Thursday, June 24, 2021

Mission Month Comes to an End with The Left Hand of God

The Left Hand of God

Movie Churches is of the opinion that Humphrey Bogart is the greatest movie star of all time. (We usually confine ourselves to opinions about clergy in films, but this is such an obvious truth, it barely merits discussion.) Still, he has a serious flaw. Unlike, say, Robert Duvall (arguably one of the greatest film actors, which is different from a movie star) who appeared in many church-related films, Bogie never played a clergyman.

He came closest in 1955’s The Left Hand of God (directed by Edward Dmytryk), where his character pretends to be a priest. The film is set in a remote region of China, and it opens with Bogie -- in clerical garb -- arriving at a mission awaiting a priest. Bogie claims to be that priest, “Father O’Shea.” Dr. David Sigmund (E.G. Marshall) runs the mission hospital. He and his wife, Beryl (Agnes Moorehead) are assisted by nurse Anne "Scotty" Scott (Gene Tierney). 

The first sign that Father O'Shea is not who he claims is the gun among his belongings (if you don’t count the sign that he’s played by Humphrey Bogart.) The morning after he arrives, the “priest” is awakened by altar boy John Wong (played by Victor Sen Yung, one of the few major Chinese roles in the film played by someone of actual Chinese descent.) Bogie is obviously startled when John says, “Good morning, Father, you say Mass?” 

The new priest looks at the crucifix above his bed and seems to remember where he is and who he’s supposed to be.

John explains that he has been carrying on the work of the church as best he could, but a priest is needed for many duties. When Bogie asks what needs to be done, John says, “42 marriage. Many months since priest came. 36 baptisms. Should be more, but maybe more come now that you are here… Many people want confessing.”

Before doing any of these things, the “priest” says, “I would like to take a look around the village.” Scotty the nurse takes him on a tour, and he makes an un-priestly remark about going on a walk with an “attractive woman” (a comment that could easily get a man in trouble these days, not just priests). Scotty is taken aback by the remark, but he explains, “I wasn’t born a priest, In fact, I can remember when I was voted loudest dresser in college.”

The villagers seem so surprised by a priest walking around the town that we wondered if the previous priest ever left the Mission. One of the villagers asks "Father O'Shea" to bless his sick grandfather, and Bogie blesses the old man, making the sign of the Cross as he does so. He then asks the old man to give him a blessing -- to the pleasure and astonishment of all around.

As the ersatz priest continues to be pressured to give Mass, he goes to the mission library to find a “Selected Sermons” book from which to crib. He pretty much just reads from First Peter for his sermon (which is not a bad idea), then he amazes the congregation by addressing them in what seems to be the local Chinese dialect.  

Though most in the community are impressed by the new priest's work, Dr. Sigmund is not (though he does admit, “Father Coleman didn’t accomplish as much as you have in this short time.”). The doctor claims  “there is no earthly reason to keep it open.” 

Bogart responds, “Not earthly ones, but spiritual.” 

The doctor says with the threats of local warlords and the communists there is too much danger to continue the work. He asks “O’Shea” to talk to the Bishop about closing the Mission. 

Bogie responds testily, “The Bishop and I aren’t exactly buddies. You aren’t talking to your ... patients.” 

This angers the doctor and he says, “Don’t depend too much on that collar!” 

Bogie seems ready to rumble, asking, “Do you want me to take it off?”

Fortunately for the priest's reputation and the doctor's health, his wife Beryl intervenes and calms them.

Things become even more awkward at the mission when it becomes obvious that Scotty is falling for the man she thinks is a priest, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. Beryl advises him to go to talk to the local Protestant missionary, Rev. Marvin (Robert Burton). He does and admits his true identity. 

His real name is Jim Carmody, and he had been an American pilot during World War II. When his plane crashed, a local warlord, Mieh Yang (played quite unconvincingly by Lee J. Cobb), rescued him and then put him to work in Yang's criminal activities. When one of Yang’s men killed a priest (the real Father O’Shea), Carmody decided to escape by taking O’Shea’s identity. Marvin marvels at the story but urges Carmody to come clean to the officials in the Catholic Church.

