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Satan Never Sleeps

Satan Never Sleeps
Fox Home Entertainment
1962 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 125 min. / Street Date February 22, 2005 / 14.98
Starring William Holden, Clifton Webb, France Nuyen, Athene Seyler, Martin Benson, Weaver Lee, Burt Kwouk
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Production Designer Thomas N. Morahan
Art Direction John Hoesli
Film Editor Gordon Pilkington
Original Music Richard Rodney Bennett
Written by Claude Binyon from the novel The China Story by Pearl S. Buck
Produced and Directed by Leo McCarey

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The kind thing to say about Leo McCarey's Satan Never Sleeps is that it hasn't dated well. More accurately, it's a sloppy attempt to combine the director's earlier sentimental "religious" films with Cold War anticommunist propaganda. The result is a self-aborting commercial mess that satisfied neither audiences nor critics in 1962 and has been mostly forgotten. William Holden, Clifton Webb and France Nuyen do well under circumstances that would thwart any attempt at quality drama.


Southern China, 1949. Father O'Banion (William Holden) is late getting to his new post. He rescued local girl Siu Lan (France Nuyen) from drowning along the way and is now saddled with the childlike, lovesick woman who doesn't understand that he's a priest and cannot be romantically involved with her. O'Banion's late arrival delays the departure of the outgoing priest Father Bovard (Clifton Webb) long enough for the Red Army to arrive and put them all under house arrest. Bovard is discouraged to find that one of his most adoring altar boys, Ho San (Weaver Lee) has become a fanatic communist colonel. Ho San lives in luxury and robs everything he can from the mission. He has the altar burned and replaces it with banners exalting Chairman Mao. He also lusts after Siu Lan and eventually rapes her. Nothing changes until the arrival of a sinister Soviet advisor, Kuznietsky (Martin Benson), who insists that the imprisoned priests will either confess their crimes against the people, or be shot.

Let me start out by saying that I'm not criticizing the historical content in Satan Never Sleeps; the totalitarian Mao years were a social nightmare in every way and there's good reason to strongly oppose Communist political systems, at least the examples of the 20th Century. But Leo McCarey's film is embarrassingly naïve and in terrible taste. He was famous for the light-hearted pro-Catholic movies Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's, entertainments that in themselves have serious problems for Savant.  1

After WW2, the power of television helped link Christian evangelists with the popular crusade against Communism, and McCarey was a big contributor to the cause. His hysterical, malignant propaganda piece My Son John fronts the idea that a famous politician son is better dead than a Red; it hasn't been screened in ages, probably because its rabid theme is so campy and idiotic. McCarey also directed an inspirational short subject called You Can Change the World (1952), a laughable gathering of celebrities pretending to be neighbors getting together to do their bit against the Red Menace. It plays more like an opportunity for a half-dozen Hollywood actors to buy some cheap insurance against being blacklisted. (More details on the film are in Savant's review of Fantoma's Religion & Patriotism: The Educational Archives; it's one of the stranger 'educational' films in the collection.)

In Satan Never Sleeps it's ten years later and the world is almost ready for the sophisticated satire of Doctor Strangelove. McCarey's movie is instead a cultural anachronism that tries to mix two incompatible tones: Delightful "churchy" light drama, and deadly-serious anti-Red polemic. The result is as phony as the cheap travelling mattes that stick William Holden into locations shot somewhere in the English countryside, with awful matte paintings adding details like pagodas, etc. The very first shot shows Holden leading a burro down a path, an interior set matted against some Scottish valley or another. After a brief cutaway, we see Holden retrace the exact same steps, without so much as an angle change.

The underpopulated sets may have been holdovers from The Inn of the Sixth Happiness shot four years earlier. The script places the two priests and France Nuyen's China-doll babe in a bad sitcom that could be called Three's Company in the Chapel. Father O'Banion never comes out and says he's not interested in Siu Lan, so Father Bovard keeps jumping to conclusions. Thankfully, although his character is no charmer, Clifton Webb's acting is too sophisticated to allow these scenes to be as insulting as written.

Communism is presented as the New Satan because it interferes with the untouchably holy men of the church. Mao is the new God and ex-altar boy Ho San is naturally a corrupt hypocrite, confiscating the church wine for his own drinking purposes while accusing the priests of hoarding. In reality, maybe he's doing them a favor - a number of scenes revolve around the two priests finding an excuse to open a bottle for a quick nip.

Frankly, the real reason the Communists are condemned as Evil is because they dare to replace the church authority, which Western culture never wants to acknowledge is a foreign influence that Eastern countries have historically resented worse than military occupation. Father Bovard would naturally prefer Ho San to remain a dutiful smiling altar boy, as that would keep the church in control. The fathers are of course much more humanitarian than the brutal Reds, unless we examine their willingness to harness Siu Lan as a cook. That suits their own purposes even though it puts the attractive girl where the lecherous Ho San can easily find her.

Communism, anticlericalism, rape - they're all really the same Evils, you see, easily assigned to the nasty Reds in Satan Never Sleeps. For a third act, the movie does a flip-flop with the character of Ho San, Siu Lan's rapist. Condemned as too lenient by his party superiors, he's promised a cruel re-education exile in some labor camp. Ho San then jumps back to the side of righteousness (the movie pretends it's for the right reason) and helps the priests and Siu Lan in a desperate flight to freedom. The movie winds up with a cheesy sacrifice with the survivors acting appropriately sanctimonious in Hong Kong. I haven't read the Pearl S. Buck source novel and so have no opinion on the movie's content relative to the book.

It's tough to find anything good to say about Satan Never Sleeps beyond the competent acting of the leads. William Holden is just starting to show the grit and bitterness that overwhelmed us in The Wild Bunch. Clifton Webb escapes with his dignity. France Nuyen is to be commended for letting us retain some respect for her stereotyped love-crazy girl-child. The Asian actors playing the baddies don't have much to work with and are colorless goons. Martin Benson's sinister Russian is unintentionally funny. Athene Seyler (Karswell's mum in the superior Curse of the Demon) has almost nothing to do; she and her fellow sisters are treated like servants and only missed when there's nobody to cook or tidy up the mission.

Fox's DVD of Satan Never Sleeps is an excellent rendering of this painful slice of political film history, which I can see offending devout Catholics. The enhanced CinemaScope image looks great and the audio is clear, including the blast of music that accompanies the sight of Chairman Mao's visage being raised where Father Bovard's altar used to be. Unlike other Fox offerings, this one has no extras. At least they're not foolish enough to call it a "Studio Classic."

The cover art implies a romance between Holden's priest and France Nuyen, as she's giving the camera a "come hither" look. On the back is an impressive image of Nuyen in a sexy silver dress that, unless I was napping, has nothing to do with this movie at all. Or did I miss the dream sequence, the musical number where she wears high heels on The Long March?  2

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Satan Never Sleeps rates:
Movie: Fair +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 13, 2005


1. Is this just a matter of personal taste? I find movies about 'cute' priests that wheedle and finagle community money for their good works offensive, especially when the priests are played by movie personalities with 'whimsical' relationships with God. Leo McCarey's second Bing Crosby church outing gave him Ingrid Bergman as a nun, and the film teases us with romantic possibilities that turn out to be just more saintly goodwill. Playing around with sacred religious themes as light entertainment gives me the creeps just as much as does the brutal abuse of films like The Exorcist.

2. Just kidding.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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