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FUGITIVE, THE (director: John Ford; screenwriter: based on the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene/Dudley Nichols; cinematographer: Gabriel Figueroa; editor: Jack Murray; music: Richard Hageman; cast: Henry Fonda (“A Fugitive”), Dolores del Rio (Maria Dolores), Pedro Armendariz (Lieutenant of Police), Ward Bond (James Calvert), J. Carrol Naish (Police Informer), Leo Carrillo (Chief of Police), John Qualen (Refugee Doctor); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: John Ford/Merian C. Cooper; RKO; 1947)
“Turgid, slow moving, lacking in dramatic tension, too grating and simplistic in its obvious religious symbols, and losing its moral urgency from the novel.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Ford (“The Informer”) directs this richly atmospheric, humanistic and sincere religiously inspired drama that’s turgid, slow moving, lacking in dramatic tension, too grating and simplistic in its obvious religious symbols, and losing its moral urgency from the novel. The black and white film is based on the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, that many called his greatest; it was called in the United States “The Labyrinthine Ways.” It’s a true story that was fictionalized, as it was inspired by Greene’s travels in the Mexico of 1938, at a time when President Calles waged an anti-clerical campaign in the name of the revolution. The best thing it has going for it is the stunningly beautiful photography by Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; but the Fordian treatment compromises the moral complexities of the novel in favor of shooting for the emotional power derived from the melodramatics and flooding the narrative with uninspired Christian images (screenwriter Dudley Nichols rewrites the characterization of the Priest so it gets by the censors, as he changes him from a terribly flawed “whiskey priest” to a saintly figure whose only fault is that he has too much pride over conducting the service). The story stays on a surface level as it never plumbs the depths of the Priest’s motivations.

It’s set in an unnamed Mexico state (filmed on location in Mexico’s Taxco, Cholula and Cuernavaca). Henry Fonda plays the priest, now a fugitive and the only priest still in the country, who is pursued by a ruthless police lieutenant (Pedro Armendariz) and his informers who have waged an anti-clerical campaign to eliminate all clergy. The priest has returned to the small village where his church was before he went on the run. He identifies himself to a local Indian woman, Maria Dolores (Dolores del Rio), also victimized by the police state, and baptizes the beautiful single mom’s child. We later learn the child was fathered by the anti-clerical policeman leading the charge against the Catholic clergy (in the book it was the priest). While the Priest courageously performs religious services in secret, another fugitive arrives in the nearby town of Puerto Grande, an American bank robber James Calvert (Ward Bond). When things get too hot the Priest escapes the police state for Puerto Grande, where he hopes to catch a boat to freedom and meets the dangerous fugitive before hiding. But he returns from his safe hideout in a cave when a police spy in the guise of a beggar (J. Carroll Naish) urges him to return and administer the wounded criminal’s last rites as requested by him. Though the Priest sees through the lie, he returns and it leads to the police arresting the Priest and sentencing him to death. Dying a martyr, he forgives the informer for his betrayal if he gives the money to the poor. His death rallies the people to overcome their fears of the police state, as it ends with others praying at the church as a new priest arrives.

The film bombed in the box office, and made Ford rethink taking on heavy going projects like this “arty” one again despite the director being pleased with the film over the many who criticized it (including his screenwriter, for ignoring his script, and Henry Fonda).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”