Peck’s Bad Boy

I have to say that Fred Zinnemann’s BEHOLD A PALE HORSE deserves its comparatively low status among his work, but it’s still full of interest. Based on a novel by the director’s old Berlin coffee house buddy Emeric Pressburger, it’s set in more or less contemporary Spain and across the border in France, where a die-hard rebel (Gregory Peck) is carrying on the Civil War as a personal feud with Guardia Civil chief Anthony Quinn.

At two hours, the film feels sluggish, in part because J.P. Miller’s script features minor characters not essential to the action — either they were in the book, or have been added to give Quinn’s character more “depth”. The effect is to further diffuse a movie which seems uncertain who its main character is. We’re introduced to the story through the eyes of a young boy (Marietto, a typically excellent Zinnemann juvenile), pick up Peck, follow Quinn for a while, and then bond with Omar Sharif (!) as a priest who gets mixed up in the action due to the dying wish of Peck’s mother.

Another reason for the prevailing inertia (apart from maybe a certain lack of energy in Zinnemann’s handling at times) is the story structure, in which Peck conceives of a daring mission in Act 1 — his mother is dying, under armed guard, and he wants to circumvent the Spanish authorities, break into the hospital, and see her — which is then endlessly deferred by a series of almost Bunuelian plot digressions. Some of the intervening action is exciting or compelling in its own right, but at the back of our mind is the knowledge that a gripping adventure awaits that we’re just not getting to, and that has the effect of making what’s currently onscreen seem less exciting.

There’s also the problem of casting. The first section of story has Marietto visiting Peck, a friend of his late father’s, to ask him to avenge dad’s death by killing Quinn — in other words, it’s TRUE GRIT before the fact. And, as in TG, the kid is severely disappointed by what he finds, at first wondering if the old guy slumped in the dingy hovel is the father of the man he’s looking for. The problem, of course, and it’s a fatal one for a movie about a man approaching old age and opting for a dramatic death, is that Peck looks remarkably healthy for his age. A certain tightness of the shirt about the belly does not serve to evoke advancing decrepitude (and we also have our outside knowledge that G.P. would last almost another forty years).

And of course Peck is his usual staunch, stolid self, with nothing of the bandit and less of the Spaniard about him. Did any actor of reasonable ability ever evoke so many recasting fantasies? Imagine Robert Ryan as Ahab in MOBY DICK, James Stewart as Sam Bowden in CAPE FEAR (in which Peck is good). Even in ROMAN HOLIDAY, which seems to work like a dream, I could be persuaded that William Holden might have raised it to an even higher level (there’s never any doubt that Peck will behave nobly, whereas with Holden, doubt is in his DNA).

The Brêche de Roland, 8,000 feet up in the Pyrenees. Such is my naivety, I assumed this HAD to be a matte shot. It’s real!

Zinnemann’s hand is otherwise quite sure, with some striking sequences and performances. Quinn doesn’t overact, and while it’s hard to figure out how Sharif wound up in a French monastery, he’s very soulful and effective. The movie’s not too strong on explaining the political background — Zinnemann worried that he was glorifying a terrorist, but a sterner eye on the Franco regime’s abuses might have alleviated his concerns.

And Peck gets one terrific scene, a classic of poetic understatement, excerpted for your pleasure here. He’s finally off on his mission, one of certain death. He pauses, and there’s an erotic distraction. But it’s too late for that kind of thing.

Gregory Peckory from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The cameo role of the girl is performed by Elizabeth Wiener! — Clouzot’s LA PRISONNIERE, Rivette’s DUELLE. And I can forgive both Peck and Maurice Jarre their many sins, looking at something like this.

As in the delightful, allusive moment in THE SUNDOWNERS where Deborah Kerr stares wistfully at a glamorous woman on a train, contrasting with her own sun-bleached, wind-blown appearance, nothing is spoken but everything gets said.


15 Responses to “Peck’s Bad Boy”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    I’ve always been curious to see this film, largely because I have a purely hormonal interest in early Omar Sharif.

    I still think LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is the gayest film of all time. What did audiences think Lawrence and Ali were doing behind those sand dunes?!

  2. david wingrove Says:

    Let me rephrase that…what did David Lean think they were doing?!

  3. It’s not Lawrence and Ali — it’s Lawrence and the boys! When he brings the surviving boy back and demands the British Officer’s Mess serve him it’s practically a “coming out” scene.

  4. I think Lean knew all of that (else how could he make it?), he just wasn’t the kind of gentleman who could ever discuss it. But O’Toole would have understood exactly without a word being spoken.

    Sharif, though an implausible French catholic priest, is very good in this.

  5. Omar was discovered by the great Youssef Chahine

  6. Lean said that Sharif was unpopular with critics because he was just too damned good-looking. Maybe also because he was almost the first non-caucasian actor in Hollywood films who got cast regardless of his race — he very rarely played a Moor (to his regret, he never got to play Othello — “It’s never been played by a Moor!”) and so there’s often a slight plausibility hurdle to get over. But in those days nobody seemingly objected to Alec Guinness playing an Arab.

  7. Although there was some objection to his playing a Jew (although a wildly exaggerated depiction of a Jew)…

  8. Yeah, maybe a little insensitive, right after the Holocaust? It honestly never seems to have occurred to Guinness and Lean.

  9. I saw this when it turned up on Channel 5 about three years ago and, despite its oddities, felt it taught me things I didn’t know about cross-border action in the Franco era.

    As far as Peck’s concerned, I thought he aged fairly convincingly and that it was one of his better performances. What a pity that lovely man’s acting didn’t quite match his looks. Watch ‘Conversations With Gregory Peck’ on YouTube if you need persuading just how lovely he was – in every sense of the word. I know a little Atticus named for him – and the ‘Conversations’ reveal there are plenty more!

  10. To give him his due, he really did make Atticus Finch a credible man and not just a plaster saint – an ability to embody nobility is not something to be sneezed at. And for all that somebody like William Holden would have added suspense to Roman Holiday, it manages perfectly well with seemingly no dramatic tension whatsoever, coasting along on Peck and Hepburn’s charm, and that of the settings.

  11. I know what you mean about Robert Ryan as Ahab, but we can at least take comfort from his Claggart in Billy Budd.

  12. …which is stupendous, yes. And one reason I can’t claim casting him is a particularly clever idea of mine: the evidence is all there.

  13. Peck’s gentlemanly reserve made sure that Roman Holiday had no sexual undertones to it — which was exceptionally important and a key to its success. There’s just a soupcon romance, but Wyler makes absolutely sure that innocence prevails. This is what has made the film a classic and of enormous import to generations of pre-adolescent girls.

  14. Peck brought a bit of intensity to Wellman’s Yellow Sky, as the “good bad man” archetype. It helps that he has Widmark’s “bad bad man” to play against.

  15. […] The great screenwriter had continued to work in pictures sporadically since the break-up of the Archers — he worked pseudonymously on the screenplays of OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 — the kind of efficient, gung-ho war drama which had sadly ended his collaboration with Michael Powell — and THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB for Powell, unofficially, in 1966.  His novel The Miracle of St Anthony’s Lane was filmed as MIRACLE IN SOHO and Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a more ambitious work, was adapted by Fred Zinnemann as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (which is worth seeing). […]

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