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.

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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!

Through a Glass Darkly: The Diminution of Heroism in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy

After recently rewatching Peter Jackson’s rightfully famous and well-regarded The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, it occurred to me that Jackson’s heroes are remarkably less lofty than their counterparts in Tolkien’s novel. If Tolkien’s heroes seem to exist in a time wherein heroes were larger than life figures that seem to defy the laws of humanity, Jackson’s are made of somewhat humbler stuff, plagued with doubt and required to go through the traditional hero’s journey in order for their personalities and their journeys to have meaning for their very modern audiences.

These changes range from the relatively minor to the significant, and some that appear to be the latter but are in my view the former. The shattering of Gandalf’s staff by the Witch-king at the gates of Minas Tirith might seem to be a relatively minor change in the context of the film as a whole, but it signifies that Gandalf, even in his iteration as the White, is far more vulnerable and susceptible to the power of his enemies than his novel counterpart. He is also plagued by doubt as to the fate of Frodo, and it is only Aragorn’s wise words that bring him back from the depths of despair during the events of The Return of the King.

Aragorn also suffers from this crisis of doubt. Unlike the Aragorn of the novel, for example, he does not at first set out with the intention of claiming the throne of Gondor for himself. It is only after fighting in the Battle of Helm’s Deep and gradually realizing the necessity of coming to Gondor’s aid does he seem to finally give in and accept the necessity of ascending Gondor’s throne as the rightful air. Admittedly, Viggo Mortensen does a magnificent job bringing together the essential nobility and world-weary aspects of Aragorn’s character, but there can be no doubt that, except in the very final scenes in which he appears, he definitely skews more toward the latter than the former.

The greatest casualty of this phenomenon, however, is the Steward Denethor, who definitely does not come out very well in his appearances in either The Two Towers or The Return of the King. This Denethor is not the proud throwback to the days of Númenór as described by Tolkien, not some lofty lord who has been slowly led into madness by his wrestling with Sauron through the palantír, but instead something of an arrogant and extremely deluded fool. Since the film does not really emphasize the fact that Denethor possesses one of the old seeing stones, we don’t get the sense that he has spent many long hours wrestling with the Dark Lord. Even his death is robbed of its rather tragic nobility, replaced instead with a disturbing scene in which Shadowfax kicks him into the pyre he had put together for himself and his son Faramir, after which Denethor runs screaming and plunges from the lofty tower into the burning city below. It’s visually striking, certainly, but not nearly the dignified and tragic ending envisioned in the novel, an ending that was more in keeping with Denethor’s lofty, if ultimately tragic, persona.

For Jackson, then, it appears that heroism is something far more bound to the foibles of mortality and the humble world of the flesh than is the case with Tolkien. His heroes are, for the most part, denuded shadows of their novel counterparts, cut down to a size that Jackson (for better or worse) deems more palatable and appropriate for a late-20th/early 21st Century audience.

Of course, part of this no doubt also has to do with the medium in which Jackson is working. While Jackson’s films certainly operate in the idiom and within the paradigm of the epic, there is still only so much detail, narrative complexity, and character development that can be squeezed into 3 hours. In order to get a full sense of Aragorn’s growth as a character, we can’t rely on pages of exposition and information revealed in the Appendices; instead, we must see the doubt that troubles him throughout his journey. We must be shown that he still bears the heavy weight of Isildur’s fatal weakness.

Just as importantly, the hero’s journey (so memorably outlined in the works of the mythologist Joseph Campbell in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces) has proven to be a remarkably durable and ubiquitous blueprint for Hollywood filmmaking. In that sense, it’s not surprising that Aragorn in particular becomes one of the people, in particular during the Battle of Helm’s Deep (in which he several times almost loses his life). It is worth pointing out that the release of Jackson’s film coincided with the resurgence of another type of film featuring somewhat larger-than-life heroism, the historical epic. Inaugurated with Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, this genre also expressed a certain measure of ambivalence about the nature of male heroism, as Russell Crowe’s Maximus has to enter into the realm of the abject and the outcast in order to fulfill his historical and political mission (Robert Burgoyne makes a compelling argument about this in his book The Hollywood Historical Film).

While I may sound critical of Jackson’s film, I actually think it works well for what he is trying to do, and he definitely deserves credit for his portrayal of Boromir and Faramir, both of whom are compellingly drawn characters. In fact, I would say that Boromir, at least, is one of the characters whose characterization matches fairly closely between the book and the film. While the same cannot entirely be said of Faramir–who, after all, decides to take the Hobbits to Osgiliath in the film rather than unequivocally denying the Ring–he does emerge in The Return of the King as an essentially noble and heroic figure.

