At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) from ICMS

"At Play in the Fields of the Lord" deals with four American evangelical missionaries who come to the Amazon to try to convert a native tribe to their own brand of Christianity after the Catholics had already tried in vain. Compared to these evangelicals, the local Catholic priest seems like a moderate. There's also a North American Indian (Tom Berenger!) who teams up with the local South American Indians. And that's about the whole missionary portion of the story.

Of course, there is some intrigue. There's also the local bad guy who manipulates our four naive do-gooders in a scheme to get his hands on the gold which can be found on the natives' land. Apparently it suits his purposes for the natives to be converted to Christianity, so that they would abandon their grounds. Unfortunately, no explanation is given as to why these people would leave their land once converted! Ultimately this logical gap doesn't matter, since the bad guy eventually loses his patience with the whole missionary process and decides to drive the natives out in a more direct manner - by simply throwing explosives on their village from a helicopter. One wonders why he didn't just do that in the first place. It's much quicker and more efficient, and he can get away with it.

About two hours into this movie, and for no apparent reason, missionary Daryl Hannah's faith starts to falter for a moment when she goes skinny-dipping in the river and Tom Berenger catches up on her. At first she's scared, but then she kisses him, and in the end runs off home, staying faithful to her husband. No big surprises there either.

Kathy Bates goes berserk in the buff for about 30 seconds after her little boy dies, so her nude scene is fairly gratuitous too.

Not that I mind the gratuitous nudity, at least in Daryl's case.


Daryl Hannah and Kathy Bates show everything, as do Tom Berenger and Bates's little boy when he plays with the native children who also run around naked.

The adult natives from all ages and sizes aren't wearing much either, but they never show lower frontal nudity.

The film's weaknesses are myriad: 

  • The illogical plot is discussed above.
  • The message is inconsistent. This film seems to preach that Westerners should stay out of the Amazon and leave the native people alone instead of bringing them diseases and a god they don't need. So far, so good. But the end contradicts that. As long as the Westerners were there, the local tyrant was kept at a distance. He only interfered when the missionaries informed him that they failed. So what should we do in the future? Should we interfere or leave them to the mercy of the ruthless warlords?
  • At a running time of three hours and nine minutes, this movie is way overlong and keeps vacillating between being a documentary and a drama, without ever making up its mind. Some scenes go on forever, and while the photography is good, there is nothing spectacular enough to justify three hours of it.
  • The dialogue lacks any depth and consists mostly of clichés.
  • All the characters are one-dimensional.
  • There is really nobody to root for. Only Billy, Kathy Bates's little boy in this flick, is sympathetic and he dies about half way through the film.  

VHS info from Amazon

not currently available on DVD

There are two strengths:

  • The actors hold themselves together and deliver solid performances. 
  • You can enjoy Daryl Hannah wearing absolutely nothing at all, not even her red-cross eye-patch.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Roger Ebert liked it very much (3.5/4)

  • He was not joined by many others. The only other positive review was from the Journal of Spirituality and Health. Rotten Tomatoes summary.

The People Vote ...

  • The box office was about nil ($1.3M). I would say that the only people who paid to see this were the families of the actors, but most of the indigenous actors couldn't afford tickets,  and I can't imagine that Tom Berenger wanted his family to see this.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C-, possibly a D.

Return to the Movie House home page