When it came to sophisticated drama and contemporary literary adaptations in the 1940s, few Hollywood studios surpassed 20th Century Fox. Made in 1944 and based on a best-selling novel by A. J. Cronin, Fox's "The Keys of the Kingdom" lavishly tells a story of religious dedication and human strength in the face of adversity. Joseph L. Mankiewicz produced and co-wrote the film, bringing to it the polished touch that characterized his best movies. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has now added this treasure to its prestigious "Studio Classics" series, and it is certainly a most welcome addition.
In only his second screen appearance, Gregory Peck stars as Father Francis Chisolm, a Scottish priest who is sent to rebuild a ravaged mission in China to spread Catholicism. Once there, he finds that what few converts there were have either left the small village or were nothing more than "rice Christians," the local term for those who only accept God in exchange for food. His reception is not cordial, sparking hostility and bad word of mouth among the non-Christian Chinese, who view him as an intruder. These initial setbacks drive Father Chisolm to build an emotional wall against his detractors, though he is also humbled by them and becomes further determined to reach the people.
When the son of Mr. Chia, a Chinese noble (Leonard Strong), becomes stricken with a deadly infection, the local religious leaders and physicians prove useless in curing him. In his desperation, the noble sends for Father Chisolm to provide what spiritual and medical assistance he can. After successfully healing the child, Chisolm finds his reputation improving. With financial assistance from Chia, the mission is successfully rebuilt over the next two years.
Spanning more than 50 years, "The Keys of the Kingdom" depicts the ongoing struggles that Father Chisolm faces in keeping up his mission. From his clash with the headstrong Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica (Rosa Stradner) to protecting his parish from an invading army, the good priest provides for his people without compromising his moral views. He also finds opposition not only in the non-Christians, but within the Church as well. He is scorned by the older priests for his tolerant views of and associations with atheists, and he refuses to conform to the frivolous mindset of his childhood friend and fellow priest, Angus Mealey (Vincent Price).
At more than two hours, the film is longish but never boring. In fact, it is surprisingly well-paced and chockfull of interesting characters. If there is one flaw, it may be that there are just too many characters for the film to satisfactorily develop. In episodic style, people move in and out of the picture quickly, some coming back in the end while others are never seen again. This, however, is only a minor complaint. Overall, the film is a beautiful and uplifting story with uniformly strong performances from its brilliant cast. Director John M. Stahl delicately captures the exotic beauty and incandescence of rural China while never shying away from its remoteness in the eyes of our hero.
20th Century Fox's video presentation is superb. The film is presented in its original fullframe aspect ratio, and the quality is sparkling, with few speckles or damage marks. Contrast is solid, with nice gray tones to bring out the black and white cinematography. Image is sharp and shows a good amount of detail. This disc showcases the high quality that Fox's "Studio Classics" series is known for and does not disappoint.
The soundtrack is equally good, presented in both English stereo and mono, with additional mono tracks in Spanish and French. Dialogue sounds warm and clear, and Alfred Newman's lovely score is given due justice. The presentation is free of hiss and pops.
An audio commentary track is provided by biographer Kenneth Geist and Chris Mankiewicz, son of producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz and leading actress Rosa Stradner. The two recorded their comments separately, and the track is consequently a little uneven. Geist is obviously reading from a prepared script (you can hear him rustling the papers), and his remarks come off rather dry and wooden. His information also seems a little sketchy. At one point, he erroneously gives the year of actor Edmund Gwenn's death as 1949, while the correct year is 1959. Chris Mankiewicz has a much more relaxed approach and is by far the more interesting of the two. Unfortunately, there are several long gaps between comments that effectively lose viewer interest. Though it is not a complete failure, this is not one of the most interesting audio commentaries I've listened to.
The only other supplements are theatrical trailers for this and several other Gregory Peck vehicles. The package lists a still gallery, but there is none to be found on the DVD. This is a curious oversight, though it's not major.
All in all, "The Keys of the Kingdom" is a grand spectacle and a moving portrait that has received due respect on DVD. 20th Century Fox has taken good care of this release with a glorious transfer. Fans of religious films or of Gregory Peck have great reason to celebrate this entertaining tale of spirituality and determination, a film that is sure to lift your spirit and bring a tear to your eye.