Friday, November 29, 2019

Veterans Month: Last Flag Flying

Last Flag Flying (2017)
On Veteran’s Day, we in the United States honor those who have served this country in the military. Here at Movie Churches, one day just wasn't enough, so we've taken the entire month of November to look at films that feature either veterans of wars or soldiers in war. We're finishing the month this week with 2017’s Last Flag Flying.

It's directed by five-time Oscar nominee Richard Linklater, who also wrote the screenplay (based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicscan). When the film came out, it was thought to be a sequel to the classic 1973 film, The Last Detail, but it isn’t exactly that. Ponsicscan’s novel is a sequel, but the film introduces a new cast of players instead of the characters portrayed by Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid.

This film is set in December of 2003, with a Vietnam vet, Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell), seeking out two of his war buddies to help him bury his son, who was killed in the Iraq War. He first finds his friend, Sal (Bryan Cranston), a tired-looking bartender, and together the two go find another friend, Richard Mueller.

They arrive at the Beacon Hill Baptist Church. The sign in front of the church reads, “Come to me all you who are burdened and heavy laden, and I will give you rest - Jesus.” 

Sal isn’t sure about going inside the church, commenting, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” 

But Doc says, “You’re going to love this, I promise.”

The Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) is preaching, A banner up front reads “Holy Unto the Lord,” and there is a Christmas tree (helping this post make a nice transition from November's Veteran Month to December's Christmas Month here at Movie Churches). “See, as Christians, brothers and sisters, we have choices. We can lay down our will and follow God’s will.” Doc and Sal sit in the back of the sanctuary, behind an enthusiastic African American congregation. Rev. Mueller sees them and is obviously disconcerted.

After church, Richard invites Doc and Sal to his house for Sunday dinner and introduces them to his wife, Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster). “You married up,” Sal says. 

Doc asks Richard to join them in the mission to bury his son. Richard is hesitant. He talks privately with his wife. “I try to be a decent man. I regret any role I played in all that foolishness back in Vietnam. I grew up. I found my way.” He is afraid of backsliding if he joins his old friends. 

His wife reprimands him for even thinking of not helping his old friends, “Are you demonstrating Christ-like behavior? You can’t refuse anyone, you’re a preacher.”

So the Reverend tells Doc, “Whatever it is that’s troubling you, it is best to talk about it.”

Doc tells him his wife died a couple of years before, and “Larry Jr. joined the Corps a year ago. Two days ago they told me he was killed. He’s coming home tonight. He will be buried in Arlington, and I was wondering if you guys could come with me.”

Richard responds with a somewhat canned response, “I can promise you, you will see your wife and son again in a better place.” 

Which brings Sal to say, “What better place? Can you find it on the internet? How come none of those floating in heaven got word back to me?”

Still, the three old friends get on the road. Sal’s mad driving leads Richard to swear from the back seat, which delights Sal, “I thought you were lost forever, I really did.”

When they arrive at Arlington, they learn that though Doc’s son is to be buried with honor, it is under false pretenses. The official position is that he died in battle, but actually, he was killed accidentally by friendly fire.
Doc decides he doesn’t want his son to be buried at Arlington. He wants him buried back in his hometown next to his mother. He asks for the body, but is told, “ I can not release the body to anyone but a licensed mortician.”

Richard steps forward, “Or a clergyman, right?” And yes, they're told, the body can be released to a clergyman. They rent a U-haul to take the body back home.

Sal and Richard continue to dig at each other as they travel. Sal says, “You used to be fun.” 

The Reverend responds, “I still am, when it’s right in God’s eyes.” 

Sal continues to protest that he doesn’t believe in God, so Richard tells him, “You don’t believe in God, but he believes in you.” Richard tells how he went from being a bad man to a preacher. God talked to him, telling him to go to church, where he met Ruth. Richard says Jesus and Ruth changed his life and led him to become a preacher.

During their trip, the trio decide they need to make a side trip. They talk about their part in a man's grisly death when they used the morphine he needed for themselves. They decide to go to his mother's home, but when they get there, they decide that instead of confessing the truth, they should tell her that her son died a noble death. They decide her need for a happy resolution is more significant than their need for confession.

When they arrive in Doc's hometown, Sal and Richard put on their dress blues to honor Doc’s son at the funeral.

