This film is based on the true story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre of September
11, 1857 in which a Mormon militia murdered 120 members of a wagon train crossing
through their territory on the way to California.
Most critics hated the film; but then most American movie critics are theists who hate any
criticism of belief in the supernatural, so they have generally attacked it as simple anti-
Mormon bigotry. Many claimed that the sermons depicted are wildly over the top, but
producer/director Chris Cain says these are verbatim transcripts from historical records.
The words of Brigham Young were taken directly from his deposition in a federal court
after the massacre. And the plot accurately follows the events set forth in the written
confession of John D. Lee, captain of the militia, the only eye-witness and the only person
convicted and executed for the crime.
Chris Cain says that he intended to dramatize the danger of religious fanaticism as it
exists today, and as it existed in that first 9/11 just 150 years ago. The subject was
brought to his attention by the accidental discovery of 29 skeletons in 1999, and the
controversy that arose between the state of Utah and the descendants of those victims
regarding their reburial.
Everyone seems to agree that “fanaticism” is a bad thing, but what does that mean?
Doesn’t “fanaticism” simply mean believing the claim that all preachers make – that they
are a mouthpiece for their god, and that failing to obey their exhortations will lead to
supernatural punishment? Not a single critic ever mentioned that. What the film does
lack, however, is adequate context. It takes the point of view that the Mormons were
totally at fault and the emigrants were all innocent Christians.
Here is the context that was missing: The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith
in the little town of Palmyra, NY, in the year 1830. Smith’s doctrines were regarded by
most Christians as heretical and blasphemous, so he was hounded out of one area after
another. First settling in Kirtland, Ohio (1831-1838), he then was forced to move to
Independence, Missouri. In Missouri, there was so much conflict with the populace that
the governor eventually signed an Extermination Order, expelling all Mormons from the
state under penalty of death. The church next moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, where they built
their first temple. Smith became mayor of the thriving community, but in 1844 he and his
brother were murdered by a mob of Christian vigilantes, and the temple was burned
shortly thereafter. Brigham Young replaced Smith as leader of the church, but continued
conflicts with the government prompted him to leave the United States entirely. He led his
followers into the wilderness of the Utah Territory, which was still owned by Mexico at that
time. In 1846, Young agreed to help the U.S. gain control of the territory, in the Mexican
American War, and founded Salt Lake City. But in 1848 President Zachory Taylor sent
troops to Utah to arrest Young. The Mormon militia repelled them. When Millard Fillmore
became president in 1850, he sought to make peace with Young so the transcontinental
railroad could be built through the territory. He appointed Brigham Young as governor of
the territory. But Young was disdainful of U.S. law and established himself as absolute
dictator of a communal theocratic state, complete with a secret police force to spy on his
own people for signs of apostasy. His system of justice consisted of church tribunals.
This led to many cases of vigilante violence by Young’s “Danites,” prompting President
James Buchanan in 1857 to order more federal troops to move into the territory and take
political control. That was the tense situation that prevailed at the time of this incident; the
territory was actually at war with the United States, and there had been many casualties
on both sides. Mormons were expecting eminent invasion from the east, and they thought
this wagon train was planning to supply arms and provisions to an invasion force from
California. So the Mormons had good reason to be suspicious, and the Christians had
been just as “fanatical” as the Mormons.
Some critics snickered at the Romeo and Juliet story between a “Gentile” (i.e.
Protestant) girl from the wagon train and a Mormon boy, but it obviously didn’t occur to
them that without that framework, the film would have simply been a documentary. I think it
added a human face to the conflicting doctrines, and voices of moderation to dispute the
The Mormon Church has consistently denied that the massacre was ordered by Brigham
Young or any other church officials, in spite of what John D. Lee swore in his confession,
and other clear evidence. They still maintain that the massacre was at the hands of Piute
Indians, perhaps with some involvement by local hot-heads. Why not simply admit their
culpability? Because that would contradict their continued claim of divinely ordained
This was a little known but important event in American history and, especially with a
Mormon currently running for president of the United States, one with which everyone
should be familiar.
