Bad Christians

After Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), but before The Quiet Man (1952) and The Searchers (1956), John Ford made a much less well-known film called The Fugitive (1947; for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime), based on Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory (also known as The Labyrinthine Ways). Greene says in his introduction to the book that “This book gives me more satisfaction than any other I have written.”

Both the novel and the film revolve around the labyrinthine ways of people, especially the priest (Henry Fonda in the film), who is the “last priest” left under an anti-Catholic and anti-clerical Mexican government, which reflects the Mexican Constitution of 1917 and the anti-clericalist presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles from 1924 to 1928, as well as Greene’s own travels in Mexico in 1937-1938. Interestingly, other than Ford, Fonda, and “El Gringo” (Ward Bond), it is an almost entirely Mexican cast and crew, as well as being filmed entirely in Mexico (as the opening voice-over makes known).

Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is all in the contrast of shadows and light, creating surreal photography to match the tone of Greene’s novel. However, Fonda’s priest is nowhere near as debauched as Greene’s character. The Hays Code made it impossible to reproduce on film the “whiskey priest” who had impregnated a woman. In the film, in fact, Fonda seems to want to refuse any alcohol. In the novel, acquiring liquor is almost the priest’s overriding concern. His pastoral duties are always secondary, although he does go to aid the “other” fugitive, the bank robber. In the movie, the priest confesses his sin as a sin of pride, refusing to leave Mexico under persecution, even though most others had fled. Greene wrote that “A pious film was made by Mr. John Ford who gave the integrity to the priest and the corruption to the lieutenant,” while Greene has it the other way around.

The Fugitive has its moving moments, particularly the scenes where he makes his “confession” to the doctor (John Qualen), and where he explains to the lieutenant (Pedro Armendáriz) the reason why he will not avoid death by denying the faith publicly, though he does not want to die. We are given few motives for people’s actions: the fugitive bank robber and murderer, “El Gringo,” saves the priest at one point, while shooting at the police; the priest is pulled away from opportunities to escape twice, once by a boy who says that his mother is dying and once by the police informer; the lieutenant makes the sign of the cross over his heart after the priest is shot, though he spoke vehemently against the priests at the beginning of the movie.

This all matches Greene’s novel, where many people would have cause to feel otherwise than they do, and yet there is something inexplicable about their actions. The priest in the novel continues to search for brandy, and yet he also is compelled to carry out his duties because he has not been defrocked. He is, without doubt, a “bad” priest. But he cannot help baptizing and saying mass in spite of himself. Without engaging in too much psychologizing of the dead, it seems likely that this contradiction reflected Greene’s internal conflict over his own faith. He was an inveterate womanizer, but, at the same time, could not bring himself to reject his faith. (A Burnt-Out Case also seems to have this tension at the heart of Querry’s character.)

Beyond Greene’s own religion, the priest reflects the struggle between the sinful flesh and the new creature in the Spirit. Each Christian experiences, as St. Paul did (Romans 7), the battle between what we know we ought to do, but don’t, and what we do, but wish we didn’t; between the law of the Spirit and the law of the flesh. But there is also the parallel between Greene’s priest and pastors. As a pastor, I know that I ought to always want to do what my vocation requires (not to mention my vocation as husband and father). But my sinful flesh fights against that right desire, and I am often tempted to do other than what I know needs to be done. In those moments, I find that the Office of the Holy Ministry, into which I have been put (ordained/“ordered”), acts for the discipline of my flesh. My collar, as a physical symbol of the Office I occupy, works as a discipline. I wonder sometimes if there are Sundays I would not be in church if I were not a pastor—which, of course, is evidence that I need to be there all the more. The Office works against my flesh and ensures that I am where I need to be: in the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day to receive the Lord’s Gifts.

Likewise, Greene’s (and to a lesser extent, Ford’s) priest is held, restrained, and bound by and to his Office, even if his sinful flesh has more often than not gotten the best of him. And yet, God brings His sacraments to His people, in spite of His sinful servants. The last line of Greene’s book is in the mind of the priest: “He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.” Which makes sense, given Greene’s Roman Catholicism. But I think the more Christian lines are those just before: “Tears poured down his face: he was not at the moment afraid of damnation—even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at the moment that it would have been quite easy to be a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place.”

Though the priest is not a good priest, and feels he could have been a saint, he goes to God as we all go to God, with empty hands. Even if we fill up the world with our good works, we go out of the world as we come into it: with nothing. It is only as both our good and evil works are cleansed by the blood of Jesus that we go into eternity dressed in the white robes of righteousness, clothed with “the good works of the saints.” Only the Gospel can assure us that our works are not in vain, because of the resurrection of Jesus. Greene is very close to the truth of what it means to be in the Office when he has the priest think, while at the side of the dying, then dead, bank robber: “At the best, it was only one criminal trying to aid the escape of another—whichever way you looked, there wasn’t much merit in either of them.”

While I appreciate Ford’s adaptation, I think it would be interesting to have a modern director—Scorsese, for example—make a film more accurate to the book. Then we could see the struggle played out more truly to the struggle between the Spirit and the flesh.