Overlooked by film critics, screenwriter Stirling Silliphant crafted subversive Christian allegory into his Academy Award-winning adaptation of mystery novel In the Heat of the Night. This essay demonstrates that Silliphant reframed both the book’s main character, Virgil Tibbs, and the book’s murder victim as countercultural Christ-figures who confront the lifeless and racist cultural Christian religion of the 1960s American South. The film’s subversive theological aesthetic thus marshals religion to advance its urgent argument for social change. Geert Heetebrij is Assistant Professor of Film and Media at Calvin University.

On a mid-August weekend in 2017, a crowd of white supremacists marched openly through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in a bid to show white pride and unity. This sight was new to many Americans. The sheer size of the “Unite the Right” march, the brazenness of the racism on display, which included unhooded Klansmen wearing KKK regalia, and the ensuing deadly clash with counter protesters was something most Americans only knew from history books and civil rights era news clips.

August 2017 also marked the 50th anniversary of the release of In the Heat of the Night, the racial drama that went on to win Academy Awards® for Best Film of 1967, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. Written by Stirling Silliphant and directed by Norman Jewison, the film spawned two sequels as well as a TV series that ran for seven seasons (1988-1995) and—as of this writing—a new TV series in the works.1 In 2002 the film was inducted in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”2 In 2007, a jury of 1,500 film artists, critics and historians listed the film in the American Film Institute’s 100 best films ever made.3 And in 2008 Time magazine included In the Heat of the Night as one of the 25 most important films on race.4

What remains overlooked by film critics, however, is that screenwriter Stirling Silliphant intentionally structured the film as subversive Christian allegory—framing both the film’s murder victim and the film’s main character, Virgil Tibbs, as countercultural Christ-figures who confront the lifeless and racist cultural Christian religion of the civil rights era’s American South, epitomized in the character of Endicott, “the local leader of the Klan.”5 This essay will compare changes from the source novel to Silliphant’s character notes to his consecutive screenplay drafts to the final film, revealing an increase of subversive Christian symbolism. This increase even continued during production and post-production—implying directorial assent.

It should be noted that the “gospel” that Tibbs represents is not the supernatural biblical Gospel, but the rule of the socially progressive North, countercultural in opposing the culture of a Christian KKK South and in placing an African-American in a position of authority. Neither is the Christ figured the supernatural Christ of a particular gospel account or theological tradition, but a film character who possesses key characteristics of the popularly understood Gospel Christ: Tibbs is a non-violent outsider and lone messianic agent of justice, representing a powerful exterior law, but one who travels alone, without the protections of that exterior power, and as a result, willingly risks martyrdom at the hands of the ignorant locals he’s there to help.

The viewer will readily note that a crucial Christ-figure characteristic Tibbs lacks is martyrdom. That role is given to the murder victim, another lone northern agent of renewal. By solving his murder, Tibbs brings gifts of justice and social change to Sparta, giving new life to the town by resurrecting the murder victim’s dream of building a racially integrated factory.

The film is based on the 1965 novel of the same name, written by John Ball. The novel tells of Virgil Tibbs, a black detective who, traveling through the South, is unjustly accused of murder in a small, rural town. But when he teams up with the town’s white racist police chief, he solves the crime, earning the respect of the chief in the process.

The film was an instant hit with audiences and nearly all critics—The New York Times expressing critical consensus that the film’s essential appeal was in the “crackling confrontations between the arrogant small town white policeman [Rod Steiger]…and the sophisticated Negro detective [Sidney Poitier].”6

The role of Virgil Tibbs was a welcome change for Sidney Poitier. “Poitier has piddled along in recent years…in repetitive portraits of the Noble Negro being kind to whites…now Poitier…is still being helpful to whites—but in a different way…,” Commonwealth noted.7 No critic mentioned the Christ-figure symbolism, but Tibbs’s superiority to the town folk was noted. “Sidney Poitier has become a ‘new Negro image,’” wrote Christian Century: “socially useful…highly skilled, superior to whites…indeed helping whites handicapped either by emotional bigotry or by a simple failure in education.”8

Another point of consensus was that the film showed gravitas: “the picture… has unusual substance for one of this genre…”, wrote the Motion Picture Herald.9 The Atlanta Journal stated that In the Heat of the Night “triumphs as a film of significance.”10 Time magazine lauded that “men can join hands out of fear and hatred and shape from base emotions something identifiable as a kind of love.”11 Richard Schickel, writing for Life magazine, remarked that “without getting preachy” In the Heat of the Night is “a sound, serious and altogether excellent film that is quite possibly the best we have had from the U.S. this year … a truthful little film.”12

“Movie history will chronicle a single scene in the movie,” Christian Century wrote of the film’s standout scene.13 (Director Norman Jewison would later simply refer to the scene as “the slap heard around the world.”14) Set in an orchid greenhouse, Virgil Tibbs confronts the powerful local plantation owner and white supremacist Eric Endicott (Larry Gates). When Tibbs dares to question Endicott about his whereabouts at the time of the murder, Endicott slaps Tibbs in the face, an insult which Tibbs immediately returns in kind. The scene electrified 1967 audiences as the civil rights struggle in the United States was boiling over. (In fact, the Academy Awards ceremony that awarded In the Heat of the Night five Oscars® had to be postponed for two days due to riots and national unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Variety—one of few outlets that took issue with the script—was unimpressed with the scene: “Exactly why Gates’ scene is there is unclear—perhaps the face-slapping bit with Poitier was considered daring, although incorporation could have been smoother.”15

The scene was not in the book. Yet it is already featured in Silliphant’s very first step outline, with one major difference from the scene in the film: Tibbs does not slap Endicott back.16

One of the most fundamental differences between the book and the film is the character of Endicott. In both book and film, Endicott is a wealthy town leader, but in the book he is neither the antagonist nor a racist. John Ball’s book paints Endicott as a progressive local, a northerner; it is actually Endicott who requests—against the will of the town’s council and police chief Gillespie—that the town’s mayor hire Virgil Tibbs to help Gillespie solve their local murder.

But screenwriter Stirling Silliphant needed an antagonist. In his character notes, Silliphant states that since the book never fully develops the threat against Tibbs, he wants to make the book’s “nice guy” Endicott into a worthwhile enemy of Tibbs, envisioning Endicott as “the local leader of the Klan.”17 Moreover, Silliphant wanted Endicott as “the spiritual [emphasis mine] and financial leader of the town.”18

Another fundamental difference with the book is the identity of the murder victim. In the book, he is a northern music promoter, but in the film, he is a northern industrialist who, in Gillespie’s words, wants to build a factory in Sparta, “employing a thousand men, half of them colored.” Changing the murder victim to an industrialist had actually been Robert Alan Aurthur’s idea, the screenwriter originally hired by producer Walter Mirisch to write the script.19 But after delivering his first outline (hewing much closer to the book than Silliphant would) Aurthur was replaced by Silliphant—who did retain Aurthur’s idea of changing the murder victim.

Silliphant not only ran with Aurthur’s idea but then made it a cornerstone of the film: in his first step outline, Silliphant sees

the major oppositions of the screenplay—the conflict between the two elements in Wells [the town’s name was later changed to Sparta], those for the …factory, those against—a conflict which in its broader sense embraces both economic and racial attitudes—a conflict of which the killing and its symbol of solution—Virgil Tibbs—become the focal points.”20

The murder victim thus became an unwitting martyr in an epic struggle that is the spiritual core of the script, in the process linking those opposed to the factory to lifeless, cultural Christianity—the way of the past—to be confronted by Tibbs, messianic stranger and leader of the progressive forces favoring the factory. Death threats gather as Tibbs’ murder investigation progresses, but Tibbs will ultimately resurrect the murder victim’s dream of a racially integrated factory and extend northern rule into the darkness of Sparta.

Consider Silliphant’s own descriptions of the opposing spiritual backgrounds, ranging from his earliest character notes through the first draft of the screenplay [italics mine]:

  • Endicott will do “anything to keep Wells the fine Christian town it’s been all these years before this northern element started busting in here.”21
  • [When confronted by Gillespie about why Tibbs is making night rounds with Officer Sam Woods, Tibbs replies that the town] “is hardly the cultural center of all Christendom.”22
  • “GILLESPIE [showing his own outsider status] to Tibbs: ‘I haven’t finished unpacking yet, so don’t expect … a handy Bible in the top drawer.’”23
  • [Gillespie to Tibbs:] “You won’t live till church Sunday if you stick around.”24
  • [And whereas Endicott is willing to do “anything to keep Wells the fine Christian town it’s been all these years…” Tibbs, on the other hand, is] “a stranger bringing light and solution and peace to a troubled town when all the menace and danger and mystery have finally been put down by his quiet persistence.”25
  • “The Mayor tells Gillespie to play it smart. Heaven has sent them a patsy—a black one at that…”26
  • “Tibbs and Oberst scene in cell. Oberst’s aversion to being in same cell with Negro overcome when he realizes that his only salvation may well be this quiet young detective…”27
  • Silliphant’s earliest version of Virgil Tibbs even wielded supernatural powers over the local spiritual world: In the first step outline, Silliphant outlines a scene—not in the book—where Tibbs faces off against the town’s “witch” (who is also the town’s midwife and abortionist), challenging her to a duel of wills “using their minds and their eyes, and neither will move from that position on the floor of her hut until one or the other is dead.” After hours of mental dueling, the witch finally faints. As a victorious Tibbs tenderly nurses her back to her senses, she whispers to him: “The spirits have commanded her…to answer any question he wishes to ask.”28

While, thankfully, the mental dueling scene did not survive the revised step outline, it is within this larger framework of oppositional spiritual forces that Silliphant writes his first version of “the Gates scene,” likely basing the iconic confrontation scene between Tibbs and local Klan leader Endicott on the final confrontation between Jesus and the high priest of the Sanhedrin.29

Compare the details: Jesus’ trial for religious blasphemy takes place in the courtyard of the high priest’s home; Tibbs and Endicott meet in the greenhouse of Endicott’s home. Jesus receives a slap across the face (from a high priest’s official) for perceived disrespect to the high priest; Tibbs is slapped across the face for perceived disrespect to Klan leader Endicott.

