Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Leaving the 99 Part 5: The Searchers (1956)


     When I started thinking of movies to include in this month’s series, “The Searchers” was not one of them at first. I didn’t make a connection between that story and Jesus’ parable until about a year ago, re-watching it for probably the twentieth time. I think I’ve said before that I admire John Ford’s films, and this is by far my favorite. “The Searchers” is not only a special kind of Western; it is a funny, emotional, beautiful character study of a man who must put aside prejudices to save his family. And in my opinion, it belongs in this series.

     The film opens with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into Texas a few years after the Civil War to see his brother Aaron and his family. His brother’s wife Martha is there to greet him, as a flame between her and Ethan is quietly kindled without anyone really addressing it. There are three children in the family, four including the boy they adopted who isn’t really a boy anymore. This is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), whose parents were massacred by Native Americans before Ethan found him and gave him to Aaron. Ethan, however, thinks nothing of it; we learn later that he is a racist against the Native Americans, which may be part of the reason he didn’t return home as soon as the war ended.

     Later on, as Ethan and some others discover a raid on a neighbor’s cattle, Aaron’s family prepares for an impending attack. They send their youngest daughter Deborah out to hide, but the chief “Indian” finds her before the film fades out and back in to the next day. Ethan and Martin find Aaron’s home on fire, with the eldest daughter’s bloodied dress found outside and Martha’s corpse within. Ethan is, as we can imagine, incredibly distraught, and he sets out to find Deborah and the eldest daughter Lucy with Martin and Lucy’s beau Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.). I won’t explain all the details, but Ethan eventually finds Lucy’s corpse, which he doesn’t describe to Brad or Martin, and buries it in secret. Brad is so distraught that he rides off into the desert and shoots himself.

     Ethan and Martin continue on their journey, and along the way, they visit the home of Brad’s family. There, Martin is re-acquainted with Brad’s sister Laurie (Vera Miles), who it turns out has been in love with Martin for a long time. When Ethan tries to convince Martin to stay at their home after Ethan finds a clue to where Debbie might be, Martin refuses:

MARTIN: I started out looking for Debbie, I intend to keep on.

ETHAN: Why?

MARTIN: Why! Well, because she’s my—

ETHAN: She’s your nothing. She’s no kin to you at all.

MARTIN: Well, I always kinda thought she was; the way her folks took me in, they raised me—

ETHAN: That don’t make you no kin.

MARTIN: All right, maybe it don’t! But I intend to keep on looking anyway!

     And sure enough, the two push on together, and after an altogether five-year journey, they eventually come across the same chief who led the attack on Aaron’s family. When they sit down with the chief known as Cicatriz—that’s Spanish for “Scar”—they finally see Debbie (Natalie Wood), who is no longer a little girl but now a young woman who has seemingly become part of the tribe. When she runs to Martin after the meeting and tells the two of them to flee, Ethan pulls out his gun ready to kill her. To him, there is no hope of saving her; she has gone too long in the company of the violent, disgusting Native Americans.

     The two men are attacked and flee for a time before returning to Laurie’s home, but Martin now understands that Ethan no longer accepts Debbie as his flesh and blood. And now, it’s almost as if Martin hates Ethan just as much as Ethan hates the “Indians”. But when the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) finds out that Scar and his tribe are not too far off from where they are, he employs Martin and Ethan to help him and his men rescue Debbie and run off the tribe’s pony herd, thus forcing them to make an agreement with the white men.

     Ethan is at first unwilling to have Martin go ahead of them all and rescue Debbie himself—he lets Martin know that as the two of them noticed earlier that Scar collects white men’s scalps, Ethan noticed that one of the scalps belonged to Martin’s mother. But Martin is still determined to save Debbie’s life, even if it means risking his own. And soon, Martin sneaks into the tribe and finds Debbie before escaping death. The white men follow him in on horseback, but Ethan goes off separately to cut off Scar’s scalp and catch Debbie himself. Martin chases after him with his gun, convinced that he will kill her. But instead, Ethan lifts her up, carries her, and tells her: “Let’s go home, Debbie.”

     As the film ends with Martin and Laurie re-uniting, along with Debbie coming into Laurie’s home and Ethan heading back into the great unknown of the West, I’ll admit I was a little confused at the first few viewings of the film. Ethan Edwards is one of the most complex characters ever put on film, and it’s very hard to actually figure out why he does what he does. His relationship and past with Martha is never expressed in words; his history with Native Americans is never explained; and the real reason why he saves Debbie’s life is never really determined. The audience sort of has to figure that out on its own.

