Sunday, September 19, 2010

Spiritual Leaders in Film: Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell

One of the topics this blog has explored over the years has been the presentation of spiritual ideas in films, more specifically I've recently explored some pastors, preachers, priests and reverends in film. Such recent posts have included discussions about the stereotypes of film priest or my appreciation of the character of Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) in the Oscar winning film Going My Way.

I continue this discussion with a look at famous film villian, Reverend Harry Powell in the film Night of The Hunter, played by Robert Mitchum (pictured above). Understandably unpopular in 1955 when it was released, this film featuring a villianous traveling preacher, has over time become increasingly popular and influential.

The character of Harry Powell was created by David Grubb who published the book the book The Night Of The Hunter in 1953, based loosely on a murderer who was hung in 1932 named Harry Powers.

In the 1955 film, one of the most iconic images of Harry Powell is his tattooed knuckles, one reading "love," while the other reads "hate." This in itself is interesting to me, and perhaps shows my ignorance of tattoo history, as I have a hard time picturing even the concept of tattooed knuckles in 1955.

Yet, early in the film (in a bizarre floating head intro) with a reference to scripture from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.
--Matthew 7:15-17
And it is this idea of a wolf in sheeps clothing, that is very clearly in the character of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) the entire film.

The Impact of Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

While the 1955 audience might have partially been appauled at the character of Harry Powell because they could have deemed it skeptical or inappropriate to paint a preacher in a evil or deceptive light, over fifty years later this image of the manipulative and corrupt preacher might resonate better.

The world has always had religious scandal, but it seems like in today's world you don't have to look far to find it.

When young John Harper (Billy Chapin) sees through the preacher's manipulation, it is understandable that later in the film when he comes in contact with another stronly religious person (Rachel Cooper played by Lilian Gish, pictured right), that Ben would pull back and run to the porch when she pulls out the Bible to tell a story.

The implication is clear in this film, and relatable in culture. When someone acts on religious authority to manipulate people for personal gain the impact on long-term perceptions on God and other religious leaders and followers is tarnished.

The Modern Discussion: Rachel Cooper & Harry Powell

I think the modern discussion around this film that could really be impactful is to look at this character as well as the Rachel Cooper character.

Rachel Cooper is not Reverand Harry Powell and although both carry a weapon and no the same spiritual songs (their duet in the film of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" is eerly haunting in context).

Yet this film, particularly the juxtaposition of these two characters can open up a whole realm of relevant questions including:

• How can you tell the difference by Rachel Coopers and Harry Powells (especially if you're faith is new or young)?

• How do spiritual followers handle those they identify as "wolves in sheep clothing?"

• How can the influence of "wolves" be repaired?

While this film is hardly for everyone's "must see film lists," I think it's a unique film that has a unique relevance that resonates with modern viewers.


Image of Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell from Guardian's Article: "There Are No Real Men In Movies Any More." Image of Lilian Gish from the blog post by Foxy Librarian titles "In Praise of the Battleaxe."

1 comment:

Loren Eaton said...

This film is on my must-watch list, and now I'm elated to see that it's also a book.

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