I’m not quite sure what I expected when I decided to watch this Humphrey Bogart movie, made late in his career. But one thing I definitely didn’t bargain for was a scene with Bogie at the piano, dueting with Gene Tierney – and with a large group of children sweetly singing along for good measure!
That scene has to be the most unexpected moment in this film. However, the whole role is something of a change for Bogart, who spends most of the movie wearing a dog-collar. It seems he has been improbably cast as a teetotal Catholic missionary, Father O’Shea, who arrives at a remote outpost in a China torn apart by civil war and revolution.
At first the ex-pats living there are suspicious of him, rightly thinking that he doesn’t look the part. However, despite his hard-bitten, world-weary appearance, he soon impresses them with his dedication. I enjoyed Agnes Moorehead and E.G. Marshall’s performances as gossipy members of the close-knit ex-pat community.
It never appears very likely that Bogart could really be a priest – and halfway through the film it is revealed that, indeed, he is a man playing a part. His character, Jim Carmody, is a pilot who was shot down in the war and forced to serve a local warlord – eventually escaping by stealing the robes of a murdered priest and taking on his identity. However, the twist is that, despite his tough guy background, Carmody is a lapsed Catholic who does still want to believe in God, and longs to find an alternative to the violence all around him. Eventually he puts himself at risk to go back to the village and save it from the encroaching warlord.
The biggest problem with this film is the ridiculous casting of Lee Cobb as the Chinese warlord, Mieh Yang. With Chinese-American actors like Victor Sen Yung and Benson Fong in the cast, both excellent in relatively small parts, it is hard to see why on earth Cobb was given this role, but at this time Hollywood films did repeatedly cast white actors in parts which should have gone to Asian actors. The flashback scenes with Cobb rowing with Bogart are the weakest parts of the movie, despite some sharp dialogue, because of this miscasting.
Aside from this major flaw, however, there isn’t as much American imperialism in this movie as I’d feared there might be. The whole mission seems doomed and as if it must withdraw – and Carmody is more interested in understanding the lives of the people around him than in “civilising” them or dictating how they should behave. Even so, there’s still quite enough imperialism to be going on with, as you’d expect in a movie made in the 1950s and with a story set just after the Second World War. It’s something which must have been difficult for director Edward Dmytryk, who was one of the “Hollywood Ten”, named as a Communist and blacklisted for a time.
The film, based on a book by William E. Barrett, is no masterpiece, and has some none too subtle messages included, apparently wanting to bash the audience over the head with religious exhortations at times . Yet, despite not being religious myself, I found it strangely watchable, partly because of the gorgeous Technicolor and the beauty of the locations (I’m not sure exactly where it was filmed), and partly because of the sheer pleasure of seeing Bogart cast against type.
There’s one powerful scene where he is reluctantly dragged into a hospital to give the last rites to a dying man and then recites the whole of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. I’m not sure why it should be such a heart-stopping moment to hear Bogart recite these prayers, but for some reason it is, for me anyway, maybe again because it is so unexpected to hear those words in that voice.
For me, the best part of the film is in early scenes like these, where Carmody is struggling to carry out his duties as a priest and resist the attraction he feels towards lonely widow Anne (Tierney), something which simmers beneath the surface for most of the movie without ever really coming to the boil. Tierney also gives a fine, understated performance. As so often, I feel that the scenes where, on the surface, nothing much is happening are better than the apparent dramatic set-pieces.