The pioneers of silent film (reflecting a mostly predominant Christian faith) explore recurrent themes of morality and mixed-faith marriages, corruption and redemption through faith.

Soldiers of the Cross
(1900) Joseph Perry, Herbert Booth under the Limelight Department of the Salvation Army.[135mins]

This was not a feature film but a special presentation of thirteen short films (collectively known as the Passion Films made by Joseph Perry & Herbert Booth in 1899), 200 slides and an elaborate music score. These, combined with Booth's 'powerful rhetoric' on the life and death of Jesus and the early Christians, were first performed under the banner name "Soldiers of the Cross" in Melbourne Town Hall on September 13, 1900. It was an ambitious but highly successful project, praised by public and press alike. People had never seen biblical imagery come to life like this ever before. Images were smoothly blended from 'slide to film and from film to slide' depicting scenes of Christ's birth, the flight into Egypt, the Last Supper, as well as brutal deaths of the early Christian martyrs. At the intervals 'rousing hymns were sung by the whole gathering.' Booth had hoped that this project would 'convey the suffering and the sorrow, the gladness and the triumph of their earlier counterparts, as well as encourage new members and raise funds for the Army'. (1)
Heroes of the Cross and The Scottish Covenantors were made in 1909, 'but after this date the industry's secularisation, whether intentional or by default, rapidly predominated.' The Limelight Department came to an end, perhaps due to the 'perennial conflict within Christian circles over the extent to which Christians should be involved in worldly activities of the artistic kind'. (2)

The Christian
(1911) Franklyn Bennett [2500ft]
'A conflict between holy and human passions, the story follows the love of a zealous clergyman, John Storm, for the actress Glory Quayle.' Quayle, a naive country girl, had been encouraged to a career on stage by Lord Robert Ure, which Storm tries rescue her from. Rivalry between these men for Quayle's affections drives Ure to hire a killer for Storm, but he escapes and goes to find Quayle, considering killing her in order to save her soul. She pleads for his mercy and he remembers the love he feels for her. The film ends 'with them both kneeling before a shrine, promising their lives to each other'.(3) 'The theme of salvation is particularly prominent, though the need for salvation has more to do with redemption from what was regarded as socially undesirable activity, than the 'torment on an everlasting hell'. (4)

Angel of His Dreams*
(1912) George Marlow
'Murder, adultery, surprise confessions, theft and alcoholism were all integral to this melodrama of a bad woman and her seduction of an innocent young clergyman. With its overtones of The Silence of Dean Maitland the film was a close adaptation of a play that Marlow had first produced in Australia early in 1911 and it was clearly part of his notorious repertoire of sex and scandal'. (5)

The Life Story of John Lee, or The Man They Could Not Hang*
(1912) Robert Scott [4 reels]
'In 1885 an Englishman, John Lee, was wrongly found guilty of the murder of his benefactress and sentenced to be hanged'. The gallows, however, failed to open to allow his execution, not once but three times, pertaining to the question of divine intervention. He was duly given the life sentence, of which he served twenty-three years before being released. Some time later, a dying woman confessed to the murder Lee had been convicted of and his name was finally cleared'. (6)

The Silence of Dean Maitland
(1914) Raymond Longford [3500ft]
This film focuses on the themes of sin and guilt, with a 'man-of-the-cloth' shown as a religious hypocrite. Taken from the successful stage play of the same name, Dean (or Deacon) Maitland seduces a young girl. When confronted by her father, Maitland accidentally kills him. Secrets and lies result in Maitland's friend being wrongly accused of the murder and jailed for twenty years. 'When his friend is finally released, a broken, middle-aged man, he comes to worship in Dean Maitland's church. The shock of his appearance drives the dean to confess his guilt publicly in a sermon, after which he collapses and dies, his conscience clear at last.' This was a silent film, but Longford had filmed a close-up of Maitland's face which was then synchronised to a live reading by an actor to great dramatic effect. His last words were: 'the three darkest blots upon the soul of man - impurity, bloodshed, treachery - have stained my soul...I declare before God and man, I repent'. (7)

