Doing the Lord's Work

I recently went to the movies (yes, I occasionally do). My daughter really wanted to see Legend of Zorro, so she and I went to an afternoon matinee. The movie was fairly entertaining, although the plot quickly became largely incomprehensible, not to mention implausible, but Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones had enough energy and enthusiasm to keep one's interest. The story is set around the time of California's statehood in 1850 and features a plot to destabilize America by helping the Confederates (who conveniently, at the end of the film, have some gray uniforms some 11 years before the start of the Civil War).

What most intrigued me, however, was the character of Jacob McGivens, the principal henchman of the evil count Armand. The film opens with McGivens disrupting a town's vote on the state constitution. He demands the election tally (in a plot device which is never sufficiently explained nor subsequently addressed) and only the heroics of Zorro prevent him from disrupting what is apparently a crucial vote for California statehood.

During this escapade, he makes two statements to the local priest. First of all, he informs the priest that he is "doing the Lord's work." Second, that work apparently involves preventing the racial mixing of America with "inferior" stock (presumably an allusion to the natives of California, an observation which itself seems odd given that Texas had previously been admitted to the Union). And he demonstrates the seriousness of his work with his new repeating rifle.

McGivens repeats the phrase "Doing the Lord's work" at several times during the film, even though he is portrayed as a brutal thug whose vision doesn't particularly pass beyond the boundaries of his own base desires. The other religious figure in the film is the priest, who drinks wine at a party and tells Alejandro (Banderas) that he needs at least one sin to keep in touch with his congregation (he also engages in some serious kung fu fighting later in the film, but that's all I will say on that point).

The way religious faith is handled in Legend of Zorro was interesting to me. I've seen quite a bit in recent days about how Hollywood is somehow pandering to religious conservatives, but films like this rather belie the argument, at least somewhat. McGivens is clearly a negative stereotype of some sort of psuedo-Christian fundamentalist, complete with bad teeth and raving lunacy. What's more, his threats to carry out "the Lord's work" tend to lack any consistent vision, and as such it seems almost intentionally manufactured so as to be juxtaposed against the more benign faith of either the priest or Zorro himself (who has one explosive "discussion" with God).

But should we draw any particular conclusions from this portrayal? It reminds me of a recent post on a screenwriting mailing list in which the author suggested that there should be more films documenting the "real" side of faith, especially Christianity - namely, all the cruelty and brutality so often "done" in God's name. We cannot deny that there have been many incidents of atrocities committed by those who claim adherence to Christian principles.

As a Christian, I would prefer to see positive portrayals of what faith should mean, and encouraging examples of genuine faith in action. But cinematic examples of how people can and do twist faith to their own purposes can also be appropriate, because such people certainly exist. I just wish that the filmmakers behind Legend of Zorro had done a better job of doing so, rather than just sort of tossing it in as part of a shabby caricature.

Posted by Bill Wallo
November 30, 2005

That disturbed me too. I think it just comes out a generic moviemaker's trick for making otherwise mediocre bad guys more creepy with a few crucifixes and morbid quotations from Scripture.
They did it in Se7en, w/Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, and in Sin City w/ Bruce Willis, and Jonney Nemonic w/ Keeanu Reeves and in many other movies as well.

And I think it sucks!

Posted by: Steve-0 at December 5, 2005 09:38 PM
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