The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima
In 1917, three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, reportedly saw a vision of a lady in a cloud. Over a period of six months, the crowds expanded on the 13th of each month as news spread of sightings of what appeared to be the Blessed Virgin Mary. THE MIRACLE OF OUR LADY OF FATIMA (1952) explores the age-old combination of fear, faith and religious persecution without ever treating the story with a heavy hand. The performances by the three children are never cloying and Gilbert Roland’s breezy role as the town skeptic helps offset some of the film’s more overtly religious moments.
The post-war era saw a rise in religious-themed films that peaked in the 1950s, with Biblical-inspired tales such as DAVID AND BATHSHEBA and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and fictional stories such as THE ROBE and BEN-HUR. However, Warner Bros., which had made its fame on gangster pictures, was not a studio that seemed comfortable exploring questions of faith. And without the star power of a Gregory Peck, Richard Burton or Charlton Heston, FATIMA has never occupied the same ranking in cinema history as some of the bigger budget titles. Still, the film is an interesting introduction to the story (it would make a great musical) and is worthy for Max Steiner‘s rare excursion into religious-themed film music.
Like an earlier “vision” film, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, FATIMA focuses on the effects of religious phenomena, rather than spectacle. As such, Steiner relies on his years of scoring Warner Bros. melodramas to get to the heart of the characters. The score has just the right touch of piety, awe and wonder without ever feeling oppressive. As with many religious flicks, “awe” becomes “ah” in the use of wordless choir, though thankfully Steiner never overplays the vocal heft.[audio:fatima1.mp3] Click Track: Main Title
Energetic mandolin music (reminiscent of Steiner’s work on the swashbuckling FLAME AND THE ARROW a couple of years earlier) gives color to the Portuguese locale and Gilbert’s skeptical Hugo gets a charming theme of his own. Amid all the polyphonic piety, Steiner gets to flex his musical muscles with some fine action music as the Administrator’s (Frank Silvera) soldiers attack the crowd waiting on the Cova for the appearance of the “Lady”. But the success of the score rests on the dramatic writing for the visions and the solar miracle at the end of the film.[audio:fatima2.mp3] Click Track: The Vision
What keeps the score from being top-drawer Steiner is the overuse of Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. While early film music—and Steiner’s career in particular—liberally borrowed classical and popular tunes to clue audiences in to particular places and emotions, by the early ’50s the practice was becoming a bit careworn. And no matter how cleverly Steiner makes use of Gounod’s famous tune, its familiarity detracts from Steiner’s accomplishment.
Steiner received his 24th Oscar nomination (out of a total of 28) for the score, which highlights the respect commanded by the veteran composer. He was also nominated (along with Ray Heindorf) that same year for his scoring of the musical Danny Thomas remake of THE JAZZ SINGER.
Heathen that I am, I went into my first viewing of FATIMA years ago completely unaware of the story. But I got caught up in the film’s simple telling of a remarkable vision (whether or not you believe its veracity), thanks in no small part to Steiner’s prodigious skill…and, yes, perhaps even Schubert’s famous tune.