Figure 1: “You came here to question me?” (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)
Figure 2: Tibbs slapped for perceived disrespect (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

Of course, the glaring difference with the biblical Passion narrative is the fact that Tibbs slaps Endicott back whereas Jesus did not slap back. But as stated, Tibbs’ counter slap was not originally envisioned. After Endicott’s slap, Silliphant’s initial step-outline reads: “Tibbs has all he can do to restrain himself. The butler drops his head, starts to pray. ‘For him, Uncle Tom’, Tibbs says furiously, ‘not for me!’”30 Tibbs’ admonition for the butler to pray for Endicott fits hand in glove with Jesus’s words in Luke’s gospel: “Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, turn the other cheek also.”31

But Poitier did not want to turn the other cheek. In his memoir, The Measure of a Man, Sidney Poitier states that the first draft of the script did not include Tibbs’s return slap, but that the script was changed due to Poitier’s personal insistence on slapping Endicott right back.32 In his book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, author Mark Harris takes issue with Poitier’s recollection—pointing out correctly that the return slap was already featured in Silliphant’s very first draft of the script.33 However, Poitier—who had brought Silliphant on board as the screenwriter—may have meant that first step-outline, rather than the script. Tibbs’ counter slap is featured in Silliphant’s revised step-outline.34

Despite the addition of Tibbs’s counter slap, which interrupted the Christ-symbolism of the Gates scene, Silliphant did not back off from adding further religious symbolism. Instead, additional Christian symbolism continued to be added after director Norman Jewison became involved.

In January 1966, Silliphant delivered the first draft of the screenplay to producer Walter Mirisch who shared it with Jewison, whom Mirisch wanted to direct the film. Jewison, in turn, had notes, triggering a six-month script collaboration between him and Silliphant. By September, Silliphant delivered the shooting draft—and continued rewriting pages during the Illinois part of the shoot which lasted through October.

During their collaboration, significant biblical symbolism was added, while some references (such as the praying butler, a reference now made moot by Tibbs’s counter slap) were removed. However, in editing, the sound of a crowing cock was added to the Gates scene—in line with all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial in the high priest’s courtyard, and the only time this animal is heard in the film.

Let’s consider the symbolism on display in the final film: While the visuals display the deepest dark of night, “the opening song…opens the film…with a slice of real, rural backwoods gospel,” writes AllMusic’s song review.35 Tilting down, out-of-focus circles of light flicker like stars until one of them, brighter than all the rest, approaches. As Ray Charles sings, “Stars with evil eyes stare from the skies all mean and bright,” one of these cold, staring stars flares into a guiding star (and lit-up cross, which, given Silliphant’s original Klan references, could be the antithesis of a burning KKK cross); the light of an oncoming train brings a savior into the dark night of Sparta, Mississippi.

Figure 3: Tibbs’ starry arrival—the brightest star flaring into a lit-up cross (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

The book features no Tibbs-arrival scene. The first time the reader meets Virgil Tibbs is when Officer Sam Woods finds him in the waiting area. Silliphant’s shooting script, however, describes Tibbs getting off the train as follows:

CLOSE SHOT – COACH WHEELS coming to a stop. Steam from the cooling system curls around the lowered steps. CAMERA STAYS with the feet of one, lone passenger, revealing a suitcase and legs only.36

Out of clouds of steam—the steam didn’t make it into the film—the feet of the savior descend into frame from top to bottom, touching down on Sparta’s deserted station.

Figure 4: Tibbs gets off the train (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

As Ray Charles concludes, “Oh Lord, it won’t be long/Yes, just you be strong/And it’ll be all right/ In the heat of the night,” Tibbs’ Passion is about to begin.

The film then cuts to an extreme close-up of a fly creeping towards Thursday on a calendar, moments before it is killed by Ralph Henshaw (Anthony James), the diner man—foreshadowing Tibbs’ coming ordeal which, like Christ’s Passion, culminated on a Thursday night, leading to his crucifixion during the early hours of Good Friday.

