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Frequent collaborators director Michael Anderson and cinematographer Erwin Hillier teamed for the tenth and last time to make The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), an internationally produced political thriller, along the lines of their earlier Operation Crossbow (1965) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966), but with a distinctly ecclesiastical theme. Although a box office failure at the time of its release, The Shoes of the Fisherman was voted Best Film of the year by the National Board of Review and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Art Direction and Original Score. Alex North's music won a Golden Globe and the film received a Globe nomination for Best Picture, Drama. The National Board of Review also gave Leo McKern an award as Best Supporting Actor.
It certainly was an ambitious project (costing $9 million) from its extensive studio and location shooting in Italy to its high-powered international cast to its grand themes, taken from the best-selling novel by Morris West. Set in what was then the not-too-distant future (the 1980s), the story follows the rise of a Russian Catholic priest, Kiril Lakota, a political prisoner released from 20 years of hard labor in Siberia by the Soviet premier in order to give the USSR a foothold in the Vatican. Kiril is quickly elevated to cardinal by the Pope, with an eye to improving East-West relations in a time of crisis: the Chinese army is massing at its borders, ready to invade India and Mongolia as China faces a devastating famine. When the Pope dies, Kiril (a reluctant candidate) is elected by acclamation as the new Pope. On the eve of his coronation, he makes a momentous decision destined to change the Catholic Church and the world forever.
Although of Mexican-Irish heritage, Anthony Quinn had played a wide range of ethnic characters in his long career, so he was not considered too far-fetched as a Russian (which didn't stop some reviewers from making a joke on his most famous role by referring to his part in this picture as "Zorba the Pope"). American actor David Janssen had just completed a four-year run in the highly successful TV series The Fugitive. That show's finale, the highest-rated episode in TV history until J.R. Ewing was shot on Dallas, surely was a factor for producers seeking to boost the box office. Janssen was cast as an American reporter and given a romantic triangle subplot that many considered totally unnecessary to the picture. As Kiril's friend, a radical priest, Oskar Werner had an impressive resume that included such international hits as the Francois Truffaut films Jules and Jim (1962) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and his Oscar®-nominated role in Ship of Fools (1965), as well as a reputation as the premier Shakespearian actor in the German language. The cast was rounded out with a number of top British actors, including Laurence Olivier as the Soviet Premier and John Gielgud as the earlier Pope, and Italian actor-director Vittorio De Sica as a powerful Cardinal.
Erwin Hillier received praise for his spectacular cinematography of Rome. Much of the film was shot in that city's Cinecitta studios. The scenes of Kiril's election included newsreel footage of crowds in St. Peter's Square from the 1963 election of the real pontiff at that time, Pope Paul VI. Because commercial film productions were not allowed in the Vatican, a replica of the Sistine Chapel was built in California and shipped to Italy for interior shots.
The months prior to production had not been easy ones for Olivier. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer complicated by pneumonia and later appendicitis. While undergoing radiation therapy for the cancer, he received news that his ex-wife, Vivien Leigh, died in her London home. Against doctors' orders, Olivier checked himself out of the hospital to help with preparations for her funeral. After several months of treatment, Olivier's cancer was declared cured.
Although still not in the best health during shooting, Olivier was his old self whenever he found the opportunity to expound on acting for the cast. At night, Quinn, Werner, Olivier and others would gather in Rome's Excelsior Hotel, where the British star would give 10-to-15-minute performances of his greatest roles, often in different styles to show how a character could be changed by putting another shading on him. A relative of producer George Englund recalled Olivier as a brilliant mimic who could do Hamlet and Lear as performed by De Sica or Quinn. One night, Olivier and Werner got into a good-natured duel reciting Hamlet. Werner had played the role to great acclaim, and although he spoke the lines in his native German, everyone agreed he more than held his own against Olivier. But they were all astonished when Olivier countered by performing Werner's speeches in perfect German.
The Shoes of the Fisherman was somewhat prescient in its depiction of the election of the first non-Italian Pope in four centuries. Ten years later, a Polish cleric made history when he became Pope John Paul II.
Director: Michael Anderson
Producer: George Englund
Screenplay: James Kennaway, John Patrick, based on the novel by Morris L. West
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Editing: Ernest Walter
Art Direction: Edward Carfagno, George W. Davis
Original Music: Alex North
Cast: Anthony Quinn (Kiril Lakota), Laurence Olivier (Piotr Ilyich Kamenev), Oskar Werner (Father Telemond), David Janssen (George Faber), Vittorio De Sica (Cardinal Rinaldi), John Gielgud (the Elder Pope), Leo McKern (Cardinal Leone), Barbara Jefford (Dr. Ruth Faber), Frank Finlay (Igor Bounin), Burt Kwouk (Peng), Clive Revill (Vucovich).
C-161m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon