Saturday, July 26, 2003


Most critics don't care for this film's length or leisurely pace, but I'm a sucker for this kind of Hollywood product: the story of a person's life, from youth to old age, with an episodic structure and an attempt at "epic" reach. As far as I'm concerned, GONE WITH THE WIND and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO are the epitomes of the genre (if it really *is* a genre), and this one is certainly not on a par with those, but it holds your attention and has an interesting cast. Gregory Peck, in one of his first starring roles, plays a Scottish priest who spends most of his life as a missionary in China. He arrives to find a mission building in ruins and a handful of fickle followers called "rice Catholics" who stay with the church only in order to get food. Peck rejects them and rebuilds the mission practically from scratch with some material aid from an important Mandarin (Leonard Strong), a boyhood pal who happens to be an atheist but still a good guy (Thomas Mitchell), and a sincere Chinese Catholic who has renamed himself Joseph (Benson Fong). Most of the story is told as a flashback after Peck has retired from missionary work and has been recalled to Scotland; a monsignor (Cedric Hardwicke) reads over the aged priest's journal in deciding whether or not to plead Peck's case to be allowed to remain in active duty in his home parish--apparently, among other things, Peck's claim to his congregation that an atheist can be an OK guy rubs some people the wrong way.

Other members of the large cast include Roddy McDowell (the priest as a young lad), Peggy Ann Garner (the young version of Peck's only romantic interest, who comes to no good as an adult), and Vincent Price (as a stuffy bishop). Rosa Stradner, an Austrian actress, plays the Mother Superior at Peck's mission; at first, she's rather harshly inclined toward the somewhat unorthodox Peck, but eventually their relationship becomes respectful and even warm. A few very good character actors are thrown in for color but largely wasted because their parts are so small. Edmund Gwenn has what amounts to one scene as a early mentor of Peck's. More frustratingly, James Gleason and Anne Revere, both wonderful and underrated supporting players, have interesting roles as "competing" Methodist missionaries who set up shop in China after Peck has finally established his church, but they also have only one scene, which is a shame since their characters have so much potential. The sets and art direction are excellent; there are many tableaux of destruction during civil war which are quite beautiful, especially a scene in a ruined church in the moonlight. Peck ages well, and even gets to have an "action hero" scene where he acts as a spy against a marauding warlord. Stradner left acting after this (which was her only major Hollywood role) and married Joseph Mankiewicz, who co-wrote this script, from A. J. Cronin's novel. This won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

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