I Heard the Bells Parent Guide
This film may be flawed, but that doesn't diminish the power of its hopeful message of faith and triumph over darkness.
Parent Movie Review
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Stephen Atherholt) is America’s most popular poet – but he has sworn never to write again. One bereavement after another has left him emotionally spent and unable to summon up the energy or imagination to put words to paper. The final straw is when his eldest son, Charlie (Jonathan Blair), joins the Union Army without his father’s consent. As Charlie rides off to war, he shouts at his father that he will no longer “put hope in a God who is sleeping or a God who is dead.”
With his own faith frozen, Longfellow pulls strings to keep his son away from the front lines of the Civil War and then waits in dread for the feared knock at the door. As the poet descends into a dark night of the soul, it seems unlikely that inspirational words will ever flow from his pen again. How then, does this wounded and grieving man become the author of the beloved Christmas anthem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”?
I will admit my biases up front: I love this Christmas carol. It’s always been one of my favorites and I was excited to see a film about the events that inspired it. Perhaps my expectations were too high. This isn’t a terrible film, but it isn’t as good as it should be. Longfellow’s life is a fascinating story, with lots of drama and deep emotional pain. It’s clear from his famous lyrics that he had rebuilt faith from a place of great anguish. This emotional and spiritual growth is a remarkable process, which the movie manages to capture to some small extent. Frankly, it takes a great filmmaker to depict the transformation of a man’s soul and I think that’s beyond the ability of director Joshua Enck. I don’t blame him for trying and failing. As another 19th century poet said, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
What goes wrong with this movie? Its biggest weakness comes in the first act of the film, which feels stage-y. It too often seems that the actors are reciting lines, not having authentic conversations. At the worst moments, I felt like I was watching community theater (good community theater, but still…) Most distracting of all is Longfellow’s wig. It’s almost impossible to describe how bad his wig is: I don’t know what it’s made from but it never looks like real hair. In some scenes it looks like he’s dressing up as Karl Marx, which I am 100% sure is not the look the wardrobe department was trying to achieve. The rest of the movie looks good, I just wish the production staff had spent a bit more money on better wigs for their lead actor.
On the flip side, this movie has a lot to recommend it to family audiences (and particularly to Christian viewers). Negative content is minimal with just enough violence to provide historical accuracy and to keep the narrative moving. The film provides a touching depiction of a strong, loving family and honestly portrays the challenges of maintaining faith in a world of suffering and anguish. It’s a triumphant shout from the battle raging in a man’s soul; a powerful witness of how his renewed faith in God brings light into the darkness of grief and isolation. This message never grows old and as Christmas 2022 approaches in a world gripped by war, famine, and plague, a reminder that “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men” is as timely as it was in 1863.
Directed by Joshua Enck. Starring Stephen Atherholt, Jonathan Blair, Rachel Day Hughes. Running time: 110 minutes. Theatrical release December 1, 2022. Updated December 2, 2022
Watch the trailer for I Heard the Bells
I Heard the Bells
Rating & Content Info
Why is I Heard the Bells rated Not Rated? I Heard the Bells is rated Not Rated by the MPAA
Violence: There are scenes of distant war violence and mention of injuries and death. A soldier is shot and is seen with bloody injuries. There is mention of miscarriage and maternal death. A woman burns to death when her dress catches fire. A man is seen with burns on his face and hands. A woman’s dead body is briefly seen in her coffin. There is mention of an abolitionist politician being beaten by a slave owner.
Sexual Content: None.
Alcohol / Drug Use: A soldier smokes a pipe. Alcohol is seen at a dinner party and people hold glasses of what is presumably alcohol, but no one is seen drinking it. A bottle of ether is seen on a bedside table and it is suggested that a main character is abusing the drug to cope with emotional distress.
Page last updated December 2, 2022
I Heard the Bells Parents' Guide
Why does Charlie believe that God is dead or sleeping? If you are a religious person, have you ever faced a challenge to your faith? How did you respond to it? How do Charlie and his father address their loss of faith? What helps them recover their faith?
Loved this movie? Try these books…
If Longfellow’s story is meaningful to you, you can look for the picture book about the writing of the Christmas carol. Entitled I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, the book is written by Lloyd and Karmel Newell and illustrated by Dan Burr.
To learn more about this influential poet, you can read Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Nicholas A. Basbanes.
A complete collection of Longfellow’s poems can be read for free online at Project Gutenberg.
Related home video titles:
A Civil War Christmas is featured in Little Women, a movie adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is a fanciful account of how Charles Dickens (a friend of Longfellow’s) came to write his immortal novella, A Christmas Carol.
Christian writer C.S. Lewis struggles with his faith when his wife becomes critically ill in Shadowlands.
Tolkien follows J.R.R. Tolkien to the horrors of World War I, and illustrates how those experiences influence the development of his faith and his literary works.
The spirit of the season encourages soldiers on opposite sides of the battlefield to lay down their arms and celebrate Christmas 1914 together in Joyeux Noel.