Friday, June 8, 2012
MACHINE GUN PREACHER - FILM REVIEW (2011 - Directed by Marc Forster)
"I have been thinking," said Arthur, "about Might and Right. I don't think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them ... You see," he said, "Might is not Right. But there is a lot of Might knocking about in this world, and something has to be done about it. It is as if people were half horrible and half nice. Perhaps they are even more than half horrible, and when they are left to themselves they run wild ... Then the horrible side gets uppermost, and there is thieving and rape and plunder and torture. The people become beasts.
"But, you see, Merlyn is helping me to win my two battles so that I can stop this. He wants me to put things right ...
"Now what I have thought," said Arthur, "is this. Why can't you harness Might so that it works for Right? I know it sounds nonsense, but, I mean, you can't just say there is no such thing. The Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can't neglect it. You can't cut it out, but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was useful instead of bad."
The audience was interested. They leaned forward to listen, except Merlyn.
"My idea is that if we can win this battle in front of us, and get a firm hold of the country, then I will institute a sort of order of chivalry ... And then I shall make the oath of the order that Might is only to be used for Right. Do you follow? The knights in my order will ride all over the world, still dressed in steel and whacking away with their swords - that will give an outlet for wanting to whack, you understand, an outlet for what Merlyn calls the foxhunting spirit - but they will be bound to strike only on behalf of what is good ... to restore what has been done wrong in the past and to help the oppressed and so forth. Do you see the idea? It will be using the Might instead of fighting against it, and turning a bad thing into a good. There, Merlyn, that is all I can think of. I have thought as hard as I could. I can't do any better. Please say something!"
The magician stood up as straight as a pillar, stretched out his arms in both directions, looked at the ceiling, and said the first few words of the Nune Dimittis.
- from T.H. White, in The Queen of Air and Darkness
Perhaps one of the very most interesting things about the film, Machine Gun Preacher, is how very little attention it has received. With everyone and their moms watching "Kony 2012" on YouTube for the last three months, the film based on Sam Childers is still under the radar for most people. Sam Childers is a Christian missionary in African Sudan. Machine Gun Preacher is a film based on the ongoing life, adventures and mission of Childers, who has been conducting raids against Kony's "Lord's Resistance Army" in order to rescue children from slavery for over a decade. In other words, he's sort of a modern day personification of George Müller, David Livingston, Harriet Tubman and Theodore Dwight Weld combined with a machine gun.
As you'd expect, he has his critics and, therefore, so does this film.
But, to be a critic, you actually do have to actually see the film first - not an easy task to perform.
Now, in my Central Valley town of Modesto, California, there is most often no hope whatsoever of limited release films ever opening here. And, while I've kept my eyes open for theater showtimes in San Francisco, if Machine Gun Preacher ever did open there for a couple days, it must have done so with little to no fanfare. (San Francisco must be the wrong demographic.) So, I was forced to wait for the DVD. On Tuesday, after work, I drove to Walmart to pick up a copy. In the midst of two huge displays, one for the actorless/dialogue-writerless Act of Valor and another for the action blockbuster Safe House DVDs (I even saw one fellow excitedly buying five copies of Act of Valor), there was not a single copy of Machine Gun Preacher to be had. I asked the clerk. After taking an hour to look it up on the computer, he said, "Nope. We don't carry it."
I drove to Target next. It was a poor decision with identical results. I tried Blockbuster after that. No copies of the film, even to rent, at Blockbuster either. The clerk kept telling me that he thought it was a film directed by Robert Rodriguez. Desperate, I tried the local Barnes & Noble. The pretty girl in charge of the Customer Information Desk thought I was making a joke with the film title. When I finally made it to BestBuy, there wasn't a single copy to be found. I was annoyed at the futility of it all but still asked a clerk. He miraculously produced that BestBuy location's sole and only copy (off of a display case sitting on a roller in a remote corner of the store). As far as I can tell, I now own the only DVD copy of this film that exists in my entire city (of, apparently, Philistines). As I purchased the DVD, the BestBuy clerk told me that he heard that it was a really good film like Grindhouse.
The majority of the reviews for Machine Gun Preacher are discouraging, and, I believe, wrong. There a few basic things about this film that most of the reviewers just don't or can't or won't understand.
