After losing his parents and his childhood sweetheart to tragedy, Francis Chisholm (Peck) joins the priesthood and devotes himself to a life of service and compassion. But Chisholm’s unorthodox beliefs raise eyebrows among his superiors, especially Bishop Angus Mealy (Vincent Price). And when he is sent to the farthest reaches of China to rebuild an abandoned mission, Chisholm faces his greatest challenge of all: to tame a hostile land, win over a superstitious people and save his parish from an invading army. Nominated for four Academy Awards®, including Best Actor (Peck), The Keys of the Kingdom is a “towering film stamped with greatness” (The Independent).
‘The Keys of the Kingdom’ is the story of Father Chisholm, an extremely righteous man of the cloth who goes through all sorts of miseries and torments in his life, losing everything time and again – yet keeping his faith.
It’s told in flashback, in a linear fashion, after Chisholm discovers that the Bishop is asking him to retire because of his unconventional ways. Conveniently enough, the Monsignor who has been sent to relay the message stumbles upon our protagonist’s memoirs and reviews his life (maybe it’s just me, but it seems unlikely that it would be left lying around for him to read ).
In recounting Father Chisholm’s tale, ‘The Keys of the Kingdom’ is basically a discussion of faith, the strict demands and expectations of the religious order and how it may not always be correct in its vision, sometimes trying too hard to ostentatiously attract followers – or even buy them. It attempts to carve an argument for doing good for good’s sake and how this is the only tool needed to convert the unconverted.
The film is a pretty straight-forward drama. It makes no notable stylistic choices along the way other than the straight-and-narrow and is fairly predictable in the way it presents our character’s story: aside from the bookends with a much older Father Chisholm, the film traces his life from a young age and far into adulthood, presenting each struggle matter-of-factly.
I’ve ever seen Gregory Peck look so young; I’m used to the more grizzled Peck with the deep, commanding voice. Here, his presence isn’t nearly as rock-solid, but he nonetheless makes an impression – in fact, he was nominated for his first Academy Award, despite this only being his second film. In Peck’s hands it’s hard to dislike Chisholm, even though his purported devotion appears derived from allowing circumstances to dictate the terms of his life for him.
His aging make-up wasn’t entirely effective, but Peck did his best with what he got. I was watching a terrible copy of an old VHS tape (yes, a copy of a copy! ) and even through all the static and fluctuating video, I could tell that the guy wasn’t really aged – even while I didn’t immediately recognize Peck. So I can only imagine what it would look like in cinemas or even on a decent DVD copy. At best, this make-up job might have looked good on the stage, from the back. That’s about it.
But that’s likely just a sign of the time, as was the acting, which is from a different age altogether. The kind of performances that we find here are prototypical of the pre-Method era: meant for the stage, but tapered just enough to be watchable on the big screen. It’s good for what it is, but is in no way realistic.
Vincent Price does a decent enough job as Angus Mealey – a character that shows up unannounced at a couple of occasions. Mealey is a vain Bishop who is more of a self-important salesman than a true man of faith. Evidently, he is extremely critical of Chisholm and puts him down with barely-veiled insults. Strangely, Price is billed third in this film, and yet the character barely gets any screen time. He is memorable in those few moments, though.
‘The Keys of the Kingdom’ is a solid film, but it’s nothing special. I’ve seen many films of its ilk in my life and, thus, lacking freshness, it was less appealing to me than it could have been. Having said this, it is one of the good ones. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it other than Chisholm’s memoir as plot device. If one likes old-school dramas, this is would fit the bill admirably.