Today we reminisce about
The Angel Wore Red (1960)
Directed by Nunnally Johnson
Starring: Ava Gardner, Dirk Bogarde, Joseph Cotten
* Published specifically for The Ava Gardner Blogathon hosted by Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films*
A City in Spain about to experience the cruellest of all wars… A Civil War.
A war reporter for the Continental Broadcasting Company named Hawthorne (Cotten) is being pressured to find a human interest story that he can cover during the rising conflict of a revolution. Hawthorne is uninterested in such a task but is forced to go along with the idea once civil war breakouts out. He remains convinced that there is no potential story out there, annoyed with his employer’s attitude.
The very same day war breaks out, Father Arturo Carrera (Bogarde) and his superior speak to each other privately about issues of faith within the Church. Arturo is young and optimistic about the modern generation whereas the Bishop is out-of-touch with reality and remains firmly – and blindingly – conservative. Increasingly frustrated with the Church’s lack of understanding and willingness to reform, Arturo quits the priesthood. Not long after he leaves the premises, the first bombs start to be dropped on the city. He finds a bomb shelter for safety and it is there that he first meets a beautiful woman named Soledad (Gardner). They do not speak at great detail though they have a strong interest in one another despite not knowing much about the other person.
Arturo’s plans for reintegration into society are thwarted when he realises he is being hunted by Loyalists rebels. In fact, the group has condemned all priests by accusing them of being the driving force behind the Civil War and the bombings. Some have already been outright killed while others are taken prisoner after the Cathedral is seized by the mobs. (Eventually, all of the clergy would be given death sentences.) The Cathedral’s Bishop was able to salvage an important object before the building’s destruction: the Holy relic of St. John which purportedly contains a drop of his blood. According to legend, whoever holds the relic cannot be defeated. Since the priests support the Nationalist effort, they want to try to pass it on to those leaders and appoint their own Father Rota to the task. He is able to escape before being caught but, like Arturo, is considered at-large. Moreover, the new location of the relic is unknown.
Having few options, Arturo goes into a Cabaret nightclub in order to hide from officials. While there, he spots the beautiful Soledad and decides to speak honestly to her of his predicament. She is surprised to learn that he is a priest and though she is admittedly impartial to clergymen, she decides to help Arturo. They are able to leave the club without being seen and head back to her small apartment. Despite her pleas for him to stay, Arturo decides to leave and give himself up because he does not want to get Soledad in trouble for having helped him. He is soon arrested and systematically beaten, though less than others held captive. Soledad attempts to help free Arturo with Hawthorne’s help, a platonic friend she has gotten to know from his frequent visits to the Cabaret. In the end, Arturo is released when he decides to volunteer as a missionary to the troubled Loyalist mob.
Soledad and Arturo start seeing each other rather frequently and quickly realise that they have fallen in love with one another. They both wish to have a future together even though the climate of war makes so many things unsure. Trouble develops when Soledad attempts to aid Father Rota, now a “fugitive” who has taken up residence in the remnants of the Cathedral. She is arrested by the Loyalists for being a collaborator and eventually Arturo is linked to her crime. They, along with 250 other prisoners, are sentenced to the front lines of the conflict in order to serve as a cover for their retreat. The result is that all of them will likely die. The countdown to possible survival has begun which is increasingly disturbing for Arturo as he starts to question his self-exile from the Church.
Will the relic of St. John be found? Can Soledad and Arturo make it out of this situation alive and, if so, is a future of marital bliss truly a possibility? Will Hawthorne be able to find his story?
Thoughts & Discussion
Historically-based films that touch upon the issue of atrocities of war are never easy to watch although such events and rituals should never be forgotten. Such is the case with The Angel Wore Red, an intense drama that wastes no time in highlighting the injustices of the nearly 3-year Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s.
