The First Legion (Douglas Sirk / U.S., 1951):

The point of departure places Kierkegaard in Hollywood, where Lourdes becomes a small California hamlet with a hardworking Jesuit order that could use "a little inspiration." The interiors of the mission display the sobriety of Diary of a Country Priest, but Douglas Sirk has in mind an ironic portrait, so William Demarest as the monsignor allows himself a bit of Going My Way when addressing fellow padres in "the shock tubes of Heaven." A young priest (Wesley Addy) is about ready to resign when his dying mentor (H.B. Warner), who hasn't left his bed in years, rises and walks -- a miracle? Folks flock to the site for healing, yet one priest (Charles Boyer), a former lawyer in a life of "unending questioning," is skeptical, especially since the event took place by the side of Lyle Bettger, the agnostic doctor. When Barbara Rush prays for the healing of her broken spine, Bettger comes clean to Boyer during confessional -- the whole thing was a hoax, an experiment, a "crazy kind of fun," he boasts, and when the anguished Jesuit prays for the doctor's actions the church altar attains suble noir shadows. The seminary fascinates Sirk more as a secluded societal institution than a religious one, yet his engagement with both faith (Addy finding transcendental expression through music) and disbelief (sacred figurines hawked outside the gates) as dueling sides of human struggle is equally scrupulous. Head Jesuit Leo G. Carroll drops dead when doubt invades his soul (leading to the "changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace"), though Rush turns down pragmatism and strains upwards and, to even the nonbeliever's astonishment, away from her wheelchair. Sirk's camera follows Demarest's dictum of "saying it and meaning it," the result is a stinging discourse with room for both the Madonna pilgrimage of Nights of Cabiria and the finale of Ordet. With Walter Hampden, Taylor Holmes, George Zucco, John McGuire, and Queenie Smith. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home