How many good films have ever been made on the subject of Christian missions and missionaries?
For many years, I have dearly loved the 1944 film The Keys of the Kingdom, based on the 1941 novel by A. J. Cronin. In more recent years, though, as I studied global Christianity, it occurred to me what a treasure the film is, and how often it runs against contemporary stereotypes. It does a lovely job of portraying the American vision of missions at its most exalted and optimistic, but in a way that pays full respect to the people on the receiving end of missionary efforts. It thus makes for a superb teaching resource. And Netflix has it on DVD!
The Keys of the Kingdom tells the story of Francis Chisholm (Gregory Peck), a Scottish Catholic priest who served many years in the China missions in the first third of the twentieth century. Though his superiors commonly regard him as a pathetic failure, we see what a tremendous success he has been in developing a thriving Christian settlement in a Chinese city. A medical mission evolves into a flourishing school and orphanage, and in the process, Chisholm helps defend the city from the armies of rampaging warlords. Although he does not convert the whole city, he becomes something like its patron saint.
Particularly striking is the film’s treatment of Chinese characters in an age when Hollywood consistently offered agonizingly dreadful stereotypes of virtually all non-White racial groups. This, however, was the Second World War, when China was a cherished US ally, and in consequence, the film consistently depicts the Chinese as – as, well, real people, running the full gamut of human types, from saints to thugs, with all points inbetween. If this does not strike you as astonishing, you have not watched enough US cinema from that era.
In virtually all cases, the Chinese characters in Keys of the Kingdom are played by Asian actors, so we do not have to deal with Hollywood’s grotesque tendency to cast whites in those roles. (Think of The Good Earth, released just a few years previously). Many parts of the film are spoken in Chinese, without the familiar resort to characters speaking in pidgin. Any remarks about the Chinese being dirty, work-shy, barbarous, and so on, come from a white character already identified as an arrogant idiot. The perpetrator is a distinguished Catholic cleric, a later bishop, who is clearly the moral and intellectual inferior of the faithful Chinese. He’s even played by Vincent Price.
No less interesting is the Chinese response to the missions. A few characters are cynical “rice Christians,” accepting the faith for what they can get out of it. Others, however, are Father Chisholm’s saintly, dedicated allies and fellow believers – or alternatively, they are good friends who retain their Confucian, Daoist and native Chinese faiths. Without both categories, we are told, Father Chisholm’s endeavors would be wholly futile. Chisholm’s mission flounders disastrously until the arrival of his dedicated Chinese comrade Joseph (Benson Fong). It survives so long through the benevolence of the friendly local mandarin, a determined Confucian.
There’s a pleasantly wicked moment when the mandarin discusses the recent arrival of some American Methodist missionaries, who might subvert Catholic efforts. While he has no theological stake in the denominational conflict, he supports his friends. With feigned grief, he muses threateningly, “Who knows but that a series of misfortunes will befall these worshipers of the false God, and force them, regretfully, to depart?” Father Chisholm, amused, forbids the infliction of any such disasters, as there is plenty of room in the harvest field for all. Chisholm, in turn, infuriates his superiors by always speaking well of Confucians. Apart from anything else, he says, they have a better sense of humor than Christians. And do recall that these interfaith conversations are occurring in a 1944 film.
Don’t get me wrong – the film does not mesh perfectly with modern sensibilities. The assumption throughout is that the white clergy are automatically the masters, and even a distinguished Chinese lay leader like Joseph acts as a kind of houseboy for Father Chisholm (though a Chinese priest does arrive at the story’s end). But by the standards of the time, the film is remarkable.
How many other films about the missionary experience can we watch today without cringing embarrassment – and that includes both the pro-missionary efforts of the pre-1970 era, and later hatchet jobs like At Play in the Fields of the Lord? There might be some who can tolerate Ingrid Bergman’s ludicrous portrayal of Gladys Aylward in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), but I am not one of them. How many pro-missionary films treat the “natives” as decent, thoughtful and intelligent? In how many are native characters allowed to refuse the offer of Christianity, while still being portrayed favorably throughout?
Here’s a proposition. Might Keys of the Kingdom not just be a high point in the cinema of mission, but the best ever contribution to that genre?