The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

  • Year: 1968
  • Released: 14 Nov 1968
  • Country: United States
  • Adwords: Nominated for 2 Oscars. 4 wins & 5 nominations total
  • IMDb:
  • Rotten Tomatoes:
  • Metacritics:
  • Available in: 720p, 1080p,
  • Language: English, Latin, Hebrew
  • MPA Rating: G
  • Genre: Drama
  • Runtime: 162 min
  • Writer: John Patrick, James Kennaway, Morris West
  • Director: Michael Anderson
  • Cast: Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier, Oskar Werner
  • Keywords: china, based on novel or book, philosophy, vatican, pope, soviet union,
43% – Critics
75% – Audience

The Shoes of the Fisherman Storyline

Kiril Lakota (Anthony Quinn) is a political prisoner who has been imprisoned in Siberia doing manual work outdoors for the USSR heavy industry. One day, after twenty years, he is called to the commander of the prison’s office, and he was taken somewhere. Then, he is surprised to be in front of the premier of the USSR, Piotr Ilyich Kamenev. We come to know that Kamenev was Kiril’s torturer years ago. Both recognized that they came to know each other well. Kamenev tells Lakota that he will be released, no questions answered, on condition that he will never say who freed him. Kiril wants to reject the offer, but he is told that the conditions had been accepted for him. Kamanev shows Kiril some news reports about China being about to invade Korea, Hong Kong, Viet Nam, and other wheat-producing Asian nations because, in only three months, the Communist leader will not be able to feed his people and millions and millions of people will starve to death. American submarines armed with heavy and nuclear weaponry have already been deployed the area of the China Sea. David Telemond (Oskar Werner) appears and gives Kiril a Vatican passport. Kiril will be subject to diplomatic immunity until he leaves the USRR. They talk in the plane out to the Vatican, and tells him that he’s written a book which the Vatican officially has considered heresy, and the next day he has to defend his last book. He also tells Kiril that he has a deadly disease, so it won’t take long for him to die. George Faber (David Janssen) is the first journalist who interviews him.The present Pope (Sir John Gielgud) insists on making him a cardinal. Kiril says that he kept a steadfast faith, but that he has only worked as a priest for his fellow prisoners, so is not prepared for the position. The Pope insists so Kiril has not option but to obey.George himself has a complex personal life, with a very jealous wife, Dr Ruth Faber (Barbara Jefford), who wants him to get rid of his lover Chiara (Rosemary Dexter). A tense moment happens when the nosy Marchesa (Isa Miranda) tells Chiara to settle down and get married during a high-class party.Kiril tells David that he didn’t see much conventional faith in his book. However, David insists in his views: he wants to remain a priest, and is trying to fulfill his last years alive with purpose. David answers to the court who is judging him. During the interrogatory, he stresses that the design of God includes evil acts, according to him. However, there is no verdict, as news arrives that the Pope has collapsed. George is the first who gives live the news that the Pope has died. Everybody wonders who the next Pope will be. The two most thought-of candidates, Cardinal Rinaldi (Vittorio De Sica) and Cardinal Leone (Leo McKern) do not deem themselves worthy of the position, as they are too old and a bit old-fashioned. They need new blood and new ideas for the 20th Century. After the burial of the Pope in three coffins, one inside another, all the cardinals of the church move behind locked doors until they have chosen a new pope.Kiril insists on taking David as his secretary, although it’s David himself who points to the fact of the ongoing court -the decision will be taken as soon as the new Pope is elected- and he believes the verdict will be against him, but Kiril insists. They joke that the only sure thing is that the next pope would be Italian.A crowd starts gathering around Saint Peter’s while all the rituals before the votation are completed: the locking of doors, the gathering of all the cardinals. Neither Leone nor Rinaldi are able to get enough votes to be elected. As the 6th vote -at two votes per day that means three days later- still shows no decisive solution, George and other people wonder how long it may take to elect someone. Even Kamenev watches George on the news. They wonder also what Cardinal will be elected, as the right person could help them to their own ends. Kamenev admits that the situation in China could blow the world out. His assistant laughs because he is asking magic to solve his problems. Kamenev says that he has run out of maths and facts.In one of the meetings between votes, Kiril says that Communism has become really conservative. Some cardinals are afraid of revolutions, and Kiril is the only one who admits violence as a means to certain ends and social justice. Questioned further, he admits that he stole bread in the Siberian camp to feed a fellow prisoner with a broken jaw, and he almost killed the guard who attacked that prisoner. When questioned how he would have felt if he had killed that guard, he says that he doesn’t know, but insists that sometimes violence may be the only way out.When nighttime arrives and everybody goes to sleep, Kiril keeps on praying, tormented by his memories.The next day, after the 7th vote having been void as well, Cardinal Rinaldi (Vittorio de Sica) takes a privilege of church law to openly proclaim Kiril Lakota as his choice. Lakota, Rinaldi says, has preached and suffered imprisonment because of his faith, and he has the strength of personality to adapt the doctrine of the