Thought-provoking drama with a surprisingly contemporary slant set against the grandeur of the Vatican amid geo-political turmoil. At a time of global crisis, dissident Russian archbishop Lakotov (Anthony Quinn) is unexpectedly freed from a labour camp by the Russian premier (Laurence Olivier). Arriving at the Vatican, he is promoted to cardinal by the dying Pope (John Gielgud) before becoming an unexpected contender for Papal office.
The spectacular wealth of the Catholic Church is contrasted with the spectacular poverty of China, on the brink of starvation due to trade sanctions by the United States, nuclear war a potential outcome. The political ideology of Marxism is compared to the equally strict Christian doctrine, of which Lakotov’s friend Father Telemond (Oskar Werner) has fallen foul. There is a sub-plot so mild it scarcely justifies the term concerning television reporter George Faber (David Janssen) torn between wife Ruth (Barbara Jefford) and younger lover Chiara (Rosemary Dexter).
Lakotov is drawn into the Russian-Chinese-American conflict and the battle for the philosophical heart of the Christian faith while bringing personal succour to the lovelorn and performing the only modern miracle easily within his power, which could place the Church in jeopardy, while condemned to the solitariness of his position.
The political and philosophical problems addressed by the picture, which was set 20 years in the future, are just as relevant now. The film’s premise, of course, while intriguing, defies logic and although the climax has a touch of the Hollywood about it nonetheless it follows an argument which has split the Church from time immemorial.
You would not have considered this an obvious candidate for the big-budget 70mm widescreen roadshow treatment, but MGM, after the Church not surprisingly refused access to the Vatican, spent millions of dollars on fabulous sets, including the Sistine Chapel. The roadshow version of the picture, complete with introductory musical overture and an entr’acte at the intermission, is leisurely and absorbing, held together by a stunning – and vastly under-rated – performance by Anthony Quinn (The Lost Command, 1966) who has abandoned his usual bombastic screen persona in pursuit of genuine humility and yet faces his moments when he questions his own faith.
Ruth has a pivotal role in bringing Lakotov down to earth but George has the thankless task, setting aside the quandaries of his love life, of talking the audience through the sacred ceremonies unfolding sumptuously on screen as the cardinals bury one Pope and elect another.
You wouldn’t think, either, that Hollywood could find room in such a big-budget picture for philosophical discussion but questions not only of the existence of God but whether he has abandoned Earth are given considerable scope, as are discussions about Marxism and practical solutions to eternal problems. None of these arguments are particularly new but are given a fair hearing. There is a hint of the Inquisition about the “trial” Telemond faces. Oskar Werner (Interlude, 1968) carries off a difficult role.
David Janssen (Warning Shot, 1967) is mere window dressing and Rosemary Dexter (House of Cards, 1968) mostly decorative but Barbara Jefford (Ulysses, 1967) is good as the wounded wife. Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) is the pick of the sterling supporting cast which included John Gielgud (Becket, 1964), Burt Kwouk (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966), Vittorio de Sica (It Happened in Naples, 1960), Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968), Frank Finlay (A Study in Terror, 1965), Niall McGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967). In a small role was Isa Miranda, the “Italian Marlene Dietrich,” who had made her name in Max Ophuls Everybody’s Woman (1934) and enjoyed Hollywood success in films like Hotel Imperial (1939) opposite Ray Milland.
Michael Anderson (Operation Crossbow, 1965) directed with some panache from a script by veteran John Patrick (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960) and Scottish novelist James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960) based on the Morris West bestseller.
I found the whole enterprise totally engrossing, partly because I did not know what to expect, partly through Anderson’s faultless direction, partly it has to be said by the glorious backdrop of the Vatican and the intricacy of the various rites, but mostly from the revelatory Quinn performance. And even if the plot is hardly taut, not in the James Bond clock-ticking class, it still all holds together very well. From the fact that it was a big flop at the time both with the public and the critics, I had expected a stinker and was very pleasantly surprised.