Few actors of any generation have exhibited the princely grace of Gregory Peck. Even when playing conflicted, solitary men like General Savage in 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High or downright disreputable bastards - Lewt McCanles in Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946) immediately comes to mind - Peck could convey an unusual soft-centered ambivalence to his characters’ outward austerity. Early on, the movies were quick to recognize Peck’s inherent integrity, mine it to its fullest effect and effectiveness. Given the right role in the right movie, Peck embodied an outward gentility married to an unflinching moral code. He knew his own mind; better still, his own heart, and, possessed that rarest of qualities to expedite generosity to those fortunate enough to be basking in the afterglow of his magnanimity. In Gregory Peck we have the supreme mensch whose innate on-screen chemistry emits, at least in hindsight, an extension of the man himself. In the twilight of his life, proof of Peck’s stature was confirmed during his ‘one man’ series of guest lectures; a woman, journeyed all the way from England to attend, remarking to him afterward that the man she thought him to be, via impressions solely gleaned from the righteous characters he played in the movies, and those more intimately derived from meeting him in person were, in fact, one in the same; a very fine and justly deserved compliment indeed.
In case there is any doubt, we absolutely adore Gregory Peck at our house, not the least for his gentlemanly fortitude, his uniquely inspired fairness and liberality (he famously insisted newcomer, Audrey Hepburn be giving star-billing in Roman Holiday 1953) and his graciousness and good humor; hallmarks of a very unique individual. We are the poorer for Peck’s passing at the age of 87 in 2003. I am a little bit more selfish than most in this regard. I would have preferred God to have given Gregory Peck immortality, or at least, twenty some odd years more to share with the rest of us. Mercifully, the movies have bestowed on Peck their own kind of enduring deification; anointed and canonized in our collective consciousness with repeat viewings of his Addicus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird; voted #1 in AFI’s poll of the top 100 heroes of all time. Peck’s ascendance in Hollywood is truly ‘the stuff’ from which dreams – and careers – are made; having appeared in a half-dozen Broadway flops, but only once before the cameras at the time he was cast in the title role as Father Francis Chisholm in director, John M. Stahl’s The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). Based on A.J. Cronin’s novel, and riding the crest of the then trend in movies extolling the virtues of Christianity and Catholicism – not necessarily in that order, The Keys of the Kingdom is an uplifting tale of merciful manliness fashioned to blind belief triumphing against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Catholic League of Decency essentially used such movies (Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Come to The Stable and The Song of Bernadette et al) for its own agenda, elevating martyrdom to a fine art; usually exploited with the subtlest air of saintly comedy.
Yet, The Keys to the Kingdom is a far more unsmiling parable by comparison; Francis (played as a boy by the superb child star, Roddy McDowell) losing both parents in a hellish flash flood in his native Scotland, sacrificing his fledgling adulthood and love for the empathetic Nora (Peggy Ann Gardner as a girl, Jane Ball as an adult) to the precepts of his chosen calling in the Catholic church and thereafter repeatedly, his conviction to be tested, both by circumstance and a cloistered sect of rather rigid contemporaries. These include Rev. Mother Maria-Veronica (Rosa Stradner), Bishop Angus Mealey (Vincent Price) and the Monsignor at Tweedside (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). Despite the Catholic League’s involvement, the church is hardly represented with the same warm fuzzy ‘feel good’ affecting such pictures as Going My Way; instead, as a rather aloof and rigidly structured enclave, meant to bend the spirit of man to its will, rather than God’s (the two ostensibly different and conflicted); all except the benevolent Father Hamish MacNabb (Edmund Gwenn) who becomes Francis’ mentor, confidant and friend. For moral levity, Francis relies on boyhood chum, Willie Tulloch (Thomas Mitchell), whose fiery renunciation of faith and physician’s clear-eyed perspective provide occasionally necessary reflections on the sincerely flawed and more concrete tangibles of life. In their friendship, both men’s diverging principles are challenged, though ultimately reconciled for the greater good, though not without sacrifice; Francis’ Chinese mission brought to the brink of extinction by a hellish civil war and a far more intimate tragedy (more on this later).
