Writer Robert Bolt’s career interest in lively martyrs, gone-native doomed romantics, and the malfeasance of Empire found a subject of great potential in this loose portrayal of the real Guirana War of the 1760s. The mid-‘80s saw something of a revival for Bolt as a screenwriter, having finally resumed in storied partnership with David Lean for one last go ‘round with 1984’s A Passage to India. Bolt’s screenplay for The Bounty had been originally intended for Lean, who had tried for years to get the project off the ground, before it finally fell into the lap of Roger Donaldson. Two more long-gestating Bolt scripts, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes and The Mission, were taken on by producer extraordinaire David Puttnam with his flagrantly polished productions, and farmed out to two of his stable directors, former advertising and television helmsmen Hugh Hudson and Roland Joffé, respectively. All of these directors had flash and cash to burn, but none had Lean’s finesse for teasing out ambiguities and humour from Bolt’s literate material. Joffé had just scored a big, multiple-Oscar-nominated success with The Killing Fields, a flashy and unsubtle, if still fine, piece of conscience cinema, and his humiliating degradation with turning slum life in Bombay (City of Joy) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) into realms fit for cheesy star vehicles was still far in the future.
The Mission, which captured the 1986 Palme d’Or at
, is, for its first forty minutes, nearly as strong as anything Lean might have done. After a priest is killed by the Guarani, a tribe who live above a colossal waterfall complex (actually the Cannes on the Argentine-Brazil border), his fellow Jesuit Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) takes it upon himself to take up the task, climbs the waterfall, and has greater success in touching the souls of this far-flung tribe with music. He begins the painstaking job of building a mission and converting the populace, who come under assault by a slave trading bandeirante, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert de Niro). When Roderigo returns to civilisation with his human booty, he’s enraged to be told by his favourite senorita Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi) that she’s fallen in love with his brother, Felipe (Aidan Quinn). Fired into a rage, Rodrigo creates a pretext for a duel and kills his brother. Gnawn at by remorse, however, he accepts a penitential task given to him by Gabriel, and drags a net full of armour up to the mission, where he stays, becomes inducted into the tribe he persecuted, and finally becomes a novice priest too. Iguazu Falls
The early portions of the film are top-heavy with electric audio-visual epiphanies: the priest tethered to a cross plummeting over a stunningly colossal waterfall; Gabriel climbing the waterfall barefoot and washed down as if by the tears of a great god, and later seated in a steamy forest amongst bewildered, hypnotised natives as he plays his flute; Rodrigo’s implacably fierce look as he drags his burden through impossible jungle and his surrender to feeling when the natives cut loose his load. The cleverly conceived images that seems to stand for something, the gruelling masochism of the heroes, the rhythmic intensity of the structure, all evoke the same creative force behind Lawrence of Arabia, and as in that greater film, the eccentric, tortured individualism of its white heroes meshes uneasily with the collective concerns of the people they appoint themselves shepherds of. Only in the rather stilted interpersonal scenes between De Niro, Quinn, and Lunghi does Joffé’s lesser side assert itself, never quite coaxing the necessary depth of engagement out of those actors.
Once the compelling, hypnotic, deeply personal first third is over, and just at the point where the characters of Gabriel and Rodrigo seem have reached a point of crucial realisation, the story segues to engage the larger political background, as Altamirano (Ray McAnally), a Papal delegate, is sent to nominally investigate the efficacy of handing over control of the handful of Jesuit missions that have proven havens for the regional tribes in jeopardy from slave traders as well as vibrant cultural collectives. Minor border realignments between Spanish and Portuguese South America place the missions, which directly contradict the financial and social assumptions of Imperial interests, in peril of being destroyed. Gabriel and Rodrigo attempt to persuade Altamirano to maintain the Church’s protection of them, but Altamirano finally feels too responsible to what’s left of Church authority, and the Jesuits’ tenuous, endangered legality, to defy the rich and powerful. The door is then opened for the missions to be annihilated and the slavers to move in. Rodrigo and Gabriel fall out as the latter decides to help the Guarani fight the coalition Spanish and Portuguese force sent to dislodge them, Gabriel determined to follow the path of peace and God to the end.
