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David Puttnam: Hollywood’s Role in Shaping Values

On 20, Aug 2013 | 9 Comments | In Stories | By admin


In this two part interview with Bill Moyers, titled “Hollywood’s Role in Shaping Values”, Producer David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields) says:

Filmmakers are selling themselves short by making trivial films.

Puttnam’s contention is that films have an incredible power to influence how we live our lives.

My diet of American cinema formed what might be called my ethical understanding of the world (The Search, The Best Years of Our Lives, Inherit the Wind, On the Waterfront)… It was from films like this that just about every tenet by which I’ve tried to live my life somehow evolved.

Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation

He says filmmakers need to acknowledge and embrace that reality and make films that positively affect society.

There’s an underlying poverty of ambition. I’ve never accepted that there’s any dichotomy at all between entertaining you and also dealing with an issue. And I think it’s the job of the responsible filmmaker, or the good filmmaker (forget responsible) to deal in both. When I’m teaching I have this expression I use all the time. There are AND movies and there are OR movies. A filmmaker’s responsibility is to make an AND movie. That’s to say a film that is entertaining and informing, and has intrinsic values, values which are ongoing in society which people can gather around and defend. An OR movie is a movie that, on day one, decides it wishes to exploit whatever is fashionable about the audience at that moment and doesn’t wish to bother itself with injecting any other values whatsoever.

Puttnam argues this balance is found by telling stories that resonate with the hearts of audiences. A Chinese audience could understand what was happening in Chariots of Fire even without subtitles, and thereby it entertained and informed them.

What’s wonderful about cinema is that it’s a truly international medium and if you can make that case in a movie – my experience as I’ve traveled the world with the films I’ve produced is – you get the same echoes. People respond in the same way to the same fine echoes of themselves they see on screen.

But Moyers points out the fundamental problem with Puttnam’s argument: that doesn’t tell us which values to promote.

Rambo appeals to a lot of people, millions of people, for many of the same reasons. Here’s a man, an individual on a mission of patriotism for his country, driven by deep, abiding affection for his brothers in arms, for his country, his cause, risking his life, going into the dark forrest, as the mythologists would say. Wrestling with demons, adversaries. Coming back having accomplished the will of the individual against the hordes out there. Now what’s the difference between the Rambo of that image and the Jesuit priest in The Mission?

…It is universal, but the other side of it – I remember when Rambo came out 3 years ago, the New York Times ran a story saying that the image of the militia, the mob, all the young men fighting and killing each other in that devastated city, lining up at the few movie houses waiting to see Rambo. They carried their AK’s with them. They were going to see this. It reinforced a universal image they have of themselves.

What has to be acknowledged is that virtue is universal because we are created in the image of God, but so is sin, because we are fallen, marred image bearers. Author Grant Horner explains:

God made us in His image; we make movies in ours… Film is the most powerful image of itself that humanity has ever produced. No one could deny that books, art, music, politics, social consciousness, and so forth are significant, but film is the one “cultural location” where all of these other categories may meet and have a discussion… Film has become a significant theater displaying man’s nature – in both its glory and its shame.

Meaning at the Movies

Puttnam’s desire is to see films propagate what ought to be. But you can’t do that by appealing to what isYou can’t get an ought from an is. The only way films can have the kind of impact Puttnam wants them to have is if they are rooted in the Word of God – our only source for what ought to be. And a proper understanding of the Word of God prevents us from looking to ourselves for hope. Puttnam argues:

The effect of that drip, drip, drip daily diet of views and ideas that adhere to what’s best in society. That has an effect. Not one movie. Not one [newspaper] article. But just the fact that all of us buckle down and try and do better and be better.

This will never accomplish what Puttnam wants it to because society is fallen and in need of a Redeemer, not better bootstraps. “Something more is wanted than merely to din into men’s ears what they ought to be, and what they ought to do. Something is wanted more effectually to renovate the heart and move the springs of action. The water is nought, and if you make it flow it is bitter. You want an ingredient to be cast into it that will heal its poison springs, and make them sweet and clear.

With this in mind, consider these three closing points from Puttnam:

  1. “Every single movie has within it an element of propaganda. And they walk away with either benign or malign propaganda.”
  2. “I don’t think it is the role of the businessman to capitulate to the artist any more than it is the role of the artist or the creator to capitulate to the businessman.”
  3. “You make a passionate and committed film, and you do it well, and the audience will always turn up. I’ve never had the audience let me down. I’ve never made a fine film, as a producer, and had the audience not turn up.”


  1. What is your Christian, and especially reformed Christian conclusion from this? If I might ask.

    • The conclusion is simply that art speaks, so speak the truth

  2. I’m not sure how to phrase thew next question which has been rumbling around my head.

  3. Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean by “truth” and how to speak it with art and to whom? I’m of the view that any occupation, activity or form of expression that carries moral content and is therefore no indifferent, requires biblical precept and or precedent for it’s production and manner of use in order for it to be pleasing to the Lord.

    There is art in the bible. Everybody seems to agree that film making is art. Therefor whatever precepts or principles we find in the scriptures regarding art generally, apply equally to film. Despite the fact that the technology wouldn’t exist for many centuries, the principles and precedents are transculturally binding for all artistic expression for all time.

    Agree or no?

    • Greg,

      The Bible is truth. Art speaks in a variety of ways. To the extent that it speaks, it should speak Scriptural concepts (though that is a very vast spectrum).

      I agree with your second paragraph. Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible is a tremendous read.

      • I totally disagree with Schaeffer and Rookmaaker. Nothing has ever been less biblical than their idolatrous view of art.

  4. Where is an example of art being used by God’s people to influence the world in the bible?

  5. Did I put you off?

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