COMING SOON TO A THEATER near you: a World War II drama featuring Kiefer Sutherland, one of the movie industry's hottest stars. It is rated R.
It is a product of Hollywood.
And it is one of the powerful cinematic expositions of the Christian faith.
To End All Wars might have been pitched to the mainline filmmakers as Chariots of Fire meets Saving Private Ryan. Fans of the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, the true story of an athlete who refused to run in the Olympics on the Sabbath, will note the same Scottish accents, a similar soon-to-be church worker positively portrayed, and comparably high production values. But whereas Chariots of Fire, for all of its virtues, never got around to mentioning the gospel, To End All Wars amounts to a sustained meditation on the core of Christianity: Christ dying for sinners, and what that means in the most extreme trials of life.
To End All Wars is based on the true story of Ernest Gordon, the long-time chaplain at Princeton University. Mr. Gordon, who died just a few months before the film was completed, was a captain in a Scottish Highland regiment in World War II. When the Japanese took Singapore-in those early days of the war when Japan was sweeping away all opposition-Mr. Gordon was captured. He spent the next three years in a Japanese POW camp, enduring hardships, brutality, and spiritual challenges that became for him a crucible of faith.
The film, based on Mr. Gordon's autobiography Through the Valley of the Kwai, does not shrink away from the torture, degradation, and cruelty of the Japanese camp. It also dramatizes how evil breeds evil, even in its victims: Allied prisoners, struggling to survive in this dog-eat-dog environment, start adopting the values and behavior of their captors.
But then, to hold on to whatever shreds of their humanity are left, a number of prisoners remember their old vocations and decide to exercise their callings in the teeth of the most hostile surroundings. A former university instructor organizes a philosophy seminar, and prisoners get together, in the mud and squalor of the camp, to discuss Plato's philosophy of justice.
Another prisoner had been an actor. He forms a troupe to perform plays by Shakespeare (which he had thankfully learned by heart). A group with musical talents carves recorders out of bamboo, making themselves into an orchestra that plays Bach. (Yes, it sounds bad objectively, but, in a clever bit of filmmaking that renders the prisoner's point of view, to those deprived of every pleasure, it sounds heavenly.)
And, most significantly, a group of the prisoners, using a smuggled Bible, starts a Bible study. They mark out a secret church, with a cross in a small clearing in the bush.
They also form relationships with their guards, some of whom are transfigured from stereotyped villains into genuine human beings.
But the brutality reasserts itself. The Bible is confiscated (for a while), prisoners are punished and pushed into betrayals, compromises, and impossible moral dilemmas.
The issues they had been learning about in their "Jungle University" are tested. What is justice and can it really be achieved in a sinful world? What does it mean to love one's enemies? How could Christ take other people's sins upon Himself? What does it mean that Christ died for sinners, atoning for them and granting them free forgiveness?
The movie climaxes in a shocking, yet unforgettable scene of redemption.
Eventually, the allied forces liberate the camp, whereupon the prisoners have the opportunity to do unto their enemies what the enemies did unto them.
To End All Wars is the brainchild of producer Jack Hafer, an ordained Baptist minister who, while pastoring churches part-time, made a career for himself in the entertainment industry. He rose in the ranks to become the general manager of GMT Studios, supervising the financial and technical operations of a studio that turned out movies such as L.A. Story, Philadelphia Experiment, and Predator.
Forming his own production company, Gummshoe Productions, Mr. Hafer bought the movie rights to Mr. Gordon's autobiography. His goal was to make a film that would not be a "Christian movie," in the stereotyped sense of a low-budget vehicle for proselytizing that never breaks out of its subculture, but a good movie-good in Hollywood terms, good in its production values and its artistry, a movie produced and distributed through regular Hollywood channels-that also embodies and expresses a Christian worldview.
Mr. Hafer collaborated with director David Cunningham and screenwriter Brian Godawa, other Christians who had paid their dues in the film industry, and developed a script. After raising some $14 million from investors, the production company sought out the best filmmakers it could find to make the movie. Instead of doing everything on the cheap or seeking out Christians-who may be zealous but underqualified and unconnected to the movie industry-to play all the parts and to do all of the work, the production team brought in the most experienced, well-regarded professionals they could find.
They brought in Penelope Foster, a veteran producer and director, as co-producer. They signed up top casting agencies, enabling them to land some major stars. Three years ago, when the filming took place, Mr. Sutherland had already distinguished himself in some 60 films, but this was before his hit TV show, 24, the unity-of-time suspense drama now in its second season that has probably made him unaffordable to independent filmmakers today. But he was cast in To End All Wars as Lt. Jim Reardon, a young American prisoner who becomes the story's spiritual barometer.
The part of Mr. Gordon is played by the award-winning Irish actor Ciar‡n McMenamin. British actor Robert Carlyle, who starred in The Full Monty and Trainspotting, plays Major Ian Campbell, Mr. Gordon's cynical opposite. James Cosmo (Babe: Pig in the City) plays the resolute Colonel Stuart McLean, and Mark Strong plays Dusty Miller, the devout strongman.
The crucial parts of the Japanese officers-Ito, the camp commandant (Sakae Kimura); Captain Noguchi (Masayuki Yul); and Colonel Nagatomo (Shu Nakajima)-are played by actors who learned their craft under the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.
Drawing on other respected film professionals for the design, camera work, editing, and special effects, the film was shot in Hawaii. It made the rounds of film festivals, where a mainline movie distributor picked it up.
Like other independent films, To End All Wars is first being released in selected markets, with plans for broader national release sometime early this year.
Films dealing with serious themes of any kind often have a hard time competing with the sex, sensationalism, and explosions that characterize most movie blockbusters. And yet, independent films with a positive message-such as My Big, Fat Greek Wedding-sometimes become breakout hits.
The question with To End All Wars is not only whether the general public will attend a film with such a powerful message. The bigger question is whether Christians will attend.
Here is a film that conveys the Christian worldview and that communicates the gospel more clearly and directly than any film in recent memory. But it is rated R. That alone will keep away a good number of Christian viewers who otherwise would crave a movie like this (see "Rating the ratings," p. 11). The violence is explicit. But the theology is also explicit. And many Christians today may draw away from that, as well.
Christianity is a challenging faith, full of complexities and mysteries, with depths upon depths of truth and insight. Just as the entertainment industry has often favored superficial entertainment over profound artistic expression, contemporary Christianity has often favored superficial pop spirituality to the red meat that is in the Bible.
To End All Wars does not present a conversion, after which one lives happily ever after. Nor does it present a "name it and claim it" solution to the hardships of life. Nor does it leap over the demands of the Christian life to shift attention to a fantastical apocalypse at the end of time.
Rather, it puts the life of faith in a worst-case scenario-which is not pleasant to contemplate-only to find in that crucible that it is refined into something beautiful.
The movie is also startlingly relevant to our own times, in ways not evident when it was first made. The movie was going to be shown at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 11, 2001, a showing that was canceled when the terrorists attacked.
Now that our nation is at war with terrorists and is approaching war with Iraq, the movie is more immediately relevant than when it was made. The movie, despite its title, is not anti-war, but it does take seriously Jesus' commandment that we should, on an individual level, love our enemies. What does this mean, and how can we do such a thing, especially in light of terrorist atrocities and the new cultural climate of fear and insecurity?
This is a movie that is challenging both to non-Christians and to Christians. Whether they flock to theaters to view this film remains to be seen. But if they do, they will come out deeply moved by the experience of having watched a really good movie.