Article of the week: Soldiers on the silver screen
20 March 2021
Rob Kinnon-Brettle speaks to War Cry Editor Major Andrew Stone about his new book The Salvation Army at the Movies
HOW MANY FILMS INCLUDE SOMETHING ABOUT THE ARMY?
When I first started researching I would have thought 50, maybe 100, but there are 540 films mentioned in the book. I’ve aimed to make it as definitive a listing as possible, although there are inevitably some gaps.
Most of the films are from America or Britain, and there are some made in European countries, Australia, New Zealand and more. I have no knowledge of any films made in Japan, Korea, India or South America but, given the global reach of The Salvation Army, I’m sure the Army must make appearances in their films too.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BRIEFEST REFERENCES INCLUDED IN THE BOOK?
The briefest references concern films produced by The Salvation Army itself, such as General Booth Leaving Dundee produced by the Army’s Cinematograph Department in 1906, or films produced by the Army in Sweden in the 1930s. Often these films are short and have self-explanatory titles, so the entry is just a matter of record. Many of the films are listed as just a short paragraph explaining how the Army is portrayed.
AND SOME OF THE MORE SIGNIFICANT?
The more significant entries are where The Salvation Army is pivotal to the plot – films such as Major Barbara, Guys and Dolls and Laughing Sinners.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVOURITES?
Heavens Above! is a 1963 film about a prison chaplain, portrayed by Peter Sellers, who was appointed to the town of Orbiston Parva as their vicar. The Salvation Army has two cameos: one during an open-air meeting and one during a demonstration by local traders, into which the Army marches. I like this film because the producers went to some lengths to achieve accuracy and authenticity. The Salvation Army flag, for instance, says ‘Orbiston Parva’ on it.
Another favourite of mine is Solstice, produced in 1994. The Army only has a small part, but the film talks about a young man in Chicago who finds some meaning in his life and the true meaning of Christmas.
I’m also a fan of Guys and Dolls. It’s got some great numbers, but it’s more than just a musical – it’s also a morality play. It tells the story of a gambler who gets converted and sets out to try and convert some of his gambling chums.
ARE THERE ANY FILMS THAT MIGHT SURPRISE US?
I’ve found the Army in all sorts of surprising films! Westerns, children’s cartoons, Disney films, Carry On films, war films, spy thrillers, and even some X-rated films.
To give some examples of films that might not at once spring to mind: the 1966 Batman, where Batman is impeded in his quest to dispose of a bomb by a marching Salvation Army band. The 2005 King Kong has an Army soup kitchen. The 1969 children’s cartoon Frosty the Snowman also has an Army band in it. And Calendar Girls shows a scene where a ‘Captain Gilly Gardner’ appears selling the War Cry.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE THIS BOOK?
I’ve always been interested in film as a medium. I grew up in The Salvation Army and my parents were officers, so our interest was alerted whenever we saw an Army uniform in a film. I once presented a paper on appearances of the Army on film for the Salvation Army Historical Association and have had an article published in Salvationist giving a list of the films I knew about at the time.
The impetus for writing and getting a book published was the lack of a central reference point. I believe it’s the only book that exists that tries to record all instances of The Salvation Army on film. I’m sure there are databases online, but no go-to place. I hope this book fills that gap.
- The Salvation Army at the Movies is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org priced £15.99
- The full interview was featured on Fortress Radio and can be listened to as part of Episode 142: Full Fortress Breakfast with Andrew and Alison Stone on Google Podcasts, Spotify and Podomatic