Things take a dark turn when one of Yang’s men discovers that Carmody is impersonating O’Shea. Carmody's betrayal angers the criminal, and he threatens not just the pilot, but also the mission and the village. When his gang surrounds the Mission, the doctor feels they have no choice but to fight back. But the “priest” has another idea. He will talk to Yang.

When Carmody had worked for Yang, they had often shot craps together. Carmody convinces Yang to let Carmody bet his freedom for the lives of those in the Mission and the village. And Carmody wins with a series of unlikely throws of the dice.

Then he goes back to the Mission and confesses his story to the doctor, the Catholic superiors, and eventually Scotty. But not to the villagers. Two new priests come to the Mission to take Father O’Shea’s place, and Carmody leaves after receiving a great outpouring of love and affection from the villagers for “Father O’Shea.”

So who should we give Movie Churches’ Steeple ratings? We probably shouldn’t give it to Jim Carmody since he wasn’t really a priest. (Though he does say, “Maybe there’s a little bit of a priest in every man.”) It doesn’t sound like the priests that preceded him were any great shakes since a gangster does a better job at priesting than they did, and we don’t learn enough about the new priests to give them a rating. But the Protestant missionary, Reverend Marvin, is a good listener for Carmody’s story and gives good advice, so we’re giving him Four Steeples, our highest rating.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Satan Never Sleeps during Missionary Month

Satan Never Sleeps

As priests in the 1962 film, Satan Never Sleeps (based on a novel by Pearl Buck and directed by Leo McCarey, director of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary), William Holden and Clifton Webb are bad priests. Really bad priests. Yet somehow, they aren’t the worst people in the film. That dubious title goes to a group of people who want to suppress a nation's entire population, stripping them of their possessions and their freedom. In comparison, the bad priests don’t look so bad. 

Still, let’s start with those priests -- because clergy and churches in films are what we’re all about here. So a bit about these two Catholic American missionaries in China shortly after World War Two. Holden plays Father O’Banion, a priest with a difficult issue: he's got a fan he can’t lose. 

In his former parish, O’Banion saved the life of a young woman (somehow), and that woman (France Nuyen as Siu Lan) believes he is now responsible for her life. O’Banion travels to a remote village to replace Father Bovard (Webb), who disapproves of the priest's traveling with a young woman. 

O'Banion says, “I should explain why this girl is with me. She is very anxious to learn Christianity.” (She does seem to have much to learn about Roman Catholicism. Somehow the concept of clerical celibacy is completely foreign to her.)

It's certainly not all Siu Lan's fault. O’Banion handles the situation poorly. Yes, he tries to drop her off at places along the way, but never successfully (she is very persistent). He tries to have heart-to-heart conversations with her, but he's never very direct about the real issues preventing a romantic relationship between them. Since there are several nuns connected with the mission, it seems logical that Father O'Banion could ask them to explain the birds and the bees and the priests -- especially since many who see the priest traveling alone with a young woman draw unpleasant conclusions. 

The older priest, Father Bovard, is angry with Father O’Banion even before he arrives -- five days late -- with Siu Lan. Bovard was anxious to get out of the country in advance of the Red Army and seems to have no concern about leaving his parishioners behind as he makes his escape. Bovard has the same personality Webb has in most of his films, bitter and sarcastic -- which is fine when he’s playing the babysitter, Mr. Belvedere, or slimy newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker in Laura -- but makes for a really awful priest.

Bovard's houseboy, Ah Wang (Burt Kwouk), claims to be a Christian but is always stealing the Eucharist wine (The priests also drink quite a bit). When the Red Army frightens Ah Wang away from the parish and joins the Communists, so Sui Lan is given the job. Ah Wang’s desertion of the faith doesn’t speak well of Bovard’s discipleship.

Another of Bovard's former students, Ho San (Weaver Levy), has also joined the Red Army and returns to the mission to persecute the priests. He mocks them and takes over their school. But the very worst thing we see him do is rape Sui Lan. (The rape takes place offscreen. But there’s no doubt about what takes place.)

