Films While Waiting for the White Smoke

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This is a joint post with commenter Dr. Peter Dans.  Pete has written a fine book which I will be reviewing, Christians in the Movies, A Century of Saints and Sinners, and he has given suggestions about films to watch while we are waiting to shout Habemus Papam.  Here are the films in Chronological order of the Pope depicted:

1.  Quo Vadis (1951)-The historical spectacle film to end historical spectacle films, it brings to the screen the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz of the persecution of Christians under Nero.  The film is a great work of Art with inspired performances by Peter Ustinov as Nero, Robert Taylor as the tough Roman legate Marcus Vinicius who finds himself, very much against his will, becoming a Christian from his love of the Christian Lygia, portrayed by Deborah Kerr, and Leo Genn, as Petronius, the uncle of Vinicius and Nero’s “arbiter of taste”, who wounds Nero to the core with the following suicide note:

To Nero, Emperor of Rome, Master of the World, Divine Pontiff. I know that my death will be a disappointment to you, since you wished to render me this service yourself. To be born in your reign is a miscalculation; but to die in it is a joy. I can forgive you for murdering your wife and your mother, for burning our beloved Rome, for befouling our fair country with the stench of your crimes. But one thing I cannot forgive – the boredom of having to listen to your verses, your second-rate songs, your mediocre performances. Adhere to your special gifts, Nero – murder and arson, betrayal and terror. Mutilate your subjects if you must; but with my last breath I beg you – do not mutilate the arts. Fare well, but compose no more music. Brutalize the people, but do not bore them, as you have bored to death your friend, the late Gaius Petronius.

Peter in the movie is portrayed by Finlay Currie.  Here is the classic scene from the film that depicts Peter informed by Christ that He is going to Rome to be crucified a second time:

In the film he goes to the arena where the Christians are being murdered for the amusement of the crowds and cries out, “Here where Nero rules today, Christ shall rule forever!”  The film movingly depicts Peter’s martyrdom, crucified upside down since he had stated that he was not worthy to have the same death as Christ.

2.  Sign of the Pagan (1954) -Jack Palance, a great actor who was consistently underrated throughout his career, portrays Attila the Hun. Here we have depicted the meeting between Attila and Pope Leo the Great, portrayed by Leo Moroni, which convinces Attila to spare Rome.

3.  Becket (1964)-A masterful, albeit heavily fictionalized retelling of the life of the “holy, blessed, martyr”.  Here we have Archbishop Becket, Richard Burton,  in exile having an interview with Pope Alexander III, Paolo Stoppa:

4.  Francis of Assisi (1961)-A film biography of Saint Francis, ably acted by Bradford Dillman.  Go here to see the depiction of the interview between Saint Francis and Pope Innocent III,  the role assayed by Finlay Currie who was Peter in Quo Vadis.   Dolores Hart had the role of Saint Clare in the film.  She went on to become a nun.  Pete has some information in regard to that:

It has the extra added attraction of an interesting  backstory involving Dolores Hart, the actress who played Clare and  later became a nun.  She is now the Prioress of Regina Laudis Abbey  which itself has an interesting backstory connecting back to the 1949  film Come to the Stable.

By the way, I sent her a copy of the book and she sent me a  delightful note in 2009 saying that the documentation of the abbey’s  founding and her journey was “absolutely on target” and that it made her  want to read the whole book. Then she added “Said like a real actress.”  I  was especially touched when she said that she would keep me in her “heart and  prayers.”  I’m sure that has been a big help to me along the  way.

5.  The Agony and the Ecstacy (1965)-Charlton Heston is magnificent as Michelangelo, but Rex Harrison steals the movie as Pope Julius II.  Harrison plays the soldier Pope with a force and a wry sense of humor that dominates every scene in which he appears.  Julius is shown, with all his flaws, as a man completely dedicated to God and His Church.  There are many good scenes in the film, especially the confrontations between the Pope and Michelangelo over “this purgatory of a ceiling”, but alas video clips are lacking online.  Here is the trailer to the film:


6.  The Scarlet and the Black (1983)-One of the better films dealing with the Catholic Church.  Gregory Peck is brilliant as Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, who during World War 2, hid 4000 escaped Allied POWs and Jews from the Nazi occupiers of Rome.  Christopher Plummer gives the performance of his career as Obersturmbanfuhrer (Colonel) Herbert Kappler, the head of the Gestapo in Rome.  John Gielgud gives a stunningly good performance as Pius XII.  At one point when he confronts a Nazi delegation he merely stares at them with steely disdain until they get the hint and leave.  I imagine the actual Pius XII used a similar look of disdain when, on March 11, 1940, his response to a complaint by the Nazi  Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop that the Church was siding with the Allies, was to read to Von Ribbentrop a long list of atrocities committed by the Nazis in Poland, which had been compiled by the Church.  This is a superb film that should be seen by every Catholic.  Go here, beginning at 8:32, to see depicted a confrontation between O’Flaherty and Kappler at the Colosseum at midnight which contains a profound observation on the Church and History.  Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment for his war crimes.  O’Flaherty visited him every month, and in 1959 he baptized Kappler into the Church.

7.  A Man Whose Name Was John (1973)-Raymond Burr is very good as Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, and his heroic efforts to save Jews when he was papal nuncio to Turkey and Greece during World War II:

8.  Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II (2005)-Thomas Kretschmann gives a riveting performance as Pope John Paul II.  Here we have a clip of him defying the Communists in his native Poland as a young bishop:

9.  The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)-It took considerable hutzpah for Anthony Quinn, after the life he led, seeking to portray a fictional pope in this film!  Although the film is filled with bad ideas, popular in the Sixties, and still besetting us today, Quinn brings an undeniable raw power to the role.  When Pope John Paul II was elected I thought this movie, which depicted the election of a Pope from behind the Iron Curtain, was eerily predictive:

Feel free to add additional films in the comboxes!

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  1. Thanks for finding that Leo and Attila scene; I didn’t know anything about it!

    May I commend you, also, for including Anno Domini in your dates; but will you forgive me if I suggest you put Anno Domini first? If you think about it in English, “In the year of our Lord 2013” makes more sense than “2013 in the year of our Lord.”

    Best wishes!

  2. The amusing bit is that Msgr. O’Flaherty is basically “that Resistance guy that all the other Resistance guys were afraid to let in their group,” because he was so flamboyant. So the total for his group was pretty good, but the main smuggling groups (pretty much every parish and convent, coordinated by the Pope and select members of the Curia) smuggled out and hid tons more. O’Flaherty ended up being cover for everybody else, because everything got blamed on him!

    But it’s actually a good idea for not all Resistance groups to be coordinated, because if somebody important gets captured, not all the groups will be set in disarray or rolled up by the enemy.

  3. Wow! This is a very good list. Thank you for sharing this. My personal favorite is “Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II”. It was very inspiring and I also picked up a lot of life lessons in it.

  4. “A Man for all Seasons”. I don’t think it depicts a Pope, but the story of St. Thomas More is relevant now. Just any excuse to tell people to watch “AMfaS”.

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