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Senator Feinstein, Is There Anything You Won’t Say or Do?

Deal W. Hudson

September 24, 2018

Dear Sen. Dianne Feinstein, I am writing to you to ask a simple question, Is there anything, morally speaking, you just would not do?  I ask because what you are doing to Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee is something I could never do, no matter how much I detested a liberal court nominee.

‘What did I do? you ask.

You introduced an allegation about Kavanaugh in the last days of a long Senate integration. This allegation of Prof. Ford was known to you since July! Why did you wait so long to “bring it in as evidence?” Basic fairness to both parties required you to bring to light right away. No, you waited until neither parties would be able to speak to the issue. I can only conclude you deliberately inserted the allegation to derail Kavanaugh’s nomination and, in the process, ruin his reputation, traumatize his wife and children, and dishonor your sworn oath as a U.S. Senator:

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

Your withholding of so-called evidence against Brett Kavanaugh for several months is a clear violation of your promise to “well and faithfully discharge” your duties as a Senator.

So I ask you again, Senator Feinstein, how were you able to act in a way that most people would consider morally repugnant, even at first glance?

That you were able to do this tells me that you have no real moral conscience — your actions are guided purely by political outcomes. Facts do not matter; procedural fairness does not matter; slander and calumny do not matter; all that matters to you is your advancement — a tough reelection is coming up — and the advancement of the Democratic Party’s agenda.

For you, Senator Feinstein, getting the results you want is your only ‘moral compass.’ Do you realize what kind of person that makes you? Do it even matter to you that you have sold your soul as clearly as if you had met Beelzebub in Daniel Webster’s farmhouse. You’ve made yourself into the stereotype of the corrupt politician directors like Frank Capra made movies about. Remember, Jimmy Stewart in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). You were six years old when that film was released.

You remember that film, don’t you, Senator Feinstein? You might remember the famous scene of Jefferson Smith’s (Stewart) filibuster when he said:

Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. . . . And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!

This country is bigger than you, Senator Feinstein, in spite of your attempt, along with your collaborators, to drag it through your mud of lies and deceptions.  Whether this good man, Brett Kavanaugh, is confirmed or not this country will not belong to you or the likes of you. Why? Because Frank Capra knew something about America you don’t — we have plenty of people who deal in corruption and self-aggrandizement but they are gradually mown down by the deeply-rooted decency of the American people, decency that does not depend on political affiliation.

I will understand if you don’t answer this letter, Senator.  We all know why you are fighting without honesty or honor — It’s all about abortion, isn’t it, Senator? It’s all about protecting your supposed right to kill innocent children in the womb.

From this perspective, Senator, knowing your bottom line, I suppose I should not be surprised at all. In being a long-time, a militant supporter of abortion you destroyed your conscience long ago — so, why not try to ruin the life of a good man his family while spreading toxic scurvy tall through our public discourse. For you and your collaborators, nothing is more important than continuing to kill babies. There’s no place in your world for the likes of Jefferson Smith or any other honest man or woman. 

When Catholics Lost Their Cultural Clout — A Lesson for Today

Deal W. Hudson

September 21, 2018

Catholics of my generation probably only dimly remember, if at all, the furor provoked among Catholics by films in the 1950s directed by Luis Buñuel, Los Olivados (1950); Roberto Rossellini, The Miracle (1951); Otto Preminger, The Moon is Blue (1953); Elia Kazan, Baby Doll (1956); Roger Vadim, And God Created Woman (1956); and Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot (1959).

Most people to think of today’s “culture wars” began in the 60s — Vietnam War protests, Hippies, and Nixon’s Watergate — but the tremors of that struggle can be traced back to the postwar period when major filmmakers decided to free themselves from the bonds of the Catholic-inspired Motion Picture Production Code that had governed Hollywood productions since 1930.

It was Hollywood’s fear of Catholic opinion that led to the creation of the Code in the first place. Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman and film writer, had been pushing for such a code since the early 20s.  He asked Rev. Daniel Lord, S.J, of St. Louis University to draft something for moguls at Warner Brothers, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and RKO. Father Lord had already been a technical advisor to Cecil B. DeMille for his silent film version of King of Kings (1927). What Father Lord draftedis far from a puritanical screed. Though it does set definite limits on what films can show on the screen, especially about sex, the MPPC is highly sophisticated in a way that reflected the work of a deeply educated and aesthetically sensitive Jesuit.

