The Cross And The Switchblade

Director: Don Murray
Pat Boone, Erik Estrada, Jacqueline Giroux

Over the years, I have made countless observations on mankind and its various practices and beliefs. For example, when I once worked at a dollar store, I observed that when you are working a cash register and start getting low on change, one subsequent customer after another will suddenly feel that it's perfectly okay to give you twenty dollar bills for a purchase totalling only one dollar and forty cents. And when you go to a bank, the more you are in a hurry to do your business in the bank and leave in order to do other things on your "to do" list for that day, the customers in the (always) long line ahead of you will suddenly get in their minds to take an extraordinary time with the tellers when they reach them. But there is one certain aspect of humanity I have found to be true more often than not ever since I was first old enough to observe my fellow man. And that is that just about everybody thinks that they are right in the way that they think and feel about just about any topic you can imagine. This can be found in just about any kind of character you personally come across or hear about, whether it is a parent who feels they know the best way to discipline their child, to a drug lord who justifies his various criminal activities by looking at the immense wealth and power he has managed to gain from his crimes. I have to admit that I too think I am correct in every aspect of myself, from my opinions to my actions. The difference that there is with my case is that I am smart enough to know that I am very smart, so I know for sure I am saying and doing the right things.

Anyway, it is interesting to look at how just about everybody who feels that they are correct does with that realization. Many times, the result is that they try to convince other people to switch their thinking and beliefs to theirs. In my case, I have done this through this web site, to convince the public to give obscure movies a try because a lot of them are actually good. Though I have been somewhat careful with this; I don't try to give a real hard sell to my movie opinions, because I believe that gentle persuasion is better than force. Because of this belief of mine, I often have a hard time accepting people trying extremely hard to convert other people's opinions and beliefs. Quite often that includes religious people who try to convert a person's faith. This can range from the wacky comic book tracts that Jack Chick put out to an ordinary churchgoer trying to convert a neighbor of his who has a different faith. Though I am sure that many of these people have their hearts in the right place, frequently I find that their die-hard belief that their religion is right makes them forget tact and respect. Years ago, I watched the classic silent 1919 D. W. Griffith movie Broken Blossoms, and one scene that I remember quite vividly to this day was an early moment in the movie where the Chinese immigrant character bumps into a native Londoner who tells the Chinese man that he is headed to China in order to convert "the heathens" there. I remember thinking while watching that scene that the Chinese character should have responded by saying something like, "In China, we consider the English heathens."

As you could probably see from what I just wrote in the previous paragraph, I don't often look fondly on religious people who make such a great effort to convert various people's beliefs and faith. Still, I have to admit that there are some religious individuals that have taken it upon themselvesThe Cross And The Switchblade to preach the word that do give me some interest. I'm mainly talking about religious people who attempt to convert those who have gone down a dark path - criminal types. Though I can sort of understand why people who have been imprisoned might find the light - they have in a way hit rock bottom with their past belief system - it's always been a little hard for me to understand how criminal types who are free in society could be transformed into law-abiding citizen by religion. But apparently it has happened a number of times. So when I came across The Cross And The Switchblade, I was especially interested in watching it, since the movie was a telling of the true story of a pastor who exposed himself to street gangs in order to spread the word of his faith - and had success. The true-life pastor was David Wilkerson, who is played in the movie by Pat Boone (Journey To The Center Of The Earth). In the late 1950s, Wilkerson felt he got a calling from God to leave Pennsylvania and go to New York City, and not just to enter another church and simply resume the pastor role he played in Pennsylvania. Wilkerson felt his true calling was to preach to the various youth gangs in New York City, to show the gang members that turning to God was a better way to live than engaging in criminal activities. The movie shows the various difficulties Wilkerson faced in starting his crusade and then continuing it, including the work and challenges he faced with one particular gang member, a youth named Nicky Cruz (Estrada, Trackdown).

