If Appellate Judge Dan Mancini got the keys of the Kingdom, he'd ride Space Mountain 15 times in a row with no waiting in line.
"We're all children to God. And with his help, we'll work and mature."—Father Chisholm
No matter its shortcomings, The Keys of the Kingdom is worth seeing at least once because of it's special place in cinema history: It introduced movie audiences to Gregory Peck, and earned the actor his first Oscar nomination. Peck's performance is skillful, considered, and real. He was an experienced stage actor when he transitioned to motion pictures, and the star persona that would make him famous is presented fully-formed in The Keys of Kingdom. The air of moral authority that would make Peck's Atticus Finch a rock-solid foundation for To Kill a Mockingbird, imbues Father Francis Chisholm with a convincing depth and humanity.
In the 1880s, Father Francis Chisholm (Gregory Peck, Cape Fear) is a young Catholic priest whose incessant challenging of dogma and longtime friendship with a wry atheist named Willie (Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach) results in his assignment to the mission field in China by his smarmy friend and superior in the archdiocese, Angus Mealy (Vincent Price, Edward Scissorhands). The assignment marks the end of the road for any chance Chisholm had to rise within the power structure of the church, but more disappointing to the young man is that it crushes his humble dream of pastoring a parish near his home in Scotland.
Once in China, Chisholm finds compassion for the Chinese, recognizing in these supposedly savage heathens a noble and resolute humanity in the face of real hardship. After befriending a Chinese Christian named Joseph (Benson Fong, Girls! Girls! Girls!), and chipping away at the icy exterior of an Austrian nun (Rose Stradner, The Last Gangster) also stationed in China, Chisholm spends less time trying to notch his belt with converts than he does feeding the poor, finding medicine for the sick, and caring for orphans. In the end, Chisholm's dogged dedication to his difficult calling transforms both the Chinese and himself.
Based on the novel by A.J. Cronin, The Keys of the Kingdom was scripted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (The Barefoot Contessa) during what his son Chris refers to in the commentary track included on this disc as his "atheist phase." I guess this is supposed to assure us of the film's even-handedness, its resistance to conventional religious film sermonizing. Indeed, the picture is more character study than spiritual treatise. That's a good thing, for the most part. Mankiewicz's neutral position, so to speak, does result in some odd moments, though, as when a ruthless Chinese aristocrat indebted to Chisholm's kindness offers to become a Christian to repay the priest. That Chisholm is taken aback by the mercenary offer isn't surprising, but his apparent agreement with the man's statement that he's "not good enough to be a Christian," comes off as odd and, well, un-Christian. While Mankiewicz's materialist approach to spiritual themes may prevent the picture from descending into heavy-handed moralizing, it also leaves it less substantive and cohesive than it ought to be. Minus a clear focus on the internal, spiritual dimension of Chisholm's struggles in what to him is an odd and exotic world, the story feels like a sprawl of loosely connected vignettes.
Whatever Mankiewicz's approach, there was never much chance The Keys of the Kingdom was going to be a rich and intellectually complex study in spirituality. It's not a small art film in the mold of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, after all, but the sort of lavish and exotic epic Fox was famous for churning out in the 1940s and '50s (consider films like In Old Chicago, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Anna and the King of Siam, The Song of Bernadette, or The Rains Came). Like most of Fox's epics, The Keys of the Kingdom is simultaneously too much and too little. Because the story spans four decades, it manages to feel tightly compressed in the picture's 137 minutes. We see a fair bit of spectacle in the beautifully photographed external exotic of China, but it comes at the expense of time spent in the more fascinating realm of Chisholm's soul.
Considering its vintage, The Keys of the Kingdom looks great on DVD. The transfer displays minor flicker and other density problems, but is otherwise clean and free of damage for the most part. A beautiful texture of fine grain gives the digital image a celluloid look.
The disc offers two English-language audio options: a two-channel presentation of the original mono track, and a new stereo mix. Due to source limitations, the differences between the two tracks is minimal. Both are free of hiss and crackle, but suffer the cramped dynamic range one expects of an analog track recorded in the mid-1940s. French and Spanish dubs are also offered in two-channel mono mixes. The Spanish track is tinny and loaded with age-related defects. The French dub fairs slightly better, though it doesn't approach the quality of the English tracks.
A commentary track by film scholar Kenneth Geist (Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and Chris Mankiewicz provides a nice balance of scholarly information about the film's production, and personal information about Joseph Mankiewicz's involvement. The only other extras are a trailer for The Keys of the Kingdom, and a gallery of trailers for seven other Gregory Peck movies: The Bravados, David and Bathsheba, Gentlemen's Agreement, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Omen, Twelve O'Clock High, and Yellow Sky.
The Keys of the Kingdom is a C+ movie with an A+ performance by its star. Average the two and you've got a flick worth seeing at least once.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Kenneth Geist and Chris Mankiewicz
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