Friday, January 26, 2018

Mitchum Movie Month Continues: The Longest Day

The Longest Day (1962)
“Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; the greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Abraham Lincoln was hesitant to claim divine righteousness for his cause, but that humility is tougher to find among the World War II allies in 1962’s The Longest Day.

Sure, when weather didn’t cooperate for the D-Day Invasion, Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort (played by John Wayne) said, “Sometimes I wonder whose side God’s on,” but you can tell he doesn’t really doubt that God opposes the Nazis.

The Brits are sure they’re fighting for God, King, and Country, and the Americans the same (minus the king). When Brig. General James Gavin (Robert Ryan) sends out his troops he tells them, “When you get to Normandy, you will have only one friend -- God.”

The Longest Day is the true story of the Normandy invasion, with a screenplay by Cornelius Ryan based on his nonfiction book of the same name. His book reports on the story from a wide range of sources, including General Dwight Eisenhower and his command staff, paratroopers, members of the French Resistance, and even those on the German side.

Since it’s one of those “cast of thousands” movies, I’m on shaky ground including it as a Robert Mitchum film for Mitchum month. There’s Henry Fonda as Teddy Roosevelt Jr. and Peter Lawford as Lord Lovat and Richard Burton and Fabian and Paul Anka and Sal Mineo and Sean Connery and Red Buttons and Eddie Albert and Roddy McDowell and Rod Steiger and George Segal and Tommy Sands… lots of people.

But it’s Mitchum who plays Brig. General Norman Cota, the soldier who makes a climatic breakthrough off the beach up to the mainland. Mitchum is one of the three stars (with John Wayne and Henry Fonda) featured in many of the advertising posters. Even as a star, though, Mitchum has only about fifteen minutes of screen time in the three hour film.

Clergy have even less screen time, playing little cameos from one minute to, at the most, five minutes, but there’s enough of interest for us here at Movie Churches.

First of all, there is Father Louis Roulland (Jean-Louis Barrault), a French priest in the city of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, occupied by the Germans. He’s a fictional character who, I assume, Ryan intended to represent real clergy in occupied France.

In the film, he preaches to his congregation that “in our darkest hour we must trust in our unshakable belief that liberation will come.” He preaches this with a German officer in the congregation, which signals a special kind of bravery, chutzpah, or stupidity. This same priest, at the time of the invasion, alerts the mayor to the presence of Allied paratroopers, urging people to their aid.

In a true story (I remember it from the book), one of the paratroopers landed on the church, his parachute caught on the bell tower. He remained there for hours, the ringing of the bells rendering him deaf for days.

What I found truly impressive were two clergymen who landed with the paratroopers. Like the soldiers, the clergy are given “clickers” to signal fellow soldiers. One clergyman found himself alone in the field and began to click wildly. Another soldier approached him, “Come on, Padre, stop making all that noise.”

The clergyman responded, “I’m sorry, son, I’m lost.”

The soldier said, “Who isn’t? Come with me.” I was impressed by clergy who were willing to be lost and in grave danger to be with the troops.

Another paratrooping clergyman (John Gregson) landed in a stream, losing his communion set (a box with consecrated wine and bread) in the water. He searched for it frantically. The soldier who helped him find it shouted, “Glory be!”

The clergyman replied, “Son, let’s go about God’s work.”

The most impressive impressive clergy in the film, though, are a group of nuns who boldly walked through Sainte-Mere-Eglise as battle raged. When they got to a building where the Allied wounded were, an officer asked them what they were doing.

“I am Mother Teresa, Mother Superior of our convent. All of the sisters are qualified nurses.”

The officer replied, rather redundantly, “But this is a battle!” The nuns seemed to be quite aware of this fact and set to work.

Among the cast of thousands, God’s workers stand out in the film, earning the Church in the film Movie Church’s highest rating of Four Steeples.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Robert Mitchum Movie Month: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

Some of the best cinematic love stories do not end happily. In Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa part for the good of the free world. In Brief Encounter, wedding vows are honored. Romeo and Juliet have bummed movie audiences for decades (and live audiences for centuries) Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), directed by the great John Huston, has a different obstacle to romance: God.
with those suicides. (Sorry for all the spoilers.)

