Amidst rifle shots and whooping cries in the pre-dawn darkness, a veteran Irish-American cavalry soldier and a little girl seek shelter from attacking Apaches in the ruins of a Catholic mission; as they hurry through the dilapidated chapel, both pause, turn, and genuflect in the direction of the sanctuary before racing on to their escape.
This scene, from director John Ford’s Rio Grande, perfectly embodies the way a Catholic upbringing manifests itself in the work of Catholic artists; whether or not they drifted from the faith later in life, their roots remained. Not only Catholic imagery, but also notions of grace and redemption, sin and innocence, and the importance of adhering to principles even when the world is against you—all these elements of a Catholic mentality are often so deeply embedded in the perspective of Catholic filmmakers that it cannot help but shine through in their repertoire. Three of Hollywood’s most brilliant directors—Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock—were all raised Catholic, though they did not all exactly fit in the “practicing, faithful Catholic” category. However, regardless of any apparent imperfection of their personal faith lives, Catholic sensibilities were deeply entrenched in their way of thinking and consequently in their films. Even if their faith was somewhat battered and damaged, like the chapel in the scene from Rio Grande, and even if they moved in a world rather hostile to Catholic principles, they almost unconsciously turned to give it reverence, by the content, color, and characters that make up the focus of their work.
An Italian Catholic, Frank Capra was a champion of hanging on to beliefs and ideals when it seems least likely they will triumph. He had an abiding Catholic confidence in man’s basic goodness, and a likewise Catholic respect for the common man. His films celebrated the ordinary man standing up against corruption, greed, and selfishness; he focused on the need for self-sacrifice to bring about change in a wicked world. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is Capra’s moving call for selfless patriotism, in the story of a young, idealistic politician who is “crucified,” as one character puts it, when he takes a stand against corrupt government; it is only when the hero sticks to his ideals, even when they are a “lost cause,” that he undergoes a political death and resurrection and comes out victorious. The same basic concept is found in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. Arguably Capra’s most famous, It’s A Wonderful Life is a masterpiece of Catholic sentiment, examining the heroic choice to live a quiet life of selfless duty even if it is unglamorous or materially unsuccessful. You Can’t Take It With You runs along similar lines, when Capra contrasts the bitterness and heartbreak that results from pursuing only material pleasures with the contentment and peace possessed by those who set their sights higher and trust God to provide for them, like “the lilies of the field.”
It doesn’t take much analysis of John Ford’s films to realize that his Irish-Catholic heritage was the wellspring of inspiration for the vast majority of his work. Ford loved to draw on the characters and imagery from Irish-American history; Irish and Catholic characters abound in his films. His pet project was The Quiet Man, set in a small, Catholic, tradition-steeped Irish town; essential to the plot is the fact that the characters look to their local priest for advice and help. But Ford’s work also overflows with subtly Catholic themes of grace and salvation. Stagecoach, for instance—often hailed as the definitive Western—takes a motley handful of imperfect characters—a drunk, an outlaw, a prostitute, a gambler, and a social snob—and charts their journey through a purgatorial experience of mutual suffering. One lesser-known but excellent Catholic-themed work from Ford is 3 Godfathers, in which three bandits become the unlikely godparents and self-sacrificial saviors of an infant in the desert, in a way that parallels the story of the three Magi.
As a director, Alfred Hitchcock returned again and again to themes of innocence and guilt; to tales of innocent men who find themselves entangled in a world of espionage, or mistaken identity, or crime, who must reorder the situation according to a higher standard of justice. Hitchcock also had a knack for adding Catholic depth to his best thrillers by grounding the hero’s adventures in a moral dilemma. Rear Window, for instance, raises the question of whether voyeurism is ethical if it allows one to prevent or uncover crime, when a man with too much time on his hands begins spying on his neighbors and suspects one of murder. In Rope, the protagonist grapples with the ugliness of intellectual pride—and how it spawns other grave sins. Hitchcock’s most obvious return to his Catholic roots, however, was in I Confess, a chilling examination of a (flawed) priest who keeps his vow to uphold the secret of the confessional even when he is falsely accused of murder as a result.
To be a Catholic means that the Catholic view of reality shapes all we do, including the art we produce. The confidence in the existence and importance of invisible things like moral principles, the fundamental goodness of life, and man’s need for grace and redemption—these things deep in the spiritual heritage of cinematic masters like Ford, Capra, or Hitchcock, are unmistakably reflected in their artwork. Even if they were—like most of us—not perfect Catholics, the themes and focus of their films prove they are the fruit of a fundamentally Catholic perspective. They saw with Catholic eyes.