USA / German Federal Republic, 1953 (MIFF 1954, Programme 1)

Director: Irving Pichel

Perhaps the most curious American film successes of 1953 was that of “Martin Luther”, the first church-sponsored film ever to be profitable shown on commercial circuits. The elements which give the film its special quality are certainly not those which have distinguished the other “religious” box-office successes of this decade (”Samson and Delilah”; “David and Bathsheba”; “Salome”; and “The Robe”) there is in Martin Luther no tarting-up of the Old Testament, and no promise of un - dreamt - of spectacle in Cinemascope.

The film deals with the specifically religious and theological issues involved in the Protestant Reformation. It is the story of Martin Luther, his efforts for reform, his ex -communication, and the course of events which led to the growth of the Protestant Movement.

It was shot in West Germany, with painstaking attention to historical detail. As far as was possible, the dialogue was transcribed from documentaries written by Luther and his contemporaries, with the result that the film's impact comes as much from the cogency and intelligence of the talk as from the honesty and sincerity of the direction or the superb performance of Niall MacGinnis as Luther.

The matter of the film, treating as it does a decisive moment in human history, has had and should retain a tremendous and controversial appeal for people of all viewing countries; the manner of its becoming a commercial success was specifically and properly American.

After preliminary church showings, the half-million dollar production was released in Minneapolis, a Lutheran stronghold. After it had run for a few weeks, “Variety” with its usual bland insouciance reported (May 19, 1953) “Luther Outpulls 2 and 3 &ndash: D Smasheroos in Minn ... Final stanza of eight days started on Monday. Initial two weeks way over estimates. Church elements flocking to it in amazing numbers as though on pilgrimage. Ducats being sold on discount in church areas. Last week, terrific $21,000 on top of $22,800 in first canto...”

The film was banned in December, 1953, by the Catholic film censor in Quebec; about the same time, one of the persons hired to help make the film was accused of being a Red. The film made many of the year's “ten best” lists, including that of the New York “Times”. And so it went on...

All this sideshow work by the sponsors of Martin Luther, the trade generally, and the American public, is interesting enough. The film itself is absorbing.

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