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"The First Legion" is an exceptionally obscure film that was made near the beginning of Douglas Sirk's long association with Universal International pictures. Sirk's insignia, a talent for walking a firm tightrope with high melodrama, was to be on display over the next 10 years with pictures such as "All That Heaven Allows", "Written on the Wind", and "Imitation of Life". His worthy reputation has been based upon that distinctive body of work, but here, he has created a film that deserves greater notice. "The First Legion" is my favorite Douglas Sirk movie.
This film doesn't match the overt intensity that characterized many of Sirk's more famous works, but it's none the less powerful. The story concerns a Jesuit seminary and a purported miracle involving a doctor and one of the priests. The seminary head, Father Arnoux, investigates the miracle and is forced to examine his own relationship with God in the process, as well as the charismatic effect of the miracle on his community, friends, and outsiders.
Blessed with a remarkable cast of well-known character actors, Sirk paces this film extremely well and handles the ensemble scenes masterfully. Charles Boyer delivers perhaps his best performance as Father Marc Arnoux - it's certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination. In general, all performances are uniformly excellent, with Lyle Bettger, best known for playing gangsters and low-lifes, in a standout role as the passionate but confused Dr. Peter Morrell. The compelling story finely illustrates the struggles of numerous well-meaning people as they grasp at the miracle's charisma for a sign of positive change in their own lives. With a particularly noteworthy ending that certainly provides an exclamation point to the proceedings, "The First Legion" is a well-above-average entry in a long list of 50's character examination dramas.
What makes "The First Legion" stand out as my favorite Douglas Sirk film? It's the movie's particularly esoteric nature, an approach seen far too infrequently in the plot lines that Sirk filled out and embellished so well over the next 10 years. With a transfer to DVD in the works, there will hopefully be a wider appreciation for this film as Sirk's complete body of work takes shape on DVD. As it is, it's 10 out of 10.
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