The major studios, however, assumed they could play fast and loose with the Code’s requirements, but Catholics, in particular, did not let them get it away with ignoring it. The National Legion of Decency was founded by Catholics in 1933 to fight against the immoral influence of Hollywood films, which, it must be said, were challenging the moral boundaries of mainstream America. That led to the hiring in 1934 of another Catholic layman, Joseph Breen, to head of a new Production Code Office.  (The films between 1930 to 1933 are now called the “Pre-Code” era mainly due to the sex, homosexuality, lesbianism, and unredeemed violence that they portrayed.)

Breen had to approve every script before it went into production which gave him considerable power. Breen himself was neither a prude nor an unreasonable man, but producers, directors, screenwriters, and actors naturally grew weary of his ‘censorship.’ One magazine wrote in 1936 that Breen had “more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin.”

The power of the Production Code Office held sway through the end of WWII. As the “Mad Men” decade of the 50s began, filmmakers began to challenge Breen, the Code, the power of the National Legion of Decency. The first direct challenge came from the Italian director, Roberto Rossellini and the U.S. film distribution company that brought to film to be screened in New York City.

It was 1950, Rossellini’s film, The Miracle (Il Miracolo) opened at the Paris Theater, on 58th just west of 5th Avenue, one of the oldest ‘art houses’ in the United States. The National Legion of Decency denounced the film as “anti-Catholic” and a “blasphemous mockery of Christian-religious truth,” giving it the C rating — signifying “condemned” — a judgment that was previously feared by Hollywood studios. The Legion’s rating led the New York State Board of Regents, in charge of film censorship, to revoke its license to be shown in movie theaters.

Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York never saw the film but issued a statement to be read at every Mass in every parish of the New York Archdiocese.  He condemned it as “a despicable affront to every Christian” and “a vicious insult to Italian womanhood,” eliciting demonstrations in front of the theater where it was being shown. The protesters carried signs which read, “This Picture Is an Insult to Every Decent Woman and Her Mother,” “Don’t Be a Communist,” and “Don’t Enter the Cesspool.” Nine years earlier, Cardinal Spellman’s public condemnation of Greta Garbo’s Two-Faced Woman (1941) had caused MGM to withdraw and re-release an edited version.

But a sea-change had occurred in American culture following World War II, and the movie’s distributor Joseph Burstyn, sensing this, initiated a lawsuit that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the Court ruled the film’s artistic expression was guaranteed by the First Amendment — freedom of speech. At the same time, the Court’s decision overthrew legal precedents going back to 1915 that allowed the public censorship of films.

The Supreme Court decision marked not only an end to the power of the Code but was also a sign that the cultural clout of Catholics was coming to an end. However, by putting it so bluntly, I don’t want to be misleading. It was a certain kind of clout, a form of Catholic Puritanism, that was defeated.

The sophistication seen in the original Code written by Rev. Daniel Lord, S.J., had been turned into a fear-driven attempt of the Legion to act as parents looking out for a nation of impressionable children. In doing so, the Legion’s condemnations showed no appreciation of, or respect for, film as an art form, in the manner contained in Rev. Lord’s original Code.

It was by “crying wolf” too often about artistically important, well-made films, the Legion and its supporters became irrelevant. These denunciations were based not on seeing the actual films but what was read about them. Thus, a simple, one-sentence summary of The Miracle, certainly makes the condemnation sound plausible: “A poor shepherdess named Nanni who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary is seduced with liquor drink by a wanderer whom she thinks is St. Joseph.”

Yet, after viewing the film itself, one Catholic critic called The Miracle a story of “unregenerating suffering.” What is still considered a consummate performance by Anna Magnani, as a “holy fool,” demonstrates how easy it is to caricature in verbal terms what is far more complex when seen on the screen. As was mentioned, Cardinal Spellman never saw the film about which he required all his priests to read a statement from their pulpits.

It should be added that the same year, 1950, Roberto Rossellini made what is arguably the best film ever made about the life of St. Francis, The Flowers of St. Francis (Francesco, giullare di Dio). Also co-written with Fellini, the film about St. Francis was called, in l995 by the Vatican, one of the 45 greatest films ever made.

The moral of the story? Catholics lose cultural influence when they act like parental arbiters of public taste, especially when they refuse to acknowledge excellence in works of art they find somehow objectionable or dangerous.

