Screening History: “Samson and Delilah” (1949)

Well, I finally got around to watching my Blu-Ray edition of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Samson and Delilah, and I can definitely say that it was worth the wait.  The color transfer is excellent, and it just reinforces my opinion that the only way to really enjoy a Technicolor film is to see it in Blu-Ray.  The chromatic richness of this particular presentation makes it worth purchasing, even if you already own the DVD copy (as I do, of course).

The film, based loosely on the events depicted in the Old Testament, follows the brief but tumultuous affair between the judge Samson (Victor Mature) and the Philistine noblewoman Delilah (Hedy Lamarr).  After Samson spurns Delilah for the love of her sister Semadar, the former becomes determined to bring down the Israelite strongman.  Conspiring with the Saran (George Sanders) and his fellow nobles, she lures Samson into a trap whereby he loses his great strength.  Upon seeing him blinded and forced to grind grain while bound to a mill-wheel, Delilah repents of her treachery and aids Samson in his destruction of the towering Temple of Dagon, killing Delilah, the Saran, and hundreds of other celebrating Philistines.

This film continues to be one of my favourites in DeMille’s entire extensive oeuvre, since it illustrates so clearly all of his strengths as a filmmaker and manages to leave aside most of his weaknesses (for example, it is significantly shorter than The Ten Commandments, which, truth be told, is a tad too long, even for an epic).  However, a few of the director’s more glaring faults still shine through.  The ending, featuring the milksop Miriam and the rather too-cherubic Saul, feels like something of a tacked-on addition, a final bit of moralizing that attempts to tidy up the energies unleashed in the scene immediately before, in which the entire Temple of Dagon is brought crashing down in ruin by the blinded Samson.  The scene does not even have the ponderous and condemnatory tone of DeMille’s introduction (delivered in his own voice) and this, coupled with the fact that neither character is anywhere near as compelling as the two leads, makes the ending feel rushed and slightly superfluous, in much the same way that (in my opinion), the ending(s) of The Ten Commandments feel quite rushed and almost beside the point.

It’s all too easy to dismiss films like these add mere camp, but as I’ve long argued, even the silliest of epics often contain at least a germ of historical awareness, and so it is with DeMille’s film.  From the very beginning, DeMille’s paints the world of antiquity as one haunted by the specter of primordial forces, the raging thunder and the unruly, terrifying energy of the sexual unconscious that always haunts this film.  Further, the film makes ample use of animal language and imagery, ranging from the lion that Samson defeats and the jawbone of an ass that he uses to overcome his Philistine oppressors and secure his freedom.  While DeMille, in his usual fashion, desperately wants to make all of this terror add up to some sort of moral message about the importance of freedom and man’s eternal desire for liberty, the political message gets a little lost in the fray.

Thus, for all that the film so clearly wants to condemn the sexual energies that have led to the dismay and destruction of the Temple and the ruin of two prominent and promising lives, it doesn’t really succeed in its moral message.  The sumptuousness and richness of the lurid Technicolor (to take but one example), mitigates against the moralistic flow of the narrative, inviting a contemplation of the erotic potential of the chromatic image that always seems in excess of the narrative designed to contain it.  The world of desire and the body, it turns out, is infinitely more compelling than the world of order and light, even if it is all the more dangerous because of that fact.

All in all, Samson and Delilah well deserves the place it now occupies as the film that jumpstarted the boom of biblical epics that swept through Hollywood throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.  Somehow, it manages to perfectly tap into all of the anxieties and terrors haunting the world as the Cold War continued to escalate, the sexual unconscious of America’s psyche seethed and writhed with the challenges to gender norms provoked by WW II, and the threat of the bomb permeated practically every aspect of American culture.  This tale of dangerous and destructive desire, with its climactic destruction of the temple, shows just how perilous and viscerally terrifying the ancient world, and the modern one that succeeded it, could be.

Score:  9/10

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Screening History : The Lion in Winter (1968)

I recently had the pleasure of watching the extraordinary 1968 film The Lion In Winter, which relates a (fictional) meeting of the medieval Plantagenet family during the winter of 1183 at Chinon.  Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) is released from imprisonment by her estranged husband Henry II (Peter O’Toole) for this family gathering, which also includes their three sons:  Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) , and the dim-witted and utterly craven John (Nigel Terry) .  Also present for the festivities is the clever and manipulative Philip, King of France (Timothy Dalton) and his sister Alais (Jane Merrow), who has become Henry’s mistress and hopes to one day become his new wife.  The scheming and plotting never lets up, but eventually Henry lets his sons go and returns his wife (somewhat reluctantly) to her imprisonment.