Figure 5: Foreshadowing of Tibbs’ Thursday night Passion (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

The star-theme from the opening credits is repeated as we cut to Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oats) making his night rounds: as he leaves the diner, he passes a large blinking star advertising the truck stop, metaphor for the celestial Bethlehem sign of the savior come.

Figure 6: Blinking star advertising the truck stop (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

Officer Wood has a lily-white plastic Jesus figurine on his dashboard, clearly visible when he sneaks an eyeful of naked seductress Delores Purdy (Quentin Dean).

Figure 7: White plastic Jesus figurine on Officer Wood’s dashboard (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

Delores, in turn, stands next to a plaque on her wall stating: “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In keeping with Silliphant’s subversive oppositional symbolism, Sparta’s citizens are religious.

Figure 8: “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”(In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

Unbeknownst to the plastic-Jesus-worshipping-town folk, a countercultural flesh-and-blood-Jesus has touched down among them and is waiting at the station. But Virgil Tibbs is apprehended for the local murder, and brought to Chief of Police Bill Gillespie. In the typology of the Passion narrative, Chief Gillespie is Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate. Like Pontius Pilate in the Passion story, Gillespie is an outsider wielding executive power—he is human law incarnate. Like Pilate, Gillespie is new in this position. And like Pilate, while his word may be law, his position is also precarious; we’ll find out that Chief Gillespie, like Pilate, must placate the locals or possibly lose his station.

Gillespie discovers that homicide detective Tibbs is in a league far above his. When the two place a long-distance call to Tibbs’ chief in the City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia—changed from Pasadena, California in the book), Tibbs’ chief urges Tibbs to stay to help the Sparta police. Although Tibbs politely tries to decline his mission, he then obediently submits to the chief’s will—whom we never see or hear. Tibbs is portrayed as decent, innocent, unjustly accused, longsuffering, and superior to the locals he’s been ordered to help in terms of character, intellect, knowledge, experience, education, income, and fitness. (Or in Norman Jewison’s words: “He is the smartest and best-looking guy in the movie.”37) And like Jesus, Tibbs is single.

In the biblical Passion narrative, it begins to dawn on Pontius Pilate during Jesus’ questioning that his Jewish captive is anything but ordinary. This is confirmed when Pilate’s wife relays her husband a message that Jesus is innocent.38 In the film, Tibbs’ defense also comes from a woman—Mrs. Leslie Colbert (Lee Grant), the rich widow of the murder victim. The editing and visual framing right outside Chief Gillespie’s office is telling: We see a high-angle shot of only Gillespie, staring directly up at Tibbs (shot from over Tibbs’ shoulder), just as Mrs. Leslie Colbert exclaims: “My God!”

Figure 9: “My God!” (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

Only after the “My God” statement does the film cut away from Gillespie to Mrs. Colbert, who continues: “Who are you people?” She subsequently demands (during the meeting with the mayor and Gillespie) that Tibbs stays on the case to solve it. She trusts him, not the locals. She will continue the plan to build a factory only if Tibbs can freely conduct his investigation. If not, she threatens that she will take her fortune and “leave you to yourselves.”

Now the stakes are firmly in place: If Tibbs does not solve the crime, blessings of brotherly love and racial equality will be withheld from Sparta. An agent of the Northern Gospel has been murdered, but if Tibbs solves the murder, Tibbs will save Sparta from itself. (The leave-you-to-yourselves threat is another biblical reference where God punishes through simply departing and leaving people to themselves.39)

As Jesus’ final Passover drew near, the chief priests and scribes came together to plot his death.40 After Tibbs is allowed to roam the town freely and investigate, Gillespie sits in on a meeting of Sparta’s local leaders. One councilman suggests to Gillespie to have Virgil Tibbs killed before Saturday. But Sparta’s mayor comes to Gillespie’s aid.

Pontius Pilate became friends with King Herod during the trial of Jesus. Sparta’s Mayor Webb Schubert (William Schallert) fits the typology of King Herod as he spells out a win-win for Gillespie: Tibbs gets a free hand in the murder investigation, relieving Gillespie of responsibility if Tibbs fails, yet giving Gillespie all the credit if Tibbs is successful, since Tibbs will have to hand the murderer over to Gillespie “on a platter” [emphasis mine]. Given the context, the expression “handing over on a platter” is a likely metaphorical reference to King Herod’s distinctive act of beheading John the Baptist and delivering his head on a platter.41 (In the book, the expression “on a platter” is absent.)

