Golden Age of Film

Four years ago, Robert McFarlane, President Reagan's former national security advisor, was indicted for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. McFarlane was crushed. His career was ruined. In desperation, he tried to commit suicide. Then a stranger mailed him a video of the old classic "It's a Wonderful Life." The movie portrays a young man named George who suddenly faces the prospect of bankruptcy and arrest, and decides to kill himself. But he is stopped by an angel, who persuades him that the simple things in life--like loving his children or helping a friend--are more important than business success. "It's a Wonderful Life" is a touching movie, and it's shown on TV every Christmas. But Robert McFarlane had never seen it before. In an interview, McFarlane said the movie gave him inspiration to go on. What a tribute to Frank Capra, who created the movie back in the 1940s. When Capra died recently, critics took the occasion to reflect about the way movies have changed in the past 50 years. In Frank Capra's day, films conveyed a moral message. Like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," another Capra favorite. It's about a young senator who stands up for moral principles in the face of practical politicking. We don't hear that kind of message from Hollywood anymore. Today's filmmakers insist art should be free of moral overtones. But look what they give us instead: tired formulas--endless rehashing of chase scenes, slashers, nudity, and gore. Sure, today's special effects are spectacular. But when the film itself has no substance, that's like frosting with no cake. Glitz and glitter that leave the viewer feeling empty afterward. Modern filmmakers feel morality gets in the way of serious art. But Frank Capra proves them wrong. He successfully portrayed characters who stand for traditional moral values--honesty, courage, sacrifice, loyalty. Characters who turn to prayer as easily as breathing. In "It's a Wonderful Life," when George runs into financial trouble, his wife asks the children and neighbors to pray. And they do, right there on screen. Frank Capra described his goal in these words: "I deal with the little man's doubts,...his loss of faith in himself, in his neighbor, in his God." And then, "I show the overcoming of doubts, the courageous renewal of faith...." This is the stuff of real life. Homey, yet heroic. Capra's creative period, the 1930s and 40s, is considered the Golden Age of film. Even feminists say the old studios cast women as strong, interesting characters. By contrast, today's films portray women one-dimensionally, either as sex objects or female Rambos. A moral framework doesn't limit art, it makes better art. Characters who demonstrates moral integrity are complex and interesting. But characters who live for pleasure and self-gratification are shallow, childish. The American public is so used to shallow characters and formula films, we've almost forgotten what a good movie can be. Try educating yourself. Do what Patty and I have been doing lately: Rent some of the older classics and see the contrast. If Christians start demanding real quality in films, we just might spark a cultural revolution--where movies once again portray the moral drama in the souls of ordinary men and women.


Chuck Colson



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