Beneath all of the sniping and incredibly witty dialogue (I have rarely seen a film so eminently quotable), there simmers a cauldron of family resentment and cruelty that always threatens to break out into open political rebellion.  This is an enormously powerful family, yet it is also one that seems unable to control its own internal dynamics, let alone the substantial domains over which they are supposed to be overlords.  O’Toole’s Henry is too hot-headed and almost hysterical to be an effective agent of control, and Hepburn’s Eleanor too full of bile and bitterness to resist the urge to needle and nettle him at every turn, driving him to ever greater and more intense fits of pique and rage.  The films is a somewhat terrifying glimpse into the machinations, recriminations, and plotting that can threaten to destroy even the most powerful of families and dynasties.

It is also a searing portrait of one of the greatest and most tragic love affairs of the medieval world.  Eleanor and Henry turned no few heads when they married, considering the fact that Eleanor had been married to the French king immediately prior to her union with the future English king made no secret of her general unhappiness with the French Louis’ bedroom performance.  Theirs was truly a marriage of equals, and this is reflected in this film, as Eleanor/Katherine, despite her imprisonment, nevertheless gives Henry/Peter everything she’s got, maneuvering and manipulating their children in order to hit him where it hurts the most:  his legacy.

This film is also one of those that I would define as exquisitely queer, one of those films that wears its queerness unapologetically on its sleeve.  This ranges from Eleanor, who is as bitchy a stage queen as has ever graced a film (Hepburn is clearly having the time of her life in the role) to the tragically flawed relationship between the emotionally distraught Richard and the cold and cruel Philip (who disavows that he ever loved the English prince, a claim that we in the audience are left to doubt).  There is something undeniably appealing about the French King, due in no small part to Dalton’s almost feline features, which lend the flawed monarch a measure of grace that helps to ameliorate his obvious delight in cruelly torturing the sexually conflicted Richard.

Perhaps surprisingly, Lion does manage to say something about the medieval world, a world full lot plotting, backbiting, and violence. For better or worse, the Plantagenet dynasty was one of the most powerful and influential of the Middle Ages, and this film offers a searing portrait of the convoluted loves, hates, and fears that drove these men and women to commit acts of betrayal that would shape the fortunes of England and of Europe, for generations to come.  Indeed, it is important to remember that the Plantagenet dynasty would rule England until Richard III, who lost his crown to the Tudor prince Henry (later King Henry VII) on Bosworth Field.

Just as importantly, it also suggests that the movements of the great and powerful are often as hopelessly banal and selfish as their common-born compatriots.  These figures may be larger than life–and the opening credit sequence helps to underscore this, as well as a measure of the alien-ness of the medieval world–but they are also flesh and and blood, with all of the sexual energies that such flawed fleshly beings frequently have.  The tragedy that unfolds, then, is not just a matter of family, it is also a harbinger of the strife and bloodshed that will continue to tear England apart.  In the final analysis, this film suggests that sex, that most ineffable and terrifying of human traits, that drives the engines of history.

Score:  10/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)

Today’s focus on “Screening Classic Hollywood” is the exemplary film The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the finest films to emerge from the 1940s and a searing and emotionally rich exploration of the plight of veterans returning home from war as they attempt to reintegrate into an American society that seems to have no room for them (and no desire to make it).  The film follows three friends:  Al (Frederic March), Homer (Harold Russell), and Fred (Dana Andrews), as they attempt to reintegrate into American society following WW II.

It is rather remarkable how many postwar anxieties this film manages to address.  The threat of atomic annihilation makes an appearance when Al’s son inquires about the possibility; the burgeoning of youth culture (and its terrifying and unruly physicality, particularly in the form of rock and roll) rears its head when Al and family go out for a night on the town; and of course the very real problem of the returning veteran and the stress of acclimating once again to the world.  This problem is particularly acute for both Fred and Homer, the former because as a “man” he must resign himself to working in a new bureaucratized economy, and the latter because he has lost both of his hands to an accident during the war.  Indeed, the film’s handling of Homer’s disability is remarkably sensitive, and he emerges from the film as one of the only characters to emerge from the film unambiguously happy and satisfied (the film ends with his marriage to his sweetheart).  Nor does the film shy away from showing us the trials he goes through on a daily basis, and in that sense it is a remarkably forthright film about both the challenges and the successes of those with disabilities.

Given that this film emerged immediately after the war ended, it should come as no surprise that it remains rather conservative in its gender politics.  The only woman who shows a true sense of agency and independence is Fred’s wife Marie (Virginia May0), who grows discontented with him and ultimately files for divorce.  The film clearly views her as the antithesis of good-girl Peggy (Teresa Wright), who comes to stand for the sort of doe-eyed loyalty very much in keeping with the emerging gender ideology of the postwar period (and of Wright’s star text in general; see:  The Little Foxes).  Myrna Loy does present some measure of female independence as Al’s wife Milly, though even she doesn’t really attempt to break out of the role of housewife, and instead must keep a relentless eye on Al and his always-imminent slide into alcoholism (hardly surprising, given March’s penchant for playing caddish yet dashing alcoholics).

