In Todd Rohal’s new film, The Catechism Cataclysm, which opens tomorrow (and goes to video-on-demand next week), a priest called Father Billy (played by Steve Little of Eastbound & Down), is asked to take a sabbatical after telling “inappropriate” parables to his flock. He presses his high-school idol Robbie (Robert Longstreet) to join him on a canoe trip, and, when night falls, their trip takes a turn for the bizarre—culminating in a shocking, absurdist finale set around a campfire.
There’s a distinguished tradition of campfire scenes in the movies—and with good reason, as Rohal explains below. He picked his five favorite such scenes for Brow Beat.
As Werner Herzog reminds us in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, before cinema there was the campfire—a place to tell stories in the dark while staring into the light. Here’s a few campfire scenes that meld old traditions with the new-fangled medium of cinema and that sit particularly close to my heart.
Stand By Me (1986)
The ultimate campfire story. The TV version muted out the latter part of Lardass’s name; even so, I put my taped-from-TV VHS version through years of re-viewings. This is the kind of story a real high-school kid would write: a mostly nonsensical gross-out revenge fantasy—and wow, does this one never want to leave me.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Again, this one was edited for content when shown on TV (removing the farts from the soundtrack entirely, so it just looks like a bunch of men hunching and leaning over). The scene plays well around the world and may be the only scene listed here that’ll stand the test of time. You could play this for cavemen or time-travelers from the year 2566 and they’d all respond the same way you did when you first saw it.
Dead Man (1995)
Among the themes that recur in campfire movie scenes: beans. Johnny Depp’s best line of dialogue in any movie comes in Dead Man: He approaches Iggy Pop in a dress and Billy Bob Thornton in fur and says, “I smelled beans.” Campfire scenes work particularly well when done in black and white: This scene feels dirty and weird, like a campfire should.
Easy Rider (1969)
Smoking pot, talking about UFOs and freedom. I actually don’t even know if I like this scene, but I feel like it deserves inclusion here.
Days of Heaven (1978)
This is the only campfire scene I’m listing here that’s actually lit by the campfire (that is, it uses natural light). There’s no talking this time—just a big old hullaballoo dance party. Which, I’m sure, is how Malick described this scene to everyone before they shot it: “I dunno, let’s just leave the lights off and shoot a goddamn hullaballoo dance party.”