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Billy Graham movies — the ’70s

Billy Graham movies — the ’70s June 27, 2005

My earlier post on the Billy Graham movies of the 1950s and 1960s cheated a bit, by including a couple of 1970s films.

Time to Run (1972/1973) was, in spirit, a 1960s film, or so I argued; and The Hiding Place (1975/1975) was just a great film that I didn’t want to wait to write about. But now I have seen the rest of that decade’s output, and the big surprise for me is that I just might like another film more than The Hiding Place, which I have assumed all along would be the pick of the crop.

The Hiding Place, which I covered in more detail in that other post, marked a turn towards true stories that broadened World Wide Pictures’ artistic and narrative horizons; stories now tended to take place in the past, which required more attention to set design and costumes and so forth, and instead of showing how messed up the characters were before attending one of Billy Graham’s crusades, they tended to concern characters who were already Christian and tried to apply their faith to their lives.

This trend continued with Shiokari Pass (1977/1977), the first of these films to take place in Asia or to concern a primarily non-Caucasian set of characters. The WWP website says the film is a true story, but it feels to me more like a parable or a sermon illustration, kind of like the recent Oscar-nominated short film Most (The Bridge) (2003). But in any case, it’s very well done.

This was followed by No Longer Alone (1978/1979), which adheres to the usual formula inasmuch as it features a character who endures various miseries before being saved at a crusade — but this time, the film is a re-enactment of the life of Joan Winmill, an actress who came to Christ at Graham’s London crusade in 1954; Winmill narrates the film herself, and she is played in the re-enactments by Belinda Carroll. (James Fox plays her lover.)

One of the interesting things about this film is that Winmill herself played an actress who becomes a Christian at that very same crusade in Souls in Conflict, and No Longer Alone uses the same footage of Graham’s preaching that that earlier film did (and FWIW, I think this proves that the IMDB is right when it says Souls in Conflict came out in 1955, and the WWP website is wrong when it says the film came out in 1953). Also, there is a moment where Winmill is on the verge of suicide, but then her phone rings, and a friend invites her to the crusade; Winmill, narrating, says:

You’d never write it that way. In a fiction it would seem too contrived. But this is a true story, and that is how it happened. When I had come to the absolute end of myself and I felt that the only choice was self-destruction, I cried out to God and he heard me, and answered me in a simple thing as a telephone call.

The funny thing is, Oiltown U.S.A., another of the 1950s films, had featured a possible suicide attempt interrupted by a phone call, and it did feel “too contrived”, in that context. No Longer Alone is also notable for being the second film, after Time to Run, to end with an altar call; the other films left that more implicit.

And then, Joni (1979/1980), based on Joni Eareckson’s autobiographical account of how she found a deeper faith after a diving accident left her a quadriplegic. And wow, this film is impressive. It’s not the major historical epic that The Hiding Place is, but I think this just might be the most “cinematic” of the WWP films to date.

For the first time, a WWP film leaves me thinking primarily of its imagery, of its reliance on visuals and silences: the way it cuts between cramped visuals inside the ambulance to a children’s pool and playground outside, the way Joni’s mother looks out a window in the hospital waiting room and watches another ambulance go down the street several stories below, the way the camera comes in for a close-up on the spinning wheel after Joni’s wheelchair flips over, the way Joni pauses while painting and watches a caterpillar walk on the window frame, and so on.

Kudos also to Eareckson, who was very brave in reliving some of these moments for the camera and turns out to be a rather good actress, certainly for a non-professional. Many of the other performances are quite good, too; I particularly liked the actors who played her parents and her best friend. Ernie Hudson, who became one of the original Ghostbusters a few years later, plays a male nurse, or whatever the correct job title would be.

This may also be the first WWP film in which a woman is the skeptic and a man is the love interest who possesses the more confident faith. And, even more daring, the man who helps Joni to recover and deepen her faith ends up breaking her heart! She still holds on to her faith, but the man who helped her reclaim it does not sail away into some sort of happy-ever-after with her.

The film cannot help but include some faith talk — and the last five or ten minutes fall into an all-too-predictable didacticism, amplified by the pop song Joni sings — but I think it is fair to say there is less speechifying in this script than in the ones that came before it. For the most part, this film is all about drawing us into a person’s experience, and it’s all the more engaging for it.

This isn’t the best way to put it, but I have said in the past that the difference between “propaganda”, “entertainment”, and “art” can be described something like this: “propaganda” is art that serves the selfish needs of the artist; “entertainment” is art that serves the selfish needs of the audience; and “art” is art that draws both artist and audience into something deeper, more mysterious, more other-oriented. In a sense, WWP movies tend to be “propaganda” sweetened with “entertainment” — they are all about preaching the artist’s message and giving the audience just enough of a laugh or a cry so that the message can break through their defenses. But Joni, I think, just may come closer than any other WWP film to being “art” — you do get the feeling that artist and audience alike are being drawn into something a little more mysterious. ‘Tis a shame, then, that the film fell back on the standard formula in its very last minutes. But up until then, it’s pretty good!

Next up: the 1980s, I guess. But WWP made only three films in that decade, and I saw them all when they were brand new, and only one of them is available online. So I’ll probably pass over that decade in favour of the more recent films that I have acquired or borrowed on VHS and DVD. More viewing ahead!

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