Director: Douglas Sirk
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This evening, I exchanged opinions about the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) with Kevin Olson, of the estimable Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. He had joined the chorus of praise for this film, while I sat shaking my head in near incomprehension. Yes, when the Coens first came on the scene, I was captivated by their droll, sideways vision of the American Dream. As the years have gone by, I have found less and less to entertain and challenge me in their works, and with A Serious Man, I found myself confronted with what seemed like one, long “up yours” at Judaism. The protagonist they created as the screenwriters for the film is a stereotype of the passive, sexually uptight, intellectual Jewish man. And the Coens seem to take such delight in treating him as their personal Job and, in the process, making a mockery of the personal relationship Jews have with their object of worship that allows them to question religious teachings in each successive generation. If I believed in a divine power and felt comfortable with the position of women in the Jewish faith, I certainly would find this centuries-long dialog an attractive and salutary feature of the religion.
It is with this online conversation with Kevin fresh in my mind that I approach a film I saw last night that treats Roman Catholicism with a seriousness of purpose that does not shy away from the religion’s faults, but, unlike the Coens’ film, offers genuine thanks for the miracle of life and our ability to appreciate it through religion or other means. One of the low-budget, independent films Douglas Sirk produced and directed himself, The First Legion deals with his familiar theme of the sometimes stultifying constraints of belonging to a social group; instead of suburbia, we find ourselves in a Jesuit seminary. But the importance of being honest and true to oneself, which Sirk surveys in such great 50s melodramas as Imitation of Life (1959) and All that Heaven Allows (1955), remains the dominant theme of The First Legion.
St. Gregory’s Novitiate, in a small community near San Diego, is troubled. The head of the seminary, Father Rector (Leo G. Carroll), is concerned about Father Fulton (Wesley Addy), who is late to teach a class for a third time because he has attended a classical concert in town and missed his train. This preoccupation with music, which Fulton studied seriously before he entered the priesthood, indicates to Father Rector that the priest might be thinking about leaving the order. He orders a reluctant Father Arnoux (Charles Boyer), a friend of Fulton’s, to speak with him. Obeying, Arnoux learns that Fulton and another priest, Father Rawleigh (John McGuire), have indeed decided to resign; Fulton intends to leave that very night. In the midst of this problem, however, the priests are welcoming a special guest, Father Quarterman (Walter Hampden), who is passing through after completing a mission in India and who has brought a film of his work to show them. The problem of the disaffected priests will have to wait.
Walking down a corridor, Arnoux is greeted by a young doctor, Peter Morrell (Lyle Bettger), who had been Arnoux’s student at Fordham University. Morrell has been in to treat Father Sierra (H. B. Warner), an elderly priest who has been unable to walk for three years and who may be developing pneumonia as a result. Morrell, a religious skeptic, wishes Sierra would believe more in his legs than in Blessed Joseph Martin, the founder of St. Gregory’s, whose name Sierra invokes repeatedly; it is Morrell’s belief that Sierra suffers from hysterical paralysis.
Father Fulton, having written his letter of resignation, looks in on Father Sierra before his departure. He goes into a common room where several priests have gathered to watch Father Quarterman’s film. The room goes dark as the projector throws images of India onto a screen. In the shadowy staircase behind the screen, a dark figure moves. It is Father Sierra, walking at last. He says he that when Fulton came to him, he realized the younger priest was troubled. He prayed to Blessed Joseph to help Fulton, and Blessed Joseph appeared to him and spoke. Father Sierra declares that at that moment his legs came back to life, a miracle. Father Rector, who has long campaigned to have Blessed Joseph declared a saint, asks Morrell for an explanation of Father Sierra’s cure. Morrell merely answers that he has no explanation. Fulton, St. Gregory’s, the town, and Catholics across the country are energized by the apparent miracle, and in short order, pilgrims start beating at the seminary gates. Only Father Arnoux, a lawyer before he became a priest, has doubts, and he probes to either prove or disprove the miracle.
Emmet Lavery, a playwright who tackled religious subjects frequently for the stage and later for the movies, wrote the screenplay for this film from his own 1934 play. His apparent familiarity with religious life works to the film’s advantage and plays to Sirk’s strength; the personal trials and clashing personalities of the men of the order are brought vividly to life and illuminate the details of a largely sequestered world that spells meaning to some and entrapment for others. Father Fulton’s frustration at being part of a teaching order in which he can have no direct influence on the lives of the laity contrasts with that of the Monsignor (William Demarest), a frequent visitor to St. Gregory’s from the world of the parish priest.
A script that treats entrances and exits randomly and theatrically rather than purposefully and cinematically, and a jaggedly edited film pull the viewer off the track of the serious questions Lavery and Sirk are trying to address. Bettger is barely serviceable, and Demarest’s Irish accent floats in and out like the tide, though he creates a likable character out of a cliché. Some good-natured sparring between the Monsignor and the Jesuits—and frequent gags involving the Monsignor’s dog—distract as often as they amuse.
It is Charles Boyer who brings this film into strong focus. He brings a sharp intelligence to the meaty role of Father Arnoux, his dedication to truth preventing him from seizing on this singular event to save St. Gregory’s, or indeed religious faith itself. Boyer speaks with conviction of the miracle of each day, of every flower or ray of sunshine, and how prayer and obedience have allowed him to find meaning in his life through these unappreciated miracles. The plight of the blindly faithful, clearly seen by Father Arnoux, plays out through one of Morrell’s patients, Terry Gilmartin (Barbara Rush), a young woman whose spine was severed in a riding accident. She has tried to accept the loss of her legs, but her buried anger and hope resurface on news of the miracle. Morrell, who confesses that he pretended to be Blessed Joseph in a successful experiment to free Father Sierra of his hysterical paralysis, now must contend with the desperation of the desperately ill pilgrims and the deadly serious Terry, who will either walk or end her life. Arnoux pushes Morrell to confess the joke he was playing on the faithful and confronts Father Rector to push his ambitions for Blessed Joseph’s sainthood aside in favor of the truth; Arnoux is prepared to resign rather than blaspheme if the petition moves forward based on this baseless miracle.
The cinematic aspects of the film are serviceable, though Sirk uses shadow to great effect, particularly in the image of an upright Father Sierra moving from darkness into light. It is Sirk’s close-ups, particularly of Father Rector and Terry during their moments of truth, that are beatific themselves. The sincere emotion they were able to access and Sirk’s dead-on choices for capturing them are extremely moving. Just as Father Sierra’s prayer for Father Fulton freed him of his self-inflicted paralysis, each finds his and her own miracle in letting go of vanity and thinking of others. A genuine miracle puts a cap on Sirk’s offer of this answer to the pain of the world.
I was very lucky to see The First Legion at a revival house. The print, which had more than a few splices and which broke at one point, came from a local collector. This film, which can only be seen as I did or by spending way too much for an old VHS copy recorded off TV, is badly in need of restoration and reissue. Returning this interesting entry in the Douglas Sirk catalog to its original glory and making it available to film fans again should be a priority.
Good news! The film has been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding from The Louis B. Mayer Foundation and The Carl David Memorial Fund for Film Preservation.