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Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini
By Roderick Heath
Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8½ (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.
Fellini had first moved beyond 8½’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in 8½ had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.
Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in 8½ was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.
Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.
Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.
Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.
The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.
Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.
Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.
Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.
And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to 8½’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.
Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.
One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.
In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.
The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.
Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.
Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence. Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.
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Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
Lincoln’s opening shots depict warfare: writhing bodies in primordial mud, flesh punctured by bayonets, and mouths yawing in screams of pain and murderous passion. White Confederate soldiers and black Union soldiers are engaged in war as primal and terrifying as anything out of Homer, evoking not merely the awesome violence of the American Civil War in general, but of war itself. Here is the threatening spectre of apocalyptic racial blood feuds, too, uncontained by nominal loyalties to uniforms and factions beyond skin colour.
Director Steven Spielberg’s gambit here clearly evokes some of his career’s many scenes of brutal conflict: this charnel-house vision is grimly realistic in its squirming, thrashing, intimate corporeal violence, and yet also distinctly stylised, bordering on abstract, in its depiction of clashing bodies and frenzied motion, a reductio ad absurdum of humanity in the very pit of self-willed dehumanisation. In such a moment men are not men, but rather bundles of desperate, murderous/survivalist impulse. Such dehumanisation is to be the stake of the story, but of a different kind, that is, the condition of the slave rather than the soldier, although these states are linked in many ways. The stylised quality continues in the subsequent scene at an army staging post, as columns of soldiers being deployed march past President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to another terrible, but possibly climactic, campaign. This is a churning cauldron of rain, squelching mud, filthy and sodden men, eerie light and shadow, the president backlit, half iconic, half ogrish, attempting to interact with patient politeness with the men. Lincoln listens to the testimony of two black soldiers (Colman Domingo and David Oyelowo), who are veterans of such internecine slaughter. One recounts his experiences, and the other tries to lobby for better treatment, pay, and advancement, looking forward already to the painfully slow crawl toward the epiphanies of the mid-20th century. Lincoln listens with polite rectitude, as he will continue to do through most of the following narrative, resisting outright declarations and positions until he has made up his mind and knows that his displays will carry weight.
The mood here is similar to the climactic scene of Spielberg’s previous drama, War Horse (2011), with a similar purpose, albeit with different inflections: where that film was mythic and romantic in its approach to a cruel historical milieu, this is quite different, but still sustaining that film’s sense of hovering on the edge of a dream memory. Spielberg imbues the soldiers’ camp with an appropriately bustling realism, but also somehow suggests a more ethereal, spiritual, elemental drama in the offing. This scene signals a nexus of testimonial artefact, historical tableau, and Brechtian drama, underscored when some of the white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan) attempt to recall the words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered in halting and stilted terms, whereas one of the black soldiers recalls it verbatim and with a certain poetic flare whilst walking off into the shadows, transmuted from immediate presence to an almost elemental voice, the scene suddenly empty except for Lincoln. The specific impact of Lincoln’s most famous speech is reflected back to the man himself, via the people to whom it was a missive of mourning and also a promissory note, a hope of a restoration of moral order and centrifugal reason to an age of wild slaughter.
This scene is a clear declaration from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that what follows is a hindsight study, full of after-the-fact epiphanies and perspectives, an evocation of the inevitable gap between us and Lincoln, and between the man and his own works and words, rather than a documentary. It’s a necessary declaration, particularly as Lincoln soon devotes itself to a specificity occasionally redolent of political journalism, depicting the minutiae by which Lincoln and his “team of rivals” (per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s source history) achieved their last and greatest political coup against a backdrop of epochal brutality and moral compromise. Lincoln is as panoramic as it is biographical. Here is the Union’s political universe, the landscape of a society at war, a complex system of interrelated personages, institutions, ideals, and necessities. Lincoln’s recent reelection has empowered him to take bold actions to win the war and also find its essential purpose and meaning. The air of hallucination from the opening continues even as a more domestic, intimate note is struck, as the scene shifts to the White House, where Lincoln recounts a stark and distressing dream of riding headlong into calamity aboard a strange vessel (actually a stylised Monitor warship). His wife Mary (Sally Field) interprets the dream as his anxiety over an upcoming military assault, but then realises it actually portends his need to pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment.
Lincoln makes his desire clear to his Secretary of State, William Seward (a particularly cagey David Strathairn). Lincoln illustrates the spur for his determination to get the Senate-approved amendment passed in the House of Representatives by turning a petitioning interview with a petty-minded landowner and his wife (Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel) into a quorum on the abolition question. The couple tacitly supports it as a war measure, but finds the idea objectionable if peace were to come out of fear of an imagined horde of larcenous ex-slaves on the loose. Lincoln thus argues to Seward they need to get the amendment passed before Republicans elected on Lincoln’s coattails are swept into Congress, because the war could be over by then. Seward agrees to help but feels Lincoln should stay out of the murky activity this demands, as many Democrats sacked by their constituencies can be inspired to vote for the amendment with the promise of mid-level bureaucratic jobs and other semi-corrupt devices. To this end Seward puts together a team of operators, Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes), and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), who begin working on the lame ducks.
Lincoln, in its subject matter and aspects of its approach, is definable as Spielberg’s follow-up to his antislavery epic Amistad (1997). But whereas the earlier film was rendered as a kind of visual-dramatic operetta, Lincoln is superficially cooler in style, offering character portraiture intertwined with a procedural take on political manoeuvring in the context of a particular society’s most crucial moment of redirection. Amistad depicted the process by which the slow asphyxiation of that primordial American sin, slavery, began, by both direct and violent action and legal minutiae and cultural reconstruction; Lincoln takes up the culmination. Spielberg’s instincts as a cinema artist and a practised, “mainstream” entertainer have often noticeably clashed in his films, but here they work in perfect tandem. Dashes of low comedy, even slapstick, graze against high-flown orotundity, grand carnage, bruising domestic tumult, and purposeful theatre of righteousness, all with a Shakespearean sense of interconnectivity, traced to common roots, a clash of essences enacted on every scale from the most intimately personal to the pan-national.
