Archive for Samuel Bronston

Flashback Friday: The Reign in Spain

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2015 by dcairns


Continuing my trawl through past glories — I did an “Anthony Mann Week” some years back — Fiona complained bitterly that it was all too Mannly, but she did like WINCHESTER 73 a lot. In general, she’s had bad luck for these themed weeks, dropping in on films she couldn’t get along with (eg Losey’s BOOM!) and missing a few she would probably have loved (Mann’s A DANDY IN ASPIC, MAN OF THE WEST). She does like THE TALL TARGET, TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (screwball noir!) and REIGN OF TERROR, but I haven’t ever gotten around to writing about the first two.

I never got around to EL CID, i think because I didn’t have a widescreen copy. It’s a film I’d glimpsed over the years in pan-and-scan abomination form, and like most widesecreen epics, it seemed dull on TV. That’s because the composition of the shots is the whole show — it’s very dynamic in its framing, and the storytelling obeys a visual logic of shape and movement and cutting that’s quite unreal, rather comic book, and wholly glorious. And it’s almost totally dead on a human level, despite having Sophia Loren, a magnificent actress when cast in something human. here she’s used more as a shape, like Chuckles Heston himself, an impressive piece of sculpture.


Terry Jones said that in preparing LIFE OF BRIAN he looked at epics and they all seemed to have something that might be called “epic acting,” which he then impersonated by putting on a declamatory, Sam the American Eagle voice — pure Heston. And if that’s what the film is, Heston is your man. Co-star Douglas Wilmer told him he was “a great journeyman actor” and Heston got all offended and Wilmer smoother his eagle feathers by saying that “journeyman” wasn’t an insult and that Olivier was also a great journeyman. Heston was happy to be named in that company.


He was called an “axiom of the cinema” too, but maybe he’s more of an axis — a sturdy compositional element around whom a shot can pivot. He’s like a pillar, but poseable. The strongest emotion he can project is STRAIN, strenuous seriousness or a dynamic tension of the emotions in which he’s simultaneously holding back and putting it all out there. Wyler got a great effect from him in THE BIG COUNTRY, by telling Carroll Baker to pull her wrists free from his great ham-hand which held her, and telling Cheston not to let go. Her wrists got red raw, and the agony of hurting a lady brought him to life — you saw the strain turn inwards and sort of ripple out across the veins in his head and the sinews in his arms.

For this kind of thing, if you’re going to make it and I’m not saying you should — he’s somehow perfect. An advance on the he-men of German epic cinema, the “bounding idiots” of DIE NIBELUNGEN and METROPOLIS. Chiseled beefcake with more visible bone than the bodybuilders of Italy, and a far more convincing ability to move about.


Spain! Where the diopters are as plentiful as paella. For some reason, the Samuel Bronston sword-and-sandal sagas reach for the split-focus lens more than any other films. Though Nick Ray’s pair of bloaters deploy the effect self-consciously, daring you to notice that while the foreground and background are sharp, the midground is a blur, an effect impossible to achieve with the naked eye. Mann disguises the joins so well you often aren’t quite sure there’s hanky-panky afoot.

Mann’s epic phase saw him work with both stars of BEN-HUR, and feels quite reactive to that blockbuster. SPARTACUS, which he shot the opening scenes for before Kirk Douglas fired him, was also a response to BH, an attempt to show you could make that kind of thing on US soil without taking advantage of cheap labour and tax breaks on the continent. The Samuel Bronston films (this and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) arose from the bizarre historical accident that the Hollywood studios were making a lot of money at the Spanish box office but were unable to take that money out of the country, so they had to invent films to shoot in Spain as an excuse to spend money. EMPIRE and 55 DAYS AT PEKING are surreal at times (especially the latter) because they have no sane reason to be Spanish films, and because they’re throwing money at scenes that don’t matter, with colossal overblown sets which dwarf the actors — in fact, “dwarf” is too weak a word. They ANT the actors.


Here, at least the Spanish castles are real, so it’s only the dementedly huge crowd scenes that beggar belief, fancy dress extras staked out in the sun to bake, contributing nothing save slight distraction, swelling scenes already overstuffed with Herbert Lom or Frank Thring. Despite the authentic setting and the constant twirlings of Miklos Rosza’s score, the world of the film never feels remotely Spanish, because look at who’s in it. The Spanish are Americans and Italians and English and Scots. The Moors are Czech and English and Australian.

