Saturday, March 12, 2011

Satan Never Sleeps (1962)

Satan Never Sleeps is a 1962 motion picture directed by Leo McCarey and based on a novel by Protestant China missionary daughter, Pearl S. Buck. It was not a commercial success and it is easy to understand why.

The script uses the same light humor and silly interaction between a grumpy older priest (Fr. Bovard played by Clifton Webb) and a bumbling younger cleric (Fr. O'Banion played by William Holden) that worked in McCarey's Going My Way.  In this film, however, those antics fall flat because McCarey transposes them onto two incredibly serious and grim subjects -- the brutality with which the Chinese communists persecuted the Chinese Christians and Christian missionaries in the late 1940s, and the marriage of a woman to her rapist so that the child born of the rape will know his father.

A positive aspect of the film is that it accurately depicts such tragic events as the communists trashing the interior of the church, tearing down the crucifix, putting up Chairman Mao's picture where the crucifix used to be, and using the church for communist indoctrination sessions.  That is just what the Reds did many places in real life.

Another positive thing is that for the most part both priests are courageous.  And, Fr. O'Banion maintains his chastity despite being ardently pursued by a physically attractive and romantically aggressive young woman (Siu Lan played by France Nuyen).

Unfortunately, the film is riddled with such nonsense as a scene where Siu Lan smiles and waves flirtatiously at Fr. O'Banion while he is kneeling during a Mass offered by Fr. Bovard right after the priests discover that most of the Chinese Catholics have deserted the church in fear of the communists, who have just taken over the town.

Later, when a local ex-altar boy turned communist (Ho San played by Weaver Lee) rapes Siu Lan, it is such a jarring departure from all the silliness that it is as if one is watching a different movie.  And, when Ho San converts back to Catholicism after losing status with the communists for being too individualistic, one questions the sincerity of his re-conversion.

As if that transition did not make impossible demands on the viewer, Ho San then marries Siu Lan and when their baby is baptized by Fr. O'Banion, the silliness is reintroduced.  I found it offensive that this supposedly "happy ending" is treated with the same fluffiness as the conclusion of any television sit-com from the 1970s.

I would really like to see a new version of this film with the screenplay re-written as a drama that does justice to the very serious questions presented.  It might be quite good.  As it is, the only value the movie has is its accurate portrayal of Chinese communist atrocities and the heroic resistance of the Chinese Catholics, who tear down Mao's picture and try to raise the Cross again. For that I give the film three roses.

No comments: