Feb. 23, 2009

The Fugitive (1947)
Grade: 84/100

Director: John Ford
Stars: Henry Fonda, Dolores del Rio, J. Carrol Naish

What it's about. Set in a fictional Latin American country, and loosely based on the Graham Greene novel "The Power and the Glory." Henry Fonda is a catholic priest in a country whose military government is intolerant of religion, to the extreme that priests are hunted down and shot.

Fonda is the last priest remaining in the country. He is a humble man constantly torn between the fear of capture and his duty to the Church. He returns to his hometown, where he meets Dolores del Rio, a stately and pious young woman who nonetheless is employed as a bartender and dancer at a cantina. del Rio helps him restore his faith and elude the police. Also on Fonda's side is a gringo bankrobber and murderer (Ward Bond).

Working against the priest are two men, a harsh and ill-tempered police lieutenant (Pedro Armendáriz) and a pandering, treacherous police informer (J. Carrol Naish). The ever annoying and duplicitous informer sticks to the side of the priest, who can never shake him for long.

How others will see it. This film has several important names behind it. Besides the well respected Henry Fonda, who had nearly his pick of films in 1947, there is John Ford, whose body of work makes him among the greatest (and most commercially successful) film directors of all time. The novel was written by one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, and it was adapted by Dudley Nichols, one of the best Hollywood screenwriters.

That is a deluge of talent. Nonetheless, The Fugitive stiffed at the box office. Certainly, more people wanted (both then and now) to see a different kind of Ford picture, a John Wayne western such as Fort Apache. Long after it was made, Ford regarded The Fugitive as one of his best films, but it hasn't had the critical re-examination and acceptance of another moody Fonda picture, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

The Fugitive has its proponents, but most observers are ambivalent about it. Working against the film is its downbeat ending, and Fonda's self-criticism throughout as a coward with too much pride (never mind that his actions are often courageous and humble). Viewers have difficulty fully sympathising with the characters of Fonda and del Rio, who seem allegorical as much as flesh and bone.

How I felt about it. Even the film's proponents (count me among them) have difficulty explaining the characters played by the two leads. For example, Dolores del Rio has been described as a Mary Magdalena figure, while Fonda is compared with Christ.

But the comparisons are unsuitable. Magdalena presumably gave up prostitution upon becoming a devout Christian. del Rio, on the other hand, retains the appearance of a sinful life when her actions are focused on beneficial ends, such as the survival of her religion in her homeland.

Fonda as Christ has some parallels, such as his unjust suffering and his final scene 'resurrection' as a new priest, free from doubt and fear. But Fonda otherwise lacks Christ's power. He can't work miracles. He can't even get Ward Bond to repent on his deathbed. He is a symbol of the Church, but he is also a weak man who lacks the courage to tell the authorities that he is a priest, even at the cost of other human lives.

What, then, do del Rio and Fonda represent? del Rio and Fonda are predominantly allegorical. She symbolizes hope, and he embodies a mixture of cowardice and duty. All of the characters, and the story itself, are an allegory of some sort, shrouded in unfathomable mystery by the combined efforts of Greene, Nichols, Ford, and the cast. Since I tend to see things in political terms, I interpret the film as a commentary against police states and their inherent repression and injustice.