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Francis of Assisi

Francis of Assisi
1961 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 105 min. / Street Date February 22, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Bradford Dillman, Dolores Hart, Stuart Whitman, Cecil Kellaway, Eduard Franz, Athene Seyler, Finlay Currie, Mervyn Johns, Pedro Armendáriz
Cinematography Piero Portalupi
Art Direction Edward Carrere
Film Editor Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music Mario Nascimbene
Written by Eugene Vale, James Forsyth, Jack Thomas from the novel The Joyful Beggar by Louis De Wohl
Produced by Plato A. Skouras
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Francis of Assisi is a paint-by-numbers portrait of one of the more interesting saints, populated by ill-fitting movie stars reciting stilted dialogue. The inspirational message is fine but there's little artistry or finesse here ... the film has less depth than a short Sunday School lesson.

On the other hand, Fox's DVD is another example of a film restored to beautiful CinemaScope dimensions after forty-four years of being shown either pan-scanned or not at all. That's just the kind of show Savant likes to investigate in search of hidden surprises.


Francis Bernadone (Bradford Dillman) sees war coming to Assisi and saddens his Aunt Buona (Athene Seyler) by enlisting with a passing nobleman, Count Paolo of Vandria (Stuart Whitman). But he hears voices and deserts after his first battle, convinced God has some higher mission for him. Paolo is furious because the beautiful Clare (Dolores Hart) declines to marry him because she shares Francis' calling. Francis finally gets his message, to rebuild an old church, and later decides the word of God wants him to form a new order. The bishops and Cardinal Hugolino (Cecil Kellaway) discourage a sect that wants to build no churches and amass no wealth, but the Pope (Finlay Currie) senses something spiritually valid in Francis' request. Clare eventually becomes a nun and the sect grows from just twelve to thousands. During the Crusades Francis travels to the Holy Land and impresses the Sultan (Pedro Armendáriz) with his faith and conviction. But when he returns he finds that the rules of his order have been changed against his wishes.

Savant still gets letters from people looking for missing-in-action religious films, especially from the late 50s. The movie The Big Fisherman is particularly in demand. It may be public domain. Viewers remember it and its star Howard Keel fondly.

Older viewers also probably prefer Francis of Assisi to the later Franco Zefferelli version of the story, Brother Sun, Sister Moon the one with the soundtrack by Donovan. But that film's hippie attitude and folk music score were at least a diversion. This 1961 attempt is a cheap affair with easy plotting, unimpressive production values (especially costumes) and an uninspiring script.

It does take some inspiration to put across a story about a man who throws off secular things and tries to live in the world without gathering wealth or thinking about security of any kind. Francis' example motivates twelve donors to his church repair project to cast off their lives and join him in poverty and abstinence from worldly things. I hope they didn't leave families back home to starve ... are they all loners without relatives ... in Italy?

Church bureaucrats who think the new order is unrealistic are chastened by the Pope, even when Francis' order swells to 2,000 holy men. What kind of charity can sustain 2,000 men in one place? Francis doesn't want his people to earn money by copying books or making wine, so the locals somehow provide for all of them?

Francis' reaction to his world of wars and cruelty was to present a personal example of a better philosphy, a very Christian thing to do. But the script forces the issue by making his best friend Paolo a warrior with the usual male vices. Quite understandably, Paolo curses Francis for encouraging their mutual sweetheart to become a nun. Paolo hacks the arm from a statue of the virgin and cannot see the emptiness of his pursuit of glory until after a Crusade or two.

Francis is given a predictable make-me-a-martyr scene with Pedro Armendáriz' suave Sultan. The Moslem chieftain is intrigued by Francis' willingness to die, and his sincere invitation to throw off Allah and embrace Jesus. They're going to burn the monk from Italy until Francis suggests that both he and the Sultan's holy men walk through the fire to prove which has a God that will protect them. As can be expected, the test never happens - the Moslems are too cowardly to walk through the flames and the Sultan stops Francis before he can burn himself. It's not a bluff on Francis' part, but it might as well be. They "agree to disagree" and form a mutual self respect. That's a great message for 1961 tensions in the middle East but I thought Francis' was on a "conversion or nothing" mission.

Francis of Assisi was produced by Plato Skouras and according to the IMDB it was the last of four films he did for his dad, the head of Fox. It has the look of being done as penance for some sin, frankly, with location filming in Italy that hasn't much local flavor and a Hollywood supporting cast working too hard to be sincere. Bradford Dillman does a good job under trying circumstances, looking serene and self-composed while speaking the flat klunker dialogue that everyone has to say.

Dolores Hart: "It would be a comfort to know you are keeping an eye on Francis, because he dares so much and is new to battle."

As the young debutante-turned-novitiate, Dolores Hart has some of the longest tongue twisters to choke out and suffers the double indignity of looking like she just stepped out of the previous year's Where The Boys Are. It's not known if this movie had anything to do with it, but Hart soon dropped out of acting - to become a Nun.

Stuart Whitman also looks far too contemporary. When he says he's a Count from Sicily, we want to know if that's east or west of the Mississippi. Old hands like Eduard Franz and Mervyn Johns certainly hold up their end, but the script flattens them all. Frankly, Bible-speak is one of the toughest things to make work in movies.

In small roles can be glimpsed Finlay Currie, Jack Lambert, Curt Löwens and Paul Muller of various genre efforts. A shapely Saracen maiden who is burned by a Crusader and dies in Francis' arms is the Brazilian actress Evi Marandi of Planet of the Vampires.

This is one of Michael Curtiz'es last films and it's no Casablanca, not by a long shot. The setups are as dull as can be, the camera almost never moves and there's no pacing to speak of. What we're left with are a lot of bright, clean and colorful costumes that look fresh from a sewing machine. Much more impressive is Mario Nascimbene's score, especially in the titles. It has a nice flavor and tries to express Francis' gentle nature.

Surprisingly, almost nothing is made of this saint's love of nature. He blesses the animals once and lets a lamb go back to its mother ("Baa") and smiles at some doves that alight in his window. He also defends some flowers from being uprooted to make room for vegetables. The film ends with real stigmata appearing on Francis' palms as he collapses while praying. The music rises, but nobody mentions what is either a bona fide miracle or a trick of self-mutilation.

Fox's DVD of Francis of Assisi has a great enhanced widescreen transfer and a beautifully preserved image that unfortunately brings out the ugly primary hues of the color scheme. There's an optional English 4.0 surround track and tracks in Spanish and French. Pedro Armendáriz doesn't appear to dub his own voice in Spanish, unfortunately.

Some interesting B&W behind-the-scenes footage shows an interior setup with the Pope and some exterior horse scenes being shot. We get a good look at Michael Curtiz, now a lot older than in his Warners heyday.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Francis of Assisi rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Behind the scenes footage, newsreel with Mayor of San Francisco
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 7, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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