Director: John Ford
Studio: Argosy Pictures
Cast: Henry Fonda, Dolores Del Rio, Pedro Armendariz
Not Rated: Shootouts, Suggested Killing, Menacing
An unnamed country of Latin America attempts to destroy the Catholic Church by means of tyranny. A nameless priest (Henry Fonda) is on his way to flee the country but on his way is administering the sacraments to the faithful. Many priests have already suffered their martyrdom and the rest are forced into hiding to avoid capture. The priest stops in the town of his old parish and meets a Madonna like figure in an Indian woman (Dolores Del Rio) who will go to great lengths to protect him from capture.
The film is based on the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene written in the time of the Calles laws and great religious persecution in Mexico. The film adaption leaves out character names except for another fugitive on the run “El Gringo.” El Gringo is wanted for murder and robbery and is it seems a man of no faith.
The pious and brave townspeople in the rural scenic countryside have their lives threatened and towns destroyed but refuse to turn over the priest to government officials. As the priest continues to travel to flee the country he encounters a police informant who convinces the priest to let him be his guide into town. The priest is suspecting but eventually yields to the informant’s request.
The unnamed priest encounters many symbolic figures throughout his journey including an unlikely hero. The priest finds the will of God, but learns it doesn’t necessarily conform to his own. The powerful concluding dialogue conveys an extremely powerful message. It also lends to the fact that the faith can never be completely dissolved as long as it remains in the hearts of the faithful.
The recent release of “For Greater Glory” has been an eye opening experience for many. The fact that just short time ago in our neighboring country Mexico, the government violently suppressed the Catholic Church by killing many of the faithful including priests. This era was all but repressed that many Mexican citizens today did not even understand what had happened in their own country. There was, however, a novel written by Graham Greene in 1940 entitled “The Power and the Glory.” From that novel came this loosely based film by John Ford.
The film seems to have kept some of the novel’s elements, but the main adjustment is in the nameless priest’s character. In the novel, Graham’s priest is a “whiskey priest” who is on a quest for holiness. Henry Fonda in the film adaptation is still a nameless priest but seems to be far from an alcoholic who is seeking his dignity. The movie’s opening and closing are two of the best scenes of the film. In the socialists lieutenant’s quest to rid the province of the Catholic faith is shown that no matter what extremes are taken, the faith can never fully be taken from the people. In the opening scene, Fonda returns to his old parish and rings the bells to alert the townspeople of his arrival. The result is a flood of parents seeking baptism for their children.
It is not long after that the town is raided by the government officials. The officials again use tyranny to convince the people to give up the priest who is still hiding among them. The lieutenant’s speech to the people is precisely the sort of political stunt that is made in modern times. While imposing tyranny on the people, the official reverts back to “doing what’s best for you” and wanting to be your “friend.” The large crowd of faithful yet do not bend and remain silent. The elder of the town is taken in punishment but not before Fonda offers himself while still not eluding to his office. It is this sort of continued piety that makes this film so nostalgic of times of greater faith.
The character that Fonda tries to portray is the weakness of the film. Fonda seems as if he is sleepwalking through it. There is really no emotion from him even in the tense settings he encounters. Fonda doesn’t fall completely flat but he makes it hard for me to believe he is moved to holiness with his continued lack of expression. Even with this flaw in his character, the story still does do well. It’s easy to sense the conflict that he has when he is attempting to leave the country on a boat, only to be stopped by a boy whose family member is dying and needs last rites. The boy may represent an angelic figure of the story that ultimately makes the priest realize his destiny of martyrdom.
The lieutenant is consistently inhumane and cold towards everyone around him. He is filled with hatred for the faith which he feels is nothing but superstition. In the scene where he rides into the chapel on horse, he sees the cross in the window and let’s out a monstrous laugh as if he is the victor over Christ. However, shortly after he notices Maria and her baby. It seems that this baby belongs to him, which is contrary to the novel. The way he looks at her is very demonic. He quickly realizes that baptisms have taken place and maybe he hasn’t won the battle yet after all.
Maria appears to be between a type of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. She has the lieutenant’s child but it is unclear why. Considering her piety and beauty, it is more likely she was an unwilling participant in having his child. This is shown later again when she almost prostitutes herself in order to protect the nameless priest from capture. However, there seems to be little doubt how much she cares for her child in the movie, while the lieutenant demonstrates no emotion in their encounter. It is probably no coincidence that a heavenly light seems to appear on her in many scenes. She is mostly veiled as the Blessed Mother is depicted. As she is being run out of the chapel by an official, she stops and gives a reverent genuflection towards the sanctuary.
The film continues with presenting symbolic figures with a secretive police informant who insists on guiding the priest. The informant puts the pieces of the puzzle together and follows the priest in order to collect on the monetary reward for his capture. The informant is a type of Judas who ultimately betrays the priest even when the priest is aware of the informant’s intentions. To add to the symbolism, the informant finds wine in the priest’s bag and selfishly drinks all of it. Wine has been outlawed in order to suppress the Church and finding it is next to impossible. This will become critical to the story when the priest is in need of wine to celebrate a funeral mass. The priest is on the run yet again after being arrested for possession of brandy and is finally fully betrayed by the informant who has the priest ultimately captured by attending to the gangster who aided his escape.
The conversation between the priest and the lieutenant in one of the final scenes remains powerful. The only thing that matters is to be a saint. While this is a great victory for the atheist lieutenant, he cannot bring himself to watch the execution. Perhaps he is moved by grace as he gives a subtle sign of the cross on his heart after the guns are fired. While the faithful are left in despair, a priest yet again comes to their service. It is a true sign that the Church will always last no matter the trial. In a film that legendary John Ford considers his best, there remains a message of hope that the promises of Christ will always be fulfilled.
National Catholic Register Top 100 Film List