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Tuesday, February 25, 2003
TO END ALL WARS

Last night, I (with about 350 other Hollywood Christians) attended an Inter-Mission screening of the much anticipated To End All Wars. "Much anticipated" by Christians in the industry, anyway, because its creators have been everywhere saying that their film would be "gritty and real" and, by implication, much closer to what Christians should be making than Left Behind, or The Omega Code.

To End All Wars is certainly in a completely different category from the apocalyptic genre movies that have come from Christian groups up till now. First of all, it isn't embarrassing to the Church. Far from it. This film presents authentic Christianity, dwelling on themes of self-sacrifice, universal charity and forgiveness. It is a good, solid step forward for Christian filmmakers, and will be a worthy foundation for the work that is to come from believers who seek to bring a Gospel worldview to mainstream cinema.

Having said all that, I also need to say that, personally, I did not enjoy this film, principally because of flaws in its storytelling. I also don't tend to like screen violence. (Although, there are some films that I whole-heartedly recommend that are violent, like Ghandi and The Mission.)

It seems to me that at its bottom-line, To End All Wars is a kind of Christian male hagiography in which godly men are tortured, beaten, bruatlized in every way, and even crucified, but never fail to emanate voice-over Gospel verses while it is going on. The movie is impressive because watching human beings being beaten and tortured is still horrific to watch.

The morning after To End All Wars, I had a brutality hang-over, remarkably similar to how I felt after screening Gangs of New York. My Christian friends will no doubt tell me that is my problem, because the strong redemptive themes here (as opposed to the far-reaching cyncicism of Gangs) make the graphic violence in this film a completely different thing. I don't know. I really wish I didn't feel this way. I like the people who made this movie and I wanted to like their movie too. Sigh.

The terrible violence in Wars isn't gratuitious, in the sense that it IS the story here. But I am always leery of movies that try and be riveting by relying principally on this kind of violence. The problem is, after you have been shocked and violated by the violence, the victory in which the film culminates, never feels as good as the evil felt horrible. This film leaves the viewer feeling a little sick, instead of triumphant. I will be haunted by the violence, but not in a way which deepens me, because I am not processing it. There isn't any work for me to do in watching men beat one another. When I was little, I used to travel around to pro-life talks with my mother. She resisted using slides depicting abortion favoring much more emphasis on images of unborn babies in the womb. She used to say "What will we do when the bloody pictures stop working?" You either get what I mean here, or you don't. It is a prescient caution.

Based on the true story that was Hollywoodized in the classic (and obviously much better film) Bridge On the River Quai, To End All Wars has problems in the first five minutes in terms of its production values. The film introduces us to some of our main Scottish characters, and then uses a series of black and white photos of WWII before showing the same guys being hustled, blindfolded and handcuffed, by a few Japanese extras. Clearly, a war movie feels weirdly cheap, if it doesn't show us any large scale battle scenes....especially when there are movies like Gods and Generals playing in the cineplex next door. Watching Wars, it immediately occurred to me that they didn't have the money here to tell this story, and that the quick transition was a cost-saving measure. It isn't a good thing when a viewer's brain lapses outside the diegetic illusion in the first five minutes to think thoughts like this.

Still, I could forgive them for over-shooting in production values, if the project didn't also fail seriously in script. It does have some very fine actors doing their best here, including Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle. But the script doesn't give any of the characters sufficient backstory to make us ever really connect with their motivations. The movie suffers from the biggest pitfall of ensemble pieces: too many characetrs, none of them developed fully. The various arcs of the characters felt forced and in some cases, with turning points that just came out of nowhere. It is so blessedly Evangelical to have the lynchpin of the POW's transformation be because they had night time book reading sessions. The film has the best of intentions, but, as with most of the movies written and independently produced by Christians, To End All Wars falls short in terms of the basics of the craft.

And artform. Honestly, I don't think it is possible to tell any kind of cinema story about spiritual truths without relying heavily on imagery to convey the deeper meanings that are beyond human language. Covering a movie with Scriptural voice-overs is never going to convince anybody who doesn't already understand those Scriptures. It ends up in just affirming the already converted.

This movie will work with many Christians, particularly men, and possibly with some non-Christians. I wouldn't let my kids go to see it as the images are just too graphic. I look forward to the next project from this group of filmmakers.