Why are 'Christian movies' so bad? Talking about Jolie, Zamperini, 'Unbroken' and wisdom from Robert Duvall

It's a question I have puzzled over throughout my career as a journalist and as a mass-media professor: Why are "Christian movies" so bad?

Yes, there need to be quotes around the term "Christian movies." We are not talking about movies that are made by talented Christians who work in mainstream film. We're not talking about Frank "It's a Wonderful Life" Capra in the past or Scott "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" Derrickson in the present.

No, we're talking about, well, you know -- "Christian movies." The kinds of movies that resemble fundraising letters aimed at people in niche pews. Yes, Hollywood makes some preachy movies, too. That's a topic for another day, another podcast.

But why are those "Christian movies" so bad? Another Christian in the Hollywood mainstream, David "Home Improvement" McFadzean once offered up this brutal quote: The typical "Christian movie" is very similar to a porno movie. "It has terrible acting. It has a tiny budget. And you know exactly how it's going to end."

Ouch. Anyway, this was the topic that loomed in the background this week as "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed my recent Universal syndicate column about the Angelina Jolie movie version of "Unbroken," which was based on parts -- wait for it -- of the amazing "Unbroken" bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand. Click here to listen in on that podcast.

Jolie explained -- check out this Religion News Service report by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey -- that she left out the born-again Christian chapters of the life of Greatest Generation icon Louis Zamperini in order to tell a "universal" story of faith and forgiveness that could be understood by all.

In other words, Jolie didn't want to make what some people call a "Billy Graham movie," which ends with repentance and redemption. The only problem, as I explained in my column, is that Zamperini actually lived a real Billy Graham story.

... The drama was real in 1949 when a shattered sinner named Louis Zamperini attended Graham's historic "canvas cathedral" crusade in Los Angeles.
Come judgment day, warned the evangelist, "they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going on in your mind every minute of the day ... and you're going to hear the words that you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day."
Whenever Zamperini told his life story -- a rebellious childhood, Olympic glory, then the horrors of World War II, including 47 days adrift in the shark-infested Pacific, followed by two hellish years in prison -- this was the climactic scene. He was soaking his nightmares in alcohol, facing divorce and obsessed with killing his torturers.
Graham said: "Here tonight, there's a drowning man" at the breaking point, someone "lost in the sea of life." It took a sermon or two, but Zamperini surrendered.

By the way, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has done its own documentary about Zamperini and his life and it's worth seeing. Click here to check that out.

In our "Crossroads" conversation, Wilken asked a totally logical question: Could anyone have made a movie that was faithful to the whole story? That would, of course, have meant including the Graham crusade and -- in a scene that simply screams cinema -- Zamperini's stunning trip to a Japanese prison to share his Christian testimony and to forgive his prison guards in face-to-face meetings.

I asked him to name a Christian director, today, who could have handled that story. Let's just say that the list is very, very, very short.

So let's cut Jolie -- a self-professed agnostic -- some slack. Yes, it's tragic that, unlike Hillenbrand, she wasn't committed enough to the story to dig into all of the details. But, I argued, if this had been turned into a "Christian movie" it's highly likely that the brutal, hellish, honest struggles in Zamperini would have been edited down to "safe" territory.

So what's the real problem here? Part of the problem is that so few Christian schools offer serious, mainstream degrees in screenwriting and related fields. The church deserves some of the blame for this gap between the cinema and real life.

But this is an equation with two sides. Back in 1998, I had a chance to talk to someone with quite a bit of authority on this topic. Academy Award winner Robert Duvall is not a traditional believer, but he has come to have great respect for the role that evangelical Christianity plays in the lives of millions of complex, flawed, redeemed people.

That interview led to a column in which Duvall (at the time of his stunning film, "The Apostle") bemoaned the fact that Hollywood just can't seem to handle stories about faith and redemption, while Christian filmmakers struggle to be honest about real sin. The result? Many amazing stories don't make it, intact, to the screen.

Here's a taste of that column.

Most movies about the South look like they were filmed in Southern California.
What's missing is heat, sweat, rust, bugs, mud and another messy reality called "sin." These movies contain sinful behavior, but nobody calls it "sin" or says folks should do anything about it. This is strange, since the real South contains zones in which people still wear Sunday clothes, carry ragged Bibles and say prayers before meals in restaurants.
"Most folks in New York and out here in California just don't know what to do with life below the New Jersey shore," said Robert Duvall, who has several weeks doing waves of interviews trying to explain his film "The Apostle" to whole media world. "They just can't seem to get it right. ... Everything ends up looking and sounding all wrong."
Lots of people understand that sinners can do good and that saints don't win all their battles with their demons. It's the people who really believe in sin who understand that sin, repentance and redemption are often messy subjects, said Duvall, who recently received an Oscar nomination for this performance as the flawed, but faithful, preacher E. F. "Sonny" Dewey.
"There really are preachers in jail. I've met guys like that who have done all kinds of bad things, even murder and rape," said Duvall, who wrote "The Apostle" script in long hand and directed it himself. "These guys are real people and they struggle with the good and the bad that's in their own souls. They're human. I wanted to show the reality of that struggle. ... My guy makes mistakes. But he's more good than bad. He hangs on to his faith, because it's real."

Zamperini's life was real, too. Right down to the last chapter.

Enjoy the podcast.


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