***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** For those who do not think much of this movie -- PLEASE read the book. The movie I give only a 6 of 10, whereas the book is definitely a 10. If the film had followed the formula of the author, William Barrett, it would have been a 10 as well, as was Lillies of the Field, the wonderful movie that was done of Barrett's novella. Barrett wrote them both as entertaining stories -- and as inspirational, spiritual gems. Lillies - the movie remained so. Left Hand - the movie did not.
(spoilers ahead) Bogart as the bogus priest just does not play well. Or maybe he would have worked better if the script had followed the book. But I would rather have seen Charlton Heston, who as Ben Hur lets go of his vengeful anger in the end -- a similar transformation of Jim Carmody/Father O'Shea in Left Hand of God who, in the end, does the right thing after all and is less concerned with saving his own skin than with saving the whole mission community -- at great risk to himself. This comes across so masterfully in the book. Is it Bogey's fault that it does not do so in the movie? Or the stilted dialogue? What were the script writers thinking of??
A good deal of the story's charm is the constant circular thinking of Jim Carmody -- downed American pilot, trapped in China in the early days of communism. The text is full of irony and wit and tension as he ponders dilemmas as they present themselves, cascading upon each other without ceasing. He finally flees by impersonating a murdered priest. This is only meant to be a temporary solution. He knows that his ruthless boss, war lord Meih Yang, will soon figure out how he escaped. (In the movie we do not even get a glimpse of Yang's lamasary. The book better tells why Carmody must escape it, and contains wonderful foreshadowing in his relationship with Mary Yin -- a character nonexistent in the movie.)
Soon Carmody/O'Shea finds himself in a new trap -- the mission itself. If you dress like a priest, you had better act like a priest! The book makes it clear that the transformation of his character occurs not in the final crap-shoot showdown with Meih Yang but long before, in the quiet of the confessional, as he hears the weary sins of those he has no right to listen to. He does not know when he ceases being Jim Carmody and slowly becomes the priest -- if not in actual fact.
The love story is gentle -- and pure. How refreshing! Jim Carmody, renegade soldier for the war lord, is definitely flawed and very human. Jim Carmody as Father O'Shea, better but still flawed and still human, has a new dilemma -- how does he handle falling in love with Anne Scott, a mission nurse, and yet maintain his guise as a priest? And what hope for them if he ever does escape China? For Anne is a good Catholic. If she knew the blaspheming "Father O'Shea" was not really a priest, she could never forgive him. And yet, as a priest, she can never love him! The romantic tension between them is exquisite -- in the book. In the movie, it barely exists. I am glad this story comes from an earlier era, because now it would probably be unnecessarily sexualized -- as it no doubt would if a movie were made of it today.
The censors of the time undoubtedly contributed to the movie's flaws. Of all of the scenes they chose NOT to include, the one where the priest goes up to the whore house to try to talk the women into giving up their lifestyle -- prissy beyond belief -- is one that the censorship problem would have been better off leaving out. Sanitizing it adds nothing but confusion. By contrast, the book's dealing with this episode, certainly tame by today's standards, sparks with tension as the ladies do not just stand there senseless, but jeer the priest and throw rocks at him, in but one of the beautifully written ironies -- "Let she who is with sin cast the first stone!"
There is not much to criticize about Gene Tierney as Anne, though she hasn't much to work with. I agree with criticisms that Lee J Cobb should never have been cast as the oriental Meih Yang. Agnes Moorehead comes across as little more than a stick figure -- rare for her. Again, must be the script. What she could have done with the Beryl character from the book! The lonely friendship and camraderie of the mission's only American females, Anne and Beryl, does not come across in the movie. And the tense rivalry between Carmody/O'Shea and the doctor -- so rich in the book -- is stilted and irritating. And where is the warmth and humor between the grumpy doctor and his long-suffering wife Beryl? So frustrating, not to have these wonderful relationships explored. As I write this, I wonder why I even gave it a 6? Must be out of respect and love for the characters as originally conceived by the author, and grief for the movie that could have been, but never was.
The book is no longer in print, but it should be. My much-read copy long since having fallen apart, I did find another in a used book store. In today's era, where pastors and priests are exposed as child molesters, we deserve to hear about one who takes his vows seriously -- even though technically he never TOOK the vows! If you are a fan of Lillies of the Field, you should by all means track down your own copy, forget the movie, and READ The Left Hand of God -- William E. Barrett's forgotten masterpiece.
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