• U.S.

Cinema: New Picture, Apr. 11, 1955

3 minute read

A Man Called Peter (20th Century-Fox) is a faithful film adaptation of Catherine Marshall’s bestselling biography of her husband, the Rev. Peter Marshall, late chaplain of the U.S. Senate. It begins at his first encounter with God in a Scottish fog, when a voice warned and a root tripped him at the edge of a precipice. It carries him to the U.S. on “orders from the Chief,” through Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., and eventually to Atlanta, where his powerful sermons packed them in and even stood them up on the lawn outside.

It was there, at a temperance rally, that Peter (Richard Todd) got to know Catherine (Jean Peters). She knew right away that “Peter Marshall was calling for me,” but all he seemed to notice at first was the speech she gave—as well he might: it was a paraphrase of one of his own sermons. Soon, however. “God just spun [him] around like a top and said, ‘Peter —you idiot—this is My grandest plan for you’ “; and so they were married. After a Cape Cod honeymoon, Peter received a call to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., where his preaching of a “redblooded . . . bronzed, fearless” Christ brought young and old by incredible thousands to his church door.

From this time (1937) forward, Peter went about his Father’s business at the whirlwind pace of a religious tycoon. When he was not converting a sin-sick Senator, he was charging down to Annapolis to read a sizzling sermon over the midshipmen, or bellowing Mairzy Boats at the church canteen for servicemen, or batting out flies with the kids on the parking lot, or marrying some sailor and his girl, or harrying the hangbacks on his board of trustees.

For all Peter’s drive, it was Catherine who cracked first—she came down with TB. No sooner had she recovered than Peter had a serious heart attack (in real life there was a two-year interval). He survived, only to assume, on top of his other duties, those of Senate chaplain. He made a memorable start (“Lord, give us courage to stand for something, lest we fall for anything”) and a sudden tragic finish; two years later he died of a second heart attack.

As the Rev. Peter Marshall, Richard Todd is just about terrific. Unsparingly he lays on the hard glaze of the relentless public manner, but never so thick that the warmer luster of the man’s heart fails to show through. He even succeeds in preaching considerable excerpts from five sermons—one of them lasts a full 8½ minutes—with such charm that the moviegoer hardly realizes he has just been subjected to the equivalent of a month of Sundays.

And yet, for all its big talk about God, Peter Marshall’s story as it emerges on the screen has depressingly little to say about religion. On the evidence given in the film, the man was more to be praised for his social than for his spiritual qualities. The film, much more strongly than the book, gives the impression that Peter Marshall was a great salesman, who sold Christianity the way another man might sell frontage in an exclusive suburb. And his death at 46, which is apparently intended to move one like the death of a martyr, has instead a kind of sorry unimportance on the screen, as if Connecticut, and not Heaven, had been his destination.

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