Dissertation Days (19): Weasel Words

Today, I worked a lot in Chapter 3, making sure that I cut out some of those pesky weasel words upon which I rely far too often. Words like “indeed,” “furthermore,” “as a result” are my bane, and I’ve been on the lookout for them as I work through these sections of the chapter. Removing them has really streamlined my prose.

I also deleted numerous other things that were basically written clutter. I do have a tendency to clog up the flow of my prose with extraneous bits and pieces that really don’t do much to advance the argument, and I am making a concerted effort to trim more of those out with each reading I do of this chapter. I’ve now reached the point where I’m taking stuff out, and this brings with it its own form of writing pleasure (particularly since there is a large part of the queer section that needs writing).

I also managed to get rid of more couplets (seriously, you would not believe how many of them appear throughout my writing). I have largely either cut out one of the pair or, alternatively, I have changed to a different grammatical construction (typically deleting one term and transforming it into a modifier for the other). I know that it’s another crutch, but it’s at least a bit of stylistic variety in my writing. I will say, though, that I have always tended to rely too much on adjectives, so I’m trying to focus more on using more verbs and nouns. As my adviser astutely pointed out some time ago, relying on those forms gives one’s writing a stronger, more active energy.

I also managed to get some of Chapter 4 done today, and I’m pretty happy with what I was able to produce. I not only worked on some of the theoretical section–admittedly not very much–but also on my close reading of Cleopatra. I think that will be my favourite part of the chapter, though I also want to make sure to give some love and attention to Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. The real struggle there will be finding something to say that is a genuine contribution.

I’m afraid another hiatus is in the offing. I’m traveling again tomorrow and Friday, but I hope to return to the schedule on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully next week will be even more productive.

Good times.

Dissertation Days (18): Increments

Well, I finally returned to the semi-normal writing schedule. Today, I mostly worked on a read-through of Chapter 3, finessing some of the prose that has been rather clunky. Of course, I made sure to clip out a few of those pesky couplets that are such a troubling part of my prose (gods I hate those fucking couplets). There are still a couple that have resisted all efforts to get rid of them, but I’ve been successful for the most part.

I managed to make it to page 20 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with the way that this first section looks. I’ve had to really hard to make sure that the section has allusions to what happens later, so that it’s clear from the beginning how the context that I’m laying out relates to the parts that come later. I think, at least in a dissertation chapter, that you want to have a number of signposts so that your reader can keep the bigger picture in mind.

Tomorrow, I hope to get through another 20 pages, and then I should just about be ready to get back into that section on Nero’s queerness. I am really struggling to get that section to fit into what I’ve written before, but I’m confident that I can at last corral everything into a coherent whole.

I also managed to write 500 words of Chapter 4, almost entirely in the historical context section. Gradually filling that out allows me to clarify what it is that I’m trying to accomplish with the chapter as a whole. The conceptual framework is still a little hazy, but I’m inching closer to a coherent argument. If I can manage to eke out a draft, no matter how rudimentary, by the end of July I will be happy.

Tomorrow is definitely going to be a busy day. I’m going to try to keep up the momentum with Chapter 4, as I don’t want to lose sight of that. It’s very easy to let my wheels start spinning in the midst of the revisions on Chapter 3, with the result that I can’t really accomplish anything else. Now that the end of Chapter 3 is (I think) at last in sight, I should be able to resume concerted work on the final chapter. (Can I just say how glorious it is to write that final sentence).

Tomorrow is going to be a glorious day.

Dissertation Days (17): Headaches

Much as it pains me to admit it, this has not been a very productive day on any front. I managed to eke out some progress on Chapter 3, though I did nothing at all on Chapter 4. I had a bit of a pet emergency (Beast, my kitty, had an asthma flare, so a large part of the day has been spent fretting over here; she’s doing much better, thankfully). I also developed a splitting headache, so that ruled out a lot of work progress this evening.

Still, I did manage to do some copy and paste from earlier drafts of the chapter, so the section on queerness, Nero, and Quo Vadis is starting to slowly take shape in a coherent form. I’m still struggling to bring together the strands of queerness, colour, and the terrifying nature of history, but I think I have the avenue I need.

