- 10 examples of theocracy on the big and small screen illustrate the multifarious manifestations of the – inevitably authoritarian – communion between religion and government.
- These 10 examples of theocracy range from the early worldwide phenomenon Quo Vadis and the multiple Oscar winner A Man for All Seasons to the Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will and the fantasy series His Dark Materials.
Examples of theocracy abound in both the historical record and works of fiction.
But before we go any further, what exactly is a theocracy?
As per Merriam-Webster, the word stands for “government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided.”
Left unsaid in this definition is the fact that theocracies are invariably authoritarian in nature. If you have the gods on your side, how could your decisions ever be wrong? Or as much as questioned?
In the real world, the separation between religion and state (or “church and state” in Christian-centered countries) is a relatively recent concept, having taken shape in earnest in 17th-century/18th-century Europe, when Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, and Montesquieu began challenging the role of “faith” in the sociopolitical realm.
In fiction, theocratic rule in some form or other is found in works as disparate as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel, The Legend of Korra.
Debate about separation between religion & state rages on
As a testament to humankind’s boundless cretinism, three centuries after the Age of Enlightenment the debate over the separation between one’s religious beliefs and government rule – should it be nonexistent, partial, complete? – continues around the world.
In fact, just in the last few days Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale gained renewed political relevance in the Puritan-established United States following the death of liberal-minded Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
The embattled president of that country, former reality TV celebrity Donald Trump, has vowed to have that vacant seat quickly filled even though – or rather, because – the U.S. presidential election is a mere five weeks away.
His nominee: A woman associated with a Christian faction that wants to abolish women’s reproductive rights and sees their ideal role as submissive to men, and with another group that, in its own words, “seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.”
Below are 10 examples of theocracy in film and on television that illustrate what happens when rulers – often with the acquiescence of the hate-filled, neuron-impaired masses – act as if under the guidance of the gods.
Quo Vadis & The Sign of the Cross
Examples of Theocracy – #1 & #2: The imperial cult was a key element of Ancient Rome’s state religion. Julius Caesar, for one, was made divus after death, while his successor, Augustus, the first de facto Roman emperor, became associated in parts of the empire with the cult of the (Greek-created) Dea Roma, a divine representation of Roman might and, by extension, of the Roman state.
Fast-forward to 1895, when two hugely successful Ancient Rome-set works came out, both taking place during Nero’s rule and featuring persecuted Christian converts:
- British playwright Wilson Barrett’s The Sign of the Cross, first staged in St. Louis, Missouri.
- Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero.
Inevitably, both titles would be turned into motion pictures.
The best-known movie version of The Sign of the Cross is Paramount’s Cecil B. DeMille-directed 1932 pre-Coder, adapted by Waldemar Young and Sidney Buchman, and starring Fredric March as a Roman patrician (and later Christian convert), Elissa Landi as his Christian romantic interest, Charles Laughton as a homosexually inclined Nero, and Claudette Colbert as his lustful wife Poppaea.
The two most notable big-screen versions of Quo Vadis are:
- Enrico Guazzoni’s Italian-made 1913 feature, one of the cinema’s first worldwide sensations.
- Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 blockbuster, a Technicolor superproduction and Best Picture Oscar nominee that helped to steady the wobbly legs of the once mighty Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr star as the Roman/Christian couple, alongside Best Supporting Actor nominee Peter Ustinov as Nero and Patricia Laffan as Poppaea.
Examples of theocracy, Ancient Rome-style
So, how are The Sign of the Cross and Quo Vadis cinematic “examples of theocracy”?
In both narratives, the corrupt, mentally off-kilter Nero (37–68 C.E.) has Christians slaughtered for political and personal expediency.
Although he is made to pay at the end in Quo Vadis (but not in The Sign of the Cross), the Roman emperor manages to get away with blood-soaked executions and off-key fiddle playing largely because he is no mere authoritarian ruler.
Worshipped at temples in the eastern expansions of the Roman Empire, Nero was a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, whose purported origins could be traced all the way back to the goddess Venus.