Less than a decade after the furor over Rossellini’s film, the United States would elect its first Catholic president, and during the same period a number of Catholic writers would become celebrated among the elites of the literati, including Flannery O’Connor, J. F. Powers, Graham Green, Muriel Spark, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Paul Horgan. All of these writers would not have passed the scrutiny of those at the National Legion of Decency.

Merely contrasting the work of these celebrated Catholic writers with the narrow Catholic mentality behind the condemnation of films by Buñuel, Rossellini, Preminger, Vadim, Kazan, and Wilder provides a lesson that many Catholics, 67 years later, have still not yet learned.

Further reading:

William Bruce Johnson, Miracles and Sacrilege: Roberto Rossellini, the Church and Film Censorship in Hollywood, University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Laura Wittern-Keller, Raymond J. Haberski, The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court, University Press of Kansas, 2008

Ten Books That Have Taught Me About America

Deal W. Hudson

July 4, 2018

Though I have not read as widely in American history as I should have, some books have remained with me since I read them.  They have shaped for me a deeper understanding and appreciation of my native country. I’m not going to list some of the obvious suspects such as The Federalist Papers, although that should be at the top of anyone’s list. Instead, I offer a personal list chosen out of my unsystematic reading on the subject.

  1. 1777 by David McCullough (2005). I have no idea how close we came to losing the American Revolution until I read McCullough’s dramatic account. Neither was I aware of George Washington’s true stature behind all the stories so often repeated.
  2. Truman by David McCullough (1992). Need I apologize for two by McCullough in a row? Absolutely not! At a personal level, Truman is a story about a mid-westerner with little formal learning but remarkable commonsense and a more remarkable work ethic who rises to the occasion when suddenly faced with the necessity of negotiation with Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Douglas MacArthur. As a work of history, Truman illuminates how the American character overcame powerful temptations to divide into a factionalism which would have weakened our resolve to end the war in Europe and the Pacific.
  3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016). I grew up in a relatively safe middle-class household shield for the most part from afflictions described by Vance about his youth in a Rust Belt Ohio town. His world of drugs; child and spouse abuse; debilitating poverty; constant job insecurity, poor education; and pervasive lack of hope was one I knew next to nothing about. To be confronted so vividly with that world and the twists of fate, or grace, that save only a few greatly enlarged what I understood about the limitations of the American Dream.
  4. Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer (2009). This book came as a sort of revelation — I had never read anything in depth about the founding of America from the North, a story of how two nations, Canada and the United States, grew out of the encounter between French and British explorers with the native inhabitants along the lakes, rivers, and bays of 17th century exploration. The hero of Fischer’s book — Samuel de Champlain — can stand aside any of our nation’s heroes in determination to secure human rights and religious toleration.  
  5. Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment by Patrick K. O’Donnell  (2016). The best way I can describe this delicious book is a more thorough treatment of account by McCullough in 1776 of how Washington’s army overmatched in every way eventually prevailed. O’Donnell’s account of the early clashes around Manhattan, notably the Battle of Brooklyn, formed no part of my education in American history, and what a story! Washington’s army could have been destroyed had it not been for the sacrificial effort of 256 ‘Maryland Heroes’ who gave the Commander time to evacuate his remaining men. Also quite astounding was the sheer arrogance of the British leadership in failing to recognize the opportunity to end the rebellion right then and there.
  6. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their LovesTheir Work by Susan Cheever (2007). In the middle of the nineteenth century, a remarkable gathering of intellectual talent lived in the same city of Concord, MA, a group whose writing would leave as deep a stamp on the American character as the Founders themselves a century earlier. Emerson served as the godfather to the group which inevitably created barely concealed rivalries with writers of equal talent, particularly Hawthorne and Thoreau. And, yes, there were other barely concealed dynamics as well, none evidently consummated — they were all heirs to New England Puritanism thought they sought refuge in prodigious learning, transcendentalism, and a form of Christianity resembling classical humanism. 
  7. Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience by Kevin Starr (2016). I had the privilege of interviewing the author about this book twice before he was suddenly taken away from us. To those who believe all the roots of America are Protestant, this book is a definitive refutation. In fact, one country in the Americas, the United States had Catholic roots growing from all geographical directions. Yes, the Founding elite were almost all Protestant, but as Starr shows parts of the vast territory eventually unified as the United States had a Catholic character long before the rise of the WASPs! 
  8. Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation by Steve Vogel (2013). As I said about McCullough’s 1776, I did not know how close we came to be reconquered by Great Britain following the August 24, 1814 raid on Washington, DC which caught our leaders and military entirely unawares, leaving the White House and the Capitol destroyed by fire. As the heavily manned British fleet sailed up the Chesapeake towards Baltimore, if it had not been for command of Major General Samuel Smith Baltimore would have very likely been taken, with nothing standing in the way of the British all the way up the Eastern coast of the US.
  9. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz (2011). I had always thought John Brown was just a maniac, and then I read this book. Yes, he was a maniac of a kind but with deep intelligence, flamboyant personality, and irresistible leadership. Horwitz hour by hour account of the showdown in Harper’s Ferry is riveting, especially given Brown was under attack by U. S. soldiers under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Lee, we are told, did everything he could to keep deaths to a minimum, which he did in spite of Brown’s unwillingness to surrender. Most memorable, however, is Horwitz’s account of John Brown’s capture, trial, and execution — how those around him, even Lee, began to admire him.
  10. A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ’20s by Roger Kahn (1999). What an eye-opener this book was! Boxing in the sport in our nation long before football, baseball, and basketball began competing to be the nation’s favorite pastime. Boxing events and personalities, such as Dempsey, became the foundation of mass entertainment, beginning with July 21, 1921, the first-ever live radio broadcast of a world title fight between Dempsey and Georges Carpenter in Jersey City. Kahn connects Dempsey to the Roaring 20s, the Flappers, Babe Ruth, Lindbergh, Coolidge, segregation, and organized crime.

