Tomorrow, Friday, October 13th, marks the 100th anniversary of the “Miracle of the Sun,” the final apparition in Fátima, Portugal, of the Virgin Mary after several successive months of appearing to three children. We turn our attention today to The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), which dramatizes these events.
The story is inherently dramatic, involving the supernatural, as well as historical fact, but the obvious third leg of the stool—our human capacity for faith and what we choose to do about it—is not as strong an element in this movie as it might be. Much of the unquestioning faith of the children, and the doubtful faith of their elders, seem conveyed as a lesson learned by rote.
One is tempted to regard this movie as an attempt by Warner Bros. to cash in on the tremendous critical and financial success of The Song of Bernadette (1943), made nine years earlier at 20th Century-Fox, and which garnered several Academy Awards. That movie addressed the visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France, in 1858 to Bernadette Soubrious. We discussed that movie here in this previous post. Here, from that post:
The Song of Bernadette (1943) pits man against miracle in a many-layered universe. The first layer of this complicated universe is the historical 19th century event on which the story is based. Then, there is the book by Franz Werfel and the World War II climate under which that book was written and published. Finally, there is Hollywood, that tries diplomatically to be both pious and frank, spiritual and temporal, to present a money-making story, and yet present it under the auspices of a religious experience…Man is by nature a creature which believes. We have religions and sometimes complicated protocols of faith. We have superstitions, and we have good luck and bad luck, and we have worries and fears and paranoia, and that is all part of what we willingly believe without proof. On the opposite side of man’s nature is an innate skepticism.
Someone who believes in the efficacy of the prayers of his own faith, may disbelieve the efficacy of prayers of another faith. An atheist may disbelieve the efficacy of any prayer at all, and yet wholeheartedly believe in luck, or horoscopes, or that a co-worker who gives him a dirty look is out to get him. It may be the co-worker is just in a bad mood, but that does not shake the belief of the paranoid. A lot of logical, sensible people knock on wood. Even people who believe in nothing believe in something, even if it is only the superiority of their own opinions.
So, we believe, regularly, commonly, without proof. It may be part of our DNA. But at the same time we are skeptical over someone else’s experiences. The Song of Bernadette shows these disparate sides of human nature and the clinging onto of human dignity more than it puts forward of one belief over another, or promotes miracles.
That The Song of Bernadette dramatizes the struggle of faith as something normal and yet at the same time, monumental, is one of its most intriguing elements. There are many other factors which, added together, simply make Bernadette a much better movie, including a strong cast of familiar character actors, and a strong script.
The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima relies on a cast largely unknown to us, though there are numerous uncredited extras that may make you play the old game “spot the villager”: Mae Clark, Jack Kruschen, J. Carroll Nash, and Anne Whitfield (our Susan Waverly from White Christmas). Jay Novello has a role as the father of two of the children, but the only featured adult role in this film belongs to Gilbert Roland, a favorite of mine whom we saw here in The French Line (1954) and We Were Strangers (1949). Mr. Roland’s role is a fictional character, a lovable rogue who does not believe, but who attempts to protect the kids when townspeople and officials go after them from spreading tales about being visited by the Virgin Mary.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it centers on the three kids. Susan Whitney is Lucia, the eldest of the three who is the leader, and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco, who are brother and sister, played by Sherry Jackson and Sammy Ogg. All three child actors went on to do television in the 1950s, but Susan Whitney had the briefest career. Sherry Jackson had an uncredited role as an extra in The Great Caruso (1951), which we discussed here.
Unfortunately, there is no depth to the children’s roles as written or as played, so they come across as something of cardboard cutouts. It might have been better if this had intentionally been made as a children’s film, giving them a stronger screen presence and focusing on their world rather than the angry grownups, who disbelieve them, try to silence them, imprison them, and ultimately relent in a burst of dancing sunlight.
Conversely, it might have also been a better film had it addressed that wider world in which these awesome, and harrowing, adventures take place. That is the chief difference that would have stood apart from The Song of Bernadette, which had its roots in a novel about an event from the middle of the nineteenth century. The Fátima apparitions occurred in one of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century, and set the foreboding prologue for what was to come in decades hence. It is the modern aspects of the story of Fátima that makes it so compelling, even eerie, and would have made a stronger film.
