Screening History: The Fraught Pathos of “The Favourite” (2018)

If you know anything about it me, it’s that I’m an absolute sucker for a good costume drama. It’s been a while since I saw one that really blew me away, so when I saw the trailers for The Favourite, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a very irreverent take on the genre, particularly as it seemed like it was going to be as humourous as it was opulent. I have to say, I was very impressed by the film (except for the ending, to which I shall return shortly).

In brief, the film tells of the declining years of Queen Anne of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), who as the story begins is under the domination of the formidable Lady Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Their dysfunctional relationship is soon interrupted, however, by the arrival of Churchill’s impoverished cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) who soon sets her own sights on becoming the queen’s favourite. She succeeds, though she soon finds that being so close to the font of power comes with its own price.

It is sometimes very difficult (if not impossible) to really capture the strangeness of earlier historical periods, to convey to modern spectators the oddities and foibles of the past. Some filmmakers have succeeded at it (Peter Greenaway is one example), and clearly Yorgos Lanthimos deserves to join that select group. Between the outlandish makeup and wigs worn by the male characters and the (sometimes heavy-handed) use of the fisheye lens and shots taken from below, we are led to see this as a very disturbing world quite unlike our own.

At times, Olivia Colman (who’s becoming quite adept at playing queens) threatens to steal the show. Her Anne is at once imperious, pathetic, endearing, and Colman manages to wring every drop of morbid pathos from the role, leading us to feel sorry for Anne even as we condemn some aspects of her personality. She is clearly a woman who has long struggled to develop her own sense of self (with the confidence that entails), and so she relies on Sarah Churchill. There are moments when Colman’s performance slides into the grotesque, but even then Colman doesn’t let us lose sight of the queen’s essential frail humanity. It’s hard not to feel a profound sympathy for this queen who, by the time the story begins, has already lost 17 children and a husband. Small wonder that she pours all of her emotional frustrations into her small hoard of rabbits and into the women who maneuver for her affection. And, to be honest, it’s rather nice to see Queen Anne get some screen time, as she usually gets neglected by popular culture.

By contrast, Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill is a formidable and indomitable personality. She is not afraid to tell Anne exactly what she thinks–as when she tells the monarch that her new makeup style makes her look like a badger–but she is also subject to Anne’s vicious jealousy. Weisz manages to capture Churchill’s biting wit and scathing commentary, at the same time as she makes it clear that this was a woman who cared deeply about the well-being of her country at both the domestic and international level. Weisz also deserves a great deal of credit for allowing a few moments of genuine vulnerability to creep into her characterization as well. We thus come to understand her as a woman quite out of place in her own time and ultimately punished for her unwillingness to conform to the expectations of others, even the queen.

The relationship between Anne and Sarah is as as refreshing as it is contentious. It’s very rare these days to see a film really delve into the complicated relationships between and among women. It’s clear to me at any rate that the film’s Sarah has genuine love and affection for Anne, though it’s somewhat less clear if their erotic encounters stem from genuine attraction or whether it is a rather twisted manifestation of their social roles. I strongly suspect that it is some combination of the two.

I have to admit to some skepticism that Emma Stone (much as I love her) would be able to pull off playing British, but she does it surprisingly well. What’s more, she imbued Abigail with a certain steely strength forged in the crucible of her troubled youth and her abuse at the hands of numerous men in her life. Abigail is not, strictly speaking, a sympathetic character–indeed, she is quite cold, malicious, and calculating–but she is comprehensible. The film allows us to see her as the necessary product of a culture that values women so little and largely views even the most powerful of them as expendable. Cruel as she might be, Stone lets us feel at least a measure of grudging respect for Abigail’s ability to not only survive her harsh environment, but to thrive in it.

Each of these characters, as different as they are, are hefty and complex and textured. Indeed, for all of its visual artistry (which, at times, becomes distracting), the film succeeds most as a character study of three women negotiating the dangerous waters of desire and royal politics. The Favourite doesn’t really want us to like these characters, but it does attempt to understand them. The three leads give some of the finest performances of their careers, and there is an unmistakable chemistry among them.

At a broader level, Lanthimos’ direction is at times distracting, and he seems a bit overly fond of the fisheye lens (which, to my mind, sometimes undercuts the opulence and grandeur of the film’s locations). The film’s truly significant flaw is the ending, which I found far too clever for its own good (in fact, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it was supposed to signify, if anything). Those flaws aside, The Favourite still manages to take the conventions and contours of the costume drama and turns them on their head. The film is ultimately a biting, scathing, and slightly acidic musing on the nature of power and pleasure in the world of royalty and politics.

