The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

JOHN M. STAHL

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

USA, 1944. . Screenplay by , , based on the novel by . Cinematography by . Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

20th Century-Fox follows the worldwide, Oscar-winning success of The Song Of Bernadette with another sober religious epic, this time adapting A.J. Cronin’s novel about a Scottish priest who brings his humble love of humanity to his mission work in China.

attempts no genuine Scottishness as Francis Chisholm, orphaned as a child by Catholic vs Protestant conflicts that get his parents killed, then raised by family friends whose daughter Nora wins his heart. Francis’s pull towards the seminary hardens young Nora’s heart and leads her down a dark and destructive path, so in his loneliness, he completes his priestly training under the kind guidance of a bishop (, infectiously loveable as always) who encourages the young man’s unusual, somewhat controversial thinking: Francis still loves his best friend Willie () despite his being an atheist, and has no boastful pride in his sharing of his faith, only generosity and goodness.

Francis accepts the mission when asked to travel to the Far East, where he shows up to discover a tiny mission with little to sustain its grounds. Winning over the local mandarin (played by character in one of the many yellowface roles that defined his career) by saving his child from a near-fatal infection, Francis builds the mission up to be a respectable refuge for the increasingly converted locals, eventually bringing over a group of nuns to run a convent in the place. The sisters are guided by an unfriendly and rigid Mother Superior (played by , co-writer and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s real-life wife in her final film role) who loathes this goody-goody priest and his friendly ways until she is eventually won over by his infallible honesty.

These relationships progress through a series of high crisis moments that make up the bulk of this film’s soapy plot, including the mission’s finding itself in danger from a war that breaks out between Imperial and Republican forces, the visit of Francis’s childhood friend, who is now a pompous Bishop () and eventually his own aging out the job and needing to go back to Scotland where Price, in the film’s framing narrative, sends an envoy to investigate Francis’s well-being in order to decide whether or not to force him into retirement.

It’s easy to make a terrible film that centers around such a pure character, too much sincerity and you risk it being an unbearably corny retread of Goodbye Mr. Chips with a holy upgrade, and today the film has even more going against it given that we put its colonialist attitude and white saviour narrative through an appropriate level of skepticism and critique. While its view of faraway lands has a great more to do with exotic orientalism than proper sociological research, its presentation of the main character is never particularly saccharine or naïve, both Mankiewicz and his co-screenwriter Nunnally Johnson love their protagonist for his goodness and never try to make him adorable (they risk it by having him adopt a local child, but then wisely choose to ignore her presence for the rest of the film).

More astonishing is that Peck, who earned his first Academy Award Nomination here, gives a performance brimming over with tenderness of the kind that he would rarely show later as his star ascended, the wooden pride that usually made him such a handsome but impenetrable figure in most of his work isn’t here, and between the character’s beautiful soul and his astonishingly beautiful face it’s easy to fall in love with the character and let him carry the viewer through the less exciting moments.

He enjoys magnificent chemistry with Stradner, who gives a very strong performance that speaks to the tragedy of her not having made more films in her unfortunately short life, plus stalwart support from as Francis’s first friend in China and as one of the sisters.

Add to all that the gorgeous cinematography by Arthur C. Miller, which finds as much warmth in the tones of black and white images that could ever be gleaned from that format, and you have a film that, while not an unimpeachable classic, draws more than its fair share of tears and leaves one with a sense of great joy.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Gregory Peck); Best Cinematography-BW; Best Art Direction-BW; Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

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