One of the most common complaints is that the film is too ... well, too preachy. “The early scenes of this sanctimonious, fact-based drama is rough-hewn fun ... But then it gets preachy as Sam finds God ..." complains Joe Neumaier of The New York Daily News dismissively. (Neumaier has been busy giving better film ratings to The Three Stooges and The Hunger Games.) Josh Winning opines in Little White Lies that “As the little bodies begin to pile up, Preacher tumbles into unforgivably preachy territory – replete with scenes of Butler screaming at his church congregation ...” God forbid that a film about a real-life preacher should have any actual preaching in it. No, we wouldn't want that.
I suppose it would be asking too much for the negative critics to not criticize the film for committing complete opposite offenses. Some of the critics say the film's main problem is that it's too confusing, others repeat that its main fault is oversimplification. Roger Moore writes in the Orlando Sentinel, that “the movie has a hero it cannot make its mind up about. And that confusion muddles the movie" while S. Jhoanna Robledo writes for Common Sense Media calls it a “gruesome redemption tale made tedious by oversimplification” and that this is a “movie where there are no shades of gray.” Emanuel Levy accuses the film for being “both morally confused and dramatically incohesive" while Noelle Adams bewails that it's just too “simplistic” and “predictable.”
And yet, the thing I find the strangest about most of the negative reviews I read for Machine Gun Preacher was a underlying disapproval of the real-life actions of Sam Childers. Take Henry Fitzherbert of The Daily Express for example. He condemns the film to a "I disliked it" rating of 2 out of 5 stars (Mr. Fitzherbert gave 5 stars to The Dictator and 4 stars to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The reason:
“One minute he’s preaching to his flock in Pennsylvania, the next popping up in the African Bush firing rocket propelled grenades at Joseph Kony’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. There’s a certain absurdity, as well as outlandishness, to Childers’ tale that Marc Forster’s film, starring Gerard Butler, never quite shakes off ... The harrowing subject matter, however, deserved and demanded more sophisticated treatment than it gets in this simplistic picture. It never probes the contradiction, for example, in Childers’s violent ways – that in order to save he is prepared to kill.”
In other words, according to Mr. Fitzherbert, Childers' Christianity contradicts his violent tactics used to save children from Kony's army. The film is absurd and contradictory because Sam Childers is absurd and contradictory. This is a sentiment about the film's story that is shared by many.
“People were murdered by the thousands, many more displaced, and the government refused to let humanitarian agencies in with food and medicine. As bad as all that was, it wasn’t the worst thing the Southern Sudanese people had to deal with. In my opinion the worst menace to the people there is a wild dog named Joseph Kony, who heads a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. These are the maniacs who have devastated Southern Sudan and neighboring Uganda, which is where the LRA originally started and has its base of operations. The fighting goes on along both sides of the border ... Kony and his men raid villages looking for children to capture. They shock and traumatize the kids as soon as possible to frighten them into doing anything they’re told. They sometimes kill their parents in front of them, hacking them to death with machetes or burning them alive. They slice babies out of their mothers bellies and set them on fire. They make the mother watch before raping and killing her. They cut off noses, breasts, ears, lips, or hands, sometimes forcing children to eat the cut-off pieces. They hand an eleven-year-old boy a machete and order him to disembowel his mother. He does it.”
- Sam Childers, Another Man's War, pages 55-57
Michael O’Sullivan (who just gave 3 out of 4 stars to Battleship) of The Washington Post, complains that “The problematic morality of Sam's actions is echoed by the film, which sees things in black and white.” In Mr. O’Sullivan’s opinion, the film “would be a better film if it acknowledged the contradiction inherent in its title” and thus, he condemns Machine Gun Preacher with only a 1 star rating. Josh Bell, of the Las Vegas Weekly, smugly explains how the film is too kind to the real Childers:
“In addition to caring for children rescued from the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Childers took on the fight himself, leading a makeshift militia of Sudanese soldiers on raids against the LRA with the goal of liberating conscripted child soldiers at any cost. The real Childers preaches vengeance and violence, and while the movie sanitizes his story a bit for mainstream consumption, it holds onto the core might-makes-right message. That’s a little troubling, to say the least ... The whole thing comes off as one long advertisement for Childers’ ministry, which may be doing some good things but is far less righteous than this movie makes it out to be.”
