What kind of person founds an orphanage in war-ravaged Sudan? Machine Gun Preacher answers that question with the gripping of one Sam Childers, a man possessed by Oskar Schindler-like zeal to save as many suffering Sudanese children as possible.
When we first meet Sam, he's a volcano of a man who's just been released from prison. After a verbal slugfest with his wife—he's enraged that Lynn's decided to quit stripping after finding Jesus—Sam storms off for a night of shooting up heroin with an old partner in crime named Donnie.
Things quickly go from bad to worse for Sam, even as Lynn and the couple's adolescent daughter, Paige, beg him to come to church. Finally, after nearly killing a man, Sam relents and repents. Then, when a missionary from Uganda speaks at church about the needs there, Sam is convicted to put his construction skills to work overseas.
Starting in Uganda, Sam travels north to Sudan, a country locked in a genocidal civil war that results in horrific persecution for Christians. There, he meets Deng, a soldier in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (or SPLA)—and he witnesses firsthand the awful human toll exacted upon villages. It's a toll that leaves myriad orphans bereft of protection or hope.
Back in the States, Sam can't shake what he's seen. One sleepless night and vision from God later, he decides to found a church in Pennsylvania for misfits like himself, as well as an orphanage in Sudan for desperate children. But embracing that calling will result in unceasing strife—both in Sudan and at home—for Sam, a man who comes to be known as the Machine Gun Preacher.
Setbacks in Africa discourage Sam to the point of giving up. But a phone call from his wife inspires him to press on. And press on he does. Repeatedly, Sam, Deng and their compatriots face danger and death as they clash with the forces of renegade butcher Joseph Kony and his so-called Lord's Resistance Army (known as the LRA).
Veering from the typical Hollywood template, the film depicts the toll Sam's zeal takes on his life. As his commitment to the Sudanese grows, Sam sacrifices everything to fund the orphanage, including his motorcycle, his guns and his business. He's consumed by his mission, so much so that his daughter accuses him of loving the "little black babies" more than he does her. And in that moment, Machine Gun Preacher confronts viewers with this valuable question: When does a faith-fueled commitment to a just cause become idolatry?
Similarly, when Sam's faith falters—he rejects God and contemplates suicide—the film offers up a sobering reminder of the valleys a valiant man will always face. Finally, a conversation with a boy who's suffered unspeakable things reawakens Sam's heart, and the story stops with him re-engaging with his mission.
Sam is confronted by a UN aid worker who raises the question of whether he's a humanitarian or a mercenary. She tells him that people like him always believe they're killing for a just cause in the beginning, but that such actions always degenerate into atrocities.
After Sam's conversion, we also see him living out his faith by communicating more affection to his daughter. And Lynn plays a hugely important role in his transformation—encouraging her husband to find God, supporting him as he pursues his new calling, exhorting him not to give up and challenging him to reassess his priorities when his mission begins to consume him.
Early on, Lynn tells her husband why she's relinquished her old vices: "It ain't right in the eyes of God," she says. "You found God?" Sam mocks. "He found me," she replies. "God helped me change." We later see Sam respond to an altar call and get baptized. His pastor talks about how God "breathes light into the darkness" and mentions the forgiving, cleansing power of Jesus' blood. No one's "too dirty" to receive Jesus, he says.
Preaching in the church he starts, Sam says, "God don't only call the good—every now and again he calls us sinners too." And he says, "In your actions you give service to God. He's not interested in your good intentions, in your thoughts. He wants your backs, your blood and sweat." As he grows ever more prophetic, he says God doesn't want sheep, he wants wolves with teeth to fight for justice.
Then Sam's faith cracks after he's unable to save a group of children from being killed and burned. "I'm done with the Lord," he tells his wife. "He turned His back on me." It's intimated that he re-engages, but the details weren't left in the film's final edit.
Sam and Lynn have sex in their car. They're mostly clothed, but there's no doubt about what's happening as the camera shows them from a distance through the window. Another brief scene with the married couple involves some suggestive dancing. They kiss several times. Lynn wears low-cut outfits, and she's shown once in underwear and a tank top.
The horrific atrocities perpetrated by the LRA all but consume this movie. When the group captures a young boy in a village, they slice his face and put a sledgehammer in his hands as he faces his sobbing mother. They demand that he kill her, and we watch as the sledge starts to fall. Later, the boy confesses to Sam that his captors told him they would kill him and his brother if he didn't kill his mother.
A woman is admitted to a UN clinic because her lips have been cut off. Sam finds the lifeless body of a boy whose legs were blown off by a land mine. (We see the explosion and the mangled body.) The group of children Sam couldn't save are killed, piled and burned. (We, with Sam, see the aftermath.)
LRA soldiers burn down villages, gunning down fleeing (and screaming) families. Some—mostly children—are abducted. Sam and others try to repel one such attack. They ambush LRA convoys—blowing up trucks and freeing abducted children—using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. And when Sam fights the enemy, he sometimes finds that his attackers are children. One of them kills his "leader" to regain his (and the other children's) freedom.
Multiple scenes underscore how so many young boys are drawn deeply into the conflict, both as abductees and as soldiers. Deng tells Sam that 30 years of persecution (of Christians by Muslims from the north) have resulted in 2 million deaths. A similar message at the conclusion of the film talks about the hundreds of thousands who've been raped, abducted and killed in southern Sudan.
Sam sits in his hut in Sudan with a pistol on his lap at one point, clearly contemplating suicide.
Before Sam becomes a Christian, he and Donnie use guns to strong arm a man into giving them heroin and money. They pick up a hitchhiker who attacks Donnie with a knife. Sam retaliates, brutally stabbing the man perhaps 10 or 15 times before they toss him out of the car. A fistfight erupts between Sam and two guys at a bar.
Crude or Profane Language
Forty f-words, 15 s-words, one misuse of Jesus' name and one use of "g‑‑d‑‑n." We also hear two instances of "c‑‑ks‑‑‑‑‑," one of "p‑‑‑y," five or six of "n‑‑gger" and 10 of "h‑‑‑." There's a handful of uses each of "a‑‑," a‑‑hole," "b‑‑tard," "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n" and "p‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Heavy drinking leads to a woman tying off Sam's arm and shooting him up with heroin in a bar bathroom: The screen goes white and he wakes up in his living room surrounded by beer bottles, then vomits. A second drug scene involves Sam shooting up Donnie with heroin in his car—while they're driving.
After his conversion, Sam resists Donnie's offer of heroin. And he and Lynn help Donnie kick the habit too. But when Sam's faith slips—an event marked by him going to a bar and having several drinks—he says terrible things to Donnie, who subsequently relapses, overdoses (offscreen) and dies.
About that drinking relapse, the real Sam Childers told Plugged In, "The part where it showed me going back to a barroom and drinking—totally Hollywood. Pastor Steve Muncey in Chicago has a megachurch, and he helps to mentor me a lot. I was really upset over that scene, because for 23 years I've never wavered back to drugs and alcohol. But Steve said, 'You've got to look at the people who do waver back. At least it shows them they can come back out of it.'"
Sam goes to a party where we see lots of people drinking margaritas.
Inspiring. Devastating. Heartbreaking. Disturbing. Revelatory. Graphic. Raw. Those are just a few of the words that spring to mind as I ponder how to sum up Machine Gun Preacher, a complex, category-shattering story.
On one hand, director Marc Forster (who helmed The Kite Runner, a similarly wrenching film) has served up a spiritually poignant story that evokes comparisons to the kind of movies Sherwood Pictures is making—movies like Courageous and Fireproof that unashamedly preach Jesus and show the difference He makes in someone's life. On the other, this deservedly R-rated film pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to hard-edged content: obscenity, violence, drug abuse and sex. In these areas, Machine Gun Preacher is much more akin to Schindler's List and The Apostle, both tales of similarly broken men desperately trying to find redemption in the midst of trying, sometimes brutal circumstances.
Forster says of his protagonist, "The fascinating thing about [Sam] is that he is a very flawed character. He has been abusive to himself and to others throughout his life. Those are just facts. At the same time, he has put his life on the line to save hundreds and hundreds of kids. There is this conflict within the character that makes for truly interesting storytelling."
"The movie definitely was not made for Christian people," Sam told me in a recent phone interview. "I should say it was not made for religious people. I feel that every Christian person out there is going to want to hand tickets out. I think it's a great outreach. … There's no way you can walk into the theater and walk out of the theater, and not be preached to in this movie. So it's like planting seeds. [The movie] shows a conversion. And it shows it in a raw way that most people in the world and of the world can relate to."
He's dead right about one thing: Anyone who watches this movie will be forced to grapple with some pretty significant questions. How do we respond to evil? Can God forgive our most heinous choices? Is violent resistance in defending the innocent ever warranted?
But I'll add one more that's harder to answer than it at first seems: Is a violent, drug-addled and profanity-laced R-rated movie required to raise those issues?
"If a madmen abducted your child or a family member and I said I could bring them home," the real Sam Childers asks as the credits roll, "does it matter how I bring them home?"
It's pretty obvious what his answer is.
A postscript: At the time of this publication, according to Christianity Today, the Chicago Tribune and London's Daily Mail, allegations have surfaced related to the veracity of some details contained in Machine Gun Preacher. And the SPLA has published at least two letters denying any connection to Childers.