Clearly, Jackson has a different agenda in his vision of Tolkienian heroism for the 20th and 21st Centuries. That doesn’t mean that one is any less valid or intriguing than the other. It does, however, allow us to see the very different uses to which Tolkien’s work can be put in the visual imaginary.

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 Bible: In the Beginning”

Today’s entry in “Screening History” is John Huston’s The Bible:  In the Beginning, the last of the truly-great biblical epics that were such a part of the midcentury film landscape.  It’s very easy to mock the historico-biblical epic. Often, even the most devout of epic films can slip easily into the ridiculous, but somehow this film manages to avoid that trap, deftly straddling the sacred and the savage, pointing out how our deepest myths also express our darkest fears and most destructive tendencies.

The film covers several of the most important moments in the book of Genesis:  the Creation and expulsion from Eden; Noah and the Great Flood; the construction of the Tower of Babel; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and the saga of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael.  In fact, the film ends with this last, particularly God’s sparing of Isaac’s life on the altar.

The expulsion from Eden is a truly evocative moment in the film, one that brings out many of the apocalyptic undertones that seem to always hover at the edge of the biblical epic.  One can feel the terror pulsing through the veins of the first humans, as they face the rage of the God they have disobeyed.  The conflict between Cain and Abel is also suitably disconcerting, in large part because of Richard Harris’s strangled, inarticulate portrayal of the first murderer, who is ultimately branded for the slaying of his brother.

George C. Scott, scenery-chewer that he is, nevertheless conveys a great deal of the tortured and tormented patriarch that Abraham undoubtedly was, pulled in multiple directions by both the women in his life and by the many tasks and tribulations visited upon him by the God that has, allegedly, taken him under His wing.  We can also see the ways in which the years weigh heavenly upon him, until by the end of the film he appears as more of a skeleton than the proud and overbearing patriarch that we normally associate with his countenance in biblical illustration.  And his partner in crime, Ava Gardner, simmers as the embittered Sarai/Sarah, her faith tested just as much as her husband’s by God’s ongoing delay in providing them the son they so desperately need.

Abraham's wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

Abraham’s wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

The scenes involving Lot and the ultimate destruction of Sodom are shockingly visually compelling while also intensely problematic and repugnant.  Whereas the feature-length film Sodom and Gomorrah preferred to depict the sins of Sodom as being centered around the (admittedly rather generic) cruelty and sadism of the queen and her cronies, this film certainly buys into the idea that it was the sins of homosexuality and gender deviance that led to God’s wrath and the ultimate destruction upon the cities on the plain.

There are a few points of slight ridiculousness, particularly the part of the film dealing with Noah and the destruction of the world by water.  Surprisingly, this part is openly played for comedy, with Noah becoming more of a buffoon than an Old Testament patriarch.  There is also the unfortunate fact that Huston is also the voice of God and the narrator, which results in a doubling that it is sometimes difficult to take entirely seriously.  Equally silly is the portion dealing with the construction of the Tower of Babel, which features a heavily-made-up Stephen Boyd as the King Nimrod.  While visually intriguing, it remains something of a mystery why exactly this portion of the film appears as it does.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

For all that it is a “biblical” film and thus suspect to charges of ahistoricity, the film does seem to want to address, if in a metaphysical way, the beginnings of man and the questions and crises that continue to haunt us, even in our supposedly more rational and explicable world of modernity.  Why do men continue to seek out knowledge, with no thought to its brutal consequences?  Why do people suffer?  What is (or should be) the nature of our relationship to the animal world?  Why do humans continue to destroy one another, even though it will bring about his own destruction?  And why does he continue to hope, even in the face of all of this, for a world beyond his own temporal and embodied existence?

The film raises these questions, but ultimately it does not have the language to answer them, for the God of the Old Testament is a terrifying and capricious entity, raining down his wrath on the unsuspecting humans who serve him.  What’s more, the world that The Bible depicts is one full of brutality and human sacrifice, of animality and cruelty, and the God that reigns over it all does little to actually provide the answers that his human servants seek.  While the film ends optimistically with the binding and saving of Isaac, even this bears with it the inscrutability of God’s desire to see Abraham sacrifice the son for which he has hoped.  The film suggests that there might be an answer, somewhere in our collective psyche, but it’s a fool errand to attempt to find that answer in the book from which the film takes its name.

