The Cardinal

As the world's attention is focused on the Vatican Conclave of Cardinals selecting the next pope, a nearly—forgotten epic film from the early 1960s's, The Cardinal, has been released on DVD, and is available for rental from subscription DVD rental services like Netflix, and maybe from your local video store. It is well worth screening, not just to help imagine some of the real life drama playing out among the Princes of the Church, but for rich visual rewards and education in the moral complexities of balancing the spiritual and institutional conflicts of a religious calling.

The Cardinal was directed by one of the most famous directors of his time, Otto Preminger, whose other famous films include Exodus, Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, and Laura. Based on the novel Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson, the film takes a mostly reverential look at the career of a fictional Boston—born priest, Stephen Fermoyle (played by the handsome, if somewhat wooden actor Tom Tryon), as he enters the priesthood and rises through the hierarchy.

But fundamental respect for the Church and its doctrine is tempered by both dramatic impulse and basic honesty. Internal Church politics and failures to confront evils like segregation and racism in America, and the compromises with Hitler by the Church in Austria, are portrayed unflinchingly. The hero of the story, Stephen Fermoyle is, of course, the one urging his superiors and the church as a whole to look evil straight in the eye and do the right thing, while others, more powerful than he, act on the basis of protecting the Church from its enemies and preserving the institution, even at the expense of moral compromise.

For contemporary viewers, the analogy to the problems the Church has had confronting child—abusing priests is clear and direct, and the process by which the various positions are argued within the Vatican hierarchy, and at the diocesan  level, is quite helpful in understanding moral failures by those who should be moral exemplars. Anyone wondering how on earth the Catholic Church could ever have compromised with dictators like Duvalier of Hati, will at least understand the bureaucratic imperatives and vision of some in the hierarchy of the world's oldest organization.

As a sociological period—piece document, The Cardinal is nearly priceless. Ethnic strife and intolerance in early Twentieth Century Boston forms the crucible for young Stephen Fermoyle, the son of an Irish streetcar motorman, in determining his personal morality. His openly anti—Semitic family does not handle it well when Stephen's beautiful sister Mona (played by Carol Lynley) falls in love with a Jewish boy. Stephen struggles with the personal conflicts and with the Church's teachings, but always obeys his Church's dogma. Even when the cost is very, very high.

The pecking order of immigrant ethnicities is also well—documented. The Irish parishioners, having arrived in America a few decades before Italian immigrants landed on these shores in large numbers, seeking the same opportunities, look down on the newcomers with disdain. When the Cardinal of Boston (entertainingly and vividly played by John Huston) seeks to teach a lesson in humility to Father Fermoyle upon his return from an elite assignment to the Vatican, he assigns him to a rural French—Canadian parish in Massachusetts, whose impoverished parishioners endure vivid tribulations beyond those of the city—dwelling immigrants. In an era when the phrase 'white privilege' is bandied about as a guilt—inducing weapon, the sights, sounds, and feel of the lives of Caucasian immigrants of a century ago provide a valuable lesson in and of themselves.

The hypocrisy of a society which pretends to be strait—laced, but which patronizes the burlesque theatres of long—vanished Scollay Square in Boston, not to mention the brothels, is also presented in a straightforward but not terribly heavy—handed way. So, too, the era of Jim Crow in the South, when Father Fermoyle befriends an African American priest (beautifully portrayed by a young Ossie Davis) begging the Church to allow his parish's children to attend all—white parochial schools in Georgia. Not just the failure of the Church authorities to confront this evil, but the process by which they failed, is presented without compromise.

Despite the willingness of the movie to portray the bad and the ugly, as well as the good of the Church as an institution, producer/director Preminger evidently obtained the cooperation of Vatican authorities in location filming. There is an immense visual payoff for watching the film, in seeing the exteriors and interiors of not just St. Peter's and the Vienna Cathedral, but also the living quarters and offices of the top levels of the Church hierarchy in Rome, Vienna and Boston. Undoubtedly, many of the offices and apartments are sets, but they are done lavishly, and appear to be quite authentic. The utter splendor is jaw—dropping, and the contrast with not just the lives of the ordinary faithful, but also the lives of the humble clergy, is an unspoken subtle commentary.

When it was released in 1963, The Cardinal played in special roadshow venues with ultra—wide screens and the highest quality projection equipment, at a premium price. It runs almost three hours long, and has an intermission. Although it drew decent audiences, Tryon's failure to emanate star power and a surfeit of competing epic films made it less than a smash hit. It's three hour length probably had something to do with its subsequent fall into obscurity.

Armed with a DVD player remote control, our family spent a wonderful evening watching it, pausing not simply for bathroom breaks and popping popcorn, but also to provide the youngester historical context for understanding Jim Crow, the rise of Hitler, and the sociology of American ethnic conflict a century ago. And of course, to reflect on the comparisons with today's society and today's Catholic Church. It is quite simply a vivid and compelling historical resource, and deserves to be widely seen on that basis alone.

One of the criticisms leveled at The Cardinal is that it was implausible to believe that one priest like Fermoyle could ever have confronted so many of the moral issues of his age. As we celebrate the life of the priest first known as Karol Wojtyla and now revered as Pope John Paul II, such criticisms may seem less 'realistic' than we thought at the time. Stephen Fermoyle was a brilliant and scholarly man of surpassing morality, born to a humble station, who rose through the Church in turbulent times, and worked to make the institution live up to its ideals. With the perspective we have today, he doesn't really seem to be that implausible.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.

