil and corrupt Warden Norton, befriending many of the inmates, especially Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman).
Like Christ, Andy is different. He’s not quite like all the other inmates. His special skills as an accountant, and his kind, pensive demeanour, mark him out as unique among the hardened criminals and sadistic guards. He is a strong, dignified character in a seething pool of suffering and debasement.
In an obvious Christian reference, Andy and twelve inmates are seen tarring a roof and being supplied with beer and wine. In another scene, Andy sacrifices his well-being to play a recording of The Marriage of Figaro over the public address system, bringing a moment of beauty to the ugliness of the prison. The parallel with Christ is powerful.
Andy escapes from prison and arranges for Red to join him to split the riches Andy has purloined from Warden Norton’s ill-gotten gains. The beach where Andy and Red are reunited has been interpreted as an analogue for Heaven. Their sins are washed away by the Pacific (Peaceful) Ocean.
KARL CHILDERS, IN SLING BLADE (1996)
Billy Bob Thorton’s portrayal of Karl Childers, a developmentally delayed man who has been incarcerated in a state facility since childhood for killing his mother and her lover, will be the most challenging Christ figure for some readers.
A cross between Frankenstein’s monster and Boo Radley, Karl is released back into society, a world for which he is patently unprepared. There, he encounters and befriends a vulnerable young boy named Frank (Lucas Black), and his single mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), who allows Karl to live with them, in an apartment above the garage.
But Linda’s boyfriend, Doyle (country singer Dwight Yoakam), is a violent, boorish redneck, whose cruel treatment of young Frank bothers the simple Karl. Sensing imminent danger, Karl eventually takes matters into his hands and murders Doyle to protect the boy. It is an especially violent scene.
Like I said, Karl is a challenging Christ figure. He’s deeply damaged by his own upbringing, and prone to violence. And yet he feels deeply. There is pain, humour, irony and sweetness in the character, surely one of the most unique on film.
A little bit like the George Stevens western, Shane (1953), Sling Blade depicts a violent man finding refuge in a small town, and being forced to perform an act of violence to protect a young boy. Shane (Alan Ladd) pays for his redemptive violence with his own life. Karl finds himself back where he began, incarcerated in a state mental facility, safe in the knowledge that Frank has a better shot at life than he had.
THE GIANT, IN THE IRON GIANT (1999)
A bit like Superman (which it references), the Iron Giant travels from another world with superior powers, where he befriends earthlings, and ultimately dies protecting their town from a nuclear missile strike, only to be resurrected in the final frame, using his extraordinary ability to self-repair. He’s not as cute and cuddly as ET, but you get the idea. And it’s a pretty good picture, funny and heartwarming.
SELMA JEZKOVA, IN DANCER IN THE DARK (2000)
When she is wrongfully accused of a crime she kinda sorta didn’t really commit, Selma (Icelandic singer, Björk) is sentenced to be hanged.
But instead of using her money to hire a lawyer, the luckless Czech immigrant gives everything she has to the Institute for the Blind to pay for an operation which will prevent her son from developing the blindness with which she is afflicted.
The build up to Selma’s execution is especially gruelling. Director, Lars von Trier gives us lots of extreme close-ups of Selma’s distraught, terrified face. In these scenes, she resembles the anguish of Christ, as he suffers on the cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Also, like Christ, Selma makes the ultimate sacrifice so that her son might enjoy a better quality of life. Just before she is executed, Selma receives word that her son’s operation was a success. She knows she can now die happily.
ANDREW ENDER WIGGIN, IN ENDER’S GAME (2013)
Ender’s Game tells the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a young boy denied the freedom to be a child in order to save the human race. Different from other children, preternaturally gifted with abilities necessary to defeat the enemies of humanity, Ender must relinquish his own humanity and, in doing so, almost relinquish his sanity and his life.
He is a Christ-surrogate if ever there was one.
Interestingly, while violence is necessary in the battle for which he is prepared, Ender remains oddly untouched by that violence, an innocent who ultimately does sacrifice himself for the greater good.
When the great war is over, Ender climbs aboard a small ship and prepares to go into deep space, determined to form a new colony, like a new human race.
All that said, none of these characters are wholly satisfactory as a stealth messiah. It should be noted that Randle McMurphy is in prison for having sex with a minor; the rise of Chance the Gardener has been compared to the ascendancy of Donald Trump; Karl Childer’s and Selma Jezkova’s acts of violence are contrary to the teaching of Christ. But they each portray something of the Christ story.
In an upcoming blog post, I’ll explore my favorite religious characters on film.
14 thoughts on “Stealth Messiahs: Christ figures in film”
How about Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino? Loved that movie!
Yep, that was a good one. I thought of adding it. A more intriguing Clint Eastwood picture would be Million Dollar Baby. The sacrifice made by his and Hilary Swank’s characters are much more morally complicated than Gran Torino, but much more intriguing.
Absolutely! The first time I saw Gran Torino, “that scene” took my breath away.
Although “that scene” does break my rule about lazy cruciform sacrifices. In fact, I think Walt’s sacrifice would have been more powerful without it.
I’ve had a few great suggestions on my socials –
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) in Gran Torino;
Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith) in Simon Birch;
Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) in Razor’s Edge;
Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) in Chocolat.
What about Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge… I’m not really a movie buff but the story of Desmond Doss was very moving and his commitment to faith knowing it led to sacrifice was inspiring.
I haven’t seen that one. My next post is about the depiction of religious characters on film. Doss was a Christian conscientious objector, wasn’t he? He might fit in that one more easily than as a stealth messiah.
I really liked it – I’d say it’s well worth a watch. Like most Gibson films, it doesn’t really do subtlety and can be a bit cornball american in parts, but it has a pretty good cast – lots of Aussies actually (Worthington, Rachel Griffith etc).
You’re probably right re: the film more depicting a religious character, than a stealth messiah; I was thinking that after I posted above … Doss was vocally Christian and a conscientious objector as you say and apparently the film is pretty faithful to his story.
That said, there were (and are) many christians who had no problems with killing for their country, so Doss’s actions dramatically stood out as he effectively showed a different way to be human during a time of war, drawn directly from his conviction of living like Jesus. So I suppose he’d fit the messiah description, just not stealthily as he was overtly pointing to Jesus through his actions.
Perhaps another one that’s a bit too obvious, Mike, but lots of fun to watch, is Jeff Bridges in Starman.
Someone mentioned that on Facebook. But to my shame (?) I have to admit I’ve never seen it.
Starman is certainly a Christ-figure (to a point).
Mike, Really fun look at archetypes, but can’t believe Man of Steel flew under the radar:)
What about the famous Luke Sky walker in star wars
Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in John Michael McDonagh’s 2014 Calvary is a powerful Christ Figure. A priest comes into a community wounded by a floundering economy and cynical about the presence and role of the Church because of sex scandals with priests as well as the inability of the Church to relate to people in their situations. James is threatened with death by a man in the community who was abused by a priest. He tells Fr James he is going to kill him, not because he is a bad priest but because he is a good one. James is an outsider to the community as well as Catholicism as he was an Anglican Priest who became an RC priest. He has an option to leave or stay and face the threat. Forgiveness is shown in the final scene.