I’ve included these two films in the same review because they are both period pieces, and successful at it, no less. As a critic of the failings of faith-based films, I was delighted to see two films that pulled off stories set in the past (and distant past). In costume, set, and dialogue, these films did not break the threshold of believability or setting.
Set in the 1920s, Milltown Pride tells the story of a baseball hero gone astray. Set in colonial America, Walther (actually a docudrama) follows the story of the man who, through many trials, organized and solidified Lutheranism in America. Neither main character resolves his problems quickly or easily. Rather, both films portray the sometimes rocky but permanent process of change that God ordains for them. The truth is, God doesn’t cut corners with any of us.
When town-boy Will Wright (Thomas Sneed) throws a baseball to the edge of his family’s property, he meets Charles “Chick” Spangler (Ben Ascher) and dodges a family function to play baseball with the locals from the mill. This is the first of many steps away from the Christian faith and tradition of his family. After graduation, he moves out and takes a job at the mill so that he can play baseball for the mill team. Things look up and the situation is promising, but after a few scuffles with Chick’s disapproving brother, Pike, Will cozies up to the team during some drinking parties. Unfortunately, this unwittingly leads him into the abyss of alcoholism just as he is beginning to enjoy success with the baseball team.
I appreciate that this film doesn’t offer a quick fix for Will’s drinking problem, because addictions aren’t cured by a simple desire to change. But I wouldn’t say the film is all about the dangers of alcoholism, either. It’s really a prodigal-son story. Will’s problem could have been anything. From the very outset, Will rejects his father’s faith and life of privilege. Though he wants to please his mother and stay clean, he also wants to find his own way and see if what the world outside offers him will satisfy. It starts out as a slow transition until the alcohol finally has a hold on him, and before he knows it, he’s been sandbagged. And like the prodigal son in Jesus’ story, when he hits bottom, he begins looking for a way out.
Eventually Will finds his way out, but my favorite lines in the movie are spoken by the mentor figure, John (Chuck Binns). He says, “If Christians ever come to the place where we think we can make people act like they know the Lord even when they don’t, they’ll hate us. And maybe rightly so…” They briefly discuss whether prohibition is the right thing to help curb alcoholism, and John says, “the root of the problem is still sin, and the only way to get to that root is for Jesus Christ to change the heart of a man from the inside out.”
These two lines encapsulate what I believe is wrong with modern thinking about Christ. Christ said he came to bind up the brokenhearted, free the captives, give sight to the blind, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. So, when the focus shifts from Christ rescuing us to whether or not we are following some kind of moral guideline, we’ve missed the first and most important step. We can only achieve a level of freedom from sin on our own, because we always find a way to go back to it. And really, we can’t negotiate with sin or addiction. It may take a while, but eventually it overruns us. Total freedom and total deliverance from addiction or sin can only be accomplished through forgiveness in Christ first. It makes sense, really.
God designed it so that salvation comes first. Jesus died for our sins, period. We don’t have to worry about whether we will measure up or if our sins will be so bad that God won’t take us back. That question is answered and non-negotiable. Christ paid sin’s price: death. Period. Done. Finished. That gives us the freedom to make mistakes on our way to changing for the better. And he gave the Holy Spirit to be our helper. The Holy Spirit is like a souped-up conscience who gives us the ideas and power we need to change. But we will still fail at times because we don’t always listen to the Holy Spirit. We make bad choices, and we make mistakes because we are drawn to sin. I think that’s why God insists on salvation through his Son first. It’s like John said in the movie, Christ must make the change from the inside out. If we try to change without the freedom of forgiveness, we will always find a reason that God won’t accept us. Worse, if we try to change others when they have no forgiveness or power to change, they will hate us for it. Truth is, morality, behavior, addictions, and sins cannot be permanently changed without Christ.
Forgiveness is the theme of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, and forgiveness is the theme of Milltown Pride. The movie brings up several other good one-liners that get you thinking, but this was the one that struck me. Overall, the movie is a solid family flick with a couple of good performances and a happy ending.