Thursday, May 16, 2013

Satan Never Sleeps

I've stated before how the Fox Movie Channel pulls movies out of the vault, shows them a bunch of times in a short period, and then puts them back in the vault. Another film that had been missing for years only to show up earlier this month is Satan Never Sleeps. It's getting another airing tomorrow afternoon at 12:50 PM, with a couple more airings in June.

William Holden stars as Father O'Banion, a Catholic missionary priest in China in 1949 making his way to his new assignment. He's being followed by Siu Lan (France Nuyen), whose life he saved and who now feels she's in his debt, and even wants him to marry her. Catholic priests of course can't get married, but it's not as if the Chinese could be expected to know this. Anyhow, O'Banion tries to get rid of her, with one of the results being that it makes him late getting to the mission that is his new assignment, something with greatly irritates the old mission priest, Father Bovard (Clifton Webb).

Bovard wants to leave the mission as soon as possible in part for a more comfortable life, but also in part because of the recently concluded civil war. The Communists have finally pushed the Nationalists out of mainland China and onto Taiwan, and the Communists are of course officially atheist. Being religious in a society that's de jure atheist is a problem, as I mentioned yesterday in my review of Rome, Open City. And Father Bovard is right to want to get out of the country: O'Banion's late arrival means that Bovard is unable to leave, as the Communists waylay him on his way out, forcing him to stay at the the mission, which is ostensibly still free to practice Catholicism. So, Bovard has good reason to be irritated with O'Banion. That, and the fact that in his eyes (and in no small part to Siu Lan's pursuing him), O'Banion comes across as unorthodox at best, and blasphemous at worst, in the eyes of Bovard.

I wrote in the last paragraph that the mission was still ostensibly allowed to practice Catholicism. In reality, it's just a reprieve, as the Communists are going to get around to expropriating the property eventually, if not imprisoning the clergy as well. The Communists are represented by local Party boss Ho San (Weaver Lee), who at one time was, along with his parents, a congregant at the mission. But he's a committed atheist now, and he leads the local forces on several raids of the mission, all with the ultimate goal of discrediting the Catholic Church by getting all the priests to sign forced confessions. Ho San, additionally, has his eyes on the lovely Siu Lan. Eventually, Ho San does O'Banion and Bovard put in prison and tortures them in an attempt to extract that confession, while raping and impregnating Siu Lan.

When you have local leaders acting like dictators, there's always the possibility that somebody higher up the food chain will turn his eye to the local boss, something we recall from Man on a Tightrope. In this case, that somebody comes in the form of Soviet attaché Kuznetsky (Martin Benson), who officially doesn't have any power, but does have influence. He and the higher-ups have noticed that Ho San has been slow in obtaining those confessions, and also living in luxury. Granted the national Party bosses lived in luxury, but one could always use such a lifestyle against the locals if need be. Eventually, O'Banion and Bovard are told they're to be expelled from the country; Siu Lan wants to escape with them. It's all likely a trap, however....

Satan Never Sleeps has some problems in that it runs too long (at 126 minutes, it could probably stand to have had a script running about 20 minutes less); also, the ending makes no sense and might infuriate some viewers. Whether the script is fair to the Chinese Communists is a question that should probably be left to the individual viewer. I think the internal affairs of Communist China at that point would have been a pretty big question mark to the American public, even more than early Soviet Communism had been. Also, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution hadn't yet occurred. On the other hand, there was no way an American movie of that time could portray communists as having sincere revolutionary zeal. As for the acting, there's a good performance from Webb, whose character doesn't know the truth about Holden's priest, and a workmanlike performance from Holden. There's an obvious lack of location shooting, in that there's no way the filmmakers could have gotten into Communist China. Instead, England and Wales substitute for southern China.

All in all, Satan Never Sleeps isn't the worst movie ever made by any means, but it's also not particularly great or even novel, since something like The Left Hand of God had covered some of this material several years earlier. Satan Never Sleeps is, I think, better than The Left Hand of God, but not nearly as good as the aforementioned Man on a Tightrope. Satan Never Sleeps has gotten a DVD release, so if you don't have the Fox Movie Channel, you can still watch the movie.

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