Dissertation Days (24): Chapter 4

So, today was the first day in quite a while that I didn’t work on Chapter 3 at all, but instead focused my energies on Chapter 4.

I have to say, all of that effort paid off. I managed to get 500 good words, and I think I am edging closer to a fully-fleshed argument. If you know how irritated I have been with this Chapter and how much I have struggled to put together a coherent argument that fits in with what I have been doing in the other chapters of the Dissertation, you no doubt know why this would be such a big deal.

As I mentioned yesterday, that essay from Tom Brown has proven to be extremely helpful in enabling me to make a compelling argument about these films. I have to say, the core of this chapter–the emphasis on empire–is a bit of a holdover from the very earliest concepts of this dissertation as a whole, but I do think that it has something in it that fits with how the project has taken shape.

If I’m being completely honest, this is the chapter that I’ve been dreading the most. I’ve done a lot of research, and there is still a lot to do, but I’m gradually clawing and groping my way toward a conclusive set of arguments.

While I’m still uncertain whether my set of claims about Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire really make a substantial contribution to the understanding of the film, I do think that what I have to say about Cleopatra is useful. Like The Bible: In the Beginning, the film has suffered from a really extensive study from a film studies perspective, still less from a textured historicist analysis. That’s basically what I hope to provide in this chapter, since I believe that the film deserves more critical appreciation than it has largely achieved, either in mainstream of scholarly film criticism.

I’m getting ready for another bout of travel, so my updates will be rather sporadic. Sunday will probably be the next day that I get a chance to really work on the dissertation, but even so, I’m sure the project will not be far from my mind. It never really is.

Once I’m able to settle down for a bit (in about a week and a half), it’ll be a real crunch time.

I can do this.

I can.

Dissertation Days (10): Bits and Pieces

Well, friends, I wasn’t quite as productive as I should have been. It was a busy day of meetings and such, and that prevented me from working on what I had intended to. I just need to remind myself that it’s okay if I don’t meet my goal every single day. Sometimes, it’s not going to be possible for one reason or another, what with grading, editorial stuff, and just general life.

However, I did manage to chip away at a few paragraphs that were giving me a particularly large amount of trouble. I even managed to craft this sentence about the visual contrast between the Philistines and the Danites: “The color scheme, bifurcated as it is along lines of power and prostration, registers the essential brutality of history.” This, in fact, helped me to clarify some of the issues that I’ve been struggling with, and I think it actually may end up being the linchpin for the whole chapter. As I go on to discuss in the rest of the chapter, the spectacle of color provides an immediate experience of the violence of erotic history.

Also, while I’m thinking of it, I also managed to weed out several of my “couplets.” I have this nasty habit of pairing up two nouns (or two adjectives) to round out a sentence. For example, I almost wrote “the violence of the erotic and of history” above but changed it. I don’t know whyI have this habit, but I’m working on breaking it.

I also managed to revise several of the paragraphs associated with my close reading of Samson and Delilah, so that actually felt good. That particular reading is beginning to cohere nicely, and I hope to have it done by early next week (though that means I might have to work during part of the weekend).

There might be a little bit of productivity left in me tonight, but I honestly rather doubt it. However, I do feel like I can get at least 10 pages revised tomorrow, as well as my customary 500 words of Chapter 4. If I’m really lucky, I might even make it entirely through my historical context section. Wouldn’t that be something?

I have to get a lot done in the next couple of days, before the travel-heavy May and June begin.

Sigh. There is, as they say, no rest for the weary.

So, on to another day.

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!

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: “Broken Arrow” (1950)

Released in 1950, Broken Arrow follows Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) desperately wants to forge a measure of peace between his own people and the Apache and is faced with opposition from both.  While he is able to forge a measure of peace between the Apache chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler), he is steadfastly opposed by the more bellicose Geronimo (Jay Silverheelds).  At the same time, Chandler weds the young maiden Sonseeahray (Debra Paget).  Unfortunately, there are those among the whites who are also unwilling to accept peace, and in the ensuing confrontation the young Native American woman is slain.  Yet Cochise does not let this stifle his attempts at peace, and the film does ultimately end with a measure of rapprochement between the two groups, while Tom Jeffords (in true western fashion) rides off into the distance, content that even though she is gone physically, his wife will always be with him in spirit.

Stewart brings a measure of his sympathetic star persona to this role (his antiheroic persona had not yet taken full shape as it would with other films of the 1950s).  He reads as a man genuinely invested in attempting to forge a measure of peace between two groups seemingly irreconcilably opposed to one another.  What’s more, he seeks to actually get to know what it is like to think like an Apache, not to take advantage of them, but to attempt to make a more peaceful world for both people.  In this film, Stewart also still retains some of the youthful appearance and charm that served him in such good stead in both the 1930s and 1940s, and he has not yet taken on the darker, more cynical edge that will become so central to his 1950s roles (especially those directed by Alfred Hitchcock).  Furthermore, it is his voiceover that bookends the film, leading us to accept (or not, depending on how resistant we are as viewers) the perspective on events that the film presents.

Chandler’s obvious redface aside (see below), he does bring a measure of gravitas and compassion to his role as the afflicted yet courageous chief.  This is a man who, at some level, realizes that his people are fighting a battle they cannot hope to win, and that continuing to resist as they have will ultimately result in their utter destruction at the hands of the white man.

The film is unstinting in its depiction of the brutality of the times.  Both the white men and the Native Americans commit atrocious acts against one another (one of the earliest  scenes in the film is particularly graphic, showing the Apache torturing a group of white men who encroach on their territory).  Furthermore, the film does not pull any punches in showing that the whites are just as willing to engage in sabotage and acts of violence as their Native American counterparts.  It is precisely the actions of a group of disgruntled white settlers that brings about the death of Sonseeahray and nearly derails the peace process completely.  Fortunately, Cochise insists upon the necessity of peace, showing that he, perhaps more than any other of the film’s characters, knows what is right and necessary.

The film’s most obvious narrative shortcoming, the shoe-horning in of a rather lackluster love plot between Paget and Stewart, can actually (in a more generous light) be seen as central to the film’s historical project.  The film, like so many westerns, attempts to work through the troubles posed by the Native American presence in broader American history.  Sonseeahray’s death, I would suggest, indicates the film’s awareness that the wholesale melding of Native American and white into a cohesive national identity is a project that will never be complete, will be infinitely deferred.

For all of its attempts to engender cultural understanding, the film still fails in one notable respect:  its use of white actors to portray Native Americans.  There is still something incredibly uncomfortable for me about watching films in which this takes place, and it serves as a potent and troubling reminder not only of the ways in which Native Americans have been oppressed throughout American history, but also how the representation of them has also served to further and exacerbate their alienation.

Score:  8/10

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 Lion in Winter (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score:  10/10