Seven year old Liam lives with his family in the Irish Catholic section of Liverpool during the
mid 1930s. Liam’s father and older brother find themselves unemployed after the shipyard
closes down, and his older sister Teresa provides the only source of income by working as a
maid for a wealthy Jewish family. When she applies for the job, however, she denies that
she is Catholic, for fear that she would not be hired – considering the growing tension
between Catholics and Jews.
The bulk of the story is devoted to a caustic examination of Catholic doctrines and the
horrors of parochial school – which neatly intermesh with the anti-Semitic message of the
Played against a background of conflicts among Fascists, Communists, Catholics,
Protestants, and Jews, the story reaches a tragic climax after the desperate father joins the
The script by Jimmy McGovern was adapted from a novel called “The Back Crack Boy” by
Joseph McKeown. Little Anthony Burrows as Liam and Megan Burns as Teresa are superb,
and direction by the renowned Stephen Frears is masterful. It should be noted that Frears
was offered the script of “Angela’s Ashes,” but turned it down because, as he said, it was
too depressing; he already had an option on the script for “Liam,” which dealt with the same
period and milieu, and he thought “Liam” would make a better movie.
He was right.
This is a hilarious satire about life along the redneck Riviera during the 1930s. As a
refugee from that culture I can attest to the accuracy of its depiction in the movie. The only
artistic license taken by the Coen brothers was in making “Pappy” O’Daniel the governor of
Mississippi, whereas he was actually governor of my home state of Texas at that time. I
remember him well; and it is true that he created a hillbilly band called the Light Crust
Doughboys to promote his flour mill and his political career. Incredibly, this buffoon
eventually rode his cornpone radio program all the way to the U.S. Senate.
The main plot of the movie, however, revolves around three convicts who escape from a
chain gang, led by George Clooney who plays an agnostic disbarred lawyer surrounded by
wacko Bible thumpers. One of the funniest scenes in the film involves the baptism of his
fellow escapees who think such an action will expunge their criminal records. Clooney
disgustedly describes them as “dumber than a bag o’ hammers.”
Such can certainly not be said about this very clever comedy.
O Brother Where Art Thou?
Geoffrey Rush plays the Marquis de Sade in this well made allegory about the power of the
pen. Although Sade was no literary genius, and was unquestionably neurotic, he has gone
down in history as one of the first to decry the hypocrisy of Christian morality. And, in spite
of the fact that the film bears scant resemblance to historical fact, it nevertheless succeeds
very well in posing the perennial question of whether society ever has a right to prevent the
dissemination of unpopular ideas. Intertwined with this premise is the implication that the
religious doctrines on which the Marquis pours his invective are far more sadistically
insane that he is.
This is one teen comedy which even we can enjoy. It adroitly satirizes all the absurd
fundamentalist doctrines and hypocrisies that we have been lambasting for years, but it
does so in a way that the producers claim is not anti-Christian.
The story is set in a Christian high school, where Mary and her domineering friend Hillary
Faye are beginning their senior year. Mary’s boyfriend tells her that he thinks he is gay.
This, of course, is unacceptable. So Mary has a vision in which Jesus tells her to seduce
her boyfriend to save his soul. In spite of imperiling her own soul to save his, her boyfriend
is shipped off to a Christian recovery center to “straighten him out.” There, the wise
Christian doctors assign him to a roommate who is also gay. In the meantime, Mary
discovers that she is pregnant. When the news leaks out, and Mary finds herself an
outcast, she begins to question all the doctrines she has been taught. As leader of an
evangelical girl’s club called the Christian Jewels, Hillary Fay now becomes Mary’s chief
antagonist. Mary, however, is befriended by Hillary Fay’s wheelchair-bound brother, who
is disgusted by the school’s Draconian rules, and also joined by his punk-rock girlfriend,
who is the school’s only Jew.
Hilarity ensues as the three rebels fight the establishment and insist on their right to
graduate. In one of the most telling scenes, Mary tells Hillary Fay that she is not practicing
Christian love; whereupon, her former friend hurls a Bible at her, screaming that she has
more of Christ’s love in her heart than anybody in school!
Writer-director Brian Dannelly comes from an appropriately ecumenical background.
