By Daniel Barnes
A real curiosity from Douglas Sirk, a black-and-white B-production about Jesuit priests “in one small corner of the modern world,” and an unexpectedly complex examination of faith and doubt.
Restored last year by the UCLA Film & Preservation Archive, The First Legion stars Charles Boyer as the pragmatic Father Arnoux, a long-time pot-stirrer at a small-town Jesuit seminary. While Arnoux tries to convince a couple of itchy young priests not to abandon their faith, the Jesuits witness something that they call a miracle, a label that attracts hordes of ailing and desperate miracle-seekers to their doors.
As Father Arnoux investigates the case in the build-up to canonization, the film finally exits the shadows of the seminary and folds in the stories of a paralyzed girl and a disgruntled atheist doctor, yet still finds time to indulge the great William Demarest as an affably blasphemous Catholic Monsignor.
The screenplay for The First Legion is stiff but earnest with a relatively ambitious structure, and Sirk makes skillful use of interior camera moves while working on what appears to be an extremely minimal budget. Sirk injects as much violent melodrama as his limits will allow, and it all comes together remarkably well up until an eye-rolling final flourish.