Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Monday, 1 March 2010

'50s and '60s epics/costume dramas

The ‘50s epic and/or costume picture was a staple of movie-going back then and certainly a pleasure re-seeing now. Cecil’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS looks better than ever on dvd, as does Howard Hawks’ LAND OF THE PHAROAHS. Anne Baxter’s chewing the scenery as Nefertiri remains an unalloyed joy, as is Joan Collins as the scheming Nellifer with that ruby in her navel. Others I particularly like are THE EGYPTIAN (there are not too many set in Ancient Egypt and this has a great cast and those 20th Century Fox production values), Rossen’s ALEXANDER THE GREAT in ’56 is rather turgid but has some great imagery: Danielle Darrieux as Olympias on the battlements, Harry Andrews as the abandoned Persian king. Some are laughable: THE PRODIGAL with Lana’s pagan priestess and Purdom wrestling with the stuffed vulture; DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, and of course John Wayne’s CONQUEROR! [if only though they had not been shooting it near that nuclear testing site back in ‘56]. Jack Palance was wonderful in these settings: as Attila in Sirk’s SIGN OF THE PAGAN, as Simon the Magician (who thinks he can fly) in the very stylised THE SILVER CHALICE, in THE MONGOLS, and he has a great scene in the arena in Fleischer’s BARABBAS in ’61, which features that great real eclipse of the sun during the crucifixion, and a great Mario Nascimbene score.

Other terrific early 60’s ones include LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and SPARTACUS (with the trio of Olivier, Laughton and Ustinov trying to out-act each other), my favourite of all EL CID which I never tire of: Loren is as monumental as Heston, great sets, cast, music and Mann’s scope compositions; more of the same in FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE [setting the scene for GLADIATOR] with Alec Guinness a memorable Marcus Aurelius, and I love the first half of CLEOPATRA, until the demise of Harrison’s marvellously acerbic Ceasar, particularly that lovely panning shot over their recreation of ancient Alexandria [which Oliver Stone hommaged in his ALEXANDER (which I like a lot, being an Alexander devotee) Cleopatra has a great score by Alex North which I used to play a lot. I even like the rather tatty GENGHIS KHAN appearing at the end of the epic cycle in ’65 with that marvellous cast of Boyd, Dorleac as the very 60s love interest, and hilariously James Mason and Robert Morley enjoying themselves as oriental despots. I didn’t though care for THE ROBE at all. Ray’s KING OF KINGS and 55 DAYS AT PEKING have marvellous moments – particularly featuring Flora Robson and Robert Helpmann as the Chinese rulers. Robert Wise’s HELEN OF TROY in ’55 looks good and is vastly superior to the recent TROY abomination with all those CGI effects. IVANHOE is still a treat as are the other Robert Taylor period starrers of the ‘50s. Brooks LORD JIM in ’65 is very under-valued but I liked it a lot, particularly O’Toole and Daliah Lavi who was entrancing. Heston's 1965 THE WARLORD though studio-bound at Universal is a convincing dark ages tale. There was also of course the Italian sword-and-sandal era, of which more later.

The kind of period film I don't like are those dull reverential pageants ploddingly directed with no cinematic vision, like YOUNG BESS, ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS, BECKET (great cast though) or MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS - give me the panache of SCARAMOUCHE anyday or Granger and Mason swashbuckling in their version of PRISONER OF ZENDA, or the brilliant wit of Olivier in RICHARD III. THE LION IN WINTER also gets it perfectly right and is just as marvellous today.

I regard Fritz Lang’s MOONFLEET and Richard Thorpe’s QUENTIN DURWARD [reviewed here a few pages back] as the high points of mid-50s MGM costume dramas. MOONFLEET in '55 is a marvellous re-telling of the childrens’ classic suitably changed for the cinema with great Scope compositions. Lang shot it in California but it just looks perfectly right. Stewart Granger is another dashing hero, Jon Whiteley is the little boy in search of his inheritance, George Sanders is the perfect scoundrel and Joan Greenwood only has two (but very memorable) scenes as the mocking villainess. It captures the 18th century saga of smuggling and country churchyards just right . It’s a treat I can watch anytime….

DANGEROUS EXILE. One of those rather good Rank Organisation period adventures this 1957 drama features the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who is smuggeled out of the Basteille and escapes by hot air balloon but lands on a small island near Wales. The little prince (young Richard O'Sullivan) is found and protected by local beauty Belinda Lee and her aunt dowager Martita Hunt - there are however treacherous servants (Anne Heywood, Finlay Currie), the French in pursuit (Keith Michell) and French aristocrat Louis Jourdan also wants the boy. Its stirring stuff well handled by veteran Brian Desmond Hurst and I liked it a lot as a kid, so good to see it again. One of Belinda's best for Rank. There is a poignant moment when her character says that when she is an old woman she can tell her grand-children the King of France wanted to marry her - Belinda though did not make old age, she was killed in a car accident when only 26. She had though become one of the sword and sandal stars on the continent. This is an engrossing period story about what may have happened to the young French prince Louis VXII.

