Saturday, July 22, 2017

Where's the one-armed man?

One of the films that I watched off my DVR recently since I saw that it's available on DVD from the Warner Archive collection is John Ford's 1947 film The Fugitive.

Few of the characters have actual names here, as they're all supposed to archetypes for a story that, as the opening titles tell us, is one that is as old as the Bible itself. Enter Henry Fonda, playing The Priest. He winds up at a church somewhere that's obviously Mexico, although as those opening titles tell us could be anywhere a thousand miles on either side of the equator. In that church he meets A Native Woman (Dolores Del Rio), who asks him to baptize her baby. This The Priest does in a very Protestant way, speaking in English instead of Latin and referring to the Holy Ghost, a phrase I never heard at any Catholic Mass I sat through; Catholics use the "Holy Spirit" instead.

Anyhow, it turns out that what The Priest is doing is dangerous, because a strongly anti-clerical government has taken hold in this district. (Again, you'd think a craven Vatican in this era would have worked with the government.) The police, in the form of The Lieutenant (Pedro Armendáriz), are trying to rid the district of every last priest, and Fonda's seems to be the last one. Our priest tries to do his priestly duties, while running into a thief who is also a police informer (J. Carroll Naish).

Into all of this comes the Gringo (Ward Bond), who is, like the priest, a fugitive from the law, although in this case he's escaping the American authorities and hoping he won't be extradited back to the States. There's a big reward on his head. So the informer figures he can come up with a plan to get the priest to minister to the Gringo, which will eventually bring the authorities in....

The story is obviously a loose retelling of the Jesus story, with Fonda being the Jesus substitute, Armendáriz being Pontius Pilate, and Naish being Judas. (There aren't really any disciples, however.) As such, the story isn't badly told, although it's told in a way that I found off-putting and difficult to get into. As I said at the beginning, the characters don't even have names (if they do, they're almost never mentioned), since they're all archetypes. And it's all told in an elliptical visual style with a paucity of dialog. The result is a bit of a slog at times.

All of that is unfortunate, since the performances are for the most part good, and the cinematography excellent. Some of the camera shots, however, are a bit too blunt in trying to make the point of the story; I suppose you could also use the word didactic to describe them, which never seems to be a good thing.

The final result of all this was a movie I found it hard to care for, even if it tends toward uniqueness in its storytelling. But that originality in its methods (if not the story itself) is something that a lot of people praise highly. So this is one you'll probably want to watch for yourself.


Dell said...

I do want to see this one as I have seen and love the version starring Harrison Ford. I'll still give this a go at some point, but I'm a bit more hesitant after this review.

Ted S. (Just a Cineast) said...

If I didn't make it clear, these are two completely different stories. The 1947 movie is based on the Graham Greene novel "The Power and the Glory".

It's more that any time I saw this one pop up on the schedule, I thought about Richard Kimble and all that stuff, so I decided to use that reference in the title of the post.