Angels and Angel-like Beings (in Film)
Since the earliest days of cinema, angels appeared in various biblical epics. In the earliest feature-length film, La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, dir. Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet, 1905) multitudes of angels, some dressed with cardboard wings, are prominently seen in ten separate shots during the film’s 44 minutes. On the other hand, in From the Manger to the Cross (dir. Sidney Olcott, 1912), angels “appear” rarely and indirectly, represented by light and actors gazing off-screen. These opposite approaches, from explicit literalism to subtle suggestion, established the gamut of angelic visual representations in the films that would follow.
By mid-century, angels were also appearing in extrabiblical films and doing more than merely reenacting and reciting scripture. In the popular holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946), “Angel Second Class” Clarence (Henry Travers) earns his wings by helping despondent George Bailey (James Stewart) regain perspective on his life and hope for the future. Other movies of that period with angelic assistants include Here Comes Mr. Jordan (dir. Alexander Hall, 1941), A Guy Named Joe (dir. Victor Fleming, 1943), The Bishop’s Wife (dir. Henry Koster, 1947), Heaven Only Knows (dir. Albert S. Rogell, 1947), and Angels in the Outfield (dir. Clarence Brown, 1951).
In these movies, angels are heavenly helpers of humanity, but in the latter decades of the twentieth century, angels become more complex. They are angels, but not saints. Although hedonistic matchmaking archangel (John Travolta) has a devilish sense of fun in the comedy Michael (dir. Nora Ephron, 1996), he still is good in the end. In contrast, the angels banished from heaven to earth use a divine loophole to nearly end all existence (of heaven, earth, and hell) in the bizarre comedy Dogma (dir. Kevin Smith, 1999).
Although Michael and Dogma were comedies, angels that have fallen from grace usually play more sinister roles. To make humanity truly earn God’s grace by suffering, Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) in Constantine (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2005) attempts to help Lucifer’s son to be born into the world. In The Prophecy (dir. Gregory Widen, 1995), Gabriel (Christopher Walken) hates humanity and starts a second war in heaven. The ambiguity of angelic roles reflected in the Bible is captured by a statement from Thomas Daggett (Elias Koteas), a police detective in The Prophecy who had nearly became a priest. While trying to unravel Gabriel’s plot, Daggett says, “Did you ever notice how in the Bible, whenever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or...needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood.” In both movies, the character of Gabriel is not only against God but also against Satan. Satan, ironically, ultimately thwarts Gabriel’s plan at the end of both movies. Satan, of course, is the ultimate fallen angel, and in The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988), Satan disguises himself as the “guardian angel” who appears to Jesus in a vision while he is on the cross.
In recent decades, not only are some angels less than saintly, but the boundaries between angels and humans blur. Some popular folklore imagines that humans after death become angels, and this idea is dramatized after the close of Constantine’s credits (a scene recycled from an alternate ending and not seen by most people) when a character who had been killed is seen perched on his own tombstone with wings outstretched before hurtling upward into the sky. However, in Der Himmel über Berlin (released as Wings of Desire in the United States, dir. Wim Wenders, 1987), the reverse happens—angels become human. In this movie and the American remake City of Angels (dir. Brad Silberling, 1998), angels walk unseen among humans, observing and giving subtle spiritual nudges to those in need, but they also have more human motives. Indeed, the main angel character in each film desires to become human, to experience smell, taste, touch, and human love. Each protagonist chooses to “plunge” to earth, giving up his angelic powers and becoming mortal.
Secularized angelic beings appear in a number of science-fiction and fantasy movies. On an alien planet in Barbarella (dir. Roger Vadim, 1968), the title character (Jane Fonda) meets and makes love with Pygar (John Phillip Law), a blind extraterrestrial winged “angel.” The winged character “Angel” (Ben Foster) in X-Men: The Last Stand (dir. Brett Ratner, 2006) is a mutant human. The winged, translucent, luminescent, deep-sea aliens in The Abyss (dir. James Cameron, 1989) act as underwater ministering angels as they rescue the main character after his self-sacrificial act of heroism. They are also angels of wrath as well as mercy in the extended special edition version of the film when they threaten the destruction of much of humanity with thousand-foot tsunamis that hover over coastlines around the world, but then they mercifully cause the tsunamis to roll backwards harmlessly into the sea. Although the character of Superman has a fluttering cape instead of wings, his superhuman feats have appeared in numerous media incarnations, such as in Superman: The Movie (dir. Richard Donner, 1978) and Superman Returns (dir. Bryan Singer, 2006). Other advanced extraterrestrial beings in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1977), Starman (dir. John Carpenter, 1984), and Cocoon (dir. Ron Howard, 1985) have powers or appearances often associated with the supernatural.
Secularized angels also have some “fallen” binary opposites. Superman’s Kryptonian nemesis Zod (Terrance Stamp) in Superman II (dir. Richard Lester, 1981) has all of Superman’s powers but is pure evil. In the six-part Star Wars series, virgin-conceived Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) grows to become a gifted Jedi Knight, but he chooses the dark side and becomes black-caped Darth Vader (although he finds redemption just before he dies).
Bibliography: M. Godwin, Angels: An Endangered Species (New York 1990).
Copyright 2009 Mark D. Stucky.
Originally published as section XI of the "Angels and Angelic Beings" entry in The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, Vol. 1 (Walter de Gruyter, 2009).