Clifton Webb played his final role in this film from noted director Leo McCarey. However, it’s leading man William Holden who claims top billing under the 2oth Century Fox banner in vivid cinemascope.
As unlikely as it may seem, Holden is playing a Catholic priest in 1949 China at a time when Communist rule is spreading throughout the lands. He’s on his way to a mission where he will allow the aging priest Webb to retire from active duty and return to the United States. The opening half hour is light and played for laughs as Holden has innocently gotten entangled with a local girl played by France Nuyen who has set her heart on Holden and won’t be diverted in her intent to become his wife.
Once Holden reaches the mission, he thinks he has left Nuyen behind and finds little friendship from the aging Webb. Before Webb can get out of the territory, the forces of Red China lay siege to the mission. The commanding officer is portrayed by Weaver Lee who was at one time a student of Webb’s and a Catholic convert. That has changed as now he is a strict task master and opponent to the church and all the good that Webb has tried to instill in the village.
Back into the story comes the stunning smile of Miss Nuyen. This is where the film quickly becomes a poor mix of romantic innuendos and a political battle between the sadistic Lee vs. Holden and Webb. When Lee plainly makes his intentions known that he intends to have Nuyen by force if necessary, the comedy just doesn’t play very well anymore.
Holden meanwhile is fighting his inner demons when it comes to desiring the beautiful Nuyen. The whole triangle leads to a rather nasty scene when Lee finally does rape the girl while Holden is tied and gagged by Lee’s soldiers. Sadly her smile that lights up the screen all but disappears for the final hour.
The last half of the film is a rather unbelievable chain of events among our four main characters that ends once again on a comical note. The script which McCarey also had a hand in is far from his best and while Benigni may have may have turned out a winner with Life Is Beautiful using a blend of tough subject material and comedy romance, McCarey misses the mark drastically.
On the positive side, I found myself wishing the Holden and Nuyen story line could have been extracted and placed in a different comedy plot minus the priest angle. I thought the duo worked well on screen together with the young actress shining opposite the established leading man. She has an infectious quality to her presence here even if the script doesn’t help her in the final reel.
Clifton Webb may have played his final role but he has nothing to be embarrassed about. His role is one of a hero who refuses to give up his beliefs in the face of danger and imminent torture from the communist leaders to denounce his God and admit his guilt to the people. It’s also hard not to picture this as a role that may have been offered to Spencer Tracy who appeared the following year as a priest once again in The Devil at Four 0″Clock.
This was my first viewing of the Holden flick and admittedly he was my main reason for finally catching up to it. Overall it’s a poor mix of topics but I couldn’t help but wonder if that leather jacket with the fur collar Holden is wearing might be a leftover from 1953’s Stalag 17 that netted him an Oscar.