In an unnamed state of Mexico, in which a ruthless police lieutenant (Pedro Armendariz) wages war upon the clergy, a Priest (Henry Fonda) travels the countryside disguised as a peasant. When his identity is discovered by a group of villagers, the Priest continues to perform religious services in secret, even though it jeopardizes his safety. In one such ceremony, he baptizes the child of a mysterious woman (Dolores del Rio), a child who was fathered by the very policeman who persecutes the Catholic people. The Priest's flight is paralleled with that of an American bank robber (Ward Bond), whose wanted poster hangs alongside that of the fugitive Priest. The Priest eventually succeeds in escaping the police state, but learns that the criminal is mortally wounded and wishes for the last rites to be performed. Thus the Priest faithfully (and fatefully) re-enters the territory to perform a final act of charity, as the lieutenant's soldiers close in upon them.
Commonly considered Greene's single greatest literary work, the novel was inspired by the author's travels through Mexico in 1938, at a time when the country "suffered at the hands of President Calles -- in the name of revolution -- the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth."
"I had seen the devotion of peasants praying in the priestless churches," recalled Greene in his travel memoirs, Ways of Escape, "and I had attended Masses in upper rooms where the Sanctus bell could not sound for fear of the police."
In Greene's novel, the central character is a "whiskey priest," and it is he, not the lieutenant, who has fathered an illegitimate child with Maria. As might be expected, much of this moral ambiguity had to be abandoned during the screenwriting process. "You couldn't do the original on film," said Ford. Under the guidelines of the Production Code, such a character could never be rendered on screen, so Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols reshaped the central figure, so that the Priest's greatest sacrilege is pride in the ceremonial trappings and elevated status of priesthood. The lieutenant was transformed into a heartless tyrant, no longer a political idealist driven by a misguided desire to help his people. Maria was reduced to a quiet symbol of maternity -- "decorative and mutely impassioned," said Variety -- though she is given a touch of the Magdalene as the barmaid of a rural cantina.
After the end of her brief romance with Orson Welles and tired of being typecast as a Latin spitfire, Del Rio had walked away from Hollywood in 1943 and returned to Mexico, where she was able to play more fully-developed characters. For Del Rio, The Fugitive was a comeback of sorts and was her first American film since her departure; it would remain her only one until returning to appear in Flaming Star with Elvis Presley in 1960.
Ford is best remembered today for his boisterous adventure films, such as The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956) or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); and for his crusty, unpretentious demeanor, often denying the existence of thematic subtext in his work and refusing to discuss his artistic intentions as a director. But The Fugitive belongs to an earlier, lesser known faction of his work, self-consciously "arty" films that demonstrated his interests in German expressionism, English literature and religious ideology. Films such as The Informer (1935),
Rather than create a vision of Mexico on the backlots of Hollywood for The Fugitive, Ford and company went to Mexico, shooting the film on location in Taxco, Cholula and Cuernavaca, as well as at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. At Ford's side was popular Mexican director Emilio Fernandez, who served as associate producer of the picture. Fernandez had made several films with Del Rio and Armendariz (most notably Maria Candelaria in 1944), and introduced Ford to a particularly notable member of his production team: now-legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.
If one were to criticize the photography of The Fugitive one could only say that it was possibly too beautiful. The tableaux are so stunning, at times breathtaking in their powerful balance of light and shadow, that they make it difficult for the viewer to concentrate on the plight of the Priest.
"It had a lot of damn good photography -- with those black and white shadows," said Ford, "We had a good cameraman, Gabriel Figueroa, and we'd wait for the light -- instead of the way it is nowadays, where regardless of the light, you shoot."
This impulsive approach to filmmaking was applied not only to the cinematography but also the narrative itself, causing a rift to form between Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols (who had penned all of Ford's most important works since 1930). According to Nichols, "I don't know what happened in Mexico, I didn't go down with him...To me, he seemed to throw away the script. Fonda said the same. There were some brilliant things in the film, but I disliked it intensely -- and, confidentially, I don't think Ford ever forgave me for that."
The Fugitive was the first film Ford made for Argosy Productions, an independent concern established with Merian C. Cooper (one of the creators of the original King Kong (1933). This deeply personal and ideologically weighty film won respectable notices but failed to capture an audience. Realizing that the company could not sustain another financial loss of this scale, Ford set about making films that were sure to reap profits at the box office, the first being Fort Apache (1948). From that time on, Ford channeled his artistic impulses beneath the surface of Westerns, comedies and adventure films -- films that were less obvious in their explorations of the human character, but no less rewarding.
Director: John Ford
Producers: John Ford, Merian C. Cooper
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols
Based on the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Cinematography: Gabriel Figueroa
Production Design: Alfred Ybarra
Music: Richard Hageman
Cast: Henry Fonda ("A Fugitive"), Dolores del Rio (Maria Dolores), Pedro Armendariz (Lieutenant of Police), Ward Bond (James Calvert), Leo Carrillo (Chief of Police), John Qualen (Refugee Doctor).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Bret Wood