Donnie Dunagan was drafted into the U.S. Marines in 1953. It was a perfect fit. Promoted 13 times in 21 years, he rose to the rank of Major. Yet, throughout almost his entire military career spanning the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and beyond, he harbored a closely held secret that he didn’t want any of his fellow marines to know.
Now 80 years old and still looking every inch the U. S. Marine, he agreed to share his story in an interview with his wife Dana for “Story Corps,” a series of NPR-recorded dialogues in which everyday people speak with a friend or family member of meaningful moments or eras in their earlier lives.
Throughout Dunagan’s distinguished and at times heroic career, it appears that he feared nothing—except, maybe, that his comrades would discover a secret from his childhood. As it happens, he was, for a short while, a child actor, appearing in six motion pictures, most of them uncredited. And then, at the age of 6, he was selected to provide the voice for the lead role in Bambi, Walt Disney’s only animated classic produced during World War II.
The film, a coming-of-age tale of a fawn who must learn to make his way in a forbidding forest, received three Oscar nominations and has won many awards since. But soon after his role in Bambi, Dunagan’s family life unraveled. He spent much of the rest of his childhood and teenage years simply looking out for himself. And in the U.S. Marines, he couldn’t see how talking of his short career as a child actor in film would impress anyone. In fact, he felt he should keep his Hollywood experience completely to himself. In an atmosphere that places such emphasis on toughness and discipline, by the time he was a battalion commander in a boot camp with hundreds of recruits, he dreaded the possibility that he might be referred to in the ranks as “Major Bambi.”
It is likely that Dunagan’s assumption was correct that the character Bambi has come to symbolize in popular culture little more than docility, naïveté, or helplessness in a hostile environment. But this view would not be taking into account the entire story. The young deer makes friends with a circle of other creatures, learns the wonders and dangers of the forest, and—with the encouragement of his father—overcomes the loss of his mother and his own injury at the hand of humanity. In the closing scenes of the film, Bambi stands majestically on a cliff overlooking his home, hailed as “The Prince of the Forest.”
Though there is little likelihood that producers of the film Bambi intended any such parallels, the way in which popular culture has remembered the central character may be similar in some ways to that in which it has come to think of the Hero of Scripture. Even Christians may have tended at times to emphasize over all other characteristics Jesus as a lamb, a creature comparable in nature to a fawn and the quintessential symbol of vulnerability. This may be only natural considering its origins in the Old Testament. The theme of the Messiah in the role of a sacrificial victim (unfortunate choice of word, maybe) occurs more than a millennium before it was codified in the sanctuary service in Moses’ time. The relatively early account in human history of Abel’s sacrifice (Gen. 4:4) indicates how important was the literal choice of a lamb as the offering.
“Certainly the principle of sacrifice had been demonstrated to Adam and Eve in their clothing made of skins,” writes Lawrence Richards. “It’s likely [Cain and Abel] were so instructed by their parents or by God. Yet only Abel brought lambs. Cain brought farm produce. It may have been the best he had, but redemption knows no acceptable sacrifice except blood.”1
From that instance on through and beyond the time of the patriarchs, the practice of sacrifice recurs in the lives of the faithful. And in the mosaic law, when the Abrahamic descendants had multiplied, as prophecy had foretold, into a nation, He expanded the requirements for sacrifice to demonstrate how it should be practiced corporately. Still, the service emphasized the suffering and submission of the coming Messiah. “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isa. 53:7).2
But by the time Christ came to earth through the miracle of the incarnation, the expectation of God’s people had shifted to stress other prophecies of His coming. They were not so interested in helplessness or surrender. They were looking forward to a messiah who would overthrow the oppression of Rome and issue in a new era of sovereignty—even supremacy. They were accentuating passages like, “All kings shall fall down before Him; all nations shall serve Him” (Ps. 72:11).
So, on an occasion when fervor was beginning to build under the inspiring influence of John the Baptist, most of his hearers were unprepared for his declaration when he “saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29). Yes, with full awareness of the symbolism of the lamb in the very familiar sanctuary service, the idea of the need for salvation from sin was important, but they were looking for something yet more concrete.
Even John the Baptist—the herald of the coming Messiah—experienced some ambivalence. “When at the baptism of Jesus, John pointed to Him as the Lamb of God, a new light was shed upon the Messiah’s work. The prophet’s mind was directed to the words of Isaiah, ‘He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter. . . .’ During the weeks that followed, John with new interest studied the prophecies and the teaching of the sacrificial service. He did not distinguish clearly the two phases of Christ’s work,—as a suffering sacrifice and a conquering king,—but he saw that His coming had a deeper significance than priests or people had discerned. When he beheld Jesus among the throng on His return from the desert, he confidently looked for Him to give the people some sign of His true character. Almost impatiently he waited to hear the Saviour declare His mission; but no word was spoken, no sign given. Jesus did not respond to the Baptist’s announcement of Him, but mingled with the disciples of John, giving no outward evidence of His special work, and taking no measures to bring Himself to notice.”3
More than half a century after the release of the film Bambi, another film addressed directly the story of the substitutionary death of the Messiah. Though it depicted the story in the trappings of fantasy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), a retelling of the classic published in 1950 by C. S. Lewis, the central character is none other than the king of beasts—not a lowly lamb. In certainly the most moving scene of the film, the lion is killed ceremonially on a large stone table, as a crowd of twisted tormentors—creatures of every description, biological and mythological—demonically drive the sacrifice to its conclusion.
Two compelling concepts are vividly depicted in this unforgettable scene. First is the realization of how truly beastlike—how utterly inhuman—were those who crucified Christ on that darkest, pivotal day in cosmic history. Second is the awareness that that great lion voluntarily offered up his life. His death is not the conclusion of the sacrifice. “‘I lay down My life that I may take it again,’” Jesus said. “‘No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again’” (John 10:17, 18). There was in Jesus not the slightest frailty, helplessness, or passivity. His sacrifice resulted not from a state of vulnerability or weakness, but from His ineffable power and love.
And certainly if anyone—anyone—had the honor of performing in the voice role of the lion in that film, there could never be the slightest cause for hesitancy to share the news of that privilege with all who would be willing to hear.
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