Born in Germany, he attended a Catholic elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland, went
to Jewish summer camps, and graduated from a Baptist high school. He says that he
soon realized they could not all be right. After graduating Magna Cum Laude from the
University of Maryland, he then entered the director’s program of the American Film
Institute, where he wrote this script with another classmate. Dannelly may, or may not, be
an avowed atheist, but in the closing credits, he cites George Smith’s book, “Atheism:
The Case Against God” as a prime resource.
The most interesting thing about the release of this film is the way it is being marketed.
No one dares admit that the basic premise is humanistic. Instead, they say that the
message of tolerance and acceptance of dissent and diversity is the essence of “True
Many vendors were not fooled by this kind of doublespeak, however, and the producers
had considerable trouble completing the film, as company after company refused to do
business with them after reading the script.
Critics have been divided. Those with Christian leanings generally complain about it
being “shallow” and “crass,” while those with a leftward tilt go along with the campaign of
redefining humanistic atheism as a “deeper form of Christianity.”
CBS should be commended for their excellent production of the Salem Witch Trials,
starring Kirsty Alley, tonight (3/2/03). This is a totally different approach from Arthur Miller’
s play – which was regarded as an allegory about the dangers of McCarthyism. This one,
however, seems to be an indictment of the whole concept of supernaturalism. It paints the
entire culture of Puritanism as totally insane – which leads inevitably to the tragic climax of
the witchcraft trials.
And why this new production at this time? Because the hysterical spirit of Puritanism not
only still lives, but has now gained almost complete control of our government, and we
should be ready for the consequences.
Be sure to catch Part Two on Tuesday night, and I’m sure the series will be repeated at
some time in the future – unless religious pressure groups prevent it.
|Salem Witch Trials
M. Night Shyamalan is the new golden boy of Hollywood and current maven of the
formulaic summer blockbuster. His latest effort is “Signs,” starring Mel Gibson. If you
thought all that breathless hype about crop circles had finally been put to rest by the
numerous exposés of crop artists and how they accomplish their works of cereal graffiti,
think again. Old myths never die.
Assuming the worst, I originally had no intention of seeing this flick, but then I read an
interview with Shyamalan, in which he said that the movie was not really about crop
circles; it was a story of “faith.” Since the director had been born in India, I thought he had
probably been raised as a Hindu, and might, therefore, be able to give the theme a new
twist. No such luck. It seems that he grew up in the U.S. and was sent to both Catholic
and Episcopal schools. You can surmise the rest.
The story is a combination of “War of the Worlds” and “Night of the Living Dead.” Mel
Gibson is an archetypal bitter atheist who was once an Episcopal priest, but who had
resigned from the church after his wife was killed in an accident. He lives on a farm with
his brother and his two children. One night a crop circle appears in his cornfield.
Shymalan does acknowledge the disclosures about how these designs are created by
having Gibson make jokes about “nerds without girlfriends, using ropes and boards.” But
then, of course, the whole world suddenly realizes that these are actually navigational
markers used by ETs in preparing for an attack on Earth. Most of the film is devoted to
the family trapped in the farmhouse while the monsters try to break in. There is one key
scene in which Gibson tries to explain to his brother the difference between theists and
atheists. He says that theists are deluded but hopeful, whereas atheists are realists, but
fearful. While in his atheist phase he is very rude to everyone and sometimes terrorizes
his children. His brother scolds him for “losing his faith,” saying he is no longer the manly
and fearless big brother that he had always idolized.
But worry not; melodramas are designed to sell popcorn, not shed light on the human
condition. So although thousands of people around the world are killed and/or abducted
by aliens, this family escapes harm; therefore Gibson regains his faith and returns to the
I’m sure the film will sell lots of tickets, but sophisticated adults should save their money.
