Billy Graham Goes to the Movies
Forty years after the fact, Denny Wayman can still remember one of his first experiences with evangelism—and it took place in a movie theatre in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Wayman was still in junior high school when World Wide Pictures, the movie studio founded by evangelist Billy Graham, produced The Restless Ones (1965), a film about juvenile delinquents, teen pregnancy, and other social issues. The film ends with Graham issuing an altar call at one of his crusades, and just as the characters in the movie are encouraged to come forward, so too the audience in the movie theatre was invited to take a stand for Christ. And Wayman was one of the counselors who stood, waiting, at the front.
"It was pretty memorable, because it kind of takes you out of your comfort zone as a ninth or tenth grader," recalls Wayman, who was one of over 30 counselors who had been trained by Graham's organization prior to the film's screening. "Back then, they sent out a team—I think it was three or four people—and they met with us for two weeks at the church, and they trained us in personal evangelism and how to lead a person to Christ."
Wayman remembers praying with a boy three years younger than himself, taking the young man's follow-up card, and referring him to a church. "I would not say that the films, as films, were a big part of my spiritual life; but I would say that that experience of evangelism training and being responsible for the film, and for a person's soul, was dramatic," he says today.
The Restless Ones marked a number of turning points in the history of World Wide Pictures. At a time when Hollywood films were becoming increasingly risqué—the industry's morality code was abandoned and replaced with the current ratings system just a few years later, in 1968—it became the first Billy Graham movie to be shown in regular theatres.
Wayman, now a pastor and a film critic for the Cinema in Focus website, admits that one of the reasons he wanted to work on this particular evangelistic team was because it would allow him to step inside a movie theatre. "Free Methodists, at that point in our denomination, were not allowed to go to movies," he says. "It wasn't a written rule, but it was kind of a social thing. For me, it was kind of like tasting the Turkish Delight."
The film also marked a passing of the torch, so to speak, between two generations of Christian filmmakers—the creative forces who had guided World Wide Pictures in its early days, and those who would lead the ministry to some of its greatest successes.
The Early Days
The Restless Ones was the last World Wide Picture to be directed by Dick Ross. Ross, owner of Great Commission Films, had first met Graham in 1949 and began filming some of his crusades soon after, for documentary purposes. Some of this footage would be used years later in films like Wiretapper (1955) and No Longer Alone (1978), which dramatized the true stories of people who had become Christians at some of Graham's earliest crusades.
World Wide's first dramatic film was Mr. Texas, produced during the Fort Worth crusade in 1951. It was followed by Oiltown, U.S.A. (1954), in which the climactic Billy Graham sermon is delivered not at a crusade but through a television broadcast; Souls in Conflict (1955), set during the London crusade in 1954; The Heart Is a Rebel (1958), set during the New York crusade in 1957; and Shadow of the Boomerang (1960), set in Australia.
All of these films concern characters who at first are skeptical of the claims of Christianity, openly living sinful lives, or sincerely looking for answers to their questions about the deeper meaning of life; and in the end, most of these characters come to Christ—assisted perhaps by the witness of friends or family, and usually after hearing Graham preach.