Thursday Trailer Face-Off! Blackthorn vs. Machine Gun Preacher
Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Blackthorn and Machine Gun Preacher, two based-ish-on-real-life stories about men who decide to take long journeys, encounter non-white people who need their help, and administer some vigilante justice along the way.
In Blackthorn, that rascally robber Butch Cassidy is back: though many believe he died in a standoff with Bolivian soldiers in 1908, it’s never been proven, and others think he returned to the States and lived under an assumed name for quite a while longer. This film imagines that he survives the Bolivian standoff, continues to live in Bolivia, and returns home to see his family before he dies. But after he sets out, with no particular appetite for adventure, adventure finds him—in the person of a young Bolivian thief, Eduardo Apodaca, who asks for his help avoiding the gangs and police pursuing him. Machine Gun Preacher is also based on a real-life guy—and is also, we hope, sort of fictionalized, at least in terms of the bad dialogue. It tells the story of Sam Childers, a former drug dealer who sobers up, gets himself some religion, and decides to take a trip to Africa after seeing a PSA on TV, telling his family, “I reckon they can do with all the help they can get.” Once there, he discovers that it’s actually not super-easy to build and maintain an orphanage in a war zone. It’s hard, in fact! Sometimes you have to arm yourself with a machine gun and shoot at some rebel-army leaders. We’re giving this one to Blackthorn, because it’s got that throwback, honest-to-God Howard Hawks-type Western charm. Advantage: Blackthorn
Sam Shepard has some seriously big cowboy boots to fill with Blackthorn—the role of Butch Cassidy was originated by Paul Newman, and his turn was sort of memorable. And then there’s the real Butch Cassidy, which, you know. But the real-life Sam Childers, whose life Machine Gun Preacher is based on, seems like kind of a badass too: he looks like this. So we’ll disregard the legacies of the roles and just focus on the actors: do we prefer Sam Shepard or Gerard Butler? They’re both award winners! Sam Shepard won a Pulitzer for Drama for writing Buried Child, and Gerard Butler won an MTV Movie Award for Best Fight for 300. Our work is done. Advantage: Blackthorn
In both instances, the entity our hero is running from and/or fighting is a large group of well-armed men: in Blackthorn, it’s the Bolivian police (and presumably also some rival criminals who want the money Eduardo stole). In Machine Gun Preacher, it’s the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant Christian organization in the Sudan and Uganda that, in the two decades it was active, committed multiple massacres, abducted tens of thousands of children to serve as soldiers, and sexually enslaved women. Early-20th-century Bolivian police and robbers are scary and all, but the Lord’s Resistance Army is actually one of the most evil entities that’s ever existed on Earth. Advantage: Machine Gun Preacher
Blackthorn was directed by Mateo Gil, who wrote the screenplay for Abre Los Ojos, the 1997 Spanish film on which 2001 Tom Cruise thriller Vanilla Sky was based. He’s also written Rachel Weisz vehicle Agora and Javier Bardem biopic The Sea Inside, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005. This is the second feature he’s directed, after 1999’s Nobody Knows Anybody. The trailer for Machine Gun Preacher touts its helmer, Marc Forster, as “the acclaimed director of Monster’s Ball and The Kite Runner,” which leaves out Quantum of Solace, Stranger than Fiction, Finding Neverland, and Stay. While we think Gil is probably the smarter of the two, Forster is definitely the more successful. Advantage: Machine Gun Preacher
Okay, onto the troubling sociological business in each of these films. It’s hard to ignore that both are set up as sort of White Man’s Burden situations. “I need your help,” Eduardo says plaintively in the Blackthorn trailer, and later: “I’m glad I’m with you, Butch Cassidy himself! You’re not gonna die, old man!” It’s a little bit of a collar-tugger. However, it is not as much of a collar-tugger as nearly every second of the Machine Gun Preacher trailer. We started flinching around 0:42, when the camera cuts to Gerard Butler reacting to that PSA and then telling his family, “I was thinking maybe I could go over there!” Then he looks around, all saintly-like, before he boards his plane at 0:51; tells a Ugandan man, “I want to go into Sudan this weekend; I need someone to show me around,” as though he’s talking about loading up the Jitney; says “They ain’t sleeping out here!” about the dozens of Sudanese kids sleeping in the street—and the trailer’s not even half over. Later, an African pal tells him, “The entire rebel army has put a bounty on your head,” and his response is, “I must be doing something right!” (1:49).
To be clear, we bear no ill will towards the actual Sam Childers, who did a remarkable thing in Africa. He and his wife currently run an orphanage there that looks after over 300 children; they’ve rescued over 1000. The real Sam Childers is great. What we’re taking issue with is the way he’s being presented in this film: as a great white savior who’s able to solve Africa’s problems simply by virtue of being American and interested. Some of the visual cues are really manipulative: for example, Childers’ wife telling him to rebuild his orphanage after it’s burned down, while standing in front of a grocery-store refrigerator case that’s filled with an unrealistically huge number of cartons of eggs—get it? Eggs! Fertility! Nurturing! Women! And then there’s an African boy hugging Childers at 2:03, and the trailer’s tag, where Childers explains to a different African boy, “Helping you kids is about the only good thing I’ve ever done in this life… You’ve got no idea what I’m saying, do you?” He sure doesn’t—both in a political post-structuralist sense, and literally, too! Advantage: Blackthorn
There’s a lot to recommend Machine Gun Preacher—it’s an engaging story, and Marc Forster is a perfectly serviceable director. But we can’t get over the two things about it that make us nervous: namely, the way it seems to treat the Sudanese, and the fact that Gerard Butler’s in it. Sam Shepard, on the other hand, is great, especially in a Western–this is not the first time we’ve mentioned The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in this feature, and it won’t be the last—and most importantly, it doesn’t give us that uneasy feeling. Winner: Blackthorn