A remarkable story of survival, perseverance and unquenchable spiritual passion becomes a blunt evangelical instrument in “The Cross: The Arthur Blessitt Story.” Recounting the 40 years Blessitt spent walking the earth, bearing a large cross and offering prayers and blessings to those he met along the way, this wannabe-inspirational docu shares its hero’s devotion to preaching the gospel. But the film’s emotional manipulations come at the expense of a more complex, illuminating look at the man himself. Word of mouth should help “The Cross” catch on with the faithful in limited theatrical release and as a church vid staple.
Blessitt’s pilgrimage began in Los Angeles in 1969, when the passionate 29-year-old preacher from Greenville, Miss. — dubbed “the Minister of the Sunset Strip” for his warm outreach to hippies, prostitutes and other Hollywood fringe-dwellers — took up a 12-foot-long wooden cross, with a wheel attached for easier towing, and set forth on a mission to spread the love of Jesus far and wide.
Four decades, 38,102 miles and 315 nations later, Blessitt has the Guinness record for the world’s longest walk and no shortage of stories to tell. Recounted here with abundant archival footage, interspersed with the man’s own reflections and exhortations to the viewer, most of these tales are harrowing but ultimately uplifting testimonies to God’s presence and power in the most trying of circumstances. Most memorably, Blessitt recalls his dangerous 1980 trek from Tel Aviv to war-torn Beirut, where he ended up meeting and praying with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (as shown in a videoclip).
A gifted raconteur who laughs easily and radiates goodwill at all times, Blessitt has a plain-spoken eloquence that even skeptics may find disarming (he certainly disarmed the angry soldiers he confronted in 1971 in Belfast, Northern Ireland). The guileless simplicity of his “Smile, God loves you!” message, the sincere compassion in his face and voice, and the unapologetic nuttiness of the whole enterprise make Blessitt a genuinely moving and effective spokesman for a faith that prizes obedient action over lofty words.
Still, the man behind the cross remains a bit of a blur: While the film shows many of Blessitt’s sidewalk acquaintances tearfully accepting Christ through prayer (footage that seems at once deeply moving and creepily invasive), we never learn the details of his own conversion or the source of his intense fervor. It’s eventually revealed that he has a wife and children, but aside from occasional glimpses of his son Joshua (who accompanied his dad on some of his most dangerous excursions), the film never delves very deeply into Blessitt’s family life.
Genial crackpot or latter-day saint, Blessitt finally seems reduced by the pic’s heavy-handed bid at spiritual uplift. In his determination to bring even the most hard-hearted viewers to their knees, helmer Matthew Crouch (producer of “The Omega Code” and “One Night With the King”) subjects the viewer to all the teary emotions and Christian pop songs of a church altar call. Where the Bible describes God as possessing a “still, small voice,” Crouch wields a megaphone.
Tech package is marred by visually rough transitions between the widescreen interview footage and the boxier aspect-ratio of the archival material. Soundtrack is neither subtle nor varied, and Crouch’s wise-guy narration proves jarring and, in moments when he pretends to question Blessitt’s sanity, rather disingenuous.