‘Eli': New Hollywood's Bloody Version of That Old Time Religion

Bloody wounds, fresh corpses and rocket-propelled grenades do not a holy vision make

You gotta have faith to end up an enthusiastic fan of “The Book of Eli” — and even then it might be tough.

I’m talking about real, believe-in-the-Bible, God-smights-those-who-would-subvert-His-message kind of faith. That’s because the entire plot of this post-apocalyptic action thriller starring Denzel Washington turns on who has possession of a copy of the Good Book. Yes, the McGuffin here is a St. James Bible, the one used by Christians worldwide.

“Eli” is set 30 years after some huge final war, which has left the earth a scorched wasteland. Our hero, Eli (Washington), is a solitary traveler who walks softly but carries a really big knife. He is literally a foot soldier of God, trudging westward on a mission to deliver into safekeeping a worn, leather-bound volume embossed with a gold cross on its cover. 

Along the way, he encounters various marauders who would harm him and a megalomaniacal villain (Gary Oldham) who covets the tome Eli carries. “It’s not just a f—ing book,” rants Oldham’s power hungry bad guy. “It’s a weapon. People will do exactly what I tell them if the words are from that book.”

What makes “Eli” such an odd movie, as directed by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes (“Menace II Society,” “From Hell”), is that it’s so many films ungainly squeezed into one: It’s a post-apocalyptic film, a classic western and a violent action thriller.

All of which just underscores how profoundly uncomfortable Hollywood is when it comes to religion — and the lengths to which it will go to disguise a religious movie as something else.

It's much like a mother who slips cough medicine into a banana split.

It’s enough to make you miss those ridiculous, cheesy old Hollywood biblical epics where Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea while sexy babes in scanty outfits, the latest in old Israelite chic, watched admiringly. At least then you knew what you were getting. Those were movies Sunday-school teachers could enthusiastically urge everyone to see.

What Sunday-school teacher is going to dispatch young worshipers to a film where a would-be rapist gets gored in the crotch with an arrow?

From its earliest days, Hollywood turned to the Bible for material (hey, time-tested stories and no copyright). Silent master D.W. Griffth raided the Good Book and Cecil B. DeMille practically made a career out of mounting biblical epics.

But after a rash of such films in the square '50s, bibical pictures became as scarce as hen’s teeth. On the rare occasion in recent decades that a studio tried to go Old Testament — remember Richard Gere running around in a diaper in 1985’s “King David?” — the box office (and artistic) results were dismal.

Which is puzzling, given the increasing importance that religion and, more specifically, the Christian right has played in the national political scene in recent decades, and even in the White House. Maybe it’s all just too contentious for Hollywood. Got to stay away from those hot-button issues, especially now that global box office is paramount.

Overseas moviegoers come in too many faiths.

Then again — despite what the Christian right would have us believe — the United States is a nation founded on freedom of religion, all religions. As interpreted by Hollywood, that would seem to mean freedom from religion. Movies will often have a character who is a believer (whether Christian or Jewish or, even occasionally, Muslim)
and who acts upon his or her beliefs, but rarely does an entire film turn on religion.

And never  is scripture extensively quoted — except in "The DaVinci Code" or "Angels & Demons," but those for sure don't count.

For a recent successful example of how Hollywood's prefers to depict faith, look no further than "The Blind Side." The movie's white family clearly are churchgoers (Sandra Bullock's character wore a gold cross at her neck), but they are shown on screen spending more time sitting in the bleachers at a football game than kneeling in
pews.

Movies with forthright religious messages have, for the most part, been relegated to small, independent efforts starring, if they’re lucky, Kirk Cameron. The recent exception, of course, is 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a bloody retelling of Jesus’ martyrdom and crucifixion directed by passionate believer Mel Gibson.

There was much talk after its blockbuster success that Hollywood would find religion. Didn’t happen.

Distributor Warner Bros. is hoping that “Eli” will attract churchgoers. There’s not a prayer of that happening.

“The Passion” told a familiar story; “Eli” does too, but its plot and aesthetic hark back less to the Christ tale than to another Mel Gibson triumph, the Mad Max series. Mere close-ups of a Bible, particularly when interspersed between close-ups of bloody wounds, fresh corpses and rocket-propelled grenades do not a holy vision make.