Although George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told is usually accorded the dubious honor of killing the biblical epic once and for all, and for being the last cinematic production of its kind until Gladiator reignited the genre for the new millennium, I actually think The Bible deserves the latter distinction (though not, I think, the former).  It is, all told, a quite uneven film, but it is not quite as ponderously reverent as The Greatest Story, and it seems that American audiences liked it well enough.  It is a truly haunting and in many ways bleak film, a sign perhaps of the growing sense that the old ways of making sense of the world, so proudly trumpeted by the earlier iterations of the genre, no longer held the same sort of authority.  For those interested in the ways in which the epic film responds to the pressures of its time, The Bible:  In the Beginning serves as a fascinating case study

Score:  8.5/10

Screening History: “Barabbas” (1962)

Every so often, a genre manages to produce a film that exceeds its generic restrictions, that rises above the worst tendencies of its predecessors and becomes a work of transcendent and powerful beauty.  Barabbas, the 1962 film, is just one of those entries.  Emerging out of the midcentury cycle of historico-biblical epics that had already produced some truly fine films (such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus), Barabbas continued to demonstrate the ways in which the epic could tackle the pressing questions faced by a world coming to terms with its place in the greater temporal scheme of history.

Taking as its subject the minor biblical figure of Barabbas–the man pardoned and released while Christ was crucified–the film follows Barabbas as he struggles to make sense of the world in the aftermath of Jesus’s death.  Denied his own ability to die, he can only watch powerlessly as his lover is stoned to death by an angry mob and he is eventually sent to prison and hard labor in the sulfur mines of Sicily.  He is eventually freed from the mines by a collapse, but is then taken to Rome to fight in the arena.  There, he witnesses the death of his friend (and Christian) Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, after burying him with appropriate solemnity in the catacombs, he partakes in a great fire.  Convicted of treason by Rome, he is crucified with numerous other Christians, and the film ends with his death.

A film like Barabbas could only have been produced in the 1960s, when the genre of the historical epic had not only begun to fray, but when the religious and political culture that had given birth to it had also begun to crumble under the onslaught of the changes of the era.  While certainly many of the conflicts and contradictions of the 1950s roiled beneath the surface of many earlier epics (as I have argued elsewhere), the end of the cycle saw them exploding onto the surface of the film itself.  Thus, Barabbas stages the fundamental conflict between embodiment and transcendence, a binary and a tension that it never entirely resolves to its own (or the viewer’s) satisfaction.

Quinn’s Barabbas is a man who struggles to think of any world outside of the body.  He grunts and groans and sweats across the screen (to paraphrase one review of the film), every aspect of his manner an indicator of his embodied-ness and his rootedness in his own world.  Quinn’s strangled vocalizations only heighten this sense of his own untranscendent nature, his own inability to find satisfaction beyond his own limited views of the world.

It’s really no wonder that finds it so difficult to attain the sense of transcendence that the Christians around him do.  As a poor man in the stews of Jerusalem, his only distraction is in engaging in drinking and whoring, and then the Romans force him to first work in the sulfur mines and finally in the arena.  Again and again, the film denies him the possibility of transcending or even understanding; he is only ever a body that manages to survive rather than actually live.  Even as the film nears its end, he finds that he cannot entirely conceive of the world beyond the flesh that the Christians constantly espouse.  After seeing that the city has been set aflame, he decides that it must indeed (as the Romans assert) be the Christians that have set it, and so he joins in the fray.  Unfortunately, he does not realize that the Christians have no set the fire, the emperor has, and he has thus inadvertently sentenced all of them to death.  Like so many other epic heroes of the midcentury cycle, he seems powerless to change the course of events that surround him, even when it is his actions, unintended as they are, that set them in motion.

The film favors a darker, more somber colour palette than one sees in many of the other Technicolor epics of the period, in keeping with the darkness and bleakness of the worldview.  And no discussion of the film would be complete without mentioning Jack Palance, who as always brings his own particular brand of skeletal psychopathy to the role of one of the arena’s premier players.  His death, while immensely satisfying, is also yet another sign of the fact that Barabbas cannot quite escape the cycle of death and mortality that keeps him mired in the world in which he finds himself.

Barabbas is an intensely evocative and haunting film, one that is sure to stay with you long after the credits roll.  In many ways, the ending is even bleaker and more pessimistic than Spartacus (to which it can be compared).  Even at the end, it remains ambiguous whether Barabbas has truly understood the message preached by Christ, of the possibility of a world beyond that of the body.  And indeed the last shot we get is of Barabbas’ abjected body hanging on the cross, having finally achieved the death that has eluded him since his fateful exchange with Jesus, a fatal reminder of the futility of embodied human agency.