The Monk and the Woman
(1917) Franklyn Bennett [6000ft]
This film, based on a play, caused quite a stir within the Catholic community for its eighteenth century French tale of a monk - Brother Paul - who forsakes his celibacy vows for marriage vows to the beautiful Liane. The woman, pursued by an evil prince, seeks refuge in a monastery. 'The prince finds her there and commands the abbot to keep her in custody. The young novice, Brother Paul, who has just taken his vow of celibacy, is placed in charge of [her] and falls hopelessly in love with her.' She is taken back to the court and the king commands her to marry the prince. Brother Paul ends up defeating the prince in a duel, stealing his cloak and replacing him at the wedding. But when the king discovers him, Brother Paul is led off for execution. Meanwhile the prince is leading a revolt against the king, but [somehow] Brother Paul helps to keep him occupied until the king's men arrive. 'With the prince vanquished, and Liane out of danger of a forced marriage, Brother Paul renounces the world and returns to his monastery forever.'
The Catholic Federation saw the film as offensive, not only for Brother Paul's inability to remain faithful to the Church, but for its overall depiction of monks 'behaving in an "offensive travesty on monks and monastic life"'. (8)

The Church and the Woman
(1917) Raymond Longford [7000ft]
'This drama broached the controversial subject of mixed marriage between Catholic and Protestant and the responsibility of priests to honour the confidences of the confessional. Eileen Shannon, from a staunch Catholic background, is in love with Doctor Burton, a Protestant.' However, their relationship and hope of marriage is thwarted by Eileen's father, who refuses to give his consent. Her father is later mysteriously murdered and all eyes turn to Dr. Burton, who is subsequently arrested and sentenced to death. Meanwhile the real murderer confesses to Eileen's brother - a Catholic priest - in the confessional. Unable to break the confidence of the confessional, the priest himself admits to the murder and Dr. Burton is freed. The murderer eventually gives himself away and good prevails with the release of the priest and the marriage of Eileen and Dr. Burton. (9)
Peter Bentley writes; 'It is important to note that the female character is the Catholic...it was the assumption, and 'statistics support this, that Catholic women were much more likely to contract mixed marriages than Catholic men'. This is highlighted by the marriage scene showing the couple not in front of the altar but behind, 'reinforcing the commonly perceived position of the Catholic church at the time of the wedding'. (10)

The Woman Suffers*
(1918) Raymond Longford [8000ft]
This film is not specifically religious except that its theme deals with revenge and forgiveness, based on the biblical statement of 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth', or in this film's case, 'a sister for a sister'. 'Marjorie Manton (Lottie Lyell) is seduced, left pregnant and caught in a web of social despair. She is led to take a desperate measure. She goes to the chemist and procures some medicine, and kneeling down...prays to God in her hour of distress. After her prayers she throws herself on the bed and sobs as if her heart would break. It seems her prayers are answered, because...not only [is she] saved from her depression, she is also provided with a man, though one is left wondering why it is the man who caused her depression in the first place. Perhaps there is also a theological point here about the nature of forgiveness?' (11)

The Man from Kangaroo
(1920) Wilfred Lucas [6 reels]
A boxer turned parson - John Harland - is stationed in the bush town of Kangaroo, where the congregation is terrorised by a group of thugs, and who eventually kidnap his girlfriend. His boxing skills are frowned upon when he is caught teaching children how to fight, but he is praised when he stands up for the congregation against the gang of Red Jack Braggan and ensures their demise returning Kangaroo to its days as a safe community. 'The parson provided a very clear contrast to the other 'baddies'. The hero not only wore white (hair and clerical collar), but had the moral force of God on his side. The villain, Red Jack Braggan (red being the colour of the devil) did not have a chance'. (12)

The Life Story of John Lee, or The Man They Could Not Hang
(1921) Arthur W. Sterry [6 reels]

