Machine Gun Preacher
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Marc Forster‘s “Machine Gun Preacher” tells the true story of Sam Childers, a real-life petty thug, drug-addict, and part-time jailbird, who, thanks to his reformed stripper girlfriend, finds Jesus, volunteers in Africa, builds an orphanage for the local children, and ends up taking arms against the Sudanese terrorist groups who are in the habit of making more and more orphans by the day. In the film, Childers is played by Gerard Butler, that bombastic Scot, well known for his noisy roles in films like “300,” and “Phantom of the Opera.” That Butler stars in the film should give an indication about how subtle and restrained the film is. “Machine Gun Preacher,” like its title, is a bloviating, obvious, and ridiculously violent affair, that throws away both the scalpel and the hammer, and reaches straight for the bazooka.
Indeed, there is a bazooka in the film. After Childers has built his orphanage, much to the chagrin of the locals, he finds himself right in the middle of a series of bitter gunfights, determined to steal the children, or at least kill them out of spite. Childers eventually – in an off-screen decision – chooses to fight in the battels himself. This is represented by an on-road confrontation with a jeepful of bad guys with guns. Right when it looks like the shooting will start, Butler rears up from the back of his own jeep, sporting a shoulder-mounted rocket-launcher, and blows the bad guys away. It was a weirdly violent and peculiarly badass moment in an otherwise noble film about African orphans. From that point on, there will be several such action-packed gunfights, all of which feel way, way out of place in a film that is, purportedly, about the power of Christ and the ironies of Liberal Guilt.
“Machine Gun Preacher” is, at least, good enough to point out the Liberal Guilt thing. Childers, once a sinner, and who has, back in America, built a Baptist church intended for a congregation that doesn’t necessarily have nice clothing to wear on Sundays, feels morally obligated to help out the kids in Africa less fortunate than himself. He asks his friends for huge donations to help out, and his friends, who are depicted as being incredibly well-off, are reluctant to donate. Childers’ decision to fight comes across as organic and desperate and real. If you’re a volunteer, and you’re constantly seeing the gory fallout of a violent conflict (at one point, Childers sees the mutilated face of a young woman up close), and you have the violent impulse to fight back, and you know your way around a gun… well, why not start blasting away? Childers decisions may – as an MSF volunteer points out to him at one point – be doing much more harm than good. But his fighting does seem like a kind of violent wish fulfillment for all the people who always wanted to merely start shooting. His decisions are based on a kind of shaky moral code, but they are resolute.
That said, there is still, as I said, no subtlety to any of this. However realistic Forster’s direction may be, however natural the acting (mostly from Michelle Monaghan), and however desperate the orphans in Africa really are, it’s hard to get past the cartoonish image of Bulter ‘splodin’ stuff up fer Jesus, an’ fer the African Orphans! The film is split between it’s deadly earnestness one the one hand and its cliched Hollywood images on the other. At one point, we actually see a sobbing white actor cradling the corpse of a mutilated black child. That moment is indeed based on fact, but it’s filmed in such a way that it comes across as parodic.
And that’s where a lot of the problem come in: None of the African kids really emerge as individuals. There is one boy who is looking for his brother, and who refuses to speak to adults, but he’s a vague cipher, more a representative of the tragedy than a real human being. Childers sees the tragedy, but the tragedy, neither in his eye nor in ours, doesn’t have a human face.
I saw the film at a benefit for Sudanese orphans. People paid hundreds of dollars to this event, and both Childers and Butler were in attendance. The cause is striking and worthy of note, and worthy of your donations, of course. “Machine Gun Preacher,” however, is a somewhat campy film, and, not to sound rude, but I had to stifle a cackle at the bazooka scene.