The Reformation and Pop Culture: Why Hollywood Should Take a Chance on Martin Luther

By Ed Simon

There is some scholarly dispute as to whether Martin Luther actually did the thing he’s most famous today for: dramatically nailing his world-changing critique of the Catholic Church to a church door 500 years ago. The image of the fiery monk affixing his Ninety-Five Theses to the entrance of the Wittenburg Castle Church on October 31st 1517—railing against corruption and thus sparking the Protestant Reformation—is a striking one. And while this story took hold after it was recounted years later by Luther’s ally and fellow theologian Philip Melanchthon, it does capture the spirit of the intellectual and political revolution that would grip Europe as a result.

Historians agree that the beginning of the Reformation, the 500th anniversary of which was observed two weeks ago, was profoundly important for ultimately leading to Christianity reevaluating its very understanding of itself, even if for many people the event is only vaguely remembered as one of those occasional turning points in world history they learned about in school. In splitting from the Catholic Church, Luther and his heirs inaugurated a schism that would lead to centuries of war, the redefinition of faith and culture, and arguably the birth of modernity. Yet for being perhaps the seminal event in the past five centuries of Western history, the Reformation is noticeably underserved by film and television. And the works that do exist are often riddled with the same kinds of inaccuracies that obscure the most narratively compelling elements of the era and the people who shaped it. Even while it’s seemingly a given that cinema rarely serves the interests of scholarly interpretations of any given era, or that films often sacrifice historical accuracy in the name of entertainment value, the Reformation seems to be particularly short-changed when it comes to Hollywood. It’s not just that films depicting the events of that era pass over some of the most interesting facets of that event, it’s that there is a seeming deficit of examples to choose from, no equivalent that works as Gladiator does for ancient Rome, or Braveheart for the Middle Ages.

For the most part, when people think of “pop culture about the Reformation” (if indeed that phrase conjures up any associations at all), they don’t think about Luther, but rather works about the English Reformation, which was a separate but related part of the larger movement. Anglophone audiences have long been fascinated by the characters of the period—Henry VIII, Anne Bolelyn, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Queens Mary and Elizabeth—and much more so than Luther. Think of A Man for All Seasons, the miniseries Wolf Hall, The Other Boleyn Girl, Elizabeth, and, of course, Showtime’s sexy bodice-ripper The Tudors. But despite their appeal, these stories tend to be based on popular misconceptions about the Reformation (with the possible exception of Wolf Hall). These representations often rely on an old fashioned view of the English Reformation, which contextualizes it as a necessary, progressive, proto-democratic movement away from Church abuses and towards the independence of the English nation, a rebellion against superstition and corruption. When Catholicism is depicted sympathetically it is normally as part of a nostalgically pined for lost medieval world that was supplanted by something that was more modern, and thus something that was inevitable.

But the reality is that the English Reformation was a lot more complicated than that, that common people didn’t particularly desire the changes which were forced on them, and that what was replaced wasn’t a moribund Church but rather a vibrant and dynamic religious culture. And nothing about this process was necessarily inevitable; rather, it was the result of the contingencies of its own particular historical moment, one where the outcome theoretically could have been very different. Scholars have long since moved beyond these simplistic views of the period, and yet Hollywood regularly falls back on interpretations that have been out of date for a generation.

Consider a scene from the second season of The Tudors, in which Henry’s Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, leads George Boleyn (Anne’s brother) through the subterranean bowels of some castle. The winding corridors finally open up into a luminescent room in which a massive printing press is churning out English translations of the gospels. A shocked Boleyn declares “Oh, my Lord! What in God’s name is that?” to which Cranmer responds, “It’s called a printing press my lord, and it will change the world!”

The whole scene is a bit on the nose: two Englishmen journeying through the dark world only to enter into a world of light. But Boleyn wouldn’t have been shocked by the printing press, since it was a device invented the better part of a century before the events depicted in The Tudors. It would be like if an episode of Mad Men showed Don Draper being astonished by a telephone.

Or examine the manner in which sectarian difference is depicted in Shekhar Kapur’s films Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Both movies, as gorgeously filmed as they are, and as brilliantly acted by Cate Blanchet in the title role, also iron out the ambiguities attendant in the period. Elizabeth, on horseback speaking to her troops at Tillbury, at times sounds like an advocate for modern, liberal values. At one point she tells an adviser, “Fear creates fear. I am not ignorant of the dangers, sir. But I will not punish my people for their beliefs. Only for their deeds.” Elizabeth is presented as a progressive advocate for religious freedom, but in reality the number of dissenters she executed rivaled that of her Catholic sister, the previous monarch, “Bloody” Queen Mary.

Elizabeth’s military adversary (and former brother-in-law) Philip II of Spain is continually depicted in the shadows, swarthy and bearded, surrounded by relics and icons, calling to mind for an American audience more contemporary religious fanatics – a depiction of Philip as if his Armada were the shock troops of a Renaissance version of the Taliban. Not unpredictably (or without warrant) some accused the film of being anti-Catholic.

