- Michael Curtiz
4th in the series of St. Francis films.
Director: Michael Curtiz. NR. Year: 1961. Rating: NR. Length: 105 min.
I doubt that the director of Casablanca considered this overly pious film of equal value. The film is like the sentimental paintings of saints used for Catholic holy cards—lots of color (the costumes look like they have never been worn, but are right off the rack), but little depth of feeling. Bradford Dillman and Dolores Hart as Francis and Clare look like the moderns that they are, displaying theatrical emotions that simply are not convincing.
There is more of the story told, such as Francis’s famous trip to Egypt to convert the Sultan, played by Pedro Amendaris. Although the manufactured contest in which Francesco challenges the Sultan’s priests (yes, that term is used even though Islam has no “priests”) to walk through fire in order to prove whose God is powerful (shades of Elijah and the Baal priests on Mt. Carmel!) is a bit much, the ensuing discussion about love and war is worth noting—indeed, the only part of the film I recommend. Francesco says at one point, “God is not in the sword or in the taking of life, but in the giving of life, for he is love.” Not exactly the sentiment of the popes and crusaders who had responded to the call for the Fifth Crusade, “God wills it!” The words put into the Sultan’s mouth in 1961—uh, I mean 1219—take on a prophetic meaning when we consider what has transpired between Christians and Muslims during the past 40 years, “And if our peoples continue to pursue the ways of hate, then war upon war will return until we become the destroyers of the world.”
The plot, adapted from a novel by Louis de Wohl, also involves actor Stuart Whitman, as Paolo, a knight who becomes an early friend and then a rival for Clare before Francis’s conversion. Throughout the film he bitterly opposes Francis, this addition apparently an attempt to jazz up the story and make it follow a more traditional Hollywood story arc. You don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes to deduce whether or not he will come around to the saint’s side.
If you watch either Brother Sun, Sister Moon or Francesco first, you already know the story of the saint, so you might want to watch just the scene involving Francis and the Sultan. It is embellished a lot, with Francis trekking across the desert alone (actually he had a companion) when two Saracen’s leading cheetah’s on leashes spot and capture him. (Yes, I kid you not, cheetahs as part of a desert patrol!) Set aside too the fact that the Italian spoke no Arabic, and the Sultan knew none of the dialects of Italy—in this version they have no language problem. The crux of the scene is the growing respect between the two men. Francis does not conceal his desire to convert the Sultan to Christ so that there will be peace between the two peoples, and he has no answer to the latter’s suggestion that if he and the other Christians were to convert to Islam, there would also be peace. This scene could be used to launch a discussion on Christian/Muslim relationships and dialogue today. There is an intriguing 22-page paper by graduate student Cathy Hampton that would prove very helpful for such a venture. Entitled “St. Francis of Assisi’s Meeting With Sultan Malik-al-Kamil and Interreligious Dialogue in the 21st Century,” it is available at:
Also, I just discovered that Franciscan Communications has produced a new documentary called In the Footsteps of Francis and the Sultan. I hope to be able to review this in the near future. In the meantime you can read about the film in a National Catholic Reporter article by going to:
** ** ** ** **
If you have made it this far through all four reviews, you might be asking, “Which of these best captures the essence of this little but great man. “ The answer is simple, “None of them. ” And it’s complicated because the real Francis, for all his vaunted simplicity, was far more complicated than supposed. He was born rich, but chose poverty for his lifestyle. He demanded absolute obedience to “Lady Poverty,” and yet, as we see in Zefirelli’s film, made room for those who could not abstain from sex or give away everything, “the Third Way” or “Third Order.” He lived among those who hated Muslims and thought it was God’s will to kill them, yet he met directly with the leader of the enemy. We have examined, however briefly, four films, some better than others perhaps, but all of them, even Hollywood’s glamorized version, provide a few pieces of the mosaic that we call Francis of Assisi.