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.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Summer re-runs: Epic or what !

Some thoughts on re-seeing QUO VADIS again yersterday, and also catching up with a 1959 biblical I had not seen: THE BIG FISHERMAN.
In the 50s Hollywood companies set up massive productions in Europe and brought last casts and crews to Italy and Spain. The cheaper European facilities and labour as well as tax breaks allowed for the release of once frozen capital that Hollywood companies had amassed in Europe.

QUO VADIS of course set the ball rolling in 1951, Mervyn LeRoy's spectacular is still an enjoyable treat now and its success at the time provided the impetus for a spate of costume epics. There is a world of difference between the Hollywood epic and the Italian peplum - the latter are made cheaply and the American ones are shot on a grand scale with a seemingly endless budget.
Elizabeth Taylor in Quo Vadis ?
In the USA Fox gave us THE EGYPTIAN, MGM THE PRODIGAL, Warners THE LAND OF THE PHAROAHS and Cecil delivered his TEN COMMANDMENTS for Paramount... and of course THE SILVER CHALICE and SIGN OF THE PAGAN - us '50s kids loved these. Then came those European-made ones like HELEN OF TROY, ALEXANDER THE GREAT (both keeping those British thespians like Stanley Baker, Harry Andrews, Peter Cushing busy), THE VIKINGS, SOLOMON AND SHEBA (more work for Harry and Finlay) and of course BEN-HUR - and then SPARATACUS and CLEOPATRA. Samuel Bronston too set up production in Spain with EL CID, KING OF KINGS, 55 DAYS AT PEKING and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. These were set up by selling distribution rights throughout the world. His CIRCUS WORLD in 1964 was rather a flop and though its marvellous watching FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE now with its great sets (that fortress fort in the German forests!) and cast (Guinness, Mason, Plummer etc with Loren and Boyd, Sharif, Quayle et al) it did not perform that well at the time ... the next year's GENGHIS KHAN seemed rather tatty by comparison and sounded the death knell of the epic. George Steven's THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD while very visual and impressive, was rather out of touch in 1965 and had its risible moments (John Wayne!).  But by then it was a new era, the Swinging 60s were taking off, a new generation wanted a new kind of film entertainment, and the genre simply needed a rest - which it got until the dawn of the CGI era and GLADIATOR when epics did not seem 'real' any more.

Fleisher's BARABBAS from 1961 for DeLaurentiis is a good one to catch now too, with another great cast (Mangano, Quinn, Palance, Gassman etc) and some great set-pieces like that real eclipse of the sun. A stunning soundtrack too by Mario Nascimbene. All the great epics though have great soundtracks: would BEN-HUR be as good without the grandeur of that Miklos Rozsa score which perfectly accompanies the quieter scenes as well as the epic ones? and I loved that Alex North score for CLEOPATRA, that was a well-played soundtrack album. On the peplum front the likes of Steve Reeves, Belinda Lee and others went from film to film, as directors like Sergio Leone (the very inventive THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES) and Mario Bava learned their craft; see Epics label for my recent post on peplums like ATTILA, ULYSSES, APHRODITE etc.
Marina Berti

Back though to QUO VADIS - Peter Ustinov as Nero is surely the most scenery-chewing over-the-top performance ever?  But as I said in that recent post on De Mille's 1932 SIGN OF THE CROSS (Epics label) (where Charles Laughton is another very perverse Nero) the Christians are so holier than thou. Deborah Kerr is the pious Christian maiden whom hero Robert Taylor falls for - this one too has some good scenes in the arena and that cast of thousands ... the usual suspects are present: Finlay Currie, Felix Aylmer, Nora Swinbourne. Rosalie Crutchley is her usual compelling self too. AND the young Elizabeth Taylor was visiting the set and played one of the Christians in the arena - that great site PEPLUM found this photograph (above) of her on set. Also there was the 16 year old Sophia Loren (and her mother) somewhere among the slave girls - her first movie work; a decade later she would be headlining her own epics.  Leo Genn is good too and his love interest is the delightful slave girl played by the very attractive Marina Berti (left) (1924-2002) - she also pops up silently in BEN-HUR as Ben's ladyfriend (right) in the Roman scene (presumably to assert Ben's heterosexuality among all that Messala and Quintus Arrius male bonding..).

