From the Archives: The Fugitive
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Produced by John Ford and Merian C. Cooper; directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols; based on the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene; music by Richard Hageman; cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa; editing by Jack Murray; production design by Alfred Ybarra; starring Henry Fonda, Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendariz, and Ward Bond. DVD, B&W, 100 min., 1947. A Warner Bros. Archive release, www.wbshop.com/Warner-Archive.
The Power and the Glory (1939) was arguably the best novel Graham Greene wrote. Its central character—a “whisky priest”—was a thorny, guilt-ridden figure pursued by police and informers in a nameless Latin American country that had enacted repressive anticlerical policies. Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926, but his faith and his view of the world was always a bleak, morally ambiguous one. He was a believer who could state: “They are always saying God loves us. If that's love I'd rather have a bit of kindness.” Consequently, the Catholicism in his novels is never traditional. The Power and the Glory’s priest character fathers an illegitimate child, and craves liquor, but though self-destructive and cowardly, he is capable of virtuous acts and in search of some semblance of redemption, achieving a true holiness at the novel’s conclusion. John Ford’s film version of Greene’s novel, The Fugitive (1947), however, falls far short of the complexity of the original.
The film, made in adherence to puritanical Production Code guidelines, turns the nameless, tortured priest (Henry Fonda) into a hunted man whose main sin is one of pride. He is a good man, though far from a heroic one, who, though frightened, never strays from religious belief—he continues to minister to his flock while on the run from the police. He inhabits a country where he is supposedly the last priest alive. His precarious situation is based on a period when the anticlerical laws of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, were given a more stringent and violent interpretation in 1924 by the newly elected President, Plutarco Elías Calles. He presided over the worst persecution of Catholics and clergy in the history of Mexico. As a result, between 1926 and 1934 at least 4000 priests were killed or expelled—leaving by 1934 only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million people.
The Fugitive itself shows no interest in examining the political and social basis for the hounding of the clergy, and the destruction of churches, nor does it explore the inner state of the pursued priest. Of course, Ford’s films were never interested in his characters’ psyches—at their best Wayne, Fonda, and Stewart played figures in works like The Searchers(1956), My Darling Clementine (1946), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), who had the powerful simplicity of archetypes.
Indeed, the nameless priest is conceived as a symbolic, quasi-Christlike figure devoid of character detail, and Fonda seems to be blank-eyed and sleepwalking through the role. The absence of any interiority is true for the other significant characters in the film as well: Marie Delores (Dolores Del Rio), a beautiful, devout peasant woman, ostracized by the village for bearing an illegitimate child, and devoted to the priest; Calvert (Ward Bond) an arrogant, well-armed American bank robber on the lam; and the most interesting, another nameless character, a police lieutenant (Pedro Armendáriz in the film’s strongest performance), who is an incorruptible and totally committed representative of brutally repressive anticlericalism. While Greene’s lieutenant is a dedicated socialist, in Ford’s film, it’s he, not the priest, who is the father of Marie’s child (though he is capable of expressing some feeling for both her and the child), and his criticism of the church as an institution that cheats the people is not given centrality. It’s his ruthlessness and violence towards the peasants, not his ideology, which primarily defines him. The film makes it clear, however, that he has only contempt for his chief (Leo Carrillo) who secretly accepts bribes and sells wine while professing a commitment to the new morality.
The film was shot on location in Mexico, which gives it an authentic sense of place—both landscape and townscape, cornfields and village markets—though the film is much more expressionist than realist in style. It’s the stylized camera work—done by famed Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa (Buñuel’s Los Olvidados and Huston’s The Night of the Iguana)—that is its most distinctive quality. It’s both the greatest strength and weakness of the film, for the film’s dialogue is subordinated to the play of light and shadow and to innumerable, overly dramatic and loving close-ups of Marie wearing white (the film’s beatific Mary Magdalene) in soft light. The images can often be stunning, resembling a Caravaggio or Rembrandt—there is an exquisite image of the priest standing in his wrecked church as a light (divine?) streams from a window. The problem is that shots of this sort are repeated too often, making the film at times seem self-consciously painterly, a set of static tableaux.
Still, Ford was the master of the stunning long shot: the priest striding alone along the corridor of a cloister, whose columns project shadows over it; or riding a mule into a village surrounded by mountains with mist at their base. It’s all shot in strikingly beautiful black and white. Ford also had a gift for evoking communal rituals—dances and funerals in his Westerns, and here a religious procession of peasants with candles heading for church, exemplifying his own religious piety.
The film’s narrative, however, often falters. There is a tedious, elongated scene in which the priest tries to acquire wine to use in a service, and gets drunk (drunkenness a staple of Ford films). The insidious, ominously comic Indian informer, played in over-the-top fashion by J. Carrol Naish, is an irritant that you want removed from the screen whenever he appears. In addition, its scriptwriter Dudley Nichols felt “that to me Ford seemed to throw away the script.” Fonda echoed that sentiment, stating, “There were some brilliant things in the film, but I disliked it intensely.” The Fugitive is an exquisitely shot film, whose indelible beauty cannot save it from being one of Ford’s lesser works.
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the newly published fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger).
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Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.