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Current Faith-Themed Movies Explore Masculinity

09/21/2011 Comment

Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte in Warrior

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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.

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(Comments for Part 1 are closed. Please comment in Part 2.)

Filed under hollywood, men, movies

About Steven D. Greydanus

SDG
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Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and Decent Films, the online home for his film writing. He writes regularly for Christianity Today, Catholic World Report and other venues, and is a regular guest on several radio shows. Steven has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. He is pursuing diaconal studies in the Archdiocese of Newark. Steven and Suzanne have seven children.