“Maybe if I break wind in Wittenberg, they’ll smell it in Rome.”
—Stacy Keach in Luther
British playwright John Osborne’s controversial play that humanized the roots of the Protestant Reformation came to the big screen in 1974 courtesy of an experiment in bringing theatre to movie screens. Long before the Metropolitan Opera and London’s National Theatre presented live simulcasts of their productions, producer Ely Landau created The American Film Theatre to combine great plays with great casts. His fifth production, Luther, gave American actor Stacy Keach the chance to play Martin Luther, one of the first people to break successfully from the Catholic Church that had dominated Europe through the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The film opens with Luther (Keach), now established as the leader of a Protestant denomination, confronted by a knight (Julian Glover) who was wounded in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524-25, which was inspired by Luther’s teachings. In flashbacks, a younger Luther takes his vows as a monk over his father’s objections but becomes increasingly disenchanted with what he views as the Church’s pursuit of riches through the marketing of indulgences, absolution from sins. Eventually his protests lead to his excommunication and the founding of a new religion, now known as Lutheranism. Luther also breaks his vow of celibacy to marry a former nun (Judi Dench), who has left the church to follow his teachings.
Osborne’s original play debuted in London in 1961. It was a distinct departure from his earlier hits like Look Back in Anger, which had launched a new craze for kitchen-sink realism with its focus on an alienated working-class generation of angry young men who challenged England’s class system. In addition to Osborne’s knack for capturing working-class language, the play included speeches drawn from Luther’s writings. The sudden switch to an historical play seems to have puzzled many British critics, who gave Luther mixed reviews. Some complained that it never truly got inside Martin Luther’s character, despite Albert Finney’s electric performance in the title role. Some were also offended by the play’s use of Luther’s problems with constipation as a metaphor for his inner turmoil.
In contrast, The Observer’s Kenneth Tynan, long a champion of Osborne’s work, praised the play as a subversive account of Luther’s creation of the idea of an individual conscience that surpasses worldly authority. In Tynan’s view, Luther in the play is another angry young man, with his rebellion aimed at the Catholic Church. Finney would repeat his performance in Paris and on Broadway, where the play was much more favorably received and won the Tony for Best Play. It was twice adapted to television, with Alec McCowen starring in a 1965 production for the BBC and Robert Shaw in a 1968 version co-produced by ABC that aired in both Great Britain and the U.S.
In 1973, producer Ely Landau decided to include Luther in the first season of The American Film Theatre, an experiment in marketing filmed adaptations of plays on a subscription basis as if part of a repertory theatre season. Luther was the fifth film in the series, following acclaimed productions of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1973), starring Lee Marvin and Fredric March, and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1973), with Paul Scofield and Katharine Hepburn.
Originally, George C. Scott had planned to film his own version of the play with director Richard Fleischer, with whom he had recently worked on The New Centurions (1972). When that fell through, Landau hired British director Guy Green to direct and cast Keach, Scott’s co-star in the earlier film. Edward Anhalt, who had won an Oscar® for adapting another historical play, Jean Anouilh’s Becket (1964), was signed to craft the screenplay. In keeping with The American Film Theatre’s policy of filling their casts with name actors, Green cast Patrick Magee, Hugh Griffith, Robert Stephens and Alan Badel in supporting roles. Judi Dench was primarily known as a stage actress when she was cast as the nun who would eventually marry Martin Luther. Julian Glover, who had played the Knight in the play’s original London production, repeated his role for the film, while the small role of the Reading Monk went to Sir Alec Guinness’ son, Matthew. Sir John Gielgud was signed for a cameo role but had to drop out.
Casting Keach — primarily known to contemporary audiences for supporting roles in a variety of movies, most notably American History X (1998) and The Bourne Legacy (2012), and guest shots on a variety of TV series like Blue Bloods and Two and a Half Men — may seem strange today. He is also, however, an award-winning stage actor. He originated the title role in MacBird!, a satire of Macbeth suggesting that President Lyndon Johnson was behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the role of Buffalo Bill in Arthur Kopit’s Indians. He has also appeared in numerous Shakespearean productions, including twice playing Hamlet, toured in the musical Barnum and as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon and helped found L.A. Theatre Works, where he appeared in such American classics as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.
The film met with mixed reviews. Writing in New York magazine, Judith Crist complained that Edward Anhalt’s adaptation had dumbed the play down too much, though she praised Keach’s performance in the title role. Writing in the New York Times, Nora Sayre complained that in translating the play to the screen its most theatrical elements were cut, turning it into “a conventional religious drama — hardly what the playwright wrought.” At the same time, she felt the film had failed to open up the play to depict the Peasants’ Revolt that plays a key role in the action: “Without any evocation of the outside world, it’s hard to believe — within the context of the movie — that Luther had much of an impact, or that Protestantism was more than a hiccup in the span of history.”
Like other productions of The American Film Theatre, Luther only played four times in first-run theatres that were part of the subscription season. Although the repertory season started with 500,000 subscriptions in its first year, it ran into problems in its second. Hollywood studios started exerting pressure on theatre owners to get them to either pull out of their American Film Theatre agreements or move the screenings to less desirable screens. As a result, The American Film Theatre ended after its second season, which only included five films. None of the films were given major theatrical reissues in the U.S. and eventually were syndicated to local television stations and released on DVD.
Producers: Mort Abrahams, Ely A. Landau, Henry T. Weinstein
Director: Guy Green
Screenplay: Edward Anhalt
Adapted from the play by John Osborne
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Score: John Addison
Cast: Stacy Keach (Martin Luther), Patrick Magee (Hans), Hugh Griffith (John Tetzel), Robert Stephens (Johan Van Eck), Alan Badel (Thomas De Vio), Julian Glover (The Knight), Judi Dench (Katherine), Leonard Rossiter (Brother Weinand), Maurice Denham (Johann Von Staupitz), Tom Baker (Pope Leo X)