Catholic faith to modern times. Although Lakota is reluctant, other cardinals join in the proclamation, and Cardinals stand up and finally Lakota accepts.Gelasio (Arnodo Foà) has set out three robes, as is the custom, to accommodate the newly elected pope, whatever his size. David feels completely shocked when he, with all the rest of secretaries, sees Kiril as the new Pope. Kiril chooses his own name to carry, as it was the name of the first preacher who “carried the Gospel” into Ukraine.All the public falls silent when they see it’s Kiril. Then, the public cheers, and Faber says that, with the world on the verge of a crisis, it’s impossible to know what the possible ramifications may be in the future.INTERMISSION – ENTR’ACTEKiril wants to keep David close to him, although the rest of the cardinals disagree. Kiril thinks he’s an honest man in spite of his wrong opinions. He also wants time to act and pray, changing things. Igor Bounin (Frank Finlay) comes to talk to him, with a gift from Kamenev, some sunflower seeds. Kamenev still thinks that Kiril could see the right word at the right place. Bounin, under other name, was one of the torturers of Kiril under his interrogation. Bounin, on behalf of Kamenev, says that in two months’ time there will be war, and that the only solution is that Kiril speaks to China on behalf of the Western countries, and to the Western countries in behalf of China. Kiril dictates his answer: it’s a risky thing to do and needs more time to think about it.Chiara meets George at the zoo. His wife has followed them there, and sees them together.Kiril wants to talk with Gelasio, who’s always busy with housekeeping. Gelasio says that Rome inhabitants will make jokes about the foreign pope, but in time they will get used to it. Kiril has an idea and asks Gelasio to give him a black dress and beret like a normal priest. Kiril goes out to visit Rome, and sees a painter painting, the heavy traffic, people going out having fun, the poor noisy neighborhoods, where Dr Ruth Faber almost runs him over. She asks him to go the a chemist’s nearby for some medicines. He goes, but hasn’t got any money to pay. The pharmacist trusts him and gives him the medicines. The dying man and his family (Leopoldo Trieste) is a Jew, so he prays in the typical Hebrew way. Kiril and Ruth bade goodbye, and he says “shalom” to everybody. Kiril used to work with a rabbi in the Siberian camp. On their way out, they see a couple kissing and caressing. Ruth is only worried about his failing marriage. They talk. He tells him to find the love she used to feel. However, the Pope’s security is awaiting outside, so they can’t go have dinner.When Ruth arrives home, George is packing. All correspondents have been called to Paris. Meanwhile, the Cardinals advice Kiril to wait, but he doesn’t want to delay. David has to answer the Cardinal’s court. David seems to go dizzy when trying to answer. (He is actually fatally ill; he has an inoperable aneurysm in his brain.) David’s concept of Christ is different. They ask David Telemond to put his beliefs in a clear statement. He says he also believes in the world. Kiril himself will tell David that the court has decided that his opinions are not to be divulged and are dangerous. David is completely frustrated, because he has been condemned to silence. Kiril orders him to get medical care and stay silent. David says that he hates and loves the church at the same time.Kiril dresses in civil clothes to meet with Peng (Burt Kwouk), the Chinese leader, and Kamenev. Kamenev says that Kiril cannot be too humble or too proud. Kiril says he’ll try to make peace, and open the markets of surrounding countries for China. Peng asks for Kiril to risk something if he fails.Back in Rome, Kiril asks for David’s help. Kiril says that he should have not accepted. Kiril prays and says that his only consolation is that he cannot be mistaken, no matter what folly he commits. David says that he has no grudge against Kiril, although he’ll still hold his beliefs. As they pray, David suddenly collapses, clutching his head and screaming. His brain aneurysm has burst. He dies offscreen as the Pope picks him up and rushes him to the infirmary.Cardinal Leone, feeling guilty about the way he treated David, asks Kiril to hear his confession. Leone admits he was jealous of David because Kiril loved and trusted him. Kiril admits he kept Leone at a distance because Leone opposed him. Leone says that Kiril must act, but he shouldn’t expect approval or understanding. All popes felt lonely when they had to make decisions. Leone says that it can’t be avoided.George is the reporter on the coronation of Kiril. All cardinals oppose Kiril’s idea. Kiril offers his abdicadtion. Leone immediately says no.Immediately after being crowned, Kiril pledges all the wealth of the church to pay for food for China’s people.

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The Shoes of the Fisherman Movie Reviews

1960’s movie foresees changes in the Catholic Church

This film, based on the book by Morris L. West, was made in 1968 and seemed far ahead of its time but it is remarkably accurate in predicting the trends we would come to witness with subsequent popes. No longer are popes crowned with a tiara. We have seen a pope from the Communist bloc and three non-Italian men have served as pope. Francis, the current pope, mirrors many of the traits of Pope Kiril with his emphasis on social justice and the stories of his secret forays into Rome. Anthony Quinn offers up a pope who is humble but also wise. Despite the shock of his election, he knows who is the boss. One scene outside the Vatican is very moving as he visits a dying man, who happens to be Jewish. We also see a pope who is comfortable amid the hurly-burly of city life.

