Sunday, October 02, 2011

Machine Gun Preacher

By Doug Giles
October 2, 2011

Finally … a major motion picture with a solid Christian premise that’s not repellently corny and doesn’t star Christendom’s ubiquitous default leading man, Kirk Cameron (who sports the acting range of a Red Ryder BB gun).

Machine Gun Preacher tells the story of biker bad boy Sam Childers (played by 300’s Gerard Butler) who collides with Christ via the influence and prayers of his wife, Lynn (portrayed by Mission: Impossible III’s Michelle Monaghan). Upon conversion, Sam morphs into a crusading missionary who rescues kidnapped kids from a Sudanese warlord by the means of prayer, hard work and an AK-47.

As a Christian, I must confess that I’ve become a wee bit leery of Christian-themed movies for two reasons:
  1. If Hollywood has anything to do with it, the flick will usually depict Christians as buckle-shoed killjoys with three teeth who forbid dancing, have an IQ of 50, and secretly hump altar boys.
  2. Typically when Christians pony up to produce a movie it’s way underfunded and sports a cast of D-grade actors who stumble through predictable lines that drip with Precious Moments goo. It’s either that or some god-awful end of the world waste of celluloid that appeals only to atheists’ sense of humor or to the niche market Rapture crowd. Yep, generally speaking, when it comes to producing movies, like soup in a bad restaurant, the church’s mind is better left unstirred.

Machine Gun Preacher, however, avoids both Hollywood’s acrimonious assaults and the church’s Lysol-disinfected depictions of a gritty faith in a crappy world.

The R-rated film opens with a fusillade of sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, violence and more F-bombs dropped than Chris Rock could spew if he were to accidently smack his crotch with a sledgehammer. I’m kidding … there are not that many F-bombs in the film—but they are there, my beloved, so you have now been officially warned.

For me the crassness of MGP is both refreshing and necessary. It is refreshing in the sense that its depiction of a lost dude’s lostness is kept base and not gussied up for the sensibilities of the saints. The film makes zero attempts at keeping the religious comfy so that they won’t pop a blood vein in their easily offended foreheads. Delicious.

Secondly, the rawness is essential, at least to me, as a backdrop to spotlight the radical love and transforming power that faith in Christ delivers to Sam and why he’s passionate about following God in an extremely sacrificial way. I believe the maxim is, “Those who’re forgiven much, love much.”

Another hurdle those in the holy huddle are going to have problems getting their PC-addled backsides over will be Sam’s use of a machine gun to kill the Sudanese freaks who are kidnapping kids from the district in which he labors.

To some Christians this poses a conundrum for proper Christian conduct in complex situations. The debates this movie is going to spawn among the brethren will be delectable. However, for me and the parents of the kids who had been kidnapped, raped, beaten and/or forced to kill at the kidnappers’ behest, Sam’s use of lethal force is not problematic but rather commonsensical: The wage of sin is death, and Sam’s there to inflict it if someone messes with his kids. Indeed, in Sam’s situation he asks not the question, “What would Jesus do?” but rather, “Whom would Jesus whip?” Good for him. Next.

Aside from Sam’s tale, powerfully depicted by Gerard Butler, we have his wife Lynn’s life showcased in a potent way as well. Lynn, a former stripper who came to faith before Childers and prayed Sam to his senses, loved him when most women would have divorced him or berated him into compliance. She supports him during the insane startup of his work in the Sudan and rebukes him when he wants to quit after the rebels blow his orphanage to smithereens. Cowabunga, baby. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Good luck trying to find a girl like Lynn, boys.

In my obnoxiously humble opinion, this non-preachy film is a game changer that breaks from the predictable puerile depictions of Christians trying to follow God in a jacked-up world and instead highlights the up and down reality of a bad guy, rescued by a good God, who out of love for God and man wants to save innocent children in a vicious part of the planet. And it does so without pulling punches in regard to language, lifestyle, or the means necessary to rescue the kids (nor does it attempt to downplay Childers’ brutal internal struggles in accomplishing this beautiful work).

Bottom line: This controversial movie kicks butt (literally) and is well worth the ten bucks for the ticket price.

For information and locations where you can see Machine Gun Preacher check out

'Machine Gun Preacher' Sam Childers larger than film

Tough-guy child crusader Childers puts director Marc Forster, star Gerard Butler and screenwriter Jason Keller to the test, both on-screen and off.

September 18, 2011
By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times

Gerard Butler (center) portrays Sam Childers (right) in the new Marc Forster film,… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Reporting from Toronto — — A few years ago, director Marc Forster went to visit Sam Childers at his home in rural Central City, Pa., eager to learn about how a drug dealer became a preacher and then director of an orphanage in Africa. As a get-to-know-you activity, Childers took the Swiss filmmaker (who has a penchant for purple sneakers and pink-striped socks) into his backyard to shoot guns.

When screenwriter Jason Keller first met the outsized Childers, who has fought alongside the Sudan People's Liberation Army, Childers challenged his credentials so strongly the scribe rose from the table in a huff. Just as he was about to stalk off, Childers grabbed his arm and said: "I was just testing you.... Sit down. Let's keep talking," Keller recalls.