The Second Coming was produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation, and first
shown in the Spring of 2003 – at which time it created howls of outrage from some Brits
and praise from others. The writer and executive producer was Russell T. Davies, a 40
year old (allegedly) gay Welshman who is best known for creating the TV series, Queer as
Folk. It was rebroadcast on BBC America, Sept. 20, 2003, in order to publicize the DVD
Davies seems to be using the metaphor of supernaturalism in order to satirize it – as was
done in “Oh God!” “Oh God, You Devil,” and “Bruce Almighty.” By imagining what would
really happen if there were a “Second Coming,” he demonstrates how devastating it would
A nebbish video store clerk suddenly blacks out, and wakes up forty days later, claiming
that he is the “Son of God.” Of course no one believes him until he performs a genuine
miracle, by delivering a speech one night in a soccer stadium, only to find the stadium
suddenly filled with daylight. This event is covered by scores of TV cameras, which
naturally gets the attention of everyone on earth. During this speech he delivers what is
essentially an atheist message about how the human species faces imminent destruction
unless we abandon our old superstitious religious concepts and realize that our fate rests
in our own hands, with no Big Daddy in the sky to save us. But to make the message
palatable to contemporary audiences, Davies couches it in biblical terms; he has the
Christ figure say that humanity must write its own Third Testament or face Judgment Day in
five days. However, the protagonist himself has no idea what it all means – that God is
only using his body as an instrument, and he won’t know what he is going to say until the
day arrives. There is panic in the streets as every preacher and nut case sends in their
own version of a Third Gospel, while everyone else prepares for some kind of
Armageddon. To maintain consistency with the supernatural metaphor, and create
additional suspense, Davies introduces a Devil to further confuse everyone and see that
the plan is fulfilled and the earth destroyed.
In the meantime, however, the protagonist’s best friend, a woman named Judith (as in
Judas) figures out what must be done. She prepares a Last Supper for her friend and
spikes it with rat poison. After hearing what she has done, the “Christ II” character
understands that he must once again sacrifice his own life for the good of all. After he has
willingly done so, the narration ends with the slyly ambiguous statement that everyone
finally realized that “only through the death of God can humanity be saved.”
The major significance of the film is that it could be produced by a state sponsored
network in Europe, but would most likely never even be broadcast by a commercial
Second Coming, The
Out of all the analytic ink that has been devoted to this film, no one appears to have
noticed, or at least to have said out loud, that this can be interpreted as an excellent
freethought parable. Therefore, reviews have concentrated on issues of privacy, media
manipulation and pervasiveness, or whether this is “truly” an original story or just another
variation on The Prisoner TV series, some ancient episode of The Twilight Zone, etc.
These are peripheral matters. The more interesting question is what point the author
intended to make. It seems clear to me that it was designed as an allegory about Judeo-
It would have been easier, and perhaps more realistic, to have placed the set on an actual
island (as in The Prisoner), subject to real natural conditions. But instead, the author
placed it in a dome-shaped sound stage just like the blue-tile dome supported by four
columns located at the “four corners of the earth,” assumed by all ancient people and
referred to in the Bible as the “firmament.” In The Truman Show nothing ever happens
unless the omniscient and omnipotent Director wills it: the sun rises and sets on his cue:
he decides on the weather; he controls every newspaper, every radio and television
broadcast; and he whispers in the ear of every actor on the set, dictating every line of
dialogue. All this is precisely the same paranoid fantasy assumed by ancient Jews and
Christians, up until Galileo discovered that the sky was not a blue-tile ceiling. Afterwards,
the Western churches expanded their conception of the sound stage to include all the
universe. But now they say, “Well, OK, so maybe there are other worlds; nevertheless,
“outside” of the black painted spherical sound stage, there is still The Director sitting in
His heavenly control room, dictating everything that happens – all for the entertainment of
himself and presumably some angelic audience.
When Truman begins to notice certain inconsistencies in the phony world view with which
he has been indoctrinated, the entire Establishment tries to prevent him from finding out
the truth. After all, millions of dollars depend on maintaining his delusion. At the end of the
movie, Truman’s boat bumps into the sky-dome and he realizes that his entire life has
been based on lies. In the side of the dome is an exit door similar to the giant hanger
doors described in the apocryphal book of Enoch (through which the sun, moon, and
stars made their entrances and exits). When Truman demands to know what is going on,
“Christ”-ov (the “anointed” one) admits, in a voice from the sky, that it is all fake. But he
reminds Truman of what is at stake: If he agrees to play along with the hoax, he will
continue to be taken care of in this idyllic setting, but if he walks out that door, thousands
of people will lose their jobs and he will be all alone in the dangerous and uncertain world.
Like freethinkers everywhere, Truman prefers to take his chances in the real world.