Lincoln’s depiction of the disparity between solemn institutional responsibility and the vulgar, lively, often absurd nature of communal life, has roots in Spielberg’s early films—The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), 1941 (1979)—in which a carnival-like Americana was evoked with a craft similar to, if less cynical and purposeful than, Robert Altman’s. The film justifies its title in its concept of Abe Lincoln not merely as an icon of the era, but as its fulcrum, the man on whose face and, ultimately, whose very mortality, the struggle’s course is written. And yet in the course of the film’s narrative, Lincoln himself is often sidelined for stretches of running time, waiting for results of actions he’s set in motion, at once removed from them and yet feeling their abstract import all the more keenly as a result. It is this sense of moral culpability as well as virtue that Spielberg and Kushner look to as the measure of worthiness; a genuine engagement with the problems of human worth becomes a right and proper yardstick for determining that worth.
Everyone is judged by this maxim, from Lincoln himself, who is all too aware that his labours are often on some level at cross-purposes, wielding violence and subterfuge to secure the liberty of one sector of the populace at some expense to another, to anti-abolitionists who subordinate humanistic concerns to those of sectarian interest. These are represented in the film by the “copperhead” Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie), who attempt to forestall the abolition bill for various myopic reasons that masquerade as matters immediate, overriding, and pragmatic. Spielberg avoids repeating himself in regards to Amistad, because he can take it for granted that he’s already portrayed the immediate horrors of the slave’s condition.
Spielberg has big shoes to fill here, even by his standards; Honest Abe’s stature as the most iconic and admired American President in history has inspired some hefty artworks over the years, including John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which depicted Lincoln’s evolution from frontier whelp to canny lawyer whose meandering folksiness conceals a stiletto-like sense of purpose. Ford’s film is also about the world around Lincoln. Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is trapped within a more elevated but no less tumultuous community, that of high democratic politics. Whilst waging a war that calls into question every presumed bond, ideal, and motive in the nation Lincoln leads, he attempts to lay down its greatest claim for future self-respect.
Lincoln’s specific heft is saved for negotiating with two major political figures who stand as nominal partners, but who could also choke his efforts if they choose. The first is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Republican Party cofounder, a pure-bred optimate who claims to have founded a “conservative anti-slavery party”: Blair agrees to aid the bill but only on condition Lincoln lets him try to initiate peace negotiations with the Confederates. At the other extreme is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), leader of radical Republicans, set on imposing a punitively righteous reckoning on the remnants of slave power and whose cabal in Congress regards Lincoln as a prevaricating sell-out. Lincoln must tread the torturously narrow trail between the two camps. He agrees to Blair’s project and, surprisingly and problematically, it bears fruit: a team of negotiators led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) starts north for Washington. Lincoln is faced by an immediate crisis of conscience, albeit only a newly sharpened version of the one he’s been wrestling with for four years, as he must choose between negotiating an end to the murderous war but possibly ruin the cause for many believe it has been waged. Meanwhile, as Bilbo and his team work, they manage to sway a large number of their targets, but finally come up against insurmountable barriers.
Lincoln’s constant frustration with his businesslike War Secretary Stanton (Bruce McGill) during a Cabinet meeting sees his jokey non sequiturs segue into a lengthy exposition of the lawyerly skill and intellectual heft Lincoln is used to wielding not in frontal charges, but in sneak attacks, against positions as various as proletariat obtuseness and aristocratic pomposity. He outlines the seemingly impossibly tangled thicket of dilemmas and self-contradictions involved in his Emancipation Proclamation, an edict that theoretically could be reversed, and therefore his desire to see it backed up by constitutional amendment. It’s a hypnotic piece of actor’s linguistic legerdemain and screenwriting, with Spielberg, via Janusz Kaminski, executing a creeping dolly move towards Day-Lewis like with unblinking attention. The scene is all the better for the concision with which it aids not merely an understanding of the issues at stake, encapsulated with rapid-fire yet entirely coherent intensity by Lincoln, but also characterisation. The Lincoln who got himself elected to the highest position in the land suddenly reveals himself as well as the even more elusive one, the agonised moralist and thinker. Spielberg’s empathy with Lincoln could well be described as that of one communicator who knows well enough to coat ugly truths in sweeter flavours for another. Lincoln’s “folksiness” is consistently revealed not just as his way of buttering up people, but also of disarming them, making them underestimate him, of clearing space and shifting the style and intent of attention turned upon him. Later, Lincoln purposefully distracts his colleagues and military staff as they wait for news of the attack on Wilmington with a jokey anecdote harkening back to the Revolutionary War and its easy patriotic associations that stand in contrast to the somehow more painful immediacy of civil slaughter. Stanton, irritated beyond measure by another story, stomps out whilst the President rambles on, only to come back and grip Lincoln’s hand as news comes in.
War is only glimpsed at the very start of Lincoln, but it is manifest throughout the film, working as a slow poison that infects everything. This is made apparent on an ontological level, but described most tellingly in Lincoln’s home life, in barely dampened turmoil since the death of the Lincolns’ third son. His youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) has taken to wearing a uniform. He likes to lull himself to sleep studying Alexander Gardner’s photos of freed slaves, obsessing over their ragged desperation like many a morbidly conscientious youth of Spielberg’s generation (and after) fixatedly rereading Anne Frank’s diary. The White House is at once home and bunker, jail and mill for the Lincolns, a warren of light and dark, cosy nooks and painfully cramped spaces for nation-administrating labour.
