Screening History: “Ben-Hur” and the Tragedy of the Might-Have-Been

I went into Ben-Hur with the lowest possible expectations. Critics and audiences alike seemed to disdain the film, and its opening box office was truly abysmal. I was worried that somehow this box office and critical disaster would taint my love for the 1959 version.

As sometimes happens, however, the film actually exceeded all of my expectations. While it does not hit the same notes of operatic grandness achieved by its predecessors (including, it is worth noting, the 1925 version, which seems to have been largely forgotten in the discourse surrounding this one), it is nevertheless a competent and at times quite moving film.

The film basically follows the same trajectory as the previous versions, as Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his boyhood friend and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) find themselves pulled apart by the historical times in which they live, in which the power of Rome continues to oppress the people of Judaea. Their own personal rivalry–which culminates in the famous chariot race–takes place at the same time as the ministry of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) whose sacrifice and Crucifixion lead to the eventual reconciliation of Judah and Messala.

Though he lacks the larger-than-life monumentality that Heston brought to his interpretation of the role, the young Jack Huston brings something else equally valuable. He manages to bring both a measure of vulnerability and sensitivity to the role, neither of which are traits that Heston could ever have claimed to embody. For that reason, I actually found Huston’s lack of star power refreshing, in that it allowed me to put aside my preconceptions of what Judah should look like and instead appreciate what this relatively unknown star (who nevertheless hails from an illustrious Hollywood lineage) was able to bring to the role.

Indeed, I thought there was a great deal of chemistry between him and his fellow lead Toby Kebell. The latter brings a powerful, brooding energy to the character of Messala, a young man overshadowed by a tainted family legacy and his own desire to prove himself worthy of being a Roman. It’s hard not to find him compelling, in much the same way as it was difficult to not find oneself attracted to Stephen Boyd (who played the role in the 1959 version). However, I do think that Kebbell brings a softer, more vulnerable–and thus, ultimately, more redeemable–characterization to the role.

Of course, Morgan Freeman also deserves credit for the gravitas that he brings to the role of Sheik Ilderim. Whereas his earlier counterpart had been a rather egregious example of blackface, Freeman imbues his character with a powerful, brooding solemnity. We learn, for example, that his son had also been a zealous enemy of Rome, a position that earned him an ignominious and horrific death at the hands of the Roman state. One cannot help but feel the resonance with the ways in which black bodies are still rendered subject (and abject) to the violence of the state.

Of course, the two of the most affective and intense scenes were the scene in the galley and the chariot race. Both allowed for a feeling immersion, of being there and inhabiting two very different moments. While the galley sequence (as such sequences frequently do) forces us to inhabit a claustrophobic world of the abject, the chariot race represents a reclamation of embodied agency. In fact, I actually think the scene in the galleys is more terrifying and visceral than the 1959 version, in no small part because so many of the shots are from Judah’s hampered point of view. The race, for its part, is quite as stirring as the original, and seeing it on the big screen was absolutely a part of the phenomenologically powerful experience.

It’s a tad unfortunate that the Crucifixion scene–which should, one would think, land with the greatest possible emotional impact–comes off as so stilted and emotionless. Santoro, bless him, just doesn’t bring a great deal to the role of Christ. Not that this is entirely his fault; the script doesn’t really allow him to do anything other than utter a few incredibly flat-footed platitudes. In this instance, it seems that the practice of the earlier films, which resolutely kept Christ out of the frame, proved to be the better move.

That aside, I do think that the latter half of the film holds together much more effectively than the first. Part of this, I think, has to do with the gratuitous number of cuts throughout the first half of the film. One would think that the opposite would be the case; after all, these early scenes are designed to establish the personal level of the drama. Unfortunately, however, Bekmambetov is a bit too fond of the cut, and it becomes distracting more than it should be.

Despite the choppy and often gratuitous editing of those early scenes, however, the film does succeed in showing how much Messala and Judah care for one another, a crucial bit of backstory that we don’t really see in the 1959 version (though Gore Vidal’s juicy gossip suggests that his script had a homoerotic undercurrent). As a result, we get to know and care about these characters and their relationship. And you know what? That final reconnection between Messala and Judah actually brought tears to my eyes. Because, despite everything else, it felt earned. These two actors bring enough emotional resonance to their roles that we actually care about what happens to them. At a broader level, it also provides hope that, even in this time of historical conflict, that somehow solidarity can and will win out of hatred.

