‘A latter-day Rambo in Africa’

2012-01-23 00:00

MEN with a mission, Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, are not a novelty in Africa, or elsewhere for that matter. Even so, the story of Sam Childers, the true-life Machine Gun Preacher of the title, takes some beating.

Childers, played by a suitably rugged Gerard Butler, is, in his own words, a hillbilly from Pennsylvania. Until the age of 30, he was not the type of person to be trusted with a mission of any kind, least of all one that demanded care and compassion.

A drug addict prone to extreme and unprovoked violence, he was the embodiment of trailer trash, revelling in a nihilistic brutality that offered an impotent antidote to a life of hopeless poverty. In 1992, encouraged by his wife Lynn, a former stripper, he finds God and sets off on a road that would eventually lead him to Southern Sudan. There, in 1998, he built an orphanage that served as a base for children who had been abducted or whose parents had been killed in the civil war, and as a military depot for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army from which Childers launched his own attacks. The ironies are so acute that any attempt to contain them adequately within a single premise is bound to explode. As a latter-day Rambo in Africa, Childers — the white, American redneck — takes on the role of a warlord, benevolent or bellicose depending on the wind. The hitching of aid to guns is a hugely contentious issue, explored (somewhat lamely) in Angelina Jolie’s Beyond Borders, and while touched on here is brushed aside without much ado. The key irony of Childers’s story is that his main adversary is Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a warlord whose own Christian calling is to establish a theocracy in Uganda and whose rampage through the area has cost countless lives.

Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace) avoids meditation on these irreconcilables by following the good old action hero format, heavily loaded with virile violence and light on context.

The war in Sudan is presented as a random African thing: there’s one dark, passing intimation that it’s the Muslims in the north who are to blame, and, while Kony’s killers are the immediate aggressors, the whole lot is written off to an intrinsic cruelty (of which there is no shortage) associated with the Heart of Darkness.

The solution to rootless conflict that is devoid of any purpose but bloodlust is, of course, individual acts of heroism, which serve as their own justification. When the credits roll, Childers (the real one) intones that the means justify the ends and that no one directly touched by the war would argue with that.

His story is extraordinary, and temptingly inspiring. It is also profoundly disturbing in its blitheness, and the intermittent explosion of clichés doesn’t hold the moral centre that Childers himself takes for granted. Ignore all that and what’s left is a very ordinary action movie. ***

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