Childers MAY be doing SOME good things? How generous of Mr. Bell to say so. I'm not sure where you have to come from in order to genuinely question the good of, oh say, rescuing and feeding hundreds of children from corrupt genocidal warlords? ... oh, I guess perhaps from Las Vegas. Anyhow, we'll go back to Bell's little quip about the film's “core might-makes-right message” at the very end of this review.
Let's take a look at just two more:
Gary Dowell, for Dark Horizons (and who, in 2011, recommended Paranormal Activity 3 and Scream 4):
“What follows is a questionable form of humanitarianism, as Childers divides his time between preaching and scrounging for donations at home, and rescuing children from horrifically dire situations and gunning down bad guys in Africa ... He's born again, true, but he hasn't changed, he's just found a new outlet for his anger and aggression. The movie shies away from exploring this disconnect in depth, no doubt out of fear of losing audience sympathy for the subject. Unfortunately, the result is a message is too mixed to be effective.”
And Peter Vonder Haar, in the Houston Press, writes:
“Frankly, if Childers' story was simply that of a man who decided to take up arms against African warlords, eschewing the twisted Christian rationalizing on display at every turn, it'd be fine. Hell, a little tweaking and you'd have a remake of Red Scorpion. The problem I (and apparently quite a few other people) have with the guy is exactly the hook that supposedly makes this such a compelling story: his alleged love of the Lord.”
And there you have it. The problem critics have with the film is that it is a story that doesn't explore the contradiction between (a) Childers' Christianity and (b) Childers' use of violence.
Now ... I do not mean to make light of questioning the use of violence or lethal force. War and violence must always be questioned. In fact, I would even argue that it is Christianity that has provided the grounds upon which to most deeply question war and violence in the first place. “Just War” theory, the idea of self-defense and defense of others, has been thoroughly discussed and analyzed by philosophers and theologians since ancient times. No one who was seriously studied Christian theology would treat war and the killing of other human beings as a problem that is easily to be dealt with. But, neither would anyone who has seriously read the oldest of Christian theologians, like St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, would propose the cliche that Christianity teaches Pacifism. The idea of a “Just War” and the idea of “self-defense or defense of others” originates with Christian theologians.
Those who oppose Christianity cannot have it both ways. They cannot blame Christianity for militant atrocities like the Crusades and then disparage Christianity for it’s supposed Pacifism. Yes, it is true that the Jesus who told his disciples to “turn the other cheek” was the same Jesus who told his disciples that, if they didn’t have any swords, to sell some of their clothing and buy some. To suggest, as many of the reviewers of Machine Gun Preacher are suggesting, that Christianity is opposed to violence of any sort is a pathetic exhibition of ignorance. The Christian theology that preaches self-sacrifice, love, patience, compassion and mercy is the same theology that preaches a love for justice, and a protection and provision for the lost, the hopeless, the oppressed and the innocent. Murder is a sin, but so is the passive act of allowing murder when you have the ability to stop it.
On the question of whether violently fighting for a good cause is contrary to Christian teaching, I’m always reminded of the G.K. Chesterton novel, The Ball and the Cross. In his novel, Chesterton tells the story of a Christian and an Atheist who, after a few insults, decide to fight a duel. All the rest of modern society comes down on them in order to prevent them from fighting. They are interrupted by all types of personifications of various philosophies and religions who each tell them that there is nothing worth fighting for. At one point, they run across a Pacifist and the following excerpt is from when he interrupts them:
... “But you know this is a serious matter,” he said, eyeing Turnbull and MacIan ... “Now, let us put the matter very plainly, and without any romantic nonsense about honour or anything of that sort. Is not bloodshed a great sin?”
“No,” said MacIan, speaking for the first time.
“Well, really, really!” said the peacemaker.
“Murder is a sin,” said the immovable Highlander. “There is no sin of bloodshed."
“Well, we won’t quarrel about a word,” said the other, pleasantly.
“Why on earth not?” said MacIan, with a sudden asperity. “Why shouldn’t we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? ... Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about. I say that murder is a sin, and bloodshed is not, and that there is as much difference between those words as there is between the word ‘yes’ and the word ‘no’; or rather more difference, for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, at least, belong to the same category. Murder is a spiritual incident. Bloodshed is a physical incident. A surgeon commits bloodshed” ...
“Well, well,” he said, “let us get back to the point. Now Tolstoy has shown that force is no remedy; so you see the position in which I am placed. I am doing my best to stop what I’m sure you won’t mind my calling this really useless violence, this really quite wrong violence of yours ... Tolstoy has shown that violence merely breeds violence in the person towards whom it is used, whereas Love, on the other hand, breeds Love. So you see how I am placed. I am reduced to use Love in order to stop you. I am obliged to use Love.”
He gave to the word an indescribable sound of something hard and heavy, as if he were saying “boots”. Turnbull suddenly gripped his sword and said, shortly, “I see how you are placed quite well, sir. You will not call the police. Mr. MacIan, shall we engage?” MacIan plucked his sword out of the grass.
“I must and will stop this shocking crime,” cried the Tolstoian, crimson in the face. “It is against all modern ideas. It is against the principle of love. How you, sir, who pretend to be a Christian…”
MacIan turned upon him with a white face and bitter lip. “Sir,” he said, “talk about the principle of love as much as you like ... Talk about love, then, till the world is sick of the word. But don’t you talk about Christianity. Don’t you dare to say one word, white or black, about it. Christianity is, as far as you are concerned, a horrible mystery. Keep clear of it, keep silent upon it, as you would upon an abomination. It is a thing that has made men slay and torture each other; and you will never know why. It is a thing that has made men do evil that good might come; and you will never understand the evil, let alone the good. Christianity is a thing that could only make you vomit, till you are other than you are. I would not justify it to you even if I could. Hate it, in God’s name, as Turnbull does, who is a man. It is a monstrous thing, for which men die. And if you will stand here and talk about love for another ten minutes it is very probable that you will see a man die for it” ...
- G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross
Christianity is not flatly opposed to the fighting of any war. And, just so we are clear, the country of Sudan is in a state of war and it is Joseph Kony who has placed them there.
We have a whole number of cliches and stereotypes about Christianity and violence and war. The film, Machine Gun Preacher, should not be criticized because it smashes these stereotypes. And it contradicts the cliche of how fighting in a war is unChristian because the real life Sam Childers contradicts this cliche. What is, perhaps, most surprising of all is that this is not a film made by any “Christian” film production company. Instead, it was produced by a young, promising, independent and little film company called Mpower Pictures (which has also produced Bella in 2006 and The Stoning of Soraya M. in 2010). The film’s director, Marc Forster, has been quietly building a repertoire of unique and interesting films, including Monster’s Ball (2001), Finding Neverland (2004), Stranger Than Fiction (2006), The Kite Runner (2007) and Quantum of Solace (2008). We have every reason to look forward to his film next year, World War Z.
Unlike most of the other films being released on DVD this month, Machine Gun Preacher also has a significant cast of excellent actors. Scottish Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie, 300, RocknRolla) plays Sam Childers, and arguably does more with this role than he has done in any other film to date. He plays Childers with a menace. Passionate, obsessive, and single-minded, Butler makes Childers intimidating, whether he’s behind the pulpit or simply sitting at the bar having a drink. He brings an intensity to the role - an intensity of a man who is naturally inclined to hurt others around him but who is channeling his energy instead into a worthwhile cause. Critics have been making fun of what they call Butler’s hyper-masculinity. But there are still a few of us who don’t see anything at all wrong with strongly masculine men. Just like anyone else, he is a man who struggles with self-control and with the darker side of his own nature. The best moments of grace in this film involve whenever he restrains himself and actively makes the choice to do something that he knows is both right and against his natural proclivities.
This is the character of Sam Childers in the film - a man with powerful self-destructive tendencies who has forced himself into channeling his passion and intensity into doing good. He’s a character Gerard Butler plays perfectly.
The supporting cast includes Michelle Monaghan (Gone Baby Gone, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) as Sam’s wife, Lynn Childers. She is a selfless person who encourages Sam when he is discouraged and reprimands him when he does something reprehensible. Throughout the film, her character quite impressively offers Childers an unconditional love even before his conversion/reformation. Monaghan brings a certain innocent but world-weary/wordly-wise quality to the role, a quality she’s been perfecting ever since playing Angie Gennaro.
Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, Boardwalk Empire), one of the rising stars over the last couple years for anyone who gauges pure acting ability, plays Childers’ ex-con friend, Donnie. Shannon, who is no stranger to playing scenery chewing characters who seem to be suppressing inner rage (or mental instability), is just the right sort of person who you would expect could actually be friends with a personality like Childers. While it’s a shame he doesn’t get more screen time, Donnie represents the friends from Childers’ old life that he has built his church with the purpose of reaching. Rough-around-the-edges, criminal pasts, drug addictive behavior - these are the people that Childers' heart goes out to. They can use his help and he only has so much time in the day.
Souléymane Sy Savané (from the astonishingly good Goodbye Solo) is Deng, the freedom-fighter commander who decides that Childers’ determination is exactly the sort of thing the Sudanese Civil War needs. Savané is the strong, silent type in this film, but he gives a reason, for what often just appears to be aloofness to Childers, when he explains that his entire family has been murdered by the genocidal warfare that has engulfed his country.
Inga Wilson (Flipped) also has a few good scenes as Ms. Shields, a doctor/medical relief worker dedicated to serving the Sudanese people. Her character is important and we’ll go back to her in a moment. I’m not willing to just trash her character’s story-arc like many of the other critics of the film seem willing to do.
“The fact is, Sam himself wouldn’t question at all the morality of what he does, because he feels so strongly about what he does, and so backed by God. God talks to him and tells him to do these things. Then when you stand back after the performance and watch the movie, you maybe question, really, how moral is what he does. And I always think it is questionable how he lives his life, how he operates, and how you would class that. Is it mercenary? Is it vigilantism? And yet I find that the argument is very quickly shut down when—as Sam says in the movie, ‘If somebody took your kid, your brother, your sister, and you knew I could get them back, would you care how I did it?’ You look at this orphanage, where almost a thousand kids have been saved and taken away from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Even today, they’re feeding—and have done for the last 20-odd years—1,500 kids a day. You look at those facts and you think, ‘Well, anybody who would be arguing the other way is saying, ‘No, just on a point of morality, I would like to see a thousand kids dead, and 1,500 not being fed every day, and sheltered every day.’’ So that quickly puts an end to it for me.”
- Gerard Butler, AV Club Interview
One of the most thoughtful film reviewers that I have had the pleasure to read, Jeffrey Overstreet, also found the tensions between Christianity and Childers' tactics unsatisfying. He writes for a little website called filmwell:
“...I held on, anticipating an exploration of obvious questions: Should followers of Christ carry heavy artillery? Should missionaries wage war against barbarians while their families suffer from their absence at home? ...We’re given surprisingly little food for thought when it comes to the question of the complicated tensions between Christian faith and violence. At one point, we see an aid worker who questions Childers’ ethics, but then a villain strikes her, silencing both her attempt at diplomacy and the film’s investigation of ethical questions. For all of their bluster, these filmmakers just don’t have the guts to confront such challenges...”
The aid worker Overstreet mentions is Inga Stevens' Ms. Wallace character. She is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting characters in the film, and you quickly believe that everything that she says is worth listening to because of what she does. When she first meets Childers and discovers that he’s is where he is not supposed to be, she tells him that he’s not in a tourist destination. Instead, she says, he is right in the middle of a war zone. “If you stay here, you’re going to get killed.” But Childers does stay there. Or, more accurately, he keeps going back there to set up a lone outpost that even the government tells him is too dangerous.
Ms. Wallace’s comments echo Deng’s comments later. “What are you looking for in this place?” Deng asks him. When Childers tells him that there isn’t anything he’s looking for, Deng smiles and then describes 99% of every Christian “missions” trip consists of. “So ... you get your picture taken? Go back to your life and all this will be stories you will tell to your friends.” These words cut into Childers. That is not the sort of Christian or even the sort of person that he wants to be.
So he builds his orphanage. When the LRA attacks him and burns it down, he builds it again (under the encouragement of his wife), this time with barbed wire perimeters, security cameras, and more armed guards. Childers starts taking in children and protecting and feeding them. He starts working with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. I don’t think the film mentions it, but the SPLA headquarters officially put Childers in charge a small contingent of troops. As a result, whenever they hear that Kony’s Army, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), are raiding a nearby village or transporting kidnaped children, they go out and find them, kill them, and take the children away from them.
