Francis P. DeStefano
Francis P. DeStefano holds a Ph.D. in History from Fordham University, where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial adviser. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history.
In his long career, Alec Guinness played a remarkably varied number of roles. As a college student in New York in the 1950s, I was introduced to British comedy by Guinness classics like “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Captain’s Paradise.” Soon after followed his great dramatic roles in movies like “The Bridge over the River Kwai” and “Tunes of Glory.” Next, I recall taking my young children to the first “Star Wars” epic in which Guinness and two robots stole the show.
Nevertheless, it was only later in life that I discovered “Monsignor Quixote,” a made-for-TV film, in which Alec Guinness played his greatest role.
“Monsignor Quixote” was based on the novel of the same name by Graham Greene. Unlike deep, powerful novels like The Heart of the Matter or The Power and the Glory, Monsignor Quixote is a light comedy set in Spain after the death of Generalissimo Franco. It is a charming story, but the film, aided by Guinness and a wonderful supporting cast, transcends the book.
In the film Guinness plays an elderly country priest living in the obscure, Spanish village of El Toboso. His name is Quixote, and he fancies that he is a descendant of Cervantes’ famous hero. He even names his little antique car Rosinante, after Don Quixote’s broken-down nag.
Fr. Quixote is content with his life in sleepy El Toboso until the day he chances upon a foreign bishop whose Mercedes has broken down while traveling through town. He invites the bishop to lunch, spends a delightful afternoon with him, fixes his car, which was only out of gas, and sends him on his way. Shortly thereafter, he is surprised by a letter from the Vatican informing him that the bishop has recommended that Fr. Quixote be made a monsignor.
Father Quixote’s surprise is matched by that of his local bishop, who has little regard for his abilities and wonders why the Vatican should single out for honors someone whose views are somewhat tainted by past generosity to Franco’s enemies. At the same time, Sancho Zancas, the mayor of El Teboso, has just been voted out of office. Sancho is a Communist who gave up Catholicism in his youth and now only believes in Marx.
For different reasons, the two decide to take a sabbatical from El Toboso. Packing Rosinante full of food and fine local wine, Msgr. Quixote and Sancho, played by Leo McKern, embark on a series of adventures in the style of their famous prototypes.
Reports of these adventures reach Quixote’s bishop, who questions his sanity, has him forcibly brought back to El Toboso, confines him to the rectory, and finally forbids him to even say Mass. With the help of his housekeeper and Sancho, Msgr. Quixote escapes and embarks on his last adventure.
He eventually winds up in a town whose inhabitants have become wealthy in Mexico. So wealthy are they, in fact, that they compete to outbid each other for the right to carry the statue of the Virgin in a local procession. More than that, they superstitiously clothe the Virgin with money. Msgr. Quixote comes upon the procession and proceeds to break it up, with the result that he is beaten and driven out of town.
He, Sancho, and Rosinante are pursued by the local police until they finally crash at the gates of a nearby monastery. Over the complaints of the police, the abbot offers them sanctuary, and the dying Quixote is put to bed. In the middle of the night, a delirious Msgr. Quixote gets up from his bed and walks to the chapel to say his last Mass.
Here begins five minutes of acting of the highest order as Alec Guinness, a convert to Catholicism, proceeds to enact the Sacrifice of the Mass without host, wine, or missal. Sancho, the abbot, and a visiting American professor watch in amazement. Finally, the agnostic Sancho kneels to take the imaginary Host from the priest, his companero, who collapses and dies in his arms.
Commentators have noted that Alec Guinness was not a typical movie star. He was unassuming, like many of the characters he portrayed. Oddly enough, he thought his best role was Jock Sinclair in “Tunes of Glory,” a character much unlike him in real life. His most famous role was, of course, that of Obi-Wan-Kenobi in “Star Wars.”
Still, I believe that his private life and public career came together in one role. The convert to Catholicism and the great actor came together to portray the simple priest, Msgr. Quixote.
Unfortunately, the film is not available on DVD, but I believe it can be watched on YouTube.
“A Foreign Field”
“A Foreign Field,” a little noticed 1993 film, brought together a wonderful international ensemble of famous film stars all nearing the end of their careers. Alec Guinness and Leo McKern, who had such great chemistry a few years earlier in “Monsignor Quixote,” were joined by the famed French actress, Jeanne Moreau, and by the equally renowned American star, Lauren Bacall.
It is the story of two British World War II vets who meet an American vet when all three return to Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Old rivalries resurface, particularly when two of the men discover they are searching for the same lost love.
Guinness and McKern play British veterans who return to the scene for different reasons. Guinness plays a veteran who suffered severe brain damage from mortar fire on D-Day. He can hardly utter a sentence, but makes clear that he is there to place flowers at the grave of a fallen comrade. McKern plays his wartime buddy, who has taken care of him since that fateful day. He also remembers their departed friend, but hopes to meet up with a beautiful French girl he had met while recovering from a wound of his own.
