Nearer, My God, To Thee

The other day we had friends over to our house to sing hymns together, and someone requested this hymn. Someone else pointed out that we were coming up on the anniversary of  the Titanic sinking (April 15), and that the ship’s string quartet played the hymn while they went down. While there are a couple of contradictory accounts, we do know that  a number of survivors reported this. From Wikipedia:

George Orrell, the bandmaster of the rescue ship, RMS Carpathia, who spoke with survivors, related: “The ship’s band in any emergency is expected to play to calm the passengers. After the Titanic struck the iceberg the band began to play bright music, dance music, comic songs – anything that would prevent the passengers from becoming panic-stricken… various awe-stricken passengers began to think of the death that faced them and asked the bandmaster to play hymns. The one which appealed to all was “Nearer My God to Thee.”

I’m not a fan of James Cameron’s (in)famous film adaptation of the tragedy, but this is one scene he got right:

Of Sinners and Saints: Missing the Point of “Unbroken”

 

This Christmas, Angelina Jolie’s much-hyped adaptation of the best-selling biography Unbroken made it to the big screen. Most of you probably know the story: It traces the remarkable journey of WWII hero Louis Zamperini, as he became a pre-war Olympic athlete, only to be drafted as a pilot and have his plane shot down, only to be captured by the Japanese and tortured in a prison camp. But amazingly, his story didn’t end there, as he went on to have a crisis of faith while grappling with the demons of his war experiences. Through the preaching of Billy Graham, both he and his wife became Christians and launched missions initiatives of their own. Eventually, he met and forgave nearly all of his former Japanese captors face-to-face. Only the most infamously sadistic one, known as “The Bird,” refused to meet him.

Unfortunately, Zamperini’s entire post-war conversion story is relegated to a few title cards at the end of this movie, which ends abruptly with his release and family reunion. While the book on which it’s based doesn’t even go into as much detail as Louis himself in his own memoirs, at least it provides something for the reader. Run-time considerations no doubt played a role, but Hollywood’s aversion to anything openly religious isn’t exactly a secret. Allegedly, Louis himself was pleased with the final cut of the film. His son wrote a recent op-ed saying that the film’s non “preachy” nature was exactly what his dad would have wanted (the idea being that people would be motivated to learn “the rest of the story” for themselves precisely because it’s only hinted at in the film).

Interestingly enough, a number of secular critics disagree. They argue that the film feels hollow and incomplete without these details. By cutting out the messy, sometimes dark and ultimately redemptive arc of Zamperini’s post-war journey, Jolie elevates him to an almost saintly stature. Sure, he starts off as a rakish lad who seems like he could turn into a bit of a troublemaker before his brother inspires him to channel that energy more constructively. But ultimately, Louis can do no wrong. Louis is magnificent. Louis is perfect. And his prison trials are lingered over with Passion-like symbolism. By enshrining Zamperini in this way, Jolie overlooks the flawed man underneath. As a result, the movie misses the whole point of its own hero’s story.

The reality is that Louis Zamperini was a deeply messed-up guy when he came home from the war. And who wouldn’t be? You try getting tortured for several years straight, followed by trying to resume a normal life. Zamperini’s PTSD nightmares were so strong that he would wake up finding himself at his wife’s throat, thinking she was the tormentor of his dreams. Like with many war veterans, Zamperini’s coping mechanisms spiraled into addictions–smoking, drinking, even p*rnography. On top of everything else, his wife was trying to take care of their baby girl.

Eventually, she decided to end the marriage. That’s when she walked in on a Billy Graham crusade in downtown Los Angeles. The message convicted her. She came home and announced that she was no longer planning to divorce Louis, and she wanted him to come hear the preacher too. The neat little bow ending to the story would be that Louis took her advice and came down to the altar the first time he heard Mr. Graham speak. But human nature is more stubborn than that. The first time he accompanied his wife, he turned around and walked out of the tent, angrily telling her, “Don’t ever try to get me back to a place like this again!” She urged him to try again, desperately hoping that it would save their marriage. He eventually agreed, on one condition: “As soon as that fellow says ‘Every head bowed, every eye closed, I’m outta there.'”

Fortunately, God had other plans, and Graham’s well-chosen words pierced Zamperini’s shell the second time through. As Franklin Graham recounts it:

He went home that night, got rid of his p*rnography,  he got rid of his alcohol, he threw his cigarettes away. And he found his Bible that was given to him in the military, and he began to read and study the Bible, and his life was transformed instantly that day, and it stayed with him the rest of his life. He never turned from what he had put his faith and trust in, and that was Jesus Christ.

In a world of murky anti-hero stories, it’s difficult to argue with a straight-forward hero story such as the one Jolie presents in her film. And the events she depicts are, in fact, true as far as they go. Yet people can tell when the whole truth is being airbrushed out of the story. The real hero of Zamperini’s story isn’t Zamperini himself, because Zamperini himself failed to live up to a heroic standard. His own merits were insufficient to break the vicious cycle of sin that was eating away at his life and his marriage. The Holy Spirit had to take him by the collar and shake him up. Thus it has always been and evermore shall be.

