The Keys of the Kingdom
Directed by John M. Stahl
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson from the novel by A.J. Cronin
Twentieth Century Fox Films Corporation
First viewing/Netflix Instant
I’ve been putting this off for awhile. It wasn’t my cup of tea exactly but I needn’t have worried.
Father Francis Chisholm (Gregory Peck) is now an old man trying to enjoy some last peaceful years at the parish of his childhood home in Scotland. The Bishop, an old childhood friend named Angus Mealey (Vincent Price), has had complaints about the priest due to his unorthodox views and wants him to retire. He sends an emissary (Sir Cedrick Hardwicke) to assess the situation. While staying the night, the monsignor chances on Father Chisholm’s diary. We segue into flashback.
We follow Francis from his youth in a household of a Catholic father and Protestant mother. The prejudiced townsfolk beat the father mercilessly and both father and mother drown in an accident as she is trying to get him home. Francis is raised by a Catholic friend of the family. His adoptive mother’s dearest wish is that Francis become a priest but he is more interested in marrying Nora. But Nora, despairing that he will really come home to her from university, “goes bad”, becomes an unwed mother and dies before he can return to her. Francis, who had lately been leaning toward the priesthood any way, is now easily convinced to enter the seminary by his mentor at school Father Hamish MacNabb (Edmund Gwynne).
After his ordination, Father Francis tries his hand as a parish priest but is a “failure”. His doctrine of universal brotherhood and love is something too unorthodox for local Catholics. McNabb tells him to never change and sends him to do missionary work in China.
After his arrival at a rural village, Father Francis begins to despair of ever winning converts. He refuses to supply people with rice in exchange for their conversion. Finally, a Christian Chinese named Joseph (Benson Fong) comes along to help. The priest’s big break comes when he gets a shipment of medical supplies from his atheist friend Willie Tulloch (Thomas Mitchell) at home. He cures a local mandarin’s son and, while he refuses to allow the man to convert as a form of thanks, he does accept land and a church building from him.
We follow Father Chisholm’s 40 year stay in China as he builds a congregation and tries to defend it during the Civil War. A subplot involves the aristocratic and dismissive Mother Superior who heads a group of nuns sent to help in the work. With James Gleason and Anne Revere as Protestant missionaries.
I have to admit that I am not a big fan of Gregory Peck, unfortunately. He is less pedantic sounding than usual at this stage of his career, however. The movie is long but fairly solid. I think viewers will react based on their feelings about the subject matter. All the Chinese are played by Chinese-American actors instead of in yellow face, thank goodness.
Gregory Peck was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this, only his second screen appearance. The Keys of the Kingdom was also nominated for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White; and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Alfred Newman).