Screening History: “The Silver Chalice”

When it comes to the annals of antiquity on film, some films leap immediately to mind:  Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Gladiator.  Others, while not as famous, nevertheless mark significant developmental moments in the history of cinema; The Robe, for example, was the first film produced and released in the CinemaScope process.  Some films, however, seem fated to be relegated to the dustbin of cinema history, forgotten for a variety of reasons, both justified and not.  One of the largely forgotten films of the mid-century cycle if The Silver Chalice, based on famed author Thomas B. Costain’s novel of the same name.  While not a cinematic success along the lines of some more prestigious dramas of antiquity produced in the mid-century cycle, it does contain a few germs worthy of comment.

First, although Paul Newman gives a lackluster performance as Basil (this was his first feature film role), Jack Palance truly shines as Simon the Magician, the power-hungry, egomaniacal sorcerer who seeks to supplant the dead Christ as the one able to inflame the desires and manipulate the wills of the Roman populace.  While he initially limits his ambitions to the city of Jerusalem, led on by the Rome-hating Sicarii, he gradually ingratiates himself to the Roman court.  Convinced of his own immortality and magical abilities, he attempts to fly, with the expected result.  Palance, who also played Atilla the Hun in Sign of the Pagan (released in the same year as this film, and similarly forgotten), somehow manages to make this most infamous of Christian enemies a compelling, even pitiable character.  Indeed, he is far more interesting than the putative hero.

Equally compelling is Virginia Mayo as Helena, the cryptically erotic counterpart and companion of the villainous Simon.  Mayo brings a certain seductive lushness to this role, in keeping with the epic tradition of juxtaposing alluring pagan women with virtuous, chaste Christian maidens (with the often-unintended result that the Christian maiden ends up being dull by comparison.  This is certainly true in this film; I cringed every time Pier Angeli’s Deborra came on screen).  While probably not the most talented of the actresses of classic Hollywood, Mayo does what she can with her limited role, and it’s hard not to feel a pang when she goes to meet her death at the end of the film.

In thematic terms, one of the most interesting things about The Silver Chalice is its setting.  Like films such as The Robe and Quo Vadis, this film takes place in that tumultuous time period after the death of Christ and before the Christian faith took serious hold as the religion of the empire.  Here, the apostles are slowly dying off, and the frail and elderly Joseph of Arimathea desperately wants to enshrine the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper in a silver chalice carved with the likenesses of those who were closes to him, before everyone is gone who might remember them.  The film seeks to provoke in its spectators a sense of a world on the cusp of change, situated at the dawn of the Christian era, when the benefit of direct experience of those closest to Christ might no longer be possible, but access to the Divine essence, however loosely defined, will be possible for everyone.

The film itself seems determined to enshrine its figures in a visual medium, an indication (I would argue) of a culture striving desperately to reach back and touch, see, feel the world of antiquity, in particular what Pamela Grace has referred to as “miracle time,” that period when the divine could still be felt, always on the cusp of touching the world.  The face of Jesus, in particular, proves to be a vexing subject for the talented sculptor Basil, for even the precise descriptions given to him by those who saw him in the flesh cannot quite capture the ineffable nature of the Divine.  Even Deborra’s other-worldly description of him–that emphasizes his strength and his compassion–cannot really bring Basil closer to the ineffable nature of Christ.  It is only when he has his own process of conversion, brought about by the horrors of viewing the crucifixion of Christian slaves, that he is finally able to break through and mold the disfigured clay into the visage that will eventually appear on the chalice.  Only by giving in, the film suggests, can one truly become one with God.

And yet, for all that the film places so much emphasis on the beauty and intricacy of the chalice in question, it ultimately disappears from the film, an indication, perhaps, that all attempts to experience that wonderful, sublime moment of access to the divine will ultimately end in failure.  But, as the film’s final words indicate, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop trying to seek and strive for a better world.  Thus, despite the feeling of cheapness that seems to permeate the film (the sets, while seemingly modernist in design, also seem to be as much the result of Warners’ well-known cheapness as they are of deliberate artistic choice), some elements of otherworldly experience still manage to seep through into the finished product.  While certainly not one of the best offerings of the midcentury cycle of epics, it is, perhaps one of the most earnest and thus deserves at least a measure of our respect.

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