For about five hours of punishing, fire-and-brimstone religious satire, watch Richard Brooks’ 1961 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry, starring Burt Lancaster in the title role, and then follow it up with Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 sort of-Scientology postwar carnival attraction, The Master.
It can be a frustrating thing to watch a film that resists ideological classification. It’s tempting to want to categorize and boil a movie down to an argument it’s making, simplifying its stance into something neat and tidy. When I was younger, I was guilty of this, for sure. The clearest example that sticks out in my mind is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 There Will Be Blood.
That year was a time of tremendous political awareness for me. I studiously watched nearly every Democratic debate, and even some Republican ones, as I really engaged with a presidential election on an intricate level for the first time. I was developing clearer political opinions, and found myself articulating something of a coherent ideology. Naturally, I started to seek art that was wrestling with bigger issues.
There Will Be Blood resisted my attempts to neatly describe exactly what it was trying to say about the confluence of capital (represented by oilman Daniel Plainview) and religion (represented by preacher Eli Sunday). At a time when the Iraq War was being waged by a president who was a committed, vocal Christian who had activated a voting bloc on the basis of both these issues, it seemed as though the film just had to be saying something about Who We Were in 2007.
However, the more I wrestled with the movie, the more I found that it wasn’t offering any easy answers. Where it could have boiled down its reading of these characters and their ideologies to their base properties, it complicated them instead. It challenged my conceptions of both capital and religion, and the role they play in the origin stories of the United States.
It should be no surprise, then, that one can make quite a double feature out of two very related films – 1961’s Elmer Gantry (Dir. Richard Brooks) and Anderson’s very next film, though it would take him five years to release it, The Master.
Brooks’ film, based on the book by Sinclair Lewis, is about the titular character, who is a salesman, a drunk, a lecher, and a firebrand preacher capable of turning a crowd of tent revivalist Christians into howling, donating converts. Adrift at the start of the film, he soon latches on with Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), joining her merry band of traveling proselytizers. Gantry is the bad cop, all hellfire, before Falconer brings the faithful the love of God.
The first time I saw Elmer Gantry, I immediately connected it to There Will Be Blood, mostly on the back of one scene, from which Anderson seems to have lifted some dialogue. It’s a scene where Burt Lancaster, playing the title role in a performance that won him Best Actor, mounts a makeshift pulpit in the fictional city of Zenith (probably based on St. Louis), and addresses the crowd about the demons of vice, which he plans to purge from the town. Here’s the relevant section, just a small portion from the longer monologue. The quality isn’t great, but you get the idea:
First, there’s the wild energy that Lancaster brings to the role in this scene, which continues apace throughout the remainder of the film, as well. But, this set of memorable phrases reappear in Anderson’s film, spoken by his own morally compromised preacher, Eli (Paul Dano). Here’s a clip from that film. You’ll hear something familiar at around 1:40:
It’s not hard to see the connections between the two films. Both of their preachers are charlatans and seemingly also true believers. There’s a moment near the end of Elmer Gantry, when the preacher has been disgraced by compromising photos that show him with a prostitute, where the atheist reporter Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy, clearly riffing on H.L. Mencken) asks Gantry if he believes in God. Gantry responds, ‘You’re damn right I do.’ And he means it.
Some critics found enough relationship between Brooks’ 1961 film and 2012’s The Master to name check Elmer Gantry in their reviews. It makes sense – Anderson’s film is about his own charlatan/true believer, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the creator of a new religion he calls The Cause. Dodd is based on L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of his own cause, The Church of Scientology.
While There Will Be Blood is also about the intersection between religion and commerce, The Master foregrounds this conflict by eliminating the division between the two, represented by two separate characters in the previous film. This time, both competing desires are housed in Dodd, who writes his religious tomes for profit. Alex Gibney’s 2015 documentary Going Clear, based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name about the church of Scientology, makes the case that Hubbard’s primary motivation for forming the church in the first place was a desire to avoid paying federal income taxes, giving Dodd a subtle, unexpressed motivation that is specifically about the interconnection between commerce and religion.
