Holy Crap

Having watched QUO VADIS, like a bunch of 1AD flagellants we had to watch THE ROBE, just in time for Easter.

In the Nero Vs Caligula death match, I think Peter Ustinov’s Nero is a more human, interesting and vividly vile characterisation, but Jay Robinson’s Caligula is a more extreme, ballsy and uniquely preposterous screen performance.

Moving on from that, this should be the movie where Richard Burton solidifies his grasp of screen acting, but for whatever reason (film shot out of sequence, latter parts being more conducive to hamminess) he gets worse as it goes on. Once he gets religion he’s unbearable — as is often the way irl.

Jean Simmons is able to do less with her pagan Roman that Debs Kerr managed with her Christian. The bit-players (including Jay Novello, Percy Helton and Leon Askin) are encouraged to chew the scenery, which is fairly nutritious material — the quality may not always be great but the portions are enormous.

Burton claimed to have learned proper screen acting from Liz Taylor on CLEOPATRA. He should have learned it from Victor Mature here. The Big Victor is an underrated guy — he does lots of good, understated, simple work, and then when he’s called on to blow the roof off, boy, does he!

The Big Victor showing off all the junk in his neck that shouldn’t even be there in my opinion

Of course, he comes a cropper when he has to signify divine rapture, in a really weird scene where Vic and Dick appear to be trying to outdreadful one another.

As W.C. Fields was said to have read the Bible for loopholes, so do authors like Lloyd C. Douglas (who wrote the book QV comes from), and Lew “Ben-Hur” Wallace. They find ways to weave their fictitious characters through the New Testament without breaking it. It can be amusing to study. Demetrius (Big Victor) runs through the streets of Jerusalem trying to warn Jesus of his imminent arrest, but can’t find him. Early Christian Dean Jagger is felled with an arrow, which is fine, because the Good Book only mentions a guy named Justus in passing and doesn’t say he WASN’T shot with an arrow.

The Robe is a perfect biblical MacGuffin — the thing everybody wants but the audience doesn’t care. In fact, I didn’t care about anything much. Those who dismiss Wyler’s BEN-HUR as trash need to take a look at this. BEN-HUR is skilled trash.

I liked the music, which is full-on Alfred Newman, though the crashing stab accompanied by thunderclap which follows Judas (Michael Ansara) introducing himself was an eggy moment.

I think the indigo thunderclaps are a modern interpolation

I was reading somewheres — I think it was a Medium article — about how the Seventh Day Adventists evolved from a doomsday cult that had to rewrite its own mythos when the apocalypse failed to happen on the appointed day. And if you think about it, it’s fairly obvious that Christianity itself kind of did the same thing.

The appearance of a Messiah had been (fairly) long-prophesied. Jesus turned up, presenting himself as said figure, come to liberate the Jews from oppression. His followers were enthused.

Then: disaster! Jesus is crucified. Far from freeing the Jews from Roman rule, he is horribly executed by the Romans. The Christian sect looks sure to die out, it’s central premise having fallen apart in spectacular fashion.

But, asks somebody, What if he didn’t die? Also: What if dying was the whole point? It might work!

If the Bible was a modern screenplay, somebody would definitely have foreshadowed the crucifixion, put something in earlier to make it clear this was always the endgame. That’s what they do in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. As it is, the Bible has that first-draft quality. Jesus sacrificing himself to redeem humanity is kind of a deus ex machina.

Director Henry Koster demonstrates that the Holy Ghost is a less compelling off-screen presence than Harvey the invisible rabbit. Burton’s Damascene conversion isn’t as moving as Josephine Hull’s was in that other movie.

Image 1: the purplish Leon Shamroy wraith is Jesus, in horizontal and profile cruciform view. Image 2: an arm nailed to cross-beam, with lots of duplicate hands floating around just because

Pretty crazy dream sequence. Points awarded. “I didn’t know it had anything like this in it!” Fiona exclaimed, momentarily aroused from a pleasant bad-movie torpor.

THE ROBE stars MacPhisto; Young Estella; Tumak; Klaatu; Insane Actor; Rodion Pavlov; Sokurah the Magician; Robert Kraft; Exeter; Dr. Pretorius; Zeta One; Peripetchikoff; Angry Horse; ‘Scamper’ Joad; The Dear One; Massimo Morlacchi; Xandros the Greek Slave; Toothpick Charlie; and the voice of Ned Flanders (an early Christian).

4 Responses to “Holy Crap”

  1. The laptop ate my comment, so I’m trying again.

    A year or so ago picked up used copies of “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben Hur” because the extras include the complete silent versions. They looked good and were nicely scored.

    The silent “Ten Commandments” is a self-contained double feature. The first portion is epic tableaux, highlighting plagues, orgies, the Red Sea, and the tablets in lieu of character development. The second, longer portion is a modern day story. Two brothers, one saintly and one not, vie for the love of a nubile waif. Each of the commandments is broken — ever dear old Mom is insufficiently honored. It becomes an irreverent drinking game.

    The silent “Ben Hur” is costume melodrama on a big scale, with two jawdropping set pieces and scattered unintended chuckles. The one that sticks with me is Ben Hur racing chariots under the assumed title “The Unknown Jew”.

    I get a bit uneasy with Biblical entertainments that blatantly want it both ways: They want critical/commercial success, then demand the whatever love and reverence the public has for the subject matter. Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” was brilliantly marketed as a litmus test for a certain kind of Christian: You either loved the movie or you were a godless liberal, period.

  2. I haven’t seen any of the twenty Commandments all the way through, but plan to correct that.

    “Is there another religion as obsessed with torture?” Fiona asked last night as we watched Ted Neeley (not Ted Healy, alas) get beaten in Jesus Christ Superstar. Or a director as obsessed with it as Mel Gibson?

    The appeal of his Passion was obvious: do it in ancient languages — doesn’t matter if you choose the right ones, so long as nobody can understand them — so it feels like you’re there. The extreme violence can be justified on the same spurious “realism” grounds, but is really an end in itself.

  3. In “Clockwork Orange”, Alex is introduced to Christianity in prison. He finds joy in imagining himself as a Roman whipping Christ.

    While DeMille certainly delivered violence (see “Sign of the Cross”, and try to imagine that without the Christian fig leaf), he gave at least as much time to naughtiness: milk baths, orgies, decadent luxury, and provocatively clad temptresses luring the hero away from the virgin next door.

    Recalling Peter Cook’s devil in “Bedazzled”, grousing about sinners who get off free with deathbed repentance. He may well have been describing Hollywood, where the hero and the audience get a pass for savoring all the torment and titillation in exchange for a last-reel epiphany.

  4. DeMille is definitely into exploiting the sex-and-violence aspects of the Bible, but screenwriter Lenore Coffee was convinced he was also so terribly sincere that the naughty stuff HB Warner was getting up to during The King of Kings had to be kept from him because he wouldn’t be able to finish the movie if his Christ was sullied.

    (Warner was sneaking off to have sex on a yacht with his girlfriend while still in his Jesus costume and makeup.)

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