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The Forgotten: Douglas Sirk's "The First Legion" (1951)

Douglas Sirk questions, then affirms, the reality of miracles in “The First Legion” (1951).
It’s always fascinating to see Hollywood tippy-toeing around the subject of religion, particularly during the golden age, when the urge to avoid offense trumped any kind of dramatic sense. Alien beings—and Scotsmen such as I—would have to presume from the state of the nation’s movie product that the dominant religion in the country, and certainly among studio heads, was Catholicism, so celebrated is it in nearly every picture with a religious subject.
Douglas Sirk’s The First Legion (1951), playing in the Film Society of Lincoln Center's retrospective on the director, chooses, via its title, a military metaphor for the Jesuits who are its main protagonists, anticipating the later Battle Hymn (1957) in its blend of the martial and the spiritual. A shame this promising idea wasn’t carried further, so that the various ranks of priest might have been presented in the manner of their equivalents in, say, the Marines. The movie does feature William Demarest, that eternal sergeant, as a no-nonsense parish priest, but for the rest of its cast it uses Charles Boyer’s ability to suggest intellectual rigor, and surrounds him with sexless men of the order of Leo G. Carroll. Only George Zucco looks as if he might give the choir boys any sleepless nights.
The plot hinges around a bogus miracle, which occurs, suggestively enough, during a movie show. And the lame man who walks is played by H.B. Warner, famously a Jesus for DeMille. But rather than using the faux-paranormal occurrence to debunk faith or gullibility, the story shifts the blame onto a cynical atheist who has effected a cure of what proves to by hysterical paralysis by use of hypnosis, and then passed it off as an event inexplicable to medicine, purely for the pleasure of watching the faithful get in a tizzy. It’s fairly rare for Hollywood to show a doctor as villainous, but the greater sanctity of the Church has allowed Sirk to traduce the AMA. It’s interesting that atheists, alone among groups identified by their beliefs, could be shown as essentially corrupt, embittered and nihilistic. Nowadays, liberal Christians are apt to say that atheism or humanism is just another form of religious belief, as Richard Dawkins’ veins pop in his head (an entertaining effect which may be the secret intention of this sinister inclusiveness in the first place).
Regarding priests with such respect of course make Hollywood struggle to portray them entertainingly, to make them seem even human—Hitchcock wrestled with pallid humor (jokes about umbrellas and bicycles and stuff) in I Confess, but to little avail. Boyer has a kind of magnificent gravitas and effortless seriousness rare in a movie star—he can do this stuff in his sleep, but I prefer him when he’s a bit naughty.
Of course, the movie must give back with one hand what it’s taken away with the other, so the fake miracle paves the way for a real one. Not sure how we can square this with the deaths caused by the prank; God moves in a mysterious way, I guess, and movies move even stranger.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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