After Endicott’s slap and Tibbs’s counter slap, the height of humiliation for Endicott is that he must defer to Chief Gillespie: “Gillespie? You saw it? What are you going to do about it?” But Gillespie doesn’t know, to which Endicott replies: “I’ll remember that.” It’s a clear threat. Pilate was threatened by the local religious leaders; if he would not execute Jesus, he would be no friend of Caesar, implying that his job could be taken from him.42 Endicott then continues to Tibbs: “There was a time when I could have had you shot!” Indeed, that time is over. Just like the high priest could no longer execute Jesus on the spot but had to defer to Roman law—and hand Jesus over to Pontius Pilate—Endicott must defer to the law of the land, represented by Gillespie. But like Pilate, Gillespie cannot simply ignore the pressure of the religious leaders. Gillespie may represent human law, but Endicott is the local spiritual leader. Those relational dynamics are emphasized in the next scene when Sparta’s mayor says to Gillespie: “It’s gonna be tough to keep you in your job now.”

The very next sequence is the attempt on Tibbs’ life by local thugs sent by Endicott. Tibbs is confronted outside of town, and chased through the local landfill after which a physical confrontation takes place. The assassination is narrowly averted when Gillespie shows up to save Tibbs from the locals. The landfill is a likely reference to Golgotha, the place outside the city walls where Jesus was crucified.43

Figure 10: Golgotha/Landfill sequence (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

That night, as Officer Sam Wood leaves for patrol, Virgil Tibbs stands in the shine of his headlights, erect like a statue. From the camera’s POV (which is Officer Sam Wood’s POV) Tibbs is positioned right next to the white plastic Jesus on Sam Wood’s dashboard. The two briefly parallel before Tibbs slowly walks up to the passenger side, making the Jesus figurine cross the entire width of the pan.

Figure 11: Virgil Tibbs v. plastic Jesus (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

Pilate continues to try to set Jesus free. Likewise, Gillespie takes Tibbs into his home to protect his life until Tibbs leaves Gillespie’s home. The story comes to a climax on Thursday night, in the early hours of Friday—paralleling the Thursday night final hours of Jesus, culminating in his execution on Friday morning.

As a mob of armed locals gathers, Tibbs’s mission is almost over. That night, Virgil goes to abortionist Mama Caleba, tells her he’s homesick, and that she can send him on his way. When Mama Caleba meets Tibbs, she looks at him and says, “Lord, Lord.” Vulnerable, outside of his element and far from home, Tibbs then faces his accusers alone.

The industrialist’s killer is unmasked as diner counterman (and fly killer) Ralph Henshaw. With the arrest of the killer, Tibbs can finally go home. The savior of Sparta arrived in deepest darkness, but leaves in the bright light of day. Tibbs has opened Gillespie’s eyes and brought light to the town. The rest is up to Tibbs’ “disciples,” 500 black men that will find work in the future factory, spreading the gospel of brotherly love and racial equality that will bless Sparta. With this, the northern industrialist’s dream has been resurrected. Tibbs has not changed over the course of the film, but he has, through deference to his chief, changed the world around him.

His mission accomplished, Virgil Tibbs departs. (Just as there is no arrival scene in the book, there is neither a departure scene; in the book, Gillespie leaves Tibbs at the dark station to wait for his train at night.) The final shot of the film is a helicopter shot; the camera climbs ever higher above the liberated town. It’s the Ascension, a metaphor for the apotheosis of Virgil Tibbs as he returns to the one who sent him in the City of Brotherly Love.

Figure 12: Ascension sequence (In the Heat of the Night, MGM Studios, 1967)

To confirm the subversive symbolism in the film, I contacted 90-year-old director Norman Jewison and asked him to comment on the Christian parallels. Jewison was fascinated, but said that he had not heard this interpretation before, and that any religious parallels were unintended.44 Jewison—who six years later would go on to write and direct Jesus Christ Superstar (his career’s only writing credit)—added religion was not on his mind at this time.

The director’s denial presents somewhat of a mystery. Is it possible that said patterns are in the eye of the beholder? Sometimes one sees patterns where there are none. Or might this be a case of one of Western civilization’s foundational stories unintentionally sneaking its way into its cultural storytelling? While not discounting these phenomena, Silliphant’s own early notes foreclose on both these possibilities; his writing shows clear intent about subversive religious symbolism. Then might Silliphant have intentionally put these parallels in, but without informing the film’s director?

In 1972, six years after completing In the Heat of the Night, Silliphant co-wrote the screenplay for the blockbuster disaster film Poseidon Adventure (1972). According to Mick LaSalle, long-time film critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, that film is “a heavy-duty Christian allegory.” In LaSalle’s article “Poseidon Adventure: Christian Parable/’70s disaster classic is about religious renegade, redemption,” he writes: “Right at the start we’re introduced to the hero, the Rev. Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), a renegade priest whom we soon come to realize is a modern-day stand-in for Jesus Christ.”45 To confirm the subversive symbolism, LaSalle telephoned Poseidon’s Adventure’s 89-year-old director Ronald Neame. But Neame also denied intentionality of the religious symbolism, telling LaSalle, “I think you may have seen more written into it than was intended.”46

However, in Silliphant’s 1972 character notes of Poseidon’s Adventure, Silliphant writes literally that, as a young seminarian, the lead character Rev. Frank Scott used to see himself as “another Christ” [emphasis mine] whereas, now, at 34, the renegade’s priest’s “philosophy evolved to a point where he realized he was not another Christ [emphasis mine]…Man needs freedom from a legalistic Church that has transformed the simplicity of personal and Christian love into a world of fear and guilt.47 The symbolism in the final film as pointed out by LaSalle, as well as Silliphant’s own explanatory notes, indicate clear intent about Rev. Scott being an unwitting and unorthodox Christ figure, who, opposed to organized religion, ultimately leads his followers to survival—at the expense of Scott’s own life.

