Based on a controversial novel by Robert Ellis Wales, The Penitentes was inspired by a real-life religious cult which thrived in 17th-century Mexico. A group of fanatical Roman Catholics were so dedicated to their beliefs that they staged actual crucifixions on Good Friday. Not all of the victims of this practice were willing ones, which is why the film ends with a "race to the rescue" not unlike the climax in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Indeed, The Penitentes was directed by Griffith assistant Jack Conway, who did an excellent job of emulating "The Master." Some have suggested that The Penitentes was written to stir up animosity against such present-day religious sects as the Mormons, but chances are that most viewers accepted the film on face value as a rip-roaring adventure yarn (with the requisite dash of romance, of course). Unfortunately, this film is sometimes confused with the much-later exploitationer Lash of the Penitentes.
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