You may know him as the ungrateful-turned-humble George Bailey, but faith in Jesus drove the man behind the character.
Though most people recognized Jimmy Stewart as an actor, he also served in the military during World War II. In an article for Guideposts, the now deceased actor shared about how his father encouraged him through a note passed to him before he shipped out.
That night alone in my bunk, I opened it and read, “My dear Jim, soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger. I have had this in mind for a long time and I am very concerned… But Jim, I am banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm.
“The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise in these words. I am staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience … I can say no more. I only continue to pray. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you. Dad.”
Never before had he said he loved me. I always knew he did but he had never said it until now. I wept. In the envelope there was also a small booklet bearing the title The Secret Place—A Key to the 91st Psalm. I began to read it.
From that day, the little booklet was always with me. Before every bombing raid over Europe, I read some of it, and with each reading the meaning deepened for me.
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress… His truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day… For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
And I was borne up.
Dad had committed me to God, but I felt the presence of both throughout the war.
Many people suspect that Stewart suffered from undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the war.
Ned Forney, author of Saluting America’s Veterans, writes:
Determined to lead by example, he bucked the system, assigning himself to every combat mission he could. By the end of the war he was one of the most respected and decorated pilots in his unit.
But his wartime service came at a high personal price.
In the final months of WWII he was grounded for being “flak happy,” today called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When he returned to the US in August 1945, Stewart was a changed man. He had lost so much weight that he looked sickly. He rarely slept, and when he did he had nightmares of planes exploding and men falling through the air screaming (in one mission alone his unit had lost 13 planes and 130 men, most of whom he knew personally).
He was depressed, couldn’t focus, and refused to talk to anyone about his war experiences. His acting career was all but over.
As one of Stewart’s biographers put it, “Every decision he made [during the war] was going to preserve life or cost lives. He took back to Hollywood all the stress that he had built up.”
Forney says that’s when Stewart was cast in one of today’s most popular Christmas movies, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
Then the famed director Frank Capra—himself recently home from the war—offered Stewart the role of George Bailey in his new movie. Stewart initially balked. He hadn’t wanted to do a drama—having stated that he preferred his first post-war film be a comedy—much less a story that featured a suicidal protagonist. But when Capra reminded him that he had no other offers or options, Stewart acquiesced. The result was one of the most iconic films of all time and a Christmas staple.
By the standards of the day, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a long, expensive and tortured shoot, with Stewart channeling all his rage, trauma, sadness, darkness. He became George Bailey, and audiences were transfixed.
As Stewart’s biographer, Robert Matzen, said, “I don’t think he had that kind of capacity before the war. It enabled him to be ferocious and to have that raw emotion.” In a very real sense, the role provided Stewart with on-screen therapy—prolonged exposure treatment before such a term existed.
Stewart himself recounted his experience on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE for another Guidepost article:
In one scene, for example, George Bailey is faced with unjust criminal charges and, not knowing where to turn, ends up in a little roadside restaurant. He is unaware that most of the people in town are arduously praying for him.
In this scene, at the lowest point in George Bailey’s life, Frank Capra was shooting a long shot of me slumped in despair.
In agony I raise my eyes and, following the script, plead, “God… God…dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God…”
As I said those words, I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer, the realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless, had reduced me to tears.
Movieguide® commended IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE as “arguably the most beloved movie of all time. Many people cite it as their favorite movie. MOVIEGUIDE®, in fact, puts it at the top of our list of the Top 100 Most Inspiring Family-Friendly Movies of All Time. Many movies vie for that top position, but we can’t think of a movie that’s more deserving.”
Stewart didn’t know the movie would be such a success when he took the role. Instead, he depended on his personal faith in Christ and let it shine through the role.
George Bailey’s divine salvation is a tale of healing faith for a simple reason.
“It’s simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and a selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life,” Stewart said.
And for that, we can thank Stewart for demonstrating Christ in both word and deed.
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