In hindsight, Gregory Peck is ideally suited to play Father Chisholm; the actor’s upright/ forthrightness matching Peck’s reputation as an actor, as yet unproven in the movies. In hindsight it all seems to work so spectacularly well we can easily forget 2oth Century-Fox’s mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck was taking a huge gamble on Peck then; a virtually unknown in a $3 million dollar epic (a sizable investment); Zanuck, hedging his bets by hiring two of his top writers, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson to condense the sweep of Cronin’s prose into a manageable screenplay. Zanuck would come to greatly admire Peck and, on the success of this movie, considering him his point man thereafter for roles requiring an indomitable spirit with the purest of heart. At the tender age of twenty-eight, and with all his youthful faculties fully on display, Peck assumes the daunting task to age some fifty years in The Keys of the Kingdom. Though hardly the first to tackle such a weighty assignment (34 year old Robert Donat famously delivered an Oscar-worthy performance in 1939’s Goodbye Mr. Chips), Peck would prove amply endowed with the necessary acting chops to convincingly morph from a young statuesque priest with high ideals to the physically decrepit sage about to be put out to pasture by the archdiocese, still unwavering in his clear-eyed and very passionate resolve to do God’s work in his emeritus years.
In hindsight, The Keys of the Kingdom is something of a sad farewell to actress, Rose Stradner (billed Rosa in this movie), whose burgeoning Austrian film career ended with her 1939 marriage to Joseph Mankiewicz and immigrating to America. In Hollywood, Stradner made only three pictures, her most enduring performance given in The Keys of the Kingdom as the stolid, stern and uber-sophisticated nun, Rev. Mother Maria-Veronica who considers her sojourn into China’s war-torn provinces an interment, and Father Chisolm, more the dotty mystic than devout man of the cloth. Over time Mother Maria is humbled by Chisolm’s fortitude as a confidant to the local mandarin, Mr. Chia (Leonard Strong). She too will come to regard Francis as a trusted friend. The picture’s last act is almost entirely devoted to the unlikely blossoming of this friendship and its heartrending separation after Chisholm is recalled home by the archdiocese. In private too, Stradner’s life was a relatively sad one; her father murdered by the Nazis at the start of WWII, her elder brother turned to become an SS officer, executed by the Allies at war’s end. Escaping just before the Anschluss, Stradner eventually made her way to MGM’s hallowed ground, much to L.B. Mayer’s delight; the studio then in its full flourish of acquiring European stars like Hedy Lamarr and Greer Garson; valiant successors to the mantel about to be vacated by their reigning bird of paradise - Greta Garbo. Stradner might have established herself among the best and brightest of these Euro-imports; except, she caught the eye of producer/writer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Retiring from the screen to become his wife, after the birth of their two children, Stradner would find it increasingly difficult to reconcile her artistic ambitions with motherhood; the struggle brought to an abrupt end in 1958 when the actress took her own life; a suicide later blamed on a mild form of schizophrenia.
Some of Stradner’s inherent sadness is undeniably re-channeled through performance in The Keys of the Kingdom; particularly as Mother Maria comes to respect Francis’ unerring compassion for his flock. Much earlier Sleeth, the Monsignor at Tweedside undergoes a similar epiphany from delving into the 1878 journal account of Chisholm’s expedition to China. What follows then, is an exercise in humility for all as the Mankiewicz/Johnson screenplay regresses us into the past. The Keys of the Kingdom is unapologetic in its sentimentality almost from the moment we meet the convincingly aged Father Chisolm returning from a fishing trip with one of his young charges. On the surface at least, Chisolm’s pragmatism when administering to his parishioners flies in the face of the Church’s strict doctrines. Chisolm’s documented belief that all atheists are not ‘godless’ is particularly disturbing to Sleeth, who hints that his recommendation to the Bishop after a week-long evaluation will only hasten the Church’s decision for enforced retirement. However, upon retiring to his bedroom in the rectory, Sleeth is confronted with the particulars of Chisolm’s well-documented life via a journal. We regress to Francis’ boyhood; the night his father, Alec (Dennis Hoey) ventured into town to settle accounts. Alec is brutally beaten by a small gathering of hooligans, who regard him as a dirty papist. As a fitful thundershower turns into a full-on gale, Mrs. Chisolm (Ruth Nelson) ventures beyond the relative safety of the family’s modest home, Alec’s kindly cousin, Polly (Edith Barrett) and her young daughter, Nora (Peggy Ann Gardner) encouraging prudence.
