22nd 04 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Centurion (2010)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall

CenturionA1

By Roderick Heath

English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.

CenturionA2

Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.

CenturionA3

Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.

CenturionA4

On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts.

CenturionA5

The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.

CenturionA6

Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.

CenturionA7

On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.

CenturionA8

Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the traditional belief that the Ninth Legion disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.

CenturionA9

Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.

CenturionA10

Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.

CenturionA11

More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.

CenturionA12

Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.

CenturionA13

The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).

CenturionA14

The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.

CenturionA15

Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.


3rd 03 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Cleopatra (1934)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is unthinkable that a filmmaker with as much pomp and circumstance in his blood as Cecil B. DeMille would not tackle the irresistible story of Cleopatra. With a great beauty and queen endowed with divinity by her subjects bewitching two mighty Romans, hubristic overreaching for power, betrayal and murder, internecine warfare, and a double suicide, the story would have been fit for the Theatre of Dionysus had it not already fallen into disuse well before Cleopatra walked the earth. The story has been filmed several times for the big screen, most notably by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1963—the bloated costs of that film made it a financial disaster of such epic proportions that it appears to have scared off other comers, though curiously, Hallmark Entertainment came up with a version in 1999, which is a strange project on its face from such a family-friendly company.

DeMille’s reputation rests mainly on his epic pageantry and action, which his Cleopatra contains, but in smaller doses than in his other historic and biblical films. He wasn’t known for being adept with actors, and accordingly, the emotional resonance of Cleopatra is weak. But he cut his teeth in the silent era making a variety of films, including such delightful domestic comedies as Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), so the intimacy of the film about larger-than-life historical figures, while perhaps not expected, is not entirely incongruous either. Importantly, this isn’t Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, but, as advertised, a vehicle that starts and ends with the queen herself. DeMille’s focus is not unlike that of Josef von Sternberg concentrating his gaze on his creation Marlene Dietrich, as cinematographer Victor Milner captures an uncharacteristically glamorous Claudette Colbert, ravishing her and managing to make even her unflattering right profile look pretty good (a feat that perhaps put him over the top to win his only Oscar of nine nominations).

DeMille immediately gets our adrenaline pumping by showing a bound and blindfolded Cleopatra being driven by chariot into the desert on orders of her brother, who wants sole control of the throne of Egypt. Quite gratuitously, she is bound to a stake, but even before her captors depart, Appollodorus (Irving Pichel), the schoolmaster and adviser taken with her as an aid to her survival, unties her. She makes her way back to Egypt to appeal for her life and place on the throne to Julius Caesar (William Warren), who is in Alexandria to manage Egypt’s affairs and receive financial tribute to Rome. She appears to him as a gift wrapped in a rug, spilling out seductively in a skimpy outfit and with appeals to his vanity. Eventually, she seduces him with visions of an vast empire in which he and she will rule side by side as Emperor and Empress, and returns to Rome with him to be his bride after he has cast aside his wife Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael). His tyrannical aims bring about his death at the hands of several Roman Senators, including his friend Brutus (Arthur Hohl), and Cleopatra flees back to Egypt.

Eventually, Rome ends up on Egypt’s doorstep again, this time in the person of Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). Cleopatra forces Antony to come to her barge, where she has lain a silken trap—dancing girls, seashells filled with jewels, wine and food, and, of course, the pleasure of her company. Antony stays in Egypt to be with Cleopatra, angering Octavian (Ian Keith), the co-ruler with Antony of the empire, and forcing a war in which Antony commands the outmanned, outarmed Egyptian army against Rome. When the Egyptians are utterly defeated and his disgrace is complete, Antony plunges a dagger into his stomach. Rather than live without Antony as a slave to Rome, Cleopatra clutches a poisonous asp to her breast and takes its fatal bite. As the Romans enter her palace, we are left with a final long shot of the queen—dead but still seated on her magnificent, winged throne.