I’m trying to avoid a huge theory info-dump right in the middle of the discussion. I think I’m going to have to just winnow out any theoretical references that aren’t directly relevant to what I’m doing, and relegate the others to a footnote. I also have to find a way to bring together my discussions of queer theory in general and the queer film theorists that I’m also working with.

I think that I need to focus on just the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton and her notion of the queer child and Lee Edelman’s notion of jouissance and the death drive. Now, if I can only make sure that they mesh with both my arguments about chromatic history, I think I’ll have something significant to say about how this film imagines history (I also have to make sure that it fits in with the preceding discussion of S&D and D&B). Lots of balls in the air. I do like a challenge.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, more work is probably not in the offing tomorrow, as I have more family obligations. Sometime, probably early next week, I should be able to get back into something of my normal groove.

Until then, I fear that the installments of Dissertation Days will be as sporadic as the actual progress I’ll be making on my chapters. Still, I’m going to carve out each piece as I can, and that will have to be good enough for now.

In my book, any progress is good progress.

Dissertation Days (13): Breakthroughs

Somehow, it seems that revision and incremental writing seems to take so much more energy and time than producing new material. It’s one of the bitter ironies of writing a new chapter draft. As a result, it took me several hours to work my way through a mere few pages, but luckily I had some substantial breakthroughs.

This came about as I was finishing the section on queerness and communist subversiveness. It actually provided me with the final piece of the puzzle that I needed, so that I can finally make a compelling and (I hope) original point about the way in which Nero’s queerness in Quo Vadis works as an expression of the pleasure of terrifying history. There’s nothing like a bit of collective queer fantasy to encounter the ineffable nature of history, am I right?

Still, despite the fact that today was a bit of a slog, I made good progress today. The queer section is pretty much done in its broad contours, and the same is also true of the section on colour. A little more fine-tuning might be needed to make sure that that section is ready for submission, but overall I think it does the work that it needs to do.

Since this is a pretty large and complex chapter, I’ve found that I’ve had to use a bit more signposting than I usually do, just to make sure that the reader is able to follow my logic and understand why I’m including the evidence that I do. It does pad out the chapter, but I personally think it’s helpful to have those rhetorical bits when you’re dealing with a 40-50 page piece of academic writing.

I’m quite happy with the way that this day turned out, really. The queer section was a hot mess this morning, and now it feels like it actually works in the chapter as a whole. Not too bad, if I do say so myself. Now I don’t actually feel bad about not doing any work tomorrow.

Yes, you read that right. I am indeed taking off tomorrow. Then it’s back to work on Monday to finish up the close reading sections of both Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba. Once those two sections are done, the home stretch will finally be in sight. What a glorious feeling.

It’s going to be a great day. I can feel it.

Dissertation Days (5): Clarity at Last

Today was what I would like to call a successful writing day. I not only met my word goal (2000 words!) but also started to achieve that elusive goal of every chapter: intellectual clarity. I know it may not seem like much to some, but man, if you’ve ever written a book-length scholarly treatment, you know that’s no small feat.

I managed to get some important context written today, focusing especially on the postwar consumption boom. I really found the book As Seen on TV to be particularly helpful, as it gave me the theoretical understanding I needed to make the point about the connection between tactile images and erotic desire. If you’ve ever seen Samson and Delilah or Quo Vadis, you know  that there are a number of spectacular fabrics on display, and I can’t help but think that they register to a degree the importance and presence of both female and queer male desire.

The most frustrating thing I’ve found about this chapter is how slippery it is. I’m really trying to tease out the essential contradictions of the epic, to find in those contradictions the systems of power and representational systems that render the terrors of history, its utter unknowability and ineffability, experiential and, just possibly, comprehensible.

I’m…not sure to what extent this draft of the chapter is doing that, but I think it is holding together in ways that definitely weren’t true of its earlier iteration. There definitely seems to be a stronger, more organic connection between the historical and theoretical context and the close textual readings. I just have to find a way to make sure that I make those connections explicit,  without getting repetitive or clumsy about it.

As Sophia Petrillo once said: “presentation is very important.”

Also, incidentally, I also began a new draft of Chapter 4. Still not quite sure what form this final one is going to take but…there’s a glimmer of illumination ahead.

