Movie Review: The Spitfire Grill (Nov 96 – Mar 97)

By Matt Dabbs

Reviewed by Katie Hays
November, 1996 – March, 1997

25Go see this movie. Go alone or take your best friend; pick up your spouse or your date and any kids who are old enough to understand the wounding and healing of souls; but whatever you do, go see this movie.

While you’re waiting in line to buy your ticket, read the rest of this article to get some hints, but not too many details, about the miracles you’re going to witness on the screen. In no particular order, here are a few of the ones I’ve identified:

Miracle Number One: You are about to see a collaboration between devout Christians and

Hollywood.The Spitfire Grill was funded by the Sacred Heart League, the fundraising arm of an order of Catholic priests that builds schools and helps the poor in Mississippi. In a creative attempt to raise money for the League’s projects, the priests decided to finance a movie that would be “undergirded with Judeo-Christian values,” says League Director Roger Courts, but not overly religious.1

Christians and Hollywood don’t usually get along well. Historically, the Catholic Church made trouble for filmmakers through its watchdog group, the Legion of Decency. The Legion of Decency wielded so much power among moviegoers in the 1930s and ‘40s that studios actually let the church censor movies before they were released.2 More recently, conservative politicians and conservative Christians alike have decried the corruption of our morals by what passes for “entertainment” on the big screen.

But wouldn’t it be interesting, thought the Sacred Heart priests, to put their energy and money behind a film that they could say positive things about? Rather than constantly updating the list of movies that are filled with sex and violence, and urging people not to see films that glamorize a culture of indifference and moral ambiguity, what if Christian money was used to make a movie that “affirmed the human spirit”? Would, or could, anyone in Hollywood make such a movie? And, equally important for the Sacred Heart League, would anyone pay to see it?

Miraculously, the answer to these questions was “Yes.” Enter Lee David Zlotoff, the creator of MacGuyver, the television series about a secret agent who never uses gun. He took the challenge to make a low-budget film with only one big-name star (Ellen Burstyn), without sex or violence or any of the other cheap tricks typically used to grab audiences, and to make it a truly beautiful story of love and redemption. And when the film was shown to great critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, Castle Rock Entertainment paid $10 million for the rights to distribute The Spitfire Grill. This is a huge sum for such a “small” movie, giving The Sacred Heart League the profit it needed to build a new school in rural Mississippi.

Miracle Number Two:

You are about to see the most subtle evangelism, the good news offered simply and beautifully, and it will work on your heart.The Spitfire Grill is a story about a whole town full of people in need of confession, forgiveness, and healing. When a quiet, reflective woman named Percy (short for Perchance) with a gossip-worthy past comes to Gilead for a chance to start over, she finds that her past sins are interfering with the present. Her newfound friends and enemies in Gilead force her to face those mistakes and find her best self buried deep inside the pain. In her desperate search for healing, Percy unwittingly exposes the wounds of those around her, and we are astounded to find our own spiritual wounds opened by her achingly honest confession of brokenness.

The good news is, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.” The medicinal quality of the tree bark in local forests is nothing compared to the salve of selfless love as relationships develop between Percy and her employer, Hannah; a young woman named Shelby who comes to believe in Percy’s innocence; and an isolated forest dweller who unexpectedly connects with Percy. Shelby tells Percy that the town’s church building is empty now because they can no longer afford a minister. “I’m the only one who comes here anymore,” she says. “It’s quiet and you can think. If you ever want to come here, I wouldn’t mind.” Not your typical evangelistic strategy, but a genuine offer nonetheless of the peace of mind that the church offers to those who are hurting. And Percy takes her up on the offer.

In Gilead, Percy learns that to find her life she must lose it; she must offer herself on behalf of those who are weaker than herself. More importantly, she teaches all who witness her short stay in Gilead that same lesson, both the characters in the movie and those of us who are privileged to see it on the screen.

Miracle Number Three:

You are about to see a movie mainly about women who are strong, intelligent, and beautiful on the inside. Hannah, Shelby, and Percy are not going to dazzle you with their wardrobes. No one is going to copy their hairstyles. The makeup artist for this film didn’t have much work to do. But their beauty radiates from the screen, through their courageous voices and their piercingly honest eyes. All these women have been hurt, and the pain shows on their faces and in their bodies, but as their wounds heal, their heads come up and smiles return to their faces. There is no guile, no mean-spiritedness, no hate in their hearts, and so they are beautiful.

Their strength is born out of compassion for other human beings. Far from being naïve or sentimental, these women use their capacity for empathy to build strong bonds to one another. They help each other discard fear and bitterness, picking up courage and hope instead.

And the men in the movie? No stereotypes here, please. As Gilead’s men observe Percy and the changes at the Spitfire Grill, they have a variety of responses. Some are puzzled; some are angered; at least one is enchanted. The point is, no one in Gilead can ignore what’s happening, whether man, woman, or child. And a person’s response to those changes has nothing to do with gender or other outward characteristics, everything to do with the inward state of the heart.

Miracle Number Four: You are about to see a movie that you can recommend to your friends, your parents,

your older children, and your church without any reservations. How often do you start to recommend a movie to friends and find yourself stammering, “Well, there is this one scene…and you have to ignore the language…and…oh, never mind?” The Spitfire Grill does not require caveats, other than the following:

This movie is rated PG-13. The rating is undoubtedly connected to the mature themes of the story. A story about forgiveness requires a recollection of sin (always verbal, never graphic or offensive in the least). A story about healing requires a description of the wounds (again told as personal memories, sensitively done). And wounded people tend to lash out at others with angry words and hurtful accusations.

Young children may not understand this movie or appreciate its point. But anyone who is old enough to know how miserably sin hurts, and how soothingly forgiveness heals, should be allowed to see The Spitfire Grill. The conversations afterward will make taking your older children worthwhile.

So just in case you’re not in line at the box office yet, let me repeat: Celebrate the miracles that have come to the big screen in The Spitfire Grill. Go see this movie!


1 Reported in an interview with Pat Dowell on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, September 5,

1996. Transcript by Journal Graphics.
2 Frank Walsh’s new book, Sin and Censorship (New Haven: Yale University Press,

1996), traces the Catholic Church’s influence in American movie making. Sin and Censorship is reviewed by Henry Herx in

Christian Century, August 28-September 4, 1996, pp. 821-22.
Wineskins Magazine

Reviewer Katie Hays is a member of the ministerial staff at the

Cahaba Valley Church of Christ, Birmingham, Alabama.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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