Made with veteran screenwriter and Stagecoach collaborator Dudley Nichols, John Ford’s The Fugitive took a number of liberties in adapting The Power And The Glory, Graham Greene’s 1940 novel about a priest on the run. In lesser hands, those liberties might have softened the material into mush. Where Greene’s novel featured a clay-footed hero with many failings, star Henry Fonda plays a virtuous man who falls short of his own demanding standards when placed in an impossible situation. And where Greene specifically set his novel in Mexico during the reign of Plutarco Elías Calles and an attempted suppression of the Catholic Church, Ford moves the action to an unnamed Latin American country, presumably to ensure his ability to shoot the film in Mexico. Instead of watering down the source material, however, both choices bolster the film. Fonda, in full everyman mode, turns the hero universal, Tom Joad as an even more explicit Christ figure. And with the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, Ford finds the same poetry in the natural landscape of Mexico as he so often did north of the border. The result is one of the least-seen great films of Ford’s career.
Looking desperate and reverent from the first frame, Fonda plays an unnamed priest who steals into an abandoned church, baptizes the illegitimate child of a local woman (Dolores del Rio), and starts attending to the needs of the faithful in spite of the government’s strict anti-clerical policies, as enforced by a tenacious police lieutenant played by Pedro Armendáriz. Forced, in time, to flee, he crosses paths both with an American fugitive (Ward Bond) and a simpering informant (J. Carrol Naish), whose lives he affects in different ways as he attempts to flee the country, in spite of his conscience’s tug to stay on duty, even though it means facing certain death.
Fonda delivers a remarkable performance that grows more tortured, and more affecting, as the film progresses, but Ford’s expressionistic compositions and commanding direction put the film over. The dialogue occasionally underscores the themes too deeply, but Armendáriz’s spiteful-yet-honest speeches attacking religion give balance to the piety. Faith here is something believers fight for against the opposition not just of those who would suppress it, but sometimes against the demands of their own doubting hearts. Ford makes the case for belief more with images than words, illustrating the need for something to believe in via the desperation of Fonda’s parishioners. He cuts dark interiors with rays of light, and makes Fonda first a lonely man in an empty landscape, then a despairing explorer of urban shadows as he struggles to resign himself to his inevitable fate. It’s a moving, stark film that veers away from Greene’s book, but reaches the same destination.
Key features: None.