When Robert Duvall tried to get financial backing to make his film The Apostle, he was turned down. Executives told him that there was too much dialogue. Duvall’s reply was that if there was one thing that characterized all preachers, it was their ability and propensity to talk, from morning till night; Jesus talk was a preacher’s stock in trade.
The idea of playing a “holiness”—or Pentecostal—preacher came to Duvall some twenty-five years before he actually made the film; he wrote the screenplay fifteen years before The Apostle became a big-screen reality. The project had become such a large part of his soul that he ended up putting up five million dollars of his own money just so that he could get it done. Praise the Lord and thank him for inspiring Robert Duvall to make this movie. From those who have seen it, let me hear an “Amen.”
I love Robert Duvall. One of my favorite movies is Tender Mercies, for which he won the Oscar for best actor. The subtle evolution and partial redemption of the country singer/composer Mac Sledge was masterfully portrayed by Mr. Duvall and the award was richly deserved. I recently watched The Great Santini, in which Duvall plays the role of Lt. Col. Bull Meechum, the tough, deeply troubled commander of Marine unit and family unit. Duvall was brilliant. Of course, his performance as the subtly humiliated consigliore to the Corleone family in The Godfather was remarkable for its understatement. I have already talked about his role in the remarkable True Confessions (here).
The first time I saw The Apostle I would have agreed with those movie executives: too much preaching—so much Jesus talk from Duvall’s character that it simply overwhelmed the story. I thought that Duvall, who appears in nearly every scene (quite a feat, actually, given that he also directed the film), was being somewhat self-indulgent. Duvall’s 1998 interview with Charlie Rose and a second viewing of the film caused me to change my mind.
Once Duvall had secured the funding to make The Apostle, he visited large numbers of holiness churches, white, black, and integrated, in the southern United States. He met preachers famous and unknown. In nearly every case he was impressed with both the sincerity and the preaching skill of these men of God (I don’t think he mentioned any women) and imbued the character of Sonny Dewey, also known as the Apostle E.F. in the movie with these characteristics, which come out not only in Sonny’s preaching—and yes, there is indeed a great deal of it—but also in his love for the little church he establishes and for the community that grows within and without its walls.
Euliss “Sonny” Dewey’s roots are deep in southern evangelism. In the opening scenes of the film we see him as a four-year-old sitting in a black church with his nanny listening to an old blind preacher, who is shouting, stomping, prancing around the pulpit at the front of the church: “Can you say ‘Yeah, Lord’? Yeah, Lord! Yeah Lord! Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Jesus!” Later we see him as a twelve-or thirteen-year-old prodigy preacher, delivering the fiery message himself in another black church.
Sonny Dewey is a good man, a man of God. But he is not without flaws, some of which are serious. After he discovers his wife having an affair and after he is voted out of a church he created, he commits a terrible act and is forced to flee and to live life in a far-off town not as Sonny Dewey but as “the Apostle E.F.”
It is impossible for the Apostle to remain hidden, however. He needs to preach, he needs to praise the Lord in a loud voice, and he needs to create and lead a faith community. With the help of a retired local pastor, he renovates an old church and through radio sermons, charity work, and the sheer power of his belief and his charisma, quickly builds a devoted congregation.
Even after he is found and goes to prison, he continues to preach. In the final scene of the film he is leading a road gang of convicted criminals in a litany of praise to Jesus.
The Apostle/Sonny Dewey is a complex man—a man with a big heart, a big ego, big desires and appetites. He can beat the daylights out of a cracker who acts disrespectfully in his church and be as tender and as forgiving as an angel when that same man comes back with a bulldozer to knock the church down. He is clever and resourceful, impish and cute, passionate and explosively violent. He knows who he is and never pretends to anyone that he is a saint.
Robert Duvall lived with Sonny for twenty-five years before making The Apostle. It is impossible to imagine any other actor who could play this role with the same power, the same nuance, the same conviction.