Tomorrow’s goal: more close textual analysis and a bit more context. Goal: 1000 words.

If I keep up at this pace, I might even be able to get a draft of this chapter back to my adviser by middle of May. Regardless of whether it’s approved this time around or not, I really do feel like I’ve made vast improvement.

That improvement, ultimately, gives me the courage and enthusiasm to face the glowing computer screen tomorrow morning.

Dissertation Days (4): Historicize, Contextualize, Theorize

So, for every chapter of my Diss so far, I’ve followed this basic model: Intro—>Historical Context—>Theory—>Close Reading—>Conclusion. I’m always pretty good at the close readings, but the other two…well, they sometimes get a bit unwieldy and lose contact with what’s coming after.

That was definitely the case with my first chapter, and it was the case with the first draft of my third chapter. It becomes, shall we say, a bit heavy, and the whole thing feels crammed and rudderless.

Now, though, I think I have a firmer hand on both the history and the theory. In essence, I’m trying to situate three films (Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, and Quo Vadis) in that nebulous period between 1945 and 1951, when the postwar consensus hadn’t yet fully achieved its (admittedly unsteady and tense) hegemony. Through a careful understanding of desire and color, I think we get a better grasp of the vision of history expressed by the historico-biblical epic.

So, I’ve slowly been sketching out a historical context that shows the contradictory impulses that women encountered, between the injunction to be passive housewives yet also sexually reproductive beings, to be consumers of household goods yet not to indulge too much in frippery and luxury. Gay men also encountered a competing set of discourses, between one that suggested they were an invisible threat and one that heightened their visibility.

This, as I show, is reflected in the disordered and chaotically rich colour palettes of the three films I talk about. As I was working on the context today (in both the history and the theory), I became more convinced that I was onto something with the way I’ve framed my argument.

I’m still struggling to make sure that the context sections don’t get out of hand. There’s just so much rich historical and theoretical material, but I have to remind myself that it’s more important to maintain focus on the absolutely essential parts than to wander all over the place and allow the piece to lose focus. In particular, I find myself getting carried away with the discussion of colour.

Tomorrow, I’d really like to have the entire colour section figured out and completed, some more historical context, and a bit of close reading. I’m expecting you all to hold me to it.

The word count is up to 12,000. 7,000 (or so) to go.

I can do it.

Dissertation Days (3): Genuine Progress

Today I set out to write some more of the contextual sections of the third chapter, but unfortunately I ended up writing the sections that deal with the readings of the individual films.

Fortunately, however, it turns out that both of those close readings are coming together much more coherently than they have until now.  I’ve taken my adviser’s advice to excise most of the references to “spectator,” as that ends up being very limiting. And you know what? That actually helped to clarify some of what I want to say. It turns out you can still talk about the haptic allure of the epic film without foregrounding the spectator’s experience with the cinematic image.

As it stands now, I’ve managed to write two fairly coherent close readings, one of the disruptive desire, chromatic eros, and the loss of historical subjectivity in Samson and Delilah (sexy stuff, huh?) and one on the registering of dangerous desire in David and Bathsheba. Much as this project frustrates me sometimes, it’s also really exciting to engage with the epic film and to really try to understand how it attempts to convey an experience of the dark, ineffable, terrifying nature of modern history.

Today was one of those really good writing days, when you seem to finally hit that sweet spot of caffeination and inspiration, where the clarity of the ideas in your head finally makes its way onto the page. It’s really hard–impossible, really–to predict when those moments are going to arrive or what is going to precipitate them, but when they come…wow. You really do feel like you’ve accomplished something when the day’s writing is done.

At some point, of course, I’ll have to return to Chapter 4, but time enough to think of that when Chapter 3 is sent in (and hopefully, in short order, approved).

Now, I would like to go on record as saying that I fully intend to write 1,000 words tomorrow, only in the contextual or theoretical sections. Those are always the hardest parts to write, as you have to somehow straddle the line of conveying actual historical/theoretical information while also showing how they connect to your argument without, of course, becoming too repetitive.

Word total is now standing at 11,000, so we have about 7/8,000 more to go. Tomorrow is going to be a good writing day. I can feel it.

Onward and upward, friends. Onward and upward.