Of all the DeMille epics I have seen, Cleopatra strikes the best balance between action and intimacy, with a truly cinematic approach that mainly overcomes the director’s tendency to turn his epics into the Ziegfeld Follies. In the gaudiest scene in the film—Cleopatra’s seduction of Antony—some awkward fan dancing gives way to bright choreography and a titillating low-rent scene of women in leopard costumes having a cat fight for Antony’s amusement. Quick cuts between the women and a lustily laughing Wilcoxon add energy to the film and make us complicit in the delirium overtaking Antony through this lavish spectacle.

Milner and film editor Anne Bauchens are equally adept at amping the brutality of the war between Egypt and Rome and making it vibrant by cutting between the massing of the troops on both sides, the charge of the Egyptian chariots, and the close fighting between the soldiers, with close-ups of blood-smeared faces, fallen soldiers, and clashing swords against process shots that might have been recycled from other DeMille films. I was surprised at how the artificiality of the process shots actually added to the intensity of the battles, and use of the models Caesar examined during his first scene with Cleopatra were deployed during the war scenes as actual weapons, a great echoing of the fall of two Romans in thrall to the same woman.

Milner’s close-ups work extremely well during the assassination of Caesar, as we see the Senators from Caesar’s point of view closed around him with their daggers plunging. Although the scene is filled with movement, Hohl takes his time in approaching Caesar with a dread determination. Only when his face and drawn dagger fill the screen do we switch to Caesar and his famous last words, “You, too, Brutus?” as he succumbs.

Of the three lead actors, Warren William is the least interesting. He’s a cold bureaucrat with virtually no nuance; it’s hard to believe Cleopatra’s grief at hearing of his death, which seems emotional and not tied to her plans for empire. His polar opposite, Henry Wilcoxon is a handsome, vigorous man whose lusts and ardor are completely believable and extremely enjoyable to interact with. He’s incredibly magnetic, and one wonders why his talents could not have made him the equal of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power on the big screen.

Finally, Colbert never looked more beautiful, with her perfect make-up, extravagant costumes, and smooth demeanor. She is perfect in the art of seduction, full of playfulness and vulnerability. I did not see the heart of ambition beating in her, however, but that may have been by design. When Herod, King of Judea (Joseph Schildkraut), comes to her suggesting that Octavian would be very grateful if she would poison Antony, she does not reject the plan—indeed, her testing of poison on a condemned prisoner seems the height of efficiency—but is regretful and enormously relieved when Octavian’s declaration of war allows her to abort the plan. Colbert’s Cleopatra seems completely the woman, not the queen, a relatable and sympathetic creature who seems only to have loved and lost. Absurd, of course, but romantic and beautiful to experience.


25th 07 - 2010 | 10 comments »

Ben-Hur (1959)

Director: William Wyler

By Roderick Heath

Ben-Hur is still amongst the most dramatically nuanced, intricately constructed, and sheerly entertaining of the old-school blockbuster epics. The film’s reputation for at-all-costs size and bludgeoning bluster has always somewhat obscured what a damn well-put-together piece of moviemaking it is. It was a career highlight for William Wyler, who, after decades of refining his cinematic technique, applied his integrity and care in drawing out realism in his acting and approach to mise-en-scène to the most unlikely genre and came up trumps. The pressure was on Wyler, as MGM spared no expense on the risky production to save itself from bankruptcy; he likened the experience to working as one of the film’s galley slaves. Nonetheless, with its great cost and even greater profit, Ben-Hur represented the high-water mark of Hollywood’s efforts to combat the encroachment of television, both in terms of popular appeal, production craft, and confidence in the act of total cinematic creation. Within a decade, filmmaking looked and sounded completely different.