Then there is one of Silliphant’s later screenwriting credits, Three Kings (1987), a TV movie written for ABC, starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Silliphant’s wife Tiana Alexandra. Here again, Silliphant projects the Christian story onto a modern context: a concept of Aaron Spelling, Three Kings is about three patients from a Los Angeles mental institution who break free during the rehearsal of their roles as the wise men in a Christmas pageant—believing themselves to be the actual wise men looking for baby Jesus. They travel on camelback through current-day Los Angeles, creating a media frenzy along the way, and end up saving a homeless baby that they view as the Christ child. As contrived as the TV film’s concept sounds, it is another example of Silliphant projecting the Christian story onto a modern setting.

And Silliphant already had a well-developed understanding of Christian theology in the early 1960s, prior to writing In the Heat of the Night. From 1960 to 1964, Silliphant wrote the TV series Route 66. In 1962, in the second season of the series [episode 26: Kiss the Maiden, All Forlorn] a powerful father unsuccessfully seeks to stop his daughter from becoming a postulate nun. Writing this episode was quite personal for Silliphant. His biographer Nat Segaloff writes:

Silliphant admitted that he wrote the show to work through his concern over his daughter Dayle’s decision to go to convent. It’s an emotionally complex script…[the father’s] scenes with [daughter] Bethune will tear your heart out. In the end, it’s Silliphant’s understanding that makes it ring true.48

In a confrontational and climactic scene between the episode’s distraught father and Mother Superior, Mr. Clayton, the father, tries to sway and even bribe Mother Superior. Unlike the culturally accommodating advice from Mother Abbess in contemporary film The Sound of Music (1967)—who advises postulate Julie Andrews “to climb every mountain/forge every stream/follow every rainbow/until you find your dream”—Silliphant’s Mother Superior is decidedly countercultural:

The happiness of religious life must spring from within and be fed with the love of Christ. It can only be led by girls who hunger for more than material things, who have been able to recognize the faintest of all sounds—the whispering of eternal wisdom; girls who can hope, hope magnificently, against all reason, against all doubt, against all knowledge, against a force as strong as you, Mr. Clayton.49

Mother Superior’s speech, followed by his daughter’s, ends up convincing the episode’s father; Mr. Clayton relents, leaving his bribe with Mother Superior as the “wedding gift” for his daughter—a seeming non-sequitur, but only to outsiders—showcasing Silliphant’s understanding of the Christian theology behind his daughter’s decision to enter the convent.

It’s clear that Silliphant not only incorporated Christian symbolism in the 60s, 70s and 80s, but that he displayed a fundamental understanding of Christian theology, and over time became bolder about projecting Christian parallels in said stories. That Silliphant would have unilaterally inserted subversive parallels in In the Heat of the Night without a buy-in from the director, though, is difficult to imagine; not only was Silliphant’s carefully constructed symbolism throughout the script preserved in the final film, but significant elements were added during Silliphant’s collaboration with Jewison.50 Additionally, symbolism was added in the post-script phase, during both production and post-production.51

The editor of the film was Hal Ashby—earning him a first Oscar for Best Editing. Author Mark Harris writes:

In the summer of 1966, Norman Jewison and Hal Ashby began working together on pre-production for In the Heat of the Night…Although Ashby’s only credit on In the Heat of the Night is as its editor, he was, by every other definition, what would now be considered a co-producer; his work with Jewison was, according to cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the single most important creative partnership on the movie, and it started before a foot of film had been shot.52

On the commentary track of the DVD, released for the 40th anniversary of In the Heat of the Night, Wexler comments, “there was some discussion about the plastic Jesus on [Officer Sam Wood’s] dashboard, whether the religious people would take offense at that. But knowing Norman and Hal Ashby, they like people to take offense at what they do.” [Wexler laughs.] Norman Jewison then chimes in cryptically, “Every. Single. Thing in the film is interconnected…everything is set up very carefully.”53

Hal Ashby (who also received screen credit as “assistant to the producer”) was an ex-Mormon who had been an uncredited assistant editor on George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told before he started editing for Jewison. The two got along well, and had already worked on two films together before collaborating on In the Heat of the Night. (Harris writes that Jewison considered Ashby his “younger brother.”54) As such, during the In the Heat of the Night shoot, Hal Ashby managed Jewison’s office, sending daily missives to the set—from general office messages for Jewison, to shot details and comments about the film’s dailies, to transitional shots Ashby would need for editing, to last-minute script notes.