During World War II, Marine Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) is stranded on a raft in the South Pacific and washes up on the shore of an island populated only by one woman, a nun. The Japanese have evacuated the island, but Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr) stayed behind to care for a dying priest.

By the time Corporal Allison arrives, the priest is buried under a cross on the island. Allison asks, “You’re alone?”

She responds, “God has been with me.” She tells him, “Thank God you were spared, Mr. Allison.”

“Same to you, ma’am,” he responds.

As Allison rests, Sister Angela lights candles in the chapel and says her prayers; when Allison gets up, he puts out the candles, afraid they’ll be seen by the Japanese. The Japanese do eventually come back, causing Angela and Allison to take refuge in a cave on the island.

As they spend time together, Allison begins to fall in love with Sister Angela, but the result isn’t what you might expect. Instead, Allison and Angela respect each other’s allegiances. Allison tells Sister Angela, “I’m a marine all through me. You got your cross, I got my globe and anchor. Me, I got the Corps like you got the church.”

She talks about her training, “You ought to know my D.I. (Drill Instructor), Mother Bridget. We called her the Holy Terror.”

Allison says, “I didn’t know nuns made with the jokes. I didn’t know they was pretty, neither.” He admits he doesn’t pray, but when she asks if he believes in God, he responds, “Anyone with any sense believes in God.”

As they spend more time together, Allison finds himself falling for the sister. He asks, “Supposing a nun should change her mind, could she get out?” She asks if he means desertion from her call.

“They wouldn’t shoot you,” he responds.

But she tells him, “You could lose your immortal soul.” But she admits, “I was to have taken my final vows next month.”

“You could still pull out?” he asks. He begs her not to go through with her final vows. He pleads, “I’ve never loved anything or anyone before. That’s why I’d like to ask you to marry me. I couldn’t keep from saying it, ma’am. So tell me if there’s a chance.”

She breaks the hard news to Allison, “No, I’ve already given my heart to Christ our Lord. Here’s the ring. When I make my final vows, it will be a gold ring.”

But later, when Allison has too much saki while they hide in the cave, he persists, “If you had to be a nun, why couldn’t you be old and ugly? Why did you have to have blue eyes and big, beautiful eyes. We’re like Adam and Eve.”

Sister Angela runs from the cave, into the cold night. She gets sick, and Allison has to care for her. As she recovers, he apologizes for his words and behavior.

With Japanese on the island, Marine Corporal Allison looks for a chance to attack them. He believes God is talking to him, telling him to go after their base.

The nun asks, “Are you sure it’s God speaking, not your natural desire to take part in the fighting?”

He responds, “Pretty sure, ma’am.”

She says, “Then He’ll protect you,” but she still prays, “Dear God, Mr. Allison is not of the church, he’s only a Marine. If his time has come, I ask you to be merciful when he comes into your presence.”

After a battle, the U.S. Navy comes to their rescue. Angela and Allison will go separately to their lives, and he says, “Very pleased to meet you, ma’am. It has been a pleasure.”

She responds, “Mr. Allison, even if we are many miles apart, you will be my dear companion always.” But not lover or husband. They part as friends, nothing more. But it is a lot.

A modern telling of the tale might tempt the filmmaker to show more in the relationship. I’m glad that Huston was satisfied with making Mr. Allison and Sister Angela stay true to their callings. We're giving Sister Angela 4 Steeples.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Robert Mitchum Movie Month: Ryan's Daughter

Ryan's Daughter (1970)
David Lean was one of the greatest filmmakers, and he made two kinds of films very well. At the beginning of his career he made small, intimate stories, adaptations of the works of great writers such as Noel Coward (Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter) and Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist). In the second half of his career, he made epics telling great historical stories like The Bridge Over the River Kwai (World War II), Lawrence of Arabia (World War I), and Doctor Zhivago (the Russian Revolution).

Ryan’s Daughter is an odd chapter in his career. It tells a small, intimate story in an epic fashion. When the film premiered in 1970, the roadshow edition (in 70mm with a prelude and intermission) was 206 minutes long and was sold as an epic. But really, when you get down to it, it’s a tawdry, little love triangle set in Ireland not long after the Easter Rising (an armed insurrection in Ireland against the British).