Ben-Hur was chosen as a project by MGM executives and brought to fruition by producer Sam Zimbalist, who died during filming, because of the great success they’d had more than 30 years before with Fred Niblo’s entertaining, if comparatively cartoonish silent version, a production that had been hellishly protracted and fatal for several crew members. Wyler’s film is often considered together with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) for obvious reasons: both are religious-themed sagas, both star Charlton Heston, and both feature Martha Scott as his on-screen mother. Actually, the films are quite different. DeMille’s film is spectacle in the purest sense, achieved in his cheerfully two-dimensional, almost ritualised style; Ben-Hur attempts to be intimate and artful in balancing out the grander elements, and employs naïf touches more carefully throughout. DeMille based his visual style on academic historical painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema, whilst Ben-Hur’s production designers and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees obviously went to school on Renaissance Italian painters like Caravaggio and Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel panel “The Creation of Adam” provides the iconic backdrop for the credits.

Ben-Hur was, of course, based on the novel by Lew Wallace, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, and the narrative sustains a counterpoint of the life of Jesus and its hero, a fictional Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), commencing and finishing explicitly with Gospel scenes. But at the heart of Ben-Hur is a Dumas-esque tale of betrayal and revenge. The pretitle sequence, a visually striking Nativity scene, hits exactly the right momentous note, with the standard picture-book images of the Magi gathering along with sundry locals to look upon the holy family. A shepherd blows his horn to announce something incredulously wonderful in the most nondescript of forms, ringing out with curious eeriness as the Star of Bethlehem fades, leaving us momentarily with the remote, rugged landscape of ancient Judea before Miklos Rosza’s grandiose horns blare out a thrilling fanfare. And yet a stand-out quality of the film is that the first hour is chiefly a series of carefully wrought, complex, interpersonal scenes that build the drama in a mosaic of phrases and gestures.

Messala (Boyd), appointed as military governor of Judea where his father had once served, returns to the land where he grew up, full of swaggering pride in gaining his appointment and overjoyed to see his youthful chum Judah again. “Close in every way!” Judah states happily when the two men bond over a little javelin target practice. But the differences enforced by time, nationality, and personal philosophy keep revealing themselves, in their first meeting and again when Messala visits Judah’s home, greeted like family by Judah’s mother Miriam (Scott) and especially his besotted sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell, Wyler’s sister-in-law), becoming evident in such throwaway yet charged moments as when Messala realises he’s committed a faux pas in recounting tales of glorious Roman slaughters to Judah’s family—citizens of a conquered nation.

But the break doesn’t fully manifest until Messala presses Judah to give him the names of Judean patriots who dislike Roman hegemony; their rift suddenly defines itself in religious, personal, cultural, and political terms. When Tirzah accidentally knocks a tile from the roof of their house, causing the new governor to be injured, Messala grasps the opportunity to further his career and punish his former friend by having Judah, Miriam, Tirzah, and Judah’s slave accountant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) imprisoned. Judah spends the next four years chained to the oar of a Roman war galley.

One of the assistant directors on this film was 30-year-old Sergio Leone. I’ve always suspected the influence of Wyler’s technique on his—that way both men had of constructing quiet, rhythmic, slow-burn sequences full of small but eventually revelatory details. It’s particularly evident in a scene like the one on which the ship Judah is serving is taken over by the new admiral, Quintus Arias (Jack Hawkins), who, fascinated by Judah’s still-fiery hate and determination, tests him and all the other slaves by making them row at increasingly high speeds, trying to shake the impenetrably hard stare Judah keeps fixed on him. It’s a galvanising scene that possesses undercurrents of emotional, physical, and sexual power. Judah is subsequently herded up to Arias’ cabin and offered a chance to become a gladiator, his near-nakedness and the disparity of power between the two men full of potent homoerotic overtone. Although rebuffed, Arias is still intrigued enough to make sure Judah is left unchained during the subsequent, thunderous battle with Macedonian pirates.

Another strong aspect of Ben-Hur is the level of physical grit and gore it allows to seep into the usually cardboard epic genre, and the sea battle offers great examples—a man so desperate to get a chain off his ankle he rubs the flesh off his leg, another man with a severed arm sporting a stump of bone, and half-a-dozen rowers crushed by the great ram of an enemy ship puncturing the hull. Whilst the model work of the ships shows its age, the editing and staging of the whole sequence is impeccable cinema.

