The Miracle (1959)


USA. 1959.


Director – Irving Rapper, Screenplay – Frank Butler, Based on the Play by Karl Vollmoeller, Producer – Henry Blanke, Photography – Ernest Haller, Music – Elmer Bernstein, Makeup Supervisor – Gordon Bau, Art Direction – Hans Peters. Production Company – Warner Brothers


Carroll Baker (Teresa), Roger Moore (Captain Michael Stewart), Walter Slezak (Flacco), Isobel Elsom (Reverend Mother), Elspeth March (Sister Dominica), Vittorio Gassman (Guido), Carlos Rivas (Carlitos), Gustavo Rojo (Cordoba), Dennis King (Casimir)


Wounded British soldiers fighting in the Napoleonic Wars are taken in at a monastery near Miraflores, Spain. As she tends him, the young postulant Teresa falls in love with the handsome Captain Michael Stewart. Torn between him and her vows, she kneels before a statue of the Virgin Mary to beg help. To her surprise, the statue steps down, takes on Teresa’s likeness and assumes her place in the convent. Teresa leaves into the outside world to join Michael – only to find that he has been killed in a French attack. Wandering through Spain, she becomes involved with a succession of men – a Gypsy bandit and a bullfighter – all of whom meet their deaths as a result of loving her.

Religious spectacle films were at a particularly mad height during the 1950s and early 60s with lavish big-budget works such as The Robe (1953), Ben Hur (1959), Solomon and Sheba (1959), David and Goliath (1960), King of Kings (1961), Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) and The Bible (1966). In the decade earlier, there had been a spate of ‘miracle’ titled films – Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Miracle of the Bells (1948), Miracle in Milan (1952), The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), The Miracle of Marcelino (1955) and Miracle in the Rain (1956), which concerned themselves with the appearance of the miraculous (mostly of the Catholic variety) amid the everyday.

The Miracle is adapted from The Miracle (1911) by German playwright Karl Vollmoeller who also wrote the classic film The Blue Angel (1930). Volmoeller based the play on a legend from the Middle Ages about the statue of the Virgin Mary taking the place of a nun who runs away from the convent with a knight. As she does here, the nun passes through a series of picaresque encounters – although the film opts for a more positive conclusion than the play, which ended with her being tried for witchcraft. Max Reinhardt, who had directed the stage version, made a 20-minute Austrian film adaptation The Miracle (1912), starring his wife Maria Carmi who had originated the role on stage – this was basically a filmed version of a stage performance. At the same time, another unofficial German version was made with The Miracle (1912) starring Lore Giesen.

The Miracle promptly emerges as one of the most ridiculous of these religious spectacle/miracle films. In fact, the film opened the same day as Ben Hur and promptly became obliterated at the box-office and trashed in reviews. The Miracle also had the misfortune to come out later in the year after the overrated box-office hit of The Nun’s Story (1959) starring Audrey Hepburn, a more serious Academy Award-nominated story about nuns desiring a life beyond convent walls, and was ridiculed in comparison by contemporary reviewers.

Certainly, director Irving Rapper paints a colourful canvas amid the attractive colour photography and lush costumery. He fills the film with armies parading, lavish balls and a filled bullfighting arena. However, the plot is an unintentionally hilarious escalation of melodramatic absurdities. The incredulity of Carroll Baker’s turns of fortune – her romantic liaisons (all of which happen within a matter of days) go from an English soldier to a gypsy outlaw to a matador and a Spanish count – defy belief. Every victim’s death is heralded with tub-beating blows – the introduction of the bounty on Guido’s head; or the talk of the changing wind as Cordoba enters the ring and, just to make sure one does not miss it, the wind snuffing out the candle he prays to; and how Carroll Baker gets the dying blood of each love on her dress and hands. In the end, The Miracle is a ghastly parable about Catholic piety and suffering – a film that says to follow one’s heart and passions is an invariably doomed endeavour that leads only to death and that a life of devotion, abstinence and piety is what is called for.

The film features Carroll Baker who came to fame three years earlier with her controversial role as the tempestuous teenage bride in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), which had courted controversy with what was seen as its frank suggestion of sexuality back in the day. This was at almost 180 degrees remove from the role of the devout nun that Baker plays here. The embarrassing name in historic retrospect is that of later James Bond star Roger Moore who goes through the film with immaculate handsomeness and painedly serious manner, having to come out with ghastly lines such as where he cries “In the name of God, Reverend Mother.”

Director Irving Rapper had made a number of films between the 1940s and 70s. His most famous work was probably Now Voyager (1942) with Bette Davis who he also directed in four other films. He also made the film noir Deception (1944) and an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1950). Rapper appears to have an interest in religious subject matter, having also made the historical film Pontius Pilate (1962) and Born Again (1978) based on the Christian conversion of Watergate conspirator Charles Colson.

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