Lincoln’s scenes with Tad call to mind irresistibly the father-son moments of Jaws, linked in the portrait of the paternal figure as an assailed, troubled figure in whom real authority and civil responsibility is invested, still keeping a grasp on his family life as a way to stay sane, but the sons also mimic his stance and reflect his own attitudes back at him with painful/beguiling acuity. The intelligent but unbalanced Mary lives in mortal fear of losing her eldest boy Robert (Joseph Gordon Leavitt), who’s been studying law but desperately wants to join up before the war ends for the sake of social and personal approval. Mary dreads the possibility of his death so intensely that even the promise of a cushy staff position can’t mollify her. Lincoln tries to give Robert a sobering experience by taking him to tour a hospital full of wounded soldiers: Robert demurs, but, following a blood-leaking cart hauled by orderlies with curiosity, he’s revolted by what proves to be its load of amputated limbs. But Robert is still not dissuaded.
One of the best, most realistically, penetratingly human scenes Spielberg’s ever filmed has Lincoln reduced almost to a wraith cowering in the window bay, accepting Mary’s wrath for failing to dissuade Robert until she attacks him for a lack of feeling, whereupon he finally reacts with the indignation of a man who had to bury his grief because he had to remain functional for his job. Field’s brilliance as Mary lies in how she suggests both Mary’s aggravating pathos, which has a showy, demonstrative quality, but also her frustrated intelligence and scathing verbal force. Such force is exhibited when, confronted by Stevens and his followers when Abe holds a White House gathering to court necessary support for the bill, she quietly and mercilessly rips Steven apart for his parsimonious interest in her efforts to decorate the presidential mansion. At such a moment, it’s clear both why Abe married her and also what she might have been in a different time, and also why she’s like sweating dynamite now. Mary finally sums herself up, perhaps a tad too neatly, but with apt self-awareness, as the necessary counterbalance to her husband’s heroic stature, the face of the gnawing fear and pain of the age.
A second female figure in Lincoln’s household is Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mary’s maid and a former slave, whom Tad asks with guileless fascination whether she was whipped. Keckley is the moral barometer, as her face and attitude often silently charts the course of events, feeling on the most immediate level the fear and hope the drama is depicting. Lincoln’s solicitation of her opinion is another fascinating moment, as Keckley asks him bluntly about how he looks personally at the racial problem. Lincoln (and Spielberg and Kushner) attempts to avoid mealy-mouthed piety at the risk of sounding standoffish, explaining his difficulty in assessing the matter because he doesn’t “know” black people with real understanding: “I expect I’ll get used to you,” he says with dry Midwestern humour, as if aware that in trying to regard the problem from Olympian heights, he recognises that common humanity is only ultimately a matter of neighbourliness. But humour only goes so far, as Keckley reminds Lincoln she’s the mother of a fallen soldier, questioning what this makes her for the country if not a citizen worthy of veneration as well as emancipation and tolerance.
A race against time enters this narrative as Blair semi-wittingly threatens Lincoln’s intentions with his successful entreaty to the Confederates. Their emissaries are ushered across enemy line into the hands of Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), to Union Army reception committee stacked with black soldiers, a seemingly calculated provocation. Grant, determining that the emissaries are serious men, recommends to Lincoln that they be interviewed, leaving Lincoln with a most definite choice, either to stymie the negotiators briefly to help ensure the vote’s passage, or allow the Confederate company to come straight on and possibly end the war. The issue leaves Lincoln a peripatetic insomniac, awakening his assistants in the night by sitting on their beds to discuss pardons for deserters, and finally, hovering on the edge of decision, seeming to discursively explain Euclidian geometry with two signalmen. But of course he’s actually considering moral calculus, drawing the lesson that peace and safety for one group cannot be obtained if it means abandoning another group to tyranny, and this informs his last-minute decision to order Grant to delay the emissaries and work on the vote for the bill. When he finally confronts Stephens, his entreaties fall on deaf ears. Spielberg pulls off one his most adroit pieces of editing, cutting to the infernal sight of blazing Richmond, its devastation the implicit result of both Lincoln’s politicking and Confederate intransigence. The images, long since soaked into the folk-memory of the U.S. and the world, of Lincoln’s journey across the pulverised battlefields to Richmond, and Robert E. Lee’s (Christopher Boyer) plaintive return of Grant’s salute after surrender, retain not gallant lustre but a newly bleak sense of the nature of leadership: “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things,” Lincoln tells Grant.
In this regard, the John Ford film Spielberg’s Lincoln feels kin to is less Young Mr. Lincoln than his sublime Civil War segment for How the West Was Won (1962), where Grant and Sherman argued with palpable personal angst in the midst of carnage. The filmmakers’ relish of Lincoln as a protagonist and his mental alacrity calls to mind A Man for All Seasons (1966), and like that film, it manages to invest history’s saints with living wit and artistic poise. The depth and intensity of this film’s preoccupation with political and personal responsibility is thankfully leavened by counterpointing such weighty matters with Bilbo’s rather less moral, although equally determined, efforts, which include, at one point, his having to fend off a congressman who tries to shoot him. When Lincoln pays a visit to Bilbo, he amiably quotes Henry IV Pt. 1 to him (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!”), a knowing glance at the Bard’s skill at conflating the business of kingship with that of knaves, and Bilbo’s Falstaffian demeanour sit well with this (a superbly bluff performance from the once wolfishly poised Spader). Lincoln’s decision to engage more directly with the vote-reaping process, as it looks like it’s failing, sees him directing his more intricate and psychological gifts at the problem, as appeals to self-interest and the ephemeral pleasure of being seen to do good cannot entirely sway more powerful, if not always more reasoned, emotional and intellectual stances they’ve encountered. William Hutton (David Warshofsky) is touched by hatred for blacks since his brother died in battle for their sake. George Yeaman (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) hates slavery, but fears sudden emancipation might expose the people it’s designed to help to calumny. One thing Spielberg and Kushner get particularly right is the degree to which the era’s political verbiage was as much theatre as message, pitched to the galleries rather than the cameras and to awe journalists into recording them like prophets rather than bewilder them until the news cycle ends. In the film’s broadest scene, as the anti-abolition forces try to bait Stevens, Stevens must muster restraint and linguistic cunning, mixed with raw abuse of his opponents, to survive the moment. He immediately earns the upbraiding of a fellow radical for demurring on the issue of equality, to which Stevens ripostes he’d do anything if it means having ensuring that the only inclusion of the word “slavery” in the constitution is an amendment proscribing it.