Remembering My Father — How John Wayne Grew Old

Deal W. Hudson

June 6, 2018

He was the strongest man I ever knew. He had will-power of iron. The doctor said to stop smoking. After that day he never smoked another cigarette. Years later a different doctor banned alcohol—not another drink passed his lips for more than thirty years. Of all the money he inherited from his mother and aunt, not a penny of these assets was spent on himself; all of it was saved and reinvested for his three children. Heart failure and a stroke put him in a hospital bed. I went to his bedside in Houston, where I cut up his dinner and placed it in his mouth, piece by piece.

I guess you could call my dad part of the Saving Private Ryan generation. Fresh out of Texas in his early twenties, a captain in the Army Air Corps, he flew his missions over Germany and Yugoslavia and, I was told by my mother, never lost a man. Dad never talked about the war, but over the years it became clear his soul had suffered much from the experience. After seeing the Spielberg movie, and listening to the reaction of many World War II veterans, it was also clearly an emotional catharsis of sorts had been long overdue for them.

I took the occasion of that film for my daughter, Hannah, and I to interview him about his war experience. Dad seemed finally ready to talk about those years where every morning these young men wondered if they would survive another day. No wonder, he said, they all learned how to drink, pretty hard. His best story was about his plane being shot down in Yugoslavia and the local women who hid the flyers in hay wagons until they were rescued.

I already knew that story because a few months earlier providence had arranged for Dad to play golf with my friend and Crisis supporter, the late Jim Matthews. On the 18th hole, I noticed that Jim and my father were still on the tee by the time I reached my ball in the fairway.  When they arrived at the green, I asked why they were dragging behind. My father looked up from the ground with a look on his face I had never seen. “Remember that story about being picked up after being shot down in Yugoslavia? Jim, was the pilot of that plane.” The last few words were almost inaudible because my father, this strong man, was choking with emotion.

Age did not diminish Dad’s will-power. In the summer of 1998, I went to Rockport, Maine, to play with him in a two-day golf tournament at the local country club. This had become a yearly ritual for us—we had never played that well but we knew we were running out of time, and we were determined to make a good showing.

Dad was 78 that summer but still a solid mid-80s player. He loved to make putts under pressure. After making them, he would almost dance to the hole to pick up the ball.

After the first day’s scramble format, we were in the lead. We always liked scrambles, where you pick the best shot and play from there since I usually drove well and Dad has always been an extraordinary putter. The second day was the best-ball of our twosome, meaning we choose the best of our two scores in each hole. I played well for about 13 holes but then started to fall apart. My trusty driver was letting me down. We knew we were probably in the lead for the championship flight but could not afford a single bad hole.

To this day I have no idea how he summoned the strength. While I looked for my lost game, Dad parred the last five holes, making all the putts required of him. We had been teaming together since I was eleven, and now father and son had finally won a golf tournament.

