- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 8, 2005

As ink spills and teeth gnash over just how faithful Disney’s movie adaptation of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is to the original intent of author C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory, it’s time to blow the whistle on the more glaring — and puzzling — absence of Christianity in another recent movie — the hit Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.” Controlling for the fact that mainstream Hollywood movies are not, and should not be, vehicles for proselytization, and for the creative license and allowances for plot streamlining granted to any narrative effort, “Walk the Line” is still remarkably mum on the subject of the late Mr. Cash’s religious convictions. It approaches what might be called a state of false dramatizing.

As the movie tells it, the rebellious Johnny Cash, an alcohol and drug abuser throughout much of the 1960s, was dragged from the brink of self-destruction by his perkily pious second wife, June Carter.

In her review of the movie for National Review Online, religion writer Frederica Mathewes-Green concluded: “We see Cash at rock bottom, and see June leading him on a bright Sunday morning into a white clapboard First Baptist Church. After that, he starts to get his life together. The scene is whisked from the screen almost before it has time to register. Yet — is it possible there’s a connection there?”

It’s more than possible. It’s the truth — at least as Mr. Cash himself saw it.

I had a long chat recently with Patrick Carr, who interviewed Mr. Cash on numerous occasions beginning in 1972 and up until the singer’s death in 2003. He co-authored 1997’s “Cash: The Autobiography.” Still smarting from disbelief — to the point that he’s considering writing a new (he hopes definitive) biography of the singer — he spoke out publicly about “Walk the Line” for the first time.

“I think the impression the movie created was that June Carter introduced him to Christianity, much the same way that it created the impression that she introduced him to reading,” he said.

Not quite true, according to Mr. Carr.

“In fact, he was brought up as a Christian,” he says. “He retained his Christian beliefs throughout his life. At the point where he came to the end of his first period of drug addiction, the most pertinent statement he made about how he felt and what his condition was is that he was ‘totally separated from God.’ ”

We’re not, mind you, talking about Madonna’s God, or some amorphous “great spirit.” Mr. Cash was a born-again Christian who attended crusades with evangelist Billy Graham. He co-wrote and narrated the 1973 movie “The Gospel Road,” about the life of Christ. He wrote a novel (1986’s “The Man in White”) about the Apostle Paul. He considered becoming a full-time evangelist until Mr. Graham convinced him he’d be a more effective spokesman as a popular musician.

“He was an absolute believer in the Christian God,” Mr. Carr said. “The wild years depicted in the movie — he was a Christian all through that. He was conscience-stricken and extremely ashamed of himself.”

(If you suspect Mr. Carr, a native Englishman now living in Tampa, Fla., of advancing an evangelistic agenda of his own here, note that he considers himself a secular person.)

What makes the filmmakers’ choice to downplay Mr. Cash’s faith more mysterious is that the movie would have been emotionally deeper and more dramatically compelling — not simply more accurate — had it forthrightly confronted this dimension of a complex man. (Director James Mangold and Mr. Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, who executive-produced “Walk the Line,” could not be reached for this article.)

Consider one pivotal — and somewhat farcical — scene: Mr. Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is living alone in a big house in rural Tennessee. Still drinking and drugging, Mr. Cash tries haplessly to extricate a tractor from river mud. The tractor cuts loose and rolls backward into the river, whereupon Mr. Cash is ignominiously rescued by Miss Carter.

Compare that to what Mr. Cash recounted to Mr. Carr. “He walked into a cave with a flashlight as far as he could possibly get, through these labyrinthine passages, until his flashlight battery dies,” recalls Mr. Carr.

“And then he lies down to die. He figures nobody will be able to find him. He’s taken pounds of pills for the last two or three days. He’s completely wasted, totally at the end of the line. He gets this idea — he doesn’t hear the voice of God — but he gets this idea that he’s being told it’s not his decision whether he lives or dies. He doesn’t have any authority on the subject.

“It’s his job to get out — which he does, in total darkness.”

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a great movie to me.

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