“There’s a funny thing happening in the film industry. Film makers—not the businessmen, but the people on the artistic side of creating film—suddenly have a tremendous feeling of responsibility and morality to the viewing public,” says actor-producer-script writer Don Murray, who filled all those functions in a new release to be distributed by the American Baptist Convention-related Gateway Films. The Confessions of Tom Harris tells the true story of this mobster’s conversion to Christ through the silent witness of Pat Jennings, the girl he raped, and eventually married.
Murray, a member of the Church of the Brethren, turns down more jobs than he takes. “Most films are deplorable in their lack of social consciousness or human responsibility,” he explains. He refuses to work on films dealing with the occult, for example (he recently turned down a TV movie contract for that reason). As a Christian Murray wants to produce films that edify as well as entertain. And that’s why he made The Confessions of Tom Harris. Harris had, says Murray, “a Christ-centered conversion”: “we want to get that across to those people trapped in conflicts of violence or in exploitation of others.” As Harris, a good friend of Murray’s, explains it, the makers of Confessions want to reach for Christ those “out in left field.” (The movie is actually a remake of Murray’s Childish Things, which never got beyond its Beverly Hills premiere. Despite fairly favorable reviews, the leading distributors rejected it. Their stock comment: “Too religious.” Curiously, some Christian critics meanwhile deemed it weak in communicating the Gospel.)
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to balance edification with entertainment, and in the past edification usually came out the winner. Too many Christian films are mere excuses for the final sermon—and from the first frame we know that the heavy is heading for conversion. The “too pat” format is resolved by using the real-life story of Tom Harris. But the viewer still must remind himself that this film is not fiction.
We see Tom get dishonorably discharged from the army, rape Pat within sight of her unsuspecting father, who is busy with a group of alcoholics (he is a Christian who runs a ranch for ex-winos), turn amateur boxer and mob “enforcer,” and finally accept Christ in a mystical jail-cell experience. The film is light on symbolism and heavy on realism. The boxing sequences are unusually bloody and violent for a Christian film—but compared to The French Connection the scenes seem quite tame.
The film’s focus falls on three scenes; the first, the rape scene, is handled impressionistically. A whirling merry-go-round (one of the few images in the film, and a striking one) is superimposed on the landscape of surf and sand (the rape takes place under a wharf). Pat’s screams fade into the wail of the sunlit seagulls.
Harris’s final pre-conversion night of depravity with a girl named Angelique (a highly significant name and another reason why the viewer finds it difficult to realize the story is true) falls in the thematic middle of the film. Angelique, nude (the camera is discreetly out of focus when filming below the neck), leafs through a book of Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion. Tracing Christ’s crown of thorns with her finger, she says to Harris, “He must have been a nice man.”
The last symbolic sequence comes after his conversion. His fight—with himself, with God, and with others—is ended. Bloody and bruised from the boxing ring Harris stands under the shower; he is baptized by the running water into a new life.
Murray thinks he maintains a balance between his two objectives. And Harris says he proved it recently when he showed it to “minor versions” of himself in an Atlanta, Georgia, jail. The prisoners responded enthusiastically to the film (they could have seen Patton instead but chose Confessions), reported Murray. After its conclusion—the movie runs ninety minutes—the inmates questioned Harris about his conversion, obviously interested in Jesus Christ.
While the film is professionally made, the acting convincing, and the photography stirring and imaginative, Murray knows he still has some problems to overcome. “There is a great resistance among theater owners, critics, and business men to the Christian theme,” explained Murray. He cited an example: a major film critic in the Los Angeles area who refused to review The Cross and the Switchblade, (also written and largely directed by Murray) gave as his reason, “My parents are Southern Baptists, devout church people—and I hate my parents and Christianity.” Such antipathy is hard to overcome, though it can be done, Murray says. What it takes is time and money.
The film is being previewed by theater owners in city after city. “Once they see the film, we have no trouble booking it into theaters. But we can’t spend more money promoting it than we’ll make at the box office,” Murray explained.
He has also had problems with Christians who refuse to support certain Christian films. One film distributor refused to pick up the contract for Confessions because it didn’t portray “his brand of Christianity,” said Murray. And, because of the more suggestive aspects of the film, Murray may have trouble getting some Christians to support him at the box office. “But you can’t show a man’s change without showing some of his debauchery,” concludes Murray, “and I think we did that without being offensive.”
Some Christians believe in what Murray’s doing. The film cost just under $500,000 to make and was financed by a group of Christian dairy farmers in California’s San Gabriel Valley. Gateway Films, founded by the American Baptist Convention but now a separate company (though there are some American Baptists on its board), is handling distribution. Gateway also distributes The Cross and the Switchblade and The Late Liz, the only films made by the bankrupt Dick Ross and Associates firm. The proceeds from those two films go to a law firm in California handling the receivership for the now defunct film company.
The Confessions of Tom Harris succeeds where The Cross and the Switchblade, a box-office success, fails. The latter film falls apart in its final segment through poor use of actors and script, an unbelievable human situation, and dishonest manipulation of the original true-life story material. The Gospel somehow fails to survive that final scene. Confessions on the other hand forthrightly proclaims the Gospel without sacrificing artistic or professional integrity.
What more could be wanted for a Christian film, other than an audience?
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