The Shoes of the Fisherman

The Shoes of the Fisherman is a 1968 American drama film based on the 1963 novel of the same name by the Australian novelist Morris West. Shot in Rome, the motion picture was directed by Michael Anderson and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Shoes of the Fisherman
Theatrical release poster by Howard Terpning
Directed byMichael Anderson
Produced byGeorge Englund
Screenplay byJohn Patrick
James Kennaway
Based onThe Shoes of the Fisherman
by Morris West
StarringLaurence Olivier
Anthony Quinn
Oskar Werner
David Janssen
Vittorio De Sica
Leo McKern
John Gielgud
Music byAlex North
CinematographyErwin Hillier
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • November 14, 1968 (1968-11-14)
Running time
162 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$6.7 million[1]


Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shoes of the Fisherman opens as Kiril Pavlovich Lakota, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv, Ukraine, is unexpectedly set free after twenty years in a Siberian labour camp by his former jailer, Piotr Ilyich Kamenev, now the Premier of the Soviet Union.

He is sent to Rome, where the elderly Pope Pius XIII makes him a Cardinal, assigned titulus of St. Athanasius church. Lakota is reluctant, begging to be given "a simple mission with simple men," but the Pope insists that he kneel and receive the scarlet zucchetto that designates the rank of cardinal.

When the Pontiff suddenly collapses and dies, the process of a papal conclave begins, and Cardinal Lakota participates as one of the electors. During the sede vacante, two cardinals in particular, Cardinal Leone and Cardinal Rinaldi are shown to be the leading papabili (candidates). After seven deadlocked ballots, Lakota is unexpectedly elected Pope as a compromise candidate (suggested by Cardinal Rinaldi) by spontaneous acclamation in the Sistine Chapel after the cardinals had previously interviewed him and were impressed by his ideas and his humility. Lakota takes the name of Pope Kiril. Meanwhile, the world is on the brink of nuclear war due to a Chinese–Soviet feud made worse by a famine caused by trade restrictions brought against China by the United States.

The evening after his election, Pope Kiril, with the help of his valet, Gelasio, sneaks out of the Vatican and explores the city of Rome dressed as a simple priest. By chance, he encounters Dr. Ruth Faber, who is in a troubled marriage with a Rome-based television journalist, George Faber. Later, the Pope returns to the Soviet Union, dressed in civilian clothing, to meet privately with Kamenev and Chinese Chairman Peng to discuss the ongoing crisis.

Pope Kiril realises that if the troubles in China continue, the cost could be a war that could ultimately rip the world apart. At his papal coronation, Kiril removes his papal tiara and pledges to sell the Church's property to help the Chinese, much to the delight of the crowds in St. Peter's Square below.

A major secondary plot in the film is the Pope's relationship with a controversial theologian and scientist, Father Telemond. The Pope becomes Telemond's close personal friend, but to his deep regret, in his official capacity, he must allow the Holy Office to censure Telemond for his heterodox views. To the Pope's deep grief, Father Telemond dies.



Film rights were bought by MGM in 1964. They assigned it to producer George Englund who was to write the script with Morris West.[2] (Englund was also making Dark of the Sun for the studio.)[3]

Anthony Quinn was announced as the star of the film relatively early. The original director was to be British director Anthony Asquith, but he became ill in November 1967 (and eventually died a few months later) and was replaced by Michael Anderson.[4]

Englund asked for technical advice from the Vatican but received no permission to film there so places like the Sistine Chapel had to be recreated.[5]

The papal tiara used for the coronation scene in the film is modeled after Pope Paul VI's own papal tiara.

The ending of the film was changed from the book. Morris West said:

Structurally speaking I've always thought The Shoes of the Fisherman was one of my weaker books. It wanders too much. The script for the film is tighter, more direct and I think it says in a stronger way part of what I wanted to say in the novel. We've come to a point in history where men - black or white, Marxist or capitalist, Christian or non Christian - are going to have to make a choice. They're either going to have to commit themselves to an act of love for each other or an act of hate for each other. Men on each side have to say: "Look we're all brothers. Why do we kill each other in the streets? Don't lets drop the atomic bomb. Let's talk for one hour more." Today this is the real triumph of good over evil. It's what i've tried to put into the last speech for the film.[6]

Morris West said he spent months working on a scene where Telemond was questioned by the Inquisition. He says eventually the scene worked "but only because I raised hell after finding that it had been altered by the actors with the consent of the director. I argued that it destroyed the theological validity of the plot in violation of contractual obligations between the studio and me." West says that "By the end of the film the accumulation of the variations was such that I took my name off the script." This made him reluctant to sell "anything other than a thriller or a very simple story to the movies again" because of the way Hollywood '"ends to distort the underlying philosophy and theology of anything that can't easily be shaped for the screen."[7]


The film was the sixth most popular movie at the Australian box office in 1969.[8] However it was still a notable box office disappointment.[9] The escalating production costs of this film, along with Ice Station Zebra at the same time, lead to the transfer of MGM President Robert O'Brien to Chairman of the Board, though he resigned that position in early 1969, after both films were released and failed to recoup their costs.

Alex North was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Score, and George Davis and Edward Carfagno were nominated for Best Art Direction.[10]


  1. Metro-Goldwyn Omits Dividend; O' Brien Resigns: Board Cites Possible Loss Of Up to $19 Million in The Current Fiscal Year Bronfman Named Chairman Wall Street Journal (1923 - Current file) [New York, N.Y] May 27, 1969: 2.
  2. M-G-M buys novel by west. (1964, Jun 16). New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  3. Scheuer, P. K. (1964, Sep 18). Broadway's mania: Set films to music. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  4. Special to The New York Times. (1968, Feb 22). ANTHONY ASQUITH, FILMMAKER, DIES. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  5. Dugas, D. L. (1968, Feb 19). Tradition guarded in film on pope. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  6. La Badie, Don (May 5, 1968). "Pilgrimage to the Set of 'Shoes of a Fisherman': 'Shoes of a Fisherman'". Los Angeles Times. p. q1.
  8. "The World's Top Twenty Films." Sunday Times [London, England] September 27, 1970: 27. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. accessed April 5, 2014
  9. "MGM Had Loss Of $2.5 Million In First Period: Substantial Write-Offs' Are Taken on Certain Films; Revenue and Rentals Drop Firm Had Year-Earlier Profit". Wall Street Journal. January 13, 1969. p. 10.
  10. "The Shoes of the Fisherman". The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2008.
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