Like Puttnam’s other productions from the period, The Mission looks marvellous and minutely detailed, with beautiful yet truly gamy-feeling evocations of frontier life, the jungle, and the “civilised” marches of a Latin America being steadily Latinised, and a proliferation of eye-catching moments, from a mission yard filled with worshipper kneeling with candles to soldiers rappelling up cliff faces to make their assault on the mission. But the film’s Christian Humanism falls victim to a common variety of ‘80s pop-anthropology, in which pretty young Indian girls filmed in artfully diffused, back-lit shots stand in for the predations of White Capitalist Civilisation on pure, innocent, noble savages. The final shots of the children who survive the mission’s massacre returning the jungle after comprehending the ruins of their brief Eden is supposed to be wistfully mournful but veers closer to Weeping Indian sentiment. More subtly, Joffe’s penetration rarely goes any deeper then pretty surfaces in analysing the drama, and villainy is far too neatly represented by characters like Chuck Low’s sleazy self-justifying Cabeza, who describes an Indian child we’ve just seen singing in an angelic voice as “an animal with a human voice…they must be seduced with the sword and brought to labour with the whip!” The tragicomic dissonance between the job and character of
’s Dryden, for instance, or the ironic mixture of admiration and stoked rage that drove A Man for All Seasons’ Thomas Cromwell is replaced in favour of more schematic, melodramatic figurations fit for multiplex consumption. The Socratic dialogue between the opposing camps that consume the middle third of the film begin to ring hollow because the film’s argument is so one-sided and manipulative: the Jesuits and their indigenous charges stand for truth, paradise, God, nature, communality, fairness, etc, and the others for craven expedience and racist greed. Lawrence
That’s not necessarily a great problem if the rest of the drama is sufficiently rich and multileveled, but here The Mission is a failure more difficult to define. Rodrigo and Gabriel, so sharply defined by persona, philosophy, and by the actors playing them, ought to come into their own as characters when the heat’s turned on, but instead they become more symbolic and less interesting. De Niro’s uncharacteristically closed-off performance emphasises the problem, as opposed to Irons, who grasps the fibre of his saintly yet consumed hero with consummate ease. Joffé’s disengaged approach to his actors is hard to pin down, and yet it does emphasise the lacks – the effort of providing that glutinous mise-en-scene finally overtakes the private drama. The sheer physical and spiritual effort of the first third’s repeating image of the seekers of transcendence fighting gravity achieves a great deal in encapsulating something about the totemic and psychological value of that ordeal, but clearly what this means to Gabriel and Rodrigo, who are, as if by natural ordinance, respectively an agent of birth and an agent of destruction, is very different to each man. What that disparity is, is scarcely investigated: we're left to read, or infer, too much from the glares the men give each other.
The attempts to define the gap between private salvation and spiritual longing, and public and institutional responsibility, are nonetheless thorough. Taken at face value, the ardour and arduousness of Gabriel’s mission are rendered palpable in terms of both effort and result, the Eden he creates and temporarily fosters looks and feels both beatific and realistic. The moment in which the Guaranis instinctively grasp the meaning of Rodrigo’s penitential load and cut it loose in a gesture of forgiveness, has a genuine impact. But the Indians themselves remain being glimpsed through inscrutable veils of language and the interpretation of their desires through Gabriel. Where the drama needs complicating viewpoints, it offers none, except in the motif offered by the bookending structure of Altamirano’s writing an irony-laden latter to the Pope and his final (after the end credits) glance of questioning, accusatory ambivalence to the camera, as if to ask, who could have acted differently? But his character also offers rather too many chances to spell out messages that would have been better left implied. McAnally won a BAFTA Award for his performance, and indeed he does walk off with the film, with his blend of wearied pragmatism and still nascent scruples influencing all his scenes, counterpointing the righteous showboating of Gabriel and Rodrigo.
The great film in this vein and milieu is Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), a film that drove deep into fragmenting transcendental fantasies of European supermen trying to stamp their face on the jungle. By contrast The Mission is comforting in spite of its calamitous end, which leaves the disparate yet equal revolts of its heroes all the less untrammelled for their failure. “There’s nothing we like better than noble failure – it’s deeply reassuring to a trading nation,” one of Cabeza’s compadres, Hontar (Ronald Pickup) notes with a certain sly acknowledgement that such stoicism is Imperialist code for living with opportunistic, shallow values, in one of those brilliant epigrams Bolt's writing could offer up. The Mission’s story has echoed more through subsequent PC adventure-fantasies like Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Avatar. The Mission does recover to a great extent in the vivid finale, at once rousing and cruelly tragic, for action often encapsulates moral drama better than talk anyway, as Rodrigo and the Guarani mount a furious but failing resistance to a coalition army of Spaniards, Portuguese, and their own native lackeys. Here again the images are often indelible: Jesuit Fielding (Liam Neeson, in an intriguing early role) and his native warriors on a suicide run to lead pursuing soldiers over the waterfall; a wounded Rodrigo tugging pathetically on a cord that’s supposed to set off an explosion but which has been cut, the enemy captain shaking his head in mockery before his men pepper Rodrigo with bullets; Gabriel walking his Christian soldiers through a hail of gunfire that cuts them down one by one, including the priest.
As a good-looking melodrama about refusing to give in to power, The Mission more than holds its own, but the film has unrealised dimensions and frustrating dead points for a project that had so much going for it, and the narrative’s inevitability is a problem: Bolt never quite worked out a way to put across the invisible victory in such a way that didn’t seem facile in the face of slaughter, and Joffé was too literal to pull it off either. Whilst rendered in a modish style, Chris Menges’ Oscar-winning photography is nonetheless still remarkably beautiful, and Ennio Morricone’s much-excerpted score is possibly his finest unified work – one could hardly get away from the rousing choral chant that is the theme of the mission’s beauty and resistance in advertising in the years after the film’s release.