From 'Becket' to 'Big George Foreman': 6 Lent-worthy movies with conversion tales

February 17, 2024 at 8:00 a.m.
Father Edward Flanagan, the Irish-born priest who founded Boys Town in Nebraska, talks with a group of boys in this undated photo. (OSV News photo/courtesy Boys Town)
Father Edward Flanagan, the Irish-born priest who founded Boys Town in Nebraska, talks with a group of boys in this undated photo. (OSV News photo/courtesy Boys Town) ((handout))

By JOHN MULDERIG
Osv News

Lent is intended to be a period of ongoing or renewed conversion both for the faithful and for those about to enter the Church as together they prepare for the annual celebration of the Lord's passion, death and resurrection. Spiritual transformation can be a difficult experience to depict on screen but some films have succeeded in portraying it well.

Following, in alphabetical order, are five classic movies and one contemporary production that showcase people's ability to change their lives for the better. Unless otherwise noted, the OSV News classification of each is A-II – adults and adolescents. Motion Picture Association ratings are listed where applicable. All six titles are available on disc and/or for streaming.

- "Angel and the Badman" (1947)

Enjoyable low-key Western in which a wounded outlaw (John Wayne) is nursed back to health by a Quaker family whose daughter (Gail Russell) tries to get him to hang up his guns rather than square accounts with a bushwacker (Bruce Cabot). Directed by James Edward Grant, the unpretentious yet thoughtful story features a very likable cast, including Harry Carey as the sage sheriff. Solid social values with some meaningful stylized violence. The OSV News classification is A-I – general patronage.

- "Angels with Dirty Faces" (1938)

Depression melodrama in which a gang of New York toughs (Billy Hallop, Leo Gorcey and other Dead End Kids) regard a local gangster (James Cagney) as a hero until a priest (Pat O'Brien) who was his boyhood pal intervenes. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the simplistic plot is buttressed by convincing performances, especially the counterpoint between Cagney's cocky crook and O'Brien's sincere cleric. Stylized violence and justice questions.

- "The Beachcomber" aka "Vessel of Wrath" (1938)

Droll romantic comedy from the W. Somerset Maugham tale of an English reprobate (Charles Laughton) carousing in the Dutch East Indies until reformed by the shrewish sister (Elsa Lanchester) of a missionary (Tyrone Guthrie), who herself is changed in the process. Producer-director Erich Pommer mixes narrative, character and locale in wry fashion, abetted by the whimsical observations of the colonial governor (Robert Newton). But the real fun is the battle royal between the two principals. Comic treatment of human weaknesses and puritanical compunctions.

- "Becket" (1964)

Superb adaptation of Jean Anouilh's classic play about the deep friendship and later conflict between England's King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and his friend, Sir Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), later a saint, and how their days of drinking and womanizing came to an end when the monarch appointed Becket archbishop of Canterbury, leading to Becket's spiritual transformation and ultimate martyrdom. Director Peter Glenville's film is rather stagy and leisurely paced, but the Oscar-winning dialogue is uncommonly literate, and the performances are brilliant. Some crass expressions and (by today's standards) tame sexuality. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

- "Big George Foreman" (2023)

Sports and faith come together in this generally family-friendly and appealing fact-based biography of the titular heavyweight boxing champion (Khris Davis). Resistant to the unwavering Christian devotion of his strong-willed mother (Sonja Sohn), the troubled and emotionally vulnerable youth eventually transforms his destructive rage into fighting prowess under the guidance of a caring mentor and coach (Forest Whitaker). But a near-death experience brings about a radical conversion and, despite his status as a top contender, he abandons the ring for the pulpit and a quiet domestic life with his equally pious new spouse (Jasmine Mathews) until financial woes lead to fresh challenges. Sharper editing could have lent a faster pace to director and co-writer George Tillman Jr.'s too-leisurely profile. But his narrative (scripted with Frank Baldwin) will naturally please believers and includes few problematic elements. Graphic boxing violence, an adultery theme, a scatological incident and fleeting scatological humor, a couple of instances each of mild swearing and crass language. (PG-13)

- "Boys Town" (1938)

Sentimental but emotionally honest story of how Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) built his school for homeless and delinquent youths during the Depression. Directed by Norman Taurog, the Hollywood version centers on the conflict between the priest's charismatic powers of persuasion and a street-tough (Mickey Rooney) who only thinks he's hard-boiled. Tracy's Oscar-winning performance as a role model for those in need of one was a credible blend of the idealistic and the pragmatic. (A-I)

John Mulderig is media reviewer for OSV News. Follow him on Twitter @JohnMulderig1.


