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Movie Review

It's the 1940s. An elderly woman shuffles down the hall to answer a knock on her door. She opens it to an awkward but grinning young man who fumbles his briefcase and drawls, "Hello, ma'am. My name is Billy Graham, and I am here to change your life." Then he tries to fulfill his promise—by selling her a Fuller scrub brush.

As a door-to-door salesman, young Billy could not see the future significance of his customary pitch. But clearly he was gearing up for much bigger ways to transform lives.

Billy: The Early Years offers the humble and little-known backstory of how the internationally famous Billy Graham went from avid baseball player, brush salesman and skeptical Bible college student to become one of the most influential and beloved evangelists of the 20th century. But here's the twist: Graham's story is told through the eyes of a nonbeliever. As producer/writer Bill McKay told Christianity Today, "I wanted to tell Billy's life through the prism and experience of an atheist."

Who was that atheist? Renowned evangelist-turned-doubter Charles Templeton, one of Billy's best friends and most difficult critics.

From his hospice bed in 2001, Charles relays to a reporter the events of Billy's "Norman Rockwell painting" beginnings. Through Templeton's perspective, we watch Billy's big-tent-revival conversion to Christianity, his independent-minded questions in college, his infatuation and courtship with future wife Ruth Bell and, ultimately, his galvanized faith in the infallibility of God's Word.

Positive Elements

The importance of marriage, family and faith in God's Word resounds. Billy is known for implementing healthy boundaries in his life. He's honest. He's fair-minded. And he goes out of his way to avoid all appearances of evil.

Throughout Billy, Charles compares and contrasts his own ministry with Graham's. He brags that when he was a preacher, he wowed crowds of up to 40,000 with his oratory skills and charisma. He was the best, he says. Billy was just average. Mediocre. A meandering soul in need of a mission. But Charles now realizes that the humble man whom he once dismissed as "wanting" had God's hand upon his life. And even Charles' life is changed as a result.

The reasons for this go beyond Graham's humility to his faithfulness. Unlike his counterpart, Graham did not seek or revel in the world's approval. Instead, early on he accepted the counsel of one of his Bible teachers: Evangelism "must not ever be about money or fame. It's about the call. It's about serving the One who died for you. It's about His message." The result of Billy's simple faithfulness? Millions of people being saved worldwide. And through his story we see that God uses everyone who is willing, despite their lack or abundance of skill.

Spiritual Content

With a life such as Billy's, much of his story could be used as a devotional. And in reflecting that, this film's content is almost entirely composed of spiritual themes. Prayers—for salvation, assistance, guidance, revival—are on the lips of the majority of the movie's characters at one point or another. And poignant, salvation-minded sermons—Billy's and others'—consume a great deal of screen time. Hymns are sung. Bible college lectures are given. And passionate discussions about God and faith are had.

Moviegoers may be encouraged to see that even a "spiritual superstar" like Graham has to work through his trials and doubts to cultivate a deeper, more grounded faith in both his calling and Christ. They'll also be inspired by Ruth, who processes her own doubts in light of God's truth and challenges Billy with statements such as, "If you're not willing to live your life for something bigger than yourself, then life's not worth living."

Through Billy and Ruth we see how God weaves people's hopes, dreams, giftedness and paths together for purposeful good, despite their periodic confusion concerning His will.

Graham's father challenges his skeptical teenage son to read Scripture for himself rather than be "informed" by high school classmates who merely think they know what Christianity is about. Billy follows the advice and becomes a Christian.

Though his friend Charles grows to doubt God's sovereignty and ultimately rejects the gospel, Graham remains steadfastly faithful, asking Christians to pray for rather than denounce Charles. And despite Charles' condescension toward Graham's simple beliefs, Billy generously states that there is "nothing dishonest" in him and that his friend's behavior is authentic even during his crisis of faith.

