Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Fugitive (1947)

The Fugitive (1947) is a lovely, luminous film directed by John Ford.  It is a must for traditional Catholics.  I am surprised that it has not been given more recognition.  Henry Fonda, playing the priest who is the main character, understood his role and never failed to maintain a priestly dignity even when exhausted, threatened, or subjected to humiliations.

The story is of the events in the last days of the life of a priest in a Central American country where religion has been outlawed and the clergy martyred.  The unnamed priest played by Fonda is the one cleric who has not yet been captured and assassinated.

In the Graham Greene book on which the film is based (The Power and the Glory, originally published in the United States as The Labyrinthine Ways), the country was Mexico and the priest was an alcoholic.  Although in the film the priest is merely traumatized (as if "shell-shocked") --  and not an alcoholic -- that does not necessarily detract from the power of the story.

The important thing is that the priesthood is larger than the priest -- something he acknowledges toward the end of the film.  And, while being pursued by the police, he faithfully fulfills his priestly duties by administering the sacraments when sought by believers, sometimes reluctantly and with conflict and always at the risk of his own personal safety.

The motion picture was made in Mexico and the cinematography by Mexican Gabriel Figueroa is unfailingly beautiful. Many of the actors are also Mexican.  Dolores del Rio is exquisite as the Indian woman who protects the priest.  A wonderful sequence takes place in the cantina where she works.  At the beginning of that sequence, a man sings a mournful ballad that reaches deeply into the soul, and before the end of the sequence, when Dolores del Rio dances on the bar to distract the police who are looking for the priest, one feels keenly the sacrifice she is making despite her apparent gaiety.

Another wonderful part of the film is when the fleeing priest is called upon to administer the last rites to a woman from a middle class family. Afterward, the men of the family prevail on the priest to say Mass -- something he cannot do because there is no wine to consecrate:  wine has been outlawed along with religion and apparently as part of the effort to suppress the sacraments.

Pedro Armendariz skillfully portrays the atheistic lieutenant who pursues the priest with determination but not without a level of inner conflict. An interesting supporting character is the "trickster" figure, an informant who sets up the priest for his ultimate capture.  Another is The Gringo, an American gangster, who helps the priest but refuses the sacraments as he lays dying.  These two roles are well developed and well played by J. Carrol Naish and Ward Bond respectively.

This is a film I will watch again and again.  My only complaint is that The Criterion Collection has not offered it as a DVD, because the celluloid could use the technical improvements that Criterion accomplishes so marvelously.  I purchased it second-hand in a Region 2 DVD from Spain in English with Spanish subtitles, changed the region code on my computer, and watched it that way. There is no language option for English without subtitles but I found the Spanish subtitles helpful because the audio is not as distinct as it might be.

Needless to say, I give the film five roses.

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