By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Everyone’s list of favorite films is different, including their list of most loved Christian films. Picking only 10 to share with you was challenging for me, so I limited myself to movies made in the last 30 years (leaving out such giants as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur) and movies I think Christians should see which they might not have.
Some of the movies I’ve chosen contain violence or strong emotional performances which might upset children, so check the ratings and read reviews before watching.
Twentieth Century Greats
You can’t go wrong with Chariots of Fire (1981). This Oscar winner for best picture is the story of Christian missionary Eric Liddell, who first became famous as an Olympic runner. Before dedicating his life to mission work in China, he represented the United Kingdom in the 1924 Olympics, taking a gold medal. The film’s greatest line occurs as Liddell explains why God made him fast: “When I run, I feel his pleasure.”
The Mission (1986) is about Jesuit missionaries in South America in the mid-1700s trying to save native Indian populations from being enslaved by European settlers. A slave trader named Mendoza (played by Robert De Niro) finds God’s forgiveness and grace after killing his brother. A priest (Jeremy Irons) makes the ultimate sacrifice in the name of love.
Simon Birch (1998) does not hit you over the head with a Christian message, but the themes are there, especially the theme of providence and God’s plan for our lives. Simon is an undersized boy born with multiple health problems. His parents ignore him, he’s accidentally responsible for the death of his best friend’s mother, but he believes with all his heart that God made him the way he is for a reason. The traditional church gets treated negatively, but the faith themes are sincere.
I bawled at the end of the Les Miserables musical on film, but its Christian themes can get lost in the music. The 1998 movie with Liam Neeson, however, emphasizes a Christian vision. The salvation of Jean Valjean near the film’s beginning is one of the most stunning presentations of the gospel I’ve ever seen.
The Twenty-First Century Renaissance
To End All Wars (2001) is a violent film about British and American POWs in a World War II Japanese prisoner of war camp. With no earthly hope left to them, the prisoners begin to take seriously the biblical admonition to love their enemies. The effect on their Japanese captors (and on themselves) is profound.
You don’t have to agree with all Martin Luther’s theology to like the movie Luther (2003). It’s a well-made story of faith and courage and a man’s willingness to champion truth at the risk of death.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) was a game changer for Christian films in America. Christian movies had all but disappeared from mainstream Hollywood since the ’60s. Mel Gibson’s bloody portrayal of the crucifixion of Christ made filmmakers wake up to the truth that great Christian films can be both possible and profitable.
A movie called Amazing Grace (2006) is a direct result of The Passion’s influence on Hollywood. Industry insiders, who just happen to be Christian too, got together to tell an overtly Christian story: the true tale of William Wilberforce, the man responsible for bringing slavery to an end in England in the early 1800s.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is not a film most Christians are likely to have seen. It’s a subtitled foreign film, it has the creepier elements of a horror film, and it contains the violence of a war film. At times it’s gory and immensely dark, but if you look carefully, the Christian message of faith, suffering, and sacrifice can be found in the movie’s fairytale background amid troubling real-world events.
I ran into Henry Poole Is Here (2008) almost by accident. It’s another film most Christians have likely not seen. Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) has moved back to his childhood neighborhood to do nothing else but drink, eat junk food, and live out a doctor’s prognosis of dying from cancer within a few months. When a mysterious stain which looks like the face of Jesus appears on a backyard wall, Henry’s solitude is disrupted by quirky neighbors in search of healing by touching the face. What challenges Henry’s hopelessness is that real healing seems to happen. The question becomes whether or not Henry will have enough faith to touch the wall himself.
My apologies for lots of movies missed such as Shadowlands (1993), The Apostle (1997), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), Amistad (1997), The Blindside (2009), and several recent foreign films as well. This is a good time for Christians to be engaging in film. There’s plenty out there for us to watch.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.