Screening History: “Ben-Hur”(1959)

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Some time ago, I wrote a 3-part series of blog posts about the rise and fall of the biblical epic (you can see them here, here, and here). At the time, I was just beginning to explore my dissertation. Since then, however, I’ve managed to write two chapters and have submitted the first draft of a third, and it actually looks like I’ll finish next year. Just as importantly, I’ve gained a more nuanced appreciation for the complexities of my favourite film genre, the historico-biblical epic.

Thus, when it came time to for the annual Oscar Blogathon, I thought, here’s a great opportunity to talk about one of my favourite Oscar-winning epic films, and give a little bit of an indication of how this film fits into my dissertation’s overall argument about the kind of experience of history that the historico-biblical epic provided for its postmodern spectators. So, here we go.

Historically, it’s important to remember that the film was produced in the context of the Cold War, in particular the growing threat that a nuclear holocaust might actually wipe out the entirety of human civilization. There was profound uncertainty throughout the immediate postwar decades about whether the atomic bomb was the weapon by which mankind would finally bring about the fiery oblivion that had been promised by prophets throughout the millennia. Further, many wondered whether it was possible (or even desirable) to attempt to stop this from happening, or whether the power of the bomb and the end of human history it promised should simply be accepted. The individual in the postwar world was not only vulnerable; s/he might in fact be thought of as irrelevant.

Industrially, this was also the period of Hollywood cinema when widescreen technology–which promised the spectator the ability to transcend spatio-temporal boundaries and to encounter a sense of presence with the ancient world–became increasingly widespread. While it had been inaugurated with another historico-biblical epic, The Robe, in 1953, several studios soon rolled out their own processes, for they understood that audiences needed something truly overwhelming and spectacular to draw them away from their living rooms. Indeed, MGM would make a great deal of the fact that their epic was produced in MGM Camera 65, and a production booklet for the film promised that the process promised even greater levels of participation and presence. One was invited to both participate in the action and to be overwhelmed by the majesty of the spectacle.

The aesthetics of the film make full use of this tension between agency and submission, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by the truly overwhelming spectacularity of it all. Imagine, for example, seeing the scene in which Judah must hide, unable to reveal himself to his mother, who has been stricken with leprosy. Imagine feeling as if you, the spectator, were there with Judah, yet also immobilized like him, unable to reach out and touch her, no matter how much your body aches to do so. While this can still be felt to an extent by viewing it on a large-screen HDTV, I daresay it doesn’t come close to measuring up to what the experience must have felt like when seeing it on the true widescreen. Small wonder that the film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography-Color.

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The chariot race, one of the most visceral and exciting sequences in the history of cinema (made all the more so by the widescreen technology used to bring it to life).

Further, one can sense throughout the film–at both the formal and narrative levels–an oscillation between agency and impotence. No matter how hard Judah tries to do the right thing, he finds his agency circumscribed by forces he cannot name nor control. He can do nothing to save his family from their imprisonment, he cannot save himself from his enslavement in the galleys (it is through the capricious whim of the Roman Arrius that he is freed from his chains and thus allowed to escape the sinking ship), he can do nothing to save his mother and sister (they are purged of leprosy by the Crucifixion), and he cannot even really win the chariot race (he both places his eventual fate in God’s hands and his nemesis Messala is ultimately brought down by his own vindictiveness). There’s no denying, though, that Judah is a spectacular sufferer.

There is, then, something exquisite and beautiful about this suffering, in no small part because of the star text of Heston (who won the Oscar for Best Actor). While I am not Heston’s biggest fan, he makes a fantastic epic hero precisely because everything that is thrown at him makes him stronger. Much has been written about the way in which his chiseled facial features and imposing physicality ensured that he always appeared tightly wound, ready to erupt into violence at any moment. That is certainly true in this film; even when he is chained in the galleys, Heston’s Judah is a slab of muscled flesh, an object of erotic fascination and muscular identification. We know that the years of servitude have only hardened his body until it becomes the perfect weapon, the perfect means of effecting his vengeance against the man who wronged him and his family.

Ben-Hur

The exquisitely erotic suffering of Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur.