Lincoln is, by and large, a study in the fundamental dilemma of democratic government of how to identify and achieve the most good for the most people as a natural extension of the communal will rather than an imposition. The relationship, prickly and peculiar, between Lincoln and Stevens is the film’s ideological engine. When Stevens outlines a plan for post-war punitive legislation to reconstruct the American body politic by replacing Southern oligarchs with empowered free blacks, it’s startling how much force and beauty his plan still has. Lincoln drolly describes this as the “untempered version of Reconstruction,” but interestingly, Stevens, like Lincoln, is a study in human frailty under statuesque heroism, and all the more so literally, forcing himself to stand erect before the Congress when he must bend and shuffle to walk, clad in a dreadful wig to hide his bald pate, hiding his love affair with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). The ironic reveal of this dalliance fascinatingly confirms the sort of implications aimed at the abolitionists of the era, but Spielberg treats it with delicate good humour, as Lydia welcomes Stevens back from Congress with the bill in his hand, and segues to the politician getting in bed with Lydia and asking her to read the bill out whilst counting off the clauses himself. There’s a reprise of the almost recitatif-inflected opening here, as hallowed political language is again employed, but with the immediate force of its human implications presented in the most unexpected of fashions: the muted tenderness of the couple in bed automatically undercuts the scurrilousness, and instead imbues the film with the first glimpse of peace as a promise after the fractious bitterness and soul-searching.
The actual vote is a Spielberg set-piece of the first order, albeit with a difference, because, whilst the outcome is known, the tension is still remarkable, with Lincoln in part reduced to audience surrogate as he must wait for the result of the vote. The exact outcome remains in the balance until the crucial cry of “Aye!” escapes Yeaman’s lips, and even the Speaker (Bill Raymond) adds his vote to the balance. Spielberg pulls off a great discursion here as he cuts away from the final tallying to Lincoln in his office, awaiting word, alerted by the pealing of bells to his success, and then cutting back to the eruption of jubilation in the Congress where the dignified politicians rejoice like teenagers at a post-game kegger—a singular and well-earned moment before the reckoning. Part of the thrill here comes from the natural power of seeing great good achieved, and also from the simple release of the film’s weighty mood, as the Representatives whoop and hoist the amendment’s manager James Ashley (David Costabile) in the air, the man himself almost weeping with relieved glee, whilst Stevens, with the silent satisfaction of a man who’s triumphed against time and the world, asks to take the bill home with him.
If there’s a downside to the muted bravura Spielberg wields throughout this work, as the first drama he’s offered in a long time to gain near-universal acclaim, it is thus; the moments of truly expansive vision glimpsed in the likes of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) are dampened in favour of a more convincingly intimate, but less overwhelmingly pure exuberance in cinema. But Spielberg self-critiqued is still Spielberg, apparent in the authorial deftness of his camera precisely charting dramatic highs and lows, in shots as casually telling as the camera movement that follows Stevens as he strips himself of his worldly regalia and gets into bed with his mistress, or as strikingly odd as the semi-surreal visions of Lincoln’s dreams. Spielberg’s partnership with Kaminski has achieved more spectacular results, but rarely more expressive, and indeed quasi-expressionistic, in a film that uses the dance of light in an either naturally illuminated or candle-and-lantern interior world. There’s a strong suggestion of the influence of Victorian painting in the visual scheme, and a particular debt to Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic,” with its similar manipulation of source lighting to create a surgeon-hero bathed in the light of reason. A recurring motif of the characters framed in windows, poised between light and dark, hearth and world, sees Lincoln both demonic in his row with Mary, and ethereal, as he draws Tad behind a curtain to look out on the celebrations of the bill.
It’s peculiar to think of Spielberg, often described as the Peter Pan of American cinema, entering his autumnal phase, but whilst there’s still plentiful verve and control in evidence, the usual tones of a late-career masterpiece are here. Late in the film, Spielberg offers a brief sequence that feels utterly vital, a signature flourish that reveals much: a visit to a theatre, which at first glance is immediately processed by an expectant audience as Ford’s, but proves rather to be one where Tad watches an Arabian Nights arabesque that sees hero save damsel from devilish villain who falls only to release a phoenixlike spirit. There’s an obvious, deliberately naïve quality to this bit, offsetting the agonised dragon-slaying of the historical drama with its most childish, Manichaeistic representation. It is also reminiscent in its brief window of theatrical wonder to the pantomime visit in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), a moment spared for the mystique of the Victorian theatre and its transformative strangeness, a prelude to the cinema in transfixing spectacle remembered on the hazy horizon of popular culture.