Mrs. Chisolm cannot wait for the storm to break. She discovers her husband greatly weakened by the assault. Alas, while attempting to cross a low bridge the raging river rises and consumes the couple as young Francis (Roddy McDowell) looks on in horror. Although not related by blood, Francis is given a new and loving home with Polly, her husband, Ned (J. Anthony Hughes) and Nora, who steadily grows to love him as more than just an adopted brother. Now young adults, Nora (Jane Ball) and Francis (Gregory Peck) enter into an understanding. And although Francis is quite sincere in this, Nora astutely proposes that upon graduation he will likely follow his old friend, Angus Mealey (Vincent Price) into the seminary at Holywell College and never again return to Tweedside. Also at the depot to see them off is close mutual friend, Willie Tulloch (Thomas Mitchell); an agnostic studying medicine – not religion – as his vocation. Willie tosses Angus and Francis a bottle of Scotch as his ‘going away’ present; the bottle joyously returned to him – a bit of foreshadowing. At Holywell, the college’s dean, Father Fitzgerald (Arthur Shield) emphatically opposed Francis’ keen mind. But Father Hamish McNabb (Edmund Gwenn) is quite the understanding sort; furthermore, greatly allied to this inquisitive young man’s love of fishing; a passion akin to his own.
The two set out to land the catch of the day. But their idyllic sojourn is intruded upon by Francis’ moodiness. He is unsettled by a letter from Aunt Polly, encouraging him to remain at school rather than come home for his summer holidays. With no explanation pending, Francis plans to take the next train to Tweedside. He is thwarted in his curiosity by Father McNabb who reveals an unholy little secret: after Francis left home, Nora became increasingly bitter; losing herself to strong drink and sacrificing her virginity to a man (men) from which an illegitimate child has since been born. Unable to withstand their separation any longer, Francis takes the next train home, only to be confronted by Willie who has been looking after Nora since her spiral as the town’s notorious ‘fallen woman’. In the interim, Nora has tragically died. Returning to his studies, Francis enters the seminary. McNabb, now a Bishop, keeps close tabs on Francis’ progress as a curate. Regrettably, Francis’ first two appointments are abysmal failures. But McNabb senses greatness in his protégée, perhaps even before Francis can recognize it in himself. NcNabb praises Francis’ uniqueness as his greatest strength: his ability to deny conformity intrusions on his catechisms. NcNabb proposes Francis accept a commission in the Chinese province of Chekow; a dangerous assignment, but one Francis accepts without question.
Arriving in the city of Paitan, Francis mistakes the warm welcome afforded by its citizens for him, when in actuality they have come to honor the local mandarin, Mr. Chia (Leonard Strong) returning from aboard on the same sailing ship. Father Chisolm’s escort is far more modest; the insidious couple, Hossanah (H.T. Tsiang) and Philomena Wong (Si-Lan Chen); converts to Christianity, expecting Francis to have arrived with a bagful of money to support them. Taken into the hills by Hossanah and his wife, Francis is shown the burned out remnants of a rather large missionary outpost, deserted and in ruin. The couple explain how the mission thrived only so long as it continued to receive an influx of capital from the Church; that the bulk of its congregation was made up of ‘Rice Christians’ – those who stayed on merely to benefit from free food and shelter, but actually showed little to no genuine interest in pursuing Christianity as their chosen faith. When Francis informs Hossanah and Philomena he has no money; that he too has come under the false assumption and pretext of administering to an already established flock, the couples’ benevolence evaporates and Hossanah forewarns Francis to reconsider what being alone in China can mean to a foreigner, already widely regarded as ‘the devil’ by the locals.
Repeatedly accosted, pelted with rocks and rotten food, and forced to move into the stables – the only salvageable building on the property, Francis becomes isolated and defensive. As such, he is initially quite incapable of recognizing the unanticipated kindness shown by Joseph (Benson Fong), the converted Christian missionary. Joseph offers Francis eggs and vegetables, food stuffs gathered from his five days sojourn on foot from the established Christian village; also, tea. In addition, Joseph offers Francis his services; as interpreter, brick maker/layer, and all around useful teacher and servant. Suspecting Joseph to be another ‘rice Christian’ Francis explains he can offer him so very little as recompense for these many gifts willingly offered him. “I have not asked you for money,” Joseph declares, “I want to serve you because there is work to be done and I am a Christian…Father can share with me his privilege to work for God.” And thus, the work at St. Andrew’s Mission begins anew, with Francis’ faith in humanity restored. A badly needed boost to the fledgling enterprise comes by way of a consignment of medical supplies and a book of instruction supplied by Willie Tulloch, as ever, a self-proclaimed heathen, but by now, a doctor of some repute back home. Willie’s advice is simple: “Cure what you can. Kill what you can’t.”
Francis also accepts two challenges almost simultaneously; the first, to care for a very small child, Anna (Eunice Soo-Hoo), otherwise to be abandoned because she is female. The second experiment is by far more ominous; the healing of the local Mandarin’s young son, Chia Yu who, upon wounding his finger while at play, has contracted a virulent infection, presently threatening his life. The Mandarin’s cousin, Mr. Pao (Philip Ahn) is most anxious for Francis to bring “whatever medicinal blessings” he can. Knowing well the ramifications…should he fail - to be considered wholly responsible for the boy’s death, Francis valiantly applies Willie’s remedies. Chia Yu’s miraculous recovery garners Mr. Chia’s unwavering respect and allegiance. He offers himself as a convert to Christianity. Francis graciously turns down this offer, explaining to Mr. Chia, true Christianity is neither bought, sold nor traded for favors, but come upon willingly as the faith of all men who desire everlasting life. In reply, Mr. Chia magnanimously bestows upon Francis the land rights to a nearby hillside property; further to, a small army of his best workers to rebuild St. Andrews from the ground up. Two years of planning and hard work result in St. Andrews evolution into a thriving community.
Alas, with such prosperity comes yet another wager; this time, put into play by the arrival of Mother Maria-Veronica and her two travelling companions, Sister Martha (Sarah Allgood) and Sister Clotilde (Ruth Ford). Through a miscommunication, they have arrived one day earlier than anticipated with Francis quite unprepared for them. Mother Maria is a hard one; refusing all of Francis’ charitable welcome; his plans for a celebratory meal in their honor. She insists on an immediate separation of their duties to the church; Francis to allow her complete autonomy in matters concerning the schooling of the local children. As per his inquiry about Mother Maria receiving payment from the church to sustain the sisters, a decided departure from ‘holy poverty’ Mother Maria bluntly explains, “Holy poverty does not require me to beg!” Francis’ inability to ‘befriend’ the sisters is counterbalanced by his admiration for their efficiency and the speed with which, under their tutelage, the mission continues to flourish and expand its sphere of influence. Alas, Mother Maria makes a critical error when she welcomes Hossanah and Philomena back to the mission as her ‘helpers’. Francis attempts to forewarn of the looming catastrophe. But Mother Maria’s judgment is clouded by her distrust, nee contempt, for Francis. Running true to form, Hossanah and Philomena steal all of the sisters’ rations, money and a treasured crucifix made of silver.
