Top 10 Priests in Mainstream Film

If cinema tells us anything about members of the clergy, it’s that each of them possess a different outlook when it comes to interpreting God’s will. Mark Fraser looks at the modus operandi of 10 movie priests.

10. Father Mapple – Orson Welles (Moby Dick, John Huston, 1956)

moby-dick-1956_john-huston_orson-welles, Top 10 Films PriestsIn costume, Orson Welles gave audiences a fair idea of what he might look like 20 years later when he was making TV commercials for the likes of Nashua. Nevertheless, as the bearded and stout Father Mapple, Welles cuts a formidable figure as he preaches from his ship bow pulpit in the Whaleman’s Chapel to the crew of the Pequod about the plight of Jonah after he encounters a whale. I can’t remember exactly what he says during his sermon, so I’ll just turn to Herman Melville to help remind us of the crux of his message: “But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do – remember that – and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavours to persuade. And if we obey God we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

9. Father Delaney – Rod Steiger (The Amityville Horror, Stuart Rosenberg, 1979)

amityville-horror-rod-steiger_priest, Top 10 Films PriestsBy far the weakest link on this list, poor Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) experiences a complete loss of faith in God and his Catholic Church – so much so that he becomes a cowardly recluse before quickly slipping into some kind of blinding fear-driven dementia – after he senses the Devil’s presence at the Lutz’s haunted house on the south shore of New York’s Long Island. The first thing that convinces him the power of Satan is too powerful to tackle comes in the form of a bunch of blow flies which mysteriously collect on one of the house’s flyscreens. Stomach pains, followed by a run-in with a hot telephone receiver and the failure of his car’s brake lines, solidify his suspicions and further turn him into a quivering wreck.
CHIEF CHARACTERISTIC: loses faith in the face of a powerful adversary.

8. Father Bobby Carillo – Robert De Niro (Sleepers, Barry Levinson, 1996)

de-niro_sleepers_priest, Top 10 Films PriestsWhen it looks like some members of his flock are going to go to prison for murder, Father Bobby Carillo (Robert De Niro) takes a rather pragmatic view of truth and justice by lying in the witness stand, thus providing a bona fide alibi for John Reilly (Ron Eldard) and Tommy Marcano (Billy Crudup) who, earlier in the film, have killed one of their reform school’s jailers/rapists (Kevin Bacon.

7. Graham Hess – Mel Gibson (Signs, M Night Shyamalan, 2002)

signs-movie-rory-culkin-baby-monitor-car-roof_mel-gibson_priest, Top 10 Films PriestsFor years I’ve thought that an alien invasion would finally render all global religion null and void once the superstitious extremists amongst us could no longer spuriously claim that human-kind is the centre God’s universe. Unfortunately, M Night Shyamalan’s Signs put the kybosh on this theory given, by the end of the movie, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) – a recently-widowed priest who has turned his back on his flock to concentrate on wheat farming – regains his faith after an attempted invasion of Earth by some water allergic spaceman. Strangely, it’s not a sign from the Big Guy that brings his spirituality back into line – rather, it’s the miracle of family that pulls him through.
CHIEF CHARACTERISTICS: brave in the face of (alien) evil; rediscovers his faith.

6. Father Gabriel – Jeremy Irons (The Mission, Roland Joffe, 1986)

mission-1986-jeremy-irons, Top 10 Films PriestsWhile establishing a mission somewhere in South America during the 1750s in order to convert the local Guarani tribe to Christianity, Spanish Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) helps mercenary and slave trader Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) repent for his evil ways. Together they stand up against a joint Spanish-Portuguese colonialist militia intent on dismantling their community for greater political interests – albeit in different ways.
CHIEF CHARACTERISTIC: a pacifist who is willing to die for his cause.

5. Monsignor Desmond Spellacy – Robert De Niro (True Confessions, Ulu Grosbard, 1981)

true-confessions-robert-de-niro, Top 10 Films PriestsAlong with his detective brother Tom (Robert Duvall), the ambitious Monsignor Des Spellacy (Robert De Niro) gets caught up in a case involving a Black Dahlia-esque murder (in this instance the victim is known as the Virgin Tramp), a church-friendly property developer, prostitution and a bit of porn in Los Angeles circa 1948. This ultimately causes a conflict of interest that pretty much stops his career in its tracks. Unlike Fr Carillo in Sleepers, Spellacy’s pragmatism is more about turning a blind eye than doing the right thing.
CHIEF CHARACTERISTIC: fully appreciates the meaning of penance.

4. (TIE) Father Lankester Merrin – Max von Sydow (The Exorcist, William Friedkin, 1973 and The Exorcist II: The Heretic, John Boorman, 1977)

ExorcistMerrinShadow_movie-priests, Top 10 Films PriestsMuch critical ink has been spilt on John Boorman’s rather silly sequel to William Friedkin’s original smash hit, so there’s no point banging on about it here – except to acknowledge the contribution made by Richard Burton (as Fr Philip Lamont) who, arguably, deserves to be this list’s unofficial runner-up. As for Max von Sydow, his role as the chief exorcist in the 1973 film literally made him the poster child for the clergy. Oddly enough, and despite their titles, the two films aren’t really about him, although he kicks the whole franchise off in the eerie opening of The Exorcist.
CHIEF CHARACTERISTICS: brave in the face of evil; a strong religious conviction.

