Last weekend I re-watched The Book of Eli starring Denzel Washington, one of my favorite action films—although lumping it into that genre doesn’t do it justice. Labelling it a “faith-based” movie isn’t quite right either, although it serves as a good model for how filmmakers dealing with Christian themes can reach a wide general audience rather than targeting believers.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, but hey, it’s a five-year-old movie.
In The Book of Eli, Denzel (can we agree that he’s iconic enough to go by one name?) plays a lone wanderer in a post-apocalyptic United States, heading west on foot with the sole remaining copy of the Bible, memorizing it at night. It is a mission he has been carrying out for thirty years, ever since a voice commanded him “to carry the book out west. Told me that a path would be laid out for me, that I’d be led to a place where the book was safe. Told me that I’d be protected against anything or anyone that stood in my path.”
And indeed he is occasionally miraculously protected from roving gangs of killers in this lawless landscape, whom he faces down without fear. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil,” he recites to the young woman Solara (Mila Kunis), after demonstrating a few times that evil has much more to fear from him. Solara has latched onto him to take her away from her hometown, which is in the grip of power-mad Carnegie (Gary Oldman) and his thugs.
Carnegie knows the power that the Bible’s words have over people, and he desperately wants a copy with which he can manipulate the spiritually hungry survivors of a devastated world to follow him as a religious leader. When he discovers that Eli owns the only Bible, he tries everything from temptations to threats, but Eli refuses to give up the book to this false prophet. Taking it west is his single-minded purpose, and nothing can deter him from fulfilling it.
Meanwhile, Eli returns to the Bible again and again for wisdom and strength. “Do you really read that same book every day?” Solara asks. “Without fail,” he replies (coincidentally, or perhaps not, Denzel told GQ back in 2012 that he reads the Bible every day).
Carnegie eventually manages to take the book by force and leave a wounded Eli to die in the desert. But he discovers too late that the Bible he took is useless to him—although I will spare you the spoiler about why. Suffice it to say that Eli no longer has a need for the Bible himself, because over his thirty years’ wandering and nightly reading he has committed the entire King James Bible to memory.
Solara helps Eli get to a community in San Francisco where the process of rebuilding society has begun; part of that process involves collecting, preserving, and reproducing the remaining books, especially the classics of civilization. “We’re going to teach people about the world they lost,” the librarian explains to Eli. Together they undertake to recreate the Bible. Eli recites it verbatim to the librarian, who records it in a manuscript that is then sent to the printing press.
His mission completed, Eli offers up a grateful prayer to God for
giving me the strength and the conviction to complete the task you entrusted to me. Thank you for guiding me straight and true through the many obstacles in my path, and for keeping me resolute when all around seemed lost. . . I fought the good fight, I finished the race, I kept the faith.
Denzel may have deservedly won an Oscar for his turn as a charismatic villain in Training Day, but the man is at his most compelling in morality tales of justice, heroism, and moral struggle. In Flight he was Oscar-nominated as an alcoholic-in-denial whose conscience finally wouldn’t let him lie anymore about his part in a terrible tragedy. In The Equalizer, a top-notch action thriller which I wrote about for Acculturated here, he is a modern-day knight errant dispensing bloody justice to evil men.
In The Book of Eli, Denzel’s character is an uncompromising, unwavering moral force pushing through a landscape of violence, temptation, ignorance, and greed. The sheer commitment to his spiritual purpose, the moral strength he embodied, made for a refreshing change from the roguish anti-heroes so prevalent in today’s television shows and movies.
Released in 2010, the movie was slightly ahead of the curve in terms of its religious theme. “Faith-based” movies, ranging from the low-budget God is Not Dead to blockbusters such as Noah and Exodus, are hot now, although films like the former literally preach to the converted while the latter films, made by non-believers, disrespect believers. The Book of Eli is more successful at delivering its message than all of them because it does so by captivating an unsuspecting audience with a great story and a riveting protagonist rather than by bludgeoning it with leaden preaching.
So The Book of Eli’s lesson for filmmakers who want to deliver a message (religious or otherwise) is challenging but simple: Wrap the message in a great story with a compelling moral hero at the center of it.
Oh, and hire Denzel.