#2 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Have you ever found yourself wondering what John Ford would have made if he had decided to direct an art house film? Well, you don’t have to wonder because he made the adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, retitled as The Fugitive. And I thought The Long Voyage Home was Ford’s art house film… Tossing most of the script written by long term collaborator, Dudley Nichols (harming their relationship rather strongly by all accounts), Ford went borderline experimental with minimal dialogue and a heavy reliance on visuals to tell the story, falling back on his German Expressionist influences more fully than in any other film. It’s also his most explicitly Catholic film, feeling like his own version of Scorsese’s Silence, a film about faith in the face of persecution. I also absolutely loved it, feeling like it’s one of Ford’s most misunderstood films.
An unnamed Catholic priest (Henry Fonda) lives in fear in a post-revolutionary Latin American country after Catholicism has been outlawed. He and everyone he meets believes that he is the last priest in the country, and he lives in perpetual fear of a single word: “Father”. He returns to his town and is met by the impoverished masses, desperate for any kind of religious solace in the face of the oppression they live under. The opening is the priest cautiously returning to the town, and the town coming out to meet him in the abandoned church for him to baptize their children. Done mostly wordlessly, it’s a beautiful sight of hope in a land of desperation.
The priest is welcomed into the community, forming a bond with the local cantina worker Maria (Dolores del Rio) while back at the country’s capital a vigilant police lieutenant (Pedro Armendariz) is given the task of finding the last priest, given a single grainy picture of him to help. He’s dedicated to the cause of wiping out religion from the country, offering up far stiffer sentences for the ownership of religious icons than for public drunkenness, and he makes it his mission to purge the country of the religion he hates so much. When he shows up to the village, the priest can’t call attention to himself as the priest, but he does offer himself up as prisoner in exchange for the village elder that the lieutenant drags away. The priest is a self-described coward, and he makes for the coast to board a ship out of the country.
The journey is fraught with fear, the priest removing himself from his relative safety in the village to go alone without any help in a country where anyone could recognize him or rifle through his bag to find his chalice and illegal stash of consecrated wine and turn him in for a thousand peso reward. He meets a vagabond (J. Carrol Naish) who may be trustworthy but probably isn’t, and when the vagabond does rifle through his bag and down the priest’s wine, the priest can do nothing but run. Purchasing a third-class ticket on the first boat out of the country, he’s ready to board when a small boy recognizes him and begs him to come to his dying mother. The priest cannot walk away from his obligation to the people, and he goes. However, he has no more wine to perform a mass for the dying woman, so he goes looking for a black-market dealer who can sell him some.
This scene where the priest purchases the wine is one of the most painfully sad things I’ve seen in a Ford film. The priest has an illegal conversation with a man selling an illegal product, and he’s so paralyzed by fear that he can’t explain why he wants wine instead of brandy so badly nor can he object when the dealer starts to drink the wine that the priest bought. He can only sit there and watch as the bottle gets emptier and emptier, his risking of his life for a dying woman’s mass becoming increasingly pointless. Eventually, he grabs what’s left of the brandy bottle and shoots out of the room before the police immediately pick him up for having brandy, an illegal substance. He’s released without being recognized, though. Well, he’s recognized by the vagabond who’s also in prison and decides to follow the priest back to the small village where Maria does her best to hide him, distracting the police by dancing on tables before the lieutenant shows up.
One of the strengths of throwing out most of the script is that a lot of stuff becomes implied rather than explicit, and there’s a past relationship between Maria and the lieutenant that’s almost entirely implied, including the idea that the lieutenant is the father to Maria’s baby that the priest baptized. It’s oddly compelling in a way that a more explicit telling of the same backstory isn’t. Subtly works, is what I’m saying.
Alongside the story of the priest is the story of James “El Gringo” Calvary (Ward Bond), a wanted criminal making his way through the same parts of the same country. When he and the priest cross paths, he instantly recognizes the priest for what he is, offering him money for his hardship and then coming to the priest’s aid when the police are running him down, shooting several policemen off their horses while getting shot in the process. The priest is able to escape to another state in the same country, presumably outside the police’s jurisdiction, which is why they send the vagabond to find him and lure him back with pleas from the dying Gringo. The Gringo’s death scene is another deeply sad scene that I love completely with the priest desperate to make his sacrifice at coming into harm’s way mean something, offering up last rites to a dying man who doesn’t want them and only wants the priest to get away, what he’s actually dying from trying to accomplish.
The finale of the film is really not what I expected from a movie under the Hays Code. The priest gets outright executed (off screen, of course). However, it’s after a scene with the police lieutenant where the priest’s acceptance of his fate, in the face of his admission of cowardice, penetrates to the lieutenant’s soul. It’s like the whole movie: sparse, beautiful, and marvelously affecting. I guess the way Ford got around the Hays Code mandate that the good guys win was by the final shot of the film with a group of peasants in a church with the small cross cut from the door casting a harsh light on the floor where a new priest walks in, implying that the faith had won in the end.
So, the story and how it’s told is first and foremost why I love this movie. The sparseness of the telling helps create an emotional power that settles deep and rests there, often uncomfortably and on purpose. There’s real heart in this movie, and it demonstrates a deep appreciation of Ford’s own Catholic faith. However, there’s one more thing that needs to be taken into account: this movie is gorgeous to look at.
In a body of work that includes two films lensed by Gregg Toland (The Long Voyage Home, and The Grapes of Wrath) as well as The Informer, this might be Ford’s best looking movie. Let’s just say it’s definitely in the running. There was an intended effort to tell the story visually in interesting ways, and there are gorgeous shots all over the place. The one shot that stays with me is when the Gringo first sees the priest. Mostly done in a shot over the Gringo’s shoulder, we see the priest enter, exhausted, in the background and center of the frame before collapsing down into a chair on the left. Where he falls, he’s in perfect silhouette at the center of a lighted circle that felt natural there before he got to the chair, and there’s a large empty space between the left side of the frame where the priest rests and the right side where the Gringo and the other people in the cantina are, implying a divide between the two with only the Gringo passing over that space to offer the priest some solace when he leaves. It’s a magnificent and deceptively simple shot. There’s also similar stuff throughout the film, especially with strong use of shadows that often through characters’ faces into complete darkness, like the final scene between the priest and the lieutenant where the priest’s face is in light and the lieutenant’s is in complete shadow.
The performances are also largely understated, especially from Fonda, helping to create the more subtle emotional impact the film is going for. The exception is a good bulk of Armendariz’s performance as the lieutenant, especially early. He speaks in almost a stilted manner, especially when he makes speeches, but I think it’s on purpose. It’s an affectation, an unnatural sounding voice meant to hide who he is, to make him sound more purely dedicated to the cause of the revolution than he is deep down, which the priest reveals to him late when Armendariz’s performance does become quieter.
This movie is pretty much a masterpiece in a genre that John Ford was not known for. He used his increased power from successes like Stagecoach to adapt a book he liked about a subject near and dear to him in a way that was within his power but was unusual. That the movie failed at the box office is not a real surprise, but that it continues to be dismissed decades later is frustrating. Yeah, Ford’s fans tend to be a more general audience kind of crowd expecting grand adventures with John Wayne, but they’re not the only ones who can see this. This is one of my favorite Ford films.