Burying the dead and comforting families is one of the most essential duties for clergy. Sadly, it takes some pressure to make Richard perform this duty, but he does, so we’ll give him a Movie Churches rating of Three out of Four Steeples.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Veteran's Month: The Eagle Has Landed

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
A challenge thoughtful church leadership often faces is what, if any, place patriotism should play in the life of a church. Here in the U.S. of A, when Veteran's Day or the Fourth of July rolls around, the question arises whether these holidays should be acknowledged. Some churches add patriotic hymns to the order of worship at such times, with “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” joining the program with “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

But some churches express concern that the inclusion of such patriotic, explicitly American songs, along with, perhaps saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, may well be a form of idolatry, using the time and place set aside for worshiping God to worship a country. Such a church might use more ambiguous “patriotic songs” such as “Faith of Our Fathers” or “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

There are also churches that avoid even a whiff of patriotism.

I think there are good arguments on both sides of the patriotic debate. C.S. Lewis argued that when Jesus cried over Jerusalem He was exhibiting a kind of patriotism, but Lewis strongly argued that while there can be good in patriotism, it can distract us from giving God the honor due Him.

Ultimately, I think the priest in 1976’s World War II adventure The Eagle Has Landed fails to balance faith and patriotism properly.

The film was directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape) and the plot is preposterous. During the war, Nazis want to send paratroopers to kidnap (or assassinate) Winston Churchill. Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall with an eye patch) recruits Oberst Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) to lead the mission, with the assistance of an IRA spy, Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland). Through a bit of “synchronicity,” the Germans learn that the Prime Minister will be visiting the English seaside village of Studley Constable.

One of the few people in the village who's aware of Churchill’s impending visit is the local priest, Father Verecker (John Standing). Though Studley Constable is an English village, the only church is Catholic, not Anglican.

The spy Devlin comes to visit the church; he bows to the altar, as does the priest.

The priest greets him and says, “We have a small but faithful congregation here, Mr. Devlin. I look forward to your adding to it. You are Catholic?”

Devlin answers, “Yes.”

“Did you come for confession?” the priest asks.

“Father, I’m afraid this poor soul is well past redemption,” pleads the spy.

“I could do with a spicy revelation every now and then,” the priest responds. “And don’t forget the words of our Lord, ‘The last shall be the first.’”

“In that case, Father,” Devlin answers, “Then I’m assured a place at the head of the line.”

The next time the priest sees Devlin, the Irishman is in the midst of a fistfight. The priest doesn’t intervene. Devlin yells to the priest, “It’s alright Father, I’m just explaining the Holy Trinity.” The priest just smiles.

The priest unknowingly encounters another member of the plot against Churchill. He hears someone playing the organ in the church. He finds one of the “Polish” paratroopers playing. He is impressed with the soldier’s skill, “Bach needs to be played well. That is my frustration every time I take that seat.”

“Col. Miller” (Steiner/Caine) asks the priest if troops can do exercises throughout the village. Apparently, the priest has the authority to make these calls, which seems odd.

While doing those exercises, a little girl falls into a stream leading to a mill wheel. One of the "Polish" soldiers dives in to rescue the child. The soldier dies in the rescue, and when he is pulled out, it is revealed he is a German. The priest is outraged, “My God, you’re a German. Colonel. I know what you’re doing, and I know what you want. You won’t get away with it.”

The Germans send all the witnesses to be held in the church. Steiner inspects the church and finds a locked door. He asks why the door is locked. The Father replies, “It is the sacristy. It is where I keep the church records, my vestments, and such. The key is at my house. I’ll go and fetch it if you like.” Steiner wouldn’t like.

Father Verecker tries to encourage his fellow hostages, “At times like these, there’s very little left but prayer, and it frequently helps.”

But the priest only sees the worst in Steiner and his soldiers. He never acknowledges the unselfish act of the soldier who gave up his life to save the child. And he never learns that Steiner had risked his own life back in Germany trying to save the life of a Jewish woman he didn’t know, or that his paratroopers backed his actions.

One of the last things we see Father Verecker doing in the film is swinging a chair at Devlin, calling him a bastard. There is something to admire in the priest's determination to serve the people of his village. But he never seems to acknowledge that the Germans, too, are men made in God’s image. Therefore, Father Verecker loses a steeple in our ratings, earning Three Steeples.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Veterans' Month Week 3: Unbroken: Path to Redemption

Unbroken: Path to Redemption (2018)
Unbroken: Path to Redemption had an interesting path to become a sequel. In Hollywood, a sequel is usually made because of money. If the original makes a whole lot of money, the studio says do it again, especially if it features a superhero or action hero, but 2014’s Unbroken was a biographical film about World War II hero Louie Zamperini based on the bestselling book by Lauren Hillenbrand.