The film draws the viewer into the movie with scenes we have often witnessed from St. Peter’s Square of huge crowds at the time of a pope’s death and the subsequent election of his successor. David Jansen is the erudite broadcaster talking to American audiences about the workings of the Vatican and the progress of events. There are the processions through the square, close-ups of statues around the square, puffs of black and white smoke telling onlookers the status of the balloting, and the tolling of bells. The movie goes behind the scenes and takes the viewer back to the square with the throngs waiting in anticipation until the drama is over. In this film, it reaches a finale with the coronation and in particular, the words of the new pope.

I found the pomp and pageantry and the sacred traditions surrounding the death of a pope and the election of a successor to be well described and displayed. The inquisitorial nature of the pontifical commission grilling the Oscar Werner character is what we are given to believe about the Vatican’s treatment of theologians. Werner was outstanding in his role as an avant grade theologian breathing new life into church dogma against the rather staid and anti-intellectual Vatican insiders. Vittorio de Sica was excellent as the urbane Secretary of State. Leo McKern, as the conservative Cardinal Leone, was shown to be a man with some foresight and compassion. John Gielgud had a brief but impressive role as the aging pope welcoming Kiril Lakota to the Vatican. A large-scale movie with an excellent cast, I would gladly see the it again.

A Sinful Treat

Morris West’s novel carries an element of prophecy but the film is far too heavy in every department to, ultimately, be taken seriously and yet you do. I did. Anthony Quinn is a credible Kiril, the priest who survived years in a Siberian prison to become Pope. There is enough humanity in Quinn to make that leap in our hearts and minds – that is a massive plus in favor of this huge super production – Laurence Olivier tries a new accent as the Russian premiere and okay but when the Chinese Chairman is played by Burt Kwouk – you know Kato in the Pink Panther movies – I had to readjust myself and start from scratch. Oskar Werner belongs to another movie altogether but he’s wonderful as the priest questioning his faith. Vittorio de Sica and Leo McKern play two Cardinal/Politicians with saintly ambivalence but it is the soap opera outside the Vatican that drags the movie out of everywhere. David Janssen, famous then because TV’s “The Fugitive” looks really uncomfortable. Alex North provides a respectful and resounding score. The long sequences about Vatican procedure are priceless and I will recommend it because here I am, weeks after I’ve seen it, thinking about it which means I’ve enjoyed it more than I should have. What a ridiculous thing to say, right? Right.

Putting It All On the Line

The film adaption of Morris West’s best selling novel Shoes of the Fisherman gives the viewer a rare insight into the workings of the Catholic Church. Even the most dogged of unbelievers have always conceded that in this form of the Christian faith there has always been a grand pageantry at work.

It also a great example of life imitating art. Anthony Quinn is the former Archbishop of Lvov who was sent away for many years by the Communists to time in the Gulag. As a gesture of goodwill the Soviet Premier played Laurence Olivier gives him his release. Quinn and Olivier also have a history of their own, Olivier was the KGB official who interrogated Quinn back in the day and we know what their interrogation methods were like.

Upon reaching the Vatican, the Pope played by John Gielgud makes him a Cardinal. A few months later Gielgud dies and in the conclave to elect a new Pope, it’s decided that Cardinal Quinn has some insight into an unbelieving part of the word that no one else possesses. So Quinn steps into The Shoes of the Fisherman.

So we have the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years as we shortly did in real life. Quinn inherits a world in crisis with China suffering from famine and threatening war against its neighbors to obtain food.

I can’t reveal what Quinn actually did in the film, but it seems as though he took his cue from Pope Benedict XV who also tried to use his good office to end World War I and also organized relief efforts. In any event, he put it all on the line and I do mean all.

Tony Quinn and Laurence Olivier had a history of their own. They co-starred on Broadway in Becket with Olivier as Becket and Quinn as Henry II. Though there sure wasn’t anything wrong with the film adaption that Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole did, it might have been nice to see the original cast perform this.

In fact my favorite in this film is Olivier. With the Soviet Union now broken up we can look back now and see the problems confronting each Soviet premier as they tried to hold their polyglot state of several republics together. Olivier’s Kamenev is in the tradition of Leonid Brezhnev who was in charge at the time of the Soviet Union. It’s with complete seriousness that the actor playing the Chinese premier calls him half a capitalist already. Of course when Mao died, the Chinese have become more than half capitalist themselves.

Others in the cast of note are Oskar Werner as a non-conforming Jesuit who espouses some heretical doctrine who Quinn finds intriguing and Leo McKern and Vittorio DeSica as a pair of politically astute Cardinals.

Good location shooting nicely blended with newsreel footage of crowd scenes give the film a real authenticity. I think Catholic viewers will like Shoes of the Fisherman especially.