Yet for all if its beauty, the world that this film depicts is a place of dark and terrifying brutality. The chariot race is, of course, one of the most memorable events in the history of cinema, but it is also an indication the rather Hobbesian mentality that governs this world. Life for many is, indeed, nasty, brutish, and short, as indicated by the many charioteers who perish during the course of the race. Messala, struggling to stay alive long enough to taunt his old enemy, suggests as much when he defiantly informs Judah that the race goes on. All the blood that now stains the sands of the Circus are but the precursor, he suggests, to an ongoing set of conflicts and strife that will continue to rock the Roman world as it is gradually replaced by Christianity.

In the end, of course, the film has to pay at least some attention to the fact that it is “a tale of the Christ,” and so it ensures that his own journey to the Cross intersects with Judah’s attempt to rescue his family. Indeed, it is the Crucifixion itself that washes them clean of their affliction, thus rendering possible the reconstitution of the family and Judah’s spiritual peace. What strikes me as particularly compelling about this fact is that it renders the rescue of the afflicted family a matter undertaken by the suffering Christ rather than anything done by Judah. In an age in which individual human agency seemed to have become impossible, it makes sense that the film would displace Judah’s historic ability to effect change in his world onto the film’s (largely  unseen) Christ.

Ben-Hur was in many ways the apex of the cycle of historico-biblical epics that had begun with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah in 1949. While the cycle would produce several other high-profile and profitable hits, it would never attain quite the level that this film did, and none would manage to grab as many Oscars. Indeed, Ben-Hur’s Oscar haul would be unmatched until Titanic 40 years later. This film showed what was possible when a supremely talented director (William Wyler) was paired with a great cast, fine writing, and the seemingly unlimited financial capacity of the most glamourous and resplendent film studios (MGM, in the person of producer Sam Zimbalist, who sadly died before the film was completed). While other epics might be more glamourous or more historically sophisticated (Cleopatra in 1963 or The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964), they just couldn’t quite measure up to the splendid achievements of Ben-Hur. 

In terms of scholarship, there have been a number of recent essays and books published about this film. Of particular interest is Jon Solomon’s monograph Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster. This book provides an extensive overview of this story, beginning with Lew Wallace’s original novel. You should also check out Bigger than Ben-Hur, which is a collection of essays published by Syracuse University Press. Don’t let the university press designation scare you off; the essays are quite accessible and shed a great deal of light on how a 19th Century novel continues to exert a powerful hold on the contemporary imagination. Film scholar Ina Rae Hark has a compelling essay on the nature of erotic suffering in the 1959 film.

Even now, after almost 60 years after its initial release, Ben-Hur does indeed remain “The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime,” a testament to the might, the power, and the majesty of Old Hollywood and, just as importantly, to the enduring fascination of the world of ancient Rome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my entry in this year’s Oscar Blogathon. If you’d like to leave your own reflections or appreciations on the film, I’d greatly appreciate it!

Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part Three (1961-1966)

Welcome to the third and final part of my series for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, in which I explore the declining period of the biblical epic, which saw the death of the genre on the big screen until its resurgence on film (and on television) post-2000.

As the ’60s began, it must have seemed a good time to be making epic films.  While some of the 1950s films had not been as successful as had been hoped, the fortunes of the genre did not seem all washed up just yet.  When Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings emerged in 1961, it offered the first major Hollywood studio film to explicitly show Christ’s face since DeMille’s similarly titled The King of Kings in 1927.  Ray’s film situates Christ’s life and teachings in the context of the Roman conquest of Palestine, granting his film a topical urgency and also allowing for a feeling of a world that is, indeed, on the brink of profound political change.  Yet even in a film like this, one can already see the writing on the wall, not least in the fact that the philosophy of bigger and better was beginning to flag, as can be seen from the nakedly derivative marketing.  If you see a similarity between these enormous letters and those used to market Ben-Hur, that is most likely because they are almost identical, an indication, it seems, of some measure of studio uncertainty on how to contend with the ever-increasing desire for the new and the spectacular.

Theatrical release poster for "King of Kings."  Note the similarities to the poster for "Ben-Hur" (also released by MGM).

Theatrical release poster for “King of Kings.” Note the similarities to the poster for “Ben-Hur” (also released by MGM).

