Tuesday 6 February 2024

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

Director: John M. Stahl
Writers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by A. J. Cronin
Stars: Gregory Peck, Thomas Mitchell and Vincent Price

Index: The First Thirty.

This is very much a film of its time, made at a point in history when moviegoing audiences were happy to pay money to see a story about a Roman Catholic priest without wondering as it begins why he’s spending so much time at a fishing hole with a young boy.

Fr. Francis Chisholm is the sort of good man who does good things for long enough that he leaves the world a better place for his being a part of it. We struggle to believe in this sort of good man today, but Gregory Peck, one of the quintessential good men of the movie screen, does make our job a little easier in this film.

As such hagiographies tend to do, we begin towards the end of his life, back in the Scottish village in which he was born, Tweedside. Now he’s a priest, but his teachings are raising the sort of concern with the church that they have sent a monsignor to suggest that he retire. But he goes to bed and finds Fr. Francis’s journals, so settles down to read and we learn his story in a set of long flashbacks.

The first thing we learn is that the village had no love for Catholics when he was a child. A mob of men viciously attack Francis’s father one night for no reason other than he’s a dirty papist, beating him with cudgels. By the time his wife arrives to help him home, a storm has spun up and they’re both washed off a flimsy rope bridge to their deaths, as young Francie watches helplessly from the other side in the form of a young Roddy McDowall.

Fast forward and he’s studying at Holywell College. He’s firmly in love with Nora, a cousin of some description, and she with him, but she fears that he’ll go on from Holywell to study at the seminary and become a priest. He doesn’t believe it, but, of course, that’s what happens, after Nora falls on bad times, has a baby with a father unknown to all except her and dies.

It’s at this point that we first meet Vincent Price as Angus Mealey, a childhood friend who is all set for a future in the church. It’s obvious that we’re to compare the two from the outset as Angus knows what he wants and goes after it consistently, while Francis doesn’t. He has a strong faith but not a strong calling and he has a bad habit of asking questions. With one term left at Holywell, he still hasn’t made his mind up and it takes the death of Nora to do that.

Price is only briefly in the film at this point, as they leave for Holywell together, but he’s a lively presence for that short moment, and he will be back later so we can compare the two of them afresh, after enough time has passed to have led them to very different places. That is the only reason that he’s in the film at all, to serve as a long term comparison.

For instance, we know from the outset that Angus’s career has taken a very different path. When Fr. Francis comes back to Tweedside as an assistant parish priest in danger of forceful retirement, Angus is his bishop, so it’s obvious that their careers have reached very different levels. The unasked question that floats along as we dive into the flashbacks is which of them has the most impact and the most value from an entirely Christian standpoint. At heart, it’s about which served God and his creation most effectively. Initially, we’d likely answer Angus but, as time passes and the film progresses, we just as likely change that answer to Francis.

A second comparison is between Fr. Francis and Dr. Willie Tulloch, in the ebullient form of Thomas Mitchell. He’s a friend to both Francis and Angus but he’s also an avowed atheist. We can’t help but see him, who doesn’t believe in any god, as a far better Christian by example than Angus, a prominent man of the church.

It’s Francis’s teacher and fishing companion at Holywell, Hamish McNabb, who sets him on his path. Francis has become a priest but he’s failed in his first two curacies and the church is at a loss what to do with him. Then McNabb becomes his new bishop and has an idea. The Society for the Propagation of Faith wants a volunteer missionary for China and so off the unorthodox priest scoots to Pai Tan.

What he finds there is a set of actors who are either Chinese or Chinese American, which should be a gimme but isn’t. It wasn’t unusual for Hollywood at the time to cast Caucasians like Salt Lake City Mormon Leonard Strong in Asian roles and he’s here, playing the local mandarin, Mr. Chia, annoyingly well.

However the rest are more authentic, such as H. T. Hsiang and Si-Lan Chen as a couple of rice Christians, so called because they come to church only as long as that church pays them in rice; Fr. Francis stops that immediately. The first actual Chinese Christian is Benson Fong as Joseph, a gem in the early Chinese scenes, because he’s willing to stoop to any depth to convert his fellow countrymen, only to be shot down by his priest’s honesty and humility. A cultural legacy is Eunice Soo-Hoo, a girl who is left at the mission by her dying grandmother, to avoid her being abandoned after her death. There’s also Richard Loo as a military officer.

My favourite is Philip Ahn as Mr. Pao, who serves as an envoy for Mr. Chia. He has a huge presence here, even in only a few scenes. He’s at once open and suspicious, utterly composed but ever watchful, as his employer tasks him with bringing Fr. Francis to see his son, after a barrage of local physicians fail the boy. Using a medical textbook Willie Tulloch sent him, he saves him to start a beautiful friendship.

Time passes and much happens. Nuns come to the mission to teach children and they’re surprised by what they find. Revolution comes too and the mission can’t escape it. There’s a wonderful scene with Fr. Francis bonding with James Gleason as the leader of a new American Methodist mission in town. The glue to bring them together is Angus, after Fr. Francis calls him “stuffy”.

And Angus does spend time in China, even if he’s rather disappointed to find the mission in ruins. He’s a fast rising star in the church, now a monsignor, and it’s easy to see why. He has a habit of judging harshly and looking down his nose at everyone, expecting them to respect his authority without earning it first. Willie is far more agreeable, but of course is an atheist, right to the very end.

These are small parts for Price and Mitchell, but both actors milk them for everything they can, providing quite the impact, even if Price’s isn’t in the way that his character might want. At the end of the day, they’re really there to be contrasts to Francis, one of them negative and the other positive. In that, both do their jobs admirably and so does Gregory Peck.

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