And when Gerard Butler made the pilgrimage to Central City, he sat down and Childers handed him a firearm. Childers neglected to tell the Scottish actor it was loaded until Butler started playing with it.

"Sam loves to test people. To challenge them and say, 'OK, what have you got?'" says Butler. "So handing me a loaded gun, to you and me, that might seem like a very dangerous and insane thing to do. To him, it's like making a cup of tea."

Forster, Keller and Butler passed the tests, and the result is the new film based on Childers' most unconventional life, "Machine Gun Preacher."

Childers' story is nothing if not cinematic. Act 1: He spends his youth running drugs, riding Harleys, packing heat and doing time. Act 2: In his 30s, he suddenly finds God, builds his own church and starts preaching himself. Act 3: On a mission trip to southern Sudan, he sees a child's body torn apart by a land mine. The searing experience inspires him to build an orphanage there — and to take up arms himself against the Lord's Resistance Army, a Uganda-based militia group notorious for mutilating, killing and conscripting children into its cult-like ranks.

The prime challenge of the film, a flawed hero's tale, is to capture Childers' duality — is he a man of God, a vigilante or both? — while straddling the line between real emotion and schmaltz. It's a tough balance to strike, especially considering how the subject matter makes grown men cry when they get to talking about it.

The movie, which opens in theaters Friday and stars Butler as Childers, premiered Sept. 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation. Childers was on hand to promote the film, decked out in full Harley-Davidson gear, from his brown sleeveless shirt to his black steel-toed boots.

He looked more out of place on the red carpet than you could imagine him feeling when he was first dropped onto the African plains and encountered the LRA, whose leader, Joseph Kony, has claimed he wants to install a Christian government in Uganda based on the Ten Commandments.

With a toothpick constantly wedged in his teeth and a Machine Gun Preacher tattoo filling up his right bicep, the 49-year-old Childers oozes hardened masculinity. But when he begins speaking about the children victimized by the LRA, all the tough-guy pretense falls away and his soulful brown eyes well up with tears.

"A lot of people don't think I've done right," Childers says, acknowledging his many critics, who fault him for using violence, period — even against people as reviled as LRA leaders (who have been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity).

"But you haven't seen the 3-year-olds that were raped, you haven't seen a young girl with her bottom hanging to the ground, you haven't seen the child with the lips cut off, noses or ears," he says. "Just for one moment imagine if [that child] was yours and I could go stop it."

"Machine Gun Preacher" became a passion project for its writer, director and lead actor. Butler, best known as the star of "300," agreed to work for one-thirtieth of what he typically earns. Keller paid for his own research trips to Africa. Forster, director of "Finding Neverland" and "Quantum of Solace," made do with a $30-million budget, not a lot for a film shot on two continents over 51 days.

The intensity of the story gradually broke down Butler as he immersed himself in Childers' world. According to Forster, the 41-year-old actor carried a photo album around with him on the set in South Africa, constantly referencing pictures of children horribly disfigured by the LRA fighters who have been raiding and pillaging villages in the dead of night for more than two decades.

"By the end of the movie I wasn't in a good space," says Butler, getting misty-eyed.

The end credits of "Machine Gun Preacher" include clips of Childers defending his unconventional methods. "We wanted to bring this story back to 'reality' and illustrate that what everybody just witnessed actually lives and breathes," screenwriter Keller says.

The film itself hews closely to Childers' reality, though timelines are compressed and some characters were merged for the sake of storytelling. Childers says more than 70% of the film is true — especially its depiction of his younger years, when drugs and violence were the central aspects of his life.

"I cry every time I watch it, especially the first part when I was not a good person," says Childers. "There are things in that movie that I tried to block out — I started doing drugs when I was 11. I was a heroin addict. I sold drugs to my high school teachers — and now it's out there. None of that was fabricated."

As for the film's action sequences set in Sudan, which depict him fighting alongside militiamen battling the LRA, Childers says they were "amped up." Keller agrees, even as he defends the scenes. (Southern Sudan voted for independence from northern Sudan in a referendum earlier this year, but the conflict involving the LRA continues in the region.)

"Sam didn't dispute it. He understood what we were doing," Keller says. "The truth is that the guy absolutely has been in firefights with the LRA. He's had numerous attempts on his life including a sniper that almost shot him about a mile outside the gates of his orphanage.

"I interviewed numerous SPLA soldiers when I was over there, and many children who had seen war. All of them told me stories of battle far more intense and horrific than what we depicted in the movie," he adds. "So from my perspective, the 'action' accurately shows the brutality and violence that has plagued Sudan for 20-plus years."

In any case, whether "Machine Gun Preacher" hews to a documentary-like standard is beside the point for both Childers and the filmmakers, because they want it to be more than a just a movie. They hope "Machine Gun Preacher" sparks audiences to take an interest in a conflict long ignored by Westerners.

"It doesn't really matter if people like or dislike the movie; they will be aware of the situation," Forster says. "For me this movie is about a man who had no means but took the power in his own hands to change people. He's not Gandhi. But whether you agree with it or not, he still put his life on the line to save kids. That alone for me was worth telling the story."

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