There’s also a nod here to Spielberg’s awareness of his own wrestling with the themes of his “serious” films earlier in his career through his equally colourful stylised genre excursions, like the equally Arabian Nights-esque absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Here the fantasy illusion is ruptured in the worst possible way, as Lincoln’s assassination is abruptly announced to the theatre, and the horrified Tad begins to scream and scream. Of course, for Spielberg, the nexus of tragedy in Lincoln’s death is found in the fundamental image of an orphaned son, both consummation and defloration of the director’s career concern with paternal care and the child’s wayward path to maturation, and so the film connects history with a gaping hole in the family life. The film’s final moments, lapping back to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, risks lurching at last into the familiar refrains of the historical pageant, but manages to capture the vibrating question and threat in Lincoln’s words, still echoing 150 years later.
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Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
This is an entry in The Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies and Ryan Kelly of Medfly Quarantine.
I remember wondering back in the mid ’90s if Steven Spielberg had retired from directing after Schindler’s List (1993), his colossal, uneven holocaust diorama, finally brought him the widespread admiration as a cinema artist he seemed to have been longing for. Four years passed between Schindler’s List and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and that comeback was enough to make many wish he’d stayed away. I recall enjoying the entirely superfluous sequel to his signal 1993 hit rather more than the original, but it was hard to deny it encapsulated many of his least-favourable traits. And yet, as he’s done often throughout his career, he released his moneyspinner in near-tandem with a personal, more archly solemn work—Amistad.
Amistad was the middle film of what I’ve come to think of as his “Historical Conscience” trilogy, with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998) as its bookends, and it was, for the most part, received coolly and was soon eclipsed by Private Ryan’s near-orgiastic acclaim. Amistad neglected the gloriously oversized raptures of his first two dramas, The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), and much of the self-conscious largesse of its triptych companions. Instead it was, on the face of it, a sober, talky tale that encompasses America’s greatest guilt complex, the transatlantic slave trade, in the form of a courtroom drama. The naked appeals to audience involvement and empathy that rendered Schindler’s List troublesome to some, and his overt efforts to bring a newly visceral, confrontational sense of violence that would find grand consummation in Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day opening, were both dialed back, and the horrors of the situation at hand explored more tangentially.
I’ve expected myself to reevaluate Amistad over the years, to decide it’s preachy, stagy, and minor. Nonetheless, Amistad has instead consistently remained my personal favourite of all Spielberg’s dramatic films. Whilst it doesn’t conjure anything quite as startlingly staged as the Krakow and warfare scenes in its trilogy partners, it also doesn’t provide anything as excruciating as Schindler’s List’s more stilted dialogue exchanges, or Private Ryan’s flimsy present-day frame, and its attempts at providing a kind of Socratic dialogue within itself are the most integral and persuasive of Spielberg’s several attempts at such. I take enormous pleasure in every sequence, every performance, in the deeply, physically convincing recreation of the historical milieu and the care with which Janusz Kaminski filmed it. It is fitting that Amistad gave to cinema the career of Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of our finest contemporary actors, as well as the charismatic Djimon Hounsou. Every bit as rigorous in terms of intense physical detail and production polish as his other films, it is nonetheless the most beautiful, coherent, and classical of all Spielberg’s serious works. Amistad achieves the effortless blend of the near-mythic and the intimately conversational those old-school cinema heroes the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle, and Michael Curtiz could bring to such dramas.
Some obvious statements first: Amistad’s a film that aimed to do for the African-American experience, which Spielberg had articulated his sympathy with in The Color Purple, what Schindler’s List had done for his own Jewish identity—to contextualise horrific aspects of its past, and to explicate a new paradigm for it. It’s modern in theme, insomuch as that it’s about nascent multiculturalism and self-empowerment rather than merely showing white guys being so kind as to stop enslaving black people. Or, at least, it’s not only about that. It’s also a film that clearly signals how Spielberg was willing to use his clout as a mainstream cinema hero to make films that push the boundaries of what that mainstream cinema can and should do. Only a few lines of dialogue are translated into English in the film’s first 20 minutes, and that opening relies instead almost purely on visual storytelling; later parts are purely about speaking and listening.
Amistad draws its ironic title from the vessel La Amistad, which is transporting a boatload of illegally enslaved men and women from Mendiland (in present-day Sierra Leone) in 1839. The ship is taken over by those slaves after one of them, Singbe Pieh, renamed Joseph Cinqué (Hounsou) by his captors, mounts an escape and leads his fellows in a slaughter of their tormentors. The Mende keep two of the Spanish crew of slavemasters, Ruiz and Calderon (Geno Silva and Tomas Milian), alive to steer them home. But that duo contrives to hug the American coast, and the rebels are captured by a U.S. navy frigate and put on trial in New Haven, Connecticut.
The question as to whether they’re guilty of piracy and murder on the high seas, or whether they are, in fact, merely property to be returned to their owners, is central to the trial, as several parties, including Ruiz and Calderon, the Spanish government, and the American officers who “salvaged” them, contend for the prize. Abolitionist journalists Joadson and Tappan (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård) make the defence of the Africans their project. After an aborted effort to convince former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), now an embittered and distracted U.S. Senator, to represent their cause, the journalists eventually hire property-rights attorney Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) to be the defendants’ advocate. He’s the only local lawyer willing to take the case, but his pragmatic reading of the issues at stake seems rather ignoble for the abolitionists. Yet his notion that merely proving that the slaves are from Africa rather than Cuban plantations will make all other points void proves persuasive; under the hypocritical, but consequential law of the time, the enslavement of free-born people was illegal, and the Africans had every right to commit insurrection in such a circumstance. Baldwin argues this case with the help of a manifest that he and Joadson locate on the La Amistad, which details how the Africans were transported across the Atlantic in an infamous slave ship, the Tecora. But with elections coming up, President Martin Van Buren (a splendidly craven Nigel Hawthorn), fearing loss of votes in Dixie, has his Secretary of State John Forsyth (David Paymer) and underling Hammond (Xander Berkeley) begin influencing the case. They have the first judge on the case (Allan Rich) dismissed and replaced by the handpicked Coglin (Jeremy Northam), whom they assume to be malleable because he is both at the start of his career and Catholic, then a handicap.
