Right-wing moviemaking has been a growth industry in recent years, as conservative activists set out to challenge what they see as the damaging cultural impact of liberalism’s dominance in Hollywood. The latest example is “Torchbearer,” which director Steve Bannon called “a Christian war film” in remarks before a screening in Cleveland during the Republican National Convention last week.
“Torchbearer” stars Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty patriarch who became a folk hero in the right-wing war on “political correctness” when the show was temporarily suspended by A&E amid controversy over Robertson's inflammatory remarks about homosexuality and black people in the pre-civil-rights-movement Louisiana. The movie was shown to distributors in Cannes and will be released in theaters in August.
The hour-long film is a collaboration between well-known right-wing groups. Bannon is executive chairman of Breitbart News; the script was written by a Breitbart editor, Rebecca Mansour. It was produced by Citizens United, the organization whose movie attacking Hillary Clinton was used by conservatives on the Supreme Court to gut regulation of political money in Citizens United the court ruling. Religious Right political operative Ralph Reed attended the premiere, and at a reception following the screening, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., took the opportunity to slam Clinton and praise the work of Citizens United.
The idea for “Torchbearer” came from Robertson’s nephew Zach Dasher, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014. The plan began to gel during conversations at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, at which Robertson was honored with the Andrew Breitbart Award. The film includes a clip from Robertson’s CPAC speech warning about sexually transmitted diseases.
Dasher introduced other pre-movie speakers, calling Citizens United’s David Bossie “Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare” and celebrating that “Breitbart is waging war on liberalism in America.” Bossie said “Torchbearer” is the sixth collaboration between Citizens United and Bannon.
Dasher said he didn’t want to make a “typical cheesy Christian film.” Judging by that standard, you would have to say the movie succeeds. But it is hard to imagine anyone, even people who share Robertson’s evangelical faith and political beliefs, could enjoy the film very far beyond the opening sequences, which intersperse shots of Robertson calmly boating, fishing and hunting with sneering critics calling him bigoted and stupid, clearly meant to set up the narrator as a common-man hero despised by the cultural elites.
The film combines Robertson presenting an evangelical message of salvation through Jesus Christ with a theory about religion’s role in human history and society. Says Robertson, “When you take out God as the anchor of your civilization you open the door to tyranny and instead of human rights you have the will to power of the ruler who makes himself the sole determiner of what is true and just. Might makes right.”
More specifically, it is a warning to Americans that societies not grounded in reverence and fear for the Judeo-Christian God, and His teachings on right and wrong, inevitably descend into depravity and brutality.
Robertson says the Scopes trial on the teaching of evolution, during which H.L. Mencken mocked religious opponents of teaching evolution in schools, was “a watershed event that would slowly unravel the bond that wove the Creator into the very fabric of American life. God would be cast out of the public square, out of education, out of national discourse, out of the popular culture altogether.”
It is hard to describe how disturbing this movie is, on multiple levels.
Firstly, it visually and emotionally assaults the viewer by lingering on gruesome images of violence and death, using reenactments and animation as well as the most graphic historical footage from Auschwitz and more recent images of victims of ISIS and Boko Haram being beaten, shot and burned to death. I would call the movie’s infliction of trauma gratuitous, but it seems a very purposeful act meant to provoke and inflame and generate a rage to war.
Also jarring are the vast leaps through time and the excising of inconvenient truths that would undermine the moviemakers’ message, which seems to be that the history of the last 2015 years is a story of barbarity inflicted on Christians and others by those who have abandoned God or worship the wrong God or gods.
The movie’s timeline starts in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve inviting evil into the world with their disobedience of God. Then we’re in Athens to talk about Aristotle’s belief in a “first cause” and four centuries later the apostle Paul’s trip there; then to Rome for the execution of Peter and Paul, the emperor Nero’s brutal massacres of Christians, and the Roman empire’s continued persecution of Christians over their refusal to adhere to the “civic religion” (dog-whistle alert) of the time, which required treating the emperor as a god.
