A singing, chanting crowd estimated by police at 25,000 marched in front of the gates of Universal Pictures on Thursday, protesting the studio's release today of the controversial movie "The Last Temptation of Christ" in Los Angeles and eight other U.S. and Canadian cities.
The protest--coordinated by two Southern California radio stations and a television station that broadcast Christian religious programs--represented the largest outpouring yet against the movie. Police termed the demonstration especially large for a weekday.
Traffic backed up for miles on the northbound Hollywood Freeway and jammed surface streets around the studio complex in Universal City for more than an hour.
The demonstrators, many of whom carried placards, wooden crosses and Bibles, were orderly and did not attempt to block entrances to Universal and its parent company, MCA Inc.
"We need to stand up and say what needs to be said," declared Oliver Milton, a Lutheran of Woodland Hills who, like many, took the day off from work to attend the three-hour rally. "The Jesus depicted in this movie is not the Jesus of the Bible."
Hasn't Seen the Movie
Milton, like nearly everyone at the rally, had not seen the movie, but based his opinion on portions of an early script that has been widely circulated by conservative critics of the movie and on news reports from critics and others who have viewed the film.
The movie, based on the novel by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader. It focuses on Jesus' "human side," depicting his doubts about God's role for him, but also includes scenes of Jesus' divine powers, including miracles.
Protesters of the film, mainly evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, have centered their objections on Scorsese's portrayal of Jesus as a weak, vacillating Savior who struggles with lustful temptations and on a sequence that shows Jesus being tempted by the devil to leave the the cross and have sex with Mary Magdalene.
Also on Thursday, citing a landslide of protests from Christian groups, three theater chains with 80 screens in the Baltimore area joined a growing number of theaters that have said they will not show "The Last Temptation." Earlier, the 1,338 movie houses of the Boston- based General Cinema Theaters--fourth largest in the nation--the Edwards Cinemas of Newport Beach, with dozens of theaters in Southern California, and Luxury Theaters of Portland, Ore., announced they would boycott the film.
Placards carried by protesters outside Universal facilities Thursday ranged from "Please Don't Crucify Christ Again," "Don't Trash My Lord" and "The Greatest Story Ever Distorted" to Bible warnings directed against MCA Inc. and its chairman, Lew Wasserman. The demonstration was organized by Citizens for a Universal Appeal, an Orange County-based ad hoc coalition of religious groups and individuals.
At a press conference opening the rally, a variety of Christian and several Jewish leaders condemned the film, called for a boycott of all MCA enterprises and urged supporters in cities where "The Last Temptation" is to be shown to peacefully picket outside the theaters.
Actor Roosevelt Grier, a former football star, castigated "a movie company that would dare to make fun of the Creator of the universe," and Atlanta pastor Richard Lee said: "If we can't speak to their (MCA's) hearts or their heads, we can speak to their wallets."
Speakers also included Rabbi Haim Asa of Orange County and KABC radio commentator Dennis Prager.
A Jew who has written several books about Judaism, Prager said: "Jews and Christians should have understood long before 'The Last Temptation of Christ' that nearly everything that their religions hold sacred had been profaned in the movies. The issue is not Christian censorship; it is Hollywood's nihilism."
The larger-than-expected turnout was taken by demonstration leaders as a signal that religious people of many persuasions are banding together to fight a perceived bias against them by the entertainment industry. Prager referred to "an aggressive secularism that . . . now attempts even to overtake religion itself."
'Unleashing a Movement'
"We're unleashing a movement," declared the Rev. Donald Wildmon, a Tupelo, Miss., Methodist minister who has been at the forefront of opposition to the film. "Christian bashing is over."
"We demand that anti-Christian stereotypes come to an end," he added to resounding applause and scattered shouts of "amen" from the crowd.
Another indication of broadening resistance to "The Last Temptation" was the announcement Thursday by a leading Muslim spokesman in Los Angeles that the Islamic Center of Southern California is urging its constituency of about 10,000 families to boycott the film. Muslims do not regard Jesus as divine, but he is revered as a prophet of God.
Dr. Maher Hathout said in an interview that he is drafting a formal statement for the center's board opposing what he believes from various reports to be a disrespectful depiction of Jesus. "Human decency and ethical standards should keep all people respecting each other's religions," Hathout said.
While television news helicopters hovered above the Universal complex, the placard-carrying demonstrators, some pushing baby strollers, marched down the hill from Universal's gates chanting "Boycott MCA" and singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Assembling again in a nearby park, the crowd joined in what could well be described as a giant pep rally for Jesus.
Circulating among the protesters were 30 leather-jacketed members of "Christ's Sons--Live or Die," a Christian motorcycle club from Anaheim.
"We're riding for Jesus and protesting that dirty . . . movie. We won't stand for this garbage," said Phil Aguilar, 40, the tall, rangy leader of the pack that wore beards, sunglasses, headbands and motorcycle boots. "We're going to attack all the theaters in our area," Aguilar added. He refused to discuss his strategy except to say, "It will be right on the border of legal."
Staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this story.