Compared to the first (see 1912 entry above), 'the second film in particular revolved around the idea of a benevolent and omnipotent God. This type of God provided help for those who remained faithful, even under wrongful arrest. Piety was heavily stressed: characters often paused for prayer, and the film ended with Lee's small child thanking God for saving her father. Lee himself emerged from jail to pray for those sinners whose perjured evidence had placed him there: "May those responsible obtain more mercy than they have shown to me"'. (13)

Pearls and Savages
(1921) Frank Hurley [Documentary]
In December 1920 [Hurley] left Australia to record the work of Anglican missions in Papua and to make a "travelogue entertainment". Pearls and Savages was the result, and on its release in 1921, Hurley would accompany the film screening with a lecture. (14)

The Rev. Dell's Secret
(1924) P. J. Ramster [6000ft]
'In this complex melodrama of religion and sex, a zealous missioner in the city underworld strives to save the soul of a young girl who is forced by her evil guardian to dance in a sleazy cabaret. The clergyman is blinded in a fight to defend her, but later has the satisfaction of knowing that she has risen to stardom as a ballerina'. (15)

Around the Boree Log
(1925) Phil K. Walsh [7100ft]
Simply the poems of John O'Brian (aka Father Patrick Joseph Harrigan) put to film; it is life in Australia reflected upon by a man who also happens to be of Catholic persuasion, and who eventually became a priest. As such it can only reflect elements of Father Harrigan's faith. It opens with the invitation to 'walk out into God's fresh air and under his blue sky and...drink in the beauty and harmony shown in the homely surroundings of everyday countrylife'. The film exhibits a 'cheerful faith in education and progress,...pride in Australia and...Catholic sentiments'. Even though this film was praised by Catholics and Protestants alike, some believed it to be Roman Catholic propaganda, and some exhibitors refused to screen it. (16)

For The Term Of His Natural Life
(1927) Norman Dawn[10,000ft]
This story was made previously in 1908 by Charles MacMahon, and in 1911 by Alfred Rolfe, under the title of "The Life of Rufus Dawes". The film features two clergymen, Rev. Meekin and Rev. North, 'both who have significant parts to play in the twisted saga of the life of Rufus Dawes.
Richard Devine is found with the body of Lord Bellasis and promptly arrested. To avoid embarrassment to his family he changes his name to Rufus Dawes.' Accused of murder, Dawes is transported to Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania). Rev. North, the recently arrived Convict Chaplain, also happens to have been a silent witness to the murder of Bellasis. Even though North knows Dawes is innocent, he remains unhelpful in bringing the real truth to light.
Both North and Meekin are portrayed as 'major religious hypocrites. Meekin...because he is pious without compassion [and] North...because he does everything a member of the clergy is not supposed to do. He drinks, lusts after women, gambles, lies and deceives.' The main character of the film - Rufus Dawes - is by contrast an exemplary 'good Christian'. (17)


References:
1) Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 - A guide to feature film production. Oxford University Press: Melbourne. 1981. pp. 5-6
2) Peter Bentley, "Rites and Roles: Religion in Australian Films of the Silent Period, 1900-1929" in From Back Pews to Front Stalls - the Churches in 100 years of Australian cinema. Peter Malone (ed.) National Capital Printing: Fyshwick. 1996 pp. 2
3) Pike & Cooper ibid. pp. 39
4) Bentley, ibid. pp. 2
5) Pike & Cooper, ibid. pp. 42-43
6) Pike & Cooper, ibid. pp. 49
7) Pike & Cooper, ibid. pp. 66-67
8) Pike & Cooper, ibid. pp. 92-94
9) Pike & Cooper, ibid. pp. 94-96
10) Bentley, ibid. pp. 3
11) Bentley, ibid. pp. 4-5
12) Bentley, ibid. pp. 3
13) Bentley, ibid. pp. 5
14) Pike & Cooper, ibid. pp. 171
15) Pike & Cooper, ibid. pp. 160
16) Pike & Cooper, ibid. pp. 166
17) Bentley, ibid. pp. 3, 5