Hidden Films Goes to Church: Three Billy Graham-backed Films

As many of you know, most of the movies I am covering on this site came to my attention when I was perusing through imdb.com’s list of every movie ever made. So far, I have accumulated most of my choices through birthday presents and Amazon.com orders, and coincidentally, three of the films I wound up with–“For Pete’s Sake” (1966), “The Prodigal” (1983) and “Cry from the Mountain” (1985)– were all produced by Billy Graham, the 92 year-old Southern Baptist evangelical preacher. Graham launched World Wide Pictures in 1951, as a wing of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA). The company released its first film, “Mr. Texas,” that same year; barely over an hour, it followed the gradual spiritual conversion of a cowboy, and footage of Graham’s real-life sermons appeared in the film, a trend that would continue in virtually every WWP production through 2001. Around the time of the Hollywood Bowl premiere for “Mr. Texas,” Graham told Time Magazine, “It’s no DeMille, but then DeMille takes $35,000 to warm up his lights.”

By the mid-1960s, WWP had their first hit film, “The Restless Ones,” which featured a high-profile actress (Kim Darby) and apparently led 120,000 viewers to convert to Christianity; by 1975, it had achieved its greatest success with “The Hiding Place,” about Dutch Christians sheltering Jews during the Holocaust.

But in 1988, facing increasingly limited theatrical runs for its films, WWP was nearly bankrupt and forced to shutter its Burbank, California studio, moving all operations to its headquarters in Minneapolis. According to a Los Angeles Times article,  “the halt in World Wide’s steady production of inspirational feature films came as the evangelical community was citing The Last Temptation of Christ as an illustration of ‘anti- Christian’ bias in Hollywood.” Beyond that trend, producer Ken Wales (who worked on “The Prodigal”) noted in the same article that “the rising costs of making a major, professionally done film while using the Graham formula for distribution was hampering the film ministry.”

WWP was relatively quiet for the next 13 years, occasionally distributing direct-to-home-video or made-for-TV films to churches and Christian networks. Some of these movies–such as “Something to Sing About” (2000) and “A Vow to Cherish” (1999)–featured relatively well-known actors like the late Ossie Davis, Irma P. Hall and Darius McCrary (of “Family Matters” fame). In 2001, WWP produced its first comedy, “Road to Redemption,” which was also its first theatrical release in nearly 15 years, and notably lacking the visual appearance of Graham; his radio sermons can be heard in the movie. (The preview for “Road to Redemption,” which I watched on the videotape of “For Pete’s Sake,” is loaded with campy groaners; hilariously innocuous blurbs such as “Downright Funny!” and “Fun for the Whole Family!” are cited to family-oriented groups like USA Radio and Parents Television Council). In a 2001 Cincinnati Post article publicizing “Road for Redemption,” WWP was hailed for its newfound edginess. “This isn’t your father’s Christian movie,” said Tim Morgan, a spokesman for the film. “We’ve got motorcycle gangs and car chases and ’72 Cadillacs flying through the air and muscle cars…. There are things in here you wouldn’t expect from Billy Graham.”

“For Pete’s Sake,” the earliest and weakest of the three films I watched, is the essential father-approved Christian movie. The film opens with goofy, broad, brassy music you might hear in the dopiest episodes of “Car 54, Where Are You?” as a squeaky clean-looking yet supposedly rebellious teenage motorcycle gang roams through a small Colorado Rockies town. The first line in the movie is Billy Graham decrying Nietzsche (“God is not dead!”) in front of a stadium of thousands. The motorbike gang (one of whom is a very young Teri Garr, who then spelled her name “Terry” Garr) peers over the side of the stadium, and you think, from the continuing playful music, that the kids will throw paint or eggs or something at the parishioners. But the gang leader just says, “This is a cemetery, man! Let’s split!” And from that point on, the gang only makes fleeting appearances—until the last ten minutes of the movie, when, of course, they are converted into card-carrying Christians.

From the perspective of this conventional movie viewer, “For Pete’s Sake”  is quite possibly the most plot-free cinematic effort I’ve ever seen, which is saying a lot. On imdb.com, the plot is summarized as “the heartfelt and inspiring story of a man (Robert Sampson) struggling to come to terms with his wife’s (Pippa Scott) untimely death, while raising their young son (Johnny Jenson).” But the wife’s death–she has a heart attack while decorating a Christmas tree, and the tree falls on her–comes about an hour and a half into this 108-minute picture. Prior to that, we watch Pete (Sampson), a variously affable and wrathful gas station worker, grapple with whether or not to conform to the teachings of Billy Graham. He bristles at the “childish” process of filling out a Billy Graham questionnaire; he also bristles when his non-practicing co-worker teases him about his newfound faith; he bristles again when a devout co-worker (Al Freeman, Jr., who later starred in the soap opera “One Life to Live”) and a younger, Graham-worshiping minister goad him to be more faithful. All this growling and pondering is punctuated by cutesy scenes of Pete interacting with his impossibly wholesome, impossibly blonde son (Example: “Let’s all sing a hymn,” says Dad. “What’s a hymn?” asks Son. Dad and Mom laugh).

