Catholics growing up in Hawaii were surrounded by the legend of Father Damien de Veuster, the 19th-century priest whose ministry among the lepers of the island of Molokai placed him high in the hagiography of a land whose lushness seems more suited to the making of sinners than saints. One man's struggles against a disease that afflicted its victims with a progressive, and at the time incurable, mutilation made for a compelling story, but this will have to be accepted as more of an article of faith than fact when watching "Father Damien: The Leper Priest."
A two hour made-for-TV movie (on Channel 4 at 9) that would have been excruciatingly slow-paced in half the time, the film does justice neither to Father Damien, the Hawaiian locations on which it was filmed or, for that matter, the leper population among which Damien served his priesthood before dying of the disease himself in 1889. A large part of the problem is the selection of Ken Howard (of "White Shadow") for the title role. As the young Damien fresh off the boat confronting the blank stares of what passes for the island welcoming committee, Howard appears ready at any minute to pull out his coach's whistle and order the more cynical members of his flock to run three laps around the leper colony.
No doubt about it, Damien has his work cut out for him when he first confronts the conditions under which the lepers are living on Molokai -- no food, no medicine, no doctor, no church -- not even a few lines of character development for the actors playing the Hawaiian lepers could be spared, leaving them with nothing to do but look churlish for the first few scenes and happy and delighted for the rest of them.
After a few faint-hearted attempts to improve things, and lacking the building materials that might improve the physical if not the spiritual lot of his flock, Damien beats a hasty retreat on the advice of the one Anglo-Saxon leper in the group (played by Mike Farrell of "M*A*S*H"). Back on board the ship that brought him there, however, he eyes a load of lumber bound for another mission. With the way to his parishioners' hearts in hand, he makes a triumphant return to the island, followed back to the village by happy, beaming lepers who promptly set about building a hospital.
The rest is history -- at least the kind of Catholic history that usually shows up in the popular culture, where every article of faith is coated with a syrupy sentimentality, a cloying brew of naivete and boosterism that makes you wonder why they didn't get the Singing Nun for the sound track. Cynicism and suffering disappear behind the bougainvillea, and no attempt is made at understanding the psychology that informs the making of a saintly man, even one who has yet to be accorded full sainthood status by the Vatican.
Instead we see Damien tell his bishop that "if a leper needs help, I do not ask his religion." We see him telling the little boy leper, once an organist of promising talent, now bereft of two or three fingers, that "God will find a way." (The organist shows up a few scenes later sitting at the organ with a little girl organist, each of them playing with one good hand, holding their other mutilated ones behind their backs.)
By then the only evil left is the wicked Bishop who tries to recall Damien from his ministry, only to get a graphic illustration of the fact that God will indeed work in mysterious ways to keep his man on the job. Finally, Damien is laid to rest while a pious voice-over informs us that while the Catholic Church has yet to make Damien a saint because no miracles have been attributed to him, there are many who believe he himself was a miracle. This show could certainly use one.