Decent Films Blog

Current Faith-Themed Movies Explore Masculinity

Posted Sep 22nd 2011, 01:05 PM

Gerard Butler as Sam Childers in Machine Gun Preacher

The mixed martial arts drama Warrior, now in theaters, is one of no fewer than four theatrical releases to be released this month featuring Christian themes and being marketed specifically to Christians. (That’s not counting family-friendly fare like Dolphin Tale and The Lion King also being marketed to the religious press.)

Of the four films, two are Hollywood releases: Warrior and the fact-based biopic Machine Gun Preacher (opening Friday). The other two are Christian indie projects: the golf movie Seven Days in Utopia, starring Robert Duvall, Lucas Black and Melissa Leo, and the ensemble drama Courageous, from the Fireproof people, Sherwood Pictures.

Two are sports films (following in the footsteps of The Blind Side and Secretariat). More notably, three of the four—Warrior, Machine Gun Preacher and Courageous—are overtly concerned with masculinity and what it means to be a man. (The fourth film, the dismally reviewed Seven Days in Utopia, is the only one of the four I haven’t seen, but it doesn’t appear to touch on issues of masculinity in the same way.)

Although the three films diverge in many respects, common themes as well as contrasts emerge.

First, all three are about physically capable men engaged in manly occupations or enterprises. Warrior gives us a pair of buff brothers, bad-boy Tommy and responsible Brendan, battling each other for a tournament championship. Machine Gun Preacher celebrates the life of Sam Childers, a former gang biker and convict who founds a construction company, builds a church that he winds up pastoring himself,  and becomes involved in the Sudan, where he builds an orphanage and takes on Sudanese terrorist rebels. And Courageous centers on a quartet of police officers and a construction worker. 

Manhood is explored in each film at least partially in connection with a capacity for violence. In particular, the films celebrate heroic or valiant violence: In Warrior, not only do the two brothers have noble motives for pursuing cage fighting, the film honors military service and heroism on the battlefield as well. War-zone heroics are also highlighted in Machine Gun Preacher, while Courageous includes violent skirmishes between police and gang members.

On the other hand, destructive violence is acknowledged in varying ways—not just in the obvious brutality of the Sudanese rebels in Machine Gun Preacher and the criminals in Courageous, but in other ways as well.

In Warrior, we learn that Tommy and Brendan’s father Paddy, played by Nick Nolte, is a recovering alcoholic whose history of domestic abuse shattered their family. (He is also an ex-Marine, and Tommy has followed in Paddy’s footsteps here if nowhere else.) Machine Gun Preacher explores Childers’ capacity for destructive violence, particularly prior to his conversion, most notably in a drug-fueled attempted murder. After his conversion, Childers’ violence is generally righteous, although there are ambiguous cases. A barroom brawl sequence, while glamorizing Childers’ toughness and righteous anger, depicts the fight as a stupid mistake. There is also concern over Childers’ increasingly callous and unrestrained violence against the rebels during a period of bitterness and despair.

All three films deal with the challenges of being a husband and father. This is most obvious in Courageous, an Evangelical morality play about fatherhood, much as Fireproof was about marriage (although Courageous is a considerable improvement over Fireproof). Each of the film’s fathers is challenged to reexamine his commitment to his domestic obligations, to the point of participating in an ad hoc ritual solemnly swearing to be men of honor and responsibility.

Unlike his Marine brother Tommy, Brendan in Warrior is a devoted family man who returns to cage fighting as a last-ditch effort to save his family’s home, despite his wife’s considerable misgivings for his safety. Sam Childers is also a husband and a father—a miserable one at first, though after his conversion he becomes a responsible family man and a good provider, until he becomes so preoccupied by his mission work in Africa that his home life begins to fall apart. Strangely, the movie never really resolves this crisis; there is some effort to end on a high note, but Machine Gun Preacher ultimately follows its hero in giving short shrift to the domestic storyline.

In addition to providing for one’s own family, protecting families and children generally is a recurring masculine trait. Tommy in Warrior doesn’t have a family of his own, but he takes an active and personal interest in the fate of a slain buddy’s widow and orphans. Childers dedicates his life to rescuing the children of Sudan, and the policemen in Courageous put their lives on the line to protecting their communities, including a potential child hostage in one scene.

