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.

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