The film tells the story of Childers and his efforts to save the children of South Sudan in collaboration with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) against the atrocities of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
In South Sudan the LRA are attacking a village and force a young boy to attack a woman.
Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is an alcoholic drug-using biker from Pennsylvania. On his release from prison, he finds that his wife (Michelle Monaghan) has given up her job as a stripper, because she has since accepted Christ as her saviour. Initially infuriated by his wife's decision, he returns to his routine of partying and using drugs like heroin with his fellow biker friend Donnie (Michael Shannon). One night while on a bender with Donnie, he almost kills a vagrant. He is shaken by the experience, and the day after allows his wife to persuade him to go to church with her, where he is eventually baptized and offered salvation.
Sam soon finds a stable job as a construction worker and later starts his own construction company. Later, on a missionary trip to Uganda to build homes for refugees, he asks one of the SPLA soldiers watching over them to take him on a trip to the north, to Sudan. The soldier warns him that it is a war zone, but upon Sam's insistence they go. They arrive at a medical tent in Sudan. As the soldier moves off to talk to some people, Sam is roped in by a female doctor to help lift a lipless Sudanese woman onto the examination table. That night as they lay on their beds at the relief station, they hear noises outside, and when they look out, Sam and the soldier see large numbers of Sudanese children swarming around to sleep outside the building.
The soldier explains that their parents send them to sleep over here because it is safer than staying in their own village. Sam wakes up the children and gets as many as he can fit to sleep in their room for the night. The next day Sam and the soldier follow the children back to their village only to find that the LRA has burnt it down and killed their parents. One of the children runs after his dog and is killed by a hidden landmine. Sam cradles the dead child and cries, the experience traumatizes and changes Sam. After returning home, Sam has a "vision from God" and decides to build an orphanage for the children of South Sudan, as well as a church in his own neighborhood that will be "open to all" without judgement. After its completion he begins preaching at his church, and helps his old friend Donnie get sober and find God as well. He soon returns to Africa and despite vocal opposition, builds the orphanage. One night after it is built, the LRA attack it and burn it to the ground. Sam then phones home, telling his wife what has happened and that he is giving up. She reminds him that the orphans have been through worse but they have not given up, and that he should not give up and tells him to rebuild the orphanage.
After the orphanage has been rebuilt, he and his friends from the SPLA are attacked on the road by the LRA, they manage to chase off the small force of the LRA that attacked them. They search the area and discover a large group of Sudanese children hiding in a ditch not far from the road. Since they can not take all the children in one trip, Sam chooses to take the ones who need medical attention along with a few others on their first trip back to the orphanage. However, upon returning to the spot as quickly as he could, he finds that the LRA killed and burnt those he had left behind. This causes Childers to lead armed raids to rescue children from the LRA.
He returns home to the U.S. disgruntled and exasperated about the lack of money for the project. He also feels disconnected from his community; he is disgusted by the excess displayed and petty "problems" of his family and friends, as well as their apparent apathy toward the children of Sudan. Meanwhile his friend Donnie breaks his sobriety and ends up dying from an overdose, this pushes Sam further into negativity and despair. He sells his business and boards a plane for Sudan. His faith and mission is revitalised when an orphan boy tells his personal story to Sam. The boy tells him that if he allows hatred to fester in his heart, his fight against injustice fails. Sam also rekindles his emotional attachment with his family over the phone. The next day he engages with the camp actively. Later he goes out with SPLA and rescues a caravan full of children who were kidnapped by LRA. The end credits include black and white pictures of the real Sam Childers, his wife, daughter, and his orphanage in Sudan. The pictures are followed by a short black and white home video clip of Sam talking about his work.Gerard Butler as Sam Childers
Michelle Monaghan as Lynn Childers
Michael Shannon as Donnie
Madeline Carroll as Paige
Kathy Baker as Daisy
Souléymane Sy Savané as Deng
Rhema Marvanne as Rik Oskam
Mandalynn Carlson as Paige's Friend
Filming commenced in June 2010 in Michigan. The film had a gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2011 and limited release on September 23, 2011.
Sam Childers has shown a shortened and edited version of the film at Christian charity events.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 29% of 112 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 4.9 out of 10. The site's consensus is: "There's a complex man at the center of Machine Gun Preacher but the movie is too shapeless and emotionally vacant to bring his story to life." The film has a score of 43 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 32 reviews.
Machine Gun Preacher was produced on a budget of $30 million and made $3,338,690 worldwide.