I recall the first time I saw this film - back in the day before we had VCR's and my parents made a point of checking the tv listings to find it since it rarely played on tv. I thought it was enlightening to see the process of how a pope is elected and I was moved by the simple, straightforward faith lived out by Anthony Quinn's character.
Based on a novel written by Morris West, it became the #1 bestseller in the United States in 1963. It was made into a film in 1968.
Laurence Olivier as Piotr Ilyich Kamenev
Oskar Werner as Fr. David Telemond
David Janssen as George Faber
John Gielgud as The Elder Pope
Set during the Cold War, The Shoes of the Fisherman opens as protagonist Kiril Pavlovich Lakota, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv, is unexpectedly set free after twenty years in a Siberian labor camp. He is sent to Rome, where the elderly fictional Pope Pius XIII raises him to the cardinalate in the title of St. Athanasius.
When the Pontiff dies, Lakota finds himself elected Pope when the Cardinals cannot decide between the leading candidates. But as Pope Kiril I (using his baptismal name), he is plagued by self-doubt, by his years in prison, and by a Western world he knows little about.
The world is in a state of crisis: a famine in China is exacerbated by U.S. restrictions on Chinese trade and the ongoing Chinese-Soviet feud. Can he find a solution before it is too late?
A major secondary plot in the novel and the film is the Pope's relationship with a theologian and scientist, Father Telemond (Jean Telemond in the book, David Telemond in the film), who is clearly based on the controversial French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The Pope becomes a close personal friend of Telemond. 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, the shock of the censure combined with his chronic medical problems kills Father Telemond.
He realizes, however, that if the troubles in China continue, the cost would be a war that could ultimately rip the world apart. Knowing this he must seek to convince the Western World as well as the Catholic Church to open up its resources to aid. He states in the movie he is willing to do this even if it means bankrupting the Catholic Church itself.
(Synopsis taken from Wikipedia)
Pope John XXIII died on the day the novel was published, 3 June 1963.
Ten years after the release of the film, on 16 October 1978, a Slavic cardinal from a Marxist-dominated country, Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła from Poland, was elected as Pope John Paul II.