As the world's attention is focused on the Vatican Conclave of Cardinals selecting the next pope, a nearly—forgotten epic film from the early 1960s's, The Cardinal, has been released on DVD, and is available for rental from subscription DVD rental services like Netflix, and maybe from your local video store. It is well worth screening, not just to help imagine some of the real life drama playing out among the Princes of the Church, but for rich visual rewards and education in the moral complexities of balancing the spiritual and institutional conflicts of a religious calling.

The Cardinal was directed by one of the most famous directors of his time, Otto Preminger, whose other famous films include Exodus, Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, and Laura. Based on the novel Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson, the film takes a mostly reverential look at the career of a fictional Boston—born priest, Stephen Fermoyle (played by the handsome, if somewhat wooden actor Tom Tryon), as he enters the priesthood and rises through the hierarchy.

But fundamental respect for the Church and its doctrine is tempered by both dramatic impulse and basic honesty. Internal Church politics and failures to confront evils like segregation and racism in America, and the compromises with Hitler by the Church in Austria, are portrayed unflinchingly. The hero of the story, Stephen Fermoyle is, of course, the one urging his superiors and the church as a whole to look evil straight in the eye and do the right thing, while others, more powerful than he, act on the basis of protecting the Church from its enemies and preserving the institution, even at the expense of moral compromise.

For contemporary viewers, the analogy to the problems the Church has had confronting child—abusing priests is clear and direct, and the process by which the various positions are argued within the Vatican hierarchy, and at the diocesan  level, is quite helpful in understanding moral failures by those who should be moral exemplars. Anyone wondering how on earth the Catholic Church could ever have compromised with dictators like Duvalier of Hati, will at least understand the bureaucratic imperatives and vision of some in the hierarchy of the world's oldest organization.

As a sociological period—piece document, The Cardinal is nearly priceless. Ethnic strife and intolerance in early Twentieth Century Boston forms the crucible for young Stephen Fermoyle, the son of an Irish streetcar motorman, in determining his personal morality. His openly anti—Semitic family does not handle it well when Stephen's beautiful sister Mona (played by Carol Lynley) falls in love with a Jewish boy. Stephen struggles with the personal conflicts and with the Church's teachings, but always obeys his Church's dogma. Even when the cost is very, very high.

The pecking order of immigrant ethnicities is also well—documented. The Irish parishioners, having arrived in America a few decades before Italian immigrants landed on these shores in large numbers, seeking the same opportunities, look down on the newcomers with disdain. When the Cardinal of Boston (entertainingly and vividly played by John Huston) seeks to teach a lesson in humility to Father Fermoyle upon his return from an elite assignment to the Vatican, he assigns him to a rural French—Canadian parish in Massachusetts, whose impoverished parishioners endure vivid tribulations beyond those of the city—dwelling immigrants. In an era when the phrase 'white privilege' is bandied about as a guilt—inducing weapon, the sights, sounds, and feel of the lives of Caucasian immigrants of a century ago provide a valuable lesson in and of themselves.

The hypocrisy of a society which pretends to be strait—laced, but which patronizes the burlesque theatres of long—vanished Scollay Square in Boston, not to mention the brothels, is also presented in a straightforward but not terribly heavy—handed way. So, too, the era of Jim Crow in the South, when Father Fermoyle befriends an African American priest (beautifully portrayed by a young Ossie Davis) begging the Church to allow his parish's children to attend all—white parochial schools in Georgia. Not just the failure of the Church authorities to confront this evil, but the process by which they failed, is presented without compromise.

Despite the willingness of the movie to portray the bad and the ugly, as well as the good of the Church as an institution, producer/director Preminger evidently obtained the cooperation of Vatican authorities in location filming. There is an immense visual payoff for watching the film, in seeing the exteriors and interiors of not just St. Peter's and the Vienna Cathedral, but also the living quarters and offices of the top levels of the Church hierarchy in Rome, Vienna and Boston. Undoubtedly, many of the offices and apartments are sets, but they are done lavishly, and appear to be quite authentic. The utter splendor is jaw—dropping, and the contrast with not just the lives of the ordinary faithful, but also the lives of the humble clergy, is an unspoken subtle commentary.

When it was released in 1963, The Cardinal played in special roadshow venues with ultra—wide screens and the highest quality projection equipment, at a premium price. It runs almost three hours long, and has an intermission. Although it drew decent audiences, Tryon's failure to emanate star power and a surfeit of competing epic films made it less than a smash hit. It's three hour length probably had something to do with its subsequent fall into obscurity.

Armed with a DVD player remote control, our family spent a wonderful evening watching it, pausing not simply for bathroom breaks and popping popcorn, but also to provide the youngester historical context for understanding Jim Crow, the rise of Hitler, and the sociology of American ethnic conflict a century ago. And of course, to reflect on the comparisons with today's society and today's Catholic Church. It is quite simply a vivid and compelling historical resource, and deserves to be widely seen on that basis alone.

One of the criticisms leveled at The Cardinal is that it was implausible to believe that one priest like Fermoyle could ever have confronted so many of the moral issues of his age. As we celebrate the life of the priest first known as Karol Wojtyla and now revered as Pope John Paul II, such criticisms may seem less 'realistic' than we thought at the time. Stephen Fermoyle was a brilliant and scholarly man of surpassing morality, born to a humble station, who rose through the Church in turbulent times, and worked to make the institution live up to its ideals. With the perspective we have today, he doesn't really seem to be that implausible.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.