Two weeks later, at a hospital in Houston, my father was told he suffered from congestive heart failure, and his heart was pumping only 20 percent of the blood his body needed. How did he do it at Rockport? These men from ‘the greatest generation’ had guts, a courage acquired in the midst of the ultimate self-sacrifice — fighting against tyranny that threated the freedom of nations and peoples, country, a cause that outweighed their need for home, family, and their very lives.

Many readers, I am sure, have been down this road of watching a father, or a mother, become child-like through the ravages of age and disease. I was once told losing a father is like standing in a clearing where all of a sudden the last row of trees are blown away and you feel a storm smacking you in the face. I have gone back to that image many times to understand the strange reversal of roles. My father died not long after, I felt the force of the wind rising against me.

At his burial service in Austin, I felt conflicted because my admiration for my father was mixed with bitterness over years of conflict with him over finances and my choice of occupation. Much to my regret, my eulogy did not do him justice. I described his ‘toughness’ more as a rebuke of how he treated me than the making of a man who was born in the Depression, who lost his father at age 12, who loved breaking horses, who was part of the Corps at Texas A&M, and who captained a B-24 over Europe in his early twenties.

Since his death nearly twenty years ago, I have thanked him in my heart hundreds of times for the strength and perseverance he passed on to me. Not everyone is given that gift by their parents. And, when given, it’s a gift rarely wrapped in a pretty package. My father cared little about packaging of any kind, only what’s underneath, what could be called character.

For all this, as Father’s Day once again approaches, I am grateful. I pray I have passed on some of his patrimony to my two children, with, perhaps, some kinder packaging.

When Elgar turned to the Druids

Deal W. Hudson

April 11, 2019

The conductor Martyn Brabbins and Hyperion have given us the second complete recording of Elgar’s 1898 cantata Caractacus. It’s been more than 25 years since the first recording by Richard Hickox on Chandos (1994). Caractacus is an uneven work but possesses enough moments of raw power and pastoral beauty to make it indispensable to lovers of Elgar.

Brabbins, now sporting a beard (pictured), has long been attentive to English music: his recent recording of A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams made an excellent showing in an already strong field. Crucial to that success was the excellence of his soloists, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Marcus Farnsworth. In Brabbins’s Caractacus, however, the performance of the soloists is less uniform.

Roland Wood’s singing of the title role is marred by an excessive wobble, especially in his opening aria in Scene I, “Watchmen, alert! the King is here”. Further into the recording, Wood’s singing improved so much I almost forgot his jarring entrance, but not entirely. In the great Scene V lament, “O my warriors, tell me truly,” Woods delivers some spectacular singing especially in his higher register. The other soloists are quite good. Elizabeth Llewellyn is back with Brabbins as the king’s daughter Eigen and sings with a sensitivity matched to the setting – the Malvern Hills where the Druids celebrate their faith. The tenor voice of Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Eigen’s fiancé Orbin is particularly convincing as the bard caught between the Druids and his respect for Caractacus.

Christopher Purves handles the dual roles of the Arch-Druid and A Bard with a steady and expressive voice. Alastair Miles, who was Caractacus on the Hickox recording, sings the Roman emperor Claudius with complete authority.

Among the vocalists, the Huddersfield Choral Society is the outstanding factor in making this performance worth owning. Not only can every word be discerned but also the shades of meaning urged by conductor Brabbins. The Orchestra of Opera North, too, does all Brabbins asks of them, reminding the listener that at this stage in his career Elgar was more a master of the orchestra than the voice. Enigma Variations was two years away and The Dream of Gerontius three. The musical gap between Caractacus and Gerontius is very large.

The most memorable music in Caractacus lies in the two often-performed orchestral pieces – the Woodland Interlude of Scene III and the Triumphal March of Scene V. Compared with Elgar’s own 1934 recording, Brabbins strangely underplays the Woodland Interlude but more than matches the composer’s recording, from the same year, of the Triumphal March.

Caractacus is out now on Hyperion (CDA68254)

You need to watch this German masterpiece

Deal W. Hudson

February 28, 2019

Never Look Away tells kind of the story that invites superlatives and deserves them. Based upon the life of painter Gerhard Richter, it tells the story of an artist who lives through the Nazi horror and the communist stranglehold, then escapes to West Berlin where, after much trial and error, he earns success and recognition.

This narrative could have descended into kitsch, but Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes it entirely convincing. Max Richter’s score is so beautiful in places it nearly overwhelms the visuals, but that is offset by deft touches of Morricone-like dissonance and playfulness.