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Screening History: “That Hamilton Woman” (1941)

If there’s any genre I love as much as the epic, it’s the costume drama. With all of its sumptuous decor, its melodramatic excess, and its focus on women, it’s a genre tailor-made (it would seem) for the discerning homosexual.

Such, indeed, is That Hamilton Woman, the 1941 film by Alexander Korda, starring the radiant Vivien Leigh and the dashing Laurence Olivier.

Vivien Leigh plays the titular role of Emma Hamilton, a commoner who becomes, first, the wife of the British ambassador Naples and, later, the mistress of the famous admiral Horatio Nelson. Their affair is the scandal of society, and ultimately Nelson must choose between his love for Emma and his duty to his country as the admiral and she, likewise, must decide whether to continue weaving her net about him or to let him go. The two of them must repeatedly confront the essential conflict between their personal love for one another and the responsibility that Horatio has to his country, given that he is one of the few commanders who stands between Napoleon and global domination. In the end, she sends him off to his duty, even though it means the end of their love.

At the beginning of the film, Emma has fallen on hard times, her once-great beauty diminished by years of penury. Yet even the makeup and bedraggled clothing cannot entirely efface Leigh’s exquisite beauty, which radiates outward rom the screen, limned by the dim light coming from outside her prison cell. Indeed, Leigh is one of those talents of old films whose face was made for the camera. With her fine cheekbones, full lips, and slightly-wide (and incredibly expressive) eyes, Leigh’s Emma frequently gazes off into the distance, her luminous eyes seeming to gaze into a future that can never be realized. Even when she sits in a jail cell, she seems to command our gaze.

Indeed, it is precisely Leigh’s performance that endows Emma with her tremendous presence, as a woman whose desires motivate the narrative. Given that the entire film is told as a flashback, I would argue that it is Emma’s perspective that dominates the entire film. In other words, through her perspective that we understand world-historical events to have another element besides the doings of great men on the stage of history. As such, Emma also comes across as a woman determined to see her desires fulfilled, even if that means that she goes against the strictures that society has placed upon women and their sexual behavior.

Emma’s great misfortune, however, is that the world she lives in is utterly incapable of seeing her as anything other than “that Hamilton woman,” an epithet always delivered with contempt, pity, or vituperation. And while she believes that love is the only thing she needs to sustain herself, a series of events have clearly brought her to the point that she is living on the streets, subject to the uncaring justice of the state. Through it all, however, Emma radiates strength, grace, and beauty.

Olivier as Nelson is a bit more unrestrained than one usually sees, and sometimes his performance veers dangerously close to scenery-chewing. However, this seems appropriate, given that he’s playing a man noted for his relentless energy and naval brilliance (it wasn’t every commander, after all, that dared to go after Napoleon Bonaparte). He certainly bears with him that signature Olivier scowl.

The film’s visual design is truly opulent, amply conveying to a jaundiced modern eye the splendour of a bygone era, when countries and individuals bestrode the world like ancient colossi. Despite its grand themes and historical concerns, That Hamilton Woman is equally adept at conveying the deep personal and emotional currents that have an impact on the actions of the great. For the film, Emma’s love of Nelson is true, rich, and deep, which makes its demise with his death at the Battle of Trafalgar all the more wrenching, for we know that Emma will be left with nothing except his illegitimate daughter.

The film’s final tragedy is that it denies us as viewers a view of the events that led Emma from being the mistress of one of the most powerful men in England to a beggar wandering the street. We are left yearning for what it is that fills in that lacuna, even as we also know that to see it would shatter the magnificent illusion that it has already spent so much time constructing. In refusing to grant us this image of her degradation, Emma retains her control on her own story until the very last, he weary countenance gazing into a past that can never be recaptured and a future devoid of even the remotest possibility of joy or love.

Rousing and resonant, That Hamilton Woman is a visually stunning exploration about the ways in which women are forced to maneuver the halls of power. And the punishment that often greets them when they do.

Screening History: “Troy: Fall of a City” (2018) and the Critique of Epic Masculinity

The story of the Trojan War has been told countless times in numerous forms: poetry, literature, film and, of course, television. Moving, tragic, and exhilarating, this narrative has produced works of great genius and lasting power (The Iliad) but also, unfortunately, some rather lackluster interpretations (Troy). Now, we have Troy: Fall of a City, a joint venture between Netflix and the BBC. More family drama than epic per se, the series nevertheless provides a stirring, at times even heart-wrenching, experience of this eternal myth.

