Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Hollywood Under Siege, by Thomas R. Lindlof

Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars, by Thomas R. Lindlof. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 2008. Hardcover $32.50, 394pp. ISBN 78-0-8131-2517-6.

No one can accuse Thomas Lindlof of half-measures. Hollywood Under Siege is an exhaustively researched analysis of the volatile reception of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Lindlof, a professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky, interviewed at least 80 people who either played key or minor roles in getting Temptation made, or attempted to prevent it from being screened. Though the weight of factual detail is substantial, the result is, surprisingly, something of a page-turner. Despite the title, Lindlof has produced not one story (that of the battle between Universal/MCA to get a religiously provocative film produced, and America’s newly appointed “moral majority” who tried to censor it) but rather a veritable nest of them. Micro-narratives swarm like locusts, and in the chaos new characters appear at key moments to play a part in the struggle, each appearing as hero or villain — David or Goliath — depending on the reader’s socio-political bent.

Unusually for an academic, Lindlof has a touch of the screenwriter about him, and immediately demonstrates a flair for dramatizing situations. The prologue throws us right into the firestorm: an unprecedented wave of enraged Christians picket outside Universal City against what they perceive as a blasphemous depiction of Christ. The producers and chief executives behind the film are held temporary prisoners inside their marketing building — a white ziggurat — recipients of a variety of death threats, including bomb warnings and doll effigies punctured with knives. How has it come to this?

The first chapter, “Dying Dangerously,” flashes back to an origin story: the 1955 source material Scorsese was to adapt over 30 years later. The chapter examines how the Greek poet and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis developed his concept of a dual Jesus, a haunted man plagued by the darkness of his nature, who learns to embrace rather than reject that darkness, to transmute sin into light. In keeping with this inversion of traditional Biblical characterization, Kazantzakis envisions Judas as the strong, steadfast ally of Jesus, possessing the zealous courage necessary to enact the self-doubting Jesus’ uncertain mission to martyr himself. Lindlof tracks the novel’s acceptance by countercultural ’60s radicals, and the subsequent battles waged by conservative town councils to get the book banned from libraries. His eye for historical detail apprehends all manner of grace notes, like the way resistance to Kazantzakis’s novel began stiffening in Long Beach, Calif., where: “‘Little Red Riding Hood’ was once criticized for the bottle of wine tucked in the wolf’s basket, and ‘The Little Mermaid’ [was] labelled satanic for the title character’s transformation from sea creature to a female human” (21).

Conservative opposition to the novel, and the reactionary defence mounted by its liberal defenders, becomes acerbic quickly, polarizing districts, school and library boards, and resulting in many principled resignations on both sides. The bitterly fought battles over the novel become emblematic of a larger post-war political gulf opening between the “red” and “blue” cultures in the U.S., a gulf that has since expanded, the bitterness deepening.

Chapter 2, “Paramount,” meticulously tracks Temptation‘s initial development and demise in the hands of Paramount Pictures. An adaptation of Kazantzakis’ novel had been attempted by Sidney Lumet in 1971, but had fallen through before even scripting had begun. Almost simultaneously with the collapse of Lumet’s project, a 28-year-old Scorsese came into contact with the novel. The lapsed Roman Catholic was making exploitation features such as Boxcar Bertha (1972), a film for Roger Corman that Scorsese imbued with its own subtextual messianic imagery. The film’s star, Barbara Hershey (whom Scorsese later cast as Mary Magdelene), introduced him to Kazantzakis’s book.

By the early ’80s, when Scorsese finally commanded the industry clout to push for his own adaptation of the novel, Reaganite America was developing its own powerful antibodies against what it perceived as anti-Christian cultural viruses. Lindlof details the rise of Donald Wildmon and his National Federation of Decency. By uniting with “moral majority” watchdogs such as Jerry Falwell and various other mega-churches, Wildmon developed the art of corporate intimidation to an unprecedented degree. Initially Wildmon et al. used church circulars to incite damaging boycotts against corporate sponsors of TV shows, thereby scoring victories over any entertainment vehicles that depict too much sex, violence, profanity, or anti-Christian sentiment. The chapter charts how Wildmon and Falwell’s influence in the arena of corporate sponsorship eventually destroyed Paramount’s backing of Last Temptation.

Subsequent chapters follow the excruciating lengths Scorsese endured to find another champion for the project, the extraordinary series of events required for Universal to finally green-light it, the reluctance on the part of nervous exhibitors to screen the film if it was completed, the ordeal of hasty shooting in Morocco with a radically pared-down budget and skeleton crew, and the ready-made controversy that erupted before post-production was even completed.

