It’s a blazingly hot and humid day in the rural small town of Albany, Ga., in June 2010, and Ken Bevel is having a very hard day. He’s been carjacked repeatedly, each time jumping onto the driver’s side door of his truck and hanging on for dear life as the thief attempts to shake him by weaving against traffic at high speed. This time, the truck is about to smash into a tree, throwing Bevel to the ground and forcing him to roll uncontrollably through the brush.
That’s not the only high adventure Bevel was experiencing that weekend. In playing a new sheriff in town named Nathan Hayes in the movie “Courageous,” he also experienced two high-speed, high-jumping foot chases and a rip-roaring gunfight with two drug-dealing gang-bangers in the course of a three-day set visit by the Pasadena Weekly. While that might be normal for most actors in a film about cops, what makes Bevel’s story unusual is that he is actually a full-time minister at the Sherwood Baptist mega-church in Albany, and “Courageous” is more of a ministry than a movie to him and the team of pastors at the helm of it.
But more than a year later, “Courageous” is cleaning up at the nation’s box offices, debuting in fourth place last week and earning the highest per-screen average in the country while playing on less than half as many screens as its nearest competitors. While the film’s success and that of the three prior Sherwood films — “Fireproof” (which was the most profitable movie of 2008), “Facing the Giants” and “Flywheel” — have stunned Hollywood and conventional moviegoers, their ability to mix Christian and family-values messages into well-made films has created a formula that’s quietly revolutionizing the way conservative churches and Hollywood relate.
“When my wife and I came to Sherwood in 2007, we didn’t know that this church made movies,” Bevel recalls. “We’d heard about ‘Facing the Giants’ and thought if a church made it, it had to be cheesy or have bad acting, but we were impressed and our lives were literally changed by looking at Sherwood Pictures.”
That’s because at the very first church service Bevel attended there, he heard Sherwood Pastor Alex Kendrick (who has starred in each film except “Fireproof,” and co-writes, co-produces and directs all the films) ask the congregation’s men if they’d like to audition for a movie in which they would be putting out fires and sliding down fire poles while playing firemen. He was surprised to find that Kendrick cast him despite the fact he seemed to have an awful audition.
“I did terrible, and had no experience in doing that,” says Bevel. “When the audition was over they brought me back in and said, ‘Ken, we’ll give you the part not because of your acting ability, but because you have a heart for the Lord, and He’ll provide everything else.”
Once he hit the set, Bevel was indeed surprised to find that he could deliver a solid, wide-ranging performance, as Kendrick’s sprawling screenplays tie together deeply emotional moments with highly comedic hijinks and an ever-growing ability to handle rock ‘em, sock ‘em action. And he’s also been pleased to see that Alex and his brother Stephen, who shares the writing and producing duties, are growing exponentially in their filmmaking abilities.
Far from being a stereotypically single-minded, Bible-thumping film of the kind Billy Graham used to fund in pursuit of converts, “Courageous” ties together multiple storylines. It centers on four small-town sheriffs who make a pact to become better fathers after one loses a daughter in a car accident and as the town faces a new drug-dealing gang.
But even as they strive to be better Christians and role models, one of the four apparent heroes is brought down for stealing and reselling drugs from evidence rooms. The overall result plays like the Oscar-winning “Crash,” albeit with no foul language, unknown actors and a surprisingly low $2 million budget that manages to look like a $20 million film.
“Even if you’re not Christian, you want something wholesome for your family and movies that show a good message, and Sherwood Pictures always figures out a big theme that everyone can relate to,” explains Bevel. “‘Flywheel’ was about a dishonest car salesman who learns to straighten up, and ‘Facing the Giants’ had a David and Goliath-type story about overcoming the odds in life but was centered on football since probably 80 percent of American men love football.
“With ‘Fireproof,’ people don’t get married to get divorces, and in an age of skyrocketing divorce you want to see a happy marriage,” Bevel continues. “And with ‘Courageous,’ no one grows up wanting to be a deadbeat dad, so this will resonate throughout our culture and beyond. It’s incredible to see people in the theater clapping and crying, saying that this movie really challenged them to take it to another level and to bring their families better for the Lord.”
“Courageous” continues playing this weekend at the Pacific Cinemas Glendale 18, located at Americana at Brand in Glendale. n