Unlike Silliphant’s overt notes, there is no overt strategy indicated in Ashby’s notes about visualizing the spiritual backdrop of the film’s opposing forces. But there might be one possible hint: in late October 1966, as the Illinois-part of the shoot was about to wrap—the next part of the shoot would be the iconic Gates plantation scene, to be shot in Dyersburg, Tennessee—Hal Ashby sent this type-written note in the daily mail to the set:

Monday, October 24, 1966
Dearhearts [sic],
Took a look see at THE BIBLE last night. Great God in heaven, I hope we never kid ourselves into trying something like that. Bye, bye for now.
Love
Me55

Is Ashby’s note to Jewison admission that biblical storytelling conventions were used, or attempted to be used, in the making of this film? It’s possible, but unclear.

However, his statement that they shouldn’t try “something like that [the Bible]” implies that they, in fact, did try. The admonishing tone of Ashby’s note suggests a weary compromise between theological purism vs. the demands of a commercial murder-mystery—a reminder to his director that they were making entertainment, not a sermon. (Jewison himself suggests in the 40th anniversary DVD commentary: “I was always afraid that it would become too self-righteous. After all, you gotta tell a good story. It’s a whodunit … I think, as long as it maintains its interest as a mystery, you’re safe. You can hold on to the audience’s attention—without hitting them over the head with ideas.”56)

What the evidence is clear about, however, is that—from his earliest character notes and step outline—the screenwriter inserted intentional subversive Christian metaphors. While some were removed due to the many hands that create a commercial film, other references were added: Silliphant’s disruptive theological aesthetic reverberated through all production stages, and worked its way through the film like yeast through dough—down to cinematographic, editing, music, sound effect, and key props choices—continuing after Silliphant’s task on the film was long done. The film thus marshals religion to advance its urgent argument for social change: In the narrative arena of opposing spiritual forces, the subversive deification of Tibbs’ and the murder victim’s progressive worldview effectively anchors them in justified, righteously indignant, moral superiority. For America’s Christian culture of the 1960s, these northern agents thus appear to represent a higher law, superior to backward southern ignorance, one bearing the mark of the divine.

Cite this article
Geert Heetebrij, “Subversive Christian Allegory in In the Heat of the Night (1967)”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:3 , 249-262

