Mission, The (1986): Roland Jaffe’s Pseudo-Historical Epic

Despite good intention and riveting topic, Roland Joffe’s The Mission is a vastly disappointing pseudo-historical epic.

The movie’s ideological goal, high-caliber cast, and production values must have impressed jury members and Oscar voters, for the film won the Cannes Film Festival top award, the Palme d’Or, and was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

All of the film’s characters, the missionaries, the slave traders, and the colonizers, come across as types, rather than fully fleshed individuals.

They serve as functions in the plot, or decorations in a glossy photo album of the period, instead of anchoring a more authentic socio-political chronicle about an interesting phenomenon.

The South American Indians are even more narrowly defined.  Lacking individuality, they’re viewed as naïve, childish, and innocent, as if waiting to be exploited by the outsiders, (Their depiction is similar to the way Native American have been portrayed for decades in Hollywood Westerns made by white directors). This is yet another movie that looks at the plight of Indians from a strictly white (read American) perspective.

In the first sequence, set in 1750 in the South American jungle, a white male cleric, stripped to the waist and lashed to a wooden cross, is carried by the current over the edge of Iguazu Falls, while Ennio Morricone’s melodic score is pounding in the background.

Quite disappointingly, the narrator, Father Altamirano (Ray McAnally), describes the event simply as martyrdom.

The killing of the missionary is not an isolated incident–there’s strong resistance of the native population to Christianity.

Misguided by his director, the gifted lenser Chris Menges, who won an Oscar for his imagery, turns this and other violent acts into exotic adventures-tableaux, which are stunning to look at but lack tension and drama (considering the explosive subject matter).

British actor Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, avatar of the good Christian soul, who’s sent to build a mission for the Guarani Indians, in the same place that his compeer met his death; Gabriel’s pacifist missionary is conceived as an embodiment of Christ. His fellow men of the cloth (including Liam Neeson), who have joined him in this remote outpost, are eagerly welcomed by the natives, resulting in a peculiar setting of an idyllic mission for the Guarani.

Meanwhile, the ruthless Spanish slave-trader Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro, possibly miscast), who’s bearded, brown-haired, and barefoot (the embodiment of evil), kills many Indians, and captures others whom he later sells as slaves.

It’s not a great trip home for Rodrigo once he finds that his fiancee Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi) sleeps with his own brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn, blue-eyed Waspish).  In an act of vengeance, Rodrigo kills his brother in a public duel.

Inexplicably, the three Christian martyrs in “The Mission” are a white saint, a Spaniard who converts after hard labor, and another white guy—so much for political accuracy and historical authenticity.

The screenplay by Robert Bolt (who penned the 1966 Oscar-winner “A Man for All Season”) is too blatant and heavy-handed in its political arguments, and for the most part, the dialogue doesn’t ring true. There are too many expository scenes about why Spanish colonial lands are bought out by the Portuguese, the impact of the Vatican intrigues on land-trading, and the persistence of slave-trading.

Producer David Putnam’s movies (including the 1981 Oscar-winner “Chariots of Fire”) represent a strange hybrid of movies, combining glossy production values and heavily laid liberal messages.  Uncharacteristically, though, “The Mission” is ill conceived and dull, despite its honorable indictment of colonialism.

Lurid and florid, “The Mission” is a Hollywood epic that feels strained, overlong, lacking dramatic momentum. Perhaps it is overly ambitious, trying to do too much within the frame of a single movie, in which no conflict or character is fully and satisfying developed.

The movie represents a step-down for all involved, released as it was right after the effective collaboration of Putnam and Joffe on “The Killing Fields,” an intriguing political saga nominated for the 1984 Best Picture Oscar.

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by Fernando Ghia and David Putnam

Director: Roland Joffé

Cinematography: Chris Menges

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Stuart Craig; Jack Stephens

Costume Design: Enrico Sabbatini

Film Editing: Jim Clark

Original Score: Ennio Morricone

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context:

In 1986, “The Mission” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film Platoon,” which won the top award and other Oscars, the melodrama, “Children With a Lesser God,” Woody Allen’s serio-comedy, “Hannah and Her Sisters, which won the Supporting Acting Oscars, and Merchant-Ivory costume drama, “A Room With a View.”


Director: Roland Joffé.

Screenplay: Robert Bolt

Running time: 126 Minutes


Gabriel (Jeremy Irons)

Mendoza (Robert De Niro)

Altamirano (Ray McAnally)

Fielding (Liam Neeson)

Cabeza (Chuck Low)

Hontar (Ronald Pickup)

Felipe (Aidan Quinn)

Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi)

Indian Boy (Bercelio Moya)

Witch Doctor (Sigfredo Ismare)