Judah, having saved Quintus from the ship and stopped him from committing suicide when he thinks the battle lost, gains his freedom thanks to the amusingly dotty-seeming Tiberias (George Relph), and becomes Arias’ adopted son and a champion chariot driver. He finally returns to Judea to meet in swift succession one of the Magi, Balthazar (old Scots stalwart and compulsory epic star Finlay Currie), who’s searching for the holy child he saw born, and his host, Sheikh Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). Before you can say “dramatic device,” the Sheikh offers Judah the chance to race his four white Arabian steeds against Messala’s champion blacks at the great circus in Jerusalem, an offer Judah initially turns down. When he finally gets home, he finds his house being cared for by Simonides’ daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), who was supposed to have been married, but instead has settled for caring for her father, who emerged crippled from the prison where Miriam and Tirzah remain. Judah confronts Messala and demands he get them out, but when they are extracted from the black hole they’ve been kept in for five years, they’re found to have contracted leprosy. Returning to the house of Hur at night, they beg Esther to keep their illness secret, so she tells Judah they died in jail, prompting him to finally seek out revenge on Messala on the circus track.

Ben-Hur is melodrama, no question, but the film aims unabashedly to transcend into myth, a form always distinguished by a simultaneous cosmic and microcosmic sweep. Wyler pays close attention to totems and symbols with important emblems recurring throughout. Horses, from the pale horse Judah offers Messala at the start to the Manichaeistic duel of their white and black steeds in the chariot race, are emblems of good and evil. Water—the water that Jesus gives to Judah at the moment of crisis, and that Judah tries to give back at the end, the cleansing rain that falls at the end—is the sustenance of faith. Rings—the ring of slavery Judah removes from Esther at the outset to keep as an emblem of chastity, and the ring of Arias—are the bonds of family and loyalty. The crossbeams at which Judah and Messala aim their javelins clearly anticipate the crucifix, and the spear they both throw in friendship Judah soon enough takes up and aims at his betraying friend. The structure of the drama sustains the weight of the metaphysical mythology, particularly in building first to the good-versus-evil climax of the chariot race and then the more subtle miracle that erases suffering.

A majority of the screenplay was famously rewritten by Gore Vidal, but credited only to initial author Karl Tunberg, and Vidal’s contributions are usually only mentioned in terms of his playful gay subtext. But Vidal’s fingerprints are all over other aspects of the script, particularly in the portrayal of militaristic imperialism, which reflects a lot of Vidal’s meditations on the patrician America with which he was familiar, and the pointed portrayal of Judah’s refusal to name names to Messala: Judah is destroyed by blacklisting. “Patriots?” Messala repeatedly sneers when refusing to countenance the idea Judah offers that men who dislike the system aren’t necessarily dangerous or wrong. It’s also hard to miss the political wish-fulfillment of Jewish Judah and Arab Ilderim joining forces to combat a common enemy. Ilderim even pins a Star of David to Judah’s cloak to “shine out for your people and mine” before the race, and the conclusion is altered from the book (where Judah became a Roman aiding the Christians in getting a foothold there) for a true homecoming. Whilst the story is officially New Testament, the plot is closer to Job, and the characterisations of Judah and Messala stand in effectively for a battle of creeds as well as more personal motives; Judah eventually channels his hate for Messala into a general disdain for Rome, which he feels twisted his friend up with evil values.