A good thing about EL CID is that although it’s all broadswords and bluster, it has bits that are western and bits that are noir, the two genres at which Mann excelled (I’ve never see his two musicals. Anyone?) When a patrol of Spaniards is ambushed by dusky (painted) archers, we’re a stone’s throw from THE LAST FRONTIER. The early part of the story where Sophia is betrothed to Charlton and wants him dead is good doom-laden romance. The wedding night is a symphony of expressionist angst — alone at the dinner table, Heston paces like Garbo memorizing her room in QUEEN CHRISTINA, only clutching frustratedly at every phallic object in reach except himself.

Mann said that the ending of the film was his sole reason for doing it, that with an ending like that you could get away with almost anything. He’s sort of right — but even he, using the highly stylised approach he’s established, and a leading man whose natural destiny might seem to be as a carry-on prop, can’t entirely stifle the giggles as Heston is mounted on his horse, dead, a wooden framework holding him in position like a fake house in a western street. It’s too hideously apt as a piece of satire.


“Please tell me this was a colossal flop,” groaned Fiona, wearied by the length and annoyed by Sophia’s headgear. Afraid not: the world has bad taste. But I dug it on a shot-by-shot basis.

Bible Studies

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by dcairns


Spectacular split-focus diopter lens shot, one of many…

KING OF KINGS, the Nick Ray version, really is a good film, it just doesn’t have a very good Jesus. A shame, since everyone else in it, apart from a few dubbed Spaniards, brings something interesting to the feast. The array of bad guys are amazing fun, rather like in DUNE (in epic cinema, only the villains get to enjoy life) — Gregoire Aslan and Frank Thring make a smutty brace of Herods, Hurd Hatfield and Viveca Lindfors are a smooth Mr and Mrs Pilate, and Brigid Bazlen a red-hot jail-bait Salome. Also Rita Gam from SIGN OF THE PAGAN — and Orson Welles’ VO mentions “the sign of the pagan” being nailed to the temple walls, in straight-faced homage to the Sirk cheesefest.


The clothes-line of evil.

Harry Guardino, though apparently determined to give us his best Burt Lancaster impersonation, is awfully good as Barabbas, and Rip Torn (unrecognizable in his svelte and vulpine youth) is an ace Judas. Flawed is interesting.

Of course, people like Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, or Royal Dano as Peter aren’t allowed to play flawed (except in Peter’s denunciation scene), but both manage some good scenes. RR is just such a powerhouse. I bet even when they cut his head off he was still the tallest man in Judea. Not sure about his caveman costume, but you can’t have everything.


“I found his casting offensive at the time.” ~ Martin Scorsese.

As everybody already knows, Jeffrey Hunter as J.C. is the weak link in the Super-Technirama chain. It’s American Epic Acting at its most lifeless, without the muscularity of a Charlton Heston to give it basic dynamism. When Ray stages the Sermon on the Mount on the move, it’s terribly effective (one of the things Scorsese borrowed for his LAST TEMPTATION was the idea of Jesus in action, rather than posing for a stained glass window as in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD), but doubly hampered by the facts that Hunter is a poor orator and walks awkwardly.

The best thing I can say about Hunter is that his smug smirk when he’s being all mysterious adds a bit of irritation to the character, which is something few actors have pursued (well, maybe Ted Neeley in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR). You’re not supposed to want to slap Jesus. The sensation is surprising, and therefore interesting, and so the movie starts to breathe.


Thring enthroned.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems to be drowning under the waves of Miklos Rosza music. I love M.R., but he does tend to do the expected thing, especially in epics. It’s schmaltzy, and that’s fine in BEN HUR but it’s not the effect Ray’s aiming for here, mostly. One the other hand, the Welles VO, scripted by Ray Bradbury from an original idea by God, rarely lets up but gives the film the grandeur and religious emotion Hunter lacks. Welles may not have been the greatest actor ever, but he had a terrific gift for evoking awe and terror in his voice — hammy, perhaps, but effective, like the film.


The production design  and costumes by Georges Wakhevitch are incredibly imaginative, convincing and distinctive. Not quite as monumental as some other Bronston productions of the era, though certainly not skimping on grandeur, but the use of patterns, wall paintings, and even graffiti creates a unique world that recalls Fellini’s call for his SATYRICON to be “a science fiction film set in the past.”


What nobody seems to talk about is the film’s intent. The assumption may be that a Bronston film has no intent, beyond spending the Hollywood money trapped in Franco’s Spain, creating something that could be exported and profitable. But a Ray movie does have a cause, or at least a personal angle.

