During the last two years, one of the more remarkable trends in media marketing has been the increased acceptance of and catering to conservatives. While patriotic and religious films were staples of Hollywood’s golden era, the moral clarity presented in those features was later deemed either uninteresting or irrelevant by the creative minds of Hollywood who chose instead to focus on anti-heroes, relativism, and the overall sour mood of the country following Vietnam and Watergate.
In the wake of 9/11, relativism has decidedly lost its charm with much of the public, and good vs. evil pictures (thanks in no small part to the courting of conservatives) became routinely popular. Three major releases — “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and brand-new “Flyboys” — have been specifically marketed to conservatives. Although they vary greatly in cinematic quality, all three share common threads that can illuminate why conservatives are flocking to these films in droves.
To talk is to contemplate. Contemplation of evil often results in a rationalization of the motives of evil-doers. The United Nations immediately springs to mind. Such talk — as is the case with the much-maligned Star Wars prequels — is often detrimental to a film earnestly trying to portray a pure struggle of good vs. evil. It’s no surprise, then, that all three of the major releases marketed toward conservatives are heavy on powerful visuals and light on powerful dialogue. “The Passion of the Christ,” for example, was scripted entirely in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew, and was intended to be released without subtitles. While subtitles were present in the final release, the principle tools of expression are visual: beatings, iconic Christian images, snakes and the like. In addition, the Oscar-nominated cinematography is absolutely striking.
“Narnia,” too, portrays simple thematic elements through imagery. Evil takes the form of an icy queen, and good the form of fuzzy critters, many of whom are decked out in regal clothing. One knows that the bad guys are bad because they’re dirty and misshapen. The good guys are good because they have shiny armor and noble colors.
The use of imagery in “Flyboys” is decidedly retro in conception, harkening back to classic Western conventions. The main “villain” is a German pilot who never utters a single word. His plane is black, with a black falcon painted on the side. In addition, the flight scenes, which are almost devoid of dialogue, contain within them nearly all of film’s the character development.
Assumption of Evil
The use of imagery over dialogue to convey thematic elements and story progression is an obvious choice if the films work under the assumption that evil really does exist. There is no questioning the motives of Satan, evil Queen Jadis in “Narnia” or the Germans in “Flyboys” (even if they’re not Nazis).
In contrast to the antagonists who weren’t necessarily villains of the 1970s and 1980s — such as Don Barzini in “The Godfather” and the Vietcong in a number of war films — these foes are truly vicious. None of these three movies provides much of a past for villains, nor is there any discussion of “why.” Neither is necessary to presume that evil exists and to recognize it on sight.
Similarly, there has been little discussion of “why,” from die-hard conservative voters concerning 9/11; the relevant matter has instead been “who,” and “where.”
The religious content in these films has been publicized to a large extent. Indeed, Grace Hill Media, a publicity firm dedicated to Christian-centric marketing campaigns, was brought on board for both “Narnia” and “Flyboys.” It is clear since after “The Passion,” Hollywood rainmakers are recognizing a potent audience demographic they had ignored in the past — and one that ignored them in turn.
The Christianity in “The Passion” is, of course, inherent. In fact, it is the primary appeal to conservative audiences. Usually at odds with the intense violence used by director Mel Gibson in his portrayal of Christ’s death, leaders in the evangelical movement instead elected to advertise the film for free, stressing that the violence was used within a very important context. A film not only mentioning, but relying on God to tell the story was a welcome change of pace for Christians.
“Narnia,” too, is full of the same material. Pegged to be the runner-up to “King Kong” in the 2005 holiday movie season, “The Chronicles of Narnia” managed to out-gross “Kong” based on strong word of mouth from church groups and families. Aslan, the lion who sacrifices himself to save Narnia and defeat the evil Queen Jadis, is resurrected, and speaks of being “there when [the law] was written,” — a clear reference to the opening sentences of Gospel of John.
“Flyboys” contains less overt religious themes, but does feature a chaplain who also serves in combat, proudly singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” every time he’s in a dogfight (the film neglects to point out that the song refers not to literal soldiers, but to evangelists and missionaries). It is little more than lip service, but is present nonetheless, and will likely please many in the evangelical movement.
The combination of these three attributes is simplicity. Conservative audiences in a post-9/11 world apparently desire less grey and more black and white in their pictures. Visuals provide a conduit through which to portray easily recognizable and understandable themes. The assumption of the existence of evil is conveyed by the films and the audience agrees. Christian content is an indicator to that lets conservative audiences know that the film is out to present Bush-like moral clarity instead of UN-like debate regarding good and evil. By and large, conservative audiences have opted for more simplicity and less complexity in their films after 9/11.
This reality, however, is not to slight the conservative audience’s cinematic capacity, though many liberals no doubt do this and will continue to do so. Rather, it reflects a non-relativist world view that has resurged since 9/11 in which emotional intelligence is just as appreciated, if not more so, than academic curiosity.