Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Scarlet and the Black - Movie Review

Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer, and John Gielgud all in one film? Yes, please.

I came across this 1981 made-for-TV movie during my NaNoWriMo research on WWII. Necessarily, I read about a number of fascinating resistance groups. There was Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Valkyrie Plot, Sophie and Hans Scholl and the White Rose, Corrie ten Boom (of The Hiding Place fame,) and, one of most fascinating, Hugh O'Flaherty, the Vatican Pimpernel.

The Scarlet and the Black is a dramatization - no, that's the wrong word - it's an account of Monsignor O'Flaherty's many adventures during the war. O'Flaherty (Gregory Peck) was an Irish priest, an excellent golfer, and a master of disguise. He saved over 6,500 people during the war, earning him the nickname of "The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican." He even had his own personal Chauvelin to play arch-nemesis, SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Herbert Kappler (Plummer), a callous war-criminal.
Frankly, there could not be more exciting or fascinating material for adaptation. Unfortunately, the film sucks out almost all of this suspense, turning out a two and a half hour, meandering tale which squanders an extremely distinguished cast. Peck, in particular, was a drastically bad casting decision. Perhaps I would be less sensitive if I had not watched Waking Ned Devine so many times, but Peck's Irish accent is truly atrocious, verging on the farcical, and made it next to impossible for me to objectively view his otherwise decent acting. He tries, but I never cared for him like I should have. That said, I appreciated the fact that they didn't try and sex him up; he looked quite like the dumpy, cartoon-faced real man.

 Christopher Plummer, on the other hand, is almost as dashing at fifty-six as he was at thirty-six. His turn as a Nazi is an amusing reversal from his vehemently anti-Nazi stance in The Sound of Music, and prompted a number of jokes as we watched the film ("Ah, so he changed his mind at the Austrian border!" "When's he going to start singing?" Not to mention all the Atticus Finch/Captain Ahab jokes.) Plummer transcends his rather one-dimensional part, and his few scenes with Peck are the best dramatic material of the movie.

John Gielgud is a classy and dignified Pope Pius XII, struggling to decide how far to compromise in the volatile political situation that is Nazi Rome. It's very notable that this film does much to point out the great good the Catholic church accomplished during the war, and through many of Gielgud's scenes, attempts to exonerate the pope for some of his more politically motivated decisions. Overall, faith is portrayed in an unapologetically positive light, and becomes the focal point of the climax.

The plot drags for the first forty minutes, contrasting a flatly heroic Peck versus a goose-stepping, not-at-all-menacing Nazi threat. There's really no sense of danger. Bland, sunshiney lighting for most of the film and Ennio Morricone's terrible, brassy score spoil the many sequences of Nazi stormtroopers rushing through the evocative, gorgeous city. While several supporting characters are killed off as the plot advances, we care so little for them that it does little to enhance the sense of danger that threatens O'Flaherty.

But this does improve later as the noose begins to tighten. Nooses, I should say, for as O'Flaherty's remarkably audacious exploits bring him closer to harm's way, Kappler faces the Allied advance and his continuing failure to capture O'Flaherty, which results in pressure from his superiors. These factors do lend the finale a modicum of drama, and Plummer, in particular, shines.

Despite its flaws, the film is beautiful to watch. It luxuriates in a tremendous budget, and takes place in the opulent, golden glory of Rome, a setting used to great effect. The story is a rather bland account of the riveting truth, but is a thankful highlight to a positive example of historical faith, and the final moments of the film, detailing what happened afterwards, will certainly surprise you. I nominate it for a remake. You're welcome, Hollywood.

NR - mild cursing.

3.5/5 stars
Hannah Long

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