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


An associate professor of medicine as well as a serious movie buff, Peter Dans has an understandable interest in the portrayal of the medical field in cinema. In 2000 he channeled that interest into 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 he has now published a second book, Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners, a similarly impressive inquiry into the cinematic portrayal of Christianity and Christians.

Like his first book, Christians in the Movies is both a highly readable and informative work of film commentary and a discussion of changing social attitudes. Just as doctors enjoyed a “golden age of medicine” before being knocked off their pedestals, Dans notes how “[t]he 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. Now it appeared that all orthodox clergy and believers were either 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.)

Proceeding decade by decade, the book 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’. For serious Christian movie buffs, Christians in the Movies is a must-have.

This review originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.