1961 also saw the release of the darker Italian film Barabbas, about the career of the Jewish insurgent pardoned so that Jesus could be crucified.  The character, portrayed by Anthony Quinn, positively seethes with existential and political angst, as he struggles to come to terms with his survival at the expense of another.  The film shows signs of its European origins, a sign that the epic form was not isolated in the U.S., as well as an indication of the growing influence and popularity of European art house films.

Given the perceived fiscal viability of the genre–especially considering the flagging fortunes of most of the major Hollywood studios–it would make sense that Fox would decide to engage in its own form of oneupsmanship with its grandiose production of Cleopatra.  Unfortunately for Fox, costs for the picture began to balloon, due in no small part because the entire project had to be moved from England to Italy (which required the construction of a second set of sets), as well as numerous other difficulties (including, so the press reported, trouble with the star Elizabeth Taylor, who engaged in a salacious affair with married co-star Richard Burton during production).  While the film was the top grosser of the year, it’s enormous budget ensured that it was a loss for the studio.

The crushing weight of spectacle in "Cleopatra."

The crushing weight of spectacle in “Cleopatra.”

Still, not all was quite lost (or at least it was thought not), as several other epic films went into production.  George Stevens, the man who had made so many memorable westerns, embarked on his devotional life of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told.  However, a combination of factors, including a Hallmark card aesthetic (to borrow a phrase from prominent critic John Simon), a distracting panoply of cameo appearances–including one by John Wayne as the centurion at Christ’s crucifixion–and an enormous budget fairly guaranteed that this film would not recoup its losses.

If Stevens’s outing was a religiously devout picture, Anthony Mann’s film The Fall of the Roman Empire, released in 1964,  was far more bleakly secular in its outlook.  Mann’s film is self-consciously a “thinking man’s epic,” far more cerebral in its approach to its subject matter, the eponymous fall of one of the western world’s most formidable political powers.  However, while the beginning voiceover suggests that there were many causes, the film’s narrative suggests otherwise, pinpointing the corruption of Emperor Commodus (itself, the film suggests, the product of his illegitimacy and gladiatorial paternity).  However, the ending is truly one of the most despairing and despondent of the mid-century epics, with hero Lucius (Stephen Boyd) and Lucilla (Sophia Loren) leaving a flaming conflagration as the city, and the empire, goes up for sale to the highest bidder.

The ending conflagration of "Fall of the Roman Empire," with echoes of an atomic expulsion from Eden.

The ending conflagration of “Fall of the Roman Empire,” with echoes of an atomic expulsion from Eden.

While The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Greatest Story Ever Told are typically seen as the definitive end of the genre’s mid-century flourishing, one other film of this type deserves mention:  John Huston’s The Bible:  In the Beginning.  Released in 1966, the film chronicles the events of the first 22 chapters of Genesis.  While not enormously successful at the box office, the film was at least somewhat well-received by critics and features some noteworthy performances by Huston himself as Noah, George C. Scott as Abraham, and Ava Gardner as Sarah.

It is perhaps fitting that many of these films take as their subject the decline of the great powers of the ancient world:  the meteoric rise and catastrophically fast fall of Cleopatra, the crumbling of Roman imperial glory, even the loss of innocence entailed with the Fall out of the Garden of Eden.  In terms of the film industry, this was indeed the decade that saw the definitive end of the classic Hollywood studio system, as the impetus to produce bigger and better product eventually became too strenuous to be sustained (as can be seen with the bloated budgets of Cleopatra and The Greatest Story Ever Told).  In the culture at large, political shocks reverberated throughout the early-to-mid 1960s, with the prominent assassination of JFK serving as a potent reminder of the fragility of life and of the melancholia of dreams unfulfilled.

Perhaps it is precisely because these films take the fall of grace and power as their subject that so many of them fumbled so spectacularly at the box office.  Their predecessors in the genre, ambivalent as they often were, frequently attempted (with various levels of success) to disguise that ambivalence and overcome it through the triumph of narrative resolution (often of spiritual transcendence).  A film such as Fall of the Roman Empire, however, is even more bleak than Spartacus, with its ending conflagration and the flight of both Lucius and Lucilla as they abandon the city, and the empire, to its own internal corruption.  Cleopatra, likewise, ends with its heroine’s suicide and the potent knowledge that her death, and that of Antony, will usher in the era of Augustus, a man of substantially smaller stature and heroic grandeur than his enemy (at least as portrayed with such hysterical and fey flair by Roddy McDowall).  The biblical epic, it seems, found itself both too topical and not topical enough.