But films like Kapur’s or shows like The Tudors draw on a long history of simplifications and misconceptions about the Reformation as it is commonly taught in secondary schools: as a modern, progressive rebellion against an ossified order. As in The Tudors, Gutenberg’s machine often figures centrally in this myth, with the Reformation embrace of the new technology presented as both explanation of its success and evidence of its forward thinking. While the former might be fair as an interpretation (it’s true that Luther was a master of exploiting the technology), the latter completely ignores the way in which the Catholic Church was equally adept at using the printing press in publishing its own books and pamphlets during the Counter-Reformation. But the bigger point is that in these sorts of depictions, Hollywood glosses entirely over the texture of the period; these films reduce the complexity of the Reformation in favor of a cartoon, which doesn’t do that monumental event justice. But in the case of the Reformation and the man who set it off, accuracy and good storytelling could actually go hand in hand.

* * *

For all of the articles that have been published commemorating Luther’s anniversary, configuring him as a monumental figure who forever altered the world, it’s notable that he holds no such equivalent heft in the world of pop culture. Even in a cultural environment that loves flawed, real-life figures who changed the world, Luther is a virtual nobody. By my counting, there have been eight films made about him: Four were titled Luther, with the earliest a 1923 silent film, and the latest a 2003 biopic directed by Eric Till with Joseph Fiennes playing the former monk, which has a 44 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was in part funded by a Lutheran non-profit. That film seemed an attempt to create a historical biopic with a crossover appeal between secular and evangelical Christian audiences, but in trying to make Luther into a “Man for all Audiences,” it ended up flattening out his personality, making him a wooden cipher for the very same traditional interpretations of the event which many people absorbed from secondary school. This is the noble Luther who defends freedom of conscience, who declares, “Here I stand. I can do no other,” but the real Luther is arguably a much more interesting figure.

One could imagine a film that presented a more nuanced, accurate depiction of the brilliant but often troubled reformer, which takes into account his anti-Semitism or his abandonment of rebelling peasants. Guy Greene’s 1973 Luther, based on John Osborne’s play of the same name from a decade before, is an example of a film, which attempts to tackle some of these contradictions in the reformer’s character. Featuring a psychologically electrifying performance by Stacy Keach in the title role, Green’s Luther avoids the generally gentle treatment Luther has often received in other depictions, for example acknowledging the former monk’s less-than-admirable role in withholding support from the workers whom he inspired during the Peasant’s Rebellion. But despite its merits, Greene’s Luther is fairly obscure.

Why aren’t there more films like Greene’s Luther? Brad S. Gregory, a historian at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Unintended Reformation, explained to me that the Luther of more recent scholarship is “not the Luther people want to see, because it doesn’t fit the stereotype of the defiant, courageous hero standing up for the individual—which wasn’t what Luther was about.” Rather when people are bothered to think about Luther at all, they prefer to view him as a type of Founding Father of Protestantism, devoted to liberty of thought and freedom of interpretation. Unfortunately, such a representation isn’t just inaccurate, but boring as well. And so one of the most important figures in western history is passed over with surprisingly few cinematic representations.

But writers and directors might be wise to try to set aside ideological sensitivities and hew more closely to current scholarship.  Imagine a film that presented a portrait of Luther that embodied those ambivalent qualities of the revolution he is so identified with; a man who was simultaneously learned and earthy, revolutionary and conservative, brilliant and canny, bawdy and bigoted? If there was ever a moment primed to accept Luther as anti-hero it would be our own.

For the past decade, prestige television has seen miniseries like Show Me a Hero and John Adams explore historical subjects in a more detailed manner, while not being shy about what can be problematic about their personalities (and thus making them all the more fascinating). The best entries in this genre can depict nuance in a manner often impossible for film, leveraging authenticity and accuracy for entertainment purposes. Could Luther receive the same treatment that John Adams did, one based on the most current scholarship, which presents the theologian as a flawed yet very human figure?

Envision a show about the Reformation that is less The Tudors and more The Wire, one that reinvents the historical costume drama as fully as the later reinvented the crime drama. And as The Wire was able to take a story about the structural problems in the governance of an American city, so too could another show present the Reformation not as a simplistic tale of progress and rebellion or one of nostalgically pining for a lost medieval world, but rather as a complicated, human story situated in a particular time and place. It would require studio executives to trust that audiences will embrace ambivalence, yet prestige television has amply demonstrated that audiences are willing to embrace an anti-hero. For in telling the story of Protestantism’s emergence, what would be more appropriate than a touch of iconoclasm?

Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, and a frequent contributor on religion, literature, and culture at several different sites. A specialist in early modern literature and religion, he holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, at his website, or on his author’s Facebook page.

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