The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)


Directed Michael Anderson

Written by John Patrick and James Kennaway (based on the novel by Morris L. West)

Starring Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier, Oskar Werner, David Jannsen

Tagline: A modern day story of faith, courage, and intrigue.

Trivia: Alex North wrote the music score for the film, using material he composed for 2001: A Space Odyssey, music Stanley Kubrick ultimately rejected in favor of classical compositions. 

A most unusual Cold War film, The Shoes of the Fisherman suggests a spiritual solution to the era’s existential crisis.  With the reality of nuclear war a perpetual presence, one had two choices: Become a hardcore existentialist and accept the meaninglessness of life or embrace religious faith in a last ditch effort to find meaning.  That’s a simplification of course, but the dilemma nevertheless remained.

The Shoes of the Fisherman got a bad reception upon release- and for legitimate reasons.  It goes on too long, getting lost in boring subplots that have little to do with the overall plot. The first follows a globetrotting reporter trying to repair his marriage.  The second deals with a priest accussed of heresy for his controversial interpretation of the The Gospels.

Set 20 years in the future with the Soviet Union and China on the brink of war, the Catholic Church comes to the rescue. Anthony Quinn plays a Catholic Cardinal (Kiril) who was exiled to the Gulag by the Soviet Union for criticizing the government.  Through a series of miraculous events, Kiril gets elected Pope in the hope he will broker a peaceful solution to the international crisis.

Quinn delivers a fine performance as an enlightened holy man, exuding common sense and compassion. In many ways the film foreshadowed a coming detente between the United States and China (ironically the first film Nixon watched in the White House). And in 1978 the Church elected a Polish Pope who went on to play a crucial role in world affairs during his tenure.

Flaws aide, The Shoes of the Fisherman is worth watching once.  The music and cinematography are striking with some great footage of Rome in the 1960s.  Theology and politics are rarely covered in movies with such nuance and respect.

The spiritual effect of the Cold War remains a fascinating topic mostly unexplored in movies.



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