After The Bible:  In the Beginning, the biblical epic seemed to vanish from the production slates of Hollywood, moving largely to the international sphere and, in more limited fashion, to the television miniseries.  International films such as Fellini Satyricon (1969) and miniseries such as Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Masada (1981) took up the slack, providing periodic returns to that halycon age.  However, it wasn’t until the release of Gladiator in 2000 that the ancient world truly returned to the public consciousness in a much more conspicuous and consistent way.  The films that followed, such as Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), and 300 (2006), as well as the television series Rome (2005-2007) and Spartacus (2010-2013) began a cycle that continues to the present, as with the films Noah (2014), Exodus:  Gods and Kings (2014) and the miniseries The Bible and its successor A.D.:  The Bible Continues.  While it is debatable whether any of these texts reach the heights of the genre at its apogee, they nevertheless indicate the continuing desire for and relevance of the epic form.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my three part chronicle of the rise and fall of the biblical epic.  It has certainly gone down in film history as one of the most representative genres of the middle of the century.  While it is very easy to dismiss these films as campy, even ridiculous by our current standards of realism, I hope I have shown how these films, despite (or perhaps because of) their over-the-topness, actually sought to make sense of the chaos and terror of the aftermath of World War II and the heightened tensions surrounding the Cold War.  The biblical epic, in all its hyperbolic glory, still stands as one of the foremost emblems of Hollywood’s golden age.

Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part Two (1956-1960)

Welcome to the second part of my entry in this year’s Classic Movie History Project Blogathaon.  Today, I’ll be writing about what can be thought of as the apogee of the 1950s biblical epic, when the genre reached the height of its maturity with the release of such monumental films as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960).  

These, for the most part, are the films that one identifies as almost synonymous with the genre of the biblical epic (though, to be fair, only one of them is biblical in the truest sense, i.e. being based, however loosely, on a biblical text).  It is rather surprising that, in the almost two decades that the genre remained a fixture in Hollywood, a four year span should produce such high-ranking films that in many ways solidified, at least to some degree, the genre’s importance as a cultural product of mid-century American cinema.

And yet, perhaps it is not so surprising, considering the power of the stars and the directors in these productions, for if there were ever two stars that exemplified the traits of heroic/hegemonic masculinity, they would have to be Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, both of whom became almost synonymous with the image of an epic hero in the grandest, most classical sense.  Not for nothing was Heston termed an “axiom of the cinema” by the controversial French playwright Michel Mourlet. Yet while these films seemingly trumpet the advantages of traditional hegemonic and epic/heroic masculinity, they also seem to contain an awareness that the world that these men manage to save or to challenge ultimately has no place for them.  To put it another way, the heroic destiny that makes these male heroes such an essential part of their worlds also precludes their ability to be included in the world they have set out to create.  Thus, while Spartacus fights to create a world free of slavery, he ends the film as another of Crassus’ crucified victims, his body spreadeagled and on display for the edification and suppression of any others who might try to lead a similar revolt against Roman might.

Kirk Douglas' Spartacus on the cross.

Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus on the cross.

Moses, likewise, bears the brunt of the power of his unmediated access to God, his body bearing witness to the divine power that exists beyond the power of cinematic representation to bring it into the realm of the visible.  It is, rather, Moses’ countenance, particularly his hair, that shows the signs of his encounter with the divine, showing that even such a rugged man as Charlton Heston must find himself humbled before a force that cannot make itself seen, only felt.  Even an axiom, it seems, with, in Mourlet’s words, its perpetually pent-up violence, must acknowledge its own subservience in the face (or at least the presence) of the ineffable, terrifying, and wrathful God of the Old Testament.

hestonmoses1

Charlton-Heston-as-Moses-001 Top: Moses as he appears before the wrathful and vengeful Ramses in his Egyptian youth. Bottom: Moses after his encounter with the equally wrathful and vengeful Hebrew God.