Score:  10/10

Screening History: “David and Bathsheba” (1951)

Not long ago, I had the joy of rewatching Henry King’s subdued yet powerful David and Bathsheba, a biblical epic that is more thoughtful than most and that has yet to receive the credit it deserves.  It is unfortunate that it came before the era of widescreen and the masterpieces that emerged in the latter part of the 1950s and early 1960s:  The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and even some films that were only recognized as classics after the fact, such as Nicholas Ray’s Christ biopic King of Kings (1961).  Nevertheless, as a rather anomalous entry in a genre that is often either critically neglected or regarded with camp humour and derision, David and Bathsheba is a fascinating glimpse into what a genre can do when it is still taking shape.

The film stars Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward as the title pair of star-crossed biblical lovers, David and Bathsheba.  David is the tormented and contradictory king of Israel, while Bathsheba is the lusty and desirable wife of Uriah, one of David’s faithful (if rather dense and often unfeeling) soldiers.  When David sees Bathsheba bathing (not realizing that she has rendered herself visible to him, knowing that he will see her), he falls head over heels in lust/love with her, setting off a chain of events that will lead to the premeditated death of Uriah and the divine, prophetic wrath of the scold Nathan (Raymond Massey in all of his biblical, patriarchal glory).  Eventually the two lovers are forgiven by God, and the film ends happily, if somewhat unsettlingly, ever after.

When I first watched this film several years ago, I was stunned by how sensitive the film was to the experiences of biblical women.  The historico-biblical epic, after all, is not known for being a genre especially concerned with the female experience (or the experience of many minorities, for that matter), but this film is part of that very small subset of epics that actually give any amount of attention to women (others include DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and the much later The Story of Ruth).  Bathsheba is a woman frustrated with the way in which her society denies her any power and control over her destiny and especially angered by her husband Uriah’s refusal to either satisfy her own sexual needs or indeed grant her any agency whatsoever (or even to acknowledge that she would want it).  Uriah is the biblical patriarchal figure distilled into its finest essence, utterly unconcerned with women except inasmuch as they serve the needs of men.

While I am not Susan Hayward’s biggest fan, she does manage to convey a measure of the enigmatic female beauty that no doubt drew David down the path of self-destruction.  Yet despite the fact that she emerges as the film’s femme fatale figure (the film reads as much as a noir as it does an epic).  What’s more, she also admirably captures the frustrations that Bathsheba experiences in a world designed to oppress women.  That being the case, she uses the only weapons this world has given her:  her body and her sexuality.  While the film stops just short of valorizing this, it does offer a sympathetic view of the ways in which a set of social institutions can imprison a woman so that she feels she has no other way out except her body.

Peck, likewise, brings to the role of David a great measure of conflicted and tortured masculinity.  With his deep, powerful voice and handsome features, one can easily understand ow why and how Bathsheba would have risked everything to be with this truly kingly figure.  As with so many of his finest roles, Peck manages to convey sensitivity without abrogating the masculine persona that makes him such an erotically appealing hero.  Beneath that breathtakingly handsome face there roils the sexually and spiritually haunted man, haunted by the death of his childhood friend (and something more?) Jonathan, and by the fact that he has given up his connection with his God in order to pursue the woman whom he truly loves.

Massey’s Nathan is a perfect counterpart to Peck’s David, a truly patriarchal figure, his stentorian voice and granite-like features fitting the part of the punishing prophet of the Old Testament.  His thunderous condemnations of David’s adultery is a perpetual reminder of the fundamentally repressive nature of this ancient world, where sexual desire is always wedded to the possibility of death.  The Old Testament God is a wrathful entity, determined to reign in and keep in check the powers of the flesh and the unruliness of sexual desire.

The film’s subdued yet seething aesthetic may have something to do with the studio that produced it.  Fox, after all, was a studio that was quite famous for its social problem films, and indeed studio head Zanuck was always obsessed with creating a story that had compelling and conflicted characters at its heart.  While not as grand in scope as some of its successors and contemporaries (it is interesting to note that MGM’s lush, sumptuous, and decadent Quo Vadis premiered the same year as this film), David and Bathsheba is nevertheless a compelling and thoughtful meditation on the role of sexual desire and the damage that it can inflect upon those who experience and encounter it.

Score:  10/10

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

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.

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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.

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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.