A s a seminary student at Duke, Randall Wallace T’71 came across an observation by 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that shaped his future
“[Niebuhr] said that the genius of Jesus of Nazareth is that he found the holy not among the monastic, but among the profane,” said Wallace. “It reminded me that life is to be lived, to be plunged into, rather than withdrawn from.”
In his books and screenplays, which include Braveheart , The Man in the Iron Mask , Pearl Harbor , and We Were Soldiers , Wallace tempers stories of war and human frailty with idealism and faith. His heroes are fearless defenders of individual freedom and honor, often in epic battles filled with graphic violence. If that juxtaposition seems jarring, it helps to learn that Wallace is a black belt in karate who taught martial arts to support himself during his year at Duke Divinity School.
Raised among a loving and religious family steeped in the oral tradition of Tennessee, Wallace became an irrepressible storyteller. After years as a scriptwriter for television dramas, he burst into prominence a decade ago as the author of Braveheart . The 1995 film, starring and directed by Mel Gibson, won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and earned Wallace a Writers Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Leonardo Di Caprio’s impersonation of Wallace, developed while working with him on the set of The Man in the Iron Mask , is telling. At Wallace’s request, Di Caprio assumed a karate posture and announced with a steelyeyed glare, “My name is Randall Wallace. I’m going to kick your ass, but first let me tell you this story about my daddy.” Wallace, who both wrote the screenplay and directed the film, was amused.
Whether stories are transmitted in a ballad or the Bible, “Narrative has vastly broad powers,” said Wallace in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles-based production company, The Wheelhouse. “It conveys the totality of human beings…how they react in real human situations and the result of their faith, their hope.”
At Duke, where he first studied under the late Thomas Langford while an undergraduate, he found theology an ideal preparation for writing fiction.
“I always felt that the study of religion was a purer science of humanity than any of the other humanities,” said Wallace. “If you find what people truly hold as sacred, then you understand them in a way that you don’t if you try to analyze them according to psychological theories or any of the other humanities. Human beings think with their hearts, not with their heads.”
After one class with Langford, who eventually served as dean of the divinity school from 1971 to 1981 and then as provost of Duke University, Wallace decided to major in religious studies. What should follow was not as clear. “Going to divinity school,” he said, “was an opportunity to explore both the potential of the ministry, the potential of other careers, and my own artistic ambitions.”
As a master of divinity student, Wallace’s struggle continued. His parents, neither of whom had a college education, had worked diligently to make that opportunity available for him and his sister. Should he follow his heart in pursuit of a writing career, or his head down a more traditional path, one that his parents would clearly support?
“Dr. Langford said to me, ‘The greatest calling is not necessarily to the ministry; the greatest calling is your calling. One is not nobler or truer than the others.’”
If he wanted to be a doctor or a teacher, Langford could point him to the bottom rung of that ladder, tell him how to get on it, and advise him to climb. Becoming a writer was different, said Langford, akin to jumping into the deep dark woods. Once in those woods, one began to develop the craft of being a woodsman, to discern where the paths are, where the water is; how to find one’s way.
“That was such tremendous advice,” said Wallace. “The idea that I was not betraying my God or my parents and my friends and teachers by wanting to be a writer; that I was fulfilling my calling, and that he would root for me just as much, and care about me just as much, if I was not in school.”
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