A Man Called Peter (1955)

to live and die in DC
to live and die in DC | Source

some make a difference

Is there such a thing as the right time to die? A Man Called Peter raises just such a question with a certain dramatic flair at the very end of the movie. The death of Peter Marshall (Richard Todd) is the destination toward which the whole film wends. Along the way, Marshall rises to almost every occasion within the context of his own life, that of a Presbyterian minister. He was especially good at his chosen profession. His sermons were popular. He was on radio and people lined up to hear and see him in person in Washington, D.C. His ministry was located at the New York Avenue Church. Abraham Lincoln worshipped there.

Marshall was not from America, however. He came from Scotland, and this is a fine point not to be forgotten with almost every syllable he utters. So enthralling are his oratorical skills that it comes as no surprise, late in the film, that he should be asked to accept the chaplaincy of the Senate. Also, as expected, he delivered memorable prayers upon the podium inside that esteemed institution, whose reputation shifts, unhappily, with the variable winds. On screen, he prays only once in the Senate -- reality sacrificed for the sake of a moving picture. All the same, it would seem on the surface that if there were justice in heaven and on earth, then this godly hyphenate-American would have lived on to appear years hence in service to his adoptive country. But this was not to be, and as things are, the timing of his death is a source of agony that humble theological truisms cannot satisfactorily dispel.

The good die old, too. But so many die young that it is difficult not to take notice. And there are times, too, such as in the case of Moses -- whether Hebrew or Egyptian, as Sigmund Freud suggested -- taken at 120, when age seems irrelevant. The good are irreplaceable; so much more irreplaceable are the great. A Man Called Peter is a meditation on both the higher questions and the more secular, told by a series of vignettes, all leading to a very abrupt and unfair death -- at least from the viewpoint of those not divinely informed. Nevertheless, the film has much to recommend it. It may not be the greatest religious drama ever made, although it was filmed in luscious Cinemascope, but in terms of the ecclesiastical genre, all too apt to drum up controversy, A Man Called Peter is exceptional.

Peter Marshall's personality is best approached through his sermons. During the course of the film, he gives seven. In the first, he speaks on how God guides lives. In the second, he praises marriage. The third has to do with how salvation and religion are not to be sold but given away. The fourth begins with James 4:14 and goes on to ponder life, death, and the life beyond. The fifth is about the woman from Galilee whose intense faith caused her to touch Christ's garment in hope of a miracle. The sixth is an unprepared hodgepodge on mortality, weakness, and homesickness. The seventh, and probably the best, deals with 1 Kings 18:21, a fire-and-brimstone chapter-and-verse segment of scripture that pits Elijah against the priests of Baal.

After suffering a thrombosis, Marshall is persuaded despite bad health to become Chaplain of the Senate. There he prays from 1947 to 1949 on behalf of "the members of this body" that they act not as a single party or race, treat freedom as opportunity, have the courage of conviction, create new warmth, provide examples to other nations, and make this country God's own. He did not last nearly as long as he should have. Sudden death at 46 was to be his fate. The film pulls out all the stops and in this respect might seem cheap and tawdry. Still, it achieves its goal of being not just a bio-pic but a source of inspiration, too. The viewer can respond in any number of ways, to be sure, but the film's final prayer, delivered by a midwest senator after Marshall's death, documents a heightened moment in United States history when church and state were undivided.

The film after a fashion serves as testimony: there is a plan after all and it is made manifest in the lives of certain men and women who apply themselves to the living Word. But the film also works on other levels as well. It is a good melodrama and has moments that are both poetic and cinematographic. Dr. and Mrs. Marshall together with Peter John, who appears later (by birth), comprise a model family, if on the small side. Both parents pray separately in sequences bordering on soliloquy. Lo and behold, the narrative does not collapse -- not a mean feat in a medium given over more to fast-paced action and dialogue than soul-searching and prayer. Not a lot is told about what prompted a young Scotsman with a calling to migrate to America, but that much is easily understood. There were many others, too, who crossed the Atlantic with hardly anything in their pockets. Instead, they came with dreams. All in all, A Man Called Peter is an interesting examination of a life lived not just in two countries but also in two worlds.

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