After Scott dies, we get more of little Jenson being oh-so-good (“I miss Mom something awful,” he says, “but I bet heaven’s the neatest place to be”), more of Sampson’s wavering back and forth on whether to adhere to Billy Graham, and more of Graham’s supporters egging him on with intonations like “Being a Christian doesn’t give you an insurance policy against tragedy. All Christ promised you was Himself.” The screenplay shifts quite often from spoken monologue to voice-over and back again. The motorcycle gang re-appears; they cast their doubts on Christianity; Freeman sings them a soulful religious song; they are all swayed to the flock of the younger minister; Sampson tries out a motorbike and falls in some mud, and then mercifully the movie ends.

“For Pete’s Sake” will most likely be regarded as a mess by virtually all secular moviegoers. Even Terri Garr, when interviewed by The Onion’s AV Club in 2008, was derisive towards the movie’s tone: “I think the kid who smoked marijuana died, because that’s how bad it was….That’s what that movie was telling us. Poor Billy Graham. So out of it.” [Note: Garr’s memory might be spotty–as far as I could tell, there’s no marijuana mentioned or shown in the film–though she’s genuinely got the right idea about the message.] The targeted audience, however, was probably moved by the film’s painstaking approach to weighing the pros and cons (mostly the pros) of evangelical Christianity. Phony as most of the film is, it claims to be based on reality; during the opening credits, a message appears that the story “was lived by many people, drawn from the reservoir of human experience that surrounds the Billy Graham Crusades.”

The best of the trio of films I watched–maybe because it has an actual story–is “The Prodigal.” However, it is generally as dull as its overly principled characters. The movie had a very small run in early 1984. In Dallas, the film was almost classified as not suitable for anyone under 16 (this was shortly before the PG-13 rating was issued by the MPAA) because of a few scenes of marijuana smoking; it was eventually re-rated PG, according to news reports.

The story is lifted from the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke. There’s a good brother (Arliss Howard) who goes to seminary school, lives in a modest apartment on the premises, and protects the poor folk in his apartment complex from a greedy landlord, who of course wants to turn the seminary into a gaudy complex. There’s a bad brother (John Hammond), a loafer who spends most of his time smoking pot and fishing; he’s left his stern, religious parents’ home for an “island hideaway.” He returns home, is goaded by his father (John Cullum, who later had a prominent role on “Law and Order”) and brother into taking a job as a tennis instructor, and is quickly seduced by a country club vixen. He also is swayed by a shady thug (Joey Travolta) into doing a drug deal that goes awry.

Meanwhile, he mouths off to his father and gets slapped around; his mother (the late Hope Lange), bored with repressed hubby, agonizes over considering an affair with her literature course classmate; the father, a wealthy man, derides the good son for his charity work; hired goons try to thwart said charity work; and the family is in danger of falling apart. Throughout all this, there are lots of plugs for Billy Graham (both through scenes of him lecturing a classroom and repeated shots of an office desk cluttered with his stickers); lots of what my friend called “mute maternal suffering” on the part of the mother; references to BetaMax; lots of jabs at drugs, alcohol and sex; and plenty of hilariously stilted dialogue (Minister, talking in the third person: “This clergyman, behind his mask, has x-rated dreams, and most days feels un-Christ-like. We can’t all be Mother Teresa in pants!”; Good brother, to bad brother: “You don’t define who you are by things, or how successful you are, or how good you are at sex”; Thug, to good brother: “What are you, part Gook? You sure don’t look like no nigger!”) The one surprise is that, despite “The Prodigal’s” firmly conservative agenda, the film does slightly punish the father for carping at the good son’s left-wing ideals, namely his altruism. It certainly didn’t leave as bad a taste in my mouth as “For Pete’s Sake.”

“Cry from the Mountain” is scarcely a religious movie at all until its last 20 minutes, when it becomes jarringly anti-abortion, anti-divorce, anti-woman. A father (Wes Parker, who was the first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1964 to 1972) takes his son on a white water rafting trip in Alaska. [Note: the father’s name in the movie is Larry Sanders!] The son knows that his father had an affair with his secretary (“Is she prettier than Mom?!” he wails) and detects that his parents are splitting up. The dad falls out of the raft and washes up unconscious on the rocks; a kindly, bearded, devout Christian stranger (James Cavan) houses him and the son in his humble cabin.The one comic scene involves the old coot trying in vain to fix his radio so he can “listen to that Billy Graham.”

