Marjoe Gortner as a child, Robert Duval as Eulis F. “Sonny” Dewey, and Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell.

From left: Marjoe Gortner as a child; Robert Duval as Eulis F. “Sonny” Dewey in The Apostle; and Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter.(From left: courtesy Everett Collection; ©October Films/courtesy Everett Collection; courtesy Everett Collection)

In sheep’s clothing

A film series at Doc focuses on false preachers

A few years ago, when Hannah Ozmun was watching Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979), she realized that “there were actually a lot of movies that were similar.” A dedicated movie fan as well as a PhD student in the Divinity School, Ozmun proposed a series on false preachers to Doc Film’s programming committee. The series was screened on Tuesdays in the Max Palevsky Cinema this past Autumn Quarter.

There’s an overlap with Ozmun’s academic work, which focuses on the history of Protestantism in the United States, especially the intersection of Christianity and consumerism. In many of the movies, Ozmun says, the sign of a false preacher is that “he or she is out to make money off of people.”

The nine-week series, supported by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion, included the following films, all available to stream.


Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan; 1972

Marjoe, which won the 1973 Academy Award for feature documentary, was considered so inflammatory, it was not distributed in the South. The film follows Marjoe Gortner, a child preacher in the 1940s and ’50s, on his final tour. Marjoe—his name is a portmanteau of “Mary” and “Joseph”—collaborates with the documentary team to expose the gimmickry and greed behind charismatic preaching. Of special interest to Maroons: Max Palevsky, PhB’48, SB’48, was executive producer.

Scariness of preacher: 0/10

His father stole the money he made as a child preacher, but Marjoe turns the other cheek: “I believe in karma.”

Notable biblical quotes

Not many. Marjoe prefers to bring his own substantial literary talents to bear: “For seven years I was a heroin addict, pill dropper, LSD tripper. High ridin’ and then low slidin’, bustin’ heads and droppin’ reds … but then I met a man who was hung up for my hang-ups!”


Footage of four-year-old Marjoe, in black shorts and white cowboy boots, performing a marriage. The hotel scene where Marjoe advises the hippie film crew how to behave around Pentecostals: no long hair, no smoking (he says pointedly to the shirtless, barefoot sound man with a cigarette dangling from his lips), no hitting on churchgoers. 

The Apostle

Robert Duvall, 1997

Robert Duvall wrote, directed, and stars in this film (a performance nominated for an Academy Award in 1998) about a flawed, womanizing preacher, Eulis F. “Sonny” Dewey. After murdering his wife’s lover with a baseball bat—during their children’s baseball game—he flees. Reinventing himself as “The Apostle E. F.,” he starts up a new church and a radio broadcast … but never displays an iota of remorse.

Scariness of preacher: 7/10

Do not marry this man or have an affair with his wife; all others probably fine.

Notable biblical quotes

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”


E. F. staring down a racist man (Billy Bob Thornton) who wants to bulldoze his integrated church; the man eventually kneels in front of the bulldozer, cries, and prays. The film’s final scene, as the credits roll, showing E. F. and other prisoners working alongside a highway: “Yea, though I walk through the valley, who walk with me?” he yells. “Jesus!” the others respond. “If I lay down in green pastures, who lie down there with me?” “Jesus!” … “If I go to New York City, who do I meet in the middle of Times Square?” “Jesus!”

Night of the Hunter

Charles Laughton, 1955

This Southern gothic horror film about a murderous preacher who preys on a gullible widow—“one of the most frightening movies ever made,” according to critic Pauline Kael—was based on a 1953 novel (itself inspired by a true story from more than 20 years earlier). Appreciated now for its stunning cinematography and dark humor, Night of the Hunter flopped at the box office. Laughton never directed another film.

Scariness of preacher: 11/10

Two words: finger tattoos. One hand reads “LOVE”; the other, “HATE.” And that’s just a start.

Notable biblical quotes

“Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”


Any scene with Robert Mitchum, who portrays the preacher with a terrifying combination of menace and slapstick, but especially the scenes that zoom in on his “LOVE” and “HATE” finger tattoos. Close second: any scene with Miz Rachel Cooper (silent film star Lillian Gish), but especially when she defends her orphan foundlings with a rifle nearly as big as she is. The river scenes—which focus on frogs, rabbits, and other small creatures in the foreground, while the fleeing children float by in a skiff in the background—are justifiably famous.   

View the full list of films in the False Preachers series.