Paramount // 1993 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // April 19th, 2005
One man. One message. Billions of followers.
PBS presents this 1993 documentary about the most famous preacher of the 20th century. Billy Graham, it is said, has preached to more people about Christianity than anyone in the history of the world, and a peek into the stadiums of one of his "Crusades" will reveal evidence of this statement. Arenas are often packed as standing-room-only crowds pour in to witness this one-time dairy farmer and Fuller brush salesman who became an evangelistic legend and one of the most influential religious figures of all time.
This robust documentary traces Graham's life from his humble beginnings to his intersection with the big tent revivals that swept through the South, to his dramatic dedication to God's service, and finally to his rise to worldwide fame as the de facto face of evangelical Christianity.
But Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham isn't merely a "point-A-to-point-B" timeline of Graham's life. His story is grounded in context, with smaller explorations of the Great Awakening, the people Graham associated with, and those who avidly work on his behalf to bring others into the Kingdom of God. Real footage of Graham's preaching is interspersed with interviews with those who knew him best (as well as interviews with Graham himself), including George Beverly Shea, Cliff Barrows, who traditionally provides the opening hymns for a Crusade, and Charles Templeton, onetime preacher and close friend of Graham's, now an agnostic.
>From his early days riding the evangelist circuit to the controversial times when he embedded himself with presidents, to his quieter, away-from-the-spotlight existence, Billy Graham and his life are laid open.
This is a 12-year-old program, no doubt released to ride the wave of popularity contemporary Christianity is currently enjoying in the public sphere (the disc is released concurrently with the PBS documentary The Question of God). An evangelical myself, I recognize Billy Graham as a true titan of American Christianity. The man has preached to billions of people. His nonprofit organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is a major mover and shaker in the world of global evangelism. And his Crusades are still popular to this day.
Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham is a fantastic biography, rich and unflinching, while still respectful of Graham's enormous stature. First off, the actual biography portion of the program is detailed and deep. Substantial attention is given to the different aspects of Graham's life, some a bit more disquieting than others (more on that later). If you enjoy Reverend Graham, know that this disc is a documentary on his life, not a collection of his preaching. Segments of his messages are included, but not enough to qualify as actual programs -- don't expect an altar call at the end of the DVD aimed at you, the viewer. The interviews are all very good as well. In addition to the people who knew him best, the documentary lends some screen time to the Average Joe or Jane volunteers and attendees of the Crusades. This look into those who come to these events or so fiercely devote their time is revealing.
The inclusion of Charles Templeton in the program is a worthwhile one. Templeton was a fellow preacher of Graham's until doubts and intellectual impasses overcame his religious beliefs; the two friends' spiritual paths then diverged dramatically. While Templeton opted to forgo Christianity in the face of questions he could not answer, Graham took the road of faith, and this commitment drove him to his unrelenting commitment to Christ's message of salvation. The juxtaposition of the two friends (who still respect each other immensely) is potent.
Just as potent are some of the unsavory bits of Graham's life. As Graham achieved increasing fame in the fifties and sixties, he became drawn to people of power, specifically presidents, and the publicity they generated. He was close with Lyndon Johnson, Truman, Kennedy, and, most infamously, Nixon. While he stopped short of vividly lobbying for political causes, it is obvious he was influential and enjoyed it. Graham is not a perfect man; he had reportedly met with a group of evangelicals to determine ways to prevent Kennedy from becoming president (because JFK was famously a Roman Catholic). And of course his close relationship with Nixon entangled him in a political briar patch. As this program was produced in 1993, the more disturbing and perplexing details of his relationship with Nixon had yet to be released. I'm of course referring to the notorious 1972 tapes that record Graham spouting anti-Semitic statements to Nixon, which were released in 2002. Graham took a pounding for these statements and eventually issued an apology, which the Anti-Defamation League accepted, though it is certainly an episode that will dog his legacy. I too was stunned to here Billy Graham's anti-Semitic utterances. Though I absolutely believe they run counter to the message he has been proclaiming for half a decade, they are still indefensible.
Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham is presented in full frame. The picture quality is iffy, with many shots seeming overexposed. In fact, much of the film -- specifically, the interviews -- has a cloudy look to it. Sound is a serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix.
Weirdly, the disc case says a "Personal Visit with Billy Graham" is included as a special feature, but I couldn't find it anywhere. It also claims the program is presented in widescreen. Again, not true.
Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham is a superb exploration into one of the nation's most recognizable names. If you are a fan of Reverend Graham's or simply curious as to what all the fuss is about -- or if you just enjoy a well-made biography -- check this out.
Not guilty. Amen!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated