Wartime, Hollywood and the Gospel

We have had a lot of wars, and we have had a lot of war films. Often great gospel truths can be found in times of great upheaval and suffering, and wartime certainly brings this out. One of the primary gospel themes is that of sacrifice for the good of others, and we find that happening so often in times of war.

Whether it is a brave soldier diving onto a live hand grenade in order to save his colleagues, or millions of young men who are overseas fighting to secure freedom and democracy back home, countless individuals are engaging in valiant acts of self-sacrifice.

While war time is of course a time of great evil, it can also be a time of great gallantry, heroism, sacrifice, dedication, and devotion. Thus many of the great virtues and character traits come to the fore on the battlefield. And given that Scripture throughout uses military and wartime metaphors, it is fitting that we look at war to find some basic Christian truths.

Plenty of Hollywood films have of course dealt with warfare in a big way. Think of some of the blockbusters dealing with the Second World War for example. We have many major WWII movies which are still popular today, such as:

-The Dam Busters (1954)
-The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
-The Guns of Navarone (1961)
-The Longest Day (1962)
-The Great Escape (1963)
-Where Eagles Dare (1968)
-Patton (1970)
-Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
-Midway (1976)
-Schindler’s List (1993)
-Pearl Harbor (2001)

Most of these films demonstrated how so very much courage, valour and sacrifice were a normal part of the war effort, as the free world banded together to stop the Nazis and the Japanese. Heroism and self-sacrifice were the needs of the hours, and millions of individuals demonstrated this during the war, including so many making the ultimate sacrifice.

Saving Private RyanHere I want to spend the rest of this piece on the mega-hit of 1998, Saving Private Ryan. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, this film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg has become one of the great classics of this genre. I actually never did see it when it first came out.

And I have only seen it on TV in bits and pieces. I might flick through the TV with the remote and stumble upon it, and watch it to the end. It was on again the other night, so I again began transfixed by it. But I realised I have never seen the very first opening scene, so I finally caught up with that online last night.

Thus while I have not seen the entire 169-minute film in one go, I have now seen it all I believe – at least piecemeal. One day I will have to sit down for the full 2 ½ hours. Back to my topic: this film of course is all about sacrifice, so that others might live. The gospel parallels should be obvious, but let me discuss the film just a bit more first.

The film is sorta based on various true events of the past, in which a group of family members lose their lives in the same war. In this film the military brass are informed that three of four brothers from the Ryan family were killed in combat.

When it is discovered that the fourth son, Private James Francis Ryan is still alive, it is decided that he must be found and returned home. No family should have to endure this sort of agony and grief. So a mission to rescue him is implemented, regardless of the risks involved.

A team of eight men, led by Captain Miller (Hanks) goes off to find him. Included early on in the film is the remarkable 27 minute scene in which the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944 is depicted in graphic detail and great realism.

(Warning, if you have not yet seen the film but want to, you may need to stop reading now – spoiler alert!)

The rest of the film involves trying to track down Ryan, who is somewhere in Normandy. He is eventually located (after some of the eight are killed) but he refuses to leave, thinking it not fair to do so. He prefers to stay with his brothers (fellow soldiers).

The film concludes with another major battle: a standoff between some of the underarmed Americans being attacked by German troops and tanks. They need to prevent the Germans from crossing a strategic bridge, and just when it seems that they will fail, and all is lost, American fighter planes swoop in and repel the advancing German forces.

In the fighting however Miller is seriously wounded. As he lies on the ground dying, he tells Ryan: “James … earn this. Earn it.” The film then finishes as it began with a present day scene involving the veteran Ryan at an American cemetery in Normandy, France.

He is there with his family, and is alone at the grave of Miller. His wife comes beside him, and he asks her if he has led a good life, if he was a good man. She assures him that he did and he is. He stands in attention and salutes the simple grave of Miller.

My description of course is of very little value, and one really has to see the film, including the moving closing scenes, to get the full and proper impact. The gospel themes are of course obvious. One man – or a group of men – risking everything, and some dying as a result, in order to save someone else.

