• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Monday, February 02, 2009

    Review: Hollywood Under Siege:
    Martin Scorsese, The Religious Right and the Culture Wars

    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
    ISBN: (978)0813125170
    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.

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    • At 9:34 pm, February 02, 2009, Anonymous Religious Statues said…

      There are more ways above it.

    • At 5:00 pm, February 19, 2009, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      I actually just finished reading this book only a couple of days after you posted your review. As a huge 'Last Temptation' fan, it was like pages and pages of wonderful treats. I had been setting out for some time to write essentially this book myself. After seeing the depth of Lindlof's research, I'm glad I didn't!

      This is an amazing book. I think your review is spot-on. Though I will say that, while I agree that the protesters and critics were not given an "insider" feature the way Universal was, their concerns were given very sympathetic treatment - even if their tactics were often inexcusable.

      Also, in talking with Dr. Lindlof last year, he expressed that he felt the opposition had been given ample voice for their side of the story (especially with a book like "The Last Temptation of Hollywood"). So, his express purpose was to tell more of the parts of the story people were less likely to be familiar with and to give a voice to many who had not spoken, most of whom were on the "Hollywood" side of the equation.

      I love the fact that Lindlof acts here as a historian, not expressing his take on the film itself, but recounting the events themselves in great detail. Though his philosophical leanings seem to be clear, both in the focus of the book and in certain parts of the language he uses, he does not allow those leanings to lead him to portray the critics as villains.

      There is one bit in particular in the section about the advance teams (great stuff!) where one of the ladies talks about gaining a perspective on the deeply personal view the protesters held of Jesus. I found this segment to be quite a compelling moment that gave a great deal more sympathy to these people than is generally granted them.

      It must also be considered that there are perhaps fewer major players on the critics' end, but most all of them were interviewed by Lindlof. Certain ones, like R.L. Hymers, I know from experience are very reticent to talk about these events and almost all are distrusting of a "secular" book about this topic. So, there were some roadblocks standing in Lindlof's way there, as well.

      All told, though, this book is a masterful achievement and one I will be returning to for years to come. Thanks for the great review!


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