Billy Graham movies — the ’80s

Billy Graham movies — the ’80s July 26, 2005

Last month I blitzed through the Billy Graham movies of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s — and now it’s time to catch up on the films that followed. To judge from their website, World Wide Pictures produced a string of documentaries and the like over the course of the 1980s, but they made only three feature films — all of which I remember seeing on the big screen when I was in high school.

I haven’t seen The Prodigal (1983/1983) since it was brand new, and it’s not available online, but yesterday, while rummaging through some old magazines, I came across a seven-page feature on the film in the October 7, 1983 issue of Christianity Today — and it brings back memories.

For example, Two a Penny may have been notable for being the first film to place a camera on the platform during a Billy Graham crusade, and Graham occasionally addresses the camera directly in evangelistic codas, but I have always suspected that The Prodigal was the first film in which Graham actively takes part in the dramatic action; that is, I remember a scene where he visits a seminary attended by one of the characters and answers some of the questions posed to him by them. And sure enough, the caption to one of the photos in this issue of CT says, “This is the first time Graham has filmed a specific scene in a movie.”

The feature article — written by Mel White, now best-known as a gay activist, for whatever that’s worth — is an interview with director James F. Collier and producer Ken Wales, and some of the quotes are rather revealing. Here’s a sampling of Collier’s:

Every film has a point of view. A friend who saw Time to Run said, “There are holes in the story, Jim.” But as a result of that production, over 400,000 people indicated some sort of first-time commitment to Christ and have been contacted by the Billy Graham follow-up offices. That’s what makes it all meaningful and gives purpose to what we attempt to do.

That’s an interesting statistic, since the WWP website now claims, presumably referring to all the films they’ve made over the past 50+ years, “Over two million decisions for Christ have been recorded so far.” Were a fifth of those due to Time to Run alone?

I was intrigued that [the film] could be a dissection of the Christian family. In a way, it’s a kind of masquerade party, because at the beginning they’re all wearing masks of respectability, and gradually the veneers are peeled away. These people were raised in the church; faith occupies space in their lives, but not necessarily always in their hearts. I didn’t want to pretend that we were talking primarily to the unchurched. I wanted to address our world as I know it. . . .

I was able to do [some new] things in The Prodigal. We were able to imply that people have sexual lives, and that’s never happened before, you know. I tried to have unspoken moments where the secular audience could fill in the gaps. . . .

We can’t use the language the world uses. It used to be a running joke in Hollywood after the success of The Hiding Place that any script that came into a major studio that had “God” in it and didn’t have “damn” behind it was immediately sent to World Wide. But I would like to be a bit more explicit. . . .

Of course, we could take the lives of the Stuart family and come up with an entire miniseries. But World Wide Pictures is in the business of offering people new beginnings. That means they will always be criticized for not saying enough. We see our responsibility to offer the folks sitting out there in a darkened theater the chance to start again. That is the gospel.

Hmmm. I hate to say it, but I’d have to quibble with the implication that “the gospel” is all about “starting again”. Jesus had ideas about how people should live, period, whether they had started living that way yesterday or a few years ago. And I think Collier was probably aware of this, given how often he alludes to his desire to portray the lives of regular Christians, and how he says at one point that he still loves For Pete’s Sake — one of his earliest films, and a rare film in which the conversion takes place at the beginning, and then the characters have to live it out.

The feature includes a review by Harry Cheney, who appreciates certain aspects of the film — its “lush photography”, its “superlative cast” — but makes some rather telling criticisms as well:

The film stumbles, however, in its treatment of Greg’s rebellious lifestyle. It is a sanctified view of sin that doesn’t always ring true. He remains an object lesson viewed from the outside. That crucial error is not uncommon in most evangelical films. Too often, in order to be specifically evangelistic, the Christian filmmaker will violate a cardinal rule of drama — that character, not ideology, dictates plot and action. . . .

Another flaw in Christian films is the strange absence of awe. They require — and are surely capable of — a visual grammar that communicates the brooding presence of a transcendent being. But the Stuart family appears to be speaking into a vacuum. There is talk of Jesus, but never a sense of his presence. . . . An encounter with Christ should propel the action, not end it.

Just so. After the dramatic breakthrough of the 1970s, in which films based on true stories like Joni and The Hiding Place focused on how regular people live out their faith, the 1980s marked a disappointing return to the formulas of the 1950s and 1960s, in which people run away from home, get involved with crime, are lost but found, and generally get saved in the last reel, etc.