When they check into their hotel, the two Brits discover a wealthy American car dealer, played by Jack Randolph, who not only was at Normandy but also hopes to find the same French woman. They begin to quarrel like young bucks until they discover that the woman, played by Moreau, was a prostitute who extended her favors to many soldiers during that time, but who now resides in an old age home.
Also, at their hotel is a mysterious, wealthy American woman, played by Lauren Bacall, who has returned to Normandy to remember her beloved brother, who died on D-Day.
Few film actors have had better or longer careers than Alec Guinness, but here, at the end of his career, he chose to portray with great sensitivity a severely handicapped old man. McKern is equally good as the irascible friend who has spent 50 years of his life caring for his wounded buddy.
The women in the film hold their own, and Bacall gives a fine performance as the American woman with a secret. Oddly enough, she started her career as a beautiful, sexy young woman appearing in “To Have and To Have Not” with Humphrey Bogart in 1944, a few months after D-Day. Here, still beautiful 50 years later, she gives a fine mature performance.
Moreau plays the aged prostitute with typical French flair and vivacity. One of the highlights of the film is her rendition of the song “La Vie en Rose” during lunch at a crowded restaurant.
Speaking of highlights, the film, which begins as a comedy, becomes very serious and moving at the end when the ensemble visits the various cemeteries. Although initially distrustful and suspicious of one another, this disparate band of survivors eventually finds common ground in the memory of what they lost on that fateful day in 1944.
American Literature on Film
Over the past two years, I have watched some really good films based on classic novels. I know that calling a film or book a classic is the proverbial “kiss of death” and will often dissuade people from watching or reading. For many, “classic” means old, old fashioned, out of date, and irrelevant.
Nevertheless, a good film adaptation can make a great book spring to life on the screen and become a classic in its own right. For example, a good actor or actress needs only a facial expression or a glance to convey what it takes a novelist pages to describe. A good film director can convey in one scene what the novelist took a whole chapter to describe.
Moreover, over the years I have come to realize how important the casting director is in putting a film together. Everyone knows the story of how Humphrey Bogart was not the first choice for the lead in “Casablanca,” and that even Ronald Reagan was considered for the part. Is it possible to imagine anyone else in the role today?
Here are brief reviews of four American classic film adaptations.
“Moby Dick” Herman Melville’s masterpiece of Captain Ahab’s doomed pursuit of the great white whale was brought to the screen in a 1956 color production by director John Huston. The film stars Gregory Peck as Ahab, Richard Basehart as Ishmael, Orson Welles in a cameo role as a fiery preacher, and a great supporting cast. I saw this film when it first came out and can still vividly remember characters like Starbuck, from whom the coffee chain derived its name, and the magnificent cannibal chief and harpooner, Queequeg. In addition to the incredible finale, who could ever forget Ahab’s nailing of the gold piece to the mast?
“The Red Badge of Courage” Stephen Crane’s realistic portrayal of ordinary soldiers before and during a single battle was originally published in 1895. It has become the model for all subsequent novels about warfare. It was brought to the screen in 1951 by director John Huston, who had a great interest in American history. True to the novel, the film sees the Civil War through the minds and eyes of the ordinary men who fought. Audie Murphy, the most decorated hero of WW II, stars along with a fine supporting cast, including Bill Mauldin, the famous WW II cartoonist. The final charge, capped as it is by conversation between victorious soldiers and their defeated captives, is very moving.
“The Magnificent Ambersons” Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize novel of a prominent Midwestern family at the dawn of the 20th century was brought to the screen by Orson Welles in 1942. Completed a year after “Citizen Kane,” Welles’ groundbreaking, break-through film, this film shows him at peak directorial form. Welles complained about studio cuts to shorten the viewing time, but the film is still filled with great dialogue, dazzling cinematography, and splendid performances by a fine cast that includes Joseph Cotton, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt.
“Dodsworth” Sinclair Lewis’ best-selling 1929 novel was brought to the screen by director William Wyler in 1936. Walter Huston, in what some consider to be his finest performance, plays a wealthy industrialist who sells his business and sets off with his wife of 20 years to discover Europe, and rediscover themselves. This film demonstrates, as many of the films of the ’30s did, the great fascination that upper-class Americans and the film industry had with things European. Co-star Ruth Chatterton gives a powerful performance as a woman seeking more than wealth, and Mary Astor gives one of her usual fine performances. “Dodsworth,” selected as one of the most important films of all time by the Library of Congress, actually far surpasses the book on which it is based.
Some people look down their noses at film adaptations, but watching these films has led me to reread these novels that I had read long ago in my high school and college years. I have found that these authors were great storytellers, and that their writing is still alive despite the passage of years. In the films mentioned above, the filmmakers produced works of art that stand alone, no matter how faithful they may or may not be to the original novel.
It takes one author to write a great novel. If you watch the credits roll on these films, you will see that it takes many craftsmen and women working together to create a work of film art. *