In July, South Sudan officially ended its decades-long struggle for independence from Sudan, the northern region controlled by Arab Muslims who tried for years to force Islam on the mostly Christian south. While the war is officially over, another battle continues, in Southern Sudan, and northern parts of Uganda. That war is waged against the terrorist organization known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, a wild force without a real goal beyond violence and destruction.
Since the late 1990s, an American preacher has stood against this threat, his orphanage a safe haven in the ravaged land. That man is Sam Childers, a violent drug-dealing biker who underwent a mostly complete transformation after coming to Christ. I say mostly because two things haven’t changed: He still loves motorcycles, and he still loves to fight. Now though, he fights not in dim-lit bars after too many drinks, but in Africa against the LRA. There, he and a few soldiers from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army take the conflict to the LRA. When LRA soldiers attack a village – intent on torturing, murdering or kidnapping its inhabitants – Sam and his team ride in, guns blazing, to stop them.
“Machine Gun Preacher” is that amazing story, told with great authenticity (thus the R rating) by screenwriter Jason Keller and acclaimed director Marc Forster, whose previous work includes “Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland” and “Quantum of Solace.” A uniting force to Forster’s wide array of films is great characters, and he’s found an epic in Sam Childers, played forcefully by Gerard Butler.
It’s a compelling and accurate portrait of the preacher as a killer angel, the story of one man’s personal journey from drugs and theft into ministry on two continents.
Keller’s story crunches 30 years of Sam’s life into a few hours, and Forster’s film flows quickly from one moment to the next, roughly splicing scenes together with music and voice-over (but not narration) linking them. Forster’s transitions are artistic, though more easily appreciated the second time around.
Keller’s script is a study in how to correctly tell a vast story in a limited amount of time. He covers everything: Sam’s rough years, his conversion, his first trip to Africa, his calling to minister in the U.S. and Sudan, building his orphanage, fighting the LRA, struggling to fund his ministries and keep his family together through the lean years. Nearly every second of screen time draws from one or more real moments from Sam’s life, as Sam will tell you and his book can confirm. Additionally, Keller’s time studying old Westerns during a program in London has colored the story. The film’s protagonist is a perfectly crafted white knight gunslinger, toughened by time and circumstance into a man who takes the law into his own hands.
Butler’s portrayal of Sam Childers is remarkable, not only for his excellent Childers accent, which is perfect down to the “you’uns” of Midwest PA, but in his drive. From hurrying African children into his room to spend the night out of the elements, to speeding toward the LRA and mowing them down, to his firebrand preaching, every action oozes passion and a wholehearted commitment to his ministries.
Butler is supported by Michelle Monaghan playing his wife, stripper-turned-church manager Lynn; Michael Shannon as his tie to the old life Donnie (a character comprised of multiple people from Sam’s life); his daughter Paige (played by Madeline Carroll); and his Sudanese friend and sidekick Deng (Ivory Coast actor Souleymane Sy Savane). Each plays their role in the story with depth and feeling.
The film has had a Hollywood makeover that takes Childers’ sometime frustration with God further than he ever did, but as Childers says, it illustrates that “no matter how many times you go back God accepts you.” (Spoiler Alert) In reality, Sam never went back to alcohol. In reality he has never come close to killing himself, though he’s had some very bad days. “If we’re living the Christian faith we all get to that point to where there’s a day that’s just a crappy day,” Sam says. That’s when he turns to Scripture.
But when Sam turns to the Bible for comfort he goes to James 4:17: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” It has driven him to, in real life, give away the last money his family had – money that should have gone to pay their mortgage – trusting that God would take care of them.
There’s also the issue of violence. For Childers it’s simple: He likes to ask, if someone took your child, your wife, your parents, “if I said I could bring them home, does it matter how I bring them home?” Some theologians might disagree with him, but given the circumstances that surround Sam in Sudan, his methods are the only ones that get the job done. For the children he defends in South Sudan, that’s all that matters. For the rest of us, it should lead to some great conversations about a film worth its ticket price.