THE GYPSY AND THE GENTLEMAN. Another Rank Organisation meller, from 1958, but this is directed by Joseph Losey in full baroque mode and is a delirious update on those '40s Gainsborough melodramas in full Technicolor. Melina Mercouri (before NEVER ON SUNDAY) is Belle, the scheming gypsy who lures dissolute aristocrat Keith Michell to his doom, while she loves and is discarded by Patrick McGoohan. Its played out at full throttle by the cast with great 18th century backgrounds and interiors. Flora Robson has a perfect role as the famous actress, complete with young blackamoor servant, trying to free her ward, June Laverick, from the asylum where Michell has incarcerated her. Glorious fun.

THE TEMPEST - not Shakespeare but from Pushkin’s novel, a sprawling film by Alberto Lattuada featuring the Russian steppes and hordes of Cossacks, which impressed me as a child. Geoffrey Horne (from BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and BONJOUR TRISTESSE) is the young officer who falls drunk at the feet of Catherine the Great (the splendid Viveca Lindfors) as she inspects her troops and is banished to a remote outpost of the empire. Silvana Mangano is Masha the daughter of the outpost commander – and a genius stroke of casting has Agnes Moorehead as her mother. Van Heflin is the mysterious stranger whose life Horne saves in the snowy wastes, and it ends back at the court of the great Catherine. Its all splendid stuff [including the duel with Vittorio Gassman] and was a joy to see again recently. A Dino De Laurentiis production in '58.

THE VIKINGS is a movie kids enjoyed hugely back then, and we still do now 50 years later. Its just a perfectly made period romp by Richard Fleischer, photographed by Jack Cardiff in Norway, great supporting cast, score by Nascimbene and narrated by Welles. Douglas and Curtis are the warring half-brothers and Janet Leigh the Welsh princess they fight over. Janet is at her loveliest here – I have always liked the scene when Tony rips her bodice so she can row the boat as they escape, Eileen Way is great as Kitala who saves Curtis from those crabs! Borgnine chews the scenery as Ragnar while Frank Thring essays another study in villainy as Ayella with the wolf pit. It all certainly brings the dark ages to life! - and it remains a television staple. James Donald, Maxine Audley and Alexander Knox are all sterling support. Its always a laugh now when Kirk manhandles Janet's maid who is "silly moo" Dandy Nichols!

SOLOMON AND SHEBA in 1959 was a big hit but is rather forgotten now. It remains one of my favourite biblicals, not least for Gina Lollobrigida and her very fractured English and her vaguely biblical costumes and that orgy scene. There is a lot of humour in it and King Vidor certainly knows how to shoot spectacle and create great compositions particularly at the end when the Queen of Sheba faces down the hostile crowd. One wonders what it would have been like if Tyrone Power had survived the shoot. Brynner and Sanders are effective as ever as the warring brothers. Its just one I like a lot. Marisa Pavan and stalwarts Harry Andrews as Gina's advisor Balthor, Jean Anderson as her servant and Finlay Currie and Laurence Naismith are also top notch.

SODOM AND GOMORRAH is a prize entry in the biblical stakes in 1962 and it was a pleasure to finally see it last year. This is by Robert Aldrich – just before he went on to BABY JANE ! – and is probably the silliest, campest biblical of all. Stanley Baker glowers (as only he can) as the sadistic brother of lesbian queen Anouk Aimee, as Lot (Stewart Granger in those side-whiskers!) leads his tribe to their promised land. Euro-starlet Scilla Gabel pouts, Helen of Troy herself (Rosanna Podesta) is one of the daughters, and a rather lack-lustre Pier Angeli as Lot’s wife gets turned into that pillar of salt as Sodom is wiped out after one decadent party too many, by what looks like a nuclear bomb. Don’t know what happened to Gomorrah though. Anouk is intriguing as Queen Bera with her penchant for attractive slave girls ….

And then there is BEN HUR. We may never know now what input Gore Vidal had in providing that homoerotic motivation for Wyler, but there would seem to be a subtext. Messala is never seen with a woman but always with English actor Terence Longdon whose function is not clear, is he his assistant, confidant or current acquisition? Plus admiral Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) certainly appreciates the hunky Ben at the oars, and tests his strength to ramming speed, before confiding his interest in grooming fighting men for the arena. Later after Ben saved his life and they arrive in triumph in Rome Ben is rather like his hunky boyfriend in the chariot, and Arrius then adopts him, giving Ben his ring/seal. Pity Ben has to return to Judea instead of living the high life in Rome ... I love Wyler's economy here showing his return in just one shot of Ben on the boat prow conveying everything that is required and then back in Judea with Finlay Currie and High Griffith and those horses! Stephen Boyd though should surely have been nominated as best supporting actor, and won it, as he is the black heart of the film - Griffith's sheik who did win is really a comic turn with just a few scenes. The chariot race of course is still monumental (like Cleopatra's entry into Rome, and all before CGI effects) and then we have all that Victorian religiosity (as per the book) with the lepers. Haya Harareet [who married director Jack Clayton and retired] is a major force too as Esther, as important a role as Heston's Ben. It is all brilliantly realised - I really must look at the silent version [included in the 4 disk special edition], its supposed to be a terrific achievement too.

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