Film Studies: Blasphemy! Hollywood ignores the gods at its peril

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The Independent Culture

When I took my nine-year-old to see Troy there was an awful lot of explaining to do - such as why an entire war should have as its cause just a real-life pretty woman. Though in this case, Helen (Diane Kruger), has but one expression (she's launched a thousand ships, but missed the boat - after all, she has to play scenes with Saffron Burrows, an authentic beauty). My son wouldn't have noticed; he closes his eyes to the lovely women in films. But war he respects, and in the matter of causation he is used to mythos, or Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Then there was the moment when he turned to me in the dark, and said, in tones of incredulous despair, "So the Trojans take this wooden horse into their city and go to bed!" Thank God, I thought, Wolfgang Petersen and all concerned had the sense to leave out the gods. Anyone as smart as gods would have been groaning in mock dismay at that Trojan silliness. With those smart creatures still hanging around, Troy could never have been a hit.

But then I started to wonder - after all, the gods usually get terrific lines; they're smart and funny; they wear the best costumes; they have great schemes that never quite go right; they're sexy but not exactly mortal, if you know what I mean. It occurred to me how like the characters from the great romantic or screwball comedies they are. In short, is the theory of gods actually a religious hope, or is it a notion of the proper state for adorable and entertaining characters? Is being a god like speaking in verse, singing your thoughts, or just being in a movie?

At first, I was simply searching for some way to make Troy a little lighter or quicker on its feet. I wondered if the Brando-esque soul-searchings of the less-interesting-than-he-reckons Brad Pitt (Achilles) wouldn't be made more lively, and a touch more comprehensible, if Troy was an endless mini-series being watched on television in a cloudy salon (all-white decor) with Rupert Everett, Johnny Depp and Kevin Spacey, say (chosen by that modern god, Random), reclining on couches in cricket gear, skinning grapes and commenting on the leather skirts being worn on the western shore of Turkey. For goddesses, you could have Judi Dench, Julie Christie (who does appear briefly, but not so as you'd know she's a goddess) and... Madonna and Cameron Diaz, both of whom are far more plausible I think as creatures trying to live in the clouds than lead a life on earth.

Notice the English names. In American films, it has been observed for decades now that English actors (the men especially, the band of Basil Rathbone, James Mason and Anthony Hopkins) are easily cast as wicked villains because they speak correctly and in fully-formed sentences. I think we all know now how reliable such traits are as warnings of evil (Ronald Reagan was the first great personification of idiocy and incoherence as proofs of integrity). But the classiness of English actors, the amused superiority, the detachment, and that uncanny intimation that bullets and kisses alike might bounce off them, aren't those airs godly?

As an example, consider Claude Rains as Captain Renault in Casablanca. Now, he is a naughty man (even in a picture that refers to concentration camps, I think that's the proper word). He takes bribes; he expects to have the roulette table rigged in his favour; he sees it as his duty in life to gather up a few helpless young women. And yet, his heartlessness is in the right place: he is anti-Nazi (they're such bores), and he does eventually turn a blind eye to Rick killing Major Strasser by ordering a round up of the "usual suspects". Renault isn't a god - he doesn't run the show - but his wit, his charm, his deftness are the attributes of a god, and he is supremely good at looking into the inner minds of everyone else. "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" - the refrain of Puck - is forever on his curled lips.

When I ask myself why I love such characters and see them as the heartbeat of the movies, I wonder if it isn't just because they have another ironic, godly insight - "Why, look, we're in a movie!" After all, Rick, Ilse, Sam, Victor, Strasser and so on are all struggling so hard to find a self to be true to. I mean, that's if you really need now (or needed in 1942) to think Casablanca is about Humphrey Bogart doing "the right thing".

Unlike Gods, gods know that there is no such thing as the right thing - there are just lines and looks that play well. In other words, they seldom do well as characters who face Moral Dilemmas or Dramatic Crises. But they are just swell if wondering whether to use a cigarette holder or not. James Bond had this charm, I think - at least when Sean Connery wore the suits - in that he regarded the fate of the Western world as somewhat frivolous compared with whether a Martini should be shaken or stirred. I think it's a great loss, by the way, that in these doggedly egalitarian times, the snobbery of Bond has been abandoned. The real way to take the series was to push him gently in the direction of Oscar Wilde.

But Connery had and still has the godly air - he actually did it beautifully once as a real sham deity in The Man Who Would Be King. Other great gods in the civilised English tradition are Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon (the sitting god), James Mason in A Star Is Born (a god who sweetly kills himself so Judy Garland shall have all the frame to herself), Clifton Webb (or Waldo Lydecker) in Laura, and George Sanders in just about everything he did. I mean, think of Sanders's Addison de Witt in All About Eve, a theatre critic who knows full well that actors and actresses never stop acting, and that their most scandalous performances appear in life. He also trusts that underplaying will make him seem like the most intelligent person in the story, as well as someone who can give up his cloud for a night or two and take Marilyn Monroe or Anne Baxter to bed. Just not that dreadful Bette Davis - who plainly believes she is a god.

I fear that some of you - especially those with Sunday habits - are going to regard this attitude as unbearably facetious. Not so. Godliness with a lower-case "g" has no hope of religion, and no faith in God or Gods.

It is the sport of atheism, so there is really no reason for the devout to feel aggrieved or offended. All I really want to say is that to be in a work of art, to be in a movie even, is a precious state of being - somewhere between life and death (and I agree that smacks of being spiritual) where beauty, eloquence and outrageous financial rewards are the only saving graces. And honestly and truly, I wish that we made films again with gods in them, not to mention divine lines.