4 Classic Missionary Movies for the Rest of Us

I’m dusting off a handful of older missionary movies to enjoy and share with my family – maybe you’d enjoy them as well.

Gregory Peck stars in 1944’s “The Keys of the Kingdom” (Screenbound Pictures via YouTube)
Gregory Peck stars in 1944’s “The Keys of the Kingdom” (Screenbound Pictures via YouTube) (photo: Screenshot)

“I doubt people would think I’ve done anything interesting.”
Gladys Aylward

Martin Scorsese’s passion project and tour de force, “Silence,” opened last month to heaping critical acclaim (as expected), but it has yet to make its way to the humble multiplexes of the Midwest. That’s OK – I can wait.

The film is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name which traces the tremendous physical and moral hurdles encountered by Jesuit missionaries to Japan in the 16th century, not to mention their indigenous flocks. I read Silence as a young convert, and its gripping depiction of Christians enduring unimaginable suffering for their faith was one that never left me. Even as a new Catholic, I knew the pristine holy card images of martyrs and missionary heroes didn’t tell the whole story, and Endo’s narrative fleshed out the agonizing contours of what it might be like to really give up one’s life for Christ.

Consequently, like so many others, I eagerly anticipated Scorsese’s cinematic interpretation – both for the added insights it might bring to the missionary challenge, but also for how it would introduce whole new audiences to Endo’s literary achievement. With regards to the latter, it’s certainly true that the film has made a PR splash, and it has garnered much attention among the entertainment industry’s literati. Yet, it hasn’t been doing too well at the box office, and the reviews have been mixed.

Among other things, and like so many movies these days, there’s a thread of over-the-top realism in Scorsese’s “Silence” that apparently makes it watching it a grueling ordeal. In his review for the Catholic News Service, John Mulderig writes that the film containsmuch violence, including scenes of gruesome torture and a brutal, gory execution.” Because of this, and because of the film’s complicated theological issues “requiring mature discernment,” Mulderig attaches an “L” designation to the film – that’s “L” for “Limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.” Troubling indeed, even for a seasoned moviegoer like Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal. “For all the respect that Mr. Scorsese’s film demands, and deserves,” Morgenstern writes, “I couldn’t wait for ‘Silence’ to be over.”

Right – who needs that?

I thoroughly enjoyed Endo’s novel in my youthful post-conversion days, and I’ve always been interested in missionary tales and the issues they raise, but Scorsese’s “Silence” sounds like an exercise in endurance. Do I really want to subject myself to nearly three hours of widescreen torment – physical, spiritual, and otherwise? No thanks. I’ll check it out from the library when it’s released on DVD. That way I’ll be able to take a breather when I need to.

In the meantime, I’m dusting off a handful of older missionary movies to enjoy and share with my family – maybe you’d enjoy them as well. Although the missionaries concerned end up in 20th-century China instead of medieval Japan, the cross-cultural challenges they encounter are nonetheless daunting and dramatic. Moreover, like Scorsese’s effort, these are major Hollywood productions featuring big-name stars – that is, they’re films that were made to sell tickets and fill theater seats, not preach to the choir. Unlike "Silence," however, the movies I’ve selected take a considerably gentler approach to challenging their audiences while simultaneously seeking to both entertain and inspire.

  1. Chariots of Fire” (1981) – You probably already know this Oscar winner about the British athletes who trained for and excelled at the 1924 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. It’s a fact-based story of struggle and triumph, and not just on the playing field. Despite its deceptively quiet narrative tack, “Chariots” is an exhilarating film, and the Vangelis soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.

    So why does it top my list of missionary movies? Easy. One of the star athletes featured in the film is Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman,” who grew up in a Protestant missionary family and who himself spent his life propagating the Gospel in China. Liddell was as swift as he was devout, and he could’ve built on his Olympic triumph – one that famously involved refusing to compete on Sunday and then winning in an alternative weekday match – but he chose to return overseas. “Eric Liddell, missionary, died in occupied China at the end of World War II,” reads the intertitle at the end of “Chariots.” “All of Scotland mourned.” It’s an eloquent testimony to the sacrifices missionaries are expected to make, beginning at home, and extending throughout their lives of service. And yet they do so quite willingly – with no regrets. Duncan Hamilton reports that Liddell was once asked about his choosing missionary obscurity over athletic fame. “A fellow’s life counts for far more at this,” Liddell replied, “than the other.”
  2. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958) – “Chariots of Fire” is based on true events and so is this film, but this one's a lot harder to believe. Ingrid Bergman plays Gladys Aylward, a single working-class woman seemingly ill-suited for missions work, but whose indefatigable drive, solid Protestant piety, and evangelistic zeal led her to defy all expectations. Discouraged from pursuing her overseas aspirations by London's missionary officialdom, the 26-year-old cadged an invite to join an aging missionary matron in China's Shansi province, and Gladys made her way there via the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1932 – alone, with little language training, and despite passing through an undeclared war on the Russian frontier.

