Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton’s pudding-faced, sharp-witted clerical sleuth, was most famously played on the big screen by Alec Guinness in the 1954 film Father Brown, known in the US as The Detective. Unfortunately, that film, despite flashes of Chestertonian wit and Guinness’s greatness, botched the character and Chesterton’s worldview in numerous ways frustrating to any GKC fan (see my review for more).
Now, though, Chesterton fans have an alternative. Thirteen classic Father Brown stories — adapted with gratifying fidelity in the 1974 television series starring Kenneth More — are now available on DVD in a pair of two-disc box sets.
Known to American viewers from PBS’s “Mystery!” series, “Father Brown” was produced in the UK by Lew Grade’s ATV Network. There were 13 episodes in all. Set 1 comprises the first seven, with such classic stories as “The Hammer of God,” “The Oracle of the Dog,” and “The Eye of Apollo.” Set 2 contains the remaining six episodes, including favorites “The Arrow of Heaven” and “The Secret Garden.”
This series, despite modest production values and uneven video quality, offers a far more satisfying sampling of what makes the Fr. Brown stories so enduringly popular. Dialogue is frequently taken verbatim from Chesterton’s text, though there are departures in both dialogue and plot. More’s performance, while a bit twitchier and less matter-of-fact than Guinness’s, captures the eccentric charm and practical common sense of the umbrella-toting cleric.
The stories, though often implausible — as Chesterton himself well knew — are satisfyingly clever; their purpose is not to be credible, but to entertain. “I like detective stories; I read them, I write them; but I do not believe them,” Chesterton once said. In spite of that, what Chesterton did believe is always slipping through the chinks of these stories, which are sometimes dodgy detective work, but almost always good theology, and usually a good yarn as well.
“I like detective stories,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote; “I read them, I write them; but I do not believe them.” Chesterton put into his beloved Father Brown stories a great deal that he did not believe — exotic crimes, improbable methods, wiredrawn detective work — but also a great deal that he did believe, much of it on the lips of his moon-faced clerical sleuth.
Guinness makes a delightfully enjoyable Father Brown, and the film’s dialogue sparkles with flashes of Chestertonian wit. … Alas, this well-intentioned and otherwise enjoyable film is marred by several serious missteps.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.