From there on out, the film is a pro-lifer’s field day. The mother (Rita Walter), who turns out to be pregnant, confronts the mistress in her office place (“What do you know about carrying babies?!” she yells); then she considers an abortion, but her mother dissuades her: “Give it to the Lord. I’m in for heavy praying. If you still got the good sense you were born with, you’ll start on your knees!” After the kindly old man is invited to the family’s house, and expresses his desire to see Billy Graham preach in person, it is the mother who attends Graham’s sermon, in a life-sized arena; Aerosmith probably played there hours later. Graham rants and rants about the evils of divorce, and the tearful sinful mother comes forward to repent. Never mind that her husband had an affair; he’s off the hook, apparently. The movie ends with Graham speaking directly to the camera, a “Now, what did we learn from these people?” type of thing.

I found out that “Cry from the Mountain” played in select cities–among them Seattle, Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Kokomo, Indiana–between the fall of 1985 and the spring of 1986. I was expecting even observant Christian critics to dump all over the film, but the reviews I found are surprisingly even-tempered. About the meanest statement I could find was in Steve Maynard’s Houston Chronicle review, when he carps at the poor picture quality:”A little less grain and a little less Graham will do, thank you.” Elsewhere, he is pretty easy on the film.  Scott Cain, writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, asked, “Shouldn’t a pledge such as this be made in some more private circumstance? Dignity does not always make for good filmmaking…[Graham] is the most charismatic of preachers, but not everyone with a problem is within traveling distance of his latest crusade.” Most positive of all was Kevin Thomas, in his review for the Los Angeles Times: “Considering that [director James F.] Collier seems always obliged to work in an actual Graham sermon at some point in every film, it’s amazing that his pictures don’t seem more contrived than they do…There’s no question that Graham is a potent communicator, and if you approach ‘Cry From the Mountain’ with an open mind-and happen to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (backsliding or otherwise)-you may come away surprised that it has affected you as much as it has.”

According to Wes Parker, whom I was able to interview, an audience member at the film’s California premiere was beyond affected; he decided to convert to Christianity. “I spoke to him for about ten minutes,” Parker said. “I thought that was rewarding, to say the least.” Parker turned to reform Christianity–“basic Bible stuff,” as he defines it–in the early 1980s, after watching television preacher Dr. Gene Scott (who was profiled in Werner Herzog’s 1980 documentary, “God’s Angry Man.”) When I asked Parker, who prior to “Cry from the Mountain” acted in several TV shows (most notably “All that Glitters”) and TV movies, if he drew on this emotional experience while making a Christian movie, he answered, “No. It benefited me in terms of feeling more comfortable about life and where I was heading. But it did not help me in front of a camera. My conversion was quite an emotional experience, but it occurred in the privacy of my den in my house. I didn’t have any experience with that kind of emotion surging through me in front of 50 people.”

Surely, I asked Parker, it must have been a little strange being a reform Christian on the set of a movie made by a Southern Baptist, an entirely different sect. “I never thought of Billy Graham that way, in fact I never met him,” said Parker. “He never came on the set. He just financed it. None of that was an influence upon me. I was just hired to do a movie. We started every day with a group prayer, which was nice. But that was it. After that, we just went to work. There was nothing cultish about it at all.”

I also asked Parker what he thought about the movie being so hard on the divorce-seeking wife and so easy on the adulterous husband. “I didn’t feel like I had to have a take,” he replied.  “I think had I been a better actor I would have analyzed that more.” Throughout the interview (which I will post in its entirety soon), Parker said many times that he never felt comfortable showing emotion in front of a camera, which is the main reason he stopped acting–aside from appearing in commercials–after “Cry from the Mountain,” his first and only feature film. He is currently working with the Dodgers’ Speakers Bureau and Dream Foundation.

Naturally, I wanted to find out what other relatively secular actors and filmmakers–at least more secular than Graham–experienced while making these movies. Sadly, James F. Collier, who directed all three films I watched, died in 1991 at age 62, from complications after a fall. I reached out to Ken Wales, who produced “The Prodigal” as well as many secular films like “The Revenge of the Pink Panther” and Blake Edwards’ 1974 drama, “The Tamarind Seed,” but did not hear back. Arliss Howard turned down my request for an interview; through his publicist, he said he was “cutting hay on the farm and just can’t stop.” He must have been referring to the Upstate New York farm he shares with his wife, Debra Winger, the notoriously outspoken, no-bullshit actress who recently emerged from almost a decade of screen absence in Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.” I certainly don’t take this rejection from the soft-spoken actor personally; here’s a description of Howard in an August 8, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article by Duane Dudek, profiling both him and Winger: “She is a third-generation Hungarian Jew who grew up in Ohio. He is a Missouri native who speaks in metaphor and anecdote. She uses twice as many words and speaks them twice as fast. She has a W.C. Fields staccato and a Phyllis Diller laugh. He smiles shyly and pokes at a Caesar salad.”

I am glad I got through to Parker and found out that, at least on his movie, Graham stayed predominantly out of the way except as a financier. Still, I remain haunted by religious propaganda movies, and I won’t likely be watching any more. Whatever future trials World Wide Pictures is set to face, the Christian film industry itself clearly doesn’t need my support. Fittingly, this post comes right on the heels of the theatrical release of “Courageous,” a religious film about the perils of drinking and drugging. Amen.

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