I have written in the past about my late father’s careers most of which are documented in his memoirs and other places. In spite of being almost 60 years in the past, his religious career still gets a lot of attention, as I recently reported in the story of the strange exhibit about him in the infamous Creation Museum.
Recently, two movies have been released in which he is a character. I recently watched Billy: The Early Years which is a movie about the early life of Billy Graham told from the supposed viewpoint of my father on his deathbed. Charles Templeton and Billy Graham were best friends for many years, touring and preaching together, and the story of how my father lost his faith as he studied more while Graham grew closer to his has become a popular story in the fundamentalist community.
While it doesn’t say that it’s fictional, this movie portrays an entirely invented interview with Charles Templeton, played by Martin Landau, in a hospital bed in 2001, shortly before his death. (In reality, while he did have a few hospital trips, he spent 2001 in an Alzheimer’s care facility and was not coherent most of the time.) Fleshed out in the novelization, the interview is supposedly conducted on orders from an editor trying to find some dirty on Billy Graham. Most of the movie is flashbacks to Graham’s early days (including times before they met) and their time together preaching and discussing the truth of the Bible.
It is disturbing to watch Landau’s portrayal of my father, as well as that by Mad Men’s Krisoffer Polaha as the younger version. I’m told it is always odd to see somebody you know played by an actor, and no doubt this is true. However, more disturbing is the role they have cast him in for this allegedly true story — namely Satan. As I believe is common in movies aimed at the religious market, Graham’s story is told in what appears to be an allegory of the temptation of Christ. In the film, Graham is stalwart, but my father keeps coming to him with doubts about the bible. The lines written for the actors are based in part on his writings and in part on invention, and as such don’t sound at all like he would speak in real life, but they are there, I think, to take the role of the attempted temptation of the pure man.
This climaxes when Graham actually goes “out into the wilderness” (the woods) and looks up to heaven, repeating the doubts Charles Templeton has said to him. After praying and asking for a sign, he gets a subtle one, and rededicates himself to taking the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God.
Particularly disturbing is the film’s recounting of my father’s born-again story. After recounting Graham’s, Landau then asks if they want to hear his. It is shown as a night of debauchery followed by lying drunk on a wet, rainy street with lighting bolts flashing. In reality, while it did follow late partying, it took place in his bedroom, praying in a bout of dissatisfaction with his life after a talk with his devout mother. The movie conversion scene has such a dark tone it suggests to the audience that it is not a true born again experience.
This is important to many fundamentalists because of the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” In this doctrine, once Christ has saved you he would never abandon you and let you fall. My father’s story contradicts this, and the only way way to reconcile this problem is to presume he was never initially saved, and faking it all along. To be fair the movie includes Graham stating that he never found his friend to be faking it or hypocritical, and the fact that he abandoned his ministry when his doubts became too strong is solid evidence for that.
The book features much more of the fictional deathbed interview, and even includes a scene where Graham comes to visit him which was cut from the movie. (Graham did visit him at home and offered any help requested, but it was before he went into the Alzheimer’s home.) Unlike the movie, which contains a typical disclaimer about fictionalization of some characters at the end, the book has no disclaimer warning the reader that major parts of it are invented.
Again, to be fair, the movie is really about Billy Graham (who has also refused to endorse it) and not really about Charles Templeton. A fictional version of my father is used to advance the creator’s goals. I don’t expect readers of my blog to be routinely watching movies in the Christian market, but I do hope that those who do see the movie learn what is fiction in it, and would have hoped the producers of the movie would have done a better job of pointing that out before appropriating a real person as a character for a dramatic device, as I believe they have.
If you wish to read one account of the pivotal conversation between the two men after my father decided to go the seminary at Princeton, it can be found in this chapter of Charles Templeton: An Anecdotal Memoir, about 3/4 of the way down.