I recently posted on oddly profound theological currents in Western films.
This past February, Scottish novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp died. Among his many scripts was the 1971 film The Hired Hand, directed by Peter Fonda, a film that includes one of the oddest religious moments in cinema.
Hired Hand is typical of its era in that it is lyrical and very slow moving, infuriatingly so for many, but it has acquired a cult following. It begins with three characters drifting through the Old West: Arch Harris (Warren Oates), Harry Collings (Fonda) and their young friend Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt). They enter a small town, where Dan is killed. Harry and Arch bury him, as Arch reads a handwritten book that he has found in Dan’s possessions. Arch reads, meditatively,
Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the Kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. But the Kingdom is within you, and it is without you … The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us how our end will be.” Jesus said, “Have you then discovered the beginning, that you inquire about the end? For where the beginning is, there shall the end be. Blessed is he who shall stand at the beginning; and he will know the end and will not taste death. … His disciples said to Him, “When will the Kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by expectation. It will not say ‘see here’ or ‘see there.’ But the Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.”
Yes, that is an extensive selection from the Gospel of Thomas, in the complete version discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, and popularized through such bestselling books as Robert M. Grant’s The Secret Sayings of Jesus (1960). The film, obviously, offers no explanation why a saddle-tramp in nineteenth century America would have been in possession of such a treasure, nor are we meant to explore the point. The words are there solely for effect, and their impact was significant. Fonda reported that he was himself intended to read the passage, but he repeatedly failed, because he choked with emotion at the beauty of the words. He therefore had to give the speech to Oates.
You’d have to see the film yourself to assess the full relevance of the Thomas text. The central idea is that Harry returns to the wife he has deserted years before, and agrees to serve her as a hired hand. Scriptwriter Sharp presumably thought of the “hired hand” in John 10.12, and allowed his mind to roam over some other sayings of Jesus that were much discussed in cultured circles in the 1960s, including the then-voguish Thomas.
But the Gospel of Thomas – in a 1971 Western?