Critics widely considered the film a disappointment after Best Picture winners like Kwai and Lawrence; though it was profitable, it wasn’t as huge a hit as, say, Dr. Zhivago. Still, we’re not here to evaluate the film, we’re here to look at the clergy and churches in it. And this film, set in a small Irish town, does have a priest. And since it’s Robert Mitchum month, the actor has the lead performance as a school teacher and cuckolded husband.

The role of the priest in the film, Father Collins, was written for Alec Guinness, but Guinness turned down the role because of his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism. He felt the role was not an accurate portrayal of his new faith, so he said no. Instead, Trevor Howard plays the priest.

Father Collins serves as the moral authority of Kirrary, an Irish country town, in 1917. When villagers taunt and mock Michael, the "village idiot” (John Mills in an Oscar winning performance), the priest shames them for picking on the weak. He rather violently pulls a couple of men away from Michael by their ears.

The priest not only tries to protect Michael, he tries to teach him as well. When Father Collins finds Michael on the beach, tearing the leg off a live lobster, Collins says, “I’ve told you Michael, they’re God’s creatures.”

The priest seems to have a relationship with everyone in the town and everyone that comes to town. He is brought into the school to lead the children in prayer. He gets along with the gun runners struggling in the cause of Irish independence and seems sympathetic to their cause -- if not their methods. He also treats the British soldiers who occupy the town with respect.

But I haven’t mentioned the central character, the title character of the film, Ryan’s daughter, Rosy (Sarah Miles). The priest’s relationship with her is one of the most interesting in the film, and it’s difficult. Rosy is intelligent and curious and quite obviously wants more from life than her little town has to offer. Father Collins finds her on the beach and reprimands her, “What do you do, Rose, mooning around all day by yourself?” She tells him she’s not doing anything, and he responds, “Your nothing’s a dangerous occupation.”

The priest sees only one option for the young woman: to find a husband. He tells Thomas Ryan, Rose’s father, “You’ll ruin that girl. She needs a house enough of her own. A fella of her own.” Collins takes time alone with Rose to teach her about marriage as a Sacrament, for the “procreation of children and bring them up as good Catholics.”

Rose is a virgin and fearful of sex. He tells her, “don’t be scared of the satisfaction of the flesh, though that not a gate I’ve been through.”

Rose does find a husband, Charles Shaughnessy, the village school teacher (as mentioned before, played by man-of-the-month Mitchum). Charles is the only person in town who seems to have traveled (at least as far as Dublin) and who has broad interests (such as in German composers, like Beethoven, a dangerous area of study during World War I). The teacher is many years older than Rose, but Father Collins is quite supportive of the match.

Charles is kind to Rose, but she isn’t satisfied with the physical aspect of their relationship. She isn’t satisfied with her new life, and she tells Father Collins as much, leading to this exchange as they walk along the beach:

Father Collins: You’ve got a good man? Enough money? Your health? There’s nothing more, you graceless girl.
Rose: There must be more.
Father Collins slaps Rose, knocking her to the sand
Collins: Don’t nurse your wishes. You can’t help having them, but don’t nurse them or sure to God you’ll have what you’re wishing for.
Nonetheless, Rose continues not only to nurse her dreams, but she begins an affair with a British soldier, Major Randolph Doryan, whose leg was maimed in the war. His injury sent him away from the German front and to Ireland. They meet secretly on the beach, but Michael sees them and lets the secret out in the village.

The people of the village hate the British and are disgusted and outraged with Rose. A mob attacks her, ripping off her clothes. Once again Father Collins intervenes. He protects Rose from the crowd, punching one of her attackers. The man says, “You’re taking advantage of your cloth, Father!”

He responds, “That’s what it’s for.”

Rose’s affair with the soldier ends. Charles and Rose decide to leave the village, thinking of separating. Father Collins urges them to stay together, and as the film ends they seem to be considering his advice.

There is so much good in Father Collins’ work in the village, but he does “take advantage of the cloth,” resorting to violence and other heavy handed methods. Surely there would be a better counselor for Rose than he. In our times, he perhaps would, and certainly should, be removed from ministry for hitting a parishioner.

Many might think priests have little wisdom to offer in the area of marriage and romance, but they do have the wisdom of Scripture and the tradition of the Church to draw from. Still, it is understandable for people to look for a more relatable counselor.

