We Americans tend to be products of our time and culture. My grandma loved her radio "stories" like "One Man's Family" - Carlton Morse's popular radio production that ran from 1932 to 1959. (Two of the original cast members, J. Anthony Smythe and Page Gilman, stayed with the show for its entire 27-year run.) Grandma faithfully listened to the show - in daily 15-minute segments, Monday through Friday - right through Chapter 30 of Book 146.
Being a product of the 1940s and ‘50s, I loved movies. At age 12 I sneaked out to see the 1955 Cinemascope blockbuster, "Land of the Pharaohs", starring the sensational young Joan Collins (has any actress ever aged better?) as the temptress who marries the Pharaoh, has him murdered, then finds herself buried alive with him in his pyramid. (My mother wouldn't have approved, as Miss Collins wasn't wearing much - although her costume was modest by today's standards.) In my teen years I saw great films like "Rear Window", "Ben Hur" and many others - although some I viewed only sporadically while smooching in the balcony with my girlfriend du jour.
Naturally, I married a woman who loved films. We both still do, but we don't go to the movies very often these days (even though we qualify for "financing" offered at the box-office). My readers know, without my saying so, that the Cinema has fallen on hard times - thematically, not financially. The grand old values of the silver screen - faith, heroism, self-sacrifice, justice, redemption and reclamation - have been supplanted by sordid, postmodern tales of wickedness, lust, greed, betrayal, and hopelessness. Some films, like the 1999 David Russell film "Three Kings", are so violent and degenerate that I have actually left before the show ended. Others, like Burton and Johnson's "Corpse Bride" (2005), are so grotesque and devoid of any affirming value, even in the previews, that we wouldn't consider seeing them. (Does this garbage really pay?)
Even comedies have had a rough go in recent years. The new "Pink Panther" film, starring Steve Martin as Inspector Clousseau, required a complete makeover and cleanup to render it presentable to families with children. The result was an uneven film that couldn't decide whether it was a slapstick comedy or a serious-themed film with comedic aspects. Whatever it was, it fell far short of the classic Peter Sellers genre. (Maybe only Blake Edwards knew how to make those films.)
But I digress. My actual purpose here is to make favorable mention of three films that I believe are destined to become new classics. They are "Horatio Hornblower", "Facing the Giants" and "Amazing Grace". I highly recommend all three to my readers - especially if they have wondered if it's worth going to the movies any more. They are now available on DVD from vendors.
The A&E production of "Horatio Hornblower" - directed by Andrew Grieve, and starring Ioan Gruffudd (in the title role) and Robert Lindsay II (as Captain Sir Edward Pellew) - is a splendid rendition of C. S. Forester's classic tales. Filmed on board ship - with the cast at sea as long as six weeks at a time - the series is gripping, inspiring and infused with the virtues of honor, bravery, loyalty, duty, self-sacrifice, justice and redemption. These ultimately overcome the greed, jealousy, hatred, lust, stupidity, cowardice, betrayal and villainy abundant in the wartime British Navy, circa 1805.
Every boy (and every dad) in America will benefit from these marvelous films. (Ladies won't mind them, either. Every woman in my family is in love with Gruffudd, who is stunning in the title role.) The films are not all blood and guts. I admit that a tear came to my eye when Hornblower's crew - having unexpectedly escaped from a Spanish prison during a wild storm - agree to return to the prison with Hornblower because he had given his parole to the prison's commandant. "If Mr. Hornblower gave his word, that's good enough for us," said one of the sailors. What man would not give his right arm for such loyalty and trust from his subordinates?
"Hornblower" consists of eight 100-minute episodes made for television: The Duel; The Fire Ship; The Duchess and the Devil; The Wrong War; The Mutiny; Retribution; Loyalty; Duty. They are not for young children or for the weak of stomach - containing, as they do, realistic battle scenes and other vignettes replete with violence, terror, blood and death. Nevertheless, the stories leave the viewer cheered, uplifted and optimistic. Don't miss them (especially if the choice is between Hornblower and Corpse Bride). They are truly excellent.
