Messiahs at the Movies

One of the things I didn’t like about On the Waterfront, which I saw last week for the first time, was director Kazan’s messianic symbolism for main character Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando. Later, thinking of the Matrix movies, I wondered aloud if there was a tendency for Christ figures in movies to be not very bright. My husband G. Grod countered quickly that Paul Newman was no dummy in Cool Hand Luke. I’m having trouble coming up with more examples, though, either pro or con. Is there a tendency for lunkheaded Jesus characters, and if so, why?

17 Responses to “Messiahs at the Movies”

  1. Erin Says:

    McMurphy in [i]One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest[/i] was obviously on the smarter side. And I think the Whiskey Priest in [i]The Power and the Glory[/i] was probably a bit too smart for his own good, if anything.

    “Lunk-headed Jesus” is totally the name of my garage band, when I put it together.

  2. Erin Says:

    Gah! I don’t know why I slipped into UBB code there. Sorry to mess up your nice page.

  3. Girl Detective Says:

    Erin, no worries. That’s the code I use, too, since it was the first I learned.

  4. Erik Says:

    I dunno if sacrificing oneself is enough to get one Messiah status, but Tom Hanks’ character in Saving Private Ryan was a pretty wily man of peace.

  5. V Says:

    What about Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings?

  6. Vince Tuss Says:

    Aslan, in “The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe”?

    Although just having watched “Waterfront” again (on the DVR, thanks to Turner Classic’s 31 days of Oscar), I’d argue that it was necessary to have Terry not to be the brightest guy in the world, because he had to come to it himself, and if even he could realize what was going on was wrong, then…

    And to mention Kazan’s legacy marred by politics, what about Lee J. Cobb? A powerful actor who was the first Willy Loman who now is almost forgotten because he named names.

  7. Vince Tuss Says:

    “Dune,” maybe? And “Star Wars”? Luke Skywalker may be the whiniest, but he’s not necessarily the dumbest. It takes some smarts to refigure those power converters for Uncle Owen.

  8. Erik Says:

    I don’t get how Aragorn or Luke Skywalker are truly Christ-figures. Yeah, they are the key figures in a restoration of goodness to the order of their worlds… but I thought to be a Messianic figure, a character had to, how do you say, snuff it. Luke loses one hand and turns into the Joker’s voice; Aragorn washes his hair and looks kinda chubby in his kingly robes. Not such a terrible fate for either.

  9. Girl Detective Says:

    How could I have forgotten Buffy at the end of Season 5? Buffy is a good example of a lunk-headed savior. Erik, you make an interesting distinction. Are we talking about Christian Christ-figures, i.e., those that knowingly sacrifice themselves for the good of many, or are we talking about Judaic messianic figures, i.e., ones who usher in a new age of peace. (I forget if they’re supposed to die, too.) I think a case could be made for Aragorn and Luke in the latter category. I do think that Luke is lunk-headed; I think Yoda would agree with me. Vince, I agree that it was necessary that Brando’s character wasn’t the brightest bulb; I don’t think it was necessary to make him a Christ figure. I think it’s possible to have the former without the latter.

  10. Vince Tuss Says:

    Yoda, agree might he.

    As for whether these figures had to die or not, I took from the first example: Terry didn’t die at the end of “Waterfront.” He walked into work and everybody followed.

  11. Erik Says:

    Okay, so the sacrifice needn’t be a literal death, but I’m saying that both Luke and Aragorn complete your more basic hero’s journey: they reach their goals and fulfill their destinies. They just happen to be doing it against a larger canvas of world events. Buffy works pretty well, because she definitely sacrifices herself for the good of the world, redeeming people who never appreciate her (or know she exists). Plus, it’s nice for this discussion that she’s a lunkhead. By the same token, you could try to count Spike, but in season 5 of Angel (now available on DVD!) it’s made pretty clear that he’s not very well-redeemed, and neither is the world. Still, GD specified movies.

    So, you want a good lunk-headed movie Messiah? I like the Mel Gibson portrayal of Hamlet. Here’s a guy who commits to a stupid plan, causes pain and suffering to all around him, and in the end learns the truth — and gets a poisoned sword in the spleen for it. What a dork. Olivier’s mincing but wily version doesn’t fit the ‘lunkhead’ criterion, but Gibson’s misplaced 30-something verve perfectly plays up the angle where Hamlet believes what he’s doing is right, and he will set the whole of Denmark on the path.

  12. Girl Detective Says:

    Vince, do you think Terry survived beyond the door? I saw that walk as his last. Erik, what a great example, and how timely, now that Gibson’s Passion of the Christ has been re-released. I don’t think Branagh’s Hamlet was a lunkhead, either.

  13. Vince Tuss Says:

    I saw it that he survived. That all he had to do was walk through the door. Considering the earlier part of the movie, when his “work” was lying down in the loft, I figured it as he would heal or leave.

    And speaking of Gibson, what about his William Wallace as a nonlunk-head. Spoke French and Latin and went to Rome. He even died.

    Gibson’s “Hamlet” is terrible. The whole movie reeks more of a Stallone action adventure. Anyone see “The Last Action Hero” (I know, I know. But some movies you can’t escape on cable.) I believe there is some faux promo in there for Arnold’s movie star character playing Hamlet. Hi-larious, especially because it evokes Gibson’s.

  14. MFS Says:

    Too funny. I am just about to blog about Cool Hand Luke. And FWIW, Luke is a bit brainless. As another character notes, “He has more guts than brains.” I believe that is, in large measure, why he fails to conform. “I never planned nothing in my life,” he reveals. The folks around him create his mythology, not he. He is, in our humble opinion, a lot like Chance the Gardner in Being There. “I like to watch.” The people around him ascribe all sorts of wisdom to him, when, in fact, he’s a dolt.

  15. MFS Says:

    Sorry. Posted too soon.

    … he’s a dolt. Or a Christ figure, right?

  16. MFS Says:

    And I returned because I wanted to be clear that I was agreeing with your assertion that many Messiah characters are portrayed as lacking intelligence — not disparaging the historical Jesus. (*sigh*) In person, my remarks would have made more sense.

    BTW, my son’s immediate comment on the concluding image in the “I can eat 50 eggs” scene was, “Oh, my gosh! They’ve got Luke laid out like Jesus on the cross!” Ayup.

    Got your message about garlic. I smell like an Italian restaurant. Let’s hope it works. (*grin*) Couldn’t find the other in anything but Cold-Eze. To be honest, I only had time to stop at one (small) store. As I said, let’s hope it works.

  17. Girl Detective Says:

    MFS, thanks for reminding us that we’re talking about characters here, and not the historical Jesus, whose story is predicated on him being a smart guy and knowing exactly what was happening, why and what the consequences were, for him and others.

    I don’t see Luke as a dolt. I see him more as a “Jesus without a cause”, if you will. He does pointless things, like eating fifty eggs (Easter symbolism, as well? MFS, it’s amazing that your son is filmically literate enough for that reference) and knocking the heads off parking meters, but he’s more savvy to what’s going on than are the others around him, like seeing Lucille for what she is.