The problem for these veterans, as the film sees it, is twofold.  On the one hand, there is the issue that these are men who are used to the stresses and strains of war, as well as the close bonds that develop between men.  More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the postwar world is a very different beast than the one that preceded it.  This is a world of heartless bureaucracy and toadyism, of corporatization and emasculation, where everything is reduced to the value of the commodity:  the customer is always right (as Dan is unfortunately reminded by his simpering, effete boss, who played a similar role as the sinister and cynical barkeep in High Noon), and even the planes that he once flew are being gradually recycled to make prefabricated homes.  The scene in which he wanders the graveyard of airplanes is one of the most evocative in the film, a chilling reminder of the transience of the modern commodity and how quickly Americans wanted to put the realities of war behind them and return to a life of normalcy (and to a life of luxuriant commercial luxury in suburbia).

Overall, the film offers a nuanced and deeply empathetic view of the problems faced by returning veterans, and in that sense it remains strikingly relevant today.  While American politicians remain as hawkish as ever, they also seem either reluctant to actually deal with the after-effects of war on the home front or unable to accept the fact that these wars have significant physical and emotional consequences on those who fight them (most likely it’s a mix of both).  The Best Years of Our Lives, like so many of the social problem films of the immediate post-war period, remain startlingly relevant to the pressing concerns of the present day, a potent reminder that film was, and remains, an art form capable of addressing and helping us work through pressing social issues.

Score:  9/10

Screening Classic Hollywood “The Proud Rebel” (1958)

My strenuous apologies for the prolonged hiatus.  Now that things have calmed down a bit, I can finally return to a (somewhat) more consistent posting schedule.  First up on the docket is an entry in “Screening Classic Hollywood,” in which I discuss the 1958 film The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd, Olivia de Havilland, and David Ladd (the son of Alan).  It follows John Chandler (Ladd) as he attempts to discover why his son David (David Ladd) cannot speak.  In the process, he ends up in the debt of independent farmer Linnett (de Havilland) and intervenes in the unofficial war going on between her and a nearby family of sheep ranchers.  After a deadly showdown that restores David’s speech and sees the death of two of the ranchers, John at last returns to Linnett and the promise of a happily married and settled future.

Clearly, this film has many echoes of Shane, one of Ladd’s most memorable and famous roles, and even includes a scene in which he chops quite vigorously at a tree (a similar scene occurred in the previous film).  Like the titular Shane, John is a man haunted by his past, especially the fact that he fought on the losing side of the bitterest of American wars.  Though the Civil War never appears directly on-screen, it seems to hover press in around the characters, particularly when so many of the townspeople respond with outright hostility to John’s former service in the Confederate army.  John is bound by his relationship to his mute son–who also seems to have suffered some sort of trauma possibly related to the war–but he is also a man struggling to make sense of his life in the aftermath of conflict.

For her part, Linnett is a woman attempting to make it world that is incredibly hostile to the very idea of women living and running a farm on their own.  The film, for its part, also seems determined to punish her for this effrontery to the natural order, while also holding out the possibility of suturing her back into the social order.  The farm has gradually fallen into disrepair without the men there to help her, the film raises the possibility that it will do so if John does not return from his meeting with the sheep ranchers, the cinematography highlighting Linnett’s lone figure in long shot against the dilapidated buildings of her farm.

For their part, the sheep ranchers represent a slight variation on the typical rancher/homesteader conflict that permeates so many westerns of this period (including Shane).  If Linnett stands as the reminder of what happens when women are not properly aided by strong men, then the ranchers represent the danger of untamed and unbridled masculinity.  They have no women in their lives, simply a father living with his two sons, whom he is willing to do anything to protect, up to and including lying for them, his deviant patriarchal attitude providing a sharp and meaningful counterpart to that of John.  Indeed, it is precisely because he has not done his job as a father that he ultimately leads one son to his death and then, after attempting to avenge him, is slain in turn.

After both the father and the more bellicose brother are killed, the remaining brother is left weeping in the ruins of the ruthless and brutal world that they have built, a clear message on the film’s part that, without the calming, taming, reproductive power of the female (even if, as is the case here, that reproductive power exists at the level of the symbolic and the metaphorical rather than the physical), masculinity is doomed to destroy itself and leave nothing behind but a devastated landscape.  Unlike, say, Oklahoma!, with its hopeful message that the rancher and the homesteader can get along, The Proud Rebel presents a very different message, that there can ultimately be no rapprochement between the two very different frontier lives.  One leads to reproduction, domesticity, and the social order, the other to decay, destruction, and oblivion.

In its neat parallels to Shane, the ending of The Proud Rebel seems to recuperate and reorient the wandering male hero brought back into the fold of the nuclear family rather than hopelessly cast out of it.  In that sense, this film strikes a somewhat more optimistic note than its predecessor, suggesting that there is hope for the solitary male, so long as he is willing to put aside his gun after having done what is necessary to ensure the survival of the home and the family.  Having done so, he can finally take up his position as the benevolent patriarch that is a hallmark of so many films of classic Hollywood.

Score:  7.5/10