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    Missionary Priests

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Before cinematic chronicles of the struggles and valor of Roman Catholic priests living and spreading the faith became checkered, as attested by last year’s Academy Award® winner for Best Picture, Spotlight (2015), about The Boston Globe’s efforts to break the story of hidden child sex by Boston Archdiocesan priests, they were sincerely felt and often reverent, especially when the times called for it, such a period being the storm-tossed years of World War II. The highest-grossing film of 1944, Going My Way (1944), won seven Academy Awards® including Best Picture telling the seriocomic tale of the travails of an elder and a younger priest serving a downtrodden New York city parish; these were clerics not unlike those down the street in your nearby St. Whomever church, albeit few would likely claim the singing chops of Bing Crosby or the rumpled grandfatherly charm of Barry Fitzgerald. Later films would depict the brave missionary outreach work of Jesuit priests among indigenous territorial peoples, such as director Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe (1991, set in 17th century Canada among the Algonquin Indian tribe) or director Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986, taking place in 1740s South America among the native Guarani community). The newest epic chronicle of Jesuit evangelization arrives next month with the opening of director/co-writer Martin Scorsese’s highly awaited Silence, which adapts Shūsako Endō’s evocative 1966 novel about two young Portuguese Jesuits (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) selflessly facing bodily harm and enduring spiritual crises during their 17th-century pilgrimage to feudal Japan to advance the Christian faith and find their missing mentor (Liam Neeson, who also wore Jesuit robes in The Mission). These three later films share a common thrust of the other great screen depiction of priestly piety and devotion from the year of Going My Way: The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), adapted from the best-selling novel by A.J. Cronin (The Citadel, The Stars Look Down, The Green Years), which made an instant star of Gregory Peck, playing a Scottish priest (himself orphaned as a result of anti-Catholic violence) who finds his true calling as a missionary among the poor villagers of an interior Chinese province beset by the roiling political strife between republic and imperialist troops. Lacking critical church support, his ministry falters at first, but as his rock-ribbed faith opens up to the daily struggles of his beleaguered flock, he discovers a revitalized humanity, one which propels him to take action that is less than saintly but – in keeping with the wartime atmosphere prevalent in Hollywood – ultimately more pragmatic to the story and more edifying to audiences. In The Story of Cinema, film historian David Shipman took issue with the film’s deemphasizing of Cronin’s anti-institutional bent, which “concerned a priest who, after a lifetime in China, was more Chinese than Scottish, his Christianity imbued with the teachings of Confucius – which was why his Church failed to understand him: but as played by Gregory Peck he is merely a sincere and questioning individual with a penchant for talking to God.” Yet, as a studio follow-up to the previous year’s triumphant The Song of Bernadette, Twentieth Century-Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, screenwriters Nunnally Johnson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (also serving as producer), and director John M. Stahl, The Keys of the Kingdom proved a thoughtful and moving experience nonetheless. Its cast ran deep in appeal and talent: Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Edmund Gwenn, Benson Fong, Roddy McDowall (as the younger Peck), Peggy Ann Garner, James Gleason, Anne Revere, James Gleason, Leonard Strong, Rose Stradner and Sir Cedric Hardwicke (who also narrates). Peck’s Best Actor nomination would be one of four Academy Award® nods the film received a year later, by which time audiences had a further look at Peck in 1945’s The Valley of Decision and Spellbound and decided that the man who wore the clerical collar of Father Francis Chisholm was a familiar face worth taking to heart. The top-grossing movie of 1945 starring the winners of the previous year’s Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars® – Going My Way’s Crosby and Gaslight’s Ingrid Bergman – would be The Bells of St. Mary’s, about a priest and a nun struggling to maintain an inner-city parish. But Peck – the priestly figure who in The Keys of the Kingdom set out beyond his boyhood borders and did greater good in the wider world – went further romantically with Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound than did Crosby’s Father Chuck O’Malley. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of The Keys of the Kingdom offers a sparkling new transfer derived from Fox’s new 2016 4K restoration first screened at this year’s TCM Film Festival, and it includes an Audio Commentary with Film Historians Kenneth Geist and Chris Mankiewicz (son of Joseph) and an Isolated Track of Alfred Newman’s glorious Oscar®-nominated score. It debuts in time for Christmas on December 13. Preorders open November 30.