Is Ben-Hur a perfect, or even a great film? Absolutely not, and there are a number of reasons for this. At the risk of continuing to compare the film to its predecessor, I do think it’s noteworthy that this reboot did not have a major directorial name attached to it. While Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to Hollywood, he doesn’t have the same sort of resumé as or cultural capital as a director like William Wyler, who had already established himself as a formidable artist director of stature. Bekmambetov, for better and worse, does not have quite that amount of presence to help lift Ben-Hur to the heights of true greatness to which it might otherwise have aspired.

In the end, I strongly suspect that the 2016 iteration of Ben-Hur will go down in history as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful reimagining of a cinematic and literary classic. Still, I do hope that those who watch it take it on its own terms, for it really is quite a good film in its own way. And that, perhaps, is its greatest tragedy.

 

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.

Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part One (1949-1955)

Welcome to the first of my three entries for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, focusing on the rise and fall of the biblical epic.  Today’s entry will focus on the rise of the genre’s popularity during the 1950s, beginning with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and ending with the rather lackluster films that characterized the genre’s output in the middle of the decade.

When Cecil B. DeMille released Samson and Delilah in 1949, the film no doubt looked like something of a throwback to a much earlier period in classic Hollywood.  The biblical epic had, in the past, been quite popular, particularly in the silent era and in the 1930s, when DeMille made such films as The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934), both of which highlighted the director’s signature ability to blend a moral message with sin and sex.  And Samson and Delilah delivers more of the same, with the fleshly bulk of Victor Mature’s Samson easily seduced by the sumptuous and sensual Hedy Lamar’s Delilah.  The ancient world emerges in DeMille’s film as a site of terror and unbridled desires and while the film strenuously attempts to tame this world through its moralizing, it also acknowledges that the vagaries of the sexual unconscious are not so easily brought under control.

33-victor-mature-theredlist

The “voluptuous enslavement” of Victor Mature’s Samson to Hedy Lamarr’s sensuous Delilah (I borrow the phrase from the fine monograph, “Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema.”

DeMille’s film ignited something of a renaissance of the genre and the studios, still reeling from the Paramount Decrees (which mandated that they divest themselves of their theater chains, thus removing a crucial source of revenue), saw the epic as a chance to rejuvenate their lagging financial fortunes.  Both Fox and MGM released epics in 1951 (David and Bathsheba and Quo Vadis, respectively), which took on very different moments of antiquity, with the former focusing on the tumultuous and dangerous romance between the biblical King David and the latter narrating the love affair between a bellicose Roman soldier and a Christian maiden, all under the vindictive aegis of the mad emperor Nero.

The epic creates a particular vision of the world of antiquity as a world of fleshly and sexual excess and, while this might seem to be just another way in which mid-century America could excite itself while also taking comfort in the soothing balm of a moral message, I would argue that this emphasis on sex also serves a (perhaps unintentional) acknowledgment of the terrifying power of history to elude all our attempts to make sense of it.   These films betray a profound ambivalence about both sexuality (which, while pleasurable, also contains danger and the spectre of death) and about the thrust of history and the narrative drive toward containment.

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM's "Quo Vadis" (1951).

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM’s “Quo Vadis” (1951).

Further, these early entries of the genre express a deep ambivalence about the period of antiquity, which emerges as both the place where the miraculous and timeless presence of Christ (and, in some films, God the Father), still seems possible, even as it remains steadfastly opposed to the secular presence of the human and the political.  Even Quo Vadis, which seems to be the most unambiguous in its celebration of the triumph of Christian morality over Roman licentiousness, ends with the legions of Galba marching into Rome, their phallic military glory and thorough secular worldliness a pointed counterpart to the otherwordly presence of such figures as the aged and beatific Peter and the other Christians who lose their lives in the course of the film.  Thus, while the converted Marcus hopes for a more permanent world and faith,  the chaotic elements of the film, ranging from the legions that open and close it to the riotous citizens that topple Nero from his throne, suggest that the world of the flesh will remain flawed and tainted by the corporeal bodies of secular history.

