The Place of the Skull
Look — it’s Jesus!
Since Easter is approaching, we decided to watch a man get nailed to some timber.
To say that Julien Duvivier’s GOLGOTHA — a big budget, star-studded life-and-death-and-life of Christ movie — falls into the trap of the biblical movie, is to not say nearly enough. Duvivier’s film flings itself headlong into that trap, with the crazed abandon of Joe Cocker, if Joe Cocker were a film about Christ. It’s not the best metaphor in the world, but you get what I mean.
To clarify: a common complaint about Hollywood epics is that they lack real people, or at any rate people we can relate to. Part of the trouble is dialogue. “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks,” as Howard Hawks put it, is a brilliant encapsulation of the problem of presenting characters from an age and culture very different from out own, who would have spoken a language different from the one we’re presenting them in.
(Sidebar: Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic flogathon THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST cuts this Gordian knot with the classic simplicity of the true moron: it doesn’t matter that the languages used in Gibson’s s&m porno Christ are not the right ones for the period. All that matters is that the vast majority of modern viewers don’t understand a word of what’s being said, thus accurately recreating the effect of being present at the real crucifixion.)
The result of all these difficulties with speech and characterisation is often a certain wooden quality, often reinforced by the scale of these productions. Recreating life in ancient times can be very expensive, and filmmakers sometimes see this expense as a goal rather than a result. Plodding, monumental epics naturally tend to diminish the human element, encouraging the actors to declaim and strike poses, so the whole problem is exacerbated.
And then again, it’s an artistic challenge to imagine what people were actually like in earlier times. We can err by making them too like us, but also by making them too different. When Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in QUO VADIS?, he was told the gesture was too modern. “In what age,” he inquired, “did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?”
Duvivier’s movie, a super-production of the kind more associated with Hollywood than France, was filmed amid giant sets, with a ceaselessly gliding camera. Since the days of CABIRIA and INTOLERANCE, filmmakers have recognised that camera movement allows for the celebration of vast scale, although they have likewise struggled with the fact that such movements, when motivated by a desire to explore space rather than follow characters around, can tend to minimise the people still further. Duvivier, like George Lucas, built his fantasy city in Tunisia, although his gigantic Jerusalem — a combination of massive sets, existing structures and special effects — easily beats the crap out of Mos Eisley Spaceport.
“There never was a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
The restless tracking shots with which Duvivier examines this vast arena call to mind Michael Curtiz, with whom Duvivier is often compared. Such an analogy often does a disfavour to both men, by implying that they’re impersonal artisans, capable of turning their hands to any genre, and devoid of personal trademarks. Curtiz certainly has a signature style, which involves a high-gloss visual surface, a roving camera, and an avoidance of thematic obsessions, apart from a tendency to linger on moments of sadism. Duviviershares some of the visual concerns, but was also usually involved in the scripting of his films, which do cover a wide range of territories, but feature recurring themes and character types too. In this film, however, he could almost be a parody of Curtiz, ignoring the people and story and concentrating most of his attention on design and cruelty.
But the devotion to the look isn’t 1005 consistent. Although most of the characters are chipboard stereotypes — grumbling pharisees, a shifty Peter, an angsty Judas — a few touches give humanity (of a degraded kind) to the Roman soldiery, who are heard grumbling about the weather and laughing as they poke a blindfolded Christ with a stick (“Which one of us was that, eh?”), in a variation on the arse-kicking game played by Hugh Herbert in FOG OVER FRISCO. And while Christ himself is weirdly de-emphasised as a central character, rendered more as icon than personality, Pontius Pilate and Herod each get moments when the film slows its pace right down, and Duvivier pays rapt attention to the faces of his actors. Of course, since the actors are Jean Gabin and Harry Baur, this kind of star treatment is to be expected, but it’s nonetheless startling when Duviver holds on Baur’s great face for second after second, as Herod sizes up an off-screen Christ. (Christ is frequently off-screen, even in scenes where he’s present. It feels like Duvivier wants us to be startled whenever we do actually get to see his main character: a commendably mad idea.)
This is a remarkable scene all round, since it has become invested with the grimmest of all possible ironies. Herod is played by an actor later tortured and murdered by the Gestapo. Jesus is played by an actor who was a fervent collaborationist and Nazi sympathiser, Robert Le Vigan. To see Baur passing judgement on Le Vigan is quite weird, melancholy and disturbing.
Then comes the flogging, which Duvivier does not show, instead slowly closing in on the faces of witnesses gazing through a barred window. “We want to see!” someone cries, but Duvivier does not let US see. There’s a sly, cynical wit here that Mel Gibson could learn from, if it were possible to put the words “Mel”, “Gibson” and “learn” in the same sentence without the sky falling in. There’s also the famous “blood libel,” which brought Gibson some criticism — as I understand it, the line is in the bible, so Duvivier (or even Gibson) including it is defensible on grounds of fidelity to the source, but it’s still unfortunate.
Which it does, right after they nail Jesus up. The traditional death mass (AKA “the theme from THE SHINING”) gives way to an insane xylophonic freakout as the firmament pours past at time-lapse velocity, rent asunder periodically by the most convincing SFX lightning-flashes I’ve ever seen in a ’30s movie.
I never knew Judas hanged himself on Skull Island.
As you can probably guess from my description, and from any memories you might have of George Stevens’ beautiful but lumbering arse-marathon THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, Duvivier’s film isn’t exactly moving, just solemn and sweeping, but it’s at least spectacular in creative ways, and follows its own perverse course so blindly that it achieves a kind of artistic grandeur above mere spectacle. It’s exactly the kind of film which might tend to reinforce the usual prejudices about Duvivier as an empty-headed purveyor of glossy production values, but once you’ve seen LA FIN DU JOUR or PEPE LE MOKO or POIL DE CAROTTE or PANIQUE you ought to be inoculated against that kind of poppycock. And there’s an underlying strangeness to the whole approach that seperates it from the monumentalism of Stevens’ much-maligned film.