In addition to starring in some of the darkest and strangest Hollywood films of the ’70s, the extraordinary actor Stacy Keach appeared in a handful of ’70s projects that employed a more classical style, including this cerebral offering from the American Film Theatre. Essentially a filmed (and slightly modified) version of John Osborne’s 1961 play about historical figure Martin Luther, the feature tracks the events that led Luther to break from the Catholic Church at the moment the world was shifting from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The story takes the title character along a painful journey from being a self-loathing monk to being a morally conflicted revolutionary, so Keach gets to employ his signature intensity as well as his mellifluous speaking voice. The movie is not perfect, simply because it’s so talky that parts of the story go slack, but Keach is deeply impressive.
Luther begins in 1506, when the Catholic Church is at an apex of sociopolitical influence and unchecked corruption. Young German monk Luther (Keach) wrestles with the strict doctrines of the church, punishing himself for not loving God in the “right” way, and struggling to reconcile his feelings of pride and rebellion with his orders to be humble and subservient. As the years pass, Luther becomes a respected Biblical scholar, but knowledge merely sharpens his disdain for church authorities. Adding to Luther’s indignation is the ubiquity of such theologically dubious practices as the selling of “indulgences,” essentially get-out-of-jail-free cards for wealthy sinners. It all comes to a head in 1517, when Luther issues his scorching Ninety-Five Theses, a methodical explanation of how the church has lost touch with true faith. Showdowns with Catholic authorities ensue, but Luther remains unbowed.
The historical significance of this story is of course monumental, since Luther was one of the architects of Protestantism, and it would take a more learned person than me to appraise the accuracy of the film’s chronology. Taken solely on dramatic terms, the picture is effectively structured—Luther as the crusading hero, the bloated church as the collective villain—and much of the dialogue is powerful. Additionally, Osborne deserves ample credit for lightness of touch, since the high-minded text is sprinkled with excretory humor, of all things, stemming from the real Luther’s lifelong stomach trouble.
Still, Luther is slow going, even when Keach locks horns with such formidable scene partners as the urbane Alan Badel, the boisterous Hugh Griffiths, and the menacing Patrick Magee. (Judi Dench, years before her stardom, plays a small role toward the end of the picture as Luther’s wife.) Ultimately, Luther is too fiery to be dismissed as a dry history lesson, and too static to quality as full-blooded cinema. It’s a sophisticated presentation of important subject matter, elevated by an extraordinary leading performance.