Shoes of the Fisherman, The (1968): Anderson’s Vatican Political Thriller, Starring Anthony Quinn and Olivier

The Shoes of the Fisherman, though flawed, is an interesting film that’s effective as a tale of geopolitical intrigue and a chronicle of Vatican procedure.

Anthony Quinn plays a newly-freed Russian political prisoner thrust into the spotlight as Pope Kiril Lakota.

Formerly a Russian Archbishop and survivor of the gulag, he now has to deal with all kinds of personal and political crises.

Based on Morris West’s 1963 best-selling novel, which was much ahead of its time in its depiction of Vatican intrigues, the screenplay was co-written by John Patrick and James Kennaway, who have tried to compress the numerous characters and events into a manageable Hollywood picture.

British director Anthony Asquith was originally assigned to the project, but he became ill, and had to be replaced by Michael Anderson (best known for directing the 1956 Oscar-winning Around the World in 80 Days).

The producers had asked for technical advice from the Vatican, but were not  permitted to shoot there so places like the Sistine Chapel had to be recreated.  The papal tiara used in the coronation scene is modeled after Pope Paul VI’s papal tiara.

Michael Anderson’s attempt at large-scale epic cinema boasts an all-star cast of Laurence Olivier, Oskar Werner, John Gielgud, David Janssen, Vittorio de Sica, and Leo McKern, who bring international flavor to the production with varying degrees of success.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shoes of the Fisherman begins as Kiril Pavlovich Lakota, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv, Ukraine, is unexpectedly set free after decades in a Siberian labor camp by his former jailer, Piotr Ilyich Kamenev (Olivier), now the Premier of the Soviet Union.

He is sent to Rome, where the elderly Pope Pius XIII makes him a Cardinal, assigned titulus of St. Athanasius church. Lakota is reluctant, begging to be given “a simple mission with simple men,” but the Pope insists that he accepts the rank of cardinal.

When the Pontiff suddenly collapses and dies, the process of a papal conclave begins, and Cardinal Lakota participates as an elector. During the sede vacante, two cardinals, Cardinal Leone and Cardinal Rinaldi, seem to be the leading candidates.

After seven deadlocked ballots, Lakota is unexpectedly elected Pope as a compromise candidate by acclamation after the cardinals interview him and are impressed by his ideas. Lakota then takes the name of Pope Kiril.

Meanwhile, the world is on the brink of nuclear war due to a Chinese–Soviet feud, made worse by a famine caused by trade restrictions brought against China by the US.

After his election, Pope Kiril, with the help of his valet, Gelasio, sneaks out of the Vatican and explores the city of Rome dressed as a simple priest. He encounters Dr. Ruth Faber, who is in a troubled marriage with TV journalist, George Faber.

Later, the Pope returns to the Soviet Union, dressed as civilian, to meet Kamenev and Chinese Chairman Peng and discuss the ongoing crisis.  Kiril fears that the cost could be a war that would rip the world apart. At his papal coronation, Kiril removes his papal tiara and pledges to sell the Church’s property to help the Chinese, much to the delight of the crowds in St. Peter’s.

A secondary plot involves the Pope’s relationship with a controversial scientist, Father Telemond (Oskar Werner). The Pope becomes Telemond’s personal friend, but in his official capacity, he must allow the Holy Office to censure Telemond.

Released in November of 1968, the film was a box office disappointment, considering its high budget (about $7 million).

Running time: 162 minutes.

Oscar Nominations

The film was nominated for two Oscars, but didn’t win.

Art direction-Set Decoration: George W. Davis and Edward Carfagno
Original Score (for a Motion Picture, but not Musical): Alex North

The winners were the musical “Oliver!” for art direction, and “The Lion in Winter,” for John Barry’s score.

Anthony Quinn as Kiril Lakota/Pope Kiril I
Laurence Olivier as Piotr Ilyich Kamenev
Oskar Werner as Fr. David Telemond
David Janssen as George Faber
Barbara Jefford as Dr Ruth Faber
Vittorio De Sica as Cardinal Rinaldi
Leo McKern as Cardinal Leone
John Gielgud as The Elder Pope
Burt Kwouk as Chairman Peng
Arnoldo Foà as Gelasio
Leopoldo Trieste as Dying Man’s Friend
Frank Finlay as Igor Bounin
Rosemary Dexter as Chiara

Clive Revill as Vucovich
Niall MacGinnis as Capuchin friar
Isa Miranda as Marquesa