The film starts out in a sensational manner by showing Hawthorne reporting to his employer about the current state of events in Spain. It is almost as if the executives at the Continental Broadcasting Company wish to see war outbreak simply so that they can have something to write about it, even going so far as to exaggerate the goings-on so that the situation appears increasingly desperate. A pacifist by nature, Hawthorne is not impressed by their attitude and even tries to dissuade them until the bombs literally start falling around him. Chaos ensues in his office and then through the streets. When we first set eyes on Father Arturo, he is having a calm conversation within the tranquil confines of the Cathedral. The men are oblivious to the terrible mess and tragedy outside which is ironic considering that Arturo is so passionately talking about sympathising with these victims. This simply goes to show his general lack of real world experience as well as his overcompensation of romanticism. The most shocking revelation comes after the bombing when the Loyalists parade towards the Cathedral, determined to break everything in their path and even to murder in the name of revenge. What was considered a sacred place and a refuge for those in need only a few hours before has now become a place with no special meaning. Moreover, the men who led the worshipping and who guided the masses are now being condemned through violence and even death. No one is safe.
Because Arturo is unaccustomed to the outside world, he is even more fragile in the face of what is going on because he has absolutely nothing to fall back on for support. He must fully rely on the help of someone he has only just met in order to stay alive. Luckily for him, Soledad is a kind and loving person who is able to see beyond stereotypes. What propels her to aid Arturo is not the fact that he is a priest or that she is simply helping out a comrade. She truly believes and feels that Arturo is someone special, following her heart when the moment calls to protect him from being captured. Similarly, Arturo embraces Soledad for the person she is on the inside. Working at the Cabaret would suggest that she was a certain type of woman, an entertainer/prostitute, but that does not stop Arturo from accepting her help and falling in love with her true, private qualities. The developing relationship between them is inspiring and feels very true as Arturo and Soledad are brought together in trying times.
Acts of war are rampant in their world. Enjoying a peaceful view of the seaside is difficult considering the background noise of bombs and stray bullets. A bustling street filled with people could turn into a pathway strewn with dead bodies in the blink of an eye. It is very unsettling watching this and almost impossible to think of what it must have been like to live in those circumstances, minute by minute. Certainly one of the most shocking moments is the speech delivered by a Loyalist Major, condemning the innocent prisoners to their fate:
“You have had the bad judgement to be born in the wrong country, in the wrong year and on the wrong side.”
And with that, they are sent along to march towards their deaths to a shoot-out with the opposing side. As if they had somehow had a hand in the makings of a civil war. As if they should have had more control over their destinies. This statement is one of the most heartless and shocking that I have every come across.
There is no sense of satisfaction after watching this film for there is no happy ending. You are delivered a bleak sense of reality: lives have been saved but the war is still an ongoing effort as is the constant grieving process with which people are faced. These are stories that must be told and in the case of The Angel Wore Red, a formidable job was done is presenting this very important part of history to audiences.
Ava was rightfully considered as one of the most naturally beautiful women to grace the screen. She had lusciously rich, full looks that made her stand-out from the rest of the Hollywood. Not only that, she was incredibly down-to-earth and never too far removed from her humble origins. What surprises me the most from the many film performances I have seen of Ava is that she was never really considered a “damsel in distress” though perhaps that was befitting of her real-life “tough dame” personality. While she was cast in roles that accentuated her beauty, she often portrayed emotionally attractive characters as well. There was an extremely sensitive side to her performances that made people love her even more because she remained accessible to both her leading man (or men) and the audience. This approachability factor made her even more desirable.
As Soledad, Ava gives an endearing performance as a strong yet vulnerable woman who surprises those around her, even herself. She is a person who is on a continuous spiritual journey and who displays many moments of complete selflessness without seeing it herself. Perhaps she downplays her motives because she has to deal with the terrible moral and social stigmas of being in such a line of work though she has at least acknowledged the fact that she is able to support herself having such a job. She is so very in love with Arturo and receives inspiration from him although she still remains her own person. Much like her characters in The Barefoot Contessa and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Ava’s Soledad is a source of inspiration and the tragic bearer of important messages.