These films, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledge the contradictory temporality that Christ occupies.  Since, at this early stage in the genre’s resurgence, Christ does not yet make a physical appearance, he must remain instead at the edges of the frame and the narrative, a potent force for historical change yet also unrepresentable precisely because He also supposedly represents the timeless, that which exists beyond the borders of the film frame and the terrifying world of antiquity, whether that be the ancient Levant of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba or the corrupt Rome of Quo Vadis.  

Given the enormous financial success of these outings, it should come as no surprise that the studios, in their usual rush to capitalize on trends, should want to go bigger and better.  Cue 1953’s The Robe, Fox’s chosen showcase for their widescreen technology of CinemaScope, which featured a curved screen that was wider than it was tall, all in an attempt to create a more profound sense of immersion and, according to the industry press at the time, participation on the part of the audience.  The film features Richard Burton as tribune Marcellus Gallio and Victor Mature as the Greek slave Demetrius as they both encounter the earth-shattering presence of Christ.  Marcellus is ultimately martyred by the mad emperor Caligula, while Demetrius survives to carry the Gospel forward.

Theatrical release poster for Fox's "The Robe" (1953).

Theatrical release poster for Fox’s “The Robe” (1953).

Following the release of The Robe, the genre continued to maintain its presence in many Hollywood studio production schedules, though the films released in the mid-1950s didn’t attain quite the heights of their predecessors.  Fox released Demetrius and the Gladiators, the sequel to The Robe, in 1954, while Warner Bros. released The Silver Chalice, based on the novel by Thomas B. Costain, in the same year, as well as Helen of Troy in 1956.  Even relatively minor studios got in on the action:  Columbia released Salome in 1953 (using it as a vehicle for star Rita Hayworth), Universal (recently elevated to the ranks of the majors due to the Paramount Decrees) released Douglas Sirk’s The Sign of the Pagan in 1954, and United Artists released Alexander the Great (starring the perennially tortured and histrionic Richard Burton) in 1956.

These various iterations of the genre can in some ways be seen as an attempt by mid-century American culture to come to terms with the terror of history (a term I borrow from both religious theorist Mircea Eliade and from historian Tefiolo F. Ruiz), represented most poignantly by the nuclear past and the threat of a nuclear future oblivion.  These films attempt to both contain the past and its terrors–the death and martyrdom that lie in the wake of the relentless march of Christian victory, or the unbridled desires that bring entire diegetic worlds to their knees–through narrative devices as well as through the promise, however illusory, of the ability to participate, to gain agency, in the workings of the great moments and individuals of history.  Further, these films also suggest that the ancient world, as dangerous and troubled as it is, in many ways offers a contradictory and perilous utopia, a place of plenitude, excess, and emotional transparency, even as it is also the a site of danger and punishment, where the divine will of God (itself often as inaccessible visually as the workings of history with which it is often conflated in these films) can demand the life of those chosen to reveal His will.

Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I explore the apogee of the genre, with such classic (one might even say iconic) films as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960), before we move into the genre’s fall in the mid-1960s.

Screening History: “The Robe”

The focus of this installment of “Screening History” is one of the lesser-known but still quite enjoyable historico-biblical films, Henry Koster’s The Robe.  While not as famous as such midcentury epics as Ben-Hur or Spartacus, the film was one of the top box office successes of the decade, and has gone down in history as the first film released in the widescreen process known as CinemaScope.

Indeed, when it was released in 1953, The Robe was touted as “The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses!”  CinemaScope, among other things, featured a curved screen designed to make the spectator feel both engulfed in the image but also encouraged to participate, to let their eye wander over the screen and direct their focus on whatever they wanted.  As scholars such as John Belton and David Bordwell have also demonstrated, the switch to CinemaScope also enabled (and necessitated) a variety of different ways of composing the image, so that cause and effect (functions of narrative) could now be contained within the frame of the image, as the larger horizontal space allowed for more people to be included in the frame than had previously been the case with the standard academy ratio (which necessitated more cuts in order to show cause and effect).