“Sam returns to his real life in Pennsylvania, where he has established his own small congregation, urging his followers to support his crusade. His trips to Africa grow longer, his family more distant. Sam's temper flares when one wealthy parishioner tithes less for Africa than Sam expects. Every standard American luxury that Sam worked for now appears self-indulgent and decadent. He can't understand why the whole world doesn't share his fervor. Sam's sermons become bursts of street poetry that garble the standard Sunday pieties. ‘God doesn't want sheep -- he wants wolves’ ... The last scene, an aerial shot that makes Sam a speck on a vast African plain, suggests that Sam is a mad prophet wandering the desert alone. It's a fitting climax for a sharply intelligent, disquieting and ultimately inconclusive commentary on God's will and man's frailties.”
- Colin Covert, The Star Tribune, October 3, 2011
This is still what the real-life Childers is doing today. As you watch this film, you are watching a story about a man who there are pretty good odds will be eventually killed in Sudan while he is doing this. Kony has put out a bounty out for Childers' life. But Childers keeps going back, anyway, over and over again. And he keeps rescuing more kids, feeding more people and providing medical care to people who will otherwise never receive it. It just so happens that Childers says that his Christianity is the reason that he does this.
But, let’s go back to the Ms. Reynolds character. She finds Childers again later. She is a woman who has devoted her life to repairing the damage and brutality that violence does to people. She, like Childers, repeatedly puts herself in danger. She has sacrificed whatever life her affluent and educated background could have given her in order to live in the middle of hell on earth. She lives to heal people. In other words, she is rather something of a saint. And, those of us who are not Pacifists, she is exactly the sort of person worth fighting, killing or dying for. As it turns out, she’s also a Pacifist herself. (The film needed at least one.)
Ms. Reynolds: They talk about you in the camps ... the children. They say there is a white preacher who hunts the LRA ... This place does not need more guns, Mr. Childers.
Childers: I’m just trying to help these people, same as you.
Ms. Reynolds: Don’t delude yourself. You’re a mercenary, not a humanitarian.
Childers: I got 200 kids who are going to sleep safe tonight. Right or wrong, that’s all the reason I need.
Ms. Reynolds: That’s how it always starts, with people thinking that they’re killing for the right reasons ... They say you’re doing good, that you have special powers, that you’re protected by angels and can’t be killed by bullets. They said the same thing about Kony in the beginning too.
A more sensitive soul would have taken that last quip as an insult, but it could very likely be true and Childers has other things on this mind. Now, Mr. Overstreet and other film critics dislike what the film does with Ms. Reynolds at the end.
Towards the end of the film, the LRA attacks Ms. Reynolds' convoy and is about to randomly and senselessly execute her when Childers saves her by mercilessly killing every single one of the LRA soldiers. You almost expect her, laying in her own blood, to reprimand Childers for even doing this. And if if she would have, we all would have loved her for it. But I fail to see what is unrealistic about this scene. Humanitarian aid workers are regularly murdered in dangerous parts of the third world. They are not soldiers and they are often unprotected. But they go and help people anyway. Does this scene summarily deal with her rebukes to Childers?
In a way, yes, it is meant to. It is the argument against Pacifism contained in a single scene. By killing the soldiers who were about to murder her, Childers doesn't just save her life, he saves the lives of every person in the future that her aid and medical care will save. She told him that the land did not need more guns. The counter to her argument is that the land does need more guns, just in the hands of good rather than evil men. Yes, both Kony and Childers kill. But one is killing thousands for his own personal power and the other is killing tens in order to protect and save the lives of at least hundreds.
It's true that, in this scene, Childers is angry and grieving. Forty children were just murdered that he had tried to save earlier. And, in his view, they were murdered because of his own small and limited resources. He is constantly trying to raise more financial support and resources whenever he goes back home to the United States. But his efforts are mostly unsuccessful.
If there is another thing that this film does well, it is contrasting the affluence and consumerism of America with the utter poverty and loss of the people in Sudan. Traveling back and forth between these two worlds is the equivalent, for Childers, of traveling between two different planets. The death, pain and suffering that he says all the time in Sudan seems distant and unreal whenever he travels back to the United States. It's frustrating. The scene where he snaps when his daughter asks him for money for a limousine to ride in for her formal is both understandable and realistic. Trying to reconcile the differences between these two different worlds becomes one of the most difficult struggles for Childers for the second half of the film. It is no coincidence that the film cuts between both him and his wife during a phone call. He is sitting in a wasteland where everything he just built has been destroyed. She is in an American supermarket standing in the corner of a wall full of hundreds of different kinds of eggs and hundreds of different kinds of butter. The contrast seems unreal.
