The Moral Picture: Strengthening Family Through Film

When I was a child, Sunday nights were special. This was the routine: finish dinner, prepare for school on Monday, get ready for bed, and then watch two classic television programs—Ponderosa and The Wonderful World of Disney. I still remember eagerly embracing this weekly routine, for it marked for me the end of one week and the beginning of another. Most of all, it was a time of leisurely fun and adventure with my family as we enjoyed stories both exciting and morally uplifting.

Film—including the public social experience of the cinema, as well as television (and even video games) at home—is a powerful medium because such amusement and recreation is readily available to everyone regardless of age or social position. However, much more importantly, from a technological vantage point, as compared to the concentration needed to read or listen to a reading, Pope Pius XI warns that

The [real] power of the motion picture consists in this, that it speaks by means of vivid and concrete imagery which the mind takes in with enjoyment and without fatigue. Even the crudest and most primitive minds which have neither the capacity nor the desire to make the efforts necessary for abstraction or deductive reasoning are captivated by the cinema.1

Furthermore, the film experience becomes all the more compelling when voice and music are introduced by those who have mastered the nuances of the medium. Modern computer-generated surreal images can even overawe the viewer. All of these effects are enhanced when one watches films in movie theatres, and even in the home, when the viewer sits in darkness in a receptive manner wherein one’s “faculties, mental, physical, and often spiritual, are relaxed” (VC).

As regards especially our children and youth, the key point to be recognized is that this powerful film experience, “at the very age when the moral sense is being formed and when the notions and sentiments of justice and rectitude, of duty and obligation and of ideals of life are being developed, . . . assumes a position of commanding influence” (VC). In short, we need to be cognizant of the all-encompassing influence that film can have on any of us, and especially upon the formative minds of children, because the ultimate overall effect is one that can truly incite adults, and especially youth, to virtue—or to vice.

If film can have such a pervasive influence on us, why make use of the medium at all? Precisely because it can, if used wisely, constitute a profound liberal art intended to educate and lead us on to the path of right-living consonant with the true dignity of man. As with any liberal art that draws upon the best thoughts of great pagan and Christian authors, films should edify the mind and impel us toward truth and virtue. More particularly stated, films should be chosen because they lead us to noble quests; teach us lessons both useful and moral; depict heroism; portray the struggle to live truthful and virtuous lives; share the finest glories of nations; cultivate mutual understanding and good will; exemplify the search for justice; foster an understanding of what constitutes good government and the very best of human society; and, finally, call us to the pursuit of spiritual perfection and the promotion of God’s glory (VC).

In a word, we can and should watch films that embrace the perennial things, films that consider all things in light of the Eternal. For such films ought to, “instill into minds that Christian truth which alone can provide the strength from above to the mass of men, aided by which they may be able with calmness and courage, to overcome the crises and endure the severe trials of the age in which we now live.”2

Can films of such nobility be found? Yes—and they exist in abundance. Still, you must search for them for two reasons. First, because, as indicated, the power of the medium demands that you take a proactive stance and educate your family regarding them. Second, you must search for them because so many modern films are tainted with licentious themes and technological frills that lead us astray. Most, though not all, decent films were produced decades ago when the overall moral fiber of the West was Christian or at least still in harmony with natural law.

Given these provisos, what, briefly, are some of the outward signs of a good film? This is a difficult question to answer for a host of common sense reasons including: the nature of the liberal arts, the film subject and portrayal, and the age and sensibilities of the viewer. But, in general, a good film intended for the family ought to address first and foremost a truly dignified human theme or conflict, and do so in an appropriate and convincing artistic manner. It should do so by means of a story, through a dramatic portrayal of the development of characters as they struggle to understand and surmount a difficulty or challenge, and, in the end, (often) succeed in their quest. The story should have a moral or lesson, one that leads the viewer to a more profound and perfected understanding of man, nature, or God.

Good films teach lessons based on universal human themes. But the best stories recount “the Church’s traditional doctrine on the certainties of life, on happiness and virtue, on sorrow and sin, on body and soul, on social problems and human desires” (MP). The extensive patrimony of Christian culture provides excellent subject matter. As regards the family, such films should also honor the sanctity of the home by “strengthening the bonds of loyalty and love within the family circle” by supporting virtue and chaste love (MP). In short, the novelty of a story, the supposed moral neutrality, or the technical excellence alone is not sufficient justification for viewing. The story at a minimum must teach a licit moral lesson; at its best the film will nourish one’s spiritual life.