Although physical competence helps the family men in all three films provide and protect their families, each of the films recognizes that more is required. Good fathers must be available for their children, must enter into their children’s worlds. This can be as simple as a silly but familiar word game between Sam Childers and his daughter, or Brendan allowing his daughters to put a bonnet on his head and paint his cheeks like Raggedy Ann.

This scene in Warrior—significantly, Brendan’s first appearance in the film—illustrates a tendency in Hollywood films generally to depict family men as less emphatically masculine than their single peers. (Stella Bruzzi documents this in Bringing Up Daddy: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Postwar Hollywood.) Note Brendan’s comment on his daughters’ game: “I think Daddy’s become a princess.”

Although the film emphasizes the attractiveness of Brendan’s wife (repeatedly showing her in varying states of dishabille), Brendan’s struggles to provide for his family leave him unable to protect her dignity as he would like, and he watches in chagrin as she departs for a waitressing job wearing a revealing outfit that may occasion harassment from male patrons.

Compared to his bad-boy younger brother Tommy—a fierce, glowering alpha male, taking down opponent after opponent within seconds and unceremoniously quitting the cage without even waiting to be declared the winner—Brendan is less dominant and more sensitive. (In my review I called Brendan Faramir to Tommy’s Boromir.) In the cage Brendan is tentative and cautious, relying less on power than on endurance, patience and strategy, winning bouts with submission holds rather than knockouts. Warrior may ultimately affirm Brendan’s mode of manhood over Tommy’s, but Brendan’s the underdog all the way.

Even in Courageous, for all its celebration of square-jawed fatherhood, there are indications that a man may have to risk adopting a somewhat less masculine image in order to enter his children’s world. Director and cowriter Alex Kendrick plays a competent but emotionally semi-unavailable father named Adam who watches fondly while his daughter dances on the grass but self-consciously declines to dance with her, offering the excuse that he will dance in his heart. This paternal reticence, which will later haunt Adam, reflects a false or exaggerated masculine self-regard that fathers must dispense with. (On the other hand, being there for his teenaged son ultimately requires Adam to display greater masculine energy by sharing the boy’s passion for running and even competing with him.)

A subtle tension between masculinity and domesticity affects Machine Gun Preacher as well. For Sam Childers, religion is initially something that his wife imposes on him, and at first he looks scruffily out of place at a white-bread Assemblies of God praise service. Later, though, stopping by a bar in a striped collar shirt to talk to an old biker buddy, he looks almost as out of place. Respectability has taken a certain toll on his rugged image, at least for the moment.

Eventually Sam seems to figure out how to reconcile his customary Harley-Davidson mojo with his new-found faith—but as time goes on, Sam’s increasing militantcy about his African work and opposition to the Sudanese rebels undermines both his religious feeling and his commitment to his family. Thus, the tension between Sam’s masculinity and his domestic entanglements, including his faith, remains unresolved.

In Warrior, religion matters only for the father Paddy, whose Catholic faith informs his 12-step recovery from alcoholism. Even responsible family man Brendan shows no sign of religiosity, and his protectiveness of his family leads him to be harshly unforgiving with his father—an estrangement that shows little if any sign of healing.

For Courageous, of course, faith in Jesus is nothing less than the foundation for authentic manhood. The gang leaders offer an intimidating counterpoint, and an orphaned young man lacking male role models falls in with them rather than with, say, one of the heroic cops with whom he has a brief exchange.

Overall, despite some issues, religion is handled respectfully and is depicted as a positive force in the lives of Warrior‘s Paddy (and his wife) and Machine Gun Preacher‘s Sam Childers (it goes without saying that the same is true of Courageous). Notwithstanding the flaws of individual characters, masculinity as such and the importance of fatherhood in particular are constructively engaged. While none of these are perfect films, I’m reasonably encouraged by these positive trends.

Incidentally, next month will offer a change of pace from all this testosterone: a Christian-themed sports film about women, The Mighty Macs.

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