The Cross and the switchblade partially written and directed by Don Murray, was a story based on the true events of David Wilkerson and his quest as a minister called by the Holy Spirit to reach out to the lost youth of New York City who were consumed in gang violence and explicit drug abuse through the message of hope and love. This dramatic biographical crime film released on 1st July 1970, was an adaptation of the non-fiction book ‘The Cross and the switchblade’ which was published in 1963 by David Wilkerson. The film culminated a wonderful blend of theatrical devices to translate the crisis faced by society during the 1950s.
The story of a young, passionate suburban middle-class preacher who was burdened by the explosion of gang violence in the streets of New York City adheres to the voice of God to spread the message of love and hope. David Wilkerson (Pat Boone) played the role of a shepherd set out to recover the lost sheep who in this case was Nicky Cruz (Eric Estrada) the warlord of the ‘Mau Maus’ gang who was in constant conflict with the opposition ‘The Bishops’.
The first thing that stood out of the film was the choice of music by Ralph Carmichael that was used to convey the hustle and bustle of the first scene of a young man getting chased and beaten to death by a gang. The use of dark upbeat jazz that connects the audience to the time and age of the film along with its association to the underground gang members and youth who hid in the interiors of New York City inside abandoned, shady high-rise buildings.
Music also played a big role when in line with David Wilkerson’s heart for God’s people. Ralph Carmichael used a subtle blend of indie Christian rock hymns that was often played at an emotional or ministering moment in the movie. I personally felt the choice of rock hymns although conveying the message was rather a cliche and exercised very little subtlety.
Secondly, the highlighted use of lighting and space in The Cross and the switchblade.
Unlike his previous monotonous work, cinematographer Julian Townsend brought creativity in understanding the depth of the scenes. From the bright, wide-opened spaces of the parks and streets that David Wilkerson traveled, shifting to the dark, dull, lifeless, grey narrow alley of Brooklyn NY. The multiple vignette frames introducing Nicky Cruz and the Mau Maus in their secret headquarters as well as the dark, claustrophobic spaces depicting the trend of a drug-addicted generation suffocating themselves in debauchery.
I found during the film in more occasions than one that the light was used to signify a spiritual glow/presence over Wilkerson’s character as he interacted with God and even he showed compassion or when he brought someone into the knowledge of the “light”.
The cast of the film although talented in some cases, seemed more amateur than professional. Unlike the few exceptions of Nicky and Rosa who seemed to have more heart and soul into their roles as compared to Rev. David Wilkerson himself. The preacher although holding some emotional scenes had a monotonous expression throughout whereas Nicky portrayed a large variety of emotional states very well along with the beautiful Jacquline Giroux as Rosa. The cheesy old-school dialogs and Jazz pop culture terminology didn’t stand out as much as a realist film. Like the Cleveland Press reviewer, Tony Mastroianni said, “What realism the movie has derived from its New York location filming. Director Don Murray generates some excitement and the film generally offers some worthwhile viewing. At least it does not on the side of sensationalism.” (Tony)
The film managed to remain focused on its title and keep that consistency throughout the screenplay written by Don Murray and James Bonnet. From the opening scene of a close up of a switchblade and the fearful eyes of a young man victimized by the violence. To mid-way through the film where Rosa(Jacqueline Giroux) confessing her addiction to Mrs. Gomez, hugging her with a switchblade in her hand. And in the final scene when Nicky had said to Abdullah, “I can choose to take your life or give it back to you”, Nicky hands over his switchblade to Wilkerson on the altar in an act of surrendering to God and choosing to live a changed life.
There was often a sequence of events that began with violence or anger followed by an act of unexpected love which wasn’t celebrated for long until violence or struggle broke out again thus repeating the cycle until Reverend Wilkerson put an end to the cycle of broken people breaking people with the message of the Cross. Trisha Fuentes writes a review and focusses on this aspect as well saying,”The director’s subtlety for demonstrating conflict in every scene, including when the Gospel is preached, realistically tells the story of the human experience and the experience of a true evangelist, even if the acting is outdated and overdone. The Cross and the switchblade is all heart, and tells some important aspects of how the Holy Spirit works with us to love others.” (Trisha)
The film The Cross and the switchblade overall had an ability to convey the truth of the gospel to the audience in a more relatable manner but did lack subtlety in some aspects and overuse of cliches with the play of music and light. The introduction to David Wilkerson in the plot seemed a bit out of the blue which really was a downside for me but the film still managed to portray real struggles of the youth and the truth about agape love.
Tony Mastroianni Review Collection “The Cross and the Switchblade” May 15, 1971 Cleveland press
Trisha Fuentes Allen “Christian Movie Review: The Cross and the Switchblade” January 9, 2018, Noble Fountain Films.