David Franzoni’s otherwise highly intelligent script leans on some familiar touches for elucidating sympathy and humour, mostly in the transformation of Baldwin from the antebellum equivalent of an ambulance-chasing douchebag into a man with a burgeoning sense of shared humanity, and the wait for Adams to come out swinging like a dry, drawling, legalistic Rocky. But such flourishes are, for me anyway, part of the film’s appeal, partly because they’re not oversold and because they establish the film’s credentials as old-fashioned, melodramatic agitprop. And they’re also part of the texture in a story that’s as much about the potential for noble institutions to be both cyclically corrupted and cleansed, depending of the mettle of the people engaging with them, as it is about the history of slavery. It’s also, of course, a film about humanity and its capacity to be both horrendous and virtuous, sometimes all at once and in fierce, virtually surreal opposition. Amistad is also perhaps Spielberg’s most sophisticated exploration of his most important recurring theme: the difficulties and beauties of communication. Revisiting Amistad to write this piece, it occurred to me that Spielberg’s career unfolded in the wrong direction. If he had made a film like this first, and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), he would have been congratulated for adapting his serious themes for a larger audience. Instead the cheap shot that’s always been used to attack his dramatic films has been the old “stick to making movies about dinosaurs” line.
Amistad’s opening contains some of the most vivid images of Spielberg’s career, thanks to his great find, the Polish-born cinematographer Kaminski, obscure before he provided Schindler’s List’s monochromatic ferocity. Boiling the film’s metaphysical and corporeal concerns down to a single act, the opening depicts Cinqué’s colossal, sweat-bejewelled brow as he tries to dig a rivet from out of the wooden frame of the hull, his nails scratching at the splinters and caked in blood, the unbearably slow, squeaking slide of the rivet out of its place to pick the lock on his chains. The imagery—the martyred man’s intense self-mortification, the drawing of the great spike—suggests crucifixion in reverse, and the resonances will spread throughout the coming narrative. Cinqué and his fellows emerge into a storm-thrashed night, and the hulking African warrior, every bit as terrifying as the tyrannosaurs that stalked Jurassic Park, roars with inconsolable fury as he slaughters his enemy. Later, when he tries to puzzle out Ruiz and Calderon’s deceptions, he turns the wheel of the boat whilst studying the way it affects the position of the stars: there’s something ineffably primal in the image of the aboriginal man evolving into a Copernican astronomer and seafarer. Cinqué connects to other Spielbergian protagonists who gaze at the night sky—Roy Neary, Quint, Indiana Jones, Elliott—and tried to puzzle out their place in the universe’s scheme. Whilst coming from a less “civilised” civilisation, he’s still a man, and far from stupid; on the contrary, he possesses the capacity to puzzle out a challenging, hostile, bizarre world with relentless ingenuity and determination, and he knows the stars as a map for his own world, too.
Shortly after, the La Amistad drifts past a ship on which a party of ritzy folk are dining. The immediate contrast, of the pretentious gentility of the white westerners and the fearful, frazzled Africans, is easily evident, but the scene echoes on deeper levels. Spielberg stages it with a ghostly aura that’s reminiscent of the way John Carpenter shot the appearance of the phantom ship in The Fog (1980), and like that film, it’s about angry spectres from crimes of profit resurging out of the mystic sea. The brief vision each ship’s parties have of each other seems charged with oppositional mystery and threat, as if neither belongs to the same world, each as unreal as the other. The physical nature of the scene—the dense fog, the creak of the ships’ rigging, the lilting elegance of a string quartet, the bleakly mystified gazes of the Africans and the perturbed returned stares of the whites—makes it seem like a fever dream where wildly disparate versions of humanity are as strange and irreconcilable as any men and monsters in Spielberg’s genre tales. Soon enough, the Mende find themselves locked within not only an alien country, but also an alien system of laws, letters, language, and presumptions that are almost entirely inimical to their own hitherto self-evident identity. When they’re captured, Cinqué’s determination to remain free sees him resort first to trying to swim home, and then to try to drown himself, but his will to live is finally greater.
Communication now becomes imperative, both legally and interpersonally. Amistad is a rare film, especially in modern Hollywood, that privileges words, laws, vision, and oratory on the same level as physical action and heroism. What words mean, and what they’re used for, are profoundly important things in this society, and defeating slavery and injustice is also a matter of defeating a dominant discourse. When the Mende are being escorted into prison, Cinqué and his fellows bellow in outrage and protest, and the guards treat this with contempt. Cinqué has his hand crushed in a gate by a jailer simply to get him to enter a cell. Many confrontations finish up with the hapless Africans shouting incoherently at the jailers and bristling at perceived threats and insults that make no sense to them. The problem of how to make the Africans understand their exact situation and allow them to tell their story—as Adams insists is a prerequisite for winning any case—presses upon their defenders. Here Amistad, whilst not losing its main focus, becomes a kind of screwball comedy of constantly repelled and cross-purpose communicative gambits, with the flustered Baldwin and the bemused, angry Cinqué cast in the functional roles of two potential brothers who need to learn how to speak to each other. The first translator Baldwin digs up, an anthropology professor (Austin Pendleton), fails to understand the Mende dialect and so makes up translations. Baldwin, Joadson, and Tappan have to scour the docks reciting words in Mende to dig up a native speaker, finally getting one in the form of James Covey (Ejiofor), a Mende who, after being rescued off a slave ship himself, became a sailor in the navy that saved him—the British navy.
