Last year, critics and journalists christened 2014 "The Year of the Bible Movie" — the year that Bible films likeNoah, Left Behind, Exodus, and God’s Not Dead played a significant part in the annual box office numbers. Frankly, it was an exciting and tiresome time for those invested in Christianity in the media.
If 2014 was the year of the Bible movie, 2015’s Christian film market has had a very peculiar trend as well: Christian war movies. First came Little Boy, a WWII-era drama directed by Bella’s Alejandro Monteverde. Three months later, over the July 4 weekend, Christian film distributor Pure Flix released its Vietnam War faith film Faith of Our Fathers in honor of America’s birthday.
While unrelated in plot and text, the two films do share a unique approach when it comes to the historical wars presented in the films.
Little Boy: The Miraculous Bomb?
Little Boy tells the story of Pepper Flynt Busbee, an eight-year old boy known by his friends as "Little Boy". Pepper loves his father and would do anything for him. However, when the military begins recruiting troops at the start of World War II, Pepper’s dad is assigned to the Pacific theatre, where he has to fight the Japanese army. This is distressing for Pepper, who is worried about his father’s safety. At this time, Pepper learns about the power of prayer and how "faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains."
However, a priest tells Pepper that if he wants to use his faith to bring his father back, he has to perform a series of selfless acts to build up his faith — which includes becoming friends with an older Japanese fellow from the neighborhood, helping his neighbors, and standing up to his bully. The story is reminiscent of films like The Ultimate Gift or Pay It Forward, where an individual has to perform a certain number of selfless acts in order to reach a particular goal. What complicates the film’s simple plot is its use of miracles and its connection to the atomic bomb.
As Pepper begins to perform these selfless acts in his neighborhood, his acts seem to cause miracles, which inspire the town and create local interest in the boy. But as the climax approaches, the film goes too far in its use of miracles. (Spoilers ahead.) During the film, Pepper’s father is captured by Japanese forces, and the army tells Pepper’s mom that he is MIA. Pepper isn’t willing to accept that fact, so he begins praying and asking for a miracle to return his father. That miracle comes through the atomic bomb known as "Little Boy," which ends the war and eventually brings the father back.
In other words, the film makes it seem like God used the nuclear bomb — a device that killed tens of thousands within a few seconds — just to bring back one boy’s father. This juxtaposition inspired Variety’s Justin Chang to argue that this peculiar set of events are "enough to make you wonder exactly what kind of God — or rather, what kind of filmmaker — would consider it righteous or edifying to wipe out an entire city for the sake of mollifying some saucer-eyed little moppet."
Nathaniel Booth of Filmwell does note this may be a bit of an exaggeration, since the film is written in a way that seems to present the event through memories. However, when the film attempts to address the events through a dream sequence, Pepper’s lack of response to the events takes away from the horrors and pains that the bomb caused.
Faith of Our Fathers: Whitewashing of Vietnam
Faith of Our Fathers focuses on the story of two 30-something sons who go on a roadtrip across America to find out what happened to their fathers during the Vietnam War. The film intertwines the two men’s stories with scenes of their fathers fighting in Vietnam, developing a relationship, and one eventually sharing the Gospel with the other. The film tries to be a buddy comedy, with road antics and celebrity comedy.
While the film’s focus is clearly on remembering those who died in Vietnam, the film takes a very clean approach to the war. We never hear the soldiers mention Vietnam or the Viet Cong during the flashbacks, and we certainly don’t learn why the U.S. army is there. The creators seem to assume that the audience already understands the conflict, and that they can move past the details of the war in order to focus on the Gospel’s presence on the battlefield.
But this decision to focus just on the Christian relationships in the war takes away from the complex and morally grey issues surrounding the Vietnam War. As a younger viewer, I left the film with a series of questions: did the directors think the U.S. intervention in Vietnam was justified? Should we have left at an earlier time? How do we deal with the ethical atrocities that were committed by U.S. forces, such as the use of napalm?
By ignoring these questions, Faith of Our Fathers presents this bland image of war that honors the men who fought without realizing what or why they fought, or even if it was worthy of honoring.
While Little Boy and Faith of Our Fathers are films made by different teams and creators with different interests, they both reflect an intrinsic tendency in the Christian film industry to "clean things up." Both films ignore the darker moral implications of the symbols they choose. While the filmmakers clearly want to remember the people who fought in these wars, their attempts at cleaning up history so that it’s family friendly doesn’t do the veterans the justice they deserve.