Francis of Assisi (1961)
The life and times of St. Francis of Assisi, including his founding of the Franciscan Order, friendship with St. Clare, travels to Egypt, receiving the stigmata, and death in 1226.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian-American director most famous for his classic films Casablanca (1942) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Francis of Assisi, released in 1961 by Twentieth Century Fox, is a rather straightforward tale covering the “greatest hits” of Francis’ hagiography with some fictional embellishments (Mannikka, “Francis of Assisi”; Brady, “Saint Francis of Assisi”). The film, based on Louis de Wohl’s novel The Joyful Beggar (1958), begins with Francis (Bradford Dillman) in his early years, when he repudiates the life of luxury that he was destined to have as a merchant to live, instead, as a beggar in imitation of Christ and his Apostles (Pansters, 137). It is in this period of spiritual conversion that Francis begins to influence the noblewoman Clare (Dolores Hart) to turn her thoughts away from courtship and marriage. Clare’s turn to a spiritual life comes at the cost of the friendship between Francis and his war comrade Paolo (Stuart Whitman), who wishes to make Clare his wife. This film’s treatment of social class, gender, and ethnicity can be loosely linked to several episodes in Francis’ many extant hagiographies that are the most well-known: his rejection of luxuries for the life of poverty, his relationship with Clare of Assisi, and his encounters with Muslims in the East (Vauchez, 3-5).
In the first act, the central tension revolves around Francis’ rejection of his father’s wishes, which are that Francis continue the family business and settle for the life of a merchant. Francis’ decision to embrace poverty and reject worldly pleasures shames and embarrasses his father. Hearing the voice of God, Francis builds new churches, attracts new followers to his order, and decides on the rules by which he and his fellow brothers should live. The implication is that Francis’ higher calling of “rebuilding” the church comes at the cost of worldly pleasures, which are roadblocks, rather than markers, on a path toward spiritual fulfillment. Other characters in the film, like the wealthy merchant who donates stones to Francis’ church, also see the wisdom of giving up their old lives to support Francis’ calling. Francis’ rejection of luxuries as the son of a rich merchant is also mirrored in his decision to eschew worldly comforts as the founder of a new type of religious order. A compelling scene highlighting Francis’ spiritual mission of living a humble life “in the manner of the Gospels” is when he journeys to Rome to obtain authorization from the Pope (Finlay Currie) for his new order. The Pope, who does not question Francis’ commitment, expresses reservations about his request, since Francis’ successors may not be able to sustain a life that is too “severe.” The Pope’s reservations foreshadow a plot development in the film’s third act, when Francis returns from his travels abroad to find that his brothers have rewritten his rule and now lead lives far more extravagant than was originally prescribed in Francis’ rule. This disappointment encourages Francis to embark on his last quest towards his goal of living “in the manner of the Gospels.” He retreats to a cave for deep spiritual contemplation and receives his famous stigmata, or Christ’s crucifixion wounds, achieving a level of ecstasy in the full imitation of Christ’s suffering on the cross. This act not only marks Francis’ final act of repudiating his old life, but also those of his brothers, who sought material goods rather than spiritual fulfillment.
The film’s treatment of gender is mostly centered on the figure of Clare of Assisi, particularly her decision to abandon the traditional path of marriage and motherhood to become a nun. Her decision to become a devoted follower of Francis’ way of life is set up as a type of narrative resolution to the love “triangle” between Paolo, Clare, and Francis, whose platonic and spiritual love for Clare wins out over Paolo’s romantic overtures. Clare does end up choosing her own path, much like Francis does, and resists the pressures of accepting Paolo’s marriage proposal, much like Francis declines joining the family business. But, ultimately, Clare is a character who merely reacts to the influence and desires of the men around her. Once she takes her vows and dons a nun’s habit, her role in the film, and thus the story, ends. She virtually disappears from the film’s narrative, only to appear in one of the last scenes to give Paolo expository information about Francis’ whereabouts.
The religious and ethnic differences depicted in this film are shown in a couple of crucial scenes towards the end of the film’s second act, when we learn that Francis’ order has spread across the Continent and into the Holy Land. Francis decides to travel to meet Egypt’s Sultan (Pedro Armendáriz), whom he entreats to stop his hostilities against the Christians. These scenes show the Muslims (or Saracens, as they are called in the film) as fundamentally exotic and foreign, which are signified by their clothing and dark skin. Their appearance, dress, and manner of speaking are supposed to throw into sharp relief Francis’ clothing, humility, and sincerity. The role Muslims play in this story is to demonstrate how Francis positively affects all of those around him, even foreigners and non-Christians. For example, when Francis offers to walk through a burning pyre to prove the truth of Christianity, the Sultan, not wishing to see Francis martyred, grants him safe passage to the Holy Land instead. In the next scene, Muslims are cast in a wholly sympathetic light, but, once again, they serve as plot devices to inspire Francis to take action. When Francis arrives in the Holy Land, he encounters his erstwhile friend Paolo and his fellow crusaders, whom he witnesses ravaging a Muslim town and its women. Disillusioned by the Crusaders’ cruelty to Muslim prisoners, Francis leaves and returns to Italy to join his brothers.
The film Francis of Assisi begins with a title card thanking the “Italian government, Church authorities and people of Assisi…[and] the Franciscan Orders, Conventuals, and Friars Minor…” It is, in a sense, a love letter to all of these people and institutions, since Michael Curtiz depended greatly on the assistance of local volunteers in Assisi for recreating the medieval town for the film (“Assisi Revisited”). The film, however, is essentially a big-budgeted, faith-based film that tells a rather conventional story about the historical origins of the Franciscans.
“Assisi Revisited.” Time 77, no. 2 (January 6, 1961): 56.
Brady, Ignatius Charles. “Saint Francis of Assisi.” Britannica Academic (accessed January 27, 2018).
Mannikka, Eleanor. “Francis of Assisi.” AllMovie.com. https://www.allmovie.com/movie/francis-of-assisi-v92287 (accessed January 27, 2018).
Pansters, Krijn. Franciscan Virtue: Spiritual Growth and the Virtues in Franciscan Literature and Instruction from the Thirteenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Vauchez, André. Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
c. 1212 - 1226