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Lent is intended to be a period of ongoing or renewed conversion both for the faithful and for those about to enter the Church as together they prepare for the annual celebration of the Lord's passion, death and resurrection. Spiritual transformation can be a difficult experience to depict on screen but some films have succeeded in portraying it well.

Following, in alphabetical order, are five classic movies and one contemporary production that showcase people's ability to change their lives for the better. Unless otherwise noted, the OSV News classification of each is A-II – adults and adolescents. Motion Picture Association ratings are listed where applicable. All six titles are available on disc and/or for streaming.

- "Angel and the Badman" (1947)

Enjoyable low-key Western in which a wounded outlaw (John Wayne) is nursed back to health by a Quaker family whose daughter (Gail Russell) tries to get him to hang up his guns rather than square accounts with a bushwacker (Bruce Cabot). Directed by James Edward Grant, the unpretentious yet thoughtful story features a very likable cast, including Harry Carey as the sage sheriff. Solid social values with some meaningful stylized violence. The OSV News classification is A-I – general patronage.

- "Angels with Dirty Faces" (1938)

Depression melodrama in which a gang of New York toughs (Billy Hallop, Leo Gorcey and other Dead End Kids) regard a local gangster (James Cagney) as a hero until a priest (Pat O'Brien) who was his boyhood pal intervenes. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the simplistic plot is buttressed by convincing performances, especially the counterpoint between Cagney's cocky crook and O'Brien's sincere cleric. Stylized violence and justice questions.

- "The Beachcomber" aka "Vessel of Wrath" (1938)

Droll romantic comedy from the W. Somerset Maugham tale of an English reprobate (Charles Laughton) carousing in the Dutch East Indies until reformed by the shrewish sister (Elsa Lanchester) of a missionary (Tyrone Guthrie), who herself is changed in the process. Producer-director Erich Pommer mixes narrative, character and locale in wry fashion, abetted by the whimsical observations of the colonial governor (Robert Newton). But the real fun is the battle royal between the two principals. Comic treatment of human weaknesses and puritanical compunctions.

- "Becket" (1964)

Superb adaptation of Jean Anouilh's classic play about the deep friendship and later conflict between England's King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and his friend, Sir Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), later a saint, and how their days of drinking and womanizing came to an end when the monarch appointed Becket archbishop of Canterbury, leading to Becket's spiritual transformation and ultimate martyrdom. Director Peter Glenville's film is rather stagy and leisurely paced, but the Oscar-winning dialogue is uncommonly literate, and the performances are brilliant. Some crass expressions and (by today's standards) tame sexuality. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

- "Big George Foreman" (2023)

Sports and faith come together in this generally family-friendly and appealing fact-based biography of the titular heavyweight boxing champion (Khris Davis). Resistant to the unwavering Christian devotion of his strong-willed mother (Sonja Sohn), the troubled and emotionally vulnerable youth eventually transforms his destructive rage into fighting prowess under the guidance of a caring mentor and coach (Forest Whitaker). But a near-death experience brings about a radical conversion and, despite his status as a top contender, he abandons the ring for the pulpit and a quiet domestic life with his equally pious new spouse (Jasmine Mathews) until financial woes lead to fresh challenges. Sharper editing could have lent a faster pace to director and co-writer George Tillman Jr.'s too-leisurely profile. But his narrative (scripted with Frank Baldwin) will naturally please believers and includes few problematic elements. Graphic boxing violence, an adultery theme, a scatological incident and fleeting scatological humor, a couple of instances each of mild swearing and crass language. (PG-13)

- "Boys Town" (1938)

Sentimental but emotionally honest story of how Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) built his school for homeless and delinquent youths during the Depression. Directed by Norman Taurog, the Hollywood version centers on the conflict between the priest's charismatic powers of persuasion and a street-tough (Mickey Rooney) who only thinks he's hard-boiled. Tracy's Oscar-winning performance as a role model for those in need of one was a credible blend of the idealistic and the pragmatic. (A-I)

John Mulderig is media reviewer for OSV News. Follow him on Twitter @JohnMulderig1.

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