Never Look Away was released last year in Germany and has just opened in US theatres. At 3 hours and 9 mins, it should feel epic, but it doesn’t: World War II and the Cold War serve as background to a story which becomes more and more personal as it unfolds.

It begins with a teenager, Elizabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl), being taken away by the Nazis because the family doctor reported an episode when Elizabeth sat at the piano at home, completely naked, playing Bach. When asked why, she answered: “Playing a concert for the Führer.” Her younger brother, Curt (Tom Schilling, pictured with Paula Beer), is a young child when he witnesses his beautiful and charismatic sister taken away. Her last words to him are “Never look away”, a dictum which takes him 20 years to understand.

Curt marries Ellie Scheeben (played by Beer), the daughter of a respected doctor who is played by Sebastian Koch. Koch, who starred in Donnersmarck’s 2006 The Lives of Others, convinces as Dr Carl Scheeben, a gynecologist tapped by the Nazis to head the Court of Hereditary Health, making him responsible for choosing who is to be incarcerated, sterilised or killed. Very subtly, Koch allows a crack in his soul to be seen in his reaction to the order – he’s shocked but takes a deep breath and carries it out.

Tom Schilling makes the character of Curt intriguing: this is not just another confused artist, but one who seeks the “truth” in an era of lies. Donnersmarck includes a send-up of performance art that had the audience laughing out loud.

Curt endures much (spoiler alert), including the sight of his father, reduced to serving as a janitor, hanging from a rope. Curt’s talent is supported as long as he sticks to the “Timeless values of the people”, whether Nazi or communist. After escaping to West Germany, he meets an eccentric art professor, skilfully underplayed by Oliver Masucci, who recognises a bottled-up talent in need of some rough handling. Looking at Curt’s initial efforts, he says with near-bluntness: “This is not you.” Stung by the comment, Curt remembers what his sister Elizabeth said – “Never look away” – and then his true talent begins to emerge.

Films that take you into the wilderness with Jesus

Deal W. Hudson

March 14, 2019

It’s hard to understand why any director making a film about Jesus would ignore the face-off with Lucifer. Cecil B DeMille has his mind elsewhere in his 1927 King of Kings. Himself succumbing to carnal temptation, DeMille opens his film with a barely clad Mary Magdalene, now a prostitute in love with Judas. In his Jesus of Nazareth (1997), Franco Zeffirelli, I’m guessing, could not conceive of a suitably Botticelli-like way of depicting the wilderness encounter within his five-and-a-half hour mini-series.

By far the worst wilderness scene is in the King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray. Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) climbs with bloody feet over rocky terrain when Miklós Rózsa’s powerful film score is interrupted by Lucifer’s arrival in the form of a plummy voice-over (Orson Wells). The subsequent dialogue is so clumsy, so literal, so cardboard stiff, I was reminded of teenage actors at my local Catholic school.

As he walks out of the wilderness, Jesus meets John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) sitting with John and Andrew. At the Baptist’s recommendation they stand up and start following Jesus like zombies, no questions asked.

In the much-admired 1964 film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, director Pier Paolo Pasolini is anti-Hollywood. Shooting in black-and-white, Pasolini uses non-actors in a 1st-century setting, using language from the Gospel account. There was no screenplay.

We meet a Jesus (pictured) who is ordinary, even frail; he lacks all charisma. As he prays on his knees in the wilderness, a dark figure approaches from a distance. Jesus stands to meet him, and Satan arrives dressed as a priest. Except for a 20-second trip to the top of the temple and back, there’s no drama in the three temptations; neither face changes expression. Satan walks away, but Pasolini’s panoramic shot of Jesus walking out of the desert is worthy of David Lean.

The best of the wilderness scenes are found in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) directed by George Stevens. The screenwriting and direction move in a surprising direction. Jesus (Max von Sydow) hears some laughter and a voice from a cave. It’s Satan (Donald Pleasance), whose voice is gentle and coaxing: “Long hard climb?”

Satan tempts Jesus with the voice of a friend trying to offer a favour. Their faces are barely seen against a night sky filled with a large, cratered moon. Satan explains: I can give you this and that, because “life should be easy”. Jesus struggles for a moment but pulls himself away from the edge of the cliff, and Satan goes back to eating his snack.

Satan, after all, should be depicted as having some touch of St Paul’s “angel of light”.