Archive for Noah’s Ark

The Sunday Intertitle: Apocrypha and Marginalia

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by dcairns

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Fiona and I thoroughly enjoyed our Easter viewing of the silent BEN-HUR (subtitled A TALE OF THE CHRIST) directed by Fred Niblo, though I suspect some good bits are by Charles Brabin, before he was removed. Brabin also did the best bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS and again didn’t get a credit. Not a good politician, it seems, but a very good filmmaker.

All through this I was comparing it to the Wyler version and generally thinking “This isn’t obviously inferior in any way.” Radically different from Charlton Heston in every way, Ramon Novarro is still a good lead. There are a lot of spectacular sets and miniatures and matte paintings. There’s even a tracking shot with a foreground miniature in the build-up to the chariot race. The race itself is very exciting, but I get the impression they massacred horses to make it, whereas Wyler and Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt looked after their horses well — the one injured steed was nursed back to health over a period of months and was able to rejoin the race before the finish, so long was the shoot on that one sequence.

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The bit of the silent film that’s clearly superior is the battle at sea, with full-scale galley ships in a real sea with lots of real extras who pretended they could swim to get the job, and then found themselves bailing out of a burning vessel with every prospect of a watery death. Supposedly nobody perished, but the production was hauled back from Italy to Hollywood and Brabin was removed. Still, the scale and conviction of the scene is hugely impressive, and it benefits from not relying on miniatures and a studio tank. The good stuff in the Wyler is all basically real, as I think it should be in an epic.

But Wyler’s ending (not sure which of the various credited and uncredited screenwriters came up with it — it’s not in the novel) beats the Niblo, hands down. It’s all about how the films weave their narratives in and out of the New Testament. In the silent film, Jesus cures Ben-Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy while on his way to Golgotha, AND resurrects a baby to boot. “How can they crucify him after that?” asked Fiona. In the remake, the film’s recurring motif of water comes into play again, as rain falling on the bloody body of the crucified Christ flows to the lepers and heals them, which is an almost science-fictional speculation on how miraculous Christ actually was, but in keeping with the Catholic church’s bizarre, idolatrous fetish for holy relics (pieces of the cross, saints’ bones, etc). It’s cheeky, but it works — it allows for a stronger all-is-lost moment when the crucifixion occurs before “Cheston,” as Fiona calls him, can obtain a miracle cure for his family.

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The silent movie accompanies the crucifixion with some impressive but slightly irrelevant disaster-movie special effects, which we enjoyed. The effects team use the expanding cloud of dust to softly wipe between the slow-motion miniature and the full-scale crowd. It works even better than the flooding in the silent NOAH’S ARK.

Right after watching it, we re-watched the 1959 version of the chariot race, then I told Fiona that Stephen Boyd has the most agonizing death scene in film history, so of course she wanted to see that. It really is fantastic — very smartly written and played to the hilt by Boyd, always a very enthusiastic actor. It’s a shame THE OSCAR is so damned enjoyable because one should really remember Boyd (he of the Klingon forehead) for his many extremely good movie moments, not for his unconscious foray into campy trash.

The Pentecost Sunday Intertitle: Moses Supposes

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on May 27, 2012 by dcairns

Bloke goes up mountain for forty days (and nights), comes back with a couple of stone slabs, claims they’ve been inscribed by the finger of God. So, what’s he been doing up there? Waiting? Why couldn’t God show up in a more timely fashion?

If I were of a more suspicious nature, I’d suggest that Ol’ Mose might have spent at least some of that time with a chisel, and the rest of it rehearsing a convincing story. As George Harrison says in HELP! (while being pursued by a faux-Hindu death cult), “I don’t want to knock anyone’s religion, but…”

Mind you, Cecil B. DeMille and his collaborators have knocked up some smashing compositions here.

I did a quick internet search and came across the claim that Moses was forty when he left Egypt. Theodore Roberts, who plays him here, was over sixty, and looks older. If that’s Moses at forty, I’m skeptical of the Bible’s claim that he lived to be a hundred and twenty.

