The Missionary is a film written by Michael Palin, who also stars in it. It’s where he finally shook off the shackles of Python—an issue for all the ex-members of Monty Python—in his first solo outing as a writer/actor. He had just done Time Bandits with Terry Gilliam, a movie he was also a co-screenwriter on. Like that film, The Missionary was also done by HandMade Films.
Palin plays the Rev. Charles Fortescue, a missionary who has been in Africa for the last 10 years. He’s called back by the church and told to minister to London’s population of prostitutes. The Bishop who has given him the order to help the “fallen women” is played by Denholm Elliott. Palin’s character is supposed to get married, but he knows his fiancée isn’t going to approve of his new post… It starts off as a silly sex comedy, then gets serious, and keeps shifting back and forth. Tonally, that just doesn’t add up,
It comes off as an OK Monty Python script that’s been dragged out for 83 minutes. It doesn’t really hold together, and it’s just not that funny. Palin’s fine, of course, as is the young Maggie Smith, who appears as the wife of a lord (a much older Trevor Howard) who might be able to get funding for his project.
What’s most interesting about it is that it was directed by Richard Loncraine, who has had a quite strange career. Like most British directors of his generation he started out at the BBC. He went back and forth between the BBC and film work for. His first film was a this “little-known pop movie” called Slade in Flame; his most well-respected film (and rightfully so) is the Ian McKellen Richard III. Loncraine has done some Hollywood stuff, but at this point he had just directed Brimstone and Treacle.
You can definitely tell some of it is reworked ideas from Palin’s TV show at the time, Ripping Yarns. If you want to see Palin’s first spin-off, while it didn’t do much for me, it is well-made and you might like it. There’s also a lot of special features: the old commentary with Palin is ported over, and a newer commentary with Loncraine and film historian Sam Dunn has been added. Also in the set are a new interview with Palin and Smith, 30 minutes of additional interviews with various crew members, a 20-minute appreciation by writer-musician Rob Deering, some deleted scenes, trailer, image gallery and a huge booklet with extracts from the book on HandMade Films (Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story of HandMade Films), excerpts from Palin’s published diary from that period, several essays on the film, and an overview of the contemporary critical responses.