Tag Archives: antiquity in film

Dissertation Days (40): This is Progress, Right?

Despite the title, today was actually a good day, in terms of progress. As I said I would do yesterday, I switched to a bit of the close readings, focusing today on Cleopatra. I think the bare bones of how that section is going to look are almost there, but it will take another few days of composing to make sure that my close reading is both internally consistent and flows naturally from the contexts.

Speaking of which. I actually wrote at least half of today’s word count (a bit over 1,000, thank you very much), specifically in the theoretical context. To be quite honest, I don’t think this section is as theoretically rich as the earlier ones, but I do think that the sources I’m drawing on–particularly David Quint and his theory of epic narrative and Tom Brown and his theory of the “historical gaze”–are useful for thinking through the tension between spectacle and narrative that exists at the heart of the genre of the historico-biblical epic. Well, perhaps tension isn’t the right word. Perhaps I should say that it helps us to think of the relationship between those two seemingly opposing cinematic principles.

Overall, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far on this chapter. I also can’t believe that I’ve already written 40 of these entries! However, I do believe that they have really made this whole progress infinitely less lonely. Just knowing  that there are others out there reading these (or even just skimming them), makes me feel that there just may be an audience for the type of work that we do in academia. As a writer, it’s easy to lose track of that, particularly with everything else going on in the world.

I will, as always, be taking a bit of a break this weekend. I want to focus a bit on the novel, and on cleaning my house. Both of those things take a bit of a backseat when you’re really buried under the chapter that seems to press in on your every waking thoughts. I’ve also got a conference paper set to be delivered in a little under two weeks, so I have to make sure that that is in presentable condition.

Rest assured, though. On Monday I’ll be right back at it, and this time I fully plan on getting back into Chapters 1 and 2.

Don’t quote me on that, though. 😉

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: 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.

Screening History: “The Silver Chalice”

When it comes to the annals of antiquity on film, some films leap immediately to mind:  Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Gladiator.  Others, while not as famous, nevertheless mark significant developmental moments in the history of cinema; The Robe, for example, was the first film produced and released in the CinemaScope process.  Some films, however, seem fated to be relegated to the dustbin of cinema history, forgotten for a variety of reasons, both justified and not.  One of the largely forgotten films of the mid-century cycle if The Silver Chalice, based on famed author Thomas B. Costain’s novel of the same name.  While not a cinematic success along the lines of some more prestigious dramas of antiquity produced in the mid-century cycle, it does contain a few germs worthy of comment.

First, although Paul Newman gives a lackluster performance as Basil (this was his first feature film role), Jack Palance truly shines as Simon the Magician, the power-hungry, egomaniacal sorcerer who seeks to supplant the dead Christ as the one able to inflame the desires and manipulate the wills of the Roman populace.  While he initially limits his ambitions to the city of Jerusalem, led on by the Rome-hating Sicarii, he gradually ingratiates himself to the Roman court.  Convinced of his own immortality and magical abilities, he attempts to fly, with the expected result.  Palance, who also played Atilla the Hun in Sign of the Pagan (released in the same year as this film, and similarly forgotten), somehow manages to make this most infamous of Christian enemies a compelling, even pitiable character.  Indeed, he is far more interesting than the putative hero.

Equally compelling is Virginia Mayo as Helena, the cryptically erotic counterpart and companion of the villainous Simon.  Mayo brings a certain seductive lushness to this role, in keeping with the epic tradition of juxtaposing alluring pagan women with virtuous, chaste Christian maidens (with the often-unintended result that the Christian maiden ends up being dull by comparison.  This is certainly true in this film; I cringed every time Pier Angeli’s Deborra came on screen).  While probably not the most talented of the actresses of classic Hollywood, Mayo does what she can with her limited role, and it’s hard not to feel a pang when she goes to meet her death at the end of the film.

In thematic terms, one of the most interesting things about The Silver Chalice is its setting.  Like films such as The Robe and Quo Vadis, this film takes place in that tumultuous time period after the death of Christ and before the Christian faith took serious hold as the religion of the empire.  Here, the apostles are slowly dying off, and the frail and elderly Joseph of Arimathea desperately wants to enshrine the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper in a silver chalice carved with the likenesses of those who were closes to him, before everyone is gone who might remember them.  The film seeks to provoke in its spectators a sense of a world on the cusp of change, situated at the dawn of the Christian era, when the benefit of direct experience of those closest to Christ might no longer be possible, but access to the Divine essence, however loosely defined, will be possible for everyone.

The film itself seems determined to enshrine its figures in a visual medium, an indication (I would argue) of a culture striving desperately to reach back and touch, see, feel the world of antiquity, in particular what Pamela Grace has referred to as “miracle time,” that period when the divine could still be felt, always on the cusp of touching the world.  The face of Jesus, in particular, proves to be a vexing subject for the talented sculptor Basil, for even the precise descriptions given to him by those who saw him in the flesh cannot quite capture the ineffable nature of the Divine.  Even Deborra’s other-worldly description of him–that emphasizes his strength and his compassion–cannot really bring Basil closer to the ineffable nature of Christ.  It is only when he has his own process of conversion, brought about by the horrors of viewing the crucifixion of Christian slaves, that he is finally able to break through and mold the disfigured clay into the visage that will eventually appear on the chalice.  Only by giving in, the film suggests, can one truly become one with God.

And yet, for all that the film places so much emphasis on the beauty and intricacy of the chalice in question, it ultimately disappears from the film, an indication, perhaps, that all attempts to experience that wonderful, sublime moment of access to the divine will ultimately end in failure.  But, as the film’s final words indicate, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop trying to seek and strive for a better world.  Thus, despite the feeling of cheapness that seems to permeate the film (the sets, while seemingly modernist in design, also seem to be as much the result of Warners’ well-known cheapness as they are of deliberate artistic choice), some elements of otherworldly experience still manage to seep through into the finished product.  While certainly not one of the best offerings of the midcentury cycle of epics, it is, perhaps one of the most earnest and thus deserves at least a measure of our respect.