To celebrate my 500th review for IMDb, I turn to another of my favourite films. The Reverend Charles Fortescue is an Edwardian clergyman who has spent ten years working as a missionary in Africa. He returns to England and is asked by the Bishop of London to run a Mission to Fallen Women in the East End. Fortescue sets about his new task with vigour, supported by a generous donation from the wealthy Lady Ames, and the Mission proves a great success. Suspicions begin to grow, however, that Fortescue is offering the young women of the Mission something more than spiritual comfort, and that Lady Ames's interest in his work is motivated by something other than philanthropic zeal.
This is one of a number of films made by the former Pythons since their partnership came to an end; Michael Palin not only wrote the script but also appears as Fortescue. Several of these films show the clear influence of the famous Ealing comedies, and it is obvious that some at least of the Pythons must have a deep admiration for that series, even though the style of their early comedy was very different. "A Fish Called Wanda", which starred Palin and John Cleese, was directed by the Ealing veteran Charles Crichton, and there are clear thematic links between "A Private Function" (Palin again) and "Passport to Pimlico" and between "Splitting Heirs" (Cleese and Eric Idle) and "Kind Hearts and Coronets".
Like "Kind Hearts
..", "The Missionary" is set among the Edwardian upper classes. It does not have any direct thematic links to any of the Ealing films, but does have a similar style of humour, updated to suit the changing tastes of the eighties. Jokes about sex, for example, can be much more direct than would have been possible in the forties or fifties. This is not, however, a simple satire on Edwardian attitudes to sex and religion. It is a very different film to the ghastly "Best House in London", which was set in the Victorian period and took the line that prostitution is all jolly good rollicking fun.
"The Missionary", in fact, is a comedy about sex which (unlike most British comedies on that subject) avoids smuttiness and a comedy about religion which avoids the standard line that religious believers are all either fools or hypocrites. Although there is some fun at the expense of the Bishop, the film does capture the ethos of Edwardian "Muscular Christianity" with its progressive social attitudes and emphasis on good works. Prostitution is shown as a social evil because it leads to the exploitation and degradation of working-class women, and the Church's opposition to it is seen as both morally justified and socially progressive.
Palin plays Fortescue as a mixture of ardent social reformer and holy innocent, a kindly, well-intentioned man whose good intentions reflect many of the assumptions of his age. (He assumes, for example, that the African children he is teaching need to know all about English mediaeval history). He ends up sleeping with the young women of the Mission almost by accident- they all fall in love with him because he is the only man who has ever shown them kindness or has treated them as anything other than sex objects. Fortescue is not, however, the most comic character in the film; indeed, for much of the time he appears to be playing straight man to the others, who all have their own eccentricities. There is the aristocratic nymphomaniac Lady Ames and her ferociously reactionary husband, played by Trevor Howard as the comic equivalent of his Lord Cardigan in "The Charge of the Light Brigade". (The use of the hymn "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" provides another link between the two films). There is their comically inept butler Slatterthwaite, forever unable to navigate his way round their palatial stately home.
Denholm Elliott plays the Bishop as hearty and obsessed with sport, especially boxing and cricket. I first saw "The Missionary" in the cinema with two college friends and we were amused by the resemblance of the Bishop to one of our lecturers, who also peppered his conversation with cricketing clichés like "batting on a sticky wicket". Elliott and Maggie Smith, who plays Lady Ames, were later to star with Palin in "A Private Function". My favourite performance, however, came from the lovely Phoebe Nicholls as Fortescue's terminally naïve fiancée Deborah, totally unable to understand the concept of "fallen women". ("Women who have hurt their knees?"). She also has a passion for neatness and order and has devised a fantastically intricate filing system for keeping track of her fiancé's love-letters.
Palin had already proved himself to be a great comedian; in "The Missionary" and "A Private Function" he also proved himself a great comic actor, just as Cleese had done in "Fawlty Towers". The two things are not necessarily the same; there are several British comedians- Dudley Moore being a good example- who never seemed as funny on the big screen as they did in their stage and TV routines. Palin was later also to prove himself a very good serious actor in "American Friends", another film in which he plays a likable Anglican clergyman. It is interesting that he should have twice given a sympathetic portrayal of men of the cloth- perhaps the Pythons were not all as anti-religious as those who criticised them for their "Life of Brian" assumed.
Besides some wonderful performances, "The Missionary" also has some great lines and together with "A Private Function" it is the best of the post-Python comedies and one of the funniest British films of the eighties. 10/10.