There is no better film to start off our “Christian Cinema/Christploitation Week” of film reviews than this faith-based trailblazer distributed, in part, by 20th Century Fox. Its success resulted in a shift for Christian and faith-based films that took their battered, film-canistered reels off the roadshow circuit, out of church auditoriums and revival tents, and into mainstream, secular theaters*. The gambit paid off, as the once beleaguered production was not only a box-office success in the states, but a hit in over 150 countries where the film was translated into 30 languages.
Not bad for a paperback copy of a book catching the corner of Pat Boone’s eye at an airport newsstand on the way to Mexico City. In interviews, Boone stated he was immediately engrossed in the life story of Pentecostal pastor David Wilkerson, which he called “a modern day sequel to the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles.” So he optioned the book to transform it into a movie. . . .
Easier said than done.
Boone said in interviews at the time of the film’s release that all the major studios passed, with the opinion that “religion is poison at the box office.”** So began Pat Boone’s five-year journey to get the film made.
Luckily, Rick Ross, who made films for fifteen years with the Billy Graham Organization, and with the help of the Pennsylvania-based American Baptist Convention, production began on location in Harlem in October 1969. The script was penned and directed by actor Don Murray. Murray had already penned two, long forgotten, faith-based films: The Hoodlum Priest (1961), in which he starred in the true story of street minister Friar Charles Clark, and Confessions of Tom Harris (1969), in which he starred with Linda Evans in the true story of Tom Harris, an alcoholic ex-GI and loan shark debt collector who experienced a religious conversion and became a drug counselor (Harris was also a Golden Gloves boxer and future Hollywood stuntman).
Christian and secular audiences responded positively to The Cross and the Switchblade, making it a modest box office hit against its slight budget. The film’s detractors, of course, didn’t take the film’s production values to task nor its script or directing by actor Don Murray: their main rub was that Pat Boone starred — and was “unconvincing” in the role.
Ugh. Whatever, you uppity-degree, English literature critics who failed as screenwriters. Hey, are you by any chance related to the studio executives that said the film would never be a hit?
Also adapted into a comic book by iconic artist Al Hartley, the story begins as Assemblies of God pastor David Wilkerson reads a 1958 issue of Life magazine about the lives of seven Brooklyn teenagers who are members of a criminal gang. From that, Wilkerson receives a calling to minister to the city’s gangs — and steps into the middle of a gang war between the Mau Maus — led by Nicky Cruz (a fine Eric Estrada, forget the critics) — and the Bishops. And both gangs scoff at the pastor’s plans to hold a youth rally to invite all of the gangs and drug addicts in New York.
At first, Cruz conspires to get “rid of the preacher man” by using Rosa, his heroin-addicted girlfriend in his plans. In time, the pastor, though Christ, melts the gang leader’s heart — and he brings a truce among the gangs. Nicky Cruz then becomes an ordained minister and, with David Wilkerson, they start a teen center, Teen Challenge, to help other, trouble youths.
Sound hokey? Well it’s all true. It happened. Sometimes, real life — and the best things in life — are corny.
A sequel, which concentrated on the post-salvation life of Nicky Cruz and his own ministry, was to be produced by the team behind Erik Estrada’s second Christian-based film, The Ballad of Billie Blue (1972). Sadly, that film was never realized, and Estrada’s chance to have his name, alone, on the top of a marquee, was lost. He’d go on to co-star with George C. Scott and Stacy Keach in The New Centurions (1973), Airport 1975 (1974), and Midway (1976). He then booked his iconic role on NBC-TV’s CHiPs (1977 – 1983): a blessing that made him a star, but derailed his theatrical potential.
You can enjoy this simply wonderful movie courtesy of the Vision Video You Tube portal; it’s an ad-supported steam with the ability to skip through the ads. The studio shingle also offers the film as a 50th anniversary DVD via their website. You can also watch it on Christian Cinema auteur David A.R. White’s (whose name you’ll see mentioned, often, this week) PureFlix platform. You can sample the trailer on You Tube.
The Cross and the Switchblade is a stellar, inspirational film filled with a lot of heart. Boone and Estrada are fine, and Don Murray’s script and direction — considering the budget and the long journey to the get the film made — is an engaging, entertaining watch.
So watch it.
* One of those later, well-received, mainstreamed faith films was 1978’s Born Again, Frank Capra, Jr.’s biographical film on the life of Richard M. Nixon’s Special Counsel and Watergate co-conspirator, Charles Colson. Colson converted to Christianity while in prison and came to incorporate the Prison Fellowship Ministries.
** In 1955, screenwriter and director Henry Koster, who achieved critical and box office acclaim with his 1953 biblical epic, The Robe, met with equal acclaim for A Man Called Peter. A chronicle on the life of preacher Peter Marshall, who came to serve as Chaplain of the United States Senate, was adapted from a 1951 best-selling biography written by his wife, Catherine. Another of Catherine Marshall’s best sellers, 1967’s Christy, based on the life of her mother, a school teacher who taught impoverished Appalachian children, was adapted into a 1994 CBS-TV movie and television series.