The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Keys of the Kingdom

Some actors toil away for years trying to make it big in Hollywood.  All they’re looking for is that one big shot to step into the limelight. Others don’t spend much time at all on the climb up the ladder. In 1944, Gregory Peck made his debut in two movies featuring two great roles. In just his second movie overall, 1944’s The Keys of the Kingdom, he made such a positive impression that he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He didn’t win the award, but he surely deserved it.

The background of the movie is a sign of the times in the 1940s and early 1950s as studios made big budget stories about historical figures involved with religion, faith, and personal beliefs. Name a prominent historical figure with some involvement in religion over the years and chances are you can find a film from a major studio made about them.  As a person who doesn't have much use for organized religion, I usually try to steer clear of these movies as they shove some sort of rhetoric down your throat.  Thankfully, this one didn't do that, instead just focusing on the story of one man and his struggles and triumphs through his faith and personal beliefs.

After graduating from the Catholic college he's attending, Francis Chisolm (Peck) has no intention of continuing on to becoming a priest, but when something from his personal life changes his outlook on things, he opts for the priesthood.  From the start though, he questions if he's right for it and struggles in his first two years.  A bishop (Edmund Gwenn) who knows him well recommends him for a position in China where a Catholic priest is needed to start up a mission that has failed in the past.  Francis agrees to take the position and uproots himself to China where his work is cut out for him.  Upon arriving, he receives help from one of the few remaining converts, Joseph (Benson Fong), the young priest starts the work of building the mission and gaining converts who genuinely believe, not just because they're looking for food or shelter.

The story here is rare in that it covers over 40 years in Francis' life, but it never seems or feels rushed.  The important moments in his life and his struggles as a Catholic priest working as a missionary in China are all covered and given due course.  We see him in his ups and downs, his good and bad, the people he meets and who affect his life as much as he does theirs.  It is filmed in black and white -- I don't know how color would have worked here -- and the producers clearly spared no expense.  The mission set is ridiculously cool, and in general all the main sets are extravagant and textured.  They don't just look like wooden planks painted and propped up behind the actors.  Story and sets together, quite a combination here.  It seems obvious, but I'm always surprised how many movies take that for granted.

In just his second movie, Peck shows off an acting ability that would help catapult him to stardom.  Later in his career, he would gain a reputation as being somewhat stiff on-screen, playing the same character repeatedly with his strong, deep voice and commanding presence. I like Peck in just about everything he's done and can usually see past those criticisms, but I thought I should point them out.  Here, none of that's a problem.  His Francis is a lively, passionate man trying to do what he believes is right in an extremely difficult situation.  He's driven to do that at all costs no matter how difficult, willing to sacrifice for his converts who have come to trust him because of his actions and beliefs.  The character reminded me of a younger Atticus Finch, and that's never a bad thing.

This was Peck's movie from the start, but he is supported very capably by a cast full of studio players.  Thomas Mitchell plays Willie Tulloch, Francis' best friend back home, a doctor who is proud of his atheist beliefs. You can see why Willie and Francis are friends, they bond through their differences, neither man trying to convince the other of their convictions.  Vincent Price is Angus Mealey, Francis' childhood friend and fellow priest who is on a different road, a route where he climbs the ladder quickly in the church.  It's a good comparison to see the vast differences in the two men. Rose Stradner is a scene-stealer as Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica, a sister who struggles with her faith at times and how easily it comes to Francis.  She has a very moving, touching scene at the end of the movie that's worth watching on its own.  Also look for Roddy McDowall playing a young Francis, Cedric Hardwicke as a bishop in bookends of the movie questioning if Francis should be forcibly retired, and Leonard Strong as Mr. Chia, an opposing force of Francis' who ends up becoming fast friends with him. 

I was surprised by how much I liked this movie.  It doesn't try too hard delivering its message, a credit to the strengths of the cast who play the movie straight.  There's no hamming it up for the camera or speechifying at awkward moments.  The Chinese are not stereotyped like so many other movies do.  They're not shifty Asians capable of horrible things, and they're not ignorant peasants who must be taught how to do everything.  They're just people looking for something different in life.  Above all else though, watch this for Gregory Peck. You won't be disappointed in the 28-year old actor's secondary debut.

The Keys of the Kingdom <---trailer (1944): *** 1/2 /****

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