In terms of plot, the film follows the Roman tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) and his slave Demetrius (Victor Mature), both of whom find themselves caught up in the series of events that transpire after the Crucifixion of Christ.  Indeed, Marcellus is the Roman soldier that the New Testament describes as gambling for Christ’s robe.  So tormented is he by his complicity that he enters into a period of madness, only finding solace when he at last recovers the robe and accepts Christ.  After wandering with the apostle Peter and Demetrius, he eventually returns to Rome where he, along with his lady love Diana (Jean Simmons) are viciously and ruthlessly martyred by the mad emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson).

In many ways, this film is not as flashy nor as colourful as its predecessors in the genre (such as 1951’s Quo Vadis) or the 1949 Samson and Delilah (after all, no one had a penchant for salacious biblical flair like Cecil B. DeMille).  While the marching legions of Rome still make their appearance, The Robe prefers to sublimate the pomp and circumstance (or, as Vivian Sobchack would put it, the surge and splendor) of the traditional epic form into heightened, one might even go so far as to say hysterical, emotions, as the protagonist Marcellus Gallio and his Greek slave Demetrius struggle with and encounter the tremendous spiritual and emotional power of the divine.  One need only see the scene immediately following the Crucifixion, in which Demetrius screams at his master and condemns him for his complicity in Christ’s death, to understand the ways in which this film attempts to evoke the passion and the power that must have accompanied the death of Jesus.

Furthermore, what emerges from this film, is an emotionally fraught portrayal of the emotional and physical toll that religious conversion takes on the body of the male convert.  Tapping into widespread anxieties about the perceived incompatibility of conversion with the tenets of hegemonic masculinity, the film (perhaps unwittingly) shows the ways in which the male body becomes the means through which the alleged transcendence of the encounter with the divine is always limited by the corporeal presence of the human through which it is inevitably and irredeemably mediated.  In the case of The Robe, the slightly pock-marked countenance of Burton and the fleshly awkwardness of Mature bear with them the permanent reminders of the flesh that the film so strenuously seeks to disavow through its evocation of the heightened emotion associated with conversion and the encounter with the divine presence of Christ.  The fact that Gallio is sentenced to death on the archery field at the end of the film also serves as such a reminder of the weighty encumbrance of the mortal body, even as the soaring music attempts, again, to overcome the materiality of the body of the star.

There is a great deal else to love about this film, including Robinson’s crazed and histrionic performance of Robinson as Caligula.  Further, if one abandons for a moment one’s distance from the film and the tendency to read it as camp, one can see it as a film attempting to render the world of antiquity–and the world of the sacred Time of Miracles–legible for a secular, modern, midcentury American audience.  The fact that it never satisfactorily effaces the central tensions of its vision–between antiquity and modernity, between the transcendent timelessness of the divine and the weightiness of mortal flesh, between the sacredness of the past and the muddy modernity of the present–does not mean that it fails as a film.  Indeed, I would suggest that it is precisely the irresolvable nature of these tensions that stand at the heart of the epic vision of antiquity that was such a prominent part of film production of the middle of the last century.

All in all, The Robe is an enjoyable and extraordinary film.  While it may not reach the heights of artistic achievement of a film such as Ben-Hur or Spartacus, it does come across as a film trying to do something new within the boundaries of the medium of film. While its heightened emotion and evocation of religious painting may read as campy to us today (and probably would have to at least some in the audience as well), it also seems to me that there is another layer of meaning(s) within the film, one(s) that is/are worth thinking about in an attempt to unearth the ways in which film, that most modern of technologies, sought to bring to vibrant life the shattered, fragmented remains of antiquity.  What’s more, the transcendent vision that The Robe struggles to achieve would, I think, have had a particular appeal for a nation, and a world, shaking at the thought of nuclear oblivion.

Screening History: “The Sign of the Cross”

Welcome to my official entry in the Pre-Code Blogathon!  Today, I will be focusing on Cecil B. DeMille’s (in)famous classic The Sign of the Cross (1932).  Released just prior to the implementation of the Code, this film utilizes that freedom to paint the ancient Roman world as full of dangerous yet pleasurable sexuality and violence.  The film tells the story of the virtuous Christian maiden Mercia (Elissa Landi), and the pompous, brutally masculine Roman soldier Marcus Superbus (Frederic March) who falls in love with her.  Their fraught relationship emerges against the backdrop of the reign of the villainous, corpulent, and childlike Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) and his lascivious wife Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), who plots against Mercia in her attempts to claim Marcus for her own.

