Keys Of The Kingdom, The
Released By: Twilight Time
December 13, 2016.
John M. Stahl
Gregory Peck, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Edmund Gwenn, Roddy McDowall, Cedric Hardwicke
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Based on A.J. Cronin's 1941 novel of the same name, The Keys Of The Kingdom tells the decades-long story of Father Francis Chisholm, a Scottish Missionary Priest. Beginning at the end, so to speak, we find the Father in his twilight years, on the verge of being forced into retirement by a senior clergy who don't appreciate his unorthodox approach to religion; unorthodox in this case meaning that the Father has a sense of humor and a fondness for treating kind atheists as real human beings. In spite of knowing the Bishop (Vincent Price) who will decide his fate, Chisholm is discouraged by the negative report that the investigating Monsignor intends to file.
As fate would have it, however, the room that the Monsignor has retired to for the night prior to reporting to the Bishop happens to contain the journals of Father Chisholm, and, perhaps intrigued at the possibility of digging up more incriminating scandal, the Monsignor settles in to the story. Beginning some 60 years prior, we're introduced to little "Francie" Chisholm (a very young Roddy McDowall), the offspring of a strapping Catholic Scot and his protestant wife. Trouble with the Senior Chisholm's faith leads to an altercation with other protestants in town, and little Francie's world is shattered when he witnesses the death of his parents. Bundled off to live with his father's extended family, Francie falls under the motherly hand of Aunt Polly (Edith Barrett), and lives a pleasant life with childhood crush Nora, and good friend Willie.
Now in his teenage years, Francis (Gregory Peck) finds himself being not-so-gently pushed by Aunt Polly into being educated for the Priesthood, a profession that earns the lighthearted scorn of his atheist friend Willie (Thomas Mitchell), and the tearful reproach of girlfriend Nora (Jane Ball), who is convinced that this path will drive a wedge between the two lovers. Francis' determination to return home after his school semester is tragically pushed to the side when he receives news from home that Nora has passed away after giving birth to a child; and the second loss of love in his life invigorates Francis' faith and dedication to the Church. He finds, however, that his unconventional approach to his profession is not a good fit for more traditional parishes, but his friend Bishop MacNabb (Edmund Gwenn) believes in him, assigning the frustrated Priest to a new mission in China.
Unbeknownst to Francis, he is about to enter one of the most trying and faith-challenging phases of his life, which becomes brutally apparent upon his arrival in the Orient. His "mission" is in ruins, the product of flooding and torrential rains, the congregation has fled to a far-away village, and the two remaining parishioners are scoundrels and thieves who threaten the Father's well-being when he announces that he has no money to pay them. Dejected, Francis takes up residence in a broken-down stable, and the small-room rental in town acting as his new mission is the target of abuse by multiple offenders. Things take a turn for the better, though, when Francis' basic knowledge of medicine outperforms the superstition-based healing methods of the day, allowing him to save the son of a prominent and extremely wealthy neighbourhood Mandarin. Gifted with beautiful land and resources, Father Chisholm pledges to rebuild the parish, slowly gathering followers and the faith of the town. Exercising a patience and genuine need to help all of those in need, Chisholm's rewards are plentiful, but so are the hardships; including a civil war that threatens to burn the town and his mission to the ground.
Epic in scope if not running time (Kingdom clocks in at 137 minutes), Keys of the Kingdom is quite the undertaking. Artistic in the sense that it is beautifully shot and extremely well-acted, though it is nonetheless as straight forward as straight forward gets; there are no doubts as to where this film is heading. Ridding itself largely of the negative aspects found in the book and focusing more on the inspirational side of things, this is a film that would have obviously been something that audiences responded well to at the tail end of World War II, a story of faith and humankind triumphing in the face of corruption. Such an undertaking requires a stellar cast, and Keys of the Kingdom spares no horses here...Gregory Peck is stupendous in the lead role of Francis Chisholm (though the whole Scottish ancestry thing gets lost fairly quickly), a role that got him an Oscar nomination...and the wealth of supporting talent is equally as impressive. Arthur Miller's Cinematography (another Oscar nomination) is as exemplary as one would expect from the man responsible for How Green Was My Valley and The Ox-Bow Incident. Alfred Newman's score (yes...another Oscar nomination) is perfectly suited for such a film, though it's prevalence throughout the running time is a curious artifact in today's film world.
If there was any nitpicking to do with The Keys Of The Kingdom, it's that it's too perfect. It looks perfect, it sounds perfect, it has a perfect group of talent both in front of and behind the camera, and its simplistic message is positive and uplifting. There are evil forces in it, to be sure, but they're never really a threat. Still, the film manages to get through without dragging or seeming shallow at any point, so these are minor arguments; worth enduring to take in a truly classic (and classy) piece of cinema.
The Keys Of The Kingdom comes to Twilight Time Blu-ray, courtesy of a Fox transfer that looks great with an AVC-encoded 1.33:1 transfer. While it does occasionally exhibit some moments of softness, this is a sharp-looking flick, especially for being almost 3/4 of a century old. Blacks are decent, night scenes retain their clarity, and while the range of tones isn't always exemplary of perfection, the detail present is wonderful. I detected no issues involving dirt, damage, or debris, and grain structure remains intact.
An English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track carries the dialogue and music admirably...Newman's score does have the ability to dominate a number of scenes, and the proper balance is essential. Thankfully, that's the case here, with all aspects of the soundstage existing harmoniously. Sonically, it's a consistently coherent track, and though it's largely absent of hisses, pops, and clicks, there were some minor instances of distortion that may be a result of the source material.
A Twilight Time staple at this point, Alfred Newman's score gets it's own Isolated Score Track as well.
English Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing are provided.
A commentary is provided on the blu-ray, featuring Chris Mankiewicz (son of the film's co-writer and Producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and Mankiewicz Biographer Kenneth Geist. Recorded separately from one another, this is a fine example of how not to do a commentary, with massive gaps in between the information and no flow. Geist does occasionally provide some worthwhile information, while Mankiewicz largely sticks to describing the scenes briefly.
A Trailer for the film, the Twilight Time Interactive Catalogue, and a booklet insert with stills and an essay by Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo are also included.
The Final Word:
The Keys of the Kingdom, while not appealing to everyone, is a beautiful reminder of a time when Hollywood treated the medium as an art form, with an admirable roster of talent, striking cinematography, and epic, sweeping scores.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!
john m. stahl,
the keys of the kingdom,
- DVD And Blu-ray Reviews G-M