1968 Drama, rated G (US), runs 2 hours, 40 minutes
Based on the novel by Morris L. West
Directed by Michael Anderson
Anthony Quinn.......... Kiril Lakota
Laurence Olivier....... Pyotr Ilyich Kamenev
Oskar Werner........... Father Telemond
John Gielgud........... Pope Pius XIII
Vittorio De Sica....... Cardinal Rinaldi
Leo McKern............. Cardinal Leone
Burt Kwouk............. Li Peng
David Janssen.......... George Faber
The National Board of Review called it the best picture of the year,
while Alex North was nominated for an Oscar for Best Score, and won
the Golden Globe award. Edward Carfagno and George W. Davis were nominated
for the Oscar in the Art Direction/Set Decoration category, but
lost out to Oliver!. I haven't seen that, but it must have pretty
awesome art and sets to win out over this film.
For anyone who doesn't know, the title of the film refers to the
fact that a Pope follows in the footsteps of the Apostle Peter, the
first Pope, the fisherman who became a "Fisher of Men".
Spoilers ahead! As with all of my movie reviews, this includes a pretty complete story summary.
… and some have Greatness thrust upon them.
The movie opens when the loudspeaker at a Siberian
labor camp calls out the number of prisoner Kiril Lakota,
who is bundled into a tractor that has crossed hundred of miles
of frozen wasteland to fetch him. As the titles roll, Lakota is transferred
from one transport to another, until he finally ends up in the office
of the Soviet Premier.
We find that the two men made each other's acquaintance twenty
years earlier, when Kamenev's role was a KGB interrogator. Naturally,
nobody during Lakota's journey told him what was going on, so he
was understandably flabbergasted at where he ended up. After some
small talk, Kamenev's statement that Lakota was being released from
prison still didn't illuminate the why. Bringing him up
to date on the state of the world — a world on the brink of
nuclear war — and particularly the dire straits that China
was finding itself in as it plunged into famine, Kamenev's final
answer that he wanted somebody out in the world who really knew him
still did not enlighten.
But the last piece of the puzzle falls into place with the introduction
of Father David Telemond, envoy from the Vatican, who hands Lakota
a new passport and declares him a citizen of the Vatican City state.
We also learn that Lakota was/is the archbishop of Lvov.
Next thing you know, the two are on a plane for Rome. Once there,
Lakota barely has time to take a breath of the Italian air before
the Pope summons him and makes him a Cardinal, over his objection.
Director Anderson wastes no time moving the story along; almost
immediately, the Pope falls ill and dies shortly thereafter. George
Faber, a television news reporter who was briefly seen earlier when
he was given an exclusive to cover the story of Lakota's rescue
and elevation, now assumes his actual role in the movie, which is
to explain to the viewer the procedures and ceremonies the Church
uses, here those surrounding the funeral rites of a Pope and the
election of his successor.
Kiril Cardinal Lakota, his head probably still spinning from
the recent events in his life, is now to join his colleagues
in electing a new Pope. He says "I'm told I'll need a
secretary" (though we don't know why, as the services of such
are never shown) and turns to his first friend, Father Telemond.
Telemond is a scholar at the Vatican whose views are often
considered heretical; his ten books have been suppressed by
the guardians of dogma in the Church hierarchy, and he is
in the process of defending his newly written eleventh. Before
the conclave begins, they are speculating about how
things might turn out. "Whoever it is, it will have to be an
Italian!" In 1968, the time of the making of the movie, it had
indeed been 445 years since a Pope had been non-Italian (Adrian VI,
a Dutchman). They laugh and Telemond adds "Whoever it is,
I hope he publishes my book."
Also engaging in speculation are Cardinals Rinaldi and Leone, both
Italians who had been the closest to the Pope, and both presumed
While the Cardinals gather and file into the Sistine Chapel, Faber
again keeps the world and the audience up to speed. He says there
will be two votes each day, and we see a few of them take place,
with Leone and Rinaldi coming in first and second but not receiving
enough votes to win. After the seventh vote, we see the only
politicing that is shown, though presumably it was engaged in
continuously. Several of the Cardinals are in discussion, and Lakota,
on the sidelines, is drawn into it. His experiences in the labor
camps leads to him to speak of the role that violence can play in
societal change — not the kind of opinion one would expect
to hear from a high religious figure, but the others urge him to
continue on. Rinaldi looks thoughtful.
The next day, before the voting begins, Rinialdi stands and
announces that, in accordance with canon law, he proclaims his
obedience to Kiril Lakota as the new Pope. (The legality of this
is, of course, not explained as the Cardinals presumably know it,
and Faber doesn't know it's going on so he can't do so.) Lakota
demurs, but then another Cardinal follows suit, and then more and
more. Finally, Leone and a small retinue march to Lakota's chair.
"Do you accept election?" Lakota is dumbfounded and unable to speak.
"You must answer now." Suddenly a change comes over Lakota's face
and he accepts. It seemed to me that the director might have wanted
to imply that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and sanctioned
He is quickly outfitted in the papal regalia, and leads the college
out. The first people to see them are the assemblage of secretaries,
and Telemond is, of course, stunned to see that his guy won.
