‘Guilty of Treason’: Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty

Felix Feist’s film recounts the trials of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who, through his defiance, inspired anti-communism in Hungary and beyond. 

NR | 1 h 26 min | Drama | 1950

To many Europeans, the nightmare of fascism ended when World War II ended. But to many Hungarians, a new nightmare—of communism—was just beginning.

The years 1949 to 1956 were one of the darkest in Hungarian history when the Stalinist leader Matyas Rakosi crushed dissent using indiscriminate imprisonment, torture, and death. He nationalized religious schools, and replaced church leaders with government loyalists.

Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty (Charles Bickford) defies communist authorities, in "Guilty of Treason." (Freedom Productions)
Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty (Charles Bickford) defies communist authorities, in "Guilty of Treason." (Freedom Productions)

Felix Feist’s film set at that time is about Roman Catholic Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty (Charles Bickford), who, through his defiance, inspired anti-communism in Hungary and beyond.

American journalist Tom Kelly (Paul Kelly) braves Russia’s intelligence agents in trying to uncover how communism is sweeping post-war Hungary, seemingly unopposed. School teacher Stephanie Varna (Bonita Granville), whom he befriends, disabuses him of that notion: Not all Hungarians submit. She introduces Kelly to Mindszenty and his aging mother, and Kelly discovers the cardinal’s resolve to protect the 3,000 Catholic schools under his care from communist brainwashing.

Varna, a Hungarian, is in love with Col. Aleksandr Melnikov (Richard Derr), a Russian. But their romance turns troubled when Varna finds inspiration in Mindszenty. Unlike Melnikov, Russia’s liaison with Rakosi’s men, she now feels that Hungarians must defy Russia.

As Rakosi’s men arrest Mindszenty and Varna, the regime’s infamous “show trials” try to get these so-called “enemies” of Hungary to self-incriminate. Meanwhile, Kelly tries to relay Hungary’s horrors to America and the world, and it is Melnikov’s deceptively mild-mannered complicity that exemplifies that horror the most.

Feist opens his film with another film. It’s a typical Soviet propaganda documentary screened at America’s Overseas Press Club (OPC), bragging about communism marching worldwide, finding kindred spirits in China and much of Eastern Europe.

The OPC host reminds his audience that Russian civilians, denied the value of a free press in developing a mature worldview, see the world only through such films. So, he draws attention to America’s responsibility in leveraging its global influence to warn of the truth. He introduces guest of honor, Kelly, who’s drawing on his firsthand experiences, to write a new chapter for the revelatory book “As We See Russia,” written by 25 OPC members.

Liberty Is Everybody’s Business

Feist doesn’t show any of the Russian-inspired torture of Mindszenty. But scenes of Russians haggling with Hungary’s “regular” police and “secret” police reveal how they connive to deprive Mindszenty’s body of sleep, his eyes of rest, his stomach of enough food, and his spirit of the hope that visits from family or friends might lend him. They also ply the cardinal with chemicals to provoke hallucinations and drugs to induce meek acquiescence.
Cardinal Mindszenty during a speech, on Nov. 1, 1956. (Jack Metzger/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Cardinal Mindszenty during a speech, on Nov. 1, 1956. (Jack Metzger/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Feist and his screenwriter, Emmett Lavery, contrast religion’s morality with communism’s immorality. Melnikov’s subservience to the Politburo is foregone precisely because he denies the dignity of humans, their ability to think and act for themselves, while ordered to a truth higher than them.

In one scene, Varna, at her piano, is teaching her class a patriotic song that she’d been taught as a child, when an Education Ministry official barges in. As her students watch in stunned silence, the official warns against playing songs forbidden by the Politburo and commands Varna to sign a petition declaring Mindszenty a traitor. Varna refuses and instigates her students to stand their ground. To her delight as she’s whisked away, one girl strides up to the piano and defiantly finishes playing that Hungarian song.

Stephanie Varna (Bonita Granville) is tortured, in "Guilty of Trason." (Freedom Productions)
Stephanie Varna (Bonita Granville) is tortured, in "Guilty of Trason." (Freedom Productions)

At Mindszenty’s village farmhouse, Kelly asks if there’s a chance of some compromise or agreement, to avoid a confrontation between the church and the state. The Cardinal asks in turn, “What chance is there of agreement between Christ and the anti-Christ?” But he distinguishes between innocent Russians and insidious Soviet authorities; it’s the latter he denounces.

As they’re speaking, skies threaten a storm. Mindszenty’s mother casually looks up to reassure them that it’ll soon pass. The cardinal, however, sees a handy metaphor for communism, “Perhaps it will pass, but its shadow will still be upon us.”

Right there, at that table, smoking his pipe and chatting, Mindszenty delivers a powerful sermon. He warns that when the real storm breaks, the enemy will appear as one who will save the world from disaster because, “That which is evil must be made to appear good, that which is good must be made to appear evil.”

Later, in a shot rare for that era, Kelly breaks the fourth wall, addressing audiences directly and warning against complacency, “Either there’s liberty for everyone or there’s no liberty at all.”

Poster for "Guilty of Traeson" (Freedom Productions)
Poster for "Guilty of Traeson" (Freedom Productions)
You can watch “Guilty of Treason” on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Tubi TV. Pure Flix, and Apple TV. 
‘Guilty of Treason’ Director: Felix Feist Starring: Paul Kelly, Bonita Granville, Charles Bickford Not Rated Running Time: 1 hour, 26 minutes Release Date: Feb. 20, 1950 Rated: 3 stars out of 5
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