     What I think, though, is that Ethan was moved by Martin’s courage. Martin was willing to risk his life to save his sister (albeit not a flesh-and-blood sister), even when he knew what the Native Americans might do to him. Perhaps this is what convinced Ethan to put his racism aside and give Debbie a chance at life. But it’s up for interpretation, and it probably will be for years to come as audiences continue to rightfully call “The Searchers” one of the greatest films ever made.

     So what does all this have to do with Matthew 18? To me, this story is another example of a man’s journey across the world (or, in this case, the United States) to find just one person. And this person isn’t exactly close family; she doesn’t yet have many prospects; she’s simply a child. But nevertheless, Ethan and Martin travel the country to rescue her from harm. And considering that they could have wasted five years just to find out she was dead, the fact that they went on this journey is pretty bold.

     And guess what? God would do the same for you and me. As a shepherd would leave ninety-nine sheep to find one that was lost, so would my God go through the whole world to rescue just one prodigal son. I serve a great God, a loving God; and I pray that wherever you find yourself today, that you would realize the amazing love that God has for you. Praise the Lord!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Leaving the 99 Part 4: Schindler's List (1993)


     Five years before Spielberg changed cinema with “Saving Private Ryan” (and in my opinion, that film really did change the way war films are made), he created one of his most personal films: another World War Two story, but this one based on a true person. And this film, “Schindler’s List”, has gone down in history to become not just one of the most celebrated films ever but also one of the most personal, because of the connection Spielberg had to the people portrayed in it.

     The film is about Nazi businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), hoping to become a war profiteer as World War Two looms in Germany. After acquiring a factory to produce army supplies, he also acquires an assistant, a Jew named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). Stern convinces Schindler that Jews cost less to employ at the factory than Catholic Poles. Soon, the factory is full of working Jews, simply because they cost Schindler less.

     But Schindler soon realizes another reason to keep Jews in his factory. One day, he and his wife witness the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, overseen by SS Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), and Schindler is disturbed. At first, he only cared about Jews dying because it meant less workers in his factory. But suddenly, he realizes that the whole situation deals with real people and real lives.

     As Goeth supervises the construction of the Plaszow concentration camp, enjoying the sexual company of Jewish woman Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz) and the entertainment of killing other Jews at random, Schindler continues to enjoy his financial support from the SS. However, when he decides not to leave Krakow, he begins to bribe Goeth for individual Jews to employ in his factory—when in reality he is saving them from being transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Each Jew costs a fortune, but Schindler is able (and willing) to pay that price. And he and Stern compose a list of Jews to buy from Goeth to keep in the factory, a list that Stern says represents life.

     Over time, Schindler forbids SS guards to harm his employees, and he even allows his Jews to keep the Sabbath. When the war finally ends, Schindler has to flee, but before doing so, the Jews present him with a ring which reads: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” As Schindler and Stern bid farewell, Schindler begins to get emotional:

SCHINDLER: I could have got more. …If I'd made more money. I… I threw away so much money! You have no idea. …I didn't do enough. This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't!

     Several of the Jews comfort Schindler as he sobs, before he must leave them. In an epilogue, it is revealed that Goeth was hanged, Schindler died decades later, and thousands of the “Schindler Jews” live today. And all because one man wanted to profit during World War Two! It seems that what started out as a mission driven by selfish ambition became something so much more.

     “Schindler’s List” isn’t quite an example of leaving the ninety-nine as Jesus preaches, but Schindler’s final monologue as he laments to Stern represents this idea to me. He saved thousands of Jews from death in concentration camps, but he still had regrets that he could have saved just one more person. This is, to me, another example of God’s love for us; He is thankful for those whom He has found, but He longs for each one of us. I believe that it pains Him when just one person decides to turn away from the faith, because He loves each one of us so much. The way I see it, if Heaven rejoices when just one person comes to repentance, wouldn’t Heaven also weep for that one person who rejects God?

     I guess that is an issue for another time and place, but regardless, I continue to pray that you would know the love of God for each man and woman on earth, including you, and that you would be able to come to that place of repentance if you need to be found there.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Leaving the 99 Part 3: Saving Private Ryan (1998)


     I can’t even remember when the last time it was that I wrote about a Steven Spielberg film on “Reel Christianity”. In 2011, I did an article on “Close Encounters”, but besides that, there hasn’t been much on Spielberg or his work that I’ve written. I’m not sure why that is, but I do know that this week and the next, as part of the “Leaving the Ninety-nine” series, I will be writing about two Spielberg films that I think fit this teaching of Jesus very well. The first is what many consider his masterpiece, the World War Two action drama “Saving Private Ryan”.

