In today's Faith in Film blog post, we're going to tackle The Book of Eli. CONSIDER THIS YOUR SPOILER WARNING! If you haven't seen it, it's a 2010 action film starring Denzel Washington at the top of his game. This one requires a bit of a disclaimer: the movie is violent at points, and there is a fair bit of harsh language throughout.
You may be thinking, "Why even tackle this? An action movie rife with cursing? What possible value could a Catholic glean from this?" Stick with me here: there's more to this one than meets the eye.
The Book of Eli is set in a post-apocalyptic American future. There was some form of climate disaster that led to "the last war," which wiped out the majority of humanity and pretty much all infrastructure. In the years following, the remaining pockets of humanity have banded together into violent, roving gangs.
It's a bleak, ugly picture of the future, accentuated by the film's bleak color palette and dusty, barren scenery. Our main character is Washington's Eli, a mysterious protagonist cut from the same cloth as many of Clint Eastwood's classic cowboy roles. He walks with a purpose and always wears those "cool guy" sunglasses that were so popular in the 2000s and early 2010s. He's quiet and contemplative but fully capable of defending himself with surprising ferocity, as we see when a group of bandits try to rob him.
From the very start, Eli is shown to be a hard and driven man. He scavenges for supplies, hunts for his food, and always heads west. He's clearly on some sort of quest or mission, but we don't know what it is, at least not at first. A short while into the movie, we learn something surprising about Eli: he carries a Bible, and reads from it frequently.
See? I told you there was more to this than meets the eye! The Bible is a massive part of this movie. Eli's Bible is significant because the majority of the world's books were burned or destroyed during the apocalypse. The film's central conflict arises when Eli makes a stop into a small town on his journey westward.
This small, seemingly innocuous town is, like everything in this movie, more than it seems. It's controlled by a man named Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman. Man, is this guy good at playing villains or what? Carnegie is in effect a warlord, controlling a few roving gangs and groups of thugs. He's also amassed a small personal library, tasking his minions with bringing any books they find on their exploits back to him.
When Carnegie hears that there's a man with a Bible in his town, his eyes light up, and he immediately takes steps to acquire it. Eli of course resists, and we have our conflict. The majority of the movie consists of Eli continuously fleeing westward while Carnegie and his men chase after him with intent to kill.
Throughout this violent pursuit, we learn some more things about Eli. He seems to be under some sort of divine protection. Bullets miss him when they should hit him, he's faster and stronger than a man his age should be, and he always credits his physical and combat prowess to God. It's so against the grain for a post-apocalyptic action movie!
As the film progresses, things become more dire for Eli and a traveling companion he picks up along the way. Carnegie and his men eventually catch up to them, successfully shoot Eli, and take the book. This is right towards the end of the film, and it sets us up for 3 big twist revelations that happen in quick succession.
Eli has been travelling to Alcatraz, a site where many books have been preserved, and where humanity is attempting to rebuild its lost knowledge and culture. We realize this when his companion drags him there, mortally wounded, just in the nick of time. His life is saved, but only just.
Eli is blind. Carnegie brings the Bible back to his town and makes a big show of opening it by himself in a locked room. We see rage come over him as he opens the cover, shouting, "He can't be....he CAN'T be...that's impossible!" The Bible is braille.
Eli has the entire Bible memorized from start to finish. Juxtaposed with the braille scene, we see Eli approaching the archivist at Alcatraz and asking him to get a lot of writing paper. He then tells him that he is in possession of a King James Bible, lays back on a couch, and begins to recite the opening passage of Genesis. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light..."
It's both jarring and refreshing to see the Bible play such a central, positive role in a big Hollywood movie, even if it is the King James (worth noting that this is a Protestant Bible that contains fewer books than the Catholic Bible). It's even more surprising to see divine protection and providence displayed as they are in Eli.
I think the best message that we can take from this film is that the Word of God has real power. Even in a world where books are burned, people are violent, and all seems lost, the Scriptures have real value and make a real difference. Even just one person living in accordance with the Word of God can, quite literally, change the world.
The Bible is not some dusty old relic that we pull out once a week. Some would even say it stands for "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth!" Clever, right? If you remember back to Father Romans' Spiritual Resolutions for 2022 a couple of weeks ago, NUMBER ONE was to read the Bible more! Even if it's just a chapter a day, it will make a difference in your life.
The Book of Eli is a film about how faith and the Word of God can shine as a light in the darkness, even the darkness of the aftermath of a nuclear war. If that light can shine there, you better believe it can shine in our own darkness today as well.