In the meantime, Francis receives an unexpected visit from Willie Tulloch; a most welcomed reminder of home. The two old friends rekindle their friendship and Willie elects to stay at the mission for a while. Unhappy circumstance for all, Imperial forces under Gen. Wai have given Paitan an ultimatum of surrender or face total annihilation. The Rebels hold their territory for as long as they are able, but the Imperials are both relentless and ruthless. Paitan is all but destroyed. During the deluge Willie is gunned down for attempting to rescue one of the wounded officers. He dies a short while later, comforted by Francis at his bedside. Wai’s Captain (Abner Biberman) confronts Francis with a laundry list of demands; all of their foreign food stuffs, medicines and a tally of rice, the release of all eligible fighting men to join Wai’s army immediately and finally, a return of all wounded rebels, likely to be executed for treason. If these demands are not met, the Captain promises to reduce the mission to rubble. His mortar shells have already decimated the mission’s church. There is also the inference he and his men will not hesitate sacrificing the local young girls to satisfy more earthly pleasures. Unable to resist Wai’s plans, Francis nevertheless manages to stall the exchange; enough time to contact the Rebel’s captain (Beal Wong). Despite being outnumbered, he agrees to a last ditch effort to ambush Wai’s Captain and destroy the army’s gigantic canon perched on the hillside overlooking Paitan. Francis pretends to offer the Capt. a giant burlap sack of tinned food stuffs. In reality, the tins are loaded with kerosene; the bag placed next to the canon. Gunfire erupts. Wai’s Captain is killed and Francis manages successfully to toss a lighted torch under the canon. The sack explodes, destroying the gun and killing thirty-two of Wai’s men. Knocked unconscious, but otherwise unharmed from the blast, Francis is taken to the mission to recuperate and heal his shattered leg.
In due time, the mission is favored with a visit from Monsignor Angus Mealey (Vincent Price), whose initial good tidings are offset by his dismay at discovering the mission’s church has yet to be rebuilt. Inadvertently, Angus reveals to Francis that Bishop McNabb has since passed away from pneumonia. The enormity of this loss is deeply felt by Francis. But Angus, far more interested in his own pontificating, has overlooked its impact, or rather, seems quite obtuse and oblivious to the pain inflicted by his words. Angus rather cruelly suggests Francis is wasting his opportunities to ‘impress upon the Chinese’ the ‘superiority’ of his Christian faith. Francis defends his decision to live among the common classes he serves and reminds Angus those he would consider heathens are not always ‘lowly’ just as not all Christians are to the kingdom of heaven born with the milk of saintly altruism coursing through their veins. Angus is unmoved by the argument but allows Francis to have his way. After Angus’ departure, Francis reassesses the damage to his beloved church. He is attended by Mother Maria who has a confession to make; she has always known Francis’ was the truest faith; that she only possessed the arrogance of acknowledging faith in her duties, and, that she had hoped to implore Angus to send her away, far from the hardships of her present assignment. Alas, since then Mother Maria has experienced her own epiphany. She can see Francis’ true faith for what it is; what her own might – and should – be.
From this edifying vignette, the Mankeiwicz/Johnson screenplay settles into the dramatist’s tradition of the montage; fast tracking some ten uneventful years, briefly summarized by a voiceover narration, accompanied by a few fleeting glimpses of Francis, sufficiently aged to reflect the passage of time. We learn Mother Maria used her considerable influence with a wealthy family back in Austria to procure funds to rebuild the church. To date, the mission thrives with two hundred school children, novices preparing to enter the sisterhood and other scholars looking toward their future prosperity otherwise denied them in the outside world. Mother Maria makes it known to Francis American Methodists have intentions of establishing their own mission not so very far away; complete with a more modernized dispensary, school and other amenities surely to rival their own. Francis pays a social call on Dr. Wilbur Fiske (James Gleason) and his wife, Agnes (Anne Revere); old campaigners, some twenty years removed from the life they once knew in Maine. Francis makes an immediate friend of the good doctor when he not only echoes Fiske’s opinion, having met Monsignor Angus Mealey, only to find him ‘formal’ to a fault, but adds his own, suggesting Angus more ‘stuffy’ than smart. Afterward, Francis is met by Mr. Chia. The years continue to roll by; perhaps a little too quickly. His strength withered; his time in China nearing an end, Francis reflects on what his life’s work has meant; both, to him and the peoples he has touched. He confides in Mother Maria a certain lack of envy towards Angus, and yet, equally a very real consideration he has someone failed to fully live up to his own potential. “I mean no disrespect to your Bishop,” she offers him, “But it is my considered opinion you are closer to God than he is.”
