Time: 137 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Peck), Art Direction, Cinematography and Score.
Gregory Peck turns his first major film role into a tour-de-force that inspires the mind and touches the soul without ever wallowing in the melodramatic. The innate intelligence, honesty and dignity that would become his trademark throughout his career are in much evidence here. Priests on film are usually either annoyingly holy or bitterly close-minded, which is why his performance as an opinionated, yet compassionate and spiritual man is so moving. The religious service is not Francis Chisholm's first choice for his future, but becomes the only one available to him when his first love elopes with another man. To please his family and his mentor Rev. McNabb (Gwenn), he dedicates his life to God. Unfortunately, many of his ideas are seen as too progressive and he becomes a problem to place locally. So, they encourage him to use his youthful energy to convert the heathens of China into God-fearing Christians. Seeing this as his chance to prove himself to his superiors, he accepts his assignment with great anticipation, not truly understanding the difficult road that lies ahead.
What the English fail to realize (or care about) is that the Chinese people are perfectly happy with their traditions and gods. They dislike outsiders and want nothing to do with Father Chisholm or his outlandish theories about there only being one God. His expectations of having a thriving, willing congregation are immediately dashed, though this hurdle of hatred only makes his drive to succeed even stronger. His first two converts Joseph (Fong), a local man who helps Chisholm understand the local customs and Anna (Shoo-Hoo), a little girl who has no one to care for her become the foundation for their church and his lifelong friends. His skills as a "healer" are tested when the son of one of the town's wealthiest men, Mr. Chia (Strong) falls ill. Of course, he'll get little credit if the boy lives and all of the blame if he dies. The basic medical techniques he employs frighten the family who usually rely on herbs and prayers to solve their physical problems.
When the boy recovers, Chia decides to thank Chisholm by becoming his newest convert, however, Chisholm denies his entry into the congregation. He is grateful for the sentiment, but will only allow those who truly believe to be members of his church. Chia understands and to pay his debt gives Chisholm a parcel of land and use of his laborers to build an honest-to-goodness chapel. With Chia as a friend, Chisholm begins to be accepted and his little church becomes a necessary part of the community. When Sister Martha (Allgood) arrives to manage the school, he believes his troubles are finally over and that his success will enable him to garner a return commission home. However, that is not to be. Sister Martha does not approve of his openness and respect of the native people. She does not believe conversion is a choice, but an imperative and relays her disgust to their superiors.
It's not until their church becomes ground zero in a civil war that she begins to see the devotion, strength and undying spirit that Father Chisholm has brought to his people, willing to protect them at any cost. While many unfortunate incidents threaten the congregation over the years, Father Chisholm is the rock that holds them together. His quiet faith in God and his mission change the lives of everyone he meets. His desire to return to the congregation of his youth diminishes over the years and eventually, when that wish is finally granted, it almost breaks his heart. He's devastated to leave the only family he's known for 50 years, yet realizes his time to effect any real change has past. It's enough to know that he's made a difference and that his hard work will carry on. Instead of being corny or maudlin, his final goodbye is extremely heartfelt and simply rendered. Peck's quiet dignity sets the perfect tone for an extremely emotional scene that brings this extraordinary story to a fitting conclusion.