As the reader may surmise, this is not a theorist’s book. Lindlof deftly introduces the relevant sociological and historical contexts of the anxieties the film triggers in conservative Christian America, but he doesn’t dwell on them. With the exception of a description of a theological seminar assembled by film executives (pp. 68-74) that asks whether the film project is indeed fundamentally blasphemous or a valid imaginative examination of the nature of Christ’s sacrifice (the four theologians from different backgrounds came to the opinion that it was an acceptable but risky project), Lindlof doesn’t belabour theological matters, either. Rather, the book is at its most compelling in cataloguing the complex media circus constructed by both producers and opponents of the film.

And what an absurd and unpredictable circus it was. Deep-seated fears and prejudices abound. Literally millions of conservatives become enraged by a script — sight unseen — that is rumoured to feature a “limp-wristed Christ.” Curiously, the spectre of homoerotic scenes seemed at times to elicit more vitriol than the putative blasphemy of the film’s central conceit (a Jesus who slinks away from martyrdom on the cross to marry and start a family).

Perhaps most disturbing of all, a substantial contingent of protestors showed they were capable of couching their argument against the film in anti-Semitic terms. Despite the fact that the source material was written by a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, adapted into a screenplay by Paul Schrader (a Dutch Calvinist), and directed by a Roman Catholic, somehow the fact that it was produced by the Hollywood “elite” (read: Jews) turned the film, in the eyes of protestors like Rev. R. L. Hymers Jr., into just another attack on Christ by the Jewish people. In a perverse episode in the run-up to the film’s premiere, Rev. Hymers sets up a passion play protest outside the home of Lew Wasserman, the Jewish “Pope of Hollywood,” and MCA’s CEO (MCA owned Universal Pictures). Playing to the cameras, Rev. Hymers begged Wasserman not to release the film for the good of the Jewish people because, Hymers implied, Jewish blood would be shed if this (now Jewish) attack on Christ enjoyed a wide-scale cinema release.

In a Monty Pythonesque moment, this “Christian kabuki” is interrupted by the arrival of the militant Jewish Defense League, followed by their own set of cameras and microphones. The JDL chairman attacks Hymers for making this “a Jewish thing” and Hymers is thrown off-stride in his pose as a good Christian trying to protect the Jews from themselves. Framing an anti-Semitic argument as a plea to protect Jews is emblematic of many of the ironic turns and political twists that pepper Lindlof’s account. (In Philadelphia, for instance, a group of Baptist protestors came to blows with some Catholic protestors from New Jersey because one group wanted to sing while the other wanted to pray out loud. The praying and singing, falling out of sync, unleashed a brawl between the groups.)

As I’ve noted, theorizing is not the book’s focus, but neither is it all anecdotes and details. Lindlof allows his various subjects to raise philosophical arguments about the limits of free speech. The film, once released, becomes a vast magnet for larger issues (as major media controversies tend to do), in this case ultimately evolving into a showdown between seemingly incompatible worldviews. The liberal, typically secular defenders of the film frame the battle as nothing less than a test of society’s commitment to the primacy of First Amendment rights. The film’s opponents perceive in it such a blasphemous slight against religious sensibility that they deem it hate speech. The latter view sees Last Temptation as the latest instalment in an extensive, concerted, and well-financed conspiracy to eradicate the Christian faith or pervert it with false gospel. The stakes are vertiginous on both sides: Personal liberty is in danger. Souls may be lost to eternal damnation.

The final chapter, “Scorched Earth Blues,” surveys the damage that occurred once the film was exported to Europe and South America. Banned in 13 countries (it is still banned in Greece), Temptation‘s release caused riots among neo-Nazi Catholics in France, where an undetonated bomb was found on the roof of one cinema and the Cinéma Saint-Michel in Paris was firebombed. (Mary Whitehouse launched her own involved attack on the film during its more uneventful British sojourn.) Though Lindlof gives voice to the concerns of the offended, and paints portraits of pious men and women who are more often than not completely sincere in their desire to protect loved ones from what they perceive as an attack on their most cherished beliefs, there is no doubt where his sympathies ultimately lie. In light of the more recent — and more severe — Islamic reactions to Western cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed, Lindlof’s examination of the tensions and personal sense of injury that followed the release of Scorsese’s 1988 film (the year of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses) seems more timely than ever. Lindlof’s conclusion is that the value of The Last Temptation Of Christ lies not in its theological explorations or artistic merits but in its status as a contentious political artefact, one that scored an important, if costly, victory for artistic free speech in a world of increasing tensions between secular and religious mindsets. Thomas Lindlof has produced a compelling — and often hopeful — chapter in the long, depressing history of censorship.

Colm O’Shea was born in 1977 in Cork, Ireland. His PhD thesis (Trinity College Dublin, 2005) was on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and non-dual metaphysics. He recently completed a master’s of creative writing (specialising in screenwriting) from Oxford University and teaches expository writing at New York University. He lives in Astoria, Queens.