As opposition to the planned release of "The Last Temptation of Christ" reached a sharp new pitch this week, its producer, Universal Pictures, countered with full-page newspaper ads defending the film.
"Though those in power may justify the burning of books at the time, the witness of history teaches the importance of standing up for freedom of conscience, even when the view being expressed may be unpopular," Universal said in a letter to Bill Bright, co-founder of the evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ, a worldwide group based in San Bernardino.
Bright had offered to pay the full cost of producing "The Last Temptation"--estimated at $10 million--if Universal would turn over the film to be destroyed.
Universal responded that accepting Bright's offer would "threaten the fundamental freedoms of religion and expression promised to all Americans under our Constitution."
Read by Delegates
Full-page ads reprinting Universal's letter to Bright appeared Thursday in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Constitution, where it could be read by delegates to the Democratic National Convention, as well as by fundamentalist Christians in the Bible Belt. The ads also appeared in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.
Campus Crusade officials refused to talk to The Times about the ad campaign. However, Don Beehler, spokesman for the group, told the Associated Press that Universal's response was disappointing "because it was a sincere offer by Dr. Bright (to buy the movie). . . ."
"We're trying to give Universal every opportunity not to release this film," he said.
Some evangelical Christian leaders like Bright have attacked "The Last Temptation," a fictional account of Christ's life drawn from a 1955 novel by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, as an insult to their beliefs. Bright and other evangelicals object to the portrayal of Jesus in the film as a vacillating, self-doubting character who at one point dreams of making love to Mary Magdalene.
Opposition to the film's release appears to be broadening beyond the evangelical community. Earlier this week Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony said that the "initial indication" is that the Roman Catholic Church will declare the movie "morally offensive."
Pickets protesting the film showed up at Universal Studios on Thursday.
However, not all religious leaders have opposed the film. More than a half-dozen liberal, mainline religious officials who were shown the nearly complete movie at a special New York screening by Universal, including Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore of New York, said they generally were impressed.
In addition, Keith Atkinson, the California area public communications director for the Mormon Church, said Thursday that he is advising church members to reserve final judgment until the film is shown at theaters.
"The sanctity of free speech is such an important issue that I am personally advising that they make up their own minds about it, in spite of the fact that some of us might find certain scenes offensive," he said.
On Thursday, Gary Franklin, entertainment reporter and critic for KABC-TV news, said he planned to tell viewers of the station's 11 p.m. newscast that Universal should not release the film.
"Universal should have known that some subjects are not fodder for an entertainment film," Franklin said, "that you don't mess around with people's religious beliefs for the sake of making a buck."
The film, directed by Martin Scorsese, a Roman Catholic, was to open Sept. 23. But Universal officials are now less specific about their plans, saying only that it will open sometime this fall.