Wyler’s deep-focus, widescreen compositions, always a hallmark of his style, are used throughout for grand dramatic purposes, as when Judah hides behind a stone whilst Esther gives food to Miriam and Tirzah—the landscape and composition of the shot communicating the jagged pain he’s in. The moment when Judah and his family retreat under a hail of stones by people hysterical at the proximity of lepers, whilst the blind man to whom they just gave a coin sadly drops that sullied money onto the ground, offers wild disparities of provoked emotion encompassed within the same shot. I love the gothic vibe that infuses the film at several junctures, particularly the creepy scene when Miriam and Tirzah encounter Esther in the courtyard of the house of Hur, swathed in concealing robes like living ghosts with Hammer horror leaves swirling desolately in the winds; Judah later describes their state as like “living in a grave!” The conclusion is similarly lushly stylised, as Wyler cleverly has the miracle of their healing revealed in strobing flashes of lightning, the Hurs contorting in pain and the world consumed by momentary furious darkness, as a flailing storm plunges and washes Jesus’ spilt blood down to mingle with the earth. This works better than the Sunday school visions of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount and the passion play affectations of his end, but the overt contrast between the patient, tactile realism of the rest of the film and the mystic visions of Jesus does place the juxtaposition of the sacred, profane, and merely earthly with fervent effect.

Of course, the chariot race is the film’s great set piece, and that sequence, directed from start to finish by Andrew Marton and realised thanks to the skills of Yakima Canutt and his team of stunt artists, is still an effortless contender for the greatest action sequence in cinema history. That’s largely because it’s a carefully composed movie in and of itself, with fluent logic of detail, from the wicked spikes that jut from Messala’s chariot and Judah removing his helmet to make sure his enemy can see his face, to the climax of the race when Messala gives into his most debased impulses and makes the mistake of trying to beat Judah—he starts whipping him—rather than his chariot. The widescreen compositions are particularly great in absorbing the landscape of wildly working horses and wheels, the hysterical tumble of events as chariots crash, men are killed, and Judah himself is nearly vaulted head over heels when his vehicle has to jump a crashed opponent’s. The decision to leave music out of the scene is particularly admirable, opting for the urgent thrum of hooves and the roars of the crowd, building to the inevitable comeuppance of Messala, stamped into a bloody mess and lolling broken in the sand, sudden shame and regret stamped on Judah’s face.

The old line “should’ve ended at the chariot race” has never really rung true for me, though, because Ben-Hur still manages to go to an interesting place after this; the simple effect of the race’s concussive, satisfying violence gives way to a portrayal of the inability of such vengeance to heal hurt. Messala’s so desperate to keep hurting Judah even after death that he delivers an evil piece of news rather than let surgeons try to save his life, and his malignancy, as Esther somewhat too pointedly states, seems to take Judah over. Judah rejects Pontius Pilate’s (Frank Thring Jr.) offer of protection as a gnawing, increasingly inhuman passion for violent cleansing consumes him. As the religious vignettes move in, meaningful lines like “In his pain, this look of peace!” get a bit much, but it’s still notable to me how carefully Wyler builds the rhythm of the film toward the final miracle. He also manages, unlike so many screen depictions of the Crucifixion, to communicate a proper metaphoric sense of what the event signifies by concentrating not merely on horror, but also on consequence; the healing of Miriam and Tirzah is in itself symbolic of moral and emotional renewal. Wyler, who was Jewish, wanted to make a film that appealed to all faiths in portraying faith itself as an ennobling ideal rather than a mere sectarian triumph. Even a godless heathen like me likes the point.

Ben-Hur cleaned up at the 1959 Oscars, taking home 11 statuettes, including one for Heston. It’s not Heston’s best performance—he’s demonstrably better, for instance, in El Cid—as he tends to hit some of his dramatic moments too hard, too early, but it’s still admirable how he prevents the mass of the production from crushing him. He acts like a man with a weight on his shoulders, his great bearish frame buckling under the impact of suffering, constantly wishing to bring his innate physical and psychological strength to bear, but hampered by his own better sense and will. Boyd, on the other hand, is beautifully, perversely malicious as Messala: I especially love the mordant precision with which he pronounces the lone word “Return?” in mocking Judah’s promise of revenge. Neither man was a subtle actor, but the job of keeping their bristling bombast in balanced counterpoint is nicely fulfilled by Harareet, the only actual Palestinian in the film. The more I watch the film, the more I admire her performance in a problematic role. Griffith, as Ilderim, gives the kind of hammy, scene-stealing performance that’s easy to love, and Hawkins is as fine as he ever was. No, Ben-Hur’s not perfect—I’d really like to know who does Jesus’ hair—and yet it still stands effortlessly tall.


