Archive for King of Kings

Creative Differences

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2021 by dcairns

I can’t write anything better about BITTER VICTORY than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, which is one of his really good ones. He gets at the ambiguity of the two main characters — Curt Jurgens as Brand, essentially the villain, ought to attract our sympathies more than he does, and Richard Burton’s hero, Leith, oughtn’t to be as appealing as he is. Of course, a lot of this has to do with casting, and Ray’s relationships with his stars. Jurgens was forced on him. Burton, a fellow alcoholic, was sympatico, and Ray tried to get him for KING OF KINGS later, and Burton seriously thought about it.

Brand is a coward and a hypocrite, pathologically jealous, and somewhat brutal. But he’s TRYING to be brave, sometimes he is, and his anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is not wholly without foundation. I think she’s ready to take off with Burton if the circumstances allow it. Still, he’s an unattractive character, unattractively played. Jurgens kept protesting that he wasn’t sympathetic enough, but if Ray tried to fix that, his feelings about having Jurgens forced on him maybe got in the way. Ray was rewriting with Gavin Lambert, the psycho producer was rewriting with Paul Gallico, on another continent, and meanwhile the original author had script approval.

It’s interesting that Ray, by all accounts a supersensitive and uncannily perceptive guy, chose to make his European debut with a producer who turned out, according to Lambert, to be someone who enjoyed destroying directors. Given Ray’s noted self-destructiveness, it’s possible he chose Graetz, at some subconscious level, as just the kind of guy he ought to have nothing to do with.

The making of a film often seems to echo the story of the film, so it’s also easy to see Leith and Brand as portraits of Ray and Graetz. Leith, the romantic T.E. Lawrence figure — like Lawrence, an archaeologist, and someone who upsets his commanders because of his strange manner — Brand, the bully and desk-jockey who instinctively resents Leith, and who is constantly trying to prove himself against him. The reason Leith, and the audiences, give Brand no credit for drinking water that may be poisoned, is that it requires no physical courage, just a lack of imagination.

The one area where Brand’s imagination is on overdrive is his sexual jealousy of his wife and Leith. In fact, the two last met before Brand came on the scene, and they’re much too noble to do anything about their lingering emotions. But Brand evidently has a whole other movie playing in his head…

Ray had wanted Montgomery Clift as Leith, and Burton in the other role, as Brand. Had that been the case, Leith would certainly still have been more appealing than Brand (Burton could do nasty very well, Monty did soulful and vulnerable) but the balance would have been closer. Whether Clift could have made himself sound like a British officer is questionable. But part of the film’s interest is the way Leith’s perversity, self-destructiveness, crazy romanticism and sadistic goading of Brand play out as heroic and noble. The more you pick it apart afterwards the more interesting it gets.

I also love the look of the desert scenes, among the most barren ever filmed. LAWRENCE’s dunes are like feminine fleshscapes by comparison. In daylight, the contrast is so low the action is almost happening against an infinity curve, and at night there’s faux-lunar floodlighting against a jet-black sky, so we get warring voids.

Asides from the central trio (Ruth Roman is pretty good, but Ray wanted Moira Shearer), the only other substantial characters are a sympathetic Arab guide (Raymond Pellegrin, excellent) and the viciously mad Private Wilkins, played by the great Nigel Green.

Green can conjure a glint of madness like few other actors. It can just be THERE, not doing anything, suggesting a weird blinkered disassociation, like in THE IPCRESS FILE. But Wilkins is out where the buses don’t run. He’s evidently been doing this kind of thing too long. Everything’s a joke to him. We’re all going to die? That’s a good joke. We’re just going to suffer horribly? Still funny. Someone else is going to die instead? Equally good. Despite having just about the same attitude to everything that can or might happen, Green is electrifying in the role and Wilkins is terrifyingly unpredictable.

The other familiar face is Christopher Lee, playing another working class private. Lee rarely played plebeian, but is reasonable convincing, and of course he’s the most convincing commando. He MOVES awfully well. In Arab dress, at night, he totally evokes the kind of horror movie he was about become famous for. They should have let him show Burton how to ambush a man and stab him in the back, silently. Lee had actual military experience doing that. Burton’s approach gives the enemy plenty of time to yell and would not work. Still, at this very instant comes the extraordinary moment when Burton lets out a gasp — he’s doing the killing, but it’s like HE’S the one being killed. This close juxtaposition of the clumsy and the brilliant is what Truffaut perhaps meant when he remarked that Ray’s films were often not as “well-made” as other Hollywood filmmakers’, but he got moments of truth that nobody else would go near.

And, often, these moments involve violence.

