Along with the religion and film class in which I am a teaching assistant, I am also preparing for comprehensive exams, one of which is a closed book, timed exam on the history of religious cinema. I will do well to watch a religious film or two each day until that exam which, off course, this bodes well for Pop Theology as I hope to provide capsule review of each of these films as well. I recently watched John Huston’s famous The Night of the Iguana (1964).
Based on a Tennessee Williams play and nominated for several Academy and Golden Globe Awards, The Night of the Iguana tells the story of the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), a rogue Episcopalian priest who leaves the church and takes up a job as a tour guide along the Mexican Riviera for Blake’s Tours. His slogan: “Tours of God’s World Conducted by a Minister of God.” On this particular tour, he leads a group of women from the Baptist Female College in Texas. All of these women are old spinsters except for young Charlotte (Sue Lyon), an under-twenty blond who falls in love with Rev. Shannon who tries, occasionally unsuccessfully, to resist her advances. Her chaperon, Ms. Fellowes (Grayson Hall) proves a holy terror and menace. Fed up with the group, and especially Ms. Fellowes, Rev. Shannon takes them off the beaten, and scheduled, path to a secluded resort run by Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), an old friend of his. He and Maxine re-kindle their friendship, eventually, while Rev. Shannon also gets to know another female guest, Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), a traveling painter and sketch artist.
What begins as a comedy, develops into a serious look at something akin to the dark night of the soul. Even though humorous tones remain throughout, a significant portion of the second half of the film is dominated by a conversation between Rev. Shannon and Hannah that touches on a host of issues from salvation to sacrifice to death.
Richard Burton’s fantastic lead role is only strengthened by the equally effective supporting performances of Gardner, Hall, and Kerr. Unlike Rain, we clearly know what type of minister we are dealing with here. The film opens with a shot of the marquee of the Episcopal church where we first meet Rev. Shannon. He steps up to the pulpit and immediately lays into the congregants who, in his mind, have come to leer at a troubled soul. We later learn that he was suspected of being involved with a female parishioner, or as he later puts it, “The kneeling position turned into the reclining position.” After he drives all of the congregants out of the sanctuary, the film moves through the opening titles, and then cuts to a scene of Rev. Shannon sitting outside a church somewhere in Mexico, slightly drunk.
Along with this “defrocked,” drunken minister, the stiff Baptist tour-takers have to tolerate Maxine, the liberal and liberated resort owner. She speaks her mind without hesitation, and even begins to accuse Ms. Fellowes of being a lesbian before Rev. Shannon cuts her short. He tells Maxine, “Ms. Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself, it would destroy her.” Maxine’s maraca-playing Mexican bell-hops are also her own personal sex toys, a fact that she freely admits.
Rev. Shannon admits to being emotionally bankrupt, yet thankfully, the explicitly religious character is not the only mentally wound-up member of the cast. Most all of the main characters face some sort of dilemma, some sort of darkness of the soul. Yet through their interactions with one another, they manage, and manage to get through, their troubles. There is some inhumanity between the characters towards each other, but Rev. Shannon, throughout his tours, has been more concerned with man’s inhumanity towards God. The two, perhaps he eventually realizes, are not mutually exclusive.
Despite focusing on yet another crazed religious character, The Night of the Iguana is still an enjoyable film that overflows with energetic performances that illuminate a sharp script.
The Night of the Iguana (125 mins.) is unrated and is available on DVD at some video stores and through Netflix.