Cross (in Film)

Depictions of symbolic crosses (religious crucifixes or cross-shaped objects) or literal, full-sized wooden crosses have served a variety of functions and appeared in countless films over the last century. Examples of literal crosses began prominently appearing in the earliest Jesus films. One of the most significant of those early films, From the Manger to the Cross (Från krubban till korset, dir. Sidney Olcott, 1912) even ends rather abruptly with Jesus’ death on the cross and without any resurrection scene to alleviate the impact of the final image of suffering. Most other Jesus films feature more traditional portrayals of his death on the cross as well as resurrection. The most shocking departure from this pattern is in the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988). In an early scene, Jesus is an anguished carpenter constructing crosses and collaborating with the Romans in the executions of his fellow Jews. Near the end, his own death on the cross is temporarily interrupted by Satan disguised as a young angel in a vision.

Occasionally, people other than Jesus appear fastened to crosses, such as in the sword-and-sandal spectacle Spartacus (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1960), which ends with Spartacus and thousands of other rebellious slaves hanging from crosses along the road outside of Rome. This scene was later parodied in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, 1979), in which those crucified use the rows of crosses as an absurd stage for a musical number about always looking on the bright side of life.

Most film occurrences of literal crosses are set during biblical times, but in The Mission (dir. Roland Joffé, 1986), an eighteenth-century priest is executed by being tied to a cross and thrown in a river that carries him over a waterfall. In To End All Wars (dir. David L. Cunningham, 2001), a World War 2 prisoner of war exchanges his own life for that of another prisoner condemned to die in a Japanese labor camp. To scorn the self-sacrificial prisoner’s faith, the guards execute him by nailing him to a large cross in a graveyard marked by dozens of smaller crosses. In Jesus of Montreal (Jésus de Montréal, dir. Denys Arcand, 1989), an actor pretends to be crucified during a modern-day passion play. The simulation, however, becomes all too real when the actor and the cross are accidentally knocked over, and he is mortally injured. In an early scene of Cyborg (dir. Albert Pyun, 1989), set in a post-apocalyptic future, a naked, dead, crucified woman is shown on a cross in the background. Later, the action hero is also literally crucified (with arrows through his wrists) on a cross formed by the mast on an old grounded ship. He is left to die by the villain (who wears an upside-down cross as an earring during one scene), but extricates himself from his own crucifixion, and, with some help from a partner, recovers to seek his vengeance.

Some movies mix the literal with the symbolic. In Amistad (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1997), imprisoned slaves examine an illustrated Bible while awaiting trial. As they view the illustrated story of Jesus (including his death on the cross along with the two other crosses), shots of a priest in a church full of crosses and crucifixes are intercut. Later, as they are led to their trial, people are seen praying for them and holding crosses. Then from above some buildings, they see the three cross-like masts of the ship that carried them into slavery and into their own symbolic crucifixion. Images of crucifixes also abound in the virtual reality film The Lawnmower Man (dir. Brett Leonard, 1992). Jobe, the initially simple-minded protagonist, gradually becomes superintelligent and evil via a science experiment gone wrong. Early in the film, he talks to an image of Christ crucified on a lawnmower blade in his shack, and he later talks to the large crucifix in a church while he cleans it. In the final virtual-reality confrontation, the transformed Jobe temporarily crucifies his opponent on a cyberspace cross before setting him free.

In numerous horror movies about demons and vampires, crosses are often abundantly displayed, but usually their religious significance has eroded. In such movies, crosses are used as protective charms or magical weapons against supernatural enemies...but often not as expressions of authentic religious faith. The weaponization of crosses is taken to extremes in some films, such as in the campy Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (dir. Brian Clemens, 1974). Although one character says that “the cross can only protect those who firmly believe,” the cross apparently still needs a hardware upgrade to do the job. A metal cross is beaten into a sword (“God’s blade”), which the swashbuckling hero uses to slay vampires. In Constantine (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2005), the tormented postmodern exorcist drives demons back to hell to keep his own soul from going there when he dies. His unconventional “exorcisms” sometimes involve using a “holy” shotgun with a cross-shaped barrel and gun sight to shoot demons.

Sometimes crosses are stripped even further of faith and power, and they are portrayed as powerless against evil and even used to create shocking visuals indicating sacrilege and Satanism. In The Exorcist (dir. William Friedkin, 1973), a girl possessed by a demon uses a cross in a violent, bloody act of masturbation. Intertwined themes of sex, religion, and death permeate De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man, dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1983), which opens with a spider spinning a web across a crucifix and crouching on the face of Jesus. The bisexual protagonist becomes obsessed with a young man who is part of a sexual triangle between himself and a woman, and, while praying in church, he begins having an erotic fantasy of fondling that young man who is fully nude on a cross (in the place of Jesus). In horror movies, inverted crosses are often used to indicate satanic influences, and films about Satan were popularized by Rosemary’s Baby (dir. Roman Polanski, 1968). Compared to later horror conventions, Rosemary’s Baby subtly suggests rather than shows satanic imagery, but a small inverted cross does form a baby’s mobile above the black bassinet holding Satan’s child.

Bibliography: • Campbell, R. H./M. R. Pitts, The Bible on Film (Metuchen, N.J. 1981). • Greydanus, S. D., “Hellboy, Evil, and the Cross,” Christianity Today International (July 8, 2008;; accessed March 24, 2011). • Kozlovic, A. K., “Christian Communication in the Popular Cinema: Cross Imagery, Cruciform Poses and Pieta Stances,” Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship 4/1 (2007) 143–65.

Copyright 2011 Mark D. Stucky.
Originally published as section VII of the "Cross" entry in The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, Vol. 5 (Walter de Gruyter, 2012).

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