George Faber, along with the thousands thronging St. Peter's Square,
have been waiting anxiously since seeing the white smoke, and finally
the Pope appears on the balcony. "It's the Russian", he says to
his television audience. "They've elected a Russian Pope". (Fortunately,
of course, he had met with him when he arrived in Rome, so could
recognize the relative unknown and totally unexpected.)
The Affairs of State
So we've spent the first half of the movie (well, the first of my
two videotapes, anyway) reaching the point
that everybody, sooner or later, realized was coming.
Premier Kamenev seems pleased with the election of Lakota, as
though he planned it from the beginning, and sends him a gift
and a semi-cryptic message referring to the possibly imminent
scorching of the earth. Lakota decides he needs to do something
to try to avoid it.
Against the advice of all his advisors, he sets up a meeting with
Kamenev and Chairman Li Peng of China. At the meeting, Kamenev is
conciliatory, suggesting bilateral arms reduction, while Peng is
bellicose and concerned with face. Peng is also scornful of
Lakota, saying with his offers of negotiation he risks nothing and
comes out the good guy regardless.
After you make your pleas to the leaders of the world and are
ignored, ever so politely, you are the noble man, the peacemaker
who — unfortunately — failed to make peace.
At this, Lakota gets a bit hot under the collar
Do not dismiss the power of ideas. Look at what your two countries
have become, based on the ideas of one man who spent most
of his life in the British Library.
Shortly after Lakota's return to the Vatican, Father Telemond
dies (which was expected, he had a brain tumor or something),
having heard the news from Lakota that his last book had gotten
the same reception as his previous ones. Cardinal Leone
comes to Lakota to tell him of the death, and then
confesses that he had been
jealous of Telemond because of the
closeness he had achieved with Lakota, and felt badly that he
had had to recommend against publishing his book, despite that
being his true judgement of it. Lakota then
reciprocates by admitting that he had kept
everyone but David a bit too distant.
Then, on to the climax: the Papal Coronation. Another ten minute
scene of pomp and circumstance. With Lakota and his inner circle
all dressed up for the ceremony and gathered in a waiting room
somewhere, he acknowledges that they do not agree with his (unstated)
plan. He takes off his ring and offers to abdicate. Leone, a vocal
opponent of the plan, interjects forcefully, "No!
This is Peter!" With that, the others go along. After
being borne through seeming miles of hallways and vestibules
packed with spectators, Lakota finally reaches the balcony. Leone
places the crown (which, while I suppose it's accurate, since I've
never seen the real one, looks to me like a total ripoff of the
head of Robbie the Robot) on his head and the
crowd goes wild. But then Lakota silences them by gingerly removing
it, and addresses the crowd and the world:
I am the custodian of the wealth of the Church. I pledge it
now — all our money, all our holdings in land, buildings,
and great works of art — for the relief of our hungry brothers.
And if, to honor this pledge, the Church must strip itself down
to poverty, so be it. I will not alter this pledge; I will not
reduce it. And now, I beg the great of the world and the small of
the world to share out of their abundance with those who have nothing.
Who asked you?
Some remarks by C-Dawg
Everybody has at some point in their life looked at the
Roman Catholic Church and its vast wealth, and wondered "What
is it doing with all of that? What about those vows of poverty
I keep hearing about?" People still asking those questions might
like where the movie ends up, but the ironic thing is,
Chairman Peng never asked for money to feed his people. His
big point was that China was denied access to trade with the
"rice bowl" countries.
When the Pope played by John Gielgud dies, there is a ceremony
in which his badges of office are destroyed. Just before the
hammer comes down on his signet ring, we can see that he
was Pope Pius XIII. This is interesting because Pius XII died
in 1958, and was succeeded by John XXIII, who was in turn
followed by Paul VI, who was Pope when this move was made. But
there having been three twentieth century Popes named Pius, the
authors may have thought there would be another. As of now,
there has not been.
I said earlier that George Faber's only real part in the story
is to tell the viewer what's going on in the Vatican. And yet, a
substantial amount of screen time is spent on the fact that he's
being unfaithful to his wife. This plays no part in the story as
a whole. Even odder, shortly after Lakota is elected, he gets
palace fever (just like Ralph I does
in King Ralph) and while roaming the city, is pressed into
service as an errand boy by a physician he runs into who is
making a house call. While his adventures
fit into the movie, the fact that the doctor is Mrs. Faber is
the kind of coincidence that only happens in movies.
And yet nothing comes of it! In fact, I believe we
never see her again after that.
Father Telemond has two major parts to play. One, to perhaps lend
an air of rebellion to Lakota, posthumously supporting Lakota's
unprecedented actions. Two, to be the obstacle between Lakota and
Leone, and hence emphasize Leone's faith when he ultimately insists
the Church follow its new leader.
I also mentioned that something appeared to come over Lakota to
make him accept election. I found it funny how he immediately took
up the speech pattern of the royal we. As soon as he accepts, Leone
asks him "How do you choose to be called", and Pope Kiril I answers
"We choose to be called by our name, Kiril".
I recommend this movie. While much of what makes it
enjoyable is the visual feast and the look behind the scenes that
it gives us, it still imposes no great burden upon the critical
viewer despite its various flaws.
http://awards.fennec.org for the award information
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12272b.htm for historical information about Popes
 While "Art Direction / Set Decoration" is one Academy Award
category, apparently individuals are nominated for one or the other, even
though a single movie can get nominees for both. Fisherman's
nominees were in Art Direction.