One of the first things that struck me about this new retelling of the ancient myth is the impact that the medium of television has on the way in which the story is told. Whereas epic films tend to focus on huge battles, sweeping vistas, and larger-than-life heroes, television dramas focus more on personal relationships that nevertheless have enormous political and historical consequences. Thus it is that Fall of a City, while populated by the requisite heroes of antiquity–Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Priam, Paris, Helen, Hecuba–manages to paint them as individuals with well-rounded personalities rather than archetypes. These are deeply-flawed human beings caught up in events and emotions that they cannot control but which will have a momentous impact on their world.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is Paris who is the center of the narrative. Portrayed by a strikingly handsome Louis T. Hunter, the Trojan prince raised by shepherds is a far more charismatic, and heroic, character than he traditionally appears in modern interpretations. True, he is quite pretty, but it is a more traditionally “masculine” sort than, say, Orlando Bloom, who brought a signature softness to the role. As a result, Troy paints this Paris (who it prefers to refer to as Alexander) in a more martial light. Far from sheltering under Hector’s blazing military glory, Alexander forges his own destiny, even stepping into his brother’s shoes when the former meets his agonizing death at the hands of Achilles.

Though Paris commands most of the attention, the series also adeptly fleshes out the struggles, both physical and emotional, of the other major players in this drama. What’s more, it imbues them with a deeply resonant emotional impact, so that the deaths that we know are coming–and, of course, the inevitable fall of Troy itself–are incredibly wrenching. If you don’t shed tears when Hector meets his fate at the hands of Achilles, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Because it has more running time through which to work, Troy reveals the competing and yet mutually-reinforcing causes of antiquity’s most famous conflict. While of course Paris’s taking of Helen (here portrayed as willing on her part), is the stark to the tinder, it is made clear that there have long been resentments and jealousies on the part of the Greeks, particularly Agamemnon. And, of course, there are also the gods, who periodically interfere with the affairs of humans, often to work through their own contentious relationships.

If this series proves anything, it’s that sometimes television is better at bringing out the fundamentally human drama at the heart of the ancient stories. Eight hours of running time allows us a significantly greater investment in these characters and their relationships, whether that be the psychologically complex Helen (a refreshing change), the deeply loving relationship between Hector and Andromache, or the tempestuous (but physical and sexual) relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. And, while we’re at it, let me just say how absolutely thrilled I was to see an Achilles and Patroclus depicted as lovers rather than as “cousins” or some other, equally infuriating euphemism.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Troy works more in the idiom of the tragic than the epic, at least as these have taken shape within modern media. These are characters determined to make the best decisions that they can, even though each are condemned to follow a path they cannot shape to their own ends. Even the gods, who supposedly have more power than their mortal counterparts, seem unable to affect the course of the prophecy that has already foretold the doom of both Paris and his city.

Furthermore, Troy strips away the patina of legitimacy that typically adheres to Greek epic heroes, so that although Agamemnon, Menelaus, and even Achilles and Odysseus all exhibit exactly the types of behaviour that we have come to expect from our epic heroes, their violence remains coded as deeply sociopathic. Even Odysseus, arguably the most sympathetic of the Greek heroes, lies and deceives in the service of what he deems a higher purpose, even as he recognizes that Agamemnon and Menelaus are the worst that Greece can produce. Their lies are largely for their own gain, regardless of the cost to others. Achilles is ultimately deceived by his fellow Greeks into launching an all-out assault on the Trojans, an action which leads almost directly to his death at the hands of Paris.

As such, Troy is also a critique of the deeply violent and aggressive epic masculinity that has characterized epic films since at least Gladiator, a critique I’ve noticed in a number of ancient world films produced in the last couple of years. This ambiguity about the value and social function of epic heroism punctures even the end of the film, for while the Greeks have emerged victorious, theirs is a pyrrhic victory, a fact rendered explicit by Odysseus’ craggy, sad visage staring off into the distance at the very end. Any savvy viewer knows that almost of all of them will find their lives irrevocably marred by their actions.

All in all, I enjoyed Troy: Fall of a City for what it was, not for what I attempted to force it to be. Rather than holding it up to the standard of the epic–with its grandeur, its battles, its vast scope–I accepted this as a television drama. As such, I think it has much to tell us about how our expectations of epic heroism have changed and how disenchanted we have become with an ancient model that seems curiously out of touch with the modern world.

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: “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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crushing weight of spectacle in "Cleopatra."

The crushing weight of spectacle in “Cleopatra.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirk Douglas' Spartacus on the cross.

Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus on the cross.

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

hestonmoses1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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