This leads to one of the worst things we see the priests do. We learn that as a result of being raped, Sui Lan is pregnant. (Many people assume that Father O'Banion must be the child's father.) When the priests learn how Sui Lan became pregnant, they take her to Ho San’s parents and encourage them to take Sui Lan and their grandchild in. They then encourage Ho San and Sui Lan to come together as a couple and escape China. I have no idea what counseling class they took in seminary that advised matchmaking a rapist with his victim, but there you go. (This is a Hollywood movie, of course, so Sui Lan and Ho San make a grand couple with a happily-ever-after ending. It does solve Father O’Banion’s plot complications and he even gets to baptize the child.)

So these priests are not...great. But the Communists, particularly the leadership of the Red Army are far worse. They do many of the things that history tells us the Communists under Mao Zedong did. They take the school from Catholic Church. Many of the children become forced laborers, while the rest are taught propaganda. Most of the medical doctors are imprisoned and most of the medicine they had is destroyed. The chapel is desecrated, with the crucifix torn down and replaced with a picture of Mao. 

In the 1960s, it wasn't considered an act of courage to (realistically) portray the Communist government of China as awful. The evils of the Cultural Revolution weren't portrayed because the West wasn't yet aware of the full extent of its horrors or the millions of Chinese people who were slaughtered. As late as 1987, in The Last Emperor (a Best Picture winner), Hollywood was willing to be critical of the Chinese government, but the last major Hollywood film to openly criticize Communist China was 1997's Seven Years in Tibet

Since then, Hollywood pandered to the Chinese government. The science fiction films, The Martian and Gravity, portray the Chinese space program assisting the American space program at great cost. Shortly before releasing the remake of Red Dawn, the invading nation was changed from China to North Korea. Tom Cruise’s fighter pilot wore a Taiwanese flag among the service ribbons on his uniform in the original Top Gun, but in the sequel coming out this year, that flag has been removed. In promotions for the new Fast and Furious sequel, John Cena aroused the ire of the Chinese government by talking about the country of Taiwan. Cena then felt compelled (perhaps by his studio) to issue a groveling apology for mentioning a country, that is, in fact, a real country. 

Though nothing like the horrors of the Cultural Revolution is currently taking place in China, many bad things are still happening there. The Christian Church is still harassed and persecuted. Children are working in unsafe conditions for the sake of American manufacturers. The Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, are even now being held in concentration camps. And though the origin of the Covid-19 virus continues to be obscured by the government of the People’s Republic, we know that for many weeks the government refused to give the World Health Organization information about the transmission of the virus, arguably adding millions to the virus’ victims. There is something to be said for the freedom of expression about Communism that Hollywood had in the 20th century as opposed to the 21st century. 

But that, of course, is not what this blog is about. It’s about clergy and churches in films. So let me just say that though the priests of the film are in many ways awful, at the end of the film, Father Bovard sacrifices his life to help others, helping these two priests avoid our lowest steeple rating. Two Steeples.

Oh, and one other thing. The theme song, which has the same name as the film, really stinks.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Missionary Month is on Wings of Eagles

On Wings of Eagles

The phrase “based on a true story” works extra hard in 2016’s On WIngs of Eagles (aka The Last Race). The film is a sequel to 1981’s Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire (which tells the story of Scottish runner Eric Liddell, culminating in his victory in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. That victory is followed by a title card that notes that Liddell went to China as a missionary and died in a Japanese concentration camp. The sequel tells the story of that part of Liddell's life. Sort of.

The film opens with a recap of Liddell’s life, especially what was portrayed in Chariots of Fire. This is done with visuals of newspaper clippings and a voice-over by what seems to be a radio or newsreel announcer’s voice but with very unlikely text: “News from around the world: the 1924 Paris Olympics are history. Eric Liddell, the man who snatched the gold medal was offered the American dream. The famous athlete, despite multiple sponsorship offers, has respectfully said "no" to one and all. He has joined the London Missionary Society and married the love of his life, the Canadian nurse Florence MacKenzie. They will go to China where they will live a productive life, teaching and raising a family.” “American Dream”? He’s a Scot! How do they predict he will “live a productive life?” This is how no newsman ever talked (on top of that, Liddell and his wife were married ten years after he won Olympic gold.

