Last month, I mentioned I was working on an article about Billy Graham movies, and I said my editors weren’t paying me enough to watch all of them. Well, it looks like I’m doing my obsessive, completist best to watch as many of them as possible anyway! Almost all of the feature films produced during World Wide Pictures’ first quarter-century can be watched online, and I’ve spent the past week watching them and making notes. Here are some brief, brief comments on what I’ve seen so far.
First, a confession of bias on my part. I saw all three of the WWP films released in the 1980s — The Prodigal (1983), Cry from the Mountain (1985) and Caught (1987) — when they were brand new, and even as a student attending a Christian high school, I grew disenchanted with the formula behind these films pretty quickly. Apart from noting their sheer predictability, I likened them to fairy tales, which always end with a wedding but never show what it’s like to make a marriage work after the honeymoon is over; and I remember saying at the time that I found the Indian missionary’s story in Caught more interesting than that of the character who ends up converting at the end, for precisely this reason.
So I find myself revisiting these thoughts, as I watch the earlier films. But I also recognize that the whole point in making these films was to extend the Billy Graham ministry into a filmic medium, so I try to remind myself that the trick to watching these films is not to see whether they follow a formula, but rather, to see how creative or interesting they can be within their formula.
Second, it is interesting to see how the emphases shift over the years, and how you can almost categorize these films thematically by decade. (I say “almost” because, in order for my scheme to work, I have to consider 1972’s Time to Run a 1960s film. Plus, 1960’s Shadow of the Boomerang and 1970’s His Land are not available online, so I cannot take them into account.)
The 1950s films (Souls in Conflict, Oiltown U.S.A., Wiretapper, The Heart Is a Rebel) are mainly concerned with middle-class adults, usually couples, concerned about their economic success. The 1960s films (The Restless Ones, Two a Penny, For Pete’s Sake, Time to Run) are mainly about young-rebel types who are cynical about the system and often get involved with drugs and/or premarital sex. And the 1970s films (The Hiding Place, Shiokari Pass, No Longer Alone, Joni) are all true stories.
Among other things, it is interesting to see how the 1960s films must negotiate the fact that the critique of adult middle-class materialism, which was once the exclusive prophetic domain of Billy Graham himself or the characters who conveyed his ideals, is now shared by the rebellious youngsters, who need to be convinced of the insuffiency of their godless ways on some other basis; and while all this is going on, of course, the films must also now find some way to reconcile these youth to their elders.
It is also interesting to see how the 1970s films, by virtue of being true stories, tend to be period pieces in which there is little or no place for the Billy Graham crusade to play the deus ex machina. What’s more, they tend to be about people who are already Christian and therefore trying to apply the gospel to their lives; or, to use the terms I came up with in high school, they are about the marriage and not the wedding. (FWIW, the IMDB indicates that Graham does appear in 1978’s No Longer Alone, which tells the story of how Joan Winmill Brown became a Christian, but he is apparently not in the others; and while 1979’s Joni might not be a “period piece”, per se, it does begin with a diving accident that took place about a dozen years before the film came out.)
Third, it is remarkable how consistent the Billy Graham message and preaching style are across the decades. But I also note that most of the 1960s films, which all came out after the death of C.S. Lewis, all contain some variation on the “liar, lunatic, or lord” argument that Lewis coined in his 1940s book Mere Christianity and which Josh McDowell later developed in his 1972 book Evidence Which Demands a Verdict; this message is sometimes articulated by one of the characters, and sometimes by Graham himself in one of his sermons. This line of argument seems to be missing from the films of the 1950s, which is interesting; this may reflect the fact that the 1960s films are more interested in the younger folk, many of whom were going to college and wrestling with more intellectual issues than the adults that we saw in those earlier films, who had more domestic issues to deal with.
I have to admit I don’t care for most of the early films that much, partly because the Billy-Graham-movie formula was still very much in development at this time, but also because almost all of these films star an actress named Georgia Lee, whose perfect 1950s-style prettiness and sudden, manipulative mood changes really get on my nerves; she’s in all of them from 1954’s Oiltown U.S.A. to 1965’s The Restless Ones, the latter of which was the first Billy Graham movie to be released in theatres. (The IMDB says she appeared in only two other movies, namely the mid-’70s cult flicks Big Bad Mama and Switchblade Sisters, both of which starred her daughter Robbie. I kind of want to see those, now.)