I feel that I should admit that the movie's theme of pushing religion onto various non-believers wasn't the only obstacle right from the start for me. Another issue I had when I sat down to watch the movie was that I've never been a big fan of Pat Boone, from his music to his politics. But I still had a little, ahem, faith the end results could be interesting. So how was it? Well, I'll start with the main figure of the movie, which as I said earlier was played by Boone. Even though the real-life events of the movie took place in the late 1950s, the character of David Wilkerson, at least here, seems annoyingly naive. In his first scene, he barges into a courtroom to try to help gang youths going through a trial, and subsequently he's seen sleeping in his car deep in the New York City ghetto. When he tries to approach gang youths, he pretty much just goes into an instant "God loves you" speech without seemingly considering the circumstances or attitudes the youths may be in at the time. That's bad enough, but what makes it worse is that we don't really see what is driving this guy to preach and save people. We learn he left a ministry in Philadelphia and has a pregnant wife back home, but that's it. So in the end, he pretty much comes across as a shallow one-note character. With such a limited scope to this preacher, it shouldn't come as much as a surprise that actor Pat Boone (who was never much of an actor in the first place) can't seem to do much with what's given to him in the script. The best he can do is convincingly act the times the character really does seem to be not fully comprehending New York City reality, and at his worst his acting style seems either gee-whiz or somewhat constipated.

Somewhat better in the acting department of this movie is the performance of 21-year-old Erik Estrada. Since this was Estrada's first acting role, he thankfully isn't possessing the Hollywood polish that would be wrong for a violent and hate-filled character. He does show rage and pain fairly well, and while he is sometimes a little rough in quieter moments, these slight stumbles don't really hurt the movie that much. However, the writing of his character often leaves a lot to be desired. It probably doesn't come as no surprise as to what happens to the character at the end, but how this transformation happens is not very satisfying. All through the movie, the character of Nicky Cruz is filled with hate and anger, right up to the climactic sequence, where in just a few minutes he... well, I said you could probably guess what happens. The movie simply fails to show the inner workings of Cruz's mind at this moment to make believable what happens. Also, the scripting of Cruz and the other gang members don't really explain why these individuals drifted into gang life into the first place. At one point someone says, "Being in the gang, fighting, stealing, shooting dope is their way of proving they are a man," but there's got to be more than that in my opinion. The movie doesn't explore the gang members enough to show how their criminal minds could be changed. But that's not the only way that the screenplay for The Cross And The Switchblade stumbles. The movie also inaccurately portrays what race relations must have been like in the time and place (pretty much no real outright racism at all in this movie), and we are told things like a deep addiction to heroin can be completely cured in a cold turkey style in just a few days of sweating it out.

To be fair, when it comes to other portrayals of drug addiction in The Cross And The Switchblade, the movie often doesn't shy away, showing everything from cooking and shooting up heroin, and showing the awful effects of a drug habit. And I guess that director Don Murray does also show the frequent violent lifestyle of street gangs, though I couldn't help but notice the often-poor choreography of the gang fights, such as the actors often being afraid to land blows near other actors' heads. But most of Murray's direction is far from satisfying. Though the true life events the movie is recreating took place in the 1950s, the movie is filled with later model cars and other anachronistic details. The movie also looks pretty cheap, with sets, cinematography, and other technical details (including the opening credits) looking like they were taken from a modestly budgeted television show of the same period. But the worst thing about the direction is the pacing of the entire enterprise. The story plods on at a pretty slow speed, and often losing focus on the characters of Wilkerson and/or Cruz. It's made even worse by the fact that the running time of the movie is elongated to more than 105 minutes; there's no reason why a seemingly simple tale of gaining faith had to run so long and so slowly. As you can see here, there are a lot of reasons why The Cross And The Switchblade has faded away from the general public's memory more than fifty years after it was first released. But the current copyright owners are still trying to press the movie to this day, with a DVD that has eight language tracks. But if any of those foreign language tracks are as poorly made as the English subtitle option (many misspellings), all I can say is: God help them.

(Posted July 3, 2020)

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See also: The Devil's Rain, If Footmen Tire You, Years Of The Beast