To rectify the gaps in Jolie’s film adaptation, the Billy Graham foundation has pulled some exclusive interview footage from the vault and put together a short documentary called Louis Zamperini: Captured By Grace. You can watch a couple clips for yourself, including a younger Louie giving his testimony at a crusade, and see if it seems “preachy” or “cheesy.”

The foundation is offering DVDs of the documentary at a “pay what you want” rate on their website here.

 

The Parting Glass: A Veterans’ Day Toast

To the boys of Pointe du Hoc, a toast. To the men who took the cliffs.

To the men who slogged through mud and blood, who gathered up and buried the remains of worthy comrades, a toast.

To the flyer boys who piloted their ships towards danger, laughing it to scorn, a toast.

To the ones who went to tend the wounded under fire, a toast.

To the one who waited patiently for the day when he would come home running to the arms of his best girl, a toast. To the one whose sweetheart couldn’t wait, a toast.

To the 17-year-old who hit the beach with ashen face and trembling knees, yet crawled towards the sound of death, a toast.

To all fathers, sons and brothers who have fought and bled on a distant shore, in a war they may or may not have understood.

To the fathers, sons and brothers who still fight and bleed on a distant shore, in wars they may still not understand.

To all those who have left us as boys and come back as men, I raise my glass and softly call: “Goodnight. And joy be with you all.”

The Berlin Wall: 25 Years

I would be remiss if I did not write something acknowledging the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall today. While I did not live through this chapter in civilization’s history, I’m confident that most of you have, and I’m confident that most of you can remember where you were when you heard the news—the news that the wall was down. Today, we remember this moment in time as the end of an era, the end of an empire. We remember it as a triumph of the human spirit. At the same time, we remember brave souls who risked everything for freedom while the wall still stood, and sometimes lost it. We remember people like the soldier in the image on the right, who risked and lost everything to help them. And we remember great leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who unlike the leaders of today, understood what it meant to take a stand for something.

I have seen a portion of the Berlin Wall. I saw it on display at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. It was standing in a corner near the exit, labeled with a barely readable plaque. One can only guess how the dollhouse display received greater prominence in the museum than this priceless piece of history. My family and I were fortunate to realize it was there instead of walking past it on our way out, as others surely had. We took a closer look. We read the plaque. We contemplated it together. Before we left, my father made a leap and reached out for the top of the wall over the glass. The rest of us weren’t tall enough to make the attempt. He caught up with us smiling.

“I touched it!”

 

Book Review: Medic!

Medic, book coverThis week’s used bookstore find is the slim World War II memoir Medic! by army medic Robert “Doc Joe” Franklin. Subtitled “How I fought World War II with morphine, sulfa and iodine swabs,” it offers an unflinching “worm’s-eye” perspective from the European front, specifically the invasion through Italy. In its pages, Franklin traces the path of the 45th Infantry Division, whom General Patton described as “one of the best, if not the best division that the American army has ever produced.” Though he was thrown into combat with no medical training, he quickly learned to improvise and saved numerous lives, winning two Silver Stars for bravery under fire. With clean, unadorned, and compelling prose, Franklin leads the reader through a lifetime in 146 pages.

This is no ghost-written puff piece. Most of the book is heavily based on Franklin’s own diary, and his distinctive voice comes through loud and clear to give a cohesive, day-to-day narrative. The final third of the book is more anecdotal, but even this section does not feel awkward or choppy. Franklin is a skilled writer, with a special gift for presenting the most powerful human moments in the simplest way. This makes them all the more effective by their lack of sentiment.

Continue reading “Book Review: Medic!”

Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part III of III)

A great while ago the world began
With a hey ho, the wind and the rain
But that’s all one, and our play is done
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

 Twelfth Night, Act 5, Scene 1

***

Part I here

Part II here

In 1975, the BBC asked Donald O’Connor if the musical was dead. His succinct answer: “No. It is dead the way we used to make ’em.” He spoke without resentment. It was just a fact.

Donald O’Connor was the last of the song and dance men. Known as “the youngest old-timer in show business,” it was his misfortune to reach the height of his powers precisely when the song-and-dance musical was dying. Rising to take its place were the spontaneous musicals, the Sounds of Music and Oklahomas and West Side Stories. Characters were ordinary people expressing their feelings, not entertainers putting on a show. There was no longer a place for O’Connor’s particular skill set on the big screen. So it was back to his first love: the stage.

Shifting base of operations to Las Vegas gave the restless performer a steady audience and the ability to nurture fresh talent. One young lad joined him for a special performance to commemorate his 30th anniversary in the business, which nearly doubled as a 31st birthday party. (Candid footage of the reception shows O’Connor surreptitiously piling an extra slice of cake on the boy’s plate.) With a happy second marriage and a growing new family, it seemed that he had landed on his feet. His son Fred later recalled, “I was very blessed to have my dad as my dad… We were never without anything, and the things we really wanted, he told us ‘These are things that you have to work for.’ And I’m glad he did.” Daughter Alicia fondly remembered how he would delight the children with quicksilver impressions, saying that “You never knew who was coming to dinner.” But as O’Connor danced closer to the line between “drinker” and “alcoholic,” he fought a rising fear that like his father and brother, he would not live to the age of 50.