28th 12 - 2009 | 13 comments »

Cleopatra (1963)

Director/Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Cleo3.jpg

By Roderick Heath

It probably began as an idea tossed about the luncheon table during some, long alcohol-lubricated, executive sojourn—make a film about ancient history’s most famous beauty starring the most famous beauty of the early ’60s, Elizabeth Taylor, as a kind of a Ben-Hur (1959) with more sex appeal. And so may have commenced the making of 20th Century Fox’s colossal folly, a melodrama in itself: either way, the Fox executives found a ready partner in producer Walter Wanger, who had been wanting to trying to get a film about Cleopatra off the ground for several years. Filming began with Peter Finch playing Julius Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Marc Antony, on sets built at Pinewood Studios in England, in a climate that caused a recurrence of Taylor’s chronic pneumonia. This setback helped to hold up the shoot for months, necessitating relocation of the production to Cinecitta in Rome, and Finch and Boyd were replaced with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. Lacking a workable screenplay, the producers brought in Joseph L. Mankiewicz, four-time Oscar winner and a late choice to save the project, to replace the fired Rouben Mamoulian. Mankiewicz often wrote scenes the night before they were shot. Cleopatra finally cost so much (Fox had to sell part of its studio for real estate development to pay the bill) it managed to be both the biggest hit of the ’60s and nearly the biggest flop, finally eking out a profit after a number of years. The execs may well have thanked the movie gods that they made as much back as they did thanks to the publicity generated by Burton and Taylor’s legendary on-set romance.

Cleo12.jpg

The resulting movie has been largely dismissed as a lumbering and bloated misfire, and there are indeed points where it threatens to collapse under its own weight. But it’s still a fertile, gaudy, fascinating and much-underrated film, being generally far more ambitious, not just in scale of production but in narrative scope, than even its many rivals in the genre of the epic. At the very least, it can be seriously regarded as a superior Joe Mankiewicz film, certainly his most cinematically expansive work. Blockbuster cinema of the ‘50s and ’60s still generally has a hard time of it in terms of critical appreciation, but I admit some nostalgia for an era of filmmaking when event movies meant tackling meaty historical subjects with grand productions rather than bland CGI battles between toy robots.

Cleo6.jpg

Moreover, Cleopatra displays the split personality of many of those mega-productions on the most gloriously erratic of scales. Making epics had a different meaning in this period than it had in the ’30s, when it entailed DeMille, dancing girls, and hilarity-inducing historical invention. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra is, by and large, historically accurate, and more than that, presents in Mankiewicz’s script a conflation of some serious literary sources. Cleopatra is not a better film than, say, Spartacus (1960), but it is in many ways a more complex and intriguing drama. Mankiewicz had hoped that Fox would release the film in two parts, but the studio insisted on one colossal hunk, slicing out a lot of substance from the script that, rather than streamlining the work, rendered its development clumsier and making the last hour gracelessly protracted.

Cleo8.jpg

The bifurcated structure is still, however, more or less intact, with the first half detailing Caesar’s coming to Egypt in pursuit of his enemy Pompey and to sort out the civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy (Richard O’Sullivan). He falls in love with and marries her, and they have a son, Caesarion. He returns to Rome with Cleopatra’s idea that he take up the mantle of Alexander the Great and attempt to erect a worldwide empire, ringing in his ears. As the dictator of Rome, the example of her rule by divine right is all too tempting to him, finally inspiring his enemies to assassinate him. The second half accounts her disastrous romance and alliance with Mark Antony, their defeat at Actium, and their suicide in preference to being captured by rapacious rival Octavian (Roddy McDowall).