Anyway, moving right along …

Cry from the Mountain (1985/1985) is the only film from the past quarter-century that can currently be watched on the WWP website. And compared to some of its predecessors, it’s a trifle. A dad takes his son on a camping trip into the Alaskan wilderness, tells him (a bit sooner than he intended) that he and mom are thinking of splitting up, and then has a kayaking accident — and the only person who can help is a grumpy old hermit who turns out to be a Christian. Meanwhile, the pregnant mom visits the office where dad’s lover works, and considers getting an abortion. And luckily for everyone, there’s a Billy Graham crusade in town.

Interestingly, Graham says in his sermon that the people there did not come to hear someone named Billy Graham — and yet, in an earlier scene, the old hermit specifically suggests that they go to hear Billy Graham preach. There’s an interesting contradiction there; even if one were to accept the premise that every WWP film must end with someone becoming a Christian, it does not necessarily follow that each WWP film must employ a Billy Graham crusade as the mechanism by which this conversion is achieved. But the fact that virtually all of these films pass through a crusade on the way to their happy endings does make it seem like the point of these films is to promote and extend the Billy Graham “brand”, as it were. (Heck, even Joni ended with a gratuitous shot of Graham applauding the title character, as though her testimony wouldn’t be good enough without Graham’s imprimatur.)

After that, there was Caught (1986/1987), which I have on VHS, and which is the first and apparently only WWP film to be rated PG-13. The film signals its “serious” intentions from the opening scene, in which a drug dealer grabs a drugged-up woman by the front of her blouse and drags her offscreen — though instead of doing anything sexual with her, he goads her into walking off a roof to her death. He does this partly as a lesson to Tim (John Shepherd), an American who has come to Holland to find his birth father, and who has gotten mixed up in the drug trade to boot; to pay back the money he owes the dealers, he even moonlights as a male prostitute.

I remember complaining about this film way back when, partly because Tim has such a perfect life waiting for him back home — a nice blonde mother (Jill Ireland), a nice blonde girlfriend — and the perfection of this life doesn’t seem to be ruffled in any way whatsoever by Tim’s experiences in Amsterdam; it is all too easy for him to shrug aside his misdeeds and to go back to the life he once had. Now, having seen the film again for the first time in nearly two decades, I am also struck by the film’s intrusive use of music. I don’t mind the very mid-’80s rock music that plays over the opening and closing credits — co-written and performed by Ted Neeley of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), by the way! — but I do think it doesn’t make sense for Tim to sing songs of longing addressed to God, only to act in the final scenes as though the thought of speaking to God was brand new to him.

What I do recall liking about this film way back when — and still like — is its portrayal of Rajam Prassad (Amerjit Deu), the missionary who has come to Amsterdam from India to attend a conference of “itinerant evangelists” hosted by (who else?) Billy Graham. Rajam shares his hotel room with a missionary from Africa, and they share some amusing fish-out-of-water scenes, as they deal with western culture for the first time, as well as a few interesting scenes in which they try to do their “homework” for the conference. (This last bit brings to mind a similar scene in For Pete’s Sake, in which the newly converted parents face the pile of Bible study materials that have been given to them.)

Collier’s desire to be more “explicit” with the language comes to fruition here — uh, sort of. When Rajam barges in on the bad guys just before they give Tim an overdose of heroin (or whatever it is they’re planning on doing with that needle), one of the villains says, “Who the hell are you?” But to make this bit of dialogue more palatable to the evangelical viewer, Rajam is obliged to take it literalistically and to reply, “I’m far from Hell.” I seem to recall this line getting a fair bit of laughter from the mostly Christian audience. And then Rajam goes on to say, “I recognize you, sir. The Prince of Darkness is your master.” And then he proceeds to engage the bad guys in a physical fight — but not before saying, “It is my wish to live peacefully with all men,” and not without offering the punchline, “I have much to confess this day.”

Unlike many of the other films from the 1970s and 1980s, Caught ends not with a direct pitch to the audience by Billy Graham himself or some similar real-life person, but with a voice-over by Tim, the fictitious protagonist: “Christianity is not something I can shove down anybody’s throat. All I can tell ’em is what I know. After that they make their own [can’t make out the word]. Maybe that prayer I prayed will help somebody right now. I’m opening that door for you to come in. it’s not the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s just the best.” I have quibbles with the idea of putting altar calls at the end of movies in general, but ending with a made-up testimony seems especially dicey, to me.

And that does it for the 1980s. Several years went by before WWP produced another feature film; that film was Eye of the Storm (1992/1992), followed by Come the Morning (1993/1993), Power Play (1994/1994), The Homecoming (1996/1996), and Repeat Performance (1996/—-) — none of which I have ever seen, and none of which are available to me in any format right now.

But I have most of the films that have been released since then, on VHS or DVD, so I may do one more summary yet.

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