Mr. Overstreet (God bless him) writes:
“...This is not a picture of Christ doing a redemptive work in a man’s head and heart. Rather, it’s a portrait of a man whose developing sense of compassion is repeatedly fractured by impatience and aggression. I see very little comprehension in the man—or rather, in his big-screen avatar—that he has really meditated on the message and the nature of the Jesus he professes. When he’s shouting his sermons at his hometown church, and the congregants fail to applaud him for his violent outrage, are we supposed to judge them as hard-hearted or fearful? I hope not. Is this film a call for missionaries who carry a Bible in one hand and an AK-47 in the other? God forbid...”
But the scenes where Butler as Childers is shouting from behind his pulpit are the scenes showing us the utter frustration Childers is experiencing in what he believes to be failures in his mission in Sudan. He and his church are from the very wealthiest nation in the entire world, and he can barely scrape together enough funds to buy a single truck. He is trying to do things in Sudan where a single working truck makes the difference between life and death for many of the oppressed and innocent. Yes, Childers is a very aggressive fellow. Yes, he is violent and intimidating and ungenteel. But the things he understands to be true are not complicated. He discovered that, instead of living for himself, he could channel all his passion and aggression into risking his life and his all for the sake of others. He has discovered that he has the ability to save lives. And then he has discovered that there are a large number of other people who are not willing to help him.
It is exactly the sort of thing you would expect would drive a man crazy.
I think that I will strongly suggest that anyone who would actually bother to read the book Childers wrote, Another Man's War, would appreciate this film far more than without reading it. As you read it, you begin to understand where Childers (and what we view as questionable or wrong about him) is coming from.
For example, he writes on pages 1-2:
“Gunfire crackles here and there outside the perimeter fence day and night. Whenever I travel the area, I expect to get ambushed. I’ve had my windshield and my side window shot out. I’ve had vehicles, including a food truck loaded with groceries for the orphanage, blown up by RPGs. The LRA will shoot at anything, but they’re not used to anybody shooting back ... When I first started driving around in Southern Sudan, my soldiers and I got ambushed all the time. To any normal person that would be a bad thing, but I thought it was great. I went around hoping the LRA would ambush us because every time they did, it gave me another chance to take one of them out - leaving one less LRA soldier to hurt somebody else.”
This not a common mentality in modern culture, let alone the sort of thinking you'd expect to find from a modern Christian. But it is the sort of thinking of a hard and rough man who decided to start fighting for something worth fighting for. The film never makes it look easy. Nor does the film make Childers look like he enjoys fighting. At the end of one particular fight, looking down on the young man that he killed, his only response is grief and sorrow. The mental toll that he is paying is real.
On page 103, he writes:
“The adrenaline rush starts before we ever get on the road. Will we find children alive today? Dead? Wounded? How many? Where are their families? Will we flush out any LRA? Kill anybody? Will any of us be killed? Will I die today and miss my daughter’s wedding? Lots of questions and no answers.”
Film critics have complained that Machine Gun Preacher doesn't show Childers to be the tortured soul that they believe he should be. I think they're wrong. On the contrary, there are a couple different crises Childers has to work through during the film. He is not a man free from self-doubt.
On pages 10-11, he writes -
“Probably a year later I was preaching at a church in Maryland about my African ministry. After the service someone in the congregation came up to me and said, ‘I want to ask you something. Do you really think you can make a difference?’ His question stunned me into silence. ‘I want to know,’ he continued, ‘because I think it’s stupid. It’s crazy for you to be wasting your time over there in Africa. One person. How can you make a difference?’ I couldn’t think of what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
But his question got me to thinking. After I got home I got into an argument with God. ‘You know what, God, this is stupid! Here I am working thousands of miles away from my family. My daughter’s growing up without me. I have a beautiful wife I’m never with. My family doesn’t get the attention and support they deserve and have a right to expect. This is stupid, Lord, because I’m not going to make a difference.’”
Or, on pages 66-67 -
“In some ways the worst thing of all was the strain it put on our daughter, Paige ... All she knew was that her father was spending his time and the family’s money on children thousands of miles away instead of on her ... She was buying her clothes at secondhand thrift shops while her friends were snaping up the latest fashions at the mall ... Maybe the worst of the worst was the day she asked me, ‘Dad, why do you love the African children more than me’ I’m pretty tough, but that punch in the gut was more than I could take.”