That irony, that the nominal early enemies of American freedom actively fought against slavery in the post-Wilberforce era, is oft-repeated in Amistad. Against this is pitted mordant humour in the spectacle of Spain’s 11-year-old ruler Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin) and her patronisingly anti-democratic advisors trying to gain what they see as natural justice out of the trial. During the trial, Peter Firth makes an appearance as Captain Fitzgerald, a British officer who’s working to disrupt the slave trade and whose expert testimony is belittled by the state’s prosecutor Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite); Fitzgerald’s increasing irritation and disdain are all too obvious under the stiff upper lip, in a scene full of dark foreboding and threatening undercurrents. Covey provides the vital link between the Mende and their defenders, and Cinqué can then tell his story.
Where Amistad makes for a fascinating and intelligent extension to, and auto-critique of, Schindler’s List is in the way Spielberg goes to such lengths to unfold his story. In this way, he places the pain and necessity of remembering, the confusion of witnessing, and the difficulty of proof in a more important position. To win his case, Cinqué must recount the dreadful things that he saw and went through—being kidnapped from his home village, being kept in the slave trading fortress of Lomboko and then transported on the Tecora, and comprehending brutality that seems beyond all understanding. Whippings, rapes, and degradations. Men and women chained together and flung overboard. A woman giving birth in the huddled battery-farmlike lower decks of the ship and then promptly dying as her child is passed over the enchained ranks of slaves to its father. Another woman, suckling the baby, hurls herself and it to their deaths in the sea to escape this nonexistence. It’s a story the meaning of which Cinqué himself can’t comprehend, even as it finally contextualises his mad screams of bloodlust in his revolt. Holabird calls it a “good work of fiction,” even as Fitzgerald calmly explains the reasons for all the apparently incomprehensible acts of carnage as being merely cold pragmatism on the slavers’ part.
This notion that witnessing and testimony are vital in making society face up to shameful things is powerful and ever-relevant. It also allows Spielberg to avoid some of the problems that beset his approach to Holocaust: the fragmented landscape of atrocity in Amistad is selectively recalled and therefore free of any overneat sense of dramatic cause and effect. Cinqué’s subsequent survival and ability to speak about it are as much through chance as anything else, even if his own story is one of heroism and refusal to submit, and he holds on to his experiences like random shards of a nightmare. Overcoming the willful ignorance of a society in which the internet wasn’t even a thought and photography was just being invented, it was all too easy to ignore the truth of such situations, and this proves to be both a key to the trial and the overwhelming problem facing the abolitionists. Identity is a problematic notion. Proving who the Mende are is fraught with difficulty, and yet it’s not limited to them. Joadson, whose nightmarish experience in the La Amistad’s hold conjures his forefathers’ transportation as a perfervid race memory, is trying to come to terms with his own exceptional freeman status, and even Adams, whose own burden, that of his seeming inadequacy after his sire John Adams (“The only thing John Quincy Adams will be remembered for is his middle name!” Forsyth has previously derided), is reiterated constantly.
The process of what is known in contemporary postcolonial and structuralist studies as the construction of Otherness is seen in many forms in Amistad’s early sections, with the lack of dialogue as the key to the enforced portrait of the Africans as subhuman. There’s an intricate play on structuralist signs at work here, for the first actual subtitled line from one of the Mende is when he mistakes a black slave coachman for a chief because of his apparently exalted position on top of the carriage he steers. The Mende’s sense of the world’s signs are schematic and easily associative, full of direct meaning, which becomes all too apparent later when Covey, during a fraught conversation between Cinqué and Baldwin, explains to the frustrated lawyer that there is no Mende word for “should.” Cinqué’s friend and fellow prisoner Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) first likens Baldwin’s overeager manner to a man who was employed as a dung scraper in their village, and Cinqué murmurs that such a man might actually be what they need. Cinqué is ambivalent about the esteem his fellow Mende hold him in, for he was given preeminence as a warrior in their society for slaying a marauding lion, a feat he accomplished, he confesses to Baldwin, only by the lucky throw of a stone. The echoes of this story are clear—David and Goliath, obviously, but also, more pertinently, the finale of Jaws (1975)—thus clearly constituting Cinqué as one of Spielberg’s monster-slaying Everymen. Baldwin, too, is evolving into a lion slayer, and he has to remind Cinqué of the other lion he slew, the rebellion he led on the La Amistad, to recharge Cinqué’s sense of potency.
Spielberg’s customarily ambivalent take on religion bobs up throughout Amistad, a film which vibrates with echoes of parable. Such is particularly apparent in a lengthy, almost dreamy sequence in which Yamba reads through the bible handed to him by one of the abolitionists, and teases out for Cinqué that narrative he gleans from the engraved plates that tell Christ’s tale. This moment celebrates the power of visual storytelling as well as the potential for the beauty of faith to be easily communicated. But other underpinnings of this scene have already been suggested in moments in which the Africans are bewildered by the severe look of the Quakers who form the core of their abolitionist support that bolsters an otherwise jeering, hateful crowd surrounding the courthouse. Cinqué now sees signifiers of the hitherto mysterious religion of the Americans everywhere, even on the masts of ships, and interprets the Christ tale and the look of the abolitionists as involving a deeply morbid quality that permeates white western society that will sacrifice the Mende as Christ was when the time arrives. “That’s when they will finally kill us,” Cinqué states to Adams, when asked what will happen at the Supreme Court. This suggestion has an aspect of truth. Tappan’s tendency to reduce issues to flowery abstraction proves finally to mask an attitude to the matter at hand that’s less about saving specific lives than crusading on “the battlefield of righteousness,” or self-righteousness. He entertains the notion that the slaves are of more use to the cause dead than alive, which causes Joadson to break with him.
