Gregory Peck’s star-making turn as Father Francis Chisom in John M. Stahl’s The Keys of the Kingdom earned him a Best Actor nod and established his screen persona as a ruggedly decent, dignified underdog.
Based on the onetime best-selling novel by A. J. Cronin, the film looks back on a life of heroic priestly service unmarked by outward success, worldly recognition or ecclesiastical honor. At the same time, the story celebrates its hero as an idiosyncratic priest whose lifelong best friend (Thomas Mitchell) was a confirmed atheist, and who held odd, even problematic views on religion.
Told in flashback from the aged Fr. Chisom’s journals, the story begins with Chisom as a boy (Roddy McDowall growing up in Scotland with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. Orphaned at a young age due to anti-Catholic violence, Francis eventually enters the priesthood.
After a couple of undistinguished curacies, Chisom is sent by a superior (Edmund Gwenn) who recognizes his virtues to China to be a missionary. There, despite constant hardship, harassment and ingratitude, his unfailing idealism, humility and decency enable him to accomplish much good.
Chisom’ rudimentary surgery saves the son of a local Mandarin, in return for which the Mandarin offers to support Chisom’s work by becoming a Christian. Chisom refuses — perhaps too firmly — but does accept an offer of land and support for a new mission. Chisom’s faith and perseverance are put to the test by a stand-offish, aristocratic mother superior (Rosa Stradner), the attitudes of various clerical superiors (including Vincent Price), military aggression, and competing missionaries.
A critic writing for TVGuide.com suggests that it may have been 20th Century Fox’s hit The Song of Bernadette the previous year that inspired the studio to look for another best-selling religious novel to adapt. Either way, the choice of source material was more problematic this time.
Franz Werfel, the author of The Song of Bernadette, was Jewish, while Keys of the Kingdom author Cronin was Catholic. Yet Werfel seemed willing to honor the religious context of his story and subject matter, while the perspective at work in Cronin’s novel seems less than pious.
Like his priestly protagonist, Cronin was a Scottish Catholic with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. His book is dedicated to a friend who was a longtime missionary to China, whose experiences presumably provided Cronin with fodder for his story. And before becoming a writer Cronin had been a medical doctor — the same profession as Chisom’s atheist friend Mitchell.
Was Cronin, a doctor with a missionary friend, closer to the faith of his missionary protagonist, or to the unbelief of his missionary’s doctor friend? At any rate, Cronin seems to have been skeptical of the Church’s claim to have a unique role in the divine plan of salvation.
Toward the end of the novel, Fr. Chisom acknowledges the Church as “our mother,” but goes on to suggest that “perhaps there are other mothers” even in non-Christian religions such as Confucianism. Chisom quotes Confucius as readily as he does St. Paul, or more so, and in his homilies is given to such unconventional remarks as “Christ was the perfect man, but Confucius had a better sense of humour” and “Hell is only for those who spit in God’s eye!”
Understandably leery of how such startling statements would play with 1940s audiences, the filmmakers considerably soften Fr. Chisom’s views. For example, in the film Chisom’s comment about Christ and Confucius is revised to suggest that “The Christian is a good man, but the Confucian usually has a better sense of humour.”
At the same time, conscious of their predominantly Protestant audience, the filmmakers minimize the priest’s specifically Catholic identity. We never see or hear of him celebrating Mass or any other sacrament (apart from one reference to confession).
The end result is a edifying celebration of recognizably Christian virtue in an imperfect hero in a Roman collar — perhaps an eye-opening picture for American audiences in 1944, and one perhaps still worth revisiting today.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.