C.S. Lewis wrote that education is about training “the little human animal” to “have the right responses.” Growing to maturity is about being “trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting and hateful.” This is why movies are so important, and why The Dark Tower is very dangerous.
Action/Adventure movies are not just about seeing things blow up — they have a very important function in moral development. As a lad, I remember growing up watching Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and The Lord of the Rings. These movies helped me understand what it meant to be a man, the importance of heroism, strength, and virtue.
The biggest problem with The Dark Tower isn’t that it’s a bad movie — many bad movies can teach good lessons. The problem is that it arguably enshrines murder as a moral virtue. The film does not intentionally try to do this, but the moral and psychological impact of the “gunslinger litany,” without any explanation to temper it, could have devastating effects.
As any Boy Scout can tell you, oaths of virtue have a compelling and mystical quality. In films and television, like in history and even current culture, there are knightly orders which have a “mantra,” “oath,” or “litany” which gives courage and direction. The idea is to foster virtue and the fortitude to stand against all odds.
The Dark Tower centers around one such mantra, and it is problematic to say the least. It sounds cool and deep — and perhaps there is a great deal more meaning in the Stephen King novels on which The Dark Tower is based — but in the movie it feels both fake and dangerous. This is the mantra:
I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye.
I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind.
I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart.
The movie never explains what “forgetting the face of his father” means, but it seems like a ploy to bring depth to a mantra central to the story. The most problematic part comes at the end: “I kill with my heart.”
This is not just a throwaway line. The “gunslinger litany” emerges at least four times in the movie. The gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), teaches it to the main character, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor). Deschain uses it at a pivotal moment to regain strength and achieve an amazing feat.
This litany brings strength, focus, courage, and virtue to the hearts of the two main characters in the movie. That’s why it’s so dangerous.
Western history has struggled with the idea of virtue requiring killing another human being. Life is a central value in the West, and there are heroic stories of conscientious objectors like Desmond Doss who are paragons of virtue and yet refuse on principle to touch a weapon.
Just War theory justifies war — and therefore killing — under certain circumstances, and retributive punishment justifies the death penalty. But even in these cases, it is contrary to the West’s ethic to take pleasure in killing, to make it a central desire of the heart.
In fact, Jesus says in Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” The inward disposition of the heart may be considered more important than the outward actions.
In the Western tradition, a soldier can kill the enemy in battle. An executioner can take the life of a criminal. But the one thing a virtuous person cannot do is kill someone in his heart. At that point, vengeance destroys justice, and justifiable killing becomes heinous murder.
“I kill with my heart” is the exact opposite of the West’s ethic of virtue. When Idris Elba says this mantra, he has the power to shoot someone through solid objects, impossibly far away. The will to kill another in his heart enables him to drive the bullet home, and that is the very central problem of The Dark Tower.
Not only does the film give an aura of power to the line “I kill with my heart,” but it also gives it an aura of virtue, as it is the defining slogan of the gunslinger order — a knightly order directly connected with King Arthur and Excalibur.
It is likely Stephen King explains all this in his books, and justifies this semi-magical killing ability by insisting that gunslingers only kill when it is virtuous to kill. They are an order dedicated to preserving the world, after all. But in the setting of a movie, where the litany remains unexamined and unexplained, its emphasis on “killing with the heart” can do serious damage, especially to the young boys who will be watching this movie.
The Dark Tower was rated PG-13, and its main character is a young man of about 13 years old. It does not have sex or any gruesome violence, and it seems to be shooting for a specific market. Other PG-13 movies have reached extremely wide audiences. Examples include The Lord of the Rings (2001-2004), The Dark Knight (2010), The Avengers (2012), and Jurassic Park (1990), to name a few.
Having been a 13-year-old boy, I can testify to the fascination of certain mantras. “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” from The Dark Knight. Even horrible movies can yield inspiring mantras. One of my all-time favorites is “Lord, give us the wisdom to discover the right, the will to choose it, and the strength to make it endure,” from First Knight (1995) — yes, the corny one with Sean Connery and Richard Gere.
For this reason, I consider it extremely important that The Dark Tower does not explain the “gunslinger litany,” but still includes the litany as a central point of the story.
On the cinematic level, this lack of explanation is a symptom of the movie’s fundamental weaknesses. When I exited the theater, I couldn’t help but think of this film as a wasted opportunity. The Dark Tower presents a fascinating alternate reality, with strong acting, impressive visual effects, and none of the sex and gruesomeness which so often mar big budget action films.
But the movie falls flat due to horrible pacing. The entire first hour of a 95-minute film feels like an extended opening act, leading to an extremely rushed finale. Matthew McConaughey makes a tremendous villain, but there is no explanation of the motives behind his villainy. Similarly, Idris Elba makes a strong hero, but there is no explanation for the motives driving him.
This stock hero faces the stock villain to save a stock “everyman” main character, the boy Jake Chambers. While the visuals, music, and action were impressive, the story fell flat.
It seems 95 minutes was far too short a time to both introduce the fascinating world Stephen King created and tell a compelling story with real characters. Even so, the film felt long because it spent so much time creating a world for the story that never fully came about.
This lack of depth and development helps explain why the movie never broke down the gunslinger litany — the directors thought there just wasn’t time. Interestingly, the film introduced a dichotomy inside Roland Deschain’s motives. As a gunslinger, he was dedicated to saving the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. As a son, he wanted to kill the villain to get revenge for his father.
The movie suggests — but never explicitly shows — that Deschain has decided to save the Dark Tower over getting revenge. The problem is, both motives lead to the same action, killing the villain. And the very litany which enables Deschain to kill the villain involves “I kill with my heart.”
If the movie had taken 10 minutes to explain that the gunslinger litany does not enshrine murder as a virtue, and to show definitively that Deschain has rejected the motive of revenge for the motive of saving the world, this would be a powerful moral message for young men.
Alas, like so many other things in The Dark Tower, moral virtue seems to have been sacrificed on the cutting room floor.