What can you learn about the Gospel from “City Slickers,” the classic 1991 comedy starring Billy Crystal? More than you might think.
This hilarious film portrays three middle-aged men from New York City who respond to their midlife crises by going on a vacation during which they herd cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. (Spoiler alert: Don’t read this column until you have seen the movie.)
I have watched “City Slickers” (the original, not the horrendous “City Slickers II”) several times and have always been struck by the serious, and ultimately uplifting, themes interwoven with all the jokes. Sadly, the movie is not suitable for children because of its frequent use of dirty language and sexual references, but it will reward the mature Christian seeking points of contact with lost friends and neighbors.
On a recent Friday evening with my new Blu-Ray DVD copy, I saw “City Slickers” not simply as a good flick, which it is, but as a parable loaded with biblical ideas. These themes—which I will mention below—are so numerous, in fact, that I began to suspect that some secret Christian influence had stacked the cinematic deck in favor of the Gospel.
So I looked up the director, Ron Underwood, to see if anything in his career stood out from a spiritual perspective—and nothing did. Then I turned to the veteran screenwriting team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel and got the same answer. These pros had no theological axes to grind that I could discover.
Perhaps the explanation for the unmistakable spirituality of this movie is both simpler and more profound. In “Mere Christianity,” C. S. Lewis spoke of the existence of “good dreams . . . those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.”
Certainly one could chalk up all the Christian signposts in “City Slickers” to Lewis’s “good dreams,” but I suggest there is another force at work, too, which many others have noted before me: The Christian faith and worldview have become so deeply embedded in Western culture that they cannot help but ooze out—sometimes unbidden—in our science, education, art, and literature. I think that is the case with “City Slickers,” giving this “guy movie” its peculiar power.
Lest you think I’m foolishly seeing an angel under every Hollywood bush, consider the following biblical themes in “City Slickers”:
Death: Mitch Robbins (Crystal) fears getting old. His hairline is receding, his job selling ads for a radio station no longer inspires him, and as the old song from “Godspell” put it, “[his] prospects are dim.” On his birthday, Mitch asks the station manager, “Have you ever had that feeling that this is the best I'm ever gonna do, this is the best I'm ever gonna feel . . . and it ain’t that great?”
When he goes with his buddies to find himself out West, death is inescapable. He fears that Curly (Jack Palance), the old trail boss, might kill him; a cow dies while giving birth; two panicked horses go over a cliff; Mitch narrowly avoids being trampled by a stampeding herd of cattle; Curly dies on the trip; Mitch must face down an armed, drunken cowboy; he dives into raging waters, risking his own life, to save a drowning calf; and so on. But certainly Mitch, before he starts to develop courage, reminds us of “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
Holiness/faithfulness: Several times his friend Ed Furillo (Bruno Kirby) asks whether Mitch, a married man, would have sex with another woman if there were no possibility anyone would ever know. Mitch says, “I’d know, and I wouldn’t like myself.”
The wages of sin: Phil Berquest (Daniel Stern) has lost his career and his wife over a sordid act of adultery. He believes his life is over.
The search for father: All three men—Mitch, Ed, and Phil—speak of their fathers, either fondly, wistfully, or bitterly. Each is trying to recapture that relationship or in some way come to terms with a father who either blessed or hurt them. This hearkens back to the seeking father of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) and to the Lord’s comforting words in Jeremiah 29:13: “You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.”
Hiding: Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, most of the characters are hiding from something: Mitch, from death; Phil, from the guilt and consequences of his sin; Ed, from the responsibility of a being a faithful husband and father; Bonnie Rayburn (Helen Slater), from a failed relationship; Barry and Ira Shalowitz (Josh Mostel and David Paymer), from an advertising-created image of themselves; and so on.
Life from death: A calf, which Mitch names Norman, emerges seconds before Curly must euthanize its suffering mother. And Mitch consoles a despairing Phil, whose life is a shambles, with the idea that his life from now on is “a do-over.”
Dante and Beatrice: Mitch asks Curly if he has ever been in love, and the old cowboy, whom Mitch earlier described as a “saddlebag with eyes,” says, “Once.” He saw a woman from a short distance who was his perfect vision of female loveliness, and he rode away without speaking to her, satisfied, needing nothing more. The great poet Dante Alighieri, of course, saw Beatrice, which awakened in him a longing only God could satisfy.
One thing: Holding up his index finger, Curly tells Mitch that the meaning of life is “one thing.” When asked what that “one thing” is, Curly replies that Mitch has to figure that out for himself. Ultimately Mitch discovers his purpose in his family. Christians, of course, say that our purpose, our “one thing,” must ultimately come from outside of ourselves . . . in the person of Jesus Christ.
Baptism and new life: To bring the cattle home, Mitch and his friends must cross a raging river. When they do, they emerge as new men, enjoying unbreakable commitment to one another (fellowship). It is a powerful image of Christian baptism and the new life that follows.
The lost sheep: Mitch has taken on the role of father—perhaps even mother—to Norman, the calf he delivered with Curly. When Mitch discovers that Norman is in the river and headed downstream toward certain disaster, he leaves the other cows to save the animal. One cannot help but recall Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?”
Redemption: At the end of the movie, Mitch saves Norman from the slaughterhouse by purchasing the calf from the ranch owner and bringing it to live in his New York City home until “a nice petting zoo” can be found. Christians, of course, revel in our redemption from sin through Christ’s purchase of our souls by His death on the cross.
As Jerry Root and I state in our book, “The Sacrament of Evangelism,” “Books and movies play a profound role in Western culture and provide many avenues to fruitful explorations of issues.” At their best, they reveal the pain and longing of people all around us, which only Christ can satisfy. And they provide open doors for the good news.
I don’t know where Billy Crystal stands with regard to the Gospel, but I do know that “City Slickers,” one of his best movies, points—perhaps inadvertently—to the hope available to all of us in Christ. But are we Christians ready to use the signposts already in our culture to bring lost and hurting people into the barn of God’s love?
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