Missions and Film

By Scott, Jamie S. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Missions and Film


Scott, Jamie S., International Bulletin of Mission Research


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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