Triumph of the Will
Examples of Theocracy – #3: As explained further above, a theocracy can be defined as a government “by officials who are regarded as divinely guided.”
In other words, one doesn’t have to be a direct descendent of Venus or Jesus or Shiva. To be perceived as “divinely guided” is enough.
Hence absolutist, totalitarian, and quasi-totalitarian states throughout history have often been theocratic in essence, as manifested in the “cult of personality” or “cult of the leader”: The ruler is seen as anointed by a higher power, infallible, supreme.
Modern examples include Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, North Korea’s Kim family, and, in some theocracy/totalitarianism-yearning quarters, Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, and Jair Bolsonaro.
Actress-turned-filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will / Triumph des Willens marks the cinematic apotheosis of the cult of personality.
Hitler descends from the clouds
A chronicle of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress held in Nuremberg and attended by more than 700,000 supporters, Triumph of the Will not only extols the virtues of National Socialism but also deifies Adolf Hitler himself, most notably in its opening sequence.
To the sound of the Nazi anthem, “Horst-Wessel-Lied,” at the start of Triumph of the Will Riefenstahl’s camera, placed inside a small plane, shows thick, gigantic clouds that slowly thin out as the city below – castles, cathedrals, buildings – comes into focus.
Next, we get a glimpse of Hitler’s plane and its shadow reflected on one of Nuremberg’s tree-lined thoroughfares. That is followed by a massive military parade (apparently headed to the aerodrome) shot from above.
The sequence reaches its climax upon Der Führer’s jubilant landing, as he is greeted by throngs of adoring women, men, and children doing the Nazi salute.
A Man for All Seasons + Galileo + 1870
Examples of Theocracy – #4, #5 & #6: Throughout history, it’s frequently the case that yesterday’s mercilessly persecuted become today’s merciless persecutors. All it takes is for the disenfranchised group to amass political power.
That’s how the martyred/near-martyred Christians of The Sign of the Cross and Quo Vadis became the implacable theocrats of more recent centuries.
Here are three noteworthy film “examples of theocracy” – in various forms – in Christian-ruled Europe:
- Directed by Fred Zinnemann and adapted by Robert Bolt from his own play, the multiple Oscar winner A Man for All Seasons (1966) stars Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, imprisoned and condemned to death by Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) – now not only the ruler of England but also of the Church of England.
- Based on Bertold Brecht’s play Life of Galileo (written in 1938; first staged in 1943 in Zurich), Joseph Losey’s Galileo (1975) stars Topol as scientific researcher Galileo Galilei, threatened with torture by his Catholic inquisitors unless he recants his heretical theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
- Set in the year that the First Vatican Council proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility, Alfredo Giannetti’s 1870 / Correva l’anno di grazia 1870 (1972) chronicles the travails of a political prisoner (Marcello Mastroianni) who refuses to renounce his republican views even though that would mean a pardon from Pope Pius IX, spiritual and temporal leader of what remains of the Papal States. Anna Magnani co-stars as the prisoner’s wife.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Examples of Theocracy – #7: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts what happens after Christian extremists topple the U.S. government, murder its leaders, and form a theocratic patriarchal society known as the Republic of Gilead.
In that nation, women – especially fertile women, or “handmaids” – are wholly subservient to men. Their social role: To be used as breeding vessels.
Partly written by future Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Harold Pinter – who later distanced himself from the final script – Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 big-screen version of The Handmaid’s Tale stars Natasha Richardson as a handmaid forced into becoming the concubine of a Commander (Robert Duvall) whose infertile wife (Faye Dunaway) is nearly as terrifyingly eager to become a Mom as Jennifer Garner in Juno.
Atwood described her novel as “a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime.” Most U.S. critics, however, had trouble figuring out the meaning of the various metaphors as portrayed in the Schlöndorff and Pinterish effort, with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert remarking that “at the end of the movie we are conscious of large themes and deep thoughts, and of good intentions drifting out of focus.”
