Released in 1973 and all but forgotten now, thank goodness for Kino International who has rescued and revived this film on DVD. 'Luther' is the filming of a stage play written by renowned British playwright John Osborne, who is perhaps better known today for his oft-filmed and staged play 'Look Back In Anger'. 'Luther' was first produced for stage in England during 1962 featuring a young Albert Finney in the lead. It was then produced for Australian television in 1964 and the following year Britain produced the play as part of its TV series 'Play Of The Month'. The presentation seen here is by the American Film Theatre and is an excellent quality production. The entirety of the movie takes place on a single stage which changes appearances and locales throughout that make it fascinating to watch. The scene will slowly sweep to a different area of the castle and a new period of Martin Luther's life as a monk, and later as a theologian, develops naturally. The only disconcerting effect I found was how performers would exit a scene through an open door; as they walk away from the scene they are enveloped by a bright white light becoming blurry and soon non-existent. It doesn't seem necessary but it also isn't a distraction that will bother the viewer.
Stacy Keach gives a memorable and vigorous interpretation of the brilliant theologian Martin Luther. Keach was considered a rising star when cast in the film and indeed he has become a recognizable face in television and films, being known mainly for his portrayal of Mickey Spillane's pulp detective 'Mike Hammer'. Curiously he is the lone American actor amongst a gathering of British stage and film actors that includes Leonard Rossiter, Patrick Magee, Judi Dench and Julian Glover. Rossiter may be recognizable to most American viewers as the title character of the British TV series 'The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin'; he's excellent as Brother Weinand, a fellow monk who befriends Luther in his early days at the monastery. Patrick Magee is equally as good as Luther's father who is disappointed his genius son chose life as a monk over becoming a lawyer. Hugh Griffith, so memorable as Sheik Ilderim in 1959's 'Ben Hur', here plays the nasty and detestable John Tetzel who collects tithes for indulgences. Judi Dench, the only female in the movie, appears for a few brief scenes near the very end of the film playing Luther's wife. By far the most impressionable performance of the film among the supporting players belongs to Glover who plays a knight. He also serves as an onscreen narrator, a sort of Chorus, an implement borrowed from the plays of the Greek classical writers and Shakespeare as well. While 'Luther' is arguably an accurate portrait of the times it does succeed grandly as drama. It is difficult to say with any precision how all the details and matters leading up to the historical period known as the Reformation actually played out; nonetheless the actors here breathe life into their characters and we are soon swept away into those events. We are also reminded that many people were senselessly slaughtered during this dark era and that it wasn't just solely an individual's intellectual effort that forged a new direction in the history of the Christian church. Still, watching this film and realizing what a revolutionary Luther was I recall the often quoted famous line from Robert Browning's poem "Andrea Del Sarto": "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
As usual Kino did a fantastic job with the transfer to DVD. There are also several special features that come with the movie which include a half-hour documentary on how the play was transferred to screen and a brief but informative interview with one of the producers of the film. The special feature I most enjoyed was the inclusion of the playbill given out at the play's premiere in England. It is reproduced here in stills that are easily readable and just as easy to page through with your DVD player. A biography of the playwright John Osborne is an addition that I found educating; I discovered some interesting facts about the mid-20th century history of the theater stage in England.
Worth noting: the British actor Tom Baker who is world renowned for his turn as the fourth doctor in the legendary 'Dr. Who' television series makes a brief uncredited appearance as Pope Leo X. Don't blink or you just might miss him!