Cleo9.jpg

Cleopatra presents its titular character as neither outright femme fatale nor a victimised martyr, but as an anti-heroine admirable in her ardour and determination, but disturbing in her belief in her own divinity, a relentless self-promoter with a thirst for power who has monstrous hissy fits when other people use her in the same way she uses them. The depth of Mankiewicz’s engagement with the epoch is quite absorbing, as he illustrates the burning of the library of Alexandria as a side effect of Caesar’s campaigning, which he’s only vaguely embarrassed by, illustrating a barbed notion of militarist zeal overwhelming cultural iconography. Cleopatra is constantly accompanied by her Greek tutor Sosigenes (Hume Cronyn), who laments the library’s burning and whose murder by Octavian signals the commencement of an age of dictatorship. How many other movies like this spared time for moments such as when Caesar and Cleopatra discuss their liking for the poet Catullus in spite of Catullus’ well-known contempt for Caesar?

Cleo11.jpg

The first half sticks with some fidelity to the template of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (which had previously been filmed in 1946 starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh), as the two titanic figures taunt and tantalise each other, and try to outwit the traps set for them by Ptolemy’s noxious courtiers and warrior hordes. The second half, naturally, takes its cues from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and from Plutarch’s history. The film’s greatest asset is Harrison’s strident performance of Caesar, full of high wit and feeling, warming up for and in many ways outclassing his Oscar-winning turn as Henry Higgins the following year. He wraps his lips around Mankiewicz’s sharp dialogue with aplomb, refusing the offer of a slimy Egyptian eunuch, Pothinus (Grégoire Aslan), to escort him with a disgusted “Anyone but you!” or beadily eyeing Cleopatra after she suggests she’s done nothing but rub him the wrong way, stating, “I’m not sure I want to be rubbed by you at all, young lady.” And the same goes for the remarkable depth of the supporting cast: Martin Landau as Caesar and Antony’s loyal offsider Ruffio, Andrew Keir as Octavian’s tough-minded henchman Agrippa, George Cole as Caesar’s mute servant Flavius, Michael Hordern as Cicero, the teenaged Francesca Annis and Isabel Cooley as Cleopatra’s favourite handmaidens Iras and Charmion, Robert Stephens as stalwart soldier Germanicus, and particularly MacDowall’s inspired ham of an Octavian.

Cleo4.jpg

The faults are occasionally, however, as marked as the virtues. The production is gorgeous to look at, almost turning into something like the science fiction film set in the past as Fellini wanted his Satyricon to be, with its lustrous set design suggesting the ancient world was a helluva lot prettier than you ever guessed. But there’s also a variety of high-camp pizzazz infusing the proceedings, especially the DeMille-via-Playboy evocations of Cleo’s palatial splendour, constant changes of costume, and her cohort of pneumatic multiracial gal pals dispensing baths and massages. Mankiewicz keeps suggesting ironic layers to the gilded spectacle, emphasising that Cleopatra is, in essence, a showwoman of statecraft who knows how to dazzle statesmen and the populace alike. Having overheard Caesar’s aides bandy stories of her immorality, she contrives artfully to have Caesar come across her lying around semi-naked, surrounded by her beautiful bevy of servants, to give him an eyeful. The film’s split personality reaches an apogee in the staggering, sometimes silly recreation of Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome. Mankiewicz makes clear that event is Cleopatra’s greatest coup of political theatre, which the lady herself caps off with a sly wink to Caesar, but it’s also a splashy opportunity for Hollywood hype: Hermes Pan’s choreography of scantily dressed dancers shaking their boobs at the screen is less an evocation of classical decadence than a reminder of the Hollywood variety.

