Warning film spoiler alert
Several afternoons ago I watched “The Devil at 4 o’clock” (1961). It’s about a priest and three convicts who rescue children from a volcano on a Pacific island.
Spencer Tracy plays Fr Doonan and Frank Sinatra is Harry the handsome felon. Much of the film takes place in a mountain top hospital for leprous children.
With hindsight the film’s Christian narrative is as subtle as the parting of the Red Sea. At the start of the film Fr Doonan is an angry drunk who has lost his faith because the islanders are against his work with the leprous children. The convicts are so faithless they even try to steal the poor box from a church. Everything changes for the four men when they risk their lives to rescue the youngsters. By the end of their exodus across the island Fr Doonan is a confident priest again and the convicts have turned to the Lord.
The Devil at 4 o’clock is a story of redemption. It’s about sinful men who sacrifice everything for love and find a fresh start at the end of their lives in the arms of God. The script makes an obvious reference to the Good Thief at the crucifixion. As one convict dies Fr Doonan tells him that the Good Thief was so smart he stole heaven. It’s the Christian message of it’s never too late to turn to God.
Subtle the film is not, but it is touching. We can say the same of the Exodus story in the Bible. That is also a story about people weighed down by misfortune who find liberation in following God. It’s no surprise that Exodus was so important to the black slaves in America.
Fr Doonan and his friends undertake a literal and a spiritual exodus. However, unlike in the Biblical Exodus there are no dramatic theatrics from God. The convicts often ask Fr Doonan why God doesn’t act. Yet by the end His presence is palpable. In this film the Lord is quietly and stealthily real.
The absence of archaeological evidence leads some to suggest that the Exodus concerned only a small number of Jewish slaves. If that is the case, it doesn’t bother me. I find the Exodus difficult to relate to my own spiritual life because the story is so theatrical. I like to wonder about a smaller version on the scale of The Devil at 4 o’clock.
If the Exodus was nothing more than a handful of slaves following the call of God in their hearts, it would still be a great and beautiful story. It takes great courage to act on faith alone. When God is parting seas and sending plagues it rather takes away the need for faith.