As much as there’s an overwhelming sense of deistic yearning, however playfully concealed, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Indiana Jones films, Spielberg’s interest in religion always centers chiefly on how it acts as social cement and form of heritage—as another form of communication for the passing along parables and legends as exemplars and embodiments of values. Cinqué reminds Yamba, “This is just a story,” but the point is that no story is just a story. Yamba’s explication is crosscut with images of Coglin worshipping in church. Far from being a reason to obey Forsyth’s wishes in the case, for Coglin his Catholic conscience is plainly part of the reason he finds in favour of the self-evident truth that the men of La Amistad are freeborn.
I’ve noted before in my commentary on Temple of Doom what an extremely musical director Spielberg can be, and that quality is subtly evident throughout Amistad. That cross-cutting between Yamba’s explication and Coglin’s worship works in a clearly contrapuntal fashion, and the sequence before that is a great example of Spielberg’s capacity to build towards climaxes and then let them fall away, in a fashion that resembles a Bruckner symphony. The scene in which Holabird grills Fitzgerald is staged as the courtroom, mostly illuminated by external ambient light, is filled with the infernal glow of dusk light as the smouldering tension between Fitzgerald and Holabird and their opposing worldviews becomes acute. Cinqué, seated in the dock, begins to silently panic as he reads the room, a plethora of tiny, insignificant details like twiddled cane knobs and the sheen of sweat Fitzgerald’s hand leaves on the wood of the witness bench, suddenly charged with suffocating meaning: he comes now to comprehend that the simple truth he recounted on the stand might still be lost, and now begins to speak his first words in fractured English (“Give us…us free!”) first in a fierce whisper and then in a righteous bellow. It’s corny on one level, but it’s also a sequence built with sublime technical and artistic care. Then it subsides again as if some random moment of humanity has somehow punctured the glaze of legal process. This is also vitally important in that it’s the first time Cinqué can make his sentiments crystal clear to the society now holding him captive. And yet this is only a small example of the many small swells and retreats in the film’s rhythm, which, of course, builds to a literally explosive climax and melancholic diminuendo.
Another aspect of the innate musicality is, as ever, John Williams’ music score, which could actually be the pinnacle of his and Spielberg’s collaboration, and that is saying something. Williams’ music, blending African themes with sweeping Copland-esque Americana, achieves aurally what the film attempts to do thematically—to draw out the common ground of disparate cultures and celebrate humanistic resistance to tyranny—with the recurring theme “Dry Your Tears, Africa” first heard in embryonic form when Adams prods Joadson about the importance of telling stories and rising with expansive heroism in later scenes. Adams finally joins the fight proper when his august expertise becomes necessary. That comes after Coglin finds in favour of the Africans. Van Buren is scared by the glowering auguries of Adams’ former vice president and slavery advocate John Calhoun (a keen cameo by Arliss Howard) that the unfavourable outcome of the case might not only lose Van Buren the election but might add fuel to the budding secessionist cause. So Van Buren has the case referred on to the Supreme Court, of which, Baldwin notes, seven of the nine members are slave-owning southerners.
Amistad was one of two prominent films of 1997—the other being Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt—to lead to a climactic argument in front of the Supreme Court. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite once took a sharp jab at Schindler’s List: “After making hundreds of millions of dollars, Spielberg finally decided to make a film with social content: the Nazis were bad! Wow!” In such a light, it’s not a small thing to note that Amistad is Spielberg’s most political film prior to Munich, in the sense that it is a clear assault on conservative readings of a constitution put together by revolutionaries. The nearly 10-minute final summation by Adams, a joyous piece of marathon theatrical showmanship on Hopkins’ part, is more than just a clear nod to such capping scenes in classic films like A Free Soul, Young Mr. Lincoln, Inherit the Wind, and A Man For All Seasons, but also a philosophical exegesis. Adams sets out to establish Cinqué as a man, and an heroic one at that, for both the court and the sake of conservative and phallogenocentric sensibilities that regard the struggles of black men as less immediately worthy of depiction and transmission (“If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn’t be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about, the great authors of our time would fill books about him!”). But he also channels Cinqué’s cultural understanding of his ancestors as direct aides in his life, in a spiritual sense, into an invocation of the capacity of heroic exemplars of all kinds to be spurs to right action.
Adams, too, learns to embrace such a legacy not as a burden but an inspiration, and a challenge, memorably suggesting that the Declaration of Independence be torn up if Calhoun’s credo is to be taken seriously, and actively pits the idealistic creed of the revolution in opposition to Van Buren’s cynical real politik and Calhoun’s pretentious white supremacy. This is Spielberg casting an eye on the meandering fashion in which the precepts of the American founding documents were used to achieve great breakthroughs in the time of Spielberg’s own youth in resistance to reactionary sentiments, and also another invocation of a sense of community that is larger and grander than the conveniently individualistic. “Who we are is who we were,” Adams reports, meditatively. Such a notion of overarching stories and awareness of culture, the inescapability of the past—and that not necessarily being a bad thing—which enfolds and overlaps with our present, individual selves, also infuses the other films in the Historical Conscience trilogy.
The payoff is Cinqué’s second liberation, the manacles now finally taken off his hands in the courtroom, and then, the consummation of the carefully controlled rhythm, where the film lets slip at last and offers up the rousing thunder, as Fitzgerald’s rifles and cannons smash Lomboko Fortress into rubble, its masters lying with smoking bullet holes in their flesh and their enslaved population flowing to freedom. There’s clear visual affinity there to the kids escaping the Thugee’s caverns in Temple of Doom, the film that first invoked Spielberg’s emancipationist