The first things that struck me was the this was a truly post-Holocaust bible movie. The opening features Rabbis executed by firing squad, and bodies being slung into a pit and burned on mass pyres. Accordingly, the film plays like the antithesis of Mel Gibson’s antisemitic sermon of hate THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST — here, it’s stressed that Herod is not Jewish, and Pilate, rather than being portrayed as a struggling politician trying to make the best of a rotten assignment, as is often the case, is a hissy, sadistic oppressor, and an idiot who stirs up political foment against Rome by his insensitive response to local traditions. The scene where the mob is offered Jesus and chooses Barabbas happens off-screen — we hear about it along with Barabbas (“Your supporters yelled loudest”) and the dramatic point being made is that Barabbas is moved by the greatness of Christ, not that the durn Jews killed Jeebus.


The other shift of emphasis is away from the miraculous. Ray shows healings, some of which are staged to look as if Jesus might be raising the dead, but we don’t get any unambiguous statement that he does so. The drooling maniac is healed in a way that doesn’t look supernatural so much as spiritual or even psychological — Jesus embraces him and brings him to his senses. The walking on water and feeding of the five thousand bit is only described to us in a report to Pilate — the strong impression is that these wacky tales may be merely mass hysteria and rumour-mongering.


THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST similarly tried to soft-pedal the magic-working, showing Jesus using herbs and stuff in his healing (though Willem Dafoe does cure one guy using a Thelma Schoonmaker jump-cut to vanish his deformity). You can’t altogether strip the wizardry from the New Testimony without upsetting the very people who are likely to buy tickets, but Ray’s shift of emphasis confirms that he’s not particularly a religious artist, but definitely one involved in humanity — violence, sexuality, politics and psychology are his daily bread.


This impressive closing shot, by the way, was merely a test Ray did to see if the idea had legs. The producers, who had abruptly tired or pouring money into the mega-production, refused to let him reshoot it, and stuck the temp version in. Another compromised Ray ending — if you have the DVD of REBEL, you can see the last shot the movie was supposed to have — one of the best widescreen closing shots ever executed. The day somebody decided not to use it (after Ray had walked off the picture in post), Warner Brothers must have been home to the largest concentrations of human stupidity anywhere in the world.

“I’m afraid you would not find me suitable.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2010 by dcairns

It was a pleasure to finally get a copy, however imperfect, of THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE in the correct screen ratio. My earlier viewing of a 16:9 off-air recording had intrigued but failed to satisfy — you really don’t get a sense of the film’s insane size unless you can see the whole frame.

STILL haven’t got an adequate copy of EL CID, and may just have to buy the BluRay when I get a BluRay player… which I may have to do since I’ve just written an essay for a forthcoming BluRay only release, and I kind of want to see it…

EL CID’s success made THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE possible, but what made the whole Spanish-shot epic boom-and-bust blip in film history possible was General Franco’s ruling that profits from ticket sales in Spanish cinemas could not be taken out of the country. Producer Samuel Bronston decided to get the studios to spend their profits in Spain, on big movies which could then be exported and make more money around the world. EL CID, an epic from Spanish history, was a logical choice, but the following movies rather stretched the possibilities of what could be successfully faked in Spain — 55 DAYS IN PEKING really distends plausibility to snapping point.

(When Richard Lester was prepping A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM in Spain a few years later, he considered recycling the standing sets from TFOTRE, but he and his designer, Tony Dalton, worked out that it would be cheaper to build their own sets than remove the scaffolding from Bronston’s.)

But TFOTRE manages to mock up Germania, Armenia and Rome quite convincingly, with the aid of the biggest sets ever assembled (I think — I hope!). It’s all too obviously an attempt to repeat the success of the Roman-set BEN HUR, down to a chariot race arranged by Yakima Canutt. Charlton Heston, star or both HUR and CID, was offered the lead, but apparently refused due to his antipathy to co-star Sophia Loren, whom he’d had quite enough of on the previous Mann epic. So his BEN HUR opponent, Stephen Boyd, viewed as very much a coming man, was promoted to lead, a choice Mann later came to view as a mistake, especially after the film grossed less than a quarter of its cost (a then-staggering 26 million).

The “old friends” get reacquainted.

Boyd is indeed a problem, and so is Loren, surprisingly. Boyd, so effective in heavy roles (his psychotic gangster in THE SQUEEZE is exhilaratingly horrible, and BEN HUR gives him an excrutiating, powerful death scene), is just a wounded puppy as Livius, his Irish accent disguised beneath a generic American delivery — that slow, dumb speech pattern heroes always seem to use in “Epics”. And he can’t even be effective on that level because Livius is a rather passive, conflicted hero who doesn’t get much done — the whole story is a chronicle of his failure to save Rome, after all. Mann spoke of anti-heroes in his westerns who were nevertheless men who set out to do something, and did it. Livius isn’t that, which is potentially interesting, but demands a more complex and engaging performance.

