Elmer Gantry (1960)
Big-tent evangelism is a very American form of religion, a combination of populist Christianity and salesmanship that could only exist in a sprawling country that relied on religious freedom as one of its founding tenets, right next door to aggressive individualism and free enterprise. Elmer Gantry, therefore, is a story that can only happen in American, with a hero as complex and morally ambiguous as the land itself.
Burt Lancaster is Elmer Gantry, a traveling salesman, huckster, and former seminarian who hitches his wagon to Sister Sarah Falconer (Jean Simmons), the leader of a traveling revivalist church. I use the term church loosely, for Sister Sarah has no denominational affiliation to speak of: she’s selling her own brand of Christianity to the rural masses. Gantry proves to be a sort of godsend to Sister Sarah’s organization: he’s a rousing speaker, summoning visions of hellfire and damnation to ignite the congregation while Sister Sarah offers them peace and salvation. As their organization grows, Gantry and Sarah decide to push into the (bigger) city with their revivalist meeting, heading to Zenith, Winnemac (a fictional city and state that could be any large populated area across the Midwest), where Sister Sarah hopes to build a permanent tabernacle. Gantry runs afoul of his past, however, in the form of Lulu Baines (Shirley Jones), Gantry’s former lover turned prostitute.
Elmer Gantry could have played like a straight moral tale, with the shady salesman duping the small-town folks into buying his religious snake-oil until finally exposed by a more moral crusader (or, alternatively, by his nefarious past). But the film refuses to offer such an easy answer to the questions it poses. Gantry is a huckster, no doubt, yet he comes to believe or, at least, to understand the need for belief in those around him. Sister Sarah is no doe-eyed idealist dreaming of salvation; she’s a complex figure, with both a strong understanding of what it means to sell religion, and a true belief that she’s saving souls. Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), a newspaperman and resident symbol of atheism and cynicism, is repelled by Gantry but respects his intellect all the same; nor is Lefferts’ disbelief any better or more realistic than the evangelical fervor of Gantry and Sarah – it’s just another side of the same coin. Even the wronged and cynical Lulu hides a complicated soul: rejected by her reverend father after she’s seduced by Gantry, she still loves the man who wronged her.
If this film could have had a better cast, I’d like to see it. Burt Lancaster is the center of this whirlwind: charming, cunning, half-sincere and half-joking, he charges into each scene with his head down and his teeth gleaming. A salesman for Jesus, he waves his Bible with all the conviction of a true believer, and talks town officials into allowing the revivalist meeting by appealing once to their avarice and twice to their faith. Yet Gantry isn’t insincere in his religion, or in his burgeoning love for Sister Sarah; he just bends the world to accommodate him, mostly unaware of those he walks over to get there, and never willfully harming anyone. He might seem almost Satanic at times, but we should not forget that Satan has always believed in God.
Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah is in stark contrast to Lancaster’s bellowing Bible-thumper. Sarah is the other kind of true believer, a woman whose faith is so engrained in her identity that to think that God isn’t speaking to her would be to destroy her own soul. She recognizes Gantry as a charlatan, making use of his charlatanism to advance her ministry. When Gantry’s roving past is revealed, it’s Sister Sarah who suffers willingly, as she finally steps into the role of martyr. But again it would be a mistake to dismiss Sarah as someone searching for personal aggrandizement: this is a film about faith, and Sarah’s is as real and as palpable as Gantry’s.
Elmer Gantry‘s great strength is that it neither dismisses evangelism as cynical chicanery, nor does it embrace the Bible-thumpers as the true heralds of God. It’s not about the rightness or wrongness of religion or atheism, or about where religious truth actually lies. If anything, it’s about America: about the soul of a country and of a people, about searching for answers to questions that have none. Is Gantry a huckster or a preacher? Does Sister Sarah perform a miracle or is it just random coincidence? How far does faith go and can we justify the ways of God to Man?