4. (TIE) Father Lancaster Merrin – Stellan Skarsgard (Exorcist: The Beginning, Renny Harlin, 2004 and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, Paul Schrader, 2005)

exorcist-the-beginning-father-merrin-cross-exorcism-stellan-skarsgard, Top 10 Films PriestsStellan Skarsgard plays a younger Fr Merrin in both of these films, the former being a quickly cobbled together rehash of the latter, which the producer (Morgan Creek) lost faith in after realising – somewhat belatedly – that Paul Schrader’s approach was perhaps a wee bit too cerebral for horror movie audiences. And, according to IMBd, the studio may have had a point – the Harlin movie pulled in US$78 million worldwide on a US$50 million budget, while Schrader’s US$30 million opus only managed to return a measly US$251,495. Although I haven’t seen Dominion, Exorcist: The Beginning does boast a few chilling moments, especially when Fr Merrin, Fr Francis (James D’Arcy) and Chuma (Andrew French) investigate a buried church somewhere in Kenya post World War II.
CHIEF CHARACTERISTICS: brave in the face of evil; regains his strong religious convictions.

3. Reverend Frank Scott – Gene Hackman (The Poseidon Adventure, Ronald Neame, 1972)

The-Poseidon-Adventure_gene-hackman, Top 10 Films PriestsThe Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) lives by the old adage that God helps those who help themselves. And, during the course of the film, he is able to put this theory to the test when members of his latest flock are forced to swallow his medicine after the luxury liner they are travelling on capsizes somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea following its encounter with a tidal wave. Hackman may not be the most convincing of preachers, but – like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection – he is a man of action, leading those who are willing to listen to his message to their salvation.
CHIEF CHARACTERISTICS: never underestimates the resolve of the human spirit (including his own); is willing to sacrifice himself to save the others.

2. Pastor Jacob Fuller – Harvey Keitel (From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez, 1996)

Harvey_Keitel_from-dusk-till-dawn, Top 10 Films PriestsWhen we first meet Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), he’s very much like Graham Hess in Signs (see above), being a recent widower who has ripped off his dog collar, withdrawn from his parish and tried to find refuge in his family. By the end of the film, however, he has become a hideous blood sucking creature who even bites his son Scott (Ernest Liu) before being brought down. In between, he transforms from being a self-pitying doubter into a badass vampire killer.
CHIEF CHARACTERISTICS: with the exception of number nine on this list (The Amityville Horror), all of the above; then he becomes an embodiment of evil.

1. Father Damien Karras – Jason Miller (The Exorcist, William Friedkin, 1973 and The Exorcist III, William Peter Blatty, 1990)

The-Exorcist_Jason-Miller_1973_william-friedkin, Top 10 Films PriestsOne of the most strangely beautiful and haunting moments in modern American cinema is in The Exorcist when a heavily inebriated and guilt-ridden Fr Damien Karras (Jason Miller) dreams about the death of his dead mother (Vasiliki Maliaros). Indeed, the film is just as much about the spiritual death and eventual rebirth of Karras as it is about the demonic possession of Regan (Linda Blair) – something that was obscured at the time of its release as contemporary audiences went hysterical over head rotation, crucifix masturbation, green vomit and profanity. As for The Exorcist III, while it was why better than The Exorcist: The Heretic, one needs to ask oneself – was Patient X really necessary?
CHIEF CHARACTERISTIC: After losing his faith, he triumphantly returns as a true messenger of God by sacrificing himself when he selflessly takes on the Devil.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser.

If you enjoyed Top 10 Priests in Mainstream Film check out Mark Fraser’s other articles on Top 10 Films including the best of Nicolas Cage, films where submarines take centre stage, as well as the Top 10 Films that share an apocalyptic view of New York City & the Top 10 movie bus rides to avoid

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    Aha…who could deny Karras top spot after all he went through in The Exorcist (and then again in The Exorcist 3 when we all thought he had been spared by death after his fall down the street steps). Glad The Exorcist makes a strong appearance given that it’s one of my favourite films and the fact it so brilliantly portrays faith and religion.

    Of course, it’s nice to see Harvey Keitel’s version of a priest highlighted, gun in tow – I’m sure that role was fun to play!

  2. Avatar
    Rory Fish Reply

    I didn’t realise De Niro had played a priest more than once…only seen Sleepers but he’s terrific in that. The Amityville Horror is underrated however it’s scares are hit and miss – the scene with Delaney and the bees isn’t as effective as the red eyes at the window, for example.

    Alternatively, I might have considered the Bishop of Hereford from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves if only for his comical demise!

  3. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Really cool topic here. I like the Dusk Til Dawn choice. He was funny and turned out to be a bad ass.

    Nice job on the article.

  4. Avatar
    Lights Camera Reaction Reply

    Pastor Jacob Fuller would be my top pick! Glad you included him.

  5. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    Not a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, but you guys are always surprising me with new and interesting lists. De Niro is almost on this list three times (if you count him being in The Mission) haha. There’s a few films on this list I haven’t seen but I mostly agree with the majority of the priests on this list. De Niro in Sleepers stood out for me along with Irons in The Mission and Sydow in The Exorcist. I was excited to see Hackman’s priest from Poseidon Adventure (totally underrated movie and performance by him) as well as Keitel in From Dusk Til Dawn. Totally sad that Keitel’s character succumbs to evil, but pretty awesome that he recovers his faith long enough to take some of the nasty vamps to hell with him.

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