From there, we hop to the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, conveniently skipping over a millennium-plus of history that includes abundant butchery carried out by people and societies fervent in their religious beliefs, particularly European Christians in wars against heretics and each other and during the conquest of the Americas.
Then it’s a short hop to the American Revolution. Robertson contrasts the American founders’ reverence for God with the atheistic French Revolution and Robespierre’s bloody reign of terror. The movie does not address the American Civil War, in which God-fearing Christians on both sides engaged in bloody combat.
At the turn of the 20th century, Robertson says, “worship of science becomes the new religion.” The film includes a segment on the development of the atomic bomb, “the first weapon of mass destruction.” It features a clip of nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer reciting language from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Robertson responds, “So fallen man, unanchored by God, uses the power of creation to destroy. Mechanized war is upon us.”
It is not entirely clear how this segment fits the movie’s thesis that without the Judeo-Christian God as an anchor, there is no protection for human rights and human dignity. Are the filmmakers suggesting that Franklin Delano Roosevelt — whose public prayers for the D-Day invasion are cited admiringly in the film — was “unanchored by God” and was wrong to back development of the atomic bomb in fierce competition with Nazi scientists?
Speaking of Nazis, the movie devotes significant time to Auschwitz, where Robertson talks at length about the details of the horrific, systematized mass murder that took place there, which he blames in part on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that God is dead.
To be sure, the Holocaust is a brutal historical reality that should continue to be examined and understood as a warning about the way evil can be fostered and carried out at a national level, something that has been on many people’s minds during this political season. But this movie’s use of the stories and images of the people murdered at Auschwitz feels shamefully exploitative, especially in light of the fact that the film contains not a word about the long history of Christian anti-Semitism. Acknowledging centuries of deadly violence against Jews by Christians and in the name of Christianity would, again, undermine or at least complicate the movie’s central claim, and so it is simply ignored.
The same could be said of the film’s use of the civil rights era in the United States. The movie shows footage of the brutality meted out against those who were peacefully protesting segregation, but portrays this as another example of what happens when societies have rejected God and the weak and powerless are vulnerable to the man “with the biggest stick.”
But the big-stick brutality of Jim Crow and the official violence that enforced it were not being waged by a people who had rejected God. They were carried out by people who declared themselves to be acting in His name. Robertson himself has said that black people were more “godly” and “happy” under Jim Crow.
The movie quotes Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail as an example of religious faith in the service of public righteousness. But it utterly neglects how much slavery and Jim Crow were also justified by religious arguments, and how intensely the civil rights movement was seen by many white Christian leaders in the south as an attack on their faith as well as their culture. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., whose son had a prominent speaking role at the RNC, preached that the Supreme Court justices who ruled against segregated schools were not heeding God’s word.
Moving to the present era, Robertson warns against poll-driven morality – a not-too-subtle reference to growing support for LGBT people – and says a “sentimental need to be nice to each other” is not enough to ward off barbarism. Warning that “sentimentalism falls prey to nihilism,” Robertson says of the Hippies, “what started out as free love and flowers in your hair ended up with the Manson murders.” The movie includes footage of abortion activists’ anti-Planned Parenthood “sting” videos as well as American pop stars in sensual performances. “We are crotch-driven animals following our instincts,” he complains. “The sexual experience is now the high summit of our happiness.”
As the movie nears an end, viewers are subjected to graphic images of brutality and genocide being carried out by ISIS and affiliated terrorist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria; Robertson reads from the biblical Book of Revelation.
And then there’s an abrupt shift back into the bayou made famous by Robertson and his family. Robertson wades into the water, where one at a time, people walk out to join him and be baptized. It is strikingly peaceful end to a “war movie.” Even if one is not tempted to join the line of people being baptized by Robertson, the idea of a soothing dip is very appealing after being subjected to “Torchbearer.”