The unfolding of the desert mission — retrieving enemy documents of completely opaque significance — kept reminding me of HOW I WON THE WAR. Running out of water, men cracking under the strain. Both films reference Lawrence without naming him. But it didn’t seem likely to have been a direct influence on Richard Lester. But it might conceivably have inspired novelist Patrick Ryan, who wrote the source book. The crazy, near-abstract mission is oddly close to satire, but markedly without laughs.

Another fine messiah

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2013 by dcairns

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How do you cast Jesus? It seems a difficult thing to do. Paul Schrader pointed out that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST attempted something quite rare — most Christfilms tend to take a view which is actually, according to church doctrine, somewhat blasphemous — they portray Jesus as a wholly divine figure, walking about in human drag. This is apparently far more acceptable to the faithful than going the other way and showing him as entirely human. Schrader’s script favours a reading of Jesus as a man in some way directly connected to the divine consciousness, and the subsequent movie attracted quite a lot of criticism.

Traditional movie messiahs, from H.B. Warner to Max Von Sydow, haven’t really been very human at all (though only Jim Caviezel’s has reduced him to a literal slaughtered lamb, a dumb animal) — devoid of humour, flaws or convincing uncertainty, they seem to be already in possession of the full script. They embody the problem of the Movie Messiah: we all know the story.

Nick Ray, when casting I WAS A TEENAGE JESUS KING OF KINGS, actually considered Max Von Sydow for the part — but he probably wouldn’t have had the clout to pursue such an audacious call, as George Stevens did. This does suggest that for any generation, the number of options is surprisingly limited — unless you’re Pier Paolo Pasolini and you’re looking outside of Central Casting altogether.

The following are just some random thoughts on actors who might have brought something more interesting to the role.

John Garfield. Firstly, I’m sick of fair-haired Christs. Can’t we have an authentically Jewish King of the Jews for once? Moviemakers seem under the spell of an unspoken assumption that since Jesus was the son of God, a cuckoo laid in the nest of a Jewish handyman, he himself was gentile. (Shades of the WWI draft board chairman who remarked “Jesus Christ was British to the core!”) It’s a sinister, unquestioned and fascinating prejudice that creeps into nearly all mainstream depictions of the Lamb of God.

Garfield would not only have given us a Jewish Jesus, but a really angry one. Which might help Mel Gibson get over his spluttering outrage — I think he’d be down with the idea of a kick-ass Christ. (Suggested caption for the last shot of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: “He’s back. And he’s mad.”) True passion is something Jeffrey Hunter and Max Von Sideboard seemed unable to really handle or suggest in the role, so Garfield’s trademark intense outrage would be welcome.

A Jewish Jesus might seem outrageous to some, but I don’t think it’s going far enough. Jesus was born in the Middle East, of Middle-Eastern parents (I’m not sure how God affects the genetic mix, but find the Hollywood assumption that he’d pass on light hair and blue eyes rather offensive). I can’t think of any true Israeli movie stars offhand, but if you wanted somebody more ethnically correct than Jeffrey of Louisiana or Max of Lund, you should probably think Omar Sharif. Who would bring a sunny (as opposed to Sunni), sexy and laid-back charm to the part. You can’t say that wouldn’t be at least interesting

I don’t see why you couldn’t be Muslim and play Jesus, just as I don’t see why you have to be Christian to do it — acting is an exercise of the imagination, and the only limit is within the actor’s mind. For that reason I’d also like to see basketball star turned actor Kareem-Abdul Jabbar play the part, just so he can be the only Jesus who, when suspended from the cross, still has his feet on the ground.

The other guys who seem like good casting, in a Mel Gibson kind of way, are John Barrymore and Marlon Brando, because they both loved to suffer. Gibson’s godawful film did seek to correct one major flaw in most New Testament adaptations, which is that Christ never seems to be in any real pain. He just looks a bit sad, as if God was sparing him the physical agony of being nailed up, speared etc. This would seem to defeat the whole point of the sacrifice (whatever the point is — it never made sense to me). Gibson’s problem, arguably, is that he got a bit carried away with this idea. His Jesus does nothing BUT suffer.

Incidentally, you know the controversy around The History Channel’s The Bible, where the make-up applied to Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, playing the Devil, makes him look a bit like Barack Obama? The makeup artist and producers insist this was not their intent, which suggests a somewhat asleep-on-duty approach — aren’t you supposed to notice when your character design turns into a political cartoon? But can I point out that even if the presidential resemblance was unintentional, the fact that they’ve taken a pale-skinned Arab actor and blacked him up to play Satan is, in itself, HIGHLY DUBIOUS.

More Easter musings from 2009.

Now, who would YOU like to see playing God’s favourite revenant?

The Big Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by dcairns

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If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

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THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

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“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

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Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

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Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile —

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door —

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.'”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

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At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

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TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

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Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…