Interesting that in 1922 we get Michael Curtiz’s SODOM AND GOMORRAH in ’23 we get the DeMille, and in 1928 Curtiz makes NOAH’S ARK, each of which embeds a bible tale within a contemporary narrative it’s supposed to reflect upon. What’s interesting is that this form, explicitly intended to show the continuing relevance of the Old Testament, has disappeared from the cinema. Can you think of another example since the silent era? It seems to me that by concentrating on purely period bible yarns, Hollywood was treating the stories as escapism, without contemporary relevance…

In a very different way, Kieslowski’s DEKALOG may have a similar mission to the silent spectaculars, I guess.

Buy — The Ten Commandments (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

The Sunday Intertitle: Exterminating Angel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2011 by dcairns

Strange, isn’t it, how little-seen the early work of Michael Curtiz is? Or perhaps not so much strange as symptomatic — the desire of the auteur movement to see filmmakers justify their seriousness by exploring recurring themes tends to exclude Curtiz, whose reputation is that of a guy mainly interested in shiny floors. There’s the sadism, which turns up frequently in the Errol Flynn movies and also in his on-set behaviour, but sadism and shiny floors are apparently not enough to build an auteur reputation.

Of course, CASABLANCA is revered, as are a number of other MC movies, including his pre-code work almost en masse. But much of that is credited to “the genius of the system” and the kind of film buffs who most often praise CASABLANCA are those who don’t care so much about directors. The fact that the film was shot without a clear ending in mind is used to suggest that great films just happen as freakish accidents. I don’t want to insult the movie gods by suggesting they don’t play a key role, but the skills of a director like Curtiz count for something too.

You will never in a million years guess who this is. Scroll to bottom of page to find out.

To embrace Curtiz as artist, you need to accept his concentration on the visual surface as his work as neither strength nor weakness, but simply fact: it’s the kind of filmmaker he was.

A ragged angel arrives to kick some ass.

And so to SODOM AND GOMORRAH, made in 1922 in Germany when Mike Curtiz was Mihaly Kertesz, even though he was born Mano Kertesz Kaminer. It’s a historically very revealing work, and still quite enjoyable.

Since Curtiz’s Hollywood biblical spectacular NOAH’S ARK has just enjoyed an American DVD release, it’s interesting to compare it with the earlier silent epic. Like ARK, and DeMille’s first version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, it folds its Old Testament folderol into a contemporary narrative designed to show the continuing relevance of the yarn. You need a mega-budget for this, as such continuing relevance may not be obvious unless you have a fortune to throw at it.

A single boudoir scene of S&G contains enough sheer beauty to supply the town of Bedford for a year.

In S&G, we meet a sleazy oligarch, Georg Reimers, fresh from wiping out his competitors on the stock exchange, who throws a colossal orgiastic party (it’s pretty mild, really) to celebrate his engagement. His son arrives, with friendly priest Victor Varconi in tow, and immediately falls for dad’s betrothed (the interesting Lucy Doraine, real-life wife of Curtiz), who’s just provoked a suicide attempt by her former lover, a sculptor who’s been working on a statue of her entitled “Sodom” (secretly, I believe she may have been justified in calling it off on this basis alone).

As the events reach an anti-climax, the femme fatale takes a nap and has a dream in which she provokes one man to murder the other, is sentenced to hang, and then has another dream within the dream in which she’s in ancient Sodom. The dramatis personae of the modern movie are recast as biblical, or at least epic movie, personalities, with the priest as the destructive angel come to demolish the sinning cities (as in Robert Aldrich’s SODOM AND GOMORRAH, the second city of the title never actually shows up). Doraine finds herself playing, with Lynchian ease, both Lot’s wife and the Queen of Syria.

It’s what I call an epic!

Apart from its seemingly influential narrative structure (I mean the embedded bible tale, not the loopy dream-within-a-dream bit) S&G looks forward to later German mega-productions like METROPOLIS, and even stuff like RAN where no direct influence is likely — check out the final destruction of the city, above.

Did this movie influence DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS, released the following year? Or was the idea of bible tales with modern bookends something in the air? At any rate, it’s useful to see a film like S&G, which fills in some blanks in film history, as well as being a peculiar and impressive piece of work in its own right.

Now, the answer to the mystery posed above —

Who’d have thought the slender, puppyish youth in S&G could be Walter Slezak?

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