Cleo2.jpg

Another not exactly minor problem is theoretically indispensable star Taylor. Even at her best, in films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Taylor was a limited, archly affected actress, and she’s downright clumsy in trying to portray a woman of titanic guile and intellect to match the ego she wears on her sleeve. Not that there were many rivals of the era who might have provided the necessary looks, charisma, and innate, exotic complexity: the closest I could come up with were Irene Pappas, or possibly, in some glorious alternative universe, Barbara Steele (legend has it Dorothy Dandridge was also considered). But Taylor sure ain’t it, wading in with a grating mid-Atlantic accent brayed in graceless tones, before offering a scene of nihilistic rage when she finds Antony has married Octavian’s sister (Jean Marsh) for political reasons and trashes her bedroom; this display completely misses whatever emotion it was supposed to inspire other than mild hilarity. Taylor’s few interesting moments come towards the end when she quietens down. Nor does it help that Burton flounders through much of the film. To a certain extent, his look of bewildered, almost exhausted confusion suits his character, envisioned as a macho sot who goes to pieces when he realises he’s not the man Caesar was. But it also sees Burton reduced to throwing a lot of his pet actor tricks at the screen with little real investment in the part.

Cleo7.jpg

That neither actor is at anything like their best saps the dramatic force that the project ought to have possessed. Nonetheless, Mankiewicz’s hoped-for balance in portraying Caesar as brought down by external forces and Antony as consumed by internal faults emerges largely intact, as well as that of Cleopatra as a genius politician who finally commits fearlessly to a self-destructive path rather than submit to a merely macho, Machiavellian age. She’s presented as both an arbiter of single-minded rule by right and an heir to Greek and Egyptians cultures; she’s fascinated by Alexander’s ideal of uniting the peoples of the Earth under a common law and tongue and achieving peace, only to run into the less equitable version of the same idea welling from Octavian Augustus. Inevitably, their drama is romanticised—excising how, for instance, they actually offended Roman public opinion by murdering Cleopatra’s sister in a temple to ensure Cleopatra’s grasp on her throne, and the vindictive nastiness behind Antony’s assassination of Cicero. But historical storytelling is always a hard task of picking compelling narratives out of the mess of history.

Cleo1.jpg

Mankiewicz languished for a long time in being considered a talented wordsmith but not a forceful wielder of the camera. That reputation isn’t entirely deserved: some of his best films, like The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and House of Strangers (1949), have a lucid cinematic intelligence, and here he pulls off a few excellent visual coups. As Antony gives his oration to the crowd outside the Forum over Caesar’s dead body, Mankiewicz has his words drowned out by the outrage thrum of the crowd piling furniture onto Caesar’s pyre, as the camera drifts back in a long crane shot to find Flavius weeping the truest tears for his dead master. When he’s left alone by his troops, Antony saddles up in one corner of the frame whilst an endless number of enemy legionnaires streams over a hill in the distance. When Caesar is assassinated, Mankiewicz has the scene projected, as a vision a priestess (Pamela Brown) conjures, over Cleopatra’s distraught face. And there’s the affecting shot of Cleopatra’s ship fleeing Rome after the assassination disappearing into the darkness.

Cleo13.jpg

The film stalls more than a little on its lack of action, skipping around the Battle of Philippi, and then offering some rather stodgy shipboard dueling in a Battle of Actium that’s not half as punchy as the similar set piece in Ben-Hur. Then we have the oddly wasteful sequence in which Antony confronts Octavian’s army single-handedly after his own soldiers desert, frustrated by their refusal, at Octavian’s order, to kill him, thus forcing him into the less martially vainglorious recourse of stabbing himself in the stomach and expiring in Cleopatra’s arms. All that’s left for Cleopatra and her handmaidens is take the bite of the asp and cheat Octavian of his hoped-for prize in a close replication of Plutarch’s account. Her end, like the film, is a stab at making the best of an impossible situation, and likewise Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra retains more than a little of her dignity, because for all its unwieldiness, it deserves recognition as a lush, witty, dramatically rich work. l


What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood




Subscribe to Ferdy on Films

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

Collected Writings

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives