On March 22, 2021, William Shatner turns 90; and, also this year, Family Theater Productions turns 74. So, maybe it's not surprising that these two long-running Hollywood institutions overlapped.
In the early 1960s, just prior to his work on Star Trek, Canadian-born actor Shatner did seven short films for FTP, run then by its founder, Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C. (subject of the new FTP documentary PRAY: THE STORY OF PATRICK PEYTON, available now at PrayTheFilm.com). The shorts were meditative riffs on selections from the Biblical Psalms.
Shatner starred in two, The Soldier and The Crowd (he also wrote this one); and he narrated five others: By The Wayside, His Dwelling Place, Once Upon a Morning and The Escape.
Later on, several of these were edited together, with new footage featuring frequent FTP collaborator Raymond Burr (who was then starring in Perry Mason on TV), into a compilation called The Search, released in 1966.
Around this time, Star Wars creator George Lucas was a student at USC film school, and he's credited as a camera assistant on The Search. In addition, company lore says he edited his student film in FTP's basement on Father Peyton's Moviola.
Only Lucas knows for sure if that last part of the story is true, but Lucas' first student film, Look at Life, from 1965, does feature a line from Scripture -- Proverbs 10:12:
The 2011 book Shatner Rules: Your Guide to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large, by William Shatner With Chris Regan, makes reference to the actor having been present at a 2005 AFI tribute to Lucas, and says,
“The highlight of Lucas’s career was probably when he was the cameraman on a religious anthology program I once acted on called The Psalms. But he’s done other stuff too, like American Graffiti and the Star Wars movies."
Shatner, who is Jewish, used to sell copies of The Psalms at his website, and further quipped in the book, "It's the perfect gift for that family member who loves William Shatner, George Lucas, and the Word of God."
The films aren't currently for sale, but three of them are posted at Family Theater's YouTube channel. So, we asked our in-house cinephile, producer-at-large (and fellow USC film school graduate) Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., to review those.
Take it away, Father Vince ...
William Shatner notoriously rarely watches all of his own acting performances, even his famed turn as Captain Kirk in Star Trek. One overlooked project he has been reminiscing about as of late were a series of shorts he filmed with Family Theater Productions in the 1960s.
Shatner, a true artist, seems to be most proud of these heavily “artistic” productions. Revisiting a few of the shorts, I would have to agree with him. The word “avant-garde” comes to mind.
As someone who prays the psalms daily, I still didn’t know quite what to make of them at first watch. With repeated viewings and remembering some things I gleaned from a novitiate conference some 20 years ago, here are some of my impressions:
Psalm 3: The Crowd
Shatner plays a boxer before a fight. His voiceover perhaps conveys his prayer for God’s protection in what’s widely known as one of the most dangerous of sports.
Of the three psalms I watched, the images in this seemed to approximate the theme of the psalm. It reminded me of a tour of the US Olympic Training Center, where one of the wrestling posters had an autograph with the following psalm reference: “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for battle,” (Psalm 144: 1).
Psalm 83: His Dwelling Place
This one best reminds me of my favorite filmmaker, Terrence Malick.
The word “art” gets tossed around a little too loosely in moviemaking. His movies are the only that have moved me to tears, not just because of the theme or storyline, but because of the breathtaking cinematography, not unlike entering a Gothic cathedral and having all of one’s senses engaged.
What makes for great beauty often makes for suitable prayer. Watch this particular psalm short and meditate for a couple of minutes on God’s primary (Nature) and secondary (saxophone accompaniment) creations.
Psalm 41: The Soldier
This is the most mysterious short film of the series. A soldier, played by Shatner, wears a uniform and carries a rifle from what appears to be the Second World War era (or perhaps the Korean War).
He exchanges greetings with one of the beach’s birds, and is immediately felled by sniper fire. The words of the psalm are spoken over the sudden death.
One important lesson learned from that novitiate conference years ago was to pray the psalms as it might help you through a difficult moment in your life.
The one-month psalter of set prayers, however, means a certain psalm may not align with one’s current emotional state. But, there might be someone else in the Universal Church or world who is undergoing a certain trial, suffering or death. That person is to be prayed for.
Maybe that’s what this psalm short, and maybe even the series, was getting at. Or maybe it wasn’t. That’s what makes for great art, great poetry and an even greater, tremendously mysterious God.
Maybe Shatner and Lucas will collaborate on another project. If so, we'd love to be in on it.
Image: Ancha Chiangmai / Shutterstock.com
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.