The 2014 film, directed by Angelina Jolie from a screenplay written by Joel and Ethan Coen, told the story of Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was captured by the Japanese during World War II. He served in a prisoner of war camp and was tortured by a sadistic guard known as The Bird. He survived and was released from the camp at the end of the war, “unbroken.”

If you’ve read the book, you know that isn’t true. Zamperini was a very broken man. That's where the film ends though, at the end of the war.

The first film was made with a 65 million dollar budget and grossed about a hundred million more. Certainly, that's a respectable profit, but usually, that wouldn’t be enough to lead to a sequel.

The sequel was made was because the first film left out what many would consider the most important part of Zamperini’s story: his coming to faith in Jesus. Universal was a producer of both films, but the original was released by Legendary Studios while the sequel was released by Pure Flix. Pretty much an entirely different cast and crew were brought in for the sequel. Harold Cronk directed a screenplay by Richard Fiedenburg and Ken Hixson. Jack O’Connell played Zamperini in the first film, Samuel Hunt played him in the second film. About the only name the two films have in common is Laura Hillenbrand.

Path to Redemption opens with Zamperini visiting Tokyo in 1950. Someone tries to give him directions and he remarks that this is “not my first time in Tokyo.” It's where he served as a prisoner of war. We go back in time to the end of WWII and Zamperini’s release from captivity.

We see him being welcomed joyfully home, where his parents had been told by the government he was dead. The local priest is asked to join the homecoming. Louie greets him as “Padre.” The priest tells him, “All of Torrance was praying for you. God’s not to blame for your suffering.” 

Louie doesn’t seem to be buying it. Later in the film, he admits he felt that not only was God to blame for his suffering, God was his enemy.

The Army recruits Zamperini to go on tour to sell war bonds. Initially, this goes well, as he tells about encouraging other POWs with stories about his mother’s fine cooking. But as the tour goes on, Lou begins to drink more and more heavily, sometimes before speeches. His C.O. demands he take a break from the tour, going for several weeks of R. & R. in Florida. At the beach, he meets the woman who soon became his wife, Cynthia Applewhite (Merritt Patterson).

Cynthia asks Louie whether he prayed during his wartime experiences. “Begging (was) more like it,” he answers. She asks him about his faith and he answers, “I didn’t pay much attention in Mass.” But after they visit the church she grew up in, he agrees to a church wedding. The couple then returns to Louie’s hometown of Torrance to live.

Though they get by for some time on funds the government provided for back pay and insurance for Louie’s time in the camp, funds soon get tight. Louie can’t find work. Or at least, he can’t find a job he thinks is befitting his history as an Olympian and a war hero. So again he drinks. Heavily. Days he claims to be looking for work he’s actually spending in bars.

He also has night terrors, making him fear that he’ll harm Cynthia. He goes to see a government-provided psychiatrist, Dr. George Bailey (played by Gary Cole rather than Jimmy Stewart.) Though the doctor doesn’t use the term “PTSD,” it’s clear that's the problem. And Louie is trying to address it through alcohol.

Cynthia has a child, but that doesn’t make the marriage better. Cynthia begins to consider divorce, but a neighbor, Lili (Vanessa Bell Calloway), encourages Cynthia to “fight for him.” Lila also takes Cynthia to a revival meeting -- the Greater Los Angeles Revival -- Billy Graham Every Night, 7 PM -- which, in 1949, was scheduled to run for three weeks but continued for eight.

Louie tells Cynthia he won’t consider going with her. He describes the revivals of his youth as frauds,  saying, “Hide your wallet, the circus is in town.” While she goes to the revival, Louie drinks at home from a bottle in a hollowed-out Bible.

Eventually, Louie does go to the revival, drinking from a flask on the way. A tent on the fairgrounds is decorated with a large cross with a sign on it “Jesus Saves.” A choir sings “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Billy Graham (played by the evangelist's grandson, Will Graham) is at the pulpit. At the beginning of his message, he jokes at the beginning of his message, “I will keep the message brief, but I always say that, so don’t get your hopes up.” He goes on to say, “God has a lifeline. I do not believe that any man can solve the problems of life without Jesus Christ. Have you trusted Christ Jesus as savior? Tonight, I’m glad to tell you that the Lord Jesus can be received, your sins forgiven, your burdens lifted, your problems solved, by turning your life over to Him and repenting of your sin and turning to Jesus Christ as savior.”

Louie goes again. Billy preaches, “Why doesn’t God stop suffering? I can see the stars and I can see the footprints of God. What God asks of man is faith. I believe God is still transforming lives.” Lou starts to leave, but Billy says “Don’t leave, you can leave while I’m preaching, but not now. This is it, God has spoken to you. It is time. Come forward.”

