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FIRST LEGION, THE (director: Douglas Sirk; screenwriter: from the play by Emmet Lavery/Emmet Lavery; cinematographer: Robert De Grasse; editor: Francis D. Lyon; music: Hans Sommer; cast: Charles Boyer (Father Marc Arnoux), William Demarest (Monsignor Michael Carey), Lyle Bettger (Dr. Peter Morrell), Barbara Rush (Terry Gilmartin), Leo G. Carroll (Father Rector Paul Duquesne), H.B. Warner (Fr. Jose Sierra), Walter Hampden (Father Edward Quarterman, Wesley Addy (Father John Fulton), Taylor Holmes (Father Keene), George Zucco (Father Robert Stuart); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Douglas Sirk; United Artists; 1951)
“… too chatty.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Douglas Sirk (“Magnificent Obsession”/”Written on the Wind”) directs this religious drama about the 400 hundred year order of the Jesuits, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, with the hopes of drawing comedy over a crisis brewing over lack of faith among the priests. It’s based on the play by Emmet Lavery, performed in 1934 on Broadway, who also is the screenwriter. It was shot on location rather than the studio, where Sirk usually preferred working. Its main fault is that it’s too chatty, but to its credit is free of the usual Hollywood pieties offered in such a devotional pic.

Fr. Marc Arnoux (Charles Boyer) is the resolute Jesuit teacher at St. Gregory’s seminary, who still questions why he didn’t become an attorney. Dr. Peter Morell (Lyle Bettger) tends to the fading fast elderly, bedridden for three years, Father Jose Sierra (H.B. Warner). When Arnoux visits Jose, he recognizes Peter as his former student at the seminary–someone who was bounced from the school and has since become an atheist.

While the brothers are gathered in a room to watch the home movie of Father Quarterman’s recent visit to India, Jose shocks everyone by entering the room and saying that Joseph Martin (the Jesuit founder of the house) told him to find Father John Fulton (Wesley Addy)-a young teacher at the seminary who gave up a career as a pianist. This remarkable recovery leads the cured priest to believe it’s a miracle, since the doctor says he was not given any new medical treatment. Word of the miracle spreads and pilgrims flock to the seminary, and the rector (Leo G. Carroll) hopes that maybe now Rome will declare Joseph Martin a saint. But Arnoux doubts it’s a miracle over the objections of the other priests. When news of this “miracle” gets out of hand, Peter confesses to Arnoux during confession that he made Jose walk through shock treatment by invoking the power of suggestion. But Peter doesn’t want the priest to break his vow of silence over the confession, which causes Arnoux to pray for a just solution. Meanwhile Rome sends word that it’s taking up the canonizing of Joseph Martin.

Unfortunately, the film didn’t know how to go from here to deal with the miracle and bogs down in a sentimental and artificial conclusion suggesting another impossible cure of a local crippled girl (Barbara Rush) might indeed be a miracle attributed to prayer.

Cast against type, William Demarest gives a strong performance as the secular monseignor; while Boyer is fine as the good-guy Jesuit teacher; and Bettger plays his medical role with a subdued dignity. But the absurdity of the miracle never shines through as something meant to be taken as an ironical joke.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”