8 Hollywood Films Filled With Christian Symbolism

One role of the church is to provide a place where people can articulate and address such heavy topics as the meaning of existence, how we deal with tragedy, and every person’s potential for redemption through love. People also ask and meditate on life’s fundamental questions through our culture’s dominant art forms, including music, theater, and most definitely cinema. Regardless of whether or not you agree that a Hollywood film can provide the impetus for meaningful theological conversations, screenwriters and directors throughout the history of film have drawn on Christian theology and symbolism to add deeper layers of meaning to the stories told on the silver screen. Below are eight such examples.

  1. The Graduate (1967):

    The youth counterculture of the 1960s inspired several enduring films as well as film heroes and anti-heroes. In Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, young and confused Ben Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, is bedded by the infamous "Mrs. Robinson" (played by Anne Bancroft) but falls in love with her daughter Elaine. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Ben stops Elaine’s wedding to another young man by screaming her name over and over, framed not-so-subtly in a Christ-like pose ("Elaine" being a variation on "Eli," the name of God as spoken in Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic languages). An even more powerful image might be the looks on both Ben and Elaine’s faces after they escape the wedding together thanks to a passing public bus. Their expressions shift from relief, to ambivalence, to what appears to be fear.

  2. Walk The Line (2005):

    Walk The Line tells the story of the late great country singer Johnny Cash who battled inner demons and drug dependency throughout his career. Typical of Hollywood, the important role that prayer played in Cash’s ongoing recovery from addiction is downplayed (You’ll have to read Cash’s autobiography for more details about his spiritual life). Early in the film, when Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and his band stumble through a well-worn gospel song at their audition for producer Sam Phillips, an exasperated Phillips chastises Cash for playing it safe. He asks a shocked Cash if he got hit by a truck and was dying in the gutter, "Would you sing something different? Something real?" Cash then plays his composition "Folsom Prison Blues" for Phillips. As he slowly sings the song, his face changes expression into what author Jonathan Brant describes as "the ecstasy of a saint."

  3. Stunt Man (1980):

    On the surface, this insane 1980 romp of a film seems to be just that: a romp. British actor Peter O’Toole plays director Eli Cross (there’s that name "Eli" again) who seems to delight in driving stunt man Cameron (played by Steve Railsback) to the very brink of sanity. What is real and what is staged fantasy is blurred throughout the film, to the point where it’s almost impossible to tell what exactly is happening in its culminating sequence involving Cameron driving Cross’ cherished vintage Duesenberg off a bridge. Is Cross God? Or the devil in disguise? Good luck trying to figure it all out!

  4. Bad Lieutenant (1992):

    Harvey Keitel stars in Abel Ferrara’s controversial, occasionally stomach-turning 1992 NC-17 film Bad Lieutenant as a violent, drug-addicted, and thoroughly corrupt police lieutenant who has lost God. His journey brings him face to face with sin, love, and his own redemption. But the trip isn’t pretty. In one powerful scene as he is overcome with grief and self-hatred in a church where a rape victim has told him she forgives the men who attacked her, Keitel curses at and then crawls toward a terrifyingly real vision of a bloodied Christ wearing a crown of thorns.

  5. Harold And Maude (1967):

    This classic late 1960s black comedy stars Bud Cort as Harold, a young man who has chosen to disconnect himself from life. His day-to-day activities include attending funerals, which is how me meets and eventually falls in love with a joyful, 80-year-old woman Maude (played by Ruth Gordon). Maude’s mission in life is one of affirmation and love, and over the course of the film, she pushes Harold to become a participant in life rather than a bystander.

  6. The Way (2010):

    Martin Sheen stars in this 2010 film by his son Emilo Estevez about a man who decides to make a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage known as the Way of St. James or the Camino de Santiago, which his son attempted but did not live to complete. This father-son collaboration works as both a tribute to The Way of St. James and love between a father and his son. Estevez described the film as "pro-people, pro-life, not anti-anything" and said he did not make it to appeal to a single demographic.

  7. Cool Hand Luke (1967):

    "Nobody can eat 50 eggs!" Paul Newman stars in Cool Hand Luke as the rebellious Luke who gets arrested and finds himself in a chain gang in a brutal Florida prison camp. The film’s anti-establishment message goes beyond mere rebelliousness as parallels are drawn between Luke’s repeated attempts to escape his fate and the story of Jesus. In one famous scene, after consuming 50 hard-boiled eggs on a bet, Luke collapses on a wooden table in a Christ-like pose.

  8. Shane (1953):

    On the surface, and taken in context of America in the 1950s, Shane seems to be a celebration of homesteaders and good triumphing over evil. But the script’s subtle references to archetypical Biblical stories and visual contrast between the Eden-like valley that is home to its farmers and the shadow-filled saloon where Shane initiates the film’s climactic gunfight (witnessed by a young boy named Joey played by Brandon deWilde) gives this film a poignancy that continues to resonate with modern audiences.