Welcome to the first installment of Marriage in the Movies: a new series wherein I survey what the art form of film can offer on this all-important topic. The movies I will feature stand out because marriage, as opposed to mere romantic affection, is absolutely central to the story. Without it, none of them would have a plot. Some may state their message clearly, others may let the story do the talking, but all of them have something to say about marriage.
That’s where I come in: First, I briefly explain the premise of each film, for those who may be unfamiliar with it. Then, I look at it from the perspective of a Christian who also loves movies, and I judge whether what they have to say is Importantly Right or Importantly Wrong—or perhaps, in interesting cases, some of each.
My first installment is an unapologetically Christian film that many of you have probably seen: Fireproof. (Most of my selections will be more mainstream, although many will still get a lot of things Importantly Right.) In this film, a fireman struggles with the pressures of work while waking up to the reality that his wife is ready to divorce him. While at first he is not a believer, his believing father and friend both challenge him to fight for his marriage. In the process, he discovers a faith of his own that sustains him even when it appears that his efforts aren’t bearing fruit.
I remember vividly when this film first came out. Actually, I remember vividly the year before it came out, when I was eagerly following every scrap of B-roll and production blog update as the finished product slowly came together. This was motivated partly by my enthusiasm for Sherwood Pictures’ faith-based film-making, partly by my rapidly growing and very spiritual interest in Kirk Cameron.
(Yes, I still have my not half-bad sketches of a couple of his promo stills in a doodle pad somewhere.)
All of which is to say that despite the technical flaws and sometimes simplistic writing, and despite the fact that my taste in films has moved on since then, I still have a soft spot in my heart for this one. And there’s no question that it has something to say about marriage which rings true in today’s culture. Together, Cameron and talented newcomer Erin Bethea worked with an average script to provide a sensitive, above-average portrayal of a struggling relationship. This painfully honest scene shows how an argument over frivolous details can quickly spiral out of control and re-open deep wounds:
Needless to say, this film is for the most part Importantly Right. Cameron’s character, Caleb, is forced to recognize the hurt that his selfishness, verbal abuse, and implied p*rnography addiction are causing to his wife Catherine. While he arrogantly claims, “I am not a perfect person, but better than most,” the men around him rightly hold his feet to the fire, as it were (and yes, the script is sprinkled with a bit more than its fair share of such obvious analogies). Although his father does lead him to Christ, they are not shy about challenging him to step up to the plate as a husband first. This shows how the natural light can expose a man’s conscience even before he’s committed to Christianity. In one of the film’s best scenes, his fellow fireman makes an effective illustration with a salt and pepper shaker:
The film chooses to make an advice book called The Love Dare its central plot device—a collection of wise observations by Caleb’s father that has a way of opening itself up to exactly the right page at the right moment. As a plot device, it’s sometimes clunky, but as marriage advice, it’s very sound. In particular, a telling thought about the danger of “parasites” leads Caleb to make his biggest sacrifice in showing his love for Catherine.
All of this is great material for husbands and men to ponder. But what message does the film offer for wives? This is where, in my opinion, the film drops the ball a bit. In (rightly) placing such a heavy burden on the man to save the marriage, the film may not take the woman’s responsibility to the marriage seriously enough. Because you see, while Caleb is reluctantly beginning to reach out and attempt reconciliation, his wife is flirting with another man and rebuffing all of Caleb’s gestures. This is partly excusable at first, when Caleb’s heart clearly isn’t in it. But as he grows in seriousness and in genuine love for his wife, she has less and less excuse for her own behavior. Yet the film-makers appear to take the perspective that everything is up to Caleb. By the end of the film, he is literally on his knees begging her to stay, as she still wavers on the edge of walking away with the divorce papers.
In the only scene where anyone confronts Catherine’s behavior, an older lady at the hospital where she works offers a cautionary word over lunch about the “other man.” But that scene still disappoints. The woman’s advice is true as far as it goes (essentially saying that Catherine shouldn’t assume that this guy is any good just because he’s flirting with her), but Catherine’s own duty to her husband is never mentioned. Granted, this may be true to life, as saying outright “What part of M-A-R-R-I-E-D do you not understand sweetheart?” could be considered a tad direct. However, the responsibility is even more clearly shifted from Catherine to Caleb when Caleb confronts the handsome doctor himself. Shaking his ring in front of the man’s nose, Caleb declares his intent to “go after [Catherine] too.” While it’s a very satisfying, manly scene, I still can’t shake the nagging sense that nobody is holding Catherine accountable for planning to run off with another man. Caleb is morally obligated to pursue her, but whether she’s morally obligated to return is not as clear as it should be.
Ultimately, there are many great take-home messages about marriage in Fireproof, presented in a biblical, complementary framework. The seriousness of divorce is treated with due gravity, and the writers’ willingness to venture delicately into the realm of sexual addiction gives the story an extra measure of honesty. It rightly points back to Christ as the only source of lasting peace and love within a marriage. Both Caleb and Catherine are implied to be saved by their reconciliation (oops, spoilerz) at the film’s end. However, the picture it offers is to some extent incomplete. Christian women need to take note and fill in some important gaps when it comes to holding up their end of the marriage vow.
Coming next, a popular family film that also delves into the pain of divorce, with more concerning results.