The Truman Show
V for Vendetta is an Anglo-German production, written and produced by the Wachowski
brothers, best known for their Matrix trilogy. It could perhaps be characterized as Zorro
meets The Phantom of the Opera in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The story
idea originated as a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd in 1989, as an
extrapolation of the conservative policies of Margaret Thatcher (and her bosom buddy
Ronald Reagan). But when the Wachowski brothers adapted it to film, they
incorporated a post-9/11 sensibility, with echoes of the current Bush/Blair
The story takes place in London during the year 2020, when both the UK and the US
have been taken over by fascist regimes. A pretty young office worker named Evey
(played by Natalie Portman) is being detained by some goons from the Morals Squad,
for curfew violation. They are about to rape her, when suddenly she is rescued by a man
wearing the mask and costume of Guy Fawkes. He quickly dispatches all of them with
incredible knife fighting skills that reflect his superhero comic book origins. But he is no
traditional goody-two-shoes. He turns out to be a very complex mad genius whose sole
ambition is to murder all the government bureaucrats who mutilated his body during a
secret atrocity which they had manufactured in order to seize control of the government.
He has assumed the character of this legendary villain who is remembered with bonfires
and fireworks every November 5th throughout the United Kingdom. Fawkes was a
Catholic who had tried to assassinate King James the First, in 1605, and bring down
his Protestant regime, by blowing up the Parliament building when the king was
scheduled to appear there for a ceremony. Fawkes had hidden 36 barrels of
gunpowder in a secret tunnel beneath the building, but was caught before he could carry
through his plot. He was hanged, then drawn and quartered, which was the penalty for
treason at that time. To this day, young people burn his effigy on a bonfire, and
sometimes an effigy of the pope as well, then end the evening with fireworks, to
symbolize the blowing up of Parliament. Like other folk heroes, such as Jesse James
or Bonny and Clyde, Fawkes is both glamorized and anathematized.
In this movie, the masked man identifies himself only by the code name “V”; and as
soon as he is finished with his personal vendetta, he then plans to bring down the entire
tyrannical regime by blowing up the Parliament building on the following November 5th.
Evey at first is horrified to find herself in the hands of a terrorist, but as she slowly
becomes aware of the machinations of the government, she gradually becomes more
Like fascist states of the past, the government uses both religion and the threat of
foreign terrorists as a tool for maintaining control of the population. The symbol of this
government is the double-barred Cross of Lorraine. And the head of what had been an
extermination camp is now a bishop, with a taste for pedophilia.
In a tip of the hat to George Orwell, the prime minister is a ubiquitous television
presence, always raising new alarms to frighten the public into submission; and in a bit
of poetic casting, John Hurt, who played the part of protagonist Winston Smith in the
1984 re-make of Nineteen Eighty Four, is cast this time as the “Big Brother” style
What elevates this film above the level of simple action melodrama is the way it
suggests that the difference between a “terrorist” and a “hero” is a matter of opinion; it
just depends on whose side you support. And in this movie, the government is depicted
as so thoroughly depraved that by the end we are hoping V will succeed in his quest to
bring it down by destroying its symbols of power.
Film critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper gave it two thumbs up, and I’ll point mine
in the same direction.
V for Vendetta
“The Ten,” written and directed by David Wain, looks as though it might be a spoof of the
vaunted “Ten Commandments.” Don’t be misled. This low budget farce is not a critique
of religious doctrines.
Of course, there is no such thing as “The Ten Commandments.” It depends on which
verses you refer to and which Bible you use. The reference in Exodus 20:20 lists
seventeen commandments; the alternative reading in Deuteronomy 5:6 enumerates
about twenty-one, depending on how you count them. Then the Jewish, Eastern Orthodox,
Roman Catholic, and most Protestant Bibles all word these injunctions quite differently. In
no case is there ever anything resembling the Decalogues seen on courthouse lawns.
Nevertheless, this film opens with just such a representation, while host and producer
Paul Rudd stands in front of the tablets and promises to tell a story about each one. The
film, then, is an anthology of ten short stories, each of which is supposedly based on one
of those themes. I obtained a list of the ten plot-lines from the Internet, but trying to match
each story with one of the ten taboos was something of a challenge. For example, the
first story is about a man who forgets to put on his parachute before jumping out of a
plane. Finding himself buried in the ground up to his neck makes him a media superstar.