    It was only the beginning of her adventures.

    Aylward went on to run an inn for traders and muleteers, quell a prison riot, and serve as a government foot-inspector after the tradition of footbinding was declared illegal. She became a Chinese citizen and adopted a number of abandoned children. And when Japanese invaders threatened her community in 1938, she led a crowd of 100 orphans over the mountains and through hostile territory to safety.

    Known as Ai-Weh-Deh (“Virtuous One”), Aylward continually preached the Gospel through word and action, regardless of her circumstances, and her personal witness was instrumental in the conversion of many Chinese to the Christian faith, including the local Mandarin. Despite her astonishing achievements, she denied any special charism or supernatural gifts. “I wasn't God's first choice for what I've done for China,” she confessed later in life. “There was somebody else…. I don't know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn't willing…and God looked down…and saw Gladys Aylward.”
  3. The Keys of the Kingdom” (1944) – The first two films on my list feature Protestant missionaries; this one features a Catholic priest: Fr. Francis Chisholm, a Scottish cleric, played by Gregory Peck in an Oscar nominated performance. Another difference is that, while Liddell and Aylward were historical figures, Fr. Chisholm is a fictional character – the creation of writer A.J. Cronin whose 1941 novel formed the basis for this film.

    After a troubled childhood and a bumpy time in seminary, Fr. Chisholm has trouble fitting in as a conventional parish priest, so his bishop urges him to volunteer for the missions. When Fr. Chisholm arrives in China, he is faced with much resistance and resentment, which are both exacerbated by his unwillingness to compromise the Gospel in order to gain adherents.

    Eventually, however, due to his integrity and courage, Fr. Chisholm gains the confidence of the Chinese people and the mission starts to take shape. Like Gladys Aylward, he stands with his people amidst a wartime crisis, yet he loses his mission compound as a result, and still he perseveres – with the cordial encouragement of a Methodist missionary couple whose presence in this narrative adds a prescient, pre-conciliar note of authentic ecumenism. When Fr. Chisholm, after decades of labor, finally returns home to Scotland, he leaves behind a thriving Christian community that is both thoroughly Chinese and thoroughly devoted to Christ.

Taken all together, these three engrossing films give us a rich glimpse into the complexities of carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations: It’s a sacrifice from beginning to end, it’s often a persistent and even counterintuitive calling, and it requires staying power. Most of us, however, will not be called to the mission field, so is there a takeaway for us who stay at home?

Definitely, and I’d like to highlight it by pointing to yet another movie: “Heavens Above!” (1963), starring Peter Sellers as Rev. John Smallwood, an Anglican priest. When accidentally assigned to a prosperous parish, the quirky Smallwood runs up against establishment norms and expectations as he attempts to lead his flock into taking the Gospel both seriously and literally. He houses a large homeless family in the rectory; he persuades a wealthy parishioner to underwrite the distribution of free food and household goods; he ignores precedence and prejudice by appointing a black trash-hauler as churchwarden.

Of course, chaos and hilarity ensue, as you’d expect with a Sellers film, but there’s a thread of pietistic wisdom that runs throughout which is both edifying and disarming. In fact, I submit to you that Sellers’ Smallwood is as much a missionary in his English country parish as Liddell, Aylward, and Chisholm were in their Far Eastern outposts. He didn’t travel far, but Rev. Smallwood is similarly burdened with communicating the love of Christ to those not accustomed to hearing it, and he shares with them this characteristic: A willingness to attempt that communication despite flaws, shortcomings, and lack of expertise. “I am not a good Christian,” he told his new congregation in his first sermon, “but I want to be, so I’m trying.”

That’s exactly the perspective of successful missionaries like Liddell and Aylward, and the kind of humility that the fictional Fr. Chisholm embodied. Since all of us are sent into the world with Jesus every time we leave Mass – since all Catholics are, in that sense, missionaries – let that be our perspective as well.