That is the heart of the gospel message: Jesus dying so that we might live; Jesus laying down everything for us. As we find Jesus saying in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Or as Paul puts it in Romans 5:6-8:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The second theme that comes out here of course is one of gratitude. Because of what Christ has done for us, how can we not do everything for him? We spend our Christian life serving him in thankfulness for what he has done for us. Of course this film is not made by Christians, so things get a bit muddled here.

We would not tell a new convert that he has to “earn it” in the sense of earning what Christ has done for us. Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, and we can never earn it. But if we take the phrase Miller used to Ryan and understand it in the sense of “live a life worthy of what this cost you” then it becomes much closer to the biblical message.

Yes, we should live the rest of our lives as a grateful people, dedicated fully to Christ and his Kingdom. He deserves everything from us since he gave everything up for us. It is the least we can do, to live a life worthy of the supreme sacrifice he made on our behalf.

I have always enjoyed books and films about war, especially WWII, because there are so many parallel truths to be found with Scripture. The Bible depicts the life of the believer as a life of warfare, of battle, of conflict. It demands courage, selflessness, dedication and commitment.

We are to be good soldiers for Jesus Christ, and it all goes back to his great sacrifice for us. It is now up to us to return the favour in a life of thankful service, as we seek to represent Christ to a lost world, and bring him the glory he rightly deserves.

So I encourage you to watch the film if you have not yet done so – or watch it again. For what it is worth, the final very moving six minutes of the film can be found in this video clip. I don’t know about you, but it brings me to tears every time I view it: https://vimeo.com/42913707

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7 Replies to “Wartime, Hollywood and the Gospel”

  1. The other parallel is with the black soldiers who fought courageously at the Battle of Bulge in the air defending America bombers and yet when they returned home were treated to the most vile racism imaginable. Jesus Christ was not accepted in His own country and yet even after he had made the greatest human sacrifice in all of history, His name his continues to be reviled and mocked even more by vast proportions of Western society. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in California, George Carlin, Stephen Fry, Ian McKellen and the rest of the inhabitants of Hollywood glory in slandering the character and name of Jesus Christ. God have mercy on them.

    David Skinner UK

  2. I’ve never watched this movie in its entirety and will do so in future. Are these sorts of heroes now gone? As a child we read about and studied heroes such as Dr Flynn of the Outback, Florence Nightingale, Albert Schweitzer and William Wilberforce but nowadays children look up to the Kardashians and other reality stars famous for being famous.

  3. I saw the film in the theater and remember being horrified by the realism of the landing scene and haunted by one scene in particular whereby a German soldier quietly and almost ‘tenderly’ kills an American soldier face-to-face. For much of the film, my one question was “What makes Private Ryan’s life any more valuable than any of the men that died trying to save him?” I’ve not thought it through, but what do you think the answer or a fitting analogy would be, Bill?

  4. The Christian analogy – if that is what you are after – is simple enough. In God’s eyes we are all Private Ryans and we are all individually worth saving, including an extensive divine search and rescue mission. It is as if you or I were the only ones ever to appear on planet earth. We are that valuable as individuals.

  5. Excellent article. I wonder how many “alt left” have seen the movie or would be ashamed of themselves if they watched it tonight.

  6. Bill! … I gave a sermon on this very intensely poignant scene & it’s relevance (amidst copious sobbing) back in 2002. … I think you have grasped well it’s relevance!!! … Thank you!!! ….. I think also in the movie the way the dying Captain Miller says “earn this” … to be misunderstood by Private Ryan & for Ryan to ask again & for Miller to repeat it, is extremely powerful!!! ….
    The essence of my sermon was “How do you earn this?” (so great a salvation) … & (without giving you my OT scriptural exogesis for the sermon) it is by obedience to His Word!!!

  7. Btw Bill! …. I am the only son of four brothers & since the death (about twenty five years ago) of my female childless first cousin, (am) it!
    Three, inc my dad, (a medic in New Guinea) fought in WW2! … One was a “Wing Commander” & was killed in a bombing raid over Germany, & the third a Duntroon officer. The two who came back died in their ’50’s of war/health complications! … The other (fourth) brother had died at 21 of meningitis!
    I find ANZAC DAY quite emotional as I am (when I do) the only one to march in remembrance of them!!!

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