The historical setting begins before the 1917 start of the film story and extends beyond its epilogue of the modern basilica in 1951 at the site of the former apparitions. In October 1910 Portugal endured a violent political revolution, one consequence of which was the closing of many churches and imprisonment of many clergy. The three children of the story are poor, living a secluded rural life as shepherds, pastorinhos, and are unaware of most of the politics of their own country, let alone the enormous events taking place in the rest of Europe. We are in the thick of World War I, begun with an assassin’s bullet and toppling the governments of several nations, leaving millions of dead strewn across muddy battlefields, and millions of refugees starving.
One government in peril is czarist Russia. The coming communist regime will have consequences for the rest of the world, for the rest of the century. When the Virgin Mary appears to the three children, she brings messages of future chastisement of the world if people do not repent and pray, including the daily praying of the Rosary, and the coming of a worse war if her warnings are not heeded. She also tells the children, who are illiterate, they must learn to read and write, so that they may tell others of her messages to them. The two younger children will die in the impending Spanish Influenza pandemic, which killed possibly as many as 100 million people worldwide. These are only some of the modern events that serve as backdrop to the Marian apparitions of Fátima that made it a quite different tale to dramatize than the backdrop to the events at Lourdes, and which should have induced Warner Bros. to intentionally make Fatima a movie with a different slant and not lazily follow a template of how simple villagers take to miracles.
Interestingly, the real-life Lucia, who, as the Virgin Mary instructed her, did learn to read and write and carefully documented her experiences, recalled that when they were first told to pray that Russia might be converted, she had never heard of Russia. The kids thought Russia was probably another little girl who needed prayers. At the time of these apparitions from May to October 1917, Russia had not yet even become communist. The request for prayers for Russia’s conversion was a prediction.
So too was the prediction of a second, more brutal war. Though the Soviet Union eventually collapsed and the Cold War ended without nuclear war, still it does not take too much of a stretch of the imagination to concede the warning about the future spreading of Russia’s “errors” to the world include the current threat to overthrow our own government and democracy at the direction of the soulless Vladimir Putin, with the help of his acolyte Bannon and his puppet, Trump. The political background of the story about three kids entrusted with heavenly messages, dire warnings, and even well-publicized three “secrets” is enough material to make a movie that is not only entertaining, but even astounding.
The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima remains today as a simple primer to show at Catholic school assemblies, but is little more than that, and I can’t imagine that was what the execs at Warner Bros. really wanted to create. Perhaps miracles, in any form, are really too uncomfortable for us to tackle. We want miracles, nice miracles, like winning the lottery, but when faced with miracles that carry so much weight and consequence, perhaps we really just don’t have the “courage of our convictions.”
The Miracle of the Sun was an event well documented by the press, as tens of thousands gathered to the spot where the three kids observed their last encounter together with the Holy Mother. They had requested from her a sign that the grownups would believe them. They were getting a little sick of being told to shut up, and put in jail. The Blessed Mother came through big time. While the multitudes stood in the rain, the sun came out and wobbled around, zigzagged a bit, changed colors, seemed to pulsate, and then the sun starting growing bigger, as if it was hurtling toward the earth. The people panic. This part in the movie where the sun comes at us is pretty scary, even despite the simple technical craft of the day. You may find yourself running for the exits.
Then the show stops, and all the people, though having been standing in the rain for some hours, are completely dry, and the ground is all dry, and the newspaper men have quite a story to tell in their next edition.
In the movie, the rascal Gilbert Roland becomes a true believer when he sees the Miracle of the Sun, and we see him in the epilogue talking to Lucia, now a nun, many years after the event. Oddly, the director chose to use the same child actress, Susan Whitney, to play the adult Lucia, but who speaks lip-synching to the voice of an adult actress. It has a weird effect and seems a very poor compromise at establishing the continuity between the child and the adult visionary.
Lucia lived to be 97 years old, and died in 2005. This past May 13th, on the 100th anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fátima, Pope Francis canonized the two younger children, Jacinta and Francisco. World-wide prayer services will commemorate the October 13th “Miracle of the Sun” and pilgrims to Fátima will likely add a great number to those who regularly flock to that site. Fátima, unlike the well-intentioned movie, is indeed a modern tale with political and social threads; that is it’s compelling “hook” and is still with us.