Cover Story

To end all culture wars

The theology in To End All Wars is so sound and explicit that it may turn off Christians reared on pop spirituality

Issue: "Lord of the box office," Jan. 11, 2003

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.

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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.

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