     The film opens with the iconic, twenty-minute-long battle sequence of the invasion of Normandy, where we follow a group of soldiers led by a Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). During the battle, one of the corpses we see is of an American soldier with the last name Ryan. He is one of four brothers fighting in the war and one of three of them who have already died in combat. The fourth, James Ryan (Matt Damon), is still out fighting, but no one is sure where he is. But General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell), against the advice of those under his command, declares that James Ryan is alive, out there in Germany somewhere, and that a team of men must go find him and get him out of that war.

     So Miller and several of his men are chosen to go find Ryan, and we learn through the hour and a half that they spend searching for him that overall, none of them are happy about it. Among them are Private Reiben (Edward Burns) and Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi):

REIBEN: You wanna explain the math of this to me? I mean, where's the sense of risking' the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?

WADE: Reiben, think about the poor [guy’s] mother.

REIBEN: Hey, Doc, I got a mother, all right? I mean, you got a mother. Sarge has got a mother. I mean, [heck], I bet even the captain's got a mother. …Well, maybe not the captain, but the rest of us got mothers.

MILLER: We all have orders, and we have to follow them. That supersedes everything, including your mothers.

REIBEN: Even if you think the mission's FUBAR, sir?

MILLER: Especially if you think the mission's FUBAR.

     FUBAR, by the way, stands for Fumbled Up Beyond All Recognition. Well, not quite, but I wasn’t about to put a dirty word in my article. Anyway, the group of men travels through Germany looking for Private Ryan, putting themselves in danger every step of the way. Two men, including Wade, are even killed during the search. Eventually, they do find Ryan, but he refuses to go home when the men he is fighting with have to stay where they are. Miller is conflicted about what to do, and then his friend Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) tells him what he thinks:

HORVATH: Part of me thinks the kid's right… But then another part of me thinks, what if by some miracle we stay, then actually make it out of here. Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole… mess.

     In a following battle, Miller is killed, but Ryan stays alive and is subsequently sent back home. The film closes as we see James Ryan, now a grandfather, at Miller’s tombstone reflecting on the war.

     When I was thinking of doing this series, this was another film I immediately thought of that I knew would be appropriate. This team of soldiers goes through the hell of World War Two to find a single man and bring him back safely to his mother. It doesn’t seem fair, sure. But if we think about God’s love the same way, we realize that His love isn’t fair, either. If He was fair, we’d all be dead because we are all sinners. But we are still loved, and that’s the miracle of faith that we all need to accept and rejoice in. My prayer is that you would indeed rejoice in that today.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Leaving the 99 Part 2: Finding Nemo (2003)


     Continuing our series this month, we’re looking at another children’s—well, another animated film that deals with this idea of leaving the ninety-nine to find one. However, this film deals with it in a slightly different angle. Today’s film, which is still one of Pixar Animation Studios’ most celebrated stories, is about a father searching all over the world—well, all over the ocean, to find his lost son. And I’ve wanted to write about it for a while. Ladies and gentlemen, “Finding Nemo.”

     In the film, a clownfish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) loses his wife and many unborn children in an attack by a swordfish. Only one egg is saved, albeit damaged. This fish grows up to be Nemo (Alexander Gould), born with his left fin too small but his imagination still huge. As he heads off to his first day of school, his father, still emotionally scarred, acts very protective of Nemo, thinking that he will hurt himself at the slightest action. When Nemo goes off with some friends to a drop-off and Marlin scolds him, the tension between the two characters is fully present. And in rebellion, Nemo swims up to a nearby boat and touches it, much to Marlin’s anger.

     But suddenly, Nemo is captured by a scuba diver and taken to land, where he is trapped in a fish tank at a dentist’s office, awaiting an imminent demise by shaking from the dentist’s clumsy daughter. So without hesitation, Marlin sets off to rescue his son, though he is nowhere near prepared for what is ahead of him. Luckily, though, coming soon to his rescue is Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a blue regal tang fish (I think) who deals with short-term memory loss. The two fish are a very unlikely couple, but both soon set off to find Nemo.

     Along the way, there are, of course, obstacles. The two of them meet up with sharks who declare at a, uh… Sharks Anonymous meeting that they shall not eat fish, and then one shark is tempted to eat the two fish. Marlin and Dory find themselves in a dark part of the ocean until a bigger fish lights up and tries to eat them. They try to make it through an area filled with jellyfish and get very hurt in the process, until turtles pick them up and carry them along the East Australian Current. Once delivered, the two are swallowed by a whale, then spat up to Sydney, where Nemo is.