Louie flashes back and remembers the time his plane went down and he was stranded on a raft at sea. He begged God, “If you save me, I will serve you all my life.” He was saved. By Japanese who imprisoned him, but he was saved.

At the crusade, years later, he kept that promise. When he trusted in Christ, God changed his life around.

A final title card reads: “Nearly forty years after WWII, more than 85% of former Pacific POW’s suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Every man had to find his own path; Louis Zamperini found profound peace. After his conversion, Louis never drank again. He began a new life as a Christian speaker, telling his story all over America, from grade school classrooms to stadiums. In 1952, Louis established Victory Boys Camp to help at-risk youth, which the Zamperini family continues today. Matsuhiro Watanabe “The Bird” was one of the most wanted WWII criminals in Japan. He remained in hiding for several years until he was granted amnesty by the U. S. in its efforts to reconcile with Japan. Louis and Cynthia were married for 54 years.”

Zamperini was a great man. As was Graham, the clergy member in this film. He earns our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Veterans' Month Week 2: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
World War I, "The Great War," was supposed to be the war to end all wars. If the war didn't manage the job, this film was supposed to end all wars. On DVD version of All Quiet on the Western Front that I watched, there was a trailer for the film’s re-release a couple of years after it came out in 1930. The narrator on the trailer said the film should be released every year (to theaters, he meant. No DVDs back then) throughout the world. Sadly, this plan failed. There was no sequel to the film, but there was to the war.
Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 best selling novel (2.5 million copies sold in 21 languages in addition to the original German), the film won the third Oscar for Best Picture, and it also earned an Academy Award for director Lewis Milestone.

This film (and the novel it was based upon) was intended to bring out a great moral message with the hope of changing humanity's actions. I would think there might be a religious component to such a message, but the church itself has a minor role in the film -- and not a very influential one at that.

The story of the film begins in a classroom of boys in Germany at the start of the Great War. Their teacher, Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lacey), is telling the boys they should serve the Fatherland and sign up to fight. “You are the life of the Fatherland… The gay heroes… I know in one school the boys have enlisted en masse... How sweet it is to die for the Fatherland. The Fatherland needs leaders; personal ambition must be thrown aside.” All the boys are stirred by this message, particularly the boy others look to as their leader, Paul (Lew Ayres).

The film follows the boys as they fight on the front of one of the most ghastly of all wars, living in the trenches, suffering injuries, and dying off one by one. All the dreams of glory inspired by the boys' teachers, civic leaders, posters, and government propaganda prove to be lies. (It is interesting to contemplate that Hollywood was willing to make this film from the German perspective and whether the film could have been made about American soldiers with those lies coming from the Wilson administration rather than the German Kaiser.)

Eventually, all of this band of friends suffer horrendous fates. The opening of the film gives this message, “A generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” To be honest, we don’t see many men in the film who escape the shells.

For the purposes of this blog, where does the church appear? I find it interesting that we never see a Lutheran Church or pastor in the scenes in Germany. We never learn the stance that church took about the war, though it's reasonable to think the church was supportive -- the question must have at least come up. 

Instead, we see a Roman Catholic field hospital. Paul, after being injured in the field, finds himself there (the 1979 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie is more explicit about the benefits. Paul, played by Richard Thomas, says “This is a piece of luck because Catholic infirmaries are noted for their good treatment and good food.”)

Nuns are serving alongside Red Cross workers caring for the men in need, but a rather disturbing thing happens at the hospital. (Actually, I’m sure that a great number of disturbing things happen at the hospital, but we are going to look at one of them.)

One of the nuns helps nurses take a patient off to another room. She says she is taking him off to the “bandaging room.” Another patient objects that she is taking his tunic, which indicates they have no intention of bringing the man back. He claims the man is being taken to the “dying room,” which is next to the morgue.

The nuns seem to be part of ongoing patient deception, never acknowledging that the patients' comrades are dying. Perhaps they had good motives, trying to instill optimism in the wounded men. But such plans seemed to fail, and deception is deception. The nuns could give real hope if they would talk about Jesus (there is a crucifix on the wall) and the hope of a life to come after death. The nuns in this film never talk about God.

On the other hand, Paul does talk to God a couple of times in this film. He prays that a hospitalized friend will live. His friend dies. Paul is forced to kill a Frenchman with a knife in a trench. He asks God why men of one nation are pitted against one another. No answer seems to come.
So while we acknowledge the good medical work the Catholic infirmaries provide in the film, their neglect of spiritual duties brings them a Movie Church Rating of only two out of four steeples.