I think this was supposed to illustrate the one about having no other gods besides
Yahweh, but it’s hard to be sure. The connections between the other nine were equally
Some of the stories were mildly amusing, and there is some schadenfreude satisfaction
in seeing a fairly long list of mid-level stars embarrass themselves in such silliness, but
only those with a taste for the potty humor of South Park and the adolescent, thuddingly
lame and repetitious skits of Saturday Night Live will really appreciate this film.
Note: As new reviews are added, it is becoming increasingly difficult to present them
alphabetically. From this point on, they will be listed by date of release.
The Golden Compass is based on the first volume of a trilogy of fantasy novels called
His Dark Materials by British author and outspoken atheist Philip Pullman. It stars
Dakota Blue Richards as twelve-year-old Lyra Belaque, an orphan and ward of her uncle,
Lord Asriel, a college professor played by Daniel Craig.
Pullman says that he was so annoyed by the Christian-infused Chronicles of Narnia by C.
S. Lewis that he decided to write his own series of children’s books based on more
His Dark Materials comes from a line in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, referring to the
stuff from which the universe is made. Since modern cosmologists now think the universe
is mostly composed of unknown “dark matter,” the title therefore indicates that the books
will be delving into the nature of reality. Historically, of course, the only organized forces
opposed to scientific inquiry have been religious. Therefore, the antagonist in these
books is simply called “The Church.” In adapting the story to a big-budget film, however,
the script writer-director had to change “The Church” to a more oblique term: “The
Magisterium,” which is a word used by Catholic theologians to refer to their body of
doctrines. In the film, officials of The Magisterium wear uniforms that suggest a militaristic
clergy, but instead of the usual pectoral cross, they wear some kind of unidentifiable
Uncle Asriel embarks on an expedition to the Arctic Circle to examine a mysterious
element called “Dust,” which tends to accumulate there from outer space. The
Magisterium declares that any investigation of Dust would be heretical, and vows to use
any means to stop him. Lyra wants to go with him, but he says it would be too dangerous,
so he leaves her in the care of the college regents. After he leaves, Lyra is introduced to
an elegant scholar and explorer named Mrs. Coulter, played by a sinister Nicole Kidman.
She says she is going to the arctic and invites Lyra along. Once they disembark, Mrs.
Coulter claims that she is Lyra’s mother. But we know she is actually an agent of The
Some cosmological hypotheses have proposed that there may be an infinite number of
parallel universes, so the Dark Materials story takes place in a world that is similar to our
own, but different. The most obvious difference is that in Lyra’s world everyone has a
“daemon,” which is a talking animal that embodies the “soul” or personality of that
person. This pet stays with the person at all times and often plays the part of their
conscience, like Jiminy Cricket. Uncle Asriel’s daemon is a snow leopard; Mrs. Coulter’s
is a golden monkey, sleek, blond, and bad tempered. Children don’t yet have a well-
formed personality, so their daemon is constantly shape-shifting from one animal into
The Magisterium’s goal is to control every aspect of human life, and one of their ongoing
projects is to kidnap children and brainwash them. They operate a concentration camp in
the arctic where these captured children are forcibly severed from their daemons. Lyra’s
goal is to locate the camp and free her best friend before The Authorities can destroy his
free will forever. Along the way, Lyra has many adventures with beautiful flying witches,
sea-faring gypsies, armor-plated polar bears, a fanciful airship piloted by Sam Elliot in
his inimitable cowboy persona, and of course, the Golden Compass, which is a kind of
crystal ball that answers any question she asks.
The computer animation in this film is spectacular, the animals are very realistic, and the
neo-Victorian sets are gorgeous. I think the movie is certainly an Oscar contender for
cinematography, special effects, and production design.
The Catholic League is urging a boycott of the picture, fearing that the machinations of
The Magisterium will be an all too apparent reference to the Catholic Church. But more
importantly, the Catholics, as well as numerous fundamentalist groups, are afraid that
children might be tempted to read the original books, and thus be led into atheism. Philip
Pullman said he is happy with the film and he welcomes the boycott, since that always
generates additional publicity. If this film is financially successful, the producers plan to
make the two remaining sequels.
The American Humanist Association highly recommends the film, as do I.
The Golden Compass
Released Dec., 2007