Collins does the best he can, showing more grace and compassion than almost anyone else in the town, so he earns the Movie Churches rating of 3 Steeples.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Robert Mitchum Month: Mister Moses

Mister Moses (1965)
Our preference is to see films in the most optimal of conditions. Ideally, that’s in the way movies were made to be seen: in a movie theater with excellent projection and sound. We do that on occasion, as we did last month when we watched Lady Bird. If that’s not possible (and it usually isn’t), we stream a film from one of the many services available (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) or we get a DVD (Redbox, the public library, or our personal library). Sometimes, sadly, viewing conditions are even less optimal.

Which is how we watched Mister Moses.The film wasn’t available on any of the conventional streaming services. Netflix DVDs and the public library didn’t have the DVD. I could have bought a DVD from online second hand dealers, but the best price was $20. I ended up watching it on Youtube.

Someone had taped a screening of Mister Moses from an independent station in Los Angeles. The station’s logo appears frequently in one corner of the screen; the commercials were edited out (but it’s quite clear where they’d been); and some of the content seems to have been edited out as well (the film on YouTube is shorter than sources say it should be). We work with the version of Mister Moses we have (which is also the version available to you).

But really, during Robert Mitchum month, this isn’t a film we want to miss. Mitchum plays a character named “Moses” who acts as a Moses, for crying out loud!

This 1965 film, directed by Robert Neame (Scrooge, The Poseidon Adventure), tells the story of an African tribe whose homeland is about to be wiped out by a flood waters created by a new dam. A bureaucrat offered to bring an airplane and fly the people to their new home, which meant leaving their livestock behind. The tribe objected.

The tribe is served by a missionary, Rev. Anderson (Alexander Knox), whose daughter is engaged to Robert, the bureaucrat. Robert asked to speak to the chief, but Rev. Anderson said,“The chief and I have good talks.” He obviously knows the language and values the people’s culture, in contrast with government officials who see the people as a barrier to progress and as a problem to be dealt with.

Meanwhile, a confidence man named Mister Moses (Robert Mitchum) arrives; he’s “persuaded” (or blackmailed) by the missionary’s daughter into leading the tribe and their animals to their new homeland. The daughter, Julie, had deduced that Moses has criminal past.

In church, Rev. Anderson told the people the story of Noah, but the chief objected that the people need instead to follow the example of the story of Moses. The chief and the people of the tribe seem to know Bible stories well, which speaks well of Rev. Anderson’s service with them. We see a worship service where people sing “Hark the Herald” in their own language (maybe Swahili? Earlier, someone said, “Jambo.”) Everyone seems to participate.

The Reverend treats the people of the tribe with respect, and he also treats Moses with respect, though the man quite obviously has an unsavory past as a patent medicine salesman. (He is also a diamond smuggler, but that is not common knowledge.) That balance of trusting God and respecting people’s choices proves quite effective in Rev. Anderson’s ministry. In the end, Moses does lead the people (and their animals) to the promised land.

In many contemporary films and literature, missionaries are presented as condescending know-it-alls who believe they are superior to the people they are sent to serve. In Mister Moses, the Reverend Anderson is a true servant, humbly bringing the Word of God. He earns a Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Robert Mitchum Movie Churches Month

It could be argued that no single actor lowered of image of clergy in the cinema more substantially than Robert Mitchum. During the first decades of cinema in the sound era priests were represented as being kindly and wise, played by the likes of Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien, and Barry Fitzgerald. These men raised funds for the poor (or at least the building fund), offered sage advice, and made a difference in the lives of troubled youths.

With one performance, as the homicidal preacher Harry Powell, Mitchum changed the perception that a clergyman in a film was someone the audience could trust to do the right thing. He might instead be the person who will do the very worst thing.

You might remember reading a post about that film, Night of the Hunter, during a month of Halloween horror films. Mitchum again played a murderous pastor in Five Card Stud, a Movie Churches post from before there was a Movie Churches blog.

From these two films, one might get the impression that ministry and killing always go hand in hand. Fortunately, this isn’t the case in all of Robert Mitchum’s filmography, so we’ll be looking at clergy and churches in Robert Mitchum films to see if there are more pleasant ecclesiastical outcomes. (Spoiler, Deborah Kerr, as a nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, doesn’t go on a deadly killing spree. She’s rather nice, in fact.) Look for a new Mitchum Movie Church every Friday this month.