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SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN (director: Michael Anderson; screenwriters: James Kennaway/John Patrick/based on the novel by Morris L. West; cinematographer: Erwin Hillier; editor: Ernest Walter; music: Alex North; cast: Anthony Quinn (Kiril Lakota), Laurence Olivier (Russian Premier Ilyich Kamenev), Oskar Werner (Father Telemond), David Janssen (George Faber), Vittorio De Sica (Cardinal Rinaldi), John Gielgud (the Elder Pope), Leo McKern (Cardinal Leone), Barbara Jefford (Dr. Ruth Faber), Frank Finlay (Igor Bounin), Burt Kwouk (Peng), Clive Revill (Vucovich), Rosemary Dexter (Chiara); Runtime: 157; MPAA Rating: G; producer: George Englund; MGM; 1968)
“Critics have comically dubbed it Zorba the Pope.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Michael Anderson (“The Dam Busters”/”Around the World in Eighty Days”/”Pope Joan”) directs this far-fetched fictional religious/political thriller with a renown international cast of stars. It’s based on the bestselling novel by Aussie novelist Morris L. West and is written by James Kennaway and John Patrick. The ambitious project cost $9 million to produce. It was set in the near future of the 1980s, and tells of a humble true believer Ukranian archbishop, Kiril Lakota (Anthony Quinn), released from a Siberian prison after twenty years as a political prisoner on a secret deal made between the Vatican and the Soviet government’s premier, Kamenev (Laurence Olivier). Lakota is sent to Rome accompanied by the controversial Father David Telemond (Oskar Werner), an anthropologist made secretary in the Vatican but whose research and writings are before a tribunal headed by Cardinal Leone (Leo McKern) evaluating it for heresy. The Soviets’ reason for the agreement is their wish to establish a sphere of influence in the Vatican to gain world-wide support, while the Vatican wants the priest to aid them in restoring Christianity to Russia. The ailing, elderly Pope (John Gielgud), makes Lakota a Cardinal in the Vatican’s state department. This takes place during the tense Cold War period, where a nuclear showdown is looming among the superpowers as China threatens to invade its neighbors when famine threatens its region.

When the Pope dies, the self-doubting Lakota is promoted by insiders for the papacy. The film goes overboard in depicting the pomp Roman Catholic pageantry of selecting a pontiff (admittedly fun to watch, even as it turns fishy). It has the brusque American reporter George Faber (David Janssen) describe the events as if he were a sideline sports reporter covering a game with a crude play-by-play. The Pope’s story is reduced in importance as the film gives way to the subplot of George’s domestic troubles, as his physician wife (Barbara Jefford) is jealous of the younger pretty Chiara (Rosemary Dexter) who is having an affair with hubby.

When Lakota is elected as the new Pope, the first Pope from a Communist country, he radically comes up with the plan to spend the Church’s considerable wealth to prevent a nuclear war and halt starvation in Red China. The film’s unintentional miracle is that the Church elders don’t assassinate the loner Pope.

The Shoes of the Fisherman is awkwardly executed, overlong, unconvincing, uninteresting and dull. Critics have comically dubbed it Zorba the Pope. It cannot be excused for wasting its talented cast in such a futile exercise, giving way to a film that begs to be ridiculed for its excesses.

It was not only a box office bomb and met with much criticism, but the author, West, was so disappointed with the result that he got his screenwriting credit removed. Though it was prescient–it was written a decade before the election in 1978 of the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years, the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla, a Slav from an Iron Curtain country who became Pope John Paul II.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”