I saw the film Elmer Gantry last evening. I had seen it numerous times before including the first time it was shown in 1960. Then, at twelve years old, of course, I could not appreciate its profundity, know its history nor could I realize its prescient quality. I have never seen a more historically relevant film apply to contemporary times than does this astoundingly great work of art. Elmer Gantry, written by Sinclair Lewis of Babbit fame and directed by Richard Brooks, is one of my favorite films. It is an American classic.
Sinclair Lewis presents a criticism of American life, religion, capitalism and more which earned him the distinct honor as an author because his works, in the early 20th century, were "banned in Boston." In my opinion, if one's art was banned in Boston one created a formidable, brilliant and timelessly immortal work. I thank fate for giving us these authors of genius who are not afraid to challenge those things which are shoved down our social throats often choking off our psychology and institutionalizing the very evil they claim to abhor. They reveal underneath a field of flowers the cancer of hypocrisy.
How could Sinclair Lewis know that he would write a novel which one could superimpose upon the contemporary religious movements of our time? The similar Evangelical/fundamentalist movement which is the subject matter of the film, still insinuates its vitriol into the body politic. It squeezes the life blood out of our democracy contorting it into almost unrecognizable form. Religious charlatans with their utter corruption, mind numbing propaganda, infinite financial and sexual scandals infuse faith and its attendant Biblical myths to take over business and politics for money and power. They cast a net upon the masses capturing the human psyche and its greatest ability – its ability for reason.
And yet, as Gantry knew, people are hungry but not necessarily for food. They are thirsty but not necessarily for water. They are sick and need a cure. They see the inevitable death and want eternal life. It is no wonder that any person could be intoxicated by a religious brew which promises food and water for the spirit, a way out of pain and, most importantly a defeat of death. The actors are the essences of perfection. The scenes are filled with metaphors. There are burning crosses, burning churches and sinners leading the otherwise sinless into the devil's darkness. The characters are a picture of ourselves. Burt Lancaster, as Gantry, is a charlatan but he is appealing. Jean Simmons, as Sister Falconer, is sincere but a sinner. Even the atheist writer of the newspaper, reporting on the Gantry/Falconer faith phenomenon, sometimes gets swayed by the moment and bends his heretofore unbended knee.
Each character personifies particular parts of the American religious Fundamentalist movements. The ubiquitous temptation of sin, of course, is all around -- in whore houses, in gambling joints and in booze halls. Gantry and Simmons are, I think, the symbols of Christianity as it has run its course throughout history. It is a religion of love whose adherents often show hate. It is a religion of tolerance whose believers can be the most intolerant. This movie says so much about so much. The dichotomies of Christian belief are everywhere.
Wikipedia states that Sinclair Lewis "In his Nobel Prize lecture, lamented that 'in America most of us — not readers alone, but even writers — are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues, and that America is 'the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today.' "I think that says it all. Elmer Gantry is a must see.