I should admit a prejudice of mine before I talk about this film. I really don’t care much for the star of the film, Gregory Peck. He was an Oscar winner and starred in many films counted as classics (some of which I like very much, such as Roman Holiday and To Kill a Mockingbird). But sometimes he was greatly miscast (as in Moby Dick, where he played Captain Ahab) and he was a part of what made The Paradine Case one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most boring films. Peck always seems to be sanctimonious.
That self-righteous quality comes through in spades as Peck portrays a Catholic missionary priest in 1944’s The Keys of the Kingdom. The film is based on a 1941 novel by A. J. Cronin with a screenplay by Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) and Nunnally Johnson (The Three Faces of Eve). It tells the story of a Scottish priest, Father Francis Chisholm, who spends decades as a missionary in China in the first half of the 20th Century.
The film opens with Chisholm (Peck in not very convincing old age make-up) returning to Scotland after decades of service overseas. His ministry is under scrutiny for remarks he’s made in sermons such as; “All atheists are not godless men, I know one I hope, maybe, to be in heaven,” “The good Christian is a good man, but I have found the good Confucianist has a better sense of humor,” and “Eat less, the gates of paradise are narrow.”
Then we see flashbacks of his life. He was raised in Tweedside, Scotland by a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. (Roddy McDowall plays Chisholm as a boy.) His father was once beaten by townspeople for his Catholic faith. Chisholm went to a Catholic school and admired the priests, but he also develops a relationship with a woman, Nora, and they consider a future together. Nora, though, discerns he has a different future. “You’re going to become a priest, aren’t you, Francis?”
He responds, “Of course not, Nora, I love you.”
Chisholm has questions about his faith, wondering, for instance, whether his faith is not simply an accident of birth. But a priest, Father McNabb (Edmund Gwynne), takes him fishing and discusses issues of faith. Chisholm decides to go to seminary, leaving a distraught Nora behind.
After seminary, Chisholm pastors a church in Scotland. There he commits very controversial acts such as establishing a Community Dance Hall and befriending an atheist. These things come to the attention of the church hierarchy, who determine that he might not be suitable as a parish priest. Even Chisholm says of himself, “I’ve tried so hard, but failed so miserably as a priest.” So he is sent to be a missionary in China. (In ways, it’s a quite amazing choice. The challenges of cross cultural ministry can be seen as much greater than serving in one’s homeland. Still, it’s a sad truth in many denominations that sometimes ministers with lesser gifts were that ones sent to the mission field.)
When Chisholm arrives at his mission, St. Andrews, in China, he finds it in disrepair. The only people attending the church were paid to serve at the church. (These people are referred to as “rice Christians” because they only attend to be fed.) The priest says, “I can not pay you any money. I have no interest in rice Christians.” Chisholm drives them off with indignation (which Peck does quite convincingly because of that sanctimony I mentioned earlier).
He befriends a Mandarin, the man with greatest influence in the area. Mr. Chia comes to him and asks about joining the church, thinking that will help Chisholm gain acceptance in the area. Chisholm flatly refuses, because he believes Chia’s motive are wrong. He doesn’t say anything like, “Let’s take time to meet together and talk through issues of faith,” he just says, “My acceptance of you would be forgery for God.” But when Chia offers land and workman to rebuild the mission, Chia accepts that.
Things turn around for Chisholm when a gift of medical supplies arrive from his atheist doctor friend in Scotland. He opens a clinic and cares for people (“It’s amazing how religious you can make people feel by curing their belly ache”). A group of nuns come to the mission and open a school. (Chisholm has a difficult time getting along with the mother superior. She’s offended when the priest first greets her wearing dirty work boots.)
After decades of service in China, Chisholm returns to Scotland and wants to serve in the church in his hometown of Tweedside. But the Bishop (Vincent Price) is concerned that Chisholm is not orthodox enough for the job, concerned he “went native” in China. After the Bishop reads Chisholm’s diary through the night, he gives him another chance.
I guess Father Chisholm does do worthwhile things as a missionary -- if he just wasn’t so smug about it most of the time! I’m giving Father Chisholm and St. Andrew’s Mission Three Steeples.