The Song of Bernadette (1943) – Film Review
Director: Henry King
Cast: Jennifer Jones, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price
by Sarah Morgan
There are some films that you know would work in any era, regardless of their age, and others that simply wouldn’t get made these days. The Song of Bernadette falls into the latter category.
It had its cinema release in 1943 and is a rarity – a big Hollywood studio picture that directly addresses spiritual beliefs and religious conviction. But that’s not the problem with it – it’s simply far too long.
If nothing else, the tale is a curiosity piece. Jennifer Jones, in her first starring role (she had only appeared in two low-budget serials before being plucked from obscurity), won an Oscar for a somewhat simpering performance as Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old sickly girl who gained fame in 1858 after claiming to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary in a cave near Lourdes in France.
The film focuses on how the local townsfolk either rally around her or turn their backs. Everything is black or white here – each character is either a total believer or somebody who thinks Bernadette is a liar or delusional.
In fact, it goes further than that – those who have faith are simple rural folk, those who don’t are supposedly more sophisticated authority figures. I’m not really sure what message director Henry King is trying to get across with that – is it that the uneducated are more pure in spirit? Or that those with an education have lost their spirituality?
Whatever the answer, the theme itself was hugely popular with 1940s audiences; not only did they see the film in their droves, they also bought the book by Franz Werfel. It’s hard to imagine modern cinemagoers in this more cynical age doing the same thing.
As already mentioned, Jones’ performance is a little grating, but to be fair to her, how do you portray a young woman who would become a saint? The supporting cast, however, are more impressive.
Lee J Cobb delivers a customary strong presence as the local doctor, but it’s Vincent Price who steals the show as a local dignity. He’s cynical and sarcastic, qualities he espoused to great effect in his later horror roles. Here it seems he’s almost in a different film, one with a far harder edge. Frankly, if King had followed his example, it would have been a better movie that might have stood the test of time.
Oh yes, and chopping about half an hour out of the running time would have helped no end too.
‘The Song of Bernadette’ is released on Blu-ray by Eureka Classics, £16.99