Loren’s passion and sex appeal are entirely smothered in a sexless character. Her costumes may be nice (and one can imagine her wearing them to the Oscars, they’re theoretically period but snazzy and contemporary and very vivid) but her love story with Livius takes forever to go almost nowhere. We KNOW Loren’s a good actress, but she has quite a few long close-ups here where I felt like waving a hand in front of her face to check she was actually conscious.

The ponderous leads are compounded by a script which tends to paint in every corner and could really benefit from some bolder ellisions. The emperor is poisoned. He dies. There’s a funeral. A successor is named. There’s a plod to the narrative approach which compounds the seemingly unavoidable turgidity of the epic spectacular form. Thank God David Lean discovered the nouvelle vague while making LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and gave the film a certain zip. The lumber-lumber-zip rhythm of that film is a saving grace.

BUT — Mann’s film, apart from some genuinely mind-bending sets, has compensations. Alec Guinness is pleasurable, and gets the best line, early on, when Boyd offers to bring him the barbarian leader’s head. “No, don’t bring me his head, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.” I was quite happy to watch the remaining two and a half hours of the movie (I don’t think this was the longest cut) just in case anybody said anything as brilliant as that again. They didn’t, but other cool stuff happened.

James Mason creates a warm relationship with Guinness at the start, soon cut short by plot exigencies, but helpful in a movie where often the dialogue and relationships lack the human spark. And Mason’s scene of torture by barbarians is the film’s most Mannly Moment, and maybe its best, vividly capturing the awful powerlessness of intellectual superiority in the face of brute strength and cruelty. Which may be one of Mann’s big themes.

If the hero is weak, the villain can be strong, and Christopher Plummer is very enjoyably psycho. He seems to be having the time of his life, although I have my doubts as to whether anybody enjoys making a big movie like this. Emperor Commodus is characterised by nice lines about the Gods’ laughter, a loony grin that turns his face into an idiotic death-mask, and a little twinkle-toed dance he does over a mosaic map of the Empire. He’s like a campy George W Bush, playing absurd, childish games with an entire world…

And then there’s a really terrific ending. The whole third act is a relentless slide into total destruction, almost as nihilistically savage as THE DEVILS or KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE. Not AS savage, but savage enough. Mann knew EL CID would work because of the terrific finish, and he has a similarly powerful climax here, but it’s not the kind of climax that’s a sure-fire hit-maker. It’s such a downer! And yet, strangely exhilarating, perhaps due to some thanatos deathwish in the human race that makes us enjoy the spectacle of tragedy and destruction.

The script, by EL CID’s Ben Barzman (blacklistee), Basilio Franchina (associated with Barzman and Loren) and Philip Yordan (whose best Mann script by a mile is MEN IN WAR), and if it takes its time getting anywhere (half the film is gone before we reach Rome), it compensates with some interesting narrational devices. The opening VO, which sets up a connection to Gibbons’ book and to the complexities of history which the film does its best to avoid from then on, is read by “king of the Dubbers” Robert Rietty, a master of vocal disguise who this time seems to be impersonating Mann himself. A little later, another voiceover appears, as Alex Guinness tries to bargain with Death — perhaps influenced by Olivier’s soliloquies in HAMLET, he switches neatly from internal to external monologue. In fact, there’s a slight precedent for this in Mann’s use of VO in RAW DEAL. Apparently the Emperor’s musings here are drawn directly from Marcus Aurelius’s real meditations. You don’t get that in GLADIATOR. And at the end of the film, Loren unexpectedly starts doing the same thing. It’s a little jarring, since there’s no other narration in the whole movie, but there’s some sense that the VO is meant to call to mind Guinness’s death, since what we’re now facing is the Death of Rome.

Another amazing set. Somebody will wind up dead in that pool, perhaps as a reference to Commodus’s real life demise: murdered by his own wrestlers in the bath. The most homoerotic political assassination ever?

Given the time the film was made at, and given JFK’s invocation of ancient Rome in his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and especially given that this is a movie by expat Americans, it’s tempting to read THE FALL in metaphorical terms as dealing with contemporary, postwar American politics. If so, that might be another reason the public stayed away (plenty of people did show up, just not nearly enough to pay for a super-epic) — it’s a pretty scathing look at a society in freefall, financially, morally and militarily. But that despairing ending is put over with such enthusiasm, it’s genuinely thrilling, like a lot of the best tragedy.

The Fall Of The Roman Empire (Three-Disc Limited Collector’s Edition) (The Miriam Collection)


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