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Franklin Graham Criticizes Film About His Dad

But his older sister says Billy: The Early Years is faithful to their father.

When Franklin Graham made a recent statement that somewhat criticized Billy: The Early Years—an upcoming movie about his father—Franklin's oldest sister came to the film's defense and questioned her brother's judgment.

"I don't want to say anything wrong about my brother, but I just don't see it the way he does," Gigi Graham, the oldest of Billy Graham's five children, told Christianity Today. "Franklin called me and said he thought the movie was dorky. But I think it's good and positive, and I think it honors the Lord and my mother and daddy.

"I don't know why Franklin felt like he had to make a public statement. I wish he'd just left it alone."

Billy: The Early Years chronicles Billy Graham's teen years, young adulthood, and calling to the ministry. Directed by Robby Benson and starring Armie Hammer, the film doesn't hit theaters until October 10, but a rough cut is already being shown to pastors and churches to get the early buzz going.

Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, released a statement on the organization's official website, saying that the BGEA "has not collaborated with nor does it endorse the movie, Billy: The Early Years."

Mark DeMoss, Graham's spokesman, told CT that Graham was simply trying to clarify what was becoming many pastors' misconception—that the film was authorized by the BGEA.

"We've been hearing about a lot of confusion, particularly at these early screenings, about the BGEA's affiliation with the film," DeMoss said. "Some folks promoting the movie have said things that foster that impression, and it's a false impression. The BGEA didn't have anything to do with this film. It's an independent film."

Billy Graham has made no public statement about the film.

DeMoss said the BGEA rarely endorses any product unless it's made by the organization.

Bill McKay, one of three producers on Billy: The Early Years, said he understands the reason behind Franklin Graham's statement.

"That's been his consistent concern, that our film would mistakenly be associated with the BGEA," McKay told CT. "We knew from the beginning that they had a policy about no endorsements. And I respect that policy."

The film does include a disclaimer in the opening credits that it is not affiliated with the BGEA, but Franklin Graham apparently had other concerns. His official statement said that the move "lacks my father's greatest passion: to preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to the world," but his sister begs to differ.

"Franklin says it doesn't portray Daddy's passion for preaching, but I think it does," said Gigi Graham. "Besides, I'm not sure Daddy ever had a passion for preaching. Daddy had a calling, and he accepted that calling and faithfully followed it."

Franklin Graham's statement also said the movie "depicts events that never happened or are greatly embellished." Graham didn't elaborate on any specifics, but DeMoss, who has not seen the film, said Graham gave him some examples.

The one that concerned Graham the most, said DeMoss, is a scene where Bob Jones Sr., then president of the fundamentalist Bob Jones College, yells at a young Billy that he will "never amount to anything" and that he sees "nothing ahead for you but failure!" (The scene is included in this trailer for the film.)

DeMoss told The Charlotte Observer this week that Franklin Graham thought the scene "completely misrepresented Bob Jones," and that Franklin has written a letter to Bob Jones III, current president of Bob Jones University, to say that "we didn't collaborate on the film."

But Billy Graham's autobiography indicates that the scene with Jones is accurate—with Jones's ire a likely a result of Graham's questioning the school's strict views and his decision to transfer to Florida Bible Institute.

In Just As I Am, Graham wrote, "I asked for an interview with Dr. Bob in his office and told him about my discontent and my thoughts of leaving. His voice booming, he pronounced me a failure and predicted only more failure ahead."

McKay and Gigi Graham both vouched for the accuracy of the scene.

"We consulted 10 or 12 biographers on that part of the story," said McKay, "and nearly all of them concurred with our portrayal. And people who [had] worked for Bob Jones have told us that's what he was like. We have eyewitnesses to Bob Jones acting this way, and our goal was to tell the truth in what happened."

"Some people have asked me about that scene," added Gigi Graham, "and I've said, 'Dr. Bob was pretty hard on my daddy.' People who knew Dr. Bob told me he was that way."

DeMoss also noted a scene where young Billy faints at the hospital when he learns that wife, Ruth, had given birth to their first child, Gigi—when in fact, Billy had been preaching in Alabama at the time.

Neither Gigi Graham nor producer McKay dispute that fact, but they say that Franklin Graham is nitpicking.

"People need to remember that the movie is fiction based on fact," Gigi Graham said. "Daddy was not at my birth, but who cares?" Gigi Graham, who has seen the movie about 10 times, said filmmakers were simply injecting some humor into the scene.

"Look," added McKay, "it's a movie, not a documentary. We were just trying to humanize the experience in that scene. But every step of the way, we tried very hard to be faithful to Dr. Graham's story."

Another scene that Franklin Graham apparently objected to shows Billy and Ruth playing a game of catch with a baseball, but DeMoss says that never would have happened.

"I don't know if my mom ever threw a baseball or not," Gigi Graham said. "But again, who cares? I think the scene indicates the sweet love story between Mother and Daddy."

McKay seemed especially stung by the criticism about the film's details.

"We did a lot of research before we even sat down to write the screenplay," said McKay, who was already an experienced researcher as a documentary filmmaker—including one on the life of Billy Graham. "We bought errors and omissions insurance to make sure we got everything right—authenticating every scene, every story line, every fact. The insurance carriers give you some artistic freedom, but they make sure you stay faithful to the underlying facts.

"We had to provide the law firm 750 pages of documentation, and it took about nine months to complete the policy. We had two of the best law firms working on it, and it cost a lot of money." He wouldn't say how much.

McKay continued, "We truncated a few events in the film, because we were trying to tell a lot of story in just 90 minutes. But other than that, we were exceedingly meticulous. Because of my documentary background, I was extra careful. We wanted this to be a testament to Dr. Graham's life, and I care deeply about his legacy."

Coproducer Larry Mortorff added, "We did plenty of research, and to me, we've done a blessed job honoring Billy Graham's life. The film couldn't be kinder to the Grahams. After a recent screening, someone came up to me and said, 'You've preserved the work of Billy Graham for future generations. Thank you. Now my children can know his story too.'"

Gigi Graham agrees.

"When I first heard about the film, I had two main concerns," she said. "One, that the gospel of Jesus Christ is in there. And two, that it's positive toward my parents and their ministry. And in both of those categories, it's just fine.

"This is not a big Hollywood movie. This is a simple film about a simple boy who as a teenager made a simple decision to follow the Lord. It's a movie about making choices, and it shows the importance of making the right choices. And my daddy made the right choice."

Related Elsewhere:

Earlier Christianity Today coverage of the film and related topics include:

The Making of an Evangelist | CT Movies visited the set of a new film about the life of Billy Graham, focusing on his early years and call to the ministry, which recently finished filming in Nashville (May 27, 2008)
Graham Film in the Works | Movie to focus on the early years of Billy Graham's ministry. (Feb. 28, 2008)
Billy Graham Goes to the Movies | For more than 50 years, the evangelist's organization has been making films for the purpose of bringing viewers to Christ. And it's worked—more than 2 million times. (Aug. 23, 2005)
Billy Graham's Top Five | A handful of World Wide Pictures films worth watching. (Aug. 23, 2005)

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