Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints by Peter Dans

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

Every serious Christian movie buff should own a copy of Peter Dans’ Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. First published in 2009, Christians in the Movies was originally available only in an expensive hardcover edition priced as a library reference work; since then it’s been reprinted in an affordable paperback edition.


Christians in the Movies is not Dans’ first survey of cinema. An associate professor of medicine as well as a dedicated cinephile, Dans was first moved to write about the big-screen depiction of his profession in his 2000 book Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Ahh! — an entertaining and insightful study of social attitudes regarding medicine as illustrated by Hollywood.

Dans is also a Catholic, and in Christians in the Movies he undertakes a similarly impressive inquiry into the cinematic portrayal of Christianity and Christians. Both books are highly readable and informative commentaries that focus particularly on changing social attitudes over time.

Just as Dans notes in Doctors in the Movies that physicians enjoyed a “golden age of medicine” before being knocked off their pedestals, in Christians and the Movies he observes that whereas the “movie clergymen of my youth were tough-yet-good-hearted priests, often portrayed by big stars like Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, and Bing Crosby,” later portrayals often depicted clergy and believers as “vicious predators or narrow-minded, mean-spirited Pharisees.”

Dans not only documents changing images of faith, he sketches the larger social context of films from The Passion of Joan of Arc and Angels With Dirty Faces to Dogma and The Magdalene Sisters. (Full disclosure: Dans cites my article on that last film.)

Dans’ approach is a chronological one. Proceeding decade by decade, he opens each chapter with a brief consideration of the overall state of the culture, of Hollywood, and finally of the portrayal of Christians typical to the period. The bulk of the chapters consists of discussion of noteworthy individual films, with plot summary followed by commentary on the film’s overall merits as well as its depiction of Christianity.

This schematic procedure is more methodical than the thematic approach Dans took in Doctors in the Movies, enabling Dans to cover more ground in almost exactly the same space: Both books are just over 400 pages, but Christians in the Movies discusses almost 200 films from the silent era to the present, while Doctors in the Movies confines itself to the sound era and gets through about 70 films.

The flip side is that the writing is less organic and more programmatic than Dans’ earlier book, in which plot and critical evaluation are interwoven and one film segues into another. In a word, Doctors in the Movies is more literary while Christians in the Movies is more encyclopedic in approach.

This doesn’t mean that the new book is any less informed by the author’s critical insights and opinions. Dans is an incisive analyst as well as a knowledgeable annalist, and readers will find him a reliable guide not only to discovering films that would otherwise have eluded them, but to better understanding the spiritual and artistic merits or flaws of films they know well.

Dans has no formal film training, which he perhaps rightly feels helps him identify with ordinary viewers. Those who have struggled with Black Narcissus, say, will appreciate Dans’ frank assessment that “the murkiness and weirdness of this melodramatic story, as well as the almost stylized stringing together of the scenes as if they were portraits” may leave viewers wondering “what the film’s ‘classic’ and ‘four star’ status is about.” (That was certainly my reaction, despite my film training.)

Even when Dans’ opinions diverge from the reader’s, his views are always engaging and thought-provoking, and the reader’s views will benefit from interacting with Dans’.