If all of this sounds like a dangerously merry romp through ancient Rome, it is.  There is something sinfully delightful about this film, in keeping with DeMille’s penchant for combining the flagrantly sexual with a supposedly uplifting moral message.  There are points in the film, however, that definitely veer more toward the former than the latter, such as the infamous seduction scene in which Marcus convinces a famous courtesan named Ancaria to perform a lewd song and dance number.  Naturally, Mercia resists, but this moment highlights the film’s investment in showing ancient Rome as a place where sex remains inextricably intertwined with power and manipulation.

Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.

Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.

This all pales, however, in comparison to the arena scene, which serves to highlight the violent depravity of the ancient Romans and their attempts to squash the burgeoning Christian faith.  DeMille throws everything he has at the viewer, including a highly suggestive moment in which a gorilla assaults a vulnerable Christian maiden, much to the jeering and excited delight of the crowd.  Such scenes invite us as contemporary spectators to join in the fun, to relish the carnal nature of the Roman past, even as it also invites us to disavow that enjoyment, to remind ourselves that are (supposedly) live in a more civilized, order, and disciplined present.

The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.

The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.

As far as the characters go, Marcus and Mercia nicely complement one another, with Marcus providing the masculine hauteur that must gradually be tamed by the patience and everlasting virtue of the Christian maiden.  What sets this film apart, however, is the very incompleteness of Marcus’s conversion.  Even at the end of the film, when he decides go with Mercia and her fellow Christians into the certain death of the arena, he states that he will be saved not by faith in Christ, but instead through Mercia herself.  His excessive pagan masculinity can only be tamed and channeled into appropriate Christian morality through the body and soul of the Christian maiden, and even there it remains startlingly incomplete.

I have to admit that, before I first watched this film, I was a little skeptical of Claudette Colbert as the sultry and sensuous Poppaea.  I had already seen the 1951 Quo Vadis (based on the same source material as Sign), and was very much taken with Patricia Laffan’s heavy-lidded and sensuous depiction of the character.  However, Colbert managed to surprise me, though she is much more of a coquette than a traditional femme fatale (she would later adopt a similar persona for her interpretation of Cleopatra in DeMille’s film of the same name).   She pales, however, in comparison to Laughton’s delightfully corpulent Nero, who emerges her as a slightly pathetic man unable to control his own fleshly appetites and tempers.  As he later would in Spartacus–in which he portrayed the world-weary and hedonist Senator Gracchus–Laughton’s own pudgy physique lends Nero a certain child-like essence that makes him a study in pop Freudian psychology.

While seemingly uplifting, the end of the film is actually rather pessimistic in its worldview.  Unlike the 1951 Quo Vadis (in which the two main characters are saved by the arena and end up sparking the revolt that topples Nero from his throne), the two main characters meet their presumed deaths in the arena, the film fading to black as both Marcus and Mercia walk to their deaths.  Salvation, the film suggests, can never take place on this sinful earth, but must instead be achieved in the some other realm.

Like many other representations of antiquity, ancient Rome here is a world obsessed with the promise of death, though it takes on very different valences for the pagan Romans and the Christians.  For the former, death can be both combated and embraced by feverishly indulging in the pleasures of the flesh (Poppaea’s ass’s milk bath and seductive gestures toward another female bather is a case in point) and by watching the tortures of the arena.  For the Christians, however, death is a not a thing to be warded off nor to be encountered only through sublimation, but instead embraced as the escape from the confines of the flesh, the body, and the pagan Roman world.

Given the intensity of the images in this film, it’s small wonder that it was severely edited for its subsequent re-releases (one of which featured a brief introduction featuring soldiers fighting in World War II against fascist Italy).  However, the trends that it set, especially its visceral depiction of the ancient world, would re-emerge after World War II in renewed force.  Beginning with Samson and Delilah in 1949–yet another film directed by DeMille–the world of antiquity in all of its violent, splendid glory would come to reign supreme at the box office throughout the 1950s.  A golden age, indeed.