We soon switch to another omniscient narrator who will talk us through the rest of the film. Xu Niu (Bruce Locke provides the voice of old Niu, Shawn Duo plays young Niu) reminisces, “With any luck, you will meet someone who will make you a better person. This happened for me many years ago when I met The Flying Scotsman. His name was Eric Liddell.” It is likely the real Liddell would cringe over the use of the idea of “luck” over God’s providence.

The film then follows the broad outlines of Liddell’s story. He lived with Florence in the city of Teinstin where he worked as a teacher. The film indicates that he taught the poor, when in fact he worked at a school for the children of wealthy families. He believed that those students would, in time, have a greater influence on the whole population.

Liddell continues to serve as Japanese troops invade China, though his pregnant wife and two daughters go to Canada to stay with her parents in hopes that he will soon join them. Things take a turn for the worse when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the United Kingdom declares war on Japan. Liddell is arrested and sent to an internment camp. There he serves his fellow prisoners but dies of a brain tumor just months before the war’s end. These broad historical outlines are accurately portrayed in the film. It’s the little incidents that are largely imaginary.

When the Japanese invade, Eric Liddell (Joseph Fiennes) is portrayed as calm and faithful. Niu’s voiceover explains, “Even though the Japanese army had looted and taken over his home, he still prayed for his enemies.” (Throughout the film, moral lessons are explained in the voiceover. The filmmakers seem to be firm believers in “tell” over “show”.)

Liddell is arrested while performing a wedding in a church and, along with the entire bridal party, is taken to an internment camp where the commander explains that the prisoners they are there for their own good, “Our Emperor will protect you. You will be kept out of danger until the end of the war.” 

Liddell protests when the guards try to separate the couple he has just married, shouting, “What God has put together, let no man put asunder!” 

A prison official responds, “The Emperor is the only god here.” 

Liddell retorts, “We will not serve false gods.”

We see Liddell caring for children in the internment camp, teaching them and taking them for runs. The narrator explains, “He was running not just for himself but for us.” (This seems to be a real thing, Liddell did teach and provide activities in the camp, everything from chess tournaments to model boat construction to square dancing.)

When asked why he didn’t leave the country with his family, Liddell replies, “I was born here. Surely that makes me Chinese, too.” (It seems there are many who agree with him. There are some record books that hold Eric Liddell as the first Chinese Olympic Gold Medal winner.)

The most fanciful episodes in the film seem to be an attempt to tie into the success of the preceding film. The commander of the camp challenges Liddell to a running race. Liddell accepts, hoping to win privileges for others in the camp, but Liddell is malnourished from sharing his food with the children in the camp. He stumbles during the race and the commander wins. Later in the film, Liddell challenges the commander to another race to secure medicine for a fellow prisoner. Against all odds (and with a music score that hints at the iconic music of the first film), Liddell wins that race. I could find no evidence that anything like these races occurred in history.

But we then see Liddell cough blood, movie shorthand for “this guy is going to die.”(Although coughing blood usually means consumption rather than a brain tumor, doesn't it? We don’t claim to be medical experts here at Movie Churches.)

Though this isn’t really a good film, it does seem to accurately portray Eric Liddell as a good man. A fellow internee in the camp, Norman Cliff, said Liddell was “the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.” 