That 1959 biblical I had missed: THE BIG FISHERMAN, was totally turgid, seemed endless at two and a half hours, shot without closeups so it all seems to be happening in the middle distance - and it is a California biblical, so it does not have the look and feel of those Italian ones. An interesting cast is wasted too, though good to see Susan Kohner as our lead, disguised as a boy for a lot of the time, but John Saxon is unrecognisable under his costume, Howard Keel has nothing to play with, and the pairing of Herbert Lom and Martha Hyer (as Herod and his wife) (below) is interesting, but she too has too little to do. 
The best scene features the wind that suddenly arises and blows away their decadent party after the beheading of John the Baptist. But by the time Beulah Bondi is raised from the dead one is begging for the tepid melodramatics to finish .... but it was one I wanted to see, liking biblicals and peplums as I do. Its major point of interest is that it was directed by the great Frank Borzage, one of cinema's earlier visionaries with that poetic eye (THREE COMRADES, STRANGE CARGO, THE MORTAL STORM - which impressed me so much the first time I saw it on television decades ago). I will always enjoy a good epic or sword-and-sandal peplum, and can happily re-see my favourites anytime .... its what we grew up on in the '50s. If I had to choose one it would be the always-stupendous and majestic EL CID with its great visionary direction by Anthony Mann and those wonderful sets and cast and .... and again that great score...

I have to mention that guiltiest of pleasures: Cecil's 1949 SAMSON AND DELILAH, when Hedy as Delilah leads Victor in chains as Samson into the temple of Dagon and places him between the pillars ... how they laugh, but then the pillar moves .... George Sanders is sublime as he raises his goblet to toast Delilah as it all comes crashing down.  
The giant idol weighted 17 tons and was supported on lintels resting on plaster columns that were narrowed at the base and sent the whole structure, idol and all, toppling when pushed apart. Its almost as good as the pagan idol in THE PRODIGAL, 1955, where Lana (left) in that almost-there outfit is the high priestess guarding the flames ... in that one Edmund Purdom wrestles with a stuffed vulture, perhaps in hommage to Victor with the stuffed lion ... and as we mentioned before 1954's THE SILVER CHALICE is wonderful now, we were very impressed by Jack Palance here as the magician who thinks he can fly ....


  1. In the 1950s, almost everyone had a try at an epic: Hawks with LAND OF THE PHAROAHS, King Vidor with SOLOMON AND SHEBA, Michael Curtiz with THE EGYPTIAN, etc. Only a few, like Hitchcock and John Ford, were able to get away with not making a spectacle. But THE BIG FISHERMAN was a sad ebacle all around.

    Borzage, the great romantic of the American cinema, was probably the least equipped to make an epic. He'd also been in poor health, and hadn't really worked as a director in about a decade. It was a movie that was supposed to be shown in Cinerama, but Buena Vista (which distributed) didn't want to spend the money, so the film was processed and released in Panavision. So the movie was practically illegible. A very sad movie all around. (Rather better is CHINA GIRL, the only other movie that Borzage made in the 1950s.)

  2. Evidently, it wasn't Cinerama but something called Super Techirama 70, in any case, some huge process. But the interesting credit on THE BIG FISHERMAN was the producer-writer Rowland V. Lee. He was another veteran, who had started out as a writer and director in silent films. By the 1930s, he made a number of wonderful films, including ZOO IN BUDAPEST, I AM SUZANNE (starring Gene Raymond), THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (with Robert Donat and Elissa Landi), CARDINAL RICHELIEU (starring George Arliss). But his credits get spotty by the 1940s, and THE BIG FISHERMAN represented his first credit in a long time. (Oh, and i meant to say "sad debacle" about THE BIG FISHERMAN.)

  3. mama mia!

    thanks for the picture of Marina Berti

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  5. Good quick summery of some of the epics of the 1950s/early 60s made by Hollywood.

    Other titles not mentioned are JULIUS CAESAR, with Edmund Purdom's first movie role, right at the end of the story. Then there's THE ROBE, first film made in CinemaScope, which made the epic QUO VADIS obsolete with its 4:3 screen format. I wish QUO VADIS had been made in CinemaScope. I think it would be well regarded today. Then there's DEMETRIUS & THE GLADIATORS, the sequel to THE ROBE. IMO, the acting in that one is bad but the gladiator scenes are top notch.

    The funny thing about SAMSON & DELILAH it's one of those stories which could have easily been abbreviated down to 5 minutes if Samson had told Delilah, from the start, what was his secret to his powers. Can you image? Arf. So the entire film is basically Delilah seducing and coaxing Samson..I like the film but it often feels padded.

    The idol was actually a model set:

    For me, THE PRODIGAL is the dullest of Hollywood epics. It has good things here and there but the story wasn't compelling enough.

    And yes, Marina Berti's role in BEN-HUR was to assert Ben's heterosexuality which is a sad thing to do to the actress. I wished she had at least one line in the film.

    (sorry about the edit)

  6. hi Peplum - they probably brought in Marina Berti to that scene in BEN HUR precisely because she had been in QUO VADIS - but she had a lot of minor parts in a long career (as well as 5 children), so I imagine she was kept pretty busy!

    I never liked THE ROBE - by the same author as for THE BIG FISHERMAN - but enjoy its sequel DEMETRIUS & THE GLADIATORS, with great cast of Fox contract players .... though Messalina's about-face is rather silly.