Francis offers Mother Maria his most heartfelt prayers; words tinged with sage wisdom unfettered by pride. She is humbled and stirred almost to tears, regarding him as her oldest and dearest friend. We also learn from Francis, Nora’s unhappy pregnancy has resulted in a child whom Francis, with Aunt Polly’s aid, has helped to shelter these many years; Andrew (Georgie Nokes) the son he never had. Francis departs Paitan with an escort worthy of the one he once mistakenly believed to be for him upon his first arrival to the city. Only now, the bearers, their families, and, the many cheering along the roadside have come to honor him with their warm salutations as he prepares for the long journey home. Under Sister Martha’s instruction, the choir sing Francis’ favorite hymn. He is reunited with Anna and her daughter; Mr. Chia, and finally Joseph who, unable to recite from a memorized scroll, offers with humility his sincere thanks to Francis. In reply, Francis blesses the citizens of Paitan. Having reached the end of Francis’ journal, the Monsignor at Tweedside is shamed to reconsider his own hasty recommendations to the Bishop. Overjoyed at learning he will not be cast from his home, Francis encourages Andrew to fetch the fishing rods for their daily sojourn to a nearby lake. “Wasn’t it just fine,” he explains to Andrew, “God made all the rivers and filled them all with little fishes and then sent you and me here to catch them?” The movie concludes with a passage from scripture; Christ’s gift to Peter, “…and I will give to thee the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The Keys of the Kingdom is one of movie-lands finest fictional films of faith, unencumbered by the oft overused gemütlich charm so readily exploited in these movies, seeking to put a ‘happy face’ on Catholicism and Christianity. Yet, herein this (un)natural inclination is replaced by an unvarnished deference for Christianity itself and genuine passion to tell of one man’s simple kindness; the art of a life’s work following the familiar martyr’s trajectory, perhaps, yet without becoming self-sanctifying or maudlin. The lion’s share of the pictures’ success is owed to Gregory Peck’s articulation of this earnest spirituality. Here is an actor who not only understands the material as written but is able to bring its intangibles to bear on the success of his interpretation. Peck’s Father Francis is precisely the stubborn antidote for a Godless world in quiet desperation, still refusing to be forgiven its sins (boy, could we use his kind right about now), yet ultimately unable to resist falling under his spell. True faith is not a slight of hand. It cannot be conjured as a magic trick or via an actor’s craftiness in make believe (see Frank Sinatra’s profoundly misguided interpretation of Father Paul in 1948’s The Miracle of the Bells to compare). Rather, it must be embraced and believed wholeheartedly. And Peck, a Roman Catholic, brings a most rewarding satisfaction to the part without venturing nearer my God to cloying manipulations.
For this, The Keys of the Kingdom relies upon a miraculous uplifting score by 2oth Century-Fox’s resident composer, Alfred Newman; a deeply romantic central theme, orchestrated in towering refrains for the movie’s main and end titles. Newman gets a lot of mileage from this one piece of music, re-orchestrated and interpolated over and over again; engrossing and malleable as it serves many scenes of varying emotional satisfaction throughout the movie’s ever-shifting dramatic arc. Interestingly, most of the Asians featured in The Keys of the Kingdom are of Asian extraction; a luxury not always afforded the representation of non-Caucasians in classic Hollywood movies. As fine as a movie as MGM’s The Good Earth (1937) is, it has a Ukrainian (Paul Muni) and a German (Luise Rainer) donning painful makeup applications to affect their Chinese heritage. The Keys of the Kingdom was one of Darryl F. Zanuck’s personally supervised productions, utilizing virtually all of the resources Fox had at its disposal in the 1940’s; recycling sets from How Green Was My Valley (1941) to convey Ireland, and extremely effective, newly constructed villages, supervised by Production Designers James Basevi and William S. Darling, on the Fox ranch for St. Andrew’s Mission and the city of Paitan. We must also give praise to cinematographer extraordinaire, Arthur C. Miller, again for lighting a star with such regal resplendence, it is quite simply impossible not to fall in love – however improper – with Peck’s Scots Catholic man of the cloth. In hindsight, The Keys of the Kingdom serves as something of a bridge in the wartime milieu and Hollywood’s own output as part of the later to be canonized ‘films of faith’; begun from a novel written by a physician recuperating from an ulcer at the start of America’s involvement in WWII; the movie, completed just before war’s end; nominated for a slew of Oscars, before finally completing its initial run just as the guns in Europe fell silent.