Examples of Theocracy – #7a: Created by Bruce Miller, the far better-received Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale stars Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes. Season One (2016) won a total of eight Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series.
Examples of Theocracy – #8: Set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Siddiq Barmak’s Osama (2003) details the horrors faced by women and girls in a theocratic Muslim society. The story follows a pre-teenage girl (Marina Golbahari) who, in order to find work so she can help feed her family, disguises herself as a boy.
Katharine Hepburn (Sylvia Scarlett), Barbra Streisand (Yentl), Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), and Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) are among the many actresses who, for social and/or personal reasons, passed themselves as men on film. Not all of them met with a happy ending, but few went through as much suffering as Osama’s young heroine; even as a boy, she is relentlessly abused by the ruling Muslim fanatics.
Afghanistan’s submission for the 2003 Academy Awards, Osama makes clear there’s no escape for the disenfranchised in a theocratic state.
The Golden Compass & His Dark Materials
Examples of Theocracy – #9 & #10: British author Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials – Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the U.S./Canada, 1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000) – offers a reverse reimagining of John Milton’s 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost.
In “Paradise Lost: An Introduction,” found in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, Pullman writes:
“Suppose that the prohibition on the knowledge of good and evil were an expression of jealous cruelty, and the gaining of such knowledge an act of virtue? Suppose the Fall should be celebrated and not deplored? As I played with it, my story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence.”
Original Sin – i.e., developing one’s intellectual sense – is thus a positive, while “deities” like The Amber Spyglass’ The Authority and Metatron are nothing more than self-serving, power-hungry entities.
‘Family film’ stirs up Catholic outrage
Based on Northern Lights, and starring Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, and Daniel Craig, New Line Cinema’s $180 million-budget The Golden Compass (2007) was an ambitious attempt to replicate the studio’s success with their The Lord of the Rings trillion-dollar trilogy.
Adapted and directed by Chris Weitz (who was temporarily replaced by Anand Tucker), the special-effects-laden movie traces the adventures of an orphaned girl (Richards) living in an alternate Earth ruled by the Magisterium, a theocratic organization that, for mysterious reasons, supports a gang of child kidnappers.
Even though New Line and Weitz took pains to skirt the philosophical/theological aspects of the original, The Golden Compass generated quite a bit of Catholic outrage upon its U.S. release, with the Denver archbishop carping about the movie’s “aggressively anti-religious, anti-Christian undercurrent” and the Catholic League calling for its boycott.
However debatable, the general consensus is that the controversy hurt the film, which had been marketed as “family entertainment.” Compounding matters, critical reception was less than enthusiastic, with The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Rainer summing up, “The only thing missing is richly imagined characters, a comprehensible story line, good acting, and satisfying special effects.”
Small screen to the rescue
A major domestic box office dud, the New Line release brought in a mere $70.1 million in the U.S./Canada. International audiences, on the other hand, apparently couldn’t care less either about the outrage of the faithful or critics’ views: The Golden Compass scored $302.1 million overseas, making it the ninth most successful release of the year.
Unfortunately for the studio, which shortly thereafter was absorbed by Warner Bros., the worldwide grand total of $372.2 million wasn’t enough to ensure two more costly big-screen sequels.
Ultimately, His Dark Materials found a home on television, via BBC One and HBO. Adapted by Jack Thorne, and with Tom Hooper directing two episodes, the series debuted in 2019 to moderate-to-good reviews, with the New York Times’ James Poniewozik affirming that season 1, also based on Northern Lights, is “better at rendering the text’s imagery than capturing its tone.”
Season 2, shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, comes out in November.
“10 Examples of Theocracy on Screen” endnotes
Ancient Rome’s imperial cult is discussed in Henry Fairfield Burton’s “The Worship of the Roman Emperors,” found at jstor.org.
Natasha Richardson and Aidan Quinn The Handmaid’s Tale image: Cinecom Pictures.
James McAvoy His Dark Materials image: BBC/HBO.
“10 Examples of Theocracy on Screen: Religion-State Authoritarianism in Multiple Forms” last updated in July 2021.