     Meanwhile, at the dentist’s office, Nemo is unsure of what is going to happen to him. Another fish there, Gill (Willem Dafoe), declares them their leader to escape into the ocean, but Nemo is almost killed in the process. The dentist’s daughter’s arrival gets closer day by day. And every idea that the other fish have of getting out of the tank is foiled. However, when word gets around the ocean (I’m sure word travels fast there…) that Marlin is looking for Nemo, a seagull named Nigel (Geoffrey Rush) lets Nemo know and tries to help Marlin and Dory find him.

     But when Marlin believes Nemo to be dead (if you want all the details, just watch the movie), he abandons lonely Dory and tries to go back to his life back home. But after Nemo finally escapes into the ocean, and the three fish find themselves about to be captured by fishermen, they escape the net and finally make amends, as Marlin discovers how to truly love his son.

     I guess “Finding Nemo” is more about a parent being overprotective than it is about a parent crossing the world to find their son. Nemo isn’t exactly a “prodigal son”, and Marlin is the one who does the searching while Nemo is trapped. But I still think there’s something to be said about a father loving his son so much that he would go through the whole world to find him again.

     And praise the Lord that this Father we have in Heaven is willing to do that for us! Many of us probably say in our testimony, “I found Christ when…” I’m pretty sure I’ve said that before. But the truth is, I’m trapped in sin. It was God who found me when I was bound in sin and rescued me from that life. And because of that one soul that found Him, all of Heaven rejoiced, as Jesus says in Luke 15. I pray that you and I would continue to be reminded in these next few weeks of God’s love for us, that He would cross through our whole world, even send His son to die for our sins, in order to show that He loves us.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Leaving the 99 Part 1: Arthur Christmas (2011)


     A series that I’ve wanted to do on “Reel Christianity” for a long time has to do with a parable that Jesus tells, as recorded in Matthew 18. After preaching to his followers that they must have the faith of a child to enter Heaven, he warns them not to let one of them stumble in their faith, that each one of them matters.

     “‘What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.’” (18:12-14)

     This idea of leaving the “ninety-nine” to save one soul is one of the most discussed ideas of Jesus’ teaching. There have been books written about it, songs written about it, you name it. It is much less clear, however, to see this idea portrayed in film. As far as I see it, though, it is still in many films if we simply look for it. And this month, I’m looking at five movies that deal with this idea of going out of one’s way to find one single person in need.

     Today’s article, however, is probably going to be pretty short, because it’s a very simple movie that I felt was less about this idea and more about just entertaining kids. And I apologize for writing about “Arthur Christmas” at the beginning of May, I know it feels really out place; but it still portrays this theme pretty well in my opinion.

     This film is about the son of Santa Claus, for some reason named Arthur Christmas (voiced by James McAvoy), who lives humbly in the shadow of his older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie), who heads a company of elves armed with a bunch of high-tech gear and gadgets that basically help Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) accomplish his mission of delivering billions of toys around the world in one night. It’s sort of like those “Prep and Landing” cartoons, but British.

     But one Christmas, all the presents are delivered—except one, a bicycle for a girl in England named Gwen. When Arthur realizes this, he panics and reports it to Steve, who shrugs it off. He tells Arthur that one present missing is nothing to worry about, and that overall, this year’s Christmas Eve was a success. But Arthur will not succumb to this, as he tells his grandfather, who apparently goes by Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), about the situation:

ARTHUR: In two hours, she is going to wake up, tear downstairs, search under the tree, and... the look on her face! When she finds that there is nothing there, she won't understand! She will think that she is the only one kid in the whole world that Santa does not care about! She will feel so left out! …On Christmas night, he comes! Gwen cannot fail to have a present from Santa!

GRANDSANTA: Do you know, Arthur—there is a way!

ARTHUR: It's impossible!

GRANDSANTA: They used to say that it was impossible to teach women to read! Follow me!

     That last line I threw in for free, I got a chuckle out of it. (Sorry, ladies.) But yeah, long story short, the two men go from the North Pole to England, going through a bunch of obstacles along the way that I won’t write about here, and Gwen’s bicycle is delivered. When she opens it on Christmas morning, her belief in Santa Claus is confirmed—and eventually, Arthur is rightfully declared the new Santa.

     Even though this is a simple, cartoonish movie that I think aims to entertain rather than impact audiences (that was the case for me; I was entertained but not really impacted). But this was one of the first movies I thought of when I thought of this idea of leaving the ninety-nine. Arthur literally goes to fulfill one child’s wishes on Christmas when the people around him believe that a single child is nothing to worry about—and that is what Jesus tells us.

     In Luke 15, when Jesus tells the Pharisees this parable again, he adds: “‘I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’” (15:7) And I hope that this month, you will join me as we look for this theme in other films.