Footnotes

  1. Nellie Andreeva, “‘In the Heat Of the Night’ TV Series Being Redeveloped With ‘People v. O.J.’ Writer”, Deadline, January 11, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/01/in-the-heat-of-the-night-tv-series-redeveloped-joe-robert-cole-1201883162/.
  2. Library of Congress, National Film Preservation Board, https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/.
  3. American Film Institute, AFI’s 100 years…100 movies—10th Anniversary Edition, https://www.afi.com/afis-100-years-100-movies-10th-anniversary-edition/.
  4. Richard Corliss, “Top 25 Important Movies on Race,” Time, February 4, 2008, http://entertainment.time.com/2008/02/04/the-25-most-important-films-on-race/slide/in-the-heat-of-the-night-1967/.
  5. Stirling Silliphant, “In the Heat of the Night Character Notes and Step Outline,” December 15, 1965, Silliphant Collection, UCLA, 13.
  6. Bosley Crowther, “Movie Review ‘In the Heat of the Night,’” New York Times, August 3, 1967.
  7. “To Sidney, With Love,” Commonwealth, August 25, 1967.
  8. “The Hollywood Negro: Changing Image,” Christian Century, December 6, 1967.
  9. Richard Gertner, “Review: ‘In the Heat of the Night,’” Motion Picture Herald, July 1967.
  10. “In the Heat of the Night (U.A.),” Atlanta Journal extract cited in Motion Picture Herald, October 18, 1967.
  11. “A Kind of Love,” Time, August 11, 1967.
  12. Richard Schickel, “Two Pros in a Super Sleeper,” Life, July 28, 1967.
  13. “The Hollywood Negro: Changing Image,” Christian Century, December 6, 1967.
  14. Robert Abele, “The Slap Heard Around the World,” DGA Quarterly (Spring 2011), https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1101-Spring-2011/Shot-to-Remember-Norman-Jewison.aspx.
  15. A. D. Murphy, “Review: ‘In the Heat of the Night,’” Variety, June 21, 1967, http://variety.com/1967/film/reviews/in-the-heat-of-the-night-1200421432/.
  16. Stirling Silliphant, “Character Notes and Step Outline,” 57.
  17. Ibid., 10, 13.
  18. Stirling Silliphant, “In the Heat of the Night Revised Step-Outline, January 7, 1966, Silliphant Collection, UCLA, 6.
  19. Walter Mirisch Collection, Margaret Herrick Library. A June 24, 1965 letter from Herb Jaffe from United Artists Corporation to Marvin Mirisch at the Mirisch Corporation states: “I think he [Robert Alan Aurthur] has a very good idea in changing the murder victim to an industrialist, who has come into the town to explore the possibilities of moving a plant, or plants, that he controls, into this Southern town. The loss of the industrialist by murder would therefore really affect the town in an economic sense, and is not as contrived as the conductor and its effect upon the area. He also wants to create a greater feeling of danger for the Negro detective and have the threat of his murder prevalent throughout the story.”
  20. Silliphant, “Character Notes and Step Outline,” 26.
  21. Ibid., 35.
  22. Stirling Silliphant, “In the Heat of the Night 1st Draft Screenplay,” January-February, 1966, Silliphant Collection, UCLA, 113.
  23. Ibid., 146.
  24. Silliphant, “Revised Step-Outline,” 10.
  25. Silliphant, “Character Notes and Step Outline,” 17.
  26. Silliphant, “Revised Step-Outline,” 4.
  27. Ibid., 6.
  28. Silliphant, “Character Notes and Step Outline,” 69, 70.
  29. Gospel of John 18: 15-22.
  30. Silliphant, “Character Notes and Step Outline,” 57.
  31. Gospel of Luke 6: 28, 29.
  32. Sidney Poitier, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (San Francisco: Harper 2000), 136.
  33. Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (New York: The Penguin Press 2008), 145.
  34. Silliphant, “Revised Step-Outline,” 9.
  35. Matthew Greenwald, In the Heat of the Night, Song Review, AllMusic.com, http://www.allmusic.com/song/in-the-heat-of-the-night-mt0034855904.
  36. Stirling Silliphant, “In the Heat of the Night 2nd Revised Screenplay,” September 28, 1966, Silliphant Collection, UCLA, 1.
  37. Norman Jewison, commentary track on In the Heat of the Night (MGM Home Entertainment, 2001).
  38. Matthew 27:19.
  39. Romans 1:24; Psalm 81:12.
  40. Matthew 26:3.
  41. Mark 6:26-28.
  42. John 19:12.
  43. Archaeologists Trace Jesus’ Final Hours, ABC News, April 13, 2017, http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=124100&page=1. Note: the notion that Golgotha was a landfill is still widely held, but has in recent years been debunked by scholars as a medieval invention. There is no ancient evidence that Golgotha was a garbage dump.
  44. Author interview with Norman Jewison.
  45. Mick LaSalle, “’Poseidon Adventure,’ Christian Parable/’70s disaster classic is about religious renegade, redemption,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 24, 2000, http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Poseidon-Adventure-Christian-Parable-70s-2689486.php.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Stirling Silliphant, “Poseidon Adventure character notes, Father Frank Scott: Age Thirty-four,” Silliphant Collection, UCLA, 3-6.
  48. Nat Segaloff, Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God (BearManor Media, 2013), 49.
  49. Stirling Silliphant, “Route 66: Kiss the Maiden All Forlorn First Draft Screenplay,” March 6, 1962, Silliphant Collection, UCLA, 55.
  50. After Jewison became involved, Silliphant added Tibbs’s nighttime arrival scene that opens the film. This addition first appears in the revised first draft dated July 1, 1966. Another addition in that July 1 draft is the plastic Jesus figurine on Sam Wood’s dashboard.
  51. There is no specific mention of stars in the script, just the mention of the train headlight flaring into the lens. On the commentary track of In the Heat of the Night, cinematographer Haskell Wexler explains that the [star] light-effect in the opening scene was achieved by putting a mesh window screen in front of the camera lens. Moreover, the opening lyrics—created during post-production—do specifically mention stars, and a blinking star appears on the diner—not mentioned in the script. Other elements never mentioned in the script are the plaque with the Jesus-quote in Delores Purdy’s kitchen, the crowing cock in the Gates scene, and the landfill location. Finally, Leslie Colbert’s subversive “My God!” identification of Tibbs only works with a buy-in from the editor—the camera stays on Gillespie, who stares at Poitier with a mixture of dread and surprise.
  52. Harris, Pictures at a Revolution, 203.
  53. Haskell Wexler and Norman Jewison, commentary track on In the Heat of the Night (MGM Home Entertainment, 2001).
  54. Harris, Pictures at a Revolution, 204.
  55. Note from Hal Ashby to Norman Jewison, Ashby Collection, Margaret Herrick Library.
  56. Norman Jewison, commentary track on In the Heat of the Night (MGM Home Entertainment, 2001).

Geert Heetebrij

Calvin University
Geert Heetebrij is Assistant Professor of Film and Media at Calvin University.