Moviegoers who see the new Gerard Butler headlining film “Machine Gun Preacher,” based on the life of heroin-addict-turned-Christian-child-crusader Sam Childers, would understandably believe Hollywood exaggerated the story for entertainment purposes. But they’ll be surprised to know that the real life of Childers was too much for even Hollywood.
Director Marc Forster – whose credits include “Finding Neverland,” “Quantum of Solace,” and “Monster’s Ball” – includes all the typical elements of an R-rated film: sex, drugs and violence. But screenwriter Jason Keller noted Thursday at the film’s Washington, D.C. screening that he couldn’t include some experiences in Childers’ earlier "bad-boy" life in the script because they were “too intense.”
Actor Gerard Butler, who portrays Childers in the movie, said in the production notes, “When I first read it (movie script), I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? This couldn’t all have happened.’ But it did and much more. The man has experienced more than most people would in 10 lifetimes.”
So who is Sam Childers and why would Hollywood A-listers care to make a movie about a Christian preacher who helps African children?
Childers, now 49, is a self-described hillbilly who didn’t even finish high school. He started using drugs at age 11 and grew up to be a drug dealer and a completely amoral adult, reveling in sex and violence. He writes in his 2009 book, Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle to Save Children in the Sudan, that he wouldn’t even flinch drawing a knife blade to someone’s neck if the person irritated him.
That all changed when his wife, Lynn, accepted Jesus Christ and helped bring him to Christ as well. After committing his life to Jesus, Childers kicked his drug addiction, built a church, became its preacher and managed a thriving construction business in Pennsylvania.
But in 1998, Childers went to Uganda as a volunteer for a construction project. That one trip, which was supposed to last only a few weeks, drastically changed the course of his life, his family and of hundreds of children in southern Sudan.
After witnessing firsthand how the militant rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army burned down villages, cut off people’s lips and forced children to be killing machines, Childers couldn’t return to his previous life in the United States.
Since the time of that trip, he spends most of the year in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, where his ministry, Angels of East Africa, runs an orphanage that currently supports some 170 children.
Childers, the tough biker guy who melts into putty when talking about helpless children in Africa, is nicknamed the “machine gun preacher” for his iconoclastic image as a Christian preacher who carries a machine gun and kills LRA soldiers in the name of protecting children.
The film does contemplate and challenge Childers’ controversial tactic of using violence to overcome violence. In one memorable scene, a relief aid nurse compares Childers to the LRA head Joseph Kony, who was also once praised by the people before losing control of his violent tactics.
Most of the film stays faithful to the real-life story of Sam Childers, but the timeline isn’t accurate, according to the always candid and blunt Childers. He also denies having a major faith and life crisis in real life, which was a crucial part of the movie.
“That was something that was fantasized by Hollywood. I am sure you realize this, but I want the world to realize this; when you sell your life’s right to someone, especially Hollywood, you lose control of everything,” Childers said in an interview with The Christian Post on Friday.
“But there were some things that I fought for to keep. And the main thing that I kept in that movie was that Jesus Christ was my answer.”
Another fictional aspect of the film is one of the most memorable characters, Donnie, portrayed by Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon. In the film, Donnie is Childers’ heroin-addicted best friend who cares for his wife and daughter when he is away in Africa.
Childers in the interview said that Donnie isn’t a real person but rather the compilation of five to six people in Childers’ real life.
Another thing the film left out is Childers’ son, who died from overdosing on heroin. In the film, Childers just has one child, Paige, with wife Lynn.
Also, in one scene the film shows Childers laying on the floor next to his young daughter after getting high on heroin. But Childers corrected that in real life, his daughter never knew him to drink or do drugs.
“I will say that I felt the movie to be something that I would accept and I would back when the finished product came out,” Childers stated.
When asked what Childers wished the film showed more of, he replied that he wanted it to show more of what his ministry does in the United States. But he added that he understands that the point of the movie was to show who he was 30 years ago and what he does now in Africa.
When in the United States, Childers spends a significant amount of time speaking at high schools across the country about drugs and addiction. He is also constantly on the road speaking at churches to share about his ministry in Africa.
Interestingly, despite the greater publicity surrounding his ministry, monthly income has dropped 35 percent. Childers explained that many long-time donors expect his ministry to now be well-supported because of the film. What they don’t know is that he hasn’t been paid yet.
“It is just our human reaction. We think that I got a few million dollars from the movie. I have not been paid from the movie yet,” said Childers. “When we will get paid, we’ve got unbelievable things we will do for every child.”
At the D.C. screening, the “machine-gun” preacher summed up the goal of the movie: “This movie is not about Sam Childers. It’s about you. What are you going to do?”
“Let’s not make this one man’s war. Let’s make this all our war.”
“Machine Gun Preacher” runs 123 minutes and is rated R. The film will open in theaters Friday, Sept. 23.
On the web: machinegunpreacher.org