In our times, it sometimes seems like the best men lack all conviction to stand up to injustice. Because of this, it is a rare and intense thing to witness the true story of Sam Childers, a former Hell’s Angel biker-turned-preacher, who dedicated everything he had to save orphaned and kidnapped children in the heart of Civil War Sudan. The story of The Machine Gun Preacher is both dark and uplifting – an intense experience that shows unlikely light shining through unimaginable darkness.
The opening moments of Machine Gun Preacher are emotionally shocking, for even the most hardened. It jolts audiences immediately into the hellish reality of the Republic of Sudan during a civil war in the late 90’s. The film suddenly shifts to Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a rough-looking biker, fresh out of a stint in prison, who is just returning to his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) and his young daughter Paige. From the outset, he doesn’t treat them well. It’s less than 24 hours before he’s back with his shady buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon) and participating in drug-addled adventures of violent crime. As he scrapes bottom, he becomes a born again Christian. Sam discovers the Mission to Sudan through his church, and what he sees in Africa changes him. After witnessing the aftermath of a massacre, Sam decided he had to save these kids. Undeterred by the danger, he enlists the help of Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane), a rebel solder, to help him build and defend with arms an orphanage full of children in the heart of violent territory.
Gerard Butler plays Sam Childers as a force to be reckoned with. He is the storm that walks into the room – if he is angry, you are angry. If he feels hope, so do you. He is a bi-polar enigma – reaching for light, but always fighting dark forces. In an early scene in the film, a tornado rips through their mobile home park, and Sam uses a shotgun to blow multiple holes through the trailer floor to hide his family in the crawlspace below. In this scene it is he, not the tornado, that is the unstoppable force of nature.
Yet he is clearly moved to tears by the plight of the orphans in Sudan, most of them witnesses of their own families’ violent murder. He becomes hurt by what he sees, suddenly vulnerable – his eyes both unbelieving and devastated. And it becomes clear to see that he can’t stop helping them, even when he has nothing left. The price of a few thousand dollars can buy a truck that can save 20 or more children in one night. Sam’s obsession compels him to do all that he can, even at the expense of providing for his family. It is not long before he is participating in armed raids to save abducted children.
Performances are astonishing from the entire cast. Gerard Butler plays Childers’ violent redemption with seasoned depth and raw power. Michael Shannon as Donnie is an authentic wreck, whose loyalty is disarming. Souleymane Sy Savane is so quietly passionate in the role of Deng, that you believe he has been fighting this war for years. Michelle Monaghan’s Lynn demonstrates a grounded, uncompromising energy when she challenges Childers.
It is enormously refreshing to see a studio film not papering over the real life Sam Childers’ absolute dedication to his religion. His preaching and church life feel authentic and are central to his story, and the director treated this part of his life with respect. Whatever your feelings are about religion, you will come to respect Sam Childers.
Machine Gun Preacher forces audiences to ask age-old ethical questions. Does the end justify the means? Childers’ is not Ghandi. He carries an AK-47 and various other arms to kill people that kidnap children. But to paraphrase Childers, “if it were your kids that were missing, would it matter to you how someone got them back to you safely?” In order to defend yourself against darkness, must part of you become darkness? These are not easy questions and rarely asked by film anymore. This film’s hope ultimately outshines its despair, though it is not easy to witness the latter.