Continue reading “Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part III of III)”

Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part II of III)

“I was born and raised to entertain other people. I’ve heard laughter and applause and known a lot of sorrow. Everything about me is based on show business. I think it will bring me happiness. I hope so.” — Donald O’Connor, Parade, 1954

 

***

Read Part I here.

Gene Kelly knew what he was doing when he hand-picked Donald O’Connor as his right-hand man in Singin’ In the Rain. His own ballet training was perfectly complemented by O’Connor’s raw hoofing talent. O’Connor later credited Kelly with teaching him to be a “total dancer,” from the waist up. Each borrowed motifs from the other to create their iconic synchronized routine “Moses Supposes.”  But working with Kelly had its tense moments. In this rare interview clip (edited by yours truly), O’Connor shares a priceless anecdote about the legend’s famously short temper on the set of their number “Fit as a Fiddle”:

The memories of Debbie Reynolds also offer some insight into O’Connor’s gentle, professional personality. When Gene became frustrated with Debbie, he would take it out on Donald. But Donald bore it with perpetual good humor. In one instance, as all three practiced a step in “Good Morning,” Kelly himself was unknowingly repeating an error while blaming O’Connor for it. Reynolds expected O’Connor to retaliate at any minute, but all he said was “I’m sorry.” Finally, Kelly stopped and announced, “I’m doing it wrong! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yet for all his abrasiveness, Gene recognized a professional when he saw one: “Nobody else in the business could have taken the beating I gave Donald O’Connor in Singin’ In the Rain… Donald comes from vaudeville. He’s disciplined. I’ve seen him rehearse a step a thousand times.” Looking back on it all, O’Connor could only laugh and say “Working with him? Yeah, he was miserable. No, we had a great time together… I was never offended by Gene, I love the guy too much.”

Of course, “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the number that everyone remembers from O’Connor’s work in the picture. When MGM released its compilation That’s Entertainment, this was the one that could still make listless audiences break into spontaneous applause in the theaters. Mark Steyn has described it as “the essence of entertainment,” adding “Its only purpose is to delight. Which is a lot harder than it sounds.”

Continue reading “Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part II of III)”

Dancing in the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part I of III)

Actor Donald O'Connor

Part II here

Part III here

Quickly: Who’s the most talented entertainer you can name? For many, it would be the man who just took his own life last month. An older generation might name Dick Van Dyke. Yet another generation might reach still further into the past, to silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. What do legends like these all share in common? Answer: They all had an extraordinary gift for making anyone happy, except themselves.

To that remarkable list, I would add another name. I would add the name of the man who immortalized laughter in three short minutes of pure genius on film. I would add the name of Donald O’Connor.

Perhaps Paramount exec A. C. Lyles said it best: “Donald O’Connor’s name, spelled backwards, would be talent.” Gene Kelly simply dubbed him “The O’Connor.” But his story sounds too painfully familiar: a lightning-fast comic wit, a master of improv, full of explosive energy and beloved by fans, yet privately haunted by divorce, addiction and depression. Except that his story does not end like so many other sad, sad stories. No, my friends. This is a story that ends with hope. Continue reading “Dancing in the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part I of III)”

A Book a Week: Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

As promised, here is my review of the biography of child singing star Gloria Jean, written by Scott and Jan MacGillivray. The sub-title is A Little Bit of Heaven. Presumably this was chosen because That Awkward Moment When I Caught a Skin Rash From Bing Crosby, Mel Torme Proposed, and Donald O’Connor Hugged Me So Hard He Broke My Ribs would’ve run a tad long.

Although this isn’t an autobiography, Gloria is generously quoted from interviews conducted by the authors, so her own voice still comes through clearly. And what a treat it is! Gloria Jean is one of those people you’re not likely to have heard of. She never attained the legendary status of a Shirley Temple, and most of her work is out of print. But once you get to know her, you’re very glad you did.

Continue reading “A Book a Week: Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven”

Greater Grace: A Story of God, Redemption, and Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, Nevada Smith

[Editor’s note: I still get dozens of hits on this page daily, so if you’re a visitor, welcome! If you’d like to know a bit more about me and this site, here’s the quick version. Thanks for reading!]

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They said he could act with the back of his head. No dialogue or frills required—his mere presence loomed larger than life in every shot. Put him next to some of the finest actors in the business, and he would undercut every one of them simply by being in the frame. His piercingly distinctive blue eyes were set in a rough-hewn, unconventionally handsome face that rarely betrayed strong emotion. His smallest physical gesture was precisely calculated and gracefully executed. You couldn’t best him, you couldn’t buy him, you couldn’t touch him. He was the King of Cool. He was Steve McQueen.

Continue reading “Greater Grace: A Story of God, Redemption, and Steve McQueen”