Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars
Thomas R. Lindlof
University Press of Kentucky (July 1, 2008)
Hardcover, 408 pages
9.2 x 6.4 x 1.4 inches
Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ is one of the most written about of all Bible films, with the possible exception of The Passion of the Christ (2004). In the main, those books have largely focussed on the content of the film. 2005's "Scandalizing Jesus: The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years On" added a more even handed look to the highly critical volumes from 1988 "Last Temptation of Hollywood" (by Larry W. Poland), "Facts on the Last Temptation of Christ" (John Ankerberg and John Weldon) and "The Last Temptation of Christ: Its Deception and What You Should Do About It" (Erwin W Lutzer). But two books have sought, instead, to examine the context of the film. Five years ago Robin Riley published "Film, Faith and Cultural Conflict: The Case of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ", and now, twenty years on from the controversial film's original release, Thomas R. Lindlof has cast his eye over the same events.
In fact, two of those authors (Poland and Ankerberg) are discussed in Lindlof's book "Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, The Religious Right and the Culture Wars". It seeks to tell the story of events surrounding the film's release primarily from the perspective of the filmmakers. Drawing on extensive interviews not only with Scorsese himself, but also a number of the executives from Universal Pictures and parent company MCA, Lindlof gives what is almost an insider's view of proceedings.
Lindlof also interviewed some of the leading voices from the Religious Right, including Poland and Ankerberg, which brings a measure of balance to his work. Yet, whereas there is seemingly an intuitive understanding of the film's makers and producers, he's never really able to empathise with the film's opponents to the same degree. There do appear to have been fewer interviews with the leading voices in the Religious Right, but it's certainly possible that this is because they were less willing to reflect on these events than those making the film. Indeed, one of Lindlof's conclusions is that some of these characters had used this affair to bolster support for their, hitherto, struggling organisations. The film ultimately battled to break even, but the Christian organisations who had been the most outspoken in their criticism of the film saw their profits soar during the period in question.
The book's real strength is the way it shapes its account into a tightly wound narrative, even managing to build up a sense of dramatic tension as the US release date approaches. It feels almost like the election night episode of West Wing, as information slowly ebbs in from across the county.
This is made all the more remarkable for two reasons. Firstly because, as with any book based on true events, it's harder to create tension when the story is so well known. The vast majority of this book's readers will already know that, despite the odds against it, the film did eventually get made, and that the protests largely went off without major incident.
The second point here is that Lindlof is not attempting to write a novel, or a dramatised account. His intention is an accurate representation of the events in question. The 54 pages of endnotes should be sufficient to convince even the most sceptical reader of that. Yet Lindlof skilfully develops his characters in the earlier parts of the book to bring things to a engaging climax. Ultimately we not only care what happens to Scorsese, but also Sally van Slyke, Tom Pollack and many others.
Whilst the leading characters from Universal, and even Paramount (who passed on the film at an earlier stage) are well fleshed out, that's less true of the film's main opponents. One notable exception, is Tim Penland the man Universal employed to act as a liaison with leading figures in the Christian Right. As someone who ultimately jumped from Universal's ship and became a key figure in their opponents campaign, it would have been easy to demonise him. Yet here, he's somewhat sympathetically presented as a semi-tragic figure: a man who got in out of his depth in a sea battle he failed to anticipate.
Interestingly, despite this book's primary focus on the controversy in the United States, the film's most vitriolic opposition actually came overseas, culminating in an arson attack during a screening in France. The film's limited release overseas is covered in the final chapter. But, in a way, these events are somewhat tangential to the concerns of this book as indicated by its title - "Hollywood Under Siege". It seeks to flesh out what really went on inside Universal studios during what was a very real crisis. And, in no uncertain terms, it succeeds.