Then, prompted by his inability to refute Charles' doubts and patronizing comments, an impassioned Billy seeks God's confirmation of his calling during his own spiritual crisis. We see how he eventually humbly accepts God's Word by faith. We also see how Charles, as an old man in failing health, acknowledges that "Billy made the right choice"—and apparently makes that choice for himself as well.

It's worth noting here that Charles claims to have gone through a rather eventful conversion experience when he was young. His narration and the visual effects used make us think of it as exhilarating, boisterous and even a little mystical.

Sexual Content

A fleeting and somewhat blurred flashback to Charles' pre-conversion past shows him kissing a young woman at a nightclub. Elsewhere, collegiate flirting, puppy love, doe-eyed girls, infatuated men and picnic dates are an innocent (if not silly) look at young love.

Violent Content

Charles is apparently shot. (We hear the blast and see him lying in a street.) Because he struggles with believing in God's goodness during wartime, excerpts of graphic and haunting Holocaust newsreels are shown. In addition, Charles sees a bruised and very bloodied child wheeled into a hospital on a gurney.

Crude or Profane Language

One exclamation of "of my god." As an atheist, Charles remarks, "That, by Christ, was a conversion," leaving open the possibility that his use of Jesus' name is derisive.

Drug and Alcohol Content

In the very brief nightclub scene, Charles drinks and smokes.

Other Negative Elements

Portions of this film—especially those involving Billy simultaneously learning how to court women and preach—portray him as something of a bumpkin, a bit buffoonish and even farcical. Giggling, gawky college students tease one another and jockey for favor among professors and girls, sometimes cruelly. Young Billy uses Ruth's roommate, Marjorie, as an inroad to his future wife. Marjorie is well aware of this, but it is still a selfish action.


Many biographical films rouse controversy regarding the fairness and accuracy with which they portray their subjects. Partly because of its oddly comedic and unduly melodramatic tone, this one is no exception.

"The content lacks my father's greatest passion: to preach the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to the world and point men, women and children to His saving power," writes Billy Graham's son, Franklin Graham, on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website. "While the movie covers many aspects of my father's early years, it depicts events that never happened or are greatly embellished."

Several scenes are indeed fabricated to facilitate the story's momentum. For instance: Billy Graham was not actually present at his oldest child's birth as he is onscreen. And Ruth did not necessarily play baseball with Billy as portrayed.

For his part, scriptwriter Bill McKay says, "We were just trying to humanize the experience. ... But every step of the way, we tried very hard to be faithful to Dr. Graham's story."

Mirroring McKay's take, Graham's daughter, Gigi, reminds viewers that this adaptation of her father's life is "a movie, not a documentary." She adds, in an interview with Christianity Today, "People need to remember that this film is fiction based on fact."

Still, it is a bit painful to watch a modern hero of the faith play out on the big screen as something of a girl-crazy bumbler. Minutes before his first stab at preaching, Billy's only thought seems to be, "How's my hair look?" And while he's practicing his sermon, he's seen wearing only a towel after a shower.

The film also unnecessarily vilifies Dr. Bob Jones Sr. As ominous organ music swells, Jones pompously thunders at Billy, whom he considers impertinent for asking his professor theological questions during class, "This is the Bob Jones Academy, not the Billy Graham College. God gave me this position, not your mamma! Do you wish to defy the hand of God? Young man, you will never, never, never amount to anything!"

That kind of caricaturing doesn't prevent spiritual inspiration from standing out in nearly every other frame, though. Graham's unshakable faith is lauded. His growth as a preacher and Christian leader is given due credit. And the shape of God's hand of mercy and guidance in Graham's life is made abundantly plain.

There's one more thing Billy does well: It presents the clear case that men and women are sinners and desperately in need of salvation by a holy, loving God who sent His Son, Jesus, to die and rise again, thus stealing away the sting of death and preparing a path to heaven for all those who ask. That is the message Billy Graham has spent his entire life preaching. And this film that bears his name doesn't shirk its duty to repeat it.

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