However, once Georgia Lee and her director Dick Ross (who went on to produce 1970’s The Cross and the Switchblade) leave the picture, and once The Restless Ones screenwriter James F. Collier starts directing these films, things get more interesting. The standouts so far (and since the WWP website and the IMDB often disagree on the dates for these films, I’m providing both):
Two a Penny (1966/1967), because it stars Cliff Richard, who I do admire, as well as a number of actors I fondly recognize from other British films (including To Sir with Love and The Family Way); because it is the only film so far in which dramatic action takes place on the actual platform from which Billy Graham speaks at his crusade (in contrast to all the other films, where footage of Graham’s sermons is spliced into an otherwise unrelated dramatic story, and the closest the characters ever get to the stage is milling about with the other converts after they come forward); because it is the first film in which the title song represents a character’s troubled inner thoughts and not the message of the film; because it ends on an ambiguous note in which the protagonist’s salvation is still kind of up in the air; and for other, smaller reasons besides. Alas, the version on the WWP website is only 65 minutes or so, but I understand a 97-minute version is available on DVD in Britain, and since the reviews I have read (e.g. here) refer to a Cliff Richard performance of ‘Twist & Shout’ that I don’t remember hearing when I watched the film, I can only assume that that was one of the scenes deleted from the American and/or Christian version of the film. Still, even in its bowdlerized form, the film’s merits do come through.
For Pete’s Sake (1966/1968), because the crusade takes place at the beginning of the story and not the end; this is that rare film which even tries to look at the aftermath of an altar call. This is also the film in which a rainshower interrupts one of Graham’s sermons — the very sermon to which the newly-saved protagonists have invited their skeptical friend! It’s just one of a number of difficulties that these characters face when trying to spread the Word, and it’s kind of funny and self-deprecating and nicely worked into the fabric of the story. Oh, plus, this is the film with Teri Garr in a small role as a biker chick. (This is the most suburban and parent-oriented of the “1960s films”, but the dad works at a garage and one of the main subplots involves his witnessing to some younger folks.)
The Hiding Place (1975/1975), because it’s probably the closest WWP ever came to producing an epic; because it’s the first of their films that takes place outside the Anglosphere; because it may be the first that does not concern either troubled marriages or troubled youth; because it’s one of the better-acted films (FWIW, Yes Minister‘s Nigel Hawthorne has a small role as a local pastor); and because it pushes artistic boundaries that many Christian filmmakers still go nowhere near (such as depicting, however discretely, the nudity imposed on the prisoners at Ravensbruck; while it’s not as explicit as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which came out 18 years later, the film does at least recognize that the horror and degradation of the concentration camps would be incomplete without this element). This was not the first WWP film to tell a true story — I believe 1955’s Wiretapper has that honour — but it kicked off a trend that lasted through a few more films, which I have yet to see.
After those, and based on what I remember of the 1980s films, it appears the WWP franchise went back to the formula of the 1960s, with troubled families and individuals being saved at the last minute by the deus ex machina of a Billy Graham crusade; although, FWIW, I think The Prodigal (1983/1983) may have been the first one to feature Graham as an actual actor in one of these films, since, if memory serves, I believe there was a scene in that film of Graham visiting a college and having an exchange with the students. True, his preaching in a TV studio in Oiltown U.S.A. (1954/—-) was staged just for the film, and he even looks straight at the camera, but he was still basically just preaching like he always does; and true, we do see him take a seat on the platform some time before he starts preaching in Two a Penny, but he is still seen from afar — the film crew never invades his personal space — and he never interacts with the characters.
I have not yet seen any of the 1990s or 2000s films, but I hope to sample some of them in the very near future. And since (1) it appears WWP really stepped up the pace at which these films were produced, and (2) none of them are available online, I definitely won’t be as completist with the last quarter-century’s worth of films as I was with the first; I am relying now on the videotapes and DVDs that I have been able to borrow or acquire.