"Facing the Giants" is a cinematic dark horse that took the entertainment world by surprise in late 2006. The film was written and produced by Alex Kendrick and his brother Stephen. Technical professionals were hired to do the filming, but cast members are not professional actors. Most are ordinary people from the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, and from the surrounding area. Many of the male lead characters are pastors and youth workers. Their depictions of people in a Georgia community have a verisimilitude that can come only from real experience.
"Giants" is an inspiring film of faith in action. The context is a high school football team at a Christian school, but this is not a Hollywood "Knute Rockne" kind of story. It is an unabashedly Christian film about real people facing real problems within a culture that loves its teams and its sports, but sometimes forgets that the Big Picture actually consists of a lot of "small pictures" of people experiencing pain, doubt, insecurity and frustration. The football scenes are realistic and well done, since real football teams were used in the filming, but off the field is where the real action (and the real faith) plays out.
No one should avoid this film because it looks like just another high school "football" story. It grabs you by the throat from the start and never lets go. Both my wife and I were wiping away tears as we left the theater. The film's spiritual and emotional punch is awesome. Take your children to see it, too. The bogus PG-13 rating (for "too much religious speech") clearly came from spiteful Hollywood denizens jealous of the film's success. Ratings people yawn at profanity, but they get the vapors when God's name is more than a four-letter word.
"Amazing Grace" is another new classic that has been released in recent weeks. It is a fine cinematic account of the life and career of William Wilberforce, the English politician and committed Christian who worked more than twenty years to engineer legislation that finally abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. That legislation was signed exactly two hundred years ago, on March 25, 1807. The complete ban on the slave trade went into effect in 1808.
The film - starring Ioan Gruffudd (see "Hornblower", above) as Wilberforce - is very well done, has a superb cast, and features splendid period costuming and visual effects. It poses some difficulties for American audiences, however. One of these is historical ignorance. Even Christians know little of Wilberforce and his work. When I mentioned the film to some men at church, they thought I meant Wilbur, the owner of Mr. Ed, the talking horse.
Another key figure in the film was William Pitt (the Younger) - Wilberforce's friend and a brilliant politician who became Prime Minister in 1783 at 24. He served in that office from 1783 to 1801, and from 1804 until his death in 1806. Americans who have been taught that meaningful "history" began around 1932 - or even as late as 1960 - have probably never heard of Pitt, whose father (Pitt the Elder) was also Prime Minister. John Newton - the ex-slave-trader who was converted to faith in Christ and became pastor of the church in which Wilberforce grew up - is also an important character in the story, although many non-churched viewers might not realize that Newton also penned the lines to "Amazing Grace", one of the greatest hymns in the English language.
Another problem Americans will have with "Amazing Grace" is that it is a somewhat slow-moving historical drama, not an action film in the Mel Gibson genre. At times it traverses events and epochs that can be hard to follow without some historical context. No one gets assassinated or has the brakes on his carriage tampered with. No one dies, although Wilberforce comes close to it a few times - but only from illness.
Wilberforce's political assault on the slave trade is not a tale of high adventure, nor even a tale of intrigue. It is a story of perseverance, commitment and dogged faith in action. For American Christians who believe that living inside "God's will" probably means working in a professional Christian ministry, the story of Wilberforce is distinctly counter-cultural. When he came to personal faith, Wilberforce thought he should enter the clergy. But his friends (e.g., William Pitt) and his counselor (John Newton) point out the immense good he could achieve with his political gifts. This, they advise, is God's will for his life.
In the end, they are proved right. In God's purpose, Wilberforce achieved the stupendous task of reorienting the entire mind of a nation and its culture away from the then-commonplace practice of buying and selling human beings. When he started out, few even thought slavery was a problem. When he had finished, the world was changed forever. The film's subtitle could be: "How One Man Made a Difference".
William Wilberforce's was a life well lived. Today, few schoolchildren - not even blacks - know his name or what he did. That is too bad. "Amazing Grace" might help remedy that ignorance.
If you still care about the movies, don't miss these films. All is not lost if products like this can still emerge.