Another internee, Langdon Gilkey, said, “He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”

I think the real Eric Liddell would probably have talked much more about Jesus than the Liddell in the film. Though the filmmakers were obviously trying to portray a favorable -- even hagiographic -- representation, it seems the real Eric Liddell was a better man than the character in this film. Nonetheless, missionary Eric Liddell as portrayed in the film earns our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Around the World with Missionary Movies

This month we’re touring the world with missionaries. Some of the missionaries are good, some are, um, not so good as we saw in last week’s film, The Mosquito Coast. But a great thing about missionary films is that one at least can usually see some great scenery. So as we go on with Missionary Month, let’s look at Missionary films of Movie Churches as a world tour, taking films by continent, starting with…


We have the quite awful work of Madonna (with then-husband, Sean Penn) in Shanghai Surprise. A much better film, but not a good missionary, can be found in The Darjeeling Express. Old Hollywood sent missionaries to China in The Keys of the Kingdom. The best film we’ve done takes place in Japan, Silence.


We only have a couple of films on this continent, but they are great ones. The Oscar-winning classic, The African Queen with Bogart and Hepburn. And a wonderful film set in Algeria, Of Gods and Men.

South America

Getting closer to the home of Movie Churches, we go to South American with a true story, The End of the Spear in Ecuador. The Mission, a great film, takes us to filming locations in Argentina,  Brazil, Columbia, and Paraguay.

North America

I’m saying The Devil at 4 O’Clock takes place in North America, but it really occurs on a fantasy island, but it is a “Pacific island”. We do have an actual Pacific island, Hawaii, in Molokai. There is a brief excursion to Mexico in Christian Mingle. And a very good film takes place with Native Americans in what would be Canada, Black Robe.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Missionary Month Begins on The Mosquito Coast

The Mosquito Coast

Harrison Ford is synonymous with blockbusters. Star Wars and Indiana Jones are two of the biggest franchises of all time, and there were had plenty of one-offs, too. Witness, The Fugitive, and Air Force One were big action films that brought in big bucks. Through the years, though, he occasionally did things a little outside the mainstream, and The Mosquito Coast is one such film.

Based on a novel by travel writer Paul Theroux and directed by Peter Weir, The Mosquito Coast tells the story of Allie Fox (Ford), a man who believes America has lost its way and become consumed with and corrupted by commercialism. He takes his family to begin a new, simpler life in Central America, on the coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. Allie’s wife (Helen Mirren) and children love and respect Allie, but over time, they begin to suspect he is going mad.

Fortunately for Movie Churches, on the boat ride from North to Central America the Fox family encounters a family of missionaries. The Reverend Spellgood (played by Andre Gregory, the title character of My Dinner with Andre) is making a return trip to the Mosquito Coast. Spellgood makes a point of shaking hands and introducing himself to everyone on the ship.

When the Foxes and Spellgoods share a meal, the Reverend prays a blessing over the food, much to the disdain of the religiously hostile Fox. But Fox isn’t ignorant of Scripture and in their discussion (argument), the inventor corrects the pastor when he misquotes the Gospels.

Spellgood tries to win over Fox with a present, “Ah, Mr. Fox, I’ve got a gift for you. It’s the latest. The Blue Jeans Bible. It was designed by a psychologist.” 

Fox considers this version of the Bible another example of sick American corporate culture, saying, “Take a look, kids. It’s just what I’ve been warning you about. ‘Of making many books there is no end. Much study is a weariness of the flesh'. Ecclesiastes.”

Spellgood responds with a Scripture mash-up, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms, but I am the door.”

Fox: “Well, don’t slam it on the way out.”

Spellgood: “May God forgive you for your sin.”

Fox (Sarcastically): “Have a nice day.”

Spellgood (Genuinely): “Well, thank you, brother.”

Fox’s teen son, Charlie (River Phoenix), and Spellgood’s teen daughter, Emily (Martha Plimpton) get along much better. She tells Charlie that she prefers America, “It’s a whole lot hotter than this in the jungle.” She explains to Charlie, “My father has two churches: one’s in Guampu and the other’s in Baltimore. It’s a drive-in.” 

“What kind of drive-in?” Charlie asks. 

“There’s only one kind of drive-in,” Emily answers, “You know, cars? Gosh, you’re stupid.” (Okay, maybe they don’t get along a lot better.)

