This made-for-TV movie was shown on U.S. public TV in the 1970s. The story line is very faithful to Brian Moore's 1972 book "Catholics," but with several scenes sequenced rather more effectively than in the book. Unfortunately, all known home video (VHS/DVD) versions have been shortened, with about the first fifteen minutes of the original film deleted.
These first few minutes established the context for the conflict portrayed between the traditionalist Irish monks led by their Father Abbot (Trevor Howard), and the modernist representative (Martin Sheen) of their order's Father General. These missing minutes showed Sheen meeting with the Father General in Rome to discuss the "problem" of the Latin Mass celebration by the monks of Howard's abbey, and the growing world-wide popularity of that celebration. This scene made it clear that the time period portrayed is futuristic. Additional modifications and liberalization of doctrine are supposed to have taken place beyond those of Vatican II. There are mentions of a "Vatican IV" and other hypothetical conventions. Missing the original initial scene, many may believe that the film has grossly erred in or deliberately distorted current Roman Catholic beliefs. It is a tremendous loss to the integrity of the story that the vital first scene of the movie has been edited away. However, this explains the crediting of Raf Vallone as Father General at the start and end of the film, when in fact he never appears in the home video releases. It would be well worthwhile to read the first chapter of the book before seeing a shortened home video release.
Since Vatican II closed 40 years ago, there has existed a Roman Catholic traditionalist movement that today seems to have more Vatican-sanctioned success than would ever have been thought possible at the time this film was made. Some will attempt to relate the events portrayed in this film to that movement. However, this film actually presents far more profound issues of religious belief and its loss. This film will be of interest to anyone, of whatever faith or none, for whom philosophies of religious belief are of interest.
The acting by Trevor Howard is absolutely flawless and authentic. It is masterful, heartfelt, and beautiful. Almost equally so is that of Cyril Cusack in the role of Father Manus. Sheen's role is important, but not nearly so much as Howard's, and not even remotely as well-crafted.
This work is as intelligent and entertaining today as it was when it was made 33 years ago. Perhaps someday soon someone will restore the complete film and finally give us a complete and proper version. I know of no other film that deserves this so much.