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Movie Info


PG for scenes of German concentration camps.


Drama, Religion


Oct. 10, 2008


Martin Landau, Armie Hammer, Lindsay Wagner, Jennifer O'Neill


Robby Benson


Rocky Mountain Pictures


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Billy: The Early Years

By Belinda Elliott
Contributing Writer - He is a man that God has used to change lives around the world. Most of us have seen Billy Graham either on television or in person passionately preaching God’s Word in crowded arenas. But how did he get his start? A new film offers answers.

Billy: The Early Years is directed by Robby Benson, the voice of “The Beast” in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The film chronicles Billy’s conversion as a young man, his college years, the courtship of his future wife, Ruth, and his beginnings as a budding young preacher.

Franklin Graham, son of the renowned evangelist, issued a public statement this summer expressing his disdain for the film. He posted the statement on the Web site of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to inform readers that the movie is not endorsed by the organization. Graham said the movie “lacks my father’s greatest passion: to preach the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to the world and point men, women, and children to His saving power.” He also questioned the film’s accuracy saying, “It depicts events that never happened or are greatly embellished.”

Graham’s siblings disagree. His sister GiGi has even given promotional interviews for the film telling various publications that she believes the film accurately captures the endearing love story between her mother and father.

When compared with Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am, which the evangelist published in 1997, the film does seem to be quite accurate. It is obvious that the filmmakers relied heavily on the autobiography, often drawing events and dialogue from it word for word. In a few instances, the locations of some events were changed, perhaps to lower costs that would have been incurred with filming in multiple locations. But the essence of what happened during those times in Billy and Ruth’s lives is kept intact.

In an interview in Christianity Today Franklin’s sister, GiGi, said her brother described the film to her as “dorky.” In some ways, I can see how this assessment may fit. At times, the film paints young Billy as having so much exuberance that he comes across as a bumbling college kid with more energy and passion than intellect. Several scenes show him butchering his early sermons while nervously trying to find his own unique preaching style, and clumsily botching attempts to ask out girls.

While these scenes may show a man vastly different from the self-assured evangelist that the public has come to know, they do not seem far fetched. Most of us have endured a few awkward moments as we set out to gain experience in the area that God has called us to. In fact, in his autobiography Graham himself points out instances where his inexperience and youthful naïveté brought him some embarrassment.

Stefanie Butler portrays Ruth GrahamAccording to GiGi, Franklin also expressed concern about scenes he felt were inaccurate such as Ruth and Billy playing a game of catch. He said Ruth was not the athletic type. However, in his autobiography Graham recounts Ruth going on a canoe trip in college, playing pranks on her parents as a newlywed, and enjoying outdoor hikes and walks in the rain. Perhaps she never played catch with young Billy, but the couple certainly seemed to have a very fun and playful relationship, something that comes across clearly in the movie.

What does make the film a little clunky is the way the story is told through flashbacks from aged former evangelist Charles Templeton, played by Oscar-winner Martin Landau. Templeton was a good friend of Billy Graham and often preached with him until he began to doubt his faith. His doubts about God led him to leave the ministry and he later became a devout atheist eventually penning the reasons for his decision in a book, Farewell to God.

In the film, as Templeton nears the end of his life he recounts his early years with Billy. This method of storytelling would work were it not for Templeton’s moments of paranoia and strange outbursts. He is obviously a tormented man who is afraid to die and possibly regrets the choices he made in life. Landau portrays this convincingly, but those scenes seem somewhat out of place in the larger story about the young Billy.

Armie Hammer as a young Billy GrahamWhat those scenes do effectively convey, however, is the difference in the paths that these two young men chose to take. Templeton’s doubts lead Billy to question his own life purpose, but through a season of prayer and soul searching Billy feels God confirming his calling and vows to dedicate his life to proclaiming God’s Word wherever the Lord takes him.

The acting in the film is better than one would expect in a low budget picture. Armie Hammer (great grandson of noted industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer) turns in a solid performance as the young Billy, convincingly portraying the evangelist’s mannerisms and preaching style. Stefanie Butler (CSI: NY) also offers an excellent performance as a young and vivacious Ruth.

Other cast members include Jennifer O’Neill (Summer of ’42 and former spokeswoman for Cover Girl cosmetics) and Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman). Country artist Josh Turner (“Long Black Train”) also makes an appearance as accomplished singer George Beverly Shea.

There is one instance of bad language in the film that seemed a little unnecessary. But I guess if you have to have a curse word in a Christian film it is fitting that it comes out of the mouth of the character who is an atheist. There are also a few graphic scenes of Holocaust victims and a badly injured young girl, which earned the movie a PG rating.

Overall, the story is a heartwarming tale of a young pastor finding his voice. Despite its few minor flaws, the film has a simple and unassuming charm about it, much like the man it honors.

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