Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Missions and Film

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Missions and Film

Article excerpt

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the "Jesus" film, but various kinds of movies--some adapted from literature or life, some original in conception--have portrayed a variety of Christian missions and missionaries. If "Jesus" films give us different readings of the kerygmatic paradox of divine incarnation, pictures about missions and missionaries explore the entirely human question: Who is or is not the model Christian? Silent movies featured various forms of evangelism, usually Protestant. The trope of evangelism continued in big-screen and later made-for-television "talkies," including musicals. Biographical pictures and documentaries have depicted evangelists in feature films and television productions, and recent years have seen the burgeoning of Christian cinema as a distinct genre. In a related development, various denominations make use of film in proselytizing, and missions and missionaries also figure in educational videos.

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Missions in Silent Movies

Although many silent pictures have been lost, their story lines remain, and stills have often survived. These films depict a variety of missions and missionaries in both domestic and foreign fields. On the home front, evangelicals battle urban poverty and American frontier savagery. The widely recognized film Easy Street (1917; dir. Charles Chaplin), for example, captures the sentiments of a generation of pictures. In this classic, the Hope Mission's beautiful organist inspires a down-and-out Chaplin to join the police to bring order to South London's slums. The renamed New Mission dominates the film's closing sequence, as church bells accompany the on-screen apothegm: "Love backed by force, forgiveness sweet, / Brings hope and peace to Easy Street." Similar sentiments infuse other films set in London's slums. In The Gift Supreme (1920; dir. Ollie L. Sellers) a mission singer wins over a disapproving father by giving blood to save his son, her lover, while a huge inheritance prompts a minister to quit a fashionable parish and open a mission in the Limehouse district in Madonna of the Streets (1924; dir. Edwin Carewe). In Recompense (1925; dir. Harry Beaumont) young lovers returning from World War I medical service in South Africa found an urban mission, and in The Black Bird (1926; dir. Tod Browning) a crippled criminal mastermind becomes a mission director to atone for his misdeeds.

American cities preponderate in silent pictures featuring domestic missions, especially New York. An Edison Company one-reeler, Land Beyond the Sunset (1912; dir. Harold M. Shaw), portrays the Fresh Air Fund, a mission created in 1877 by the Reverend Willard Parsons to provide summer holidays for inner-city children like the film's abused New York newsboy, Little Joe. In Susan Rocks the Boat (1916; dir. Paul Powell) a society girl discovers meaning in life after founding the Joan of Arc Mission, while a disgraced seminarian finds redemption serving in an urban mission in The Waifs (1916; dir. Scott Sidney). New York's East Side mission anchors tales of betrayal and fidelity in To Him That Hath (1918; dir. Oscar Apfel), and bankrolling a mission rekindles a wealthy couple's weary marriage in Playthings of Passion (1919; dir. Wallace Worsley). Luckless lovers from different social strata find a fresh start together at the End of the Trail mission in Virtuous Sinners (1919; dir. Emmett J. Flynn), and a Salvation Army mission worker in New York's Bowery district reconciles with the son of the wealthy businessman who stole her father's invention in Belle of New York (1919; dir. Julius Steger). The Day of Faith (1923; dir. Tod Browning) has a reformed reporter join forces with a mission worker to perpetuate a deceased philanthropist's philosophy, "thy neighbor as thyself."

In 1924 two films featured urban American missions: in The Bowery Bishop (dir. Colin Campbell) a New York evangelist risks his own reputation to help an errant lawyer fulfill his responsibilities to a neighborhood girl and their baby; and in By Divine Right (dir. …

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