Gantry has to make similar choices – the character, both a salesman and a preacher, represents the ways in which those traits that make him good at one make him good at the other. He’s a showman, as he demonstrates in this moment from one of his sermons under Sister Sharon’s tent:
He almost literally turns the roving house of God under the canvas into a circus tent, where the price of admission is a donation to Sharon’s own Cause. Sharon’s goals, too, are primarily commercial in nature. She’s looking to save enough money to buy a Tabernacle where she can set up shop for good, and give up the nomadic tent show. Out on the road, her overhead costs kill her, as she makes sure to remind the town elders deciding whether to let her take root in Zenith, saying:
And my expenses are high enough to run a factory – I practically do run a factory. Who do you think pays for my staff? The musicians, the men who put up the tent. Truck transportations, railroad fares, food bills. Advertising and printing bills. Electric bills, insurance bills, hotel bills. The church committees always expect a contribution from me, and they always get it. And when I leave town five weeks later, you get the benefit. You have the flock, and I have to start all over again.
For Sharon, religion is a business, just as it is for Dodd in Anderson’s film. The main action of The Master takes place in the immediate aftermath of World War II; the visual palette of the film draws somewhat on film noir, including in the following scene, between Dodd and the film’s other lead, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix):
The shadows cast across one side of each man’s face, as Freddie undergoes his first session of processing, the film’s version of the Scientology concept ‘auditing‘, capture the aesthetic of post-WWII classic Hollywood films that often featured returning veterans, cast adrift in a society that meant little to them following their experiences in combat. The aimlessness with which Freddie wanders through the film before sneaking aboard Dodd’s yacht is something straight out of noir, which buried existential dread beneath heist and murder stories that always ended in disaster for their doomed protagonists.
Freddie’s drunken escapades take him from job to job, just as Elmer’s do in his own film’s first act. Freddie is chased off a farm in Salinas after accidentally poisoning a fellow worker with some of his homemade booze, and Elmer has to leap from a moving train when other rail-riders try to fight him for his shoes and suitcases. They each find solace with a charismatic religious leader who gives them purpose and meaning, when so little of the rest of their lives has any.
Freddie doesn’t seem to know what ails him. He’s prone to violent rages, lashing out first at a customer at a department store, where he takes photographs, and then later, after joining the church, beating up a Dodd acolyte who dares question The Master’s work in his second book. He’s a true misanthrope, completely out of place everywhere he goes, including among his fellow Causers, who regard Dodd’s fondness for him with bewilderment.
Gantry is trying to keep the devil at bay. He drinks, he carouses, and he tells dirty jokes, but preaches from the pulpit, the stage, even wandering into the audience, all with the same power of conviction. Gantry doesn’t see his vices as radically in conflict with his belief in God, only in conflict with his fellow believers, who stand in judgment of him.
Here he is, at the pulpit in Sharon’s tent, after it’s been ravaged by Christians outraged at the exposure of Gantry’s hypocrisy. Though he’s surrounded by shadows, a fallen hero overtaken by his flaws at this moment in the story, Brooks still shoots him from below, emphasizing his power, which is unshaken in his own mind. Gantry is not broken. He commands the space in his supposed defeat just as strongly as he did in success. It’s the world that views him differently. He’s always been who he is. He’s not going to change.
The Master, too, is one of the unrepentant. Freddie, after imposing self-exile for a number of months, is called back to meet Dodd in England. He goes, and the two, who have been drawn together through time and space, Dodd says, reunite. Here’s most of it:
Here are two men seeking connection in a world that has left them feeling completely alone. Dodd sees something in Freddie that makes him feel whole, as evidenced earlier in the film when Freddie returns from a stay in jail – Dodd embraces him on the front lawn, tackling him to the ground and rolling around with Freddie like a lover.
Freddie wants his life to mean something, and the pull of The Cause and its magnetic central figure are hard for him to deny, even if some part of him is telling him that Dodd is a fabricator. It’s why he can’t stay with Dodd, even if he tries some version of Dodd’s processing technique on a woman he picks up in a London pub, stopping sex to ask her some of the same questions Dodd asked him earlier.
Here’s where these films complement one another greatly. They each raise critical questions on an argumentative level about the intertwining of religion and commerce, of course. However, they also invite us to consider the characters’ degree of belief in their own creation myths. Who is telling the truth, and when? Who believes, and who doesn’t? Who’s full of shit? Who’s self-aware enough to know it?
In Elmer Gantry and The Master, just as in the questions of faith that they explore, there are no easy answers.
Watch Elmer Gantry and its ‘Old-Time Religion’ first. Then, join The Cause with The Master.