When the boat arrives at their port, Spellgood and his family are greeted by his congregants singing, “He’s Alright! (What do you think about Jesus).” They seem genuinely happy to greet the family. Fox wishes him well, “Happy hunting, Reverend!”

When Fox’s family asks where they’re going, he tells them that he’s bought a town by the name of Jeronimo. And when he gets there, he plans to build an ice factory, which, in his opinion, is a cornerstone of civilization.

Soon, Fox has his family and the residents of his town building a house for the family and the ice house. The Reverend comes to visit the town and spots many who have been a part of the church. He spots an elderly woman working and praises the completed construction, “Well done, well done. Mrs. Kennewick, is that you? We haven’t seen you in God’s house for quite a while.” (Mrs. Kennewick is played by Butterfly McQueen, best known for playing Prissy in Gone With the Wind.)

Fox is not happy to see the missionary. “State your business, Reverend,” he says -- while holding a hammer as if it were a gun.

Spellgood: “It’s the Lord’s business that I’m about, Mr. Fox.”.

Fox: “Oh, is that so? I didn’t know the Lord was franchising in the neighborhood.”.

Spellgood: “The Lord sent me here, Mr. Fox.”

Fox: “That’s what I love about you people, your complete lack of presumption. The Lord hasn’t any idea this place exists. If he did, he’d have done something for these people a long time ago. But I did.”

Spellgood: “This river doesn’t belong to you, brother.”

Fox: “No, but this land does, and I didn’t give you permission to come ashore.” 

Fox says to his workers, “If any of you wanna go listen to this man across the Jeronimo state line I won’t stop you. Any takers?” The locals laugh.

Spellgood replies, “And Pharoah said, ‘Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice, let my people go!’”

Fox: “Exodus 5, now get off my land!”

And off Spellgood goes.

Things don’t go well for Fox and his family after that. He does build an ice factory to the delight of the villagers and surrounding tribes, but an attack by a Communist guerrilla group destroys his village and he and his family end up escaping on a boat down the river.

As the Fox family, hungry and exhausted, floats down the river, they hear singing. It's the hymn, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.” One of the Fox daughters asks, “Are those angels, Mommy?”

Mother Fox realizes it must be the Spellgoods' camp and says, “The missionaries, they could help us.” 

Her husband replies, “We don’t need help.”

As the family gets out of the boat, they hear the voice of the missionary, “Well done, choir, well done!”

The children are happy to be back in civilization of sorts. “Look, they have real houses!” 

“They have basketball!” 

“They have toys! Can we play with them?”

The family follows the sound of Spellgood’s voice to the chapel, but when they look inside, Spellgood isn’t there. The pews are full, but instead of Spellgood at the pulpit, there is a television set. On the TV, Spellgood is saying, “Prayer is as simple as making a phone call.” He is using a telephone prop for his conversation with God. His congregation is transfixed.

Though the Rev. Spellgood isn't there, his family is in the village. They’re eating dinner in their own house, watching their own TV. Charlie finds Emily, and she tells them their drive-in church in the States was closed, so they’re living full-time in the village. She offers the family Jeep so the Foxes can make their way back to help and the United States, but Fox doesn’t want to leave. He is also upset about how he feels the missionaries have corrupted the natives.

So Fox sets the chapel on fire. The natives come to the missionary, “Father, Father, the TV’s on fire!”

Spellgood goes out to assess the situation, holding a rifle. He sees that Fox started the fire, and he shoots and kills Fox. The rest of the Fox family escapes in the Jeep at the film’s conclusion.

Fox’s family will return to the States. The Spellgoods will remain on the Mosquito Coast.

Here at Movie Churches, we have a hard and fast rule that murderous clergy get our lowest Steeple Rating of one Steeple, but even without the killing, the Reverend Spellgood probably wouldn’t have rated too high. His seems to be the worst kind of paternalistic view of the people he works with, viewing the people as children rather than as grown men and women made in the Image of God.

(I suppose I should also note there is now a The Mosquito Coast series on Apple TV. And I have now reported the sum total of my knowledge about the show.)