Further, while Ben-Hur allows its hero to survive, it does so only because he has been so ruthlessly subjected to the breaking of his own historical agency, first through Messala’s manipulation and then, increasingly through his shadowy interactions with the Christ (who never appears within the film’s frame).  The film constantly oscillates between subjecting Ben-Hur to physical degradation–as with his time spent as a galley slave–and allowing him to the chance to overcome and rise up from his subaltern position.  When he ultimately abandons his quest for vengeance and the destruction of Rome–though only, it should be pointed out, after the death of Messala–and the film ends, it is clear that he has finally given in to the will of the recently crucified Christ.  The eternal presence of this man from Galilee promises a measure of succor for the anguished Ben-Hur (recently reunited with his own family), and an absolution from the necessity of historical agency.

Heston's Ben-Hur sits uneasily at the intersection of agency and abjection.

Heston’s Ben-Hur sits uneasily at the intersection of agency and abjection.

All three films are haunted by the grim spectre of death.  While the heroic conventions of the genre try to focus attention on the epic hero, these films often, perhaps unintentionally, reveal the masses of dead bodies that lie in the wake of the hero’s quest and his grand destiny, whether that be the slave army of Spartacus, the drowned Egyptians left in the wake of the Hebrew Exodus, or the drowned slaves and mangled body of Messala that Ben-Hur leaves in his wake as he struggles to fulfill this destiny.  While these films want to ignore their collective bodies, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the road to historic greatness is paved with the bodies of the dead.

Further, these films continue to express at least a measure of ambivalence about the presence and power of the divine, especially as that relates to the masculinity of the epic hero.  Of course, this tension within the genre was not new; films such as The Robe, with its well-nigh hysterical performances of masculine conversion, had already tapped into the uneasy fit between hegemonic masculinity and the process of religious conversion.  In these latter films, likewise, the male hero ultimately finds himself caught in something of a contradiction:  in order to fulfill his destiny, to become that which history has ordained for him–whether that be as a leader of the sect of Christianity, as is suggested will happen with Ben-Hur, or whether it will be as a leader for the Hebrews, as with Moses–he must in the process give up that which makes him a man.  For the hegemonic male hero must, ultimately, submit to the will of another in order to fulfill his destiny, and these films, in the end, seem somewhat at a loss as to how to contend with that submission.

All three of these films were tremendous financial and, in some cases critical, successes.  Ben-Hur went on to win more Academy Awards than any film preceding it, including Best Picture.  In many ways, then, the last part of the ’50s and the very beginning of the ’60s can be seen as the apogee of the Hollywood biblical epic, the period of its fullest aesthetic flowering, when its tremendous critical and financial success indicates that it was part of the cultural consciousness in a way that would not be true in just the next few years.  These films can been as a cultural barometer, revealing an American culture struggling to make sense of its place in history, to contend with the threat of uncontrolled destruction (represented by the ubiquitous threat of the bomb) and thus the end of history by looking back to moments of similar struggle, strife, and immense political and social change.  Yet the epics of the apogee, so seemingly full of unadulterated triumph, also seethe with barely repressed anxieties, suggesting that the intractable representational challenges posed by the ancient world are not so easily contained.

While the three films discussed above certainly stood out from among the other offerings of the genre, they were not the only ones produced by the studios.  Indeed, 1960 was something of a banner year for the biblical epic.  Besides Spartacus there were also The Story of Ruth (a CinemaScope production from Fox that was well-received by the critics), as well as Esther and the King (also from Fox, in conjunction with Raoul Walsh Productions), and the preceding year also saw the release of the Big Fisherman (based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, the author of The Robe).  The Story of Ruth and Esther are particularly notable in that they, unlike many of their fellow epic films, focus on the points of view of their female protagonists, something rarely seen in the genre since its early days (e.g. Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba, which not only included the name of their female protagonists in the title, but also allowed their characters to have at least some sort of influence over their narratives).  While these films may not have become canonical in the same way that their male-centered counterparts have, they are nevertheless salient reminders that the epic form can be used to tell the stories of women as well as of men.

In the third installment, which follows the fortunes of the genre from 1961 to its definitive end in 1967, I look at such films as King of Kings, Cleopatra, and Fall of the Roman Empire.  If you’re of a mind, feel free to check out this third and final part of this series here, as well as the first one here.