Author A. J. Cronin, whose predilection for story-telling precedes any of his accomplishments as a physician is one of those astonishingly prolific literary giants whose reputation has since inexplicably faded into relative obscurity. Arguably, his most enduring masterwork is The Citadel, charting the rise to prominence of a Welsh doctor; followed by The Stars Look Down, Hatter's Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years – all of them eventually made into movies of varying degrees in quality and success. Even his novella, Country Doctor became a long-running BBC radio and TV series, Dr. Finlay's Casebook; retired in the late forties only to be revived two decades thereafter. A self-professed agnostic in his youth and throughout his medical studies, Cronin would suffer his own epiphany, migrating from the opinion God was “an outworn myth” to an absolute deconstruction of this cynicism, later re-accounted in his biography, “If we consider the physical universe we cannot escape the notion of a primary Creator.... Accept evolution with its fossils and elementary species, its scientific doctrine of natural causes. And still you are confronted with the same mystery, primary and profound. Ex nihilo nihil, as the Latin tag of our schooldays has it: nothing can come of nothing.”
The Keys of the Kingdom is Cronin’s most overtly religious work and, in retrospect, it came at a particular crossroads in both his self-discovery and the U.S.’s emergence as an irrefutable world power – the ‘grand experiment’ forging into the uncertain hours of the Second World War, taking the conflict to its bosom after Pearl Harbor and achieving what no gentleman’s politician in Britain could; a tenable ‘peace in our time’ five years later. The shadow of war is all over Cronin’s novel, re-channeled as conflict between varying Chinese factions; the depiction of Paitan’s near collapse under Imperial bombardment, no less stirring as reinvented for the screen with varying shades of Hitler’s blitzkrieg clearly as its inspiration. To suggest the film version encapsulates all of the novel’s magnitude and momentum is to deny Cronin the more expert subtleties rooted in his prose. To be frank, no movie based on a book as richly textured as The Keys of the Kingdom – even one that is lesser so – can ever scratch beneath a layer or two of subtext, dictated by the forward trajectory of both plot and character development (however expertly plotted and played, and in this case, very expertly indeed) and equally as hampered by the concision of a mere two hours to tell the tale (it takes director, John M. Stahl exactly 137 min. to do as much) – herein, spanning the formidable girth of decades between childhood and the infirmities of old age. And yet, in an unconfined and then current fashion, this cinematic adaptation does manage rather succinctly to suggest a lot of the nuances captured in this literary portrait without ever touching upon a lot of its particulars; impressively maintaining an affinity for Cronin’s finer artistry as well as to illustrate for the audience (who perhaps have not read the book) impressions of this saintly man of the cloth, afflicted by an infallible humility.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is derived from a new image harvest of a recently unearthed fine grain master provided by Fox Home Video. Prepare to be dazzled because what is here is superior in every way to Fox’s own DVD release of The Keys of the Kingdom as part of their now defunct Studio Classics franchise. The gray scale on this Blu-ray is, in a word – gorgeous, revealing all of the staggering beauty in Arthur C. Miller’s sumptuous cinematography. Even in long shots, image detail is extremely satisfying, providing crispness with film grain properly registered. Tonality is taken to the nth degree and contrast is ‘bang on’ with zero presence of age-related artifacts and/or untoward digital manipulations (no edge enhancement, boosting, etc. et al). One sincerely wishes TT’s Blu-ray of The Song of Bernadette (1943 and currently out of print) had been paid as much care. The audio herein is DTS 2.0 mono and extremely satisfying. Biggest disappointment; save TT’s usual commitment to an isolated score there are no new added extras; just the recycled audio commentary from 2004 featuring historians, Kenneth Geist and Chris Mankewicz. Bottom line, and particularly in the spirit of optimism as we turn toward a more promising New Year, The Keys of the Kingdom is required viewing. It’s kindly precepts have not dated these many decades since the picture’s release and this Blu-ray, mastered to perfection, easily belongs on everyone’s top shelf. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)