From their negative reviews, the impression that I get is that, when Childers' daughter asks him this in the film, the critics laughed. What a cliche! What a dumb dramatic scene to throw in just to try and get the audience to sympathize with him. Of course ... most of them probably didn't read, in the book, that in the midst of his single-mindedness, Childers was really asked this question by his daughter. His faith and his Christianity is made fun of, scoffed at, criticized and questioned constantly. If you read his book, I don't believe that you could question whether he really has a heart for serving other people. Contrary to the majority of us, Childers has rejected the consumerist American lifestyle for something else.
On pages 51-52 -
“When I got home from that trip, I couldn’t think about anything else but the children over there and how hard their lives were. For years I’d put everything I had into making my construction business bigger and more profitable. I would proud of what I’d done, starting with nothing and now grossing a million dollars a year. I was constantly thinking about how to attract more business, make more money, squeeze more out of every minute. Africa changed all that. I couldn’t focus on my business. Didn’t even want to. I walked through the day in a trance, disconnected from everything around me, my head and heart brimming with thoughts of Yei - the people there, the destruction and death all around them. Innocence destroyed, hope shattered, the future dark and ominous.
I’d spent years collecting all the material things I thought I needed for living the good life. They’d always meant so much to me, and now they seemed selfish, extravagant, absolutely useless. I had an unbelievable gun collection in my house. Until Africa, looking at all those fine guns gave me joy. One day I walked by the gun cases, stopped in front of one of them, and started to cry. Why? I thought. Why do I have all this? There were children homeless and starving on the other side of the world, and I had guns that cost two thousand dollars apiece sitting in dustproof cases taking up space.”
Finally, Childers does address the question of the use of violence. (The film even gives him a clip during the end credits in order to do this as well.)
On page 131, Childers writes:
“God gave me the wisdom to recognize the need to use a gun to do his work in Africa, the knowledge of how to use one, and the faith to take one into dangerous situations. He allowed me to use it to protect myself and continue my work there. I do not believe that Jesus Christ ever condoned violence or told us to go out and murder, but he does want us to protect our families. To me that family includes the children of Africa. Jesus said that any man who does not take care of his family is worse than an infidel.
To someone who thinks a preacher shouldn’t be armed to go into the African bush and rescue a child, let me ask you this: What if it was your child? ... Say someone like me came along and said, ‘Ma’am, I can go get your child. I will bring your child home to you tomorrow.’ Would you say, ‘No, don’t do that. I don’t condone violence’? ... My guess is that you’d say, ‘Bring him home.’ So as I kept preparing for the ministry, I saw no reason to give up guns and fighting. The more I learned, the more I saw the need for them.”
I've also heard the criticism that the film does not resolve the internal battles and crises of faith that Butler's Childers struggles with towards the end - at least, it doesn't explicitly. But I disagree. The thing you have to understand about Childers is that his point of view is consistent if you pay attention to the things that he does say. In one of the sermons in the film, Childers preaches to his congregation that "In your actions, you give service to the Lord. He’s not interested in your good intentions or your good thoughts!" At the end of the film, there are two or three very specific actions that Childers does, in spite of how he has been feeling. These are actions that speak louder than words. And he's still not finished doing them.
In spite of the film being ignored by many. In spite of the film being criticized by many. I would recommend this Machine Gun Preacher as a worthwhile tribute to a man who deserves our prayers and financial support. He is still currently doing something that none of the rest of us are willing to do. He has been making sacrifices over the last decade that most of us would never be willing to make. And he is struggling with problems that only arise because of the dangers he is willing to confront. Joseph Kony and his army may very well kill Sam Childers one day. If this film can do anything to raise any support to assist Childers with what he is doing, to give him resources to protect him and his work, then it will accomplish far better things than anything else Hollywood has managed to shove up to the top of the DVD best-selling lists.
Like the knights in King Arthur's order of chivalry, according to T.H. White's story, who start fighting with Might for Right against those who believe that Might makes Right, Childers is a modern day fellow with the ability to do a little "whacking" of his own. He has made the conscious choice to channel this ability of his into protecting the lost, the innocent, the weak and the oppressed. I consider his work to be a noble thing, and thankfully, so did the makers of this little film.