Keeping in mind the powerful effect and basic elements of film, and armed with some good titles that ought to carry you through the summer, how should we go about shaping a family film experience? The key is to promote family fun and friendship, and to do so in a habitual manner leading to the development of one aspect of good family culture. Summertime is a great time to start such a tradition because school is over and many of us have more time on our hands. Then again, you may find that you will want to extend this special family time throughout the year.

Choose a convenient and consistent weekly afternoon or evening timeslot. Address ahead of time all the technological issues, including a sufficient and unobtrusive light source, and prepare the appropriate refreshments. Make sure everyone joins in the fun and limit the experience to family members only. Skip the opening ads and enjoy the film with minimal interruption.

Remember: the goal is to relax and to enjoy the film as a family. Don’t use family movie time to teach in a formal manner, because you don’t want the experience to become contentious. When the film is over, ask general questions to elicit light conversation about important matters; correct serious issues of interpretation at another time. Don’t idolize actors.

The important thing is to provide an opportunity to listen to your children and to come to know them better. Enjoy and love your family. All of us should have some good summer fun with film.

1 Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Letter on the Motion Picture Vigilanti Cura, June 29, 1936.

2 Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter to Bishops on Motion Pictures, Radio and Television Miranda Prorsus, September 8, 1957.

There are hundreds of films to be enjoyed by the whole family. Here are just a few.  

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) This is the classic film version of the timeless tale. Children of all ages never cease to enjoy Errol Flynn’s enduring performance in this medieval battle between good and evil.

Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) Two of the best film depictions of Catholic parish life during the height of the early twentieth-century, immigrant and working class experience in the new American big city. Bing Crosby shines.

Roman Holiday (1953) A fun account of a young modern European princess’ brief escape from official responsibilities and her unexpected enjoyment of the best of Rome. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck are a delight as each struggle to remain faithful to their true duties in life.

Shane (1953) One of the great tales of life’s challenges as portrayed on the nineteenth-century American frontier. This is a classic story of personal redemption, coming of age, changing times, and the struggle and cost necessary to the building of true community.

Pollyanna (1960) A wonderful if idyllic account of small town America and one young girl’s determination to bring Christian hope and meaning to the lives of good people who chaff under a strong-willed societal matriarch.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) An early nineteenth-century family en route to a new life is shipwrecked on a deserted island in the East Indies and must draw upon the best of their creative imagination to survive the elements and the ever present threat of dangerous pirates. This is great fun.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941) The legendary Frank Capra directed all three of these populist movies lauding the trials, tribulations, and, ultimately, the winning virtues of “the little guy.” Each story powerfully dramatizes the conflict between jaded and cynical power mongers and the faith and idealism of the common man. Family film at its best.

The Miracle Worker (1962) This is the brilliant and unforgettable story of the young blind, deaf, and mute Helen Keller and the woman whose love and determination brings the girl out of the terribly confining and lonely silence of her life. Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke give heart-rending performances. A truly powerful film experience.

The Song of Bernadette (1943) Jennifer Jones brilliantly portrays the personal and spiritual saga of a simple nineteenth-century French peasant girl burdened with a vision that challenges and ultimately redeems those around her. A classic Catholic film.

You Can’t Take It with You (1938) Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart lead a wonderful cast of characters who hold vastly different ideas of the role of money and material trappings in the living of one’s life. The clash of lifestyles is hilariously and warmly depicted. Another wonderful Frank Capra movie.

In addition to this list, the following movies would constitute solid fare for young adults and parents. The Mission (1986); Ben Hur [A Tale of the Christ] (1959); Boys Town (1938); Joan of Arc (1948); Casablanca(1942); Groundhog Day (1993); On the Waterfront (1954); A Man for All Seasons (1966); Into Great Silence (2005); High Noon (1952).

From a more educational perspec­tive, there are a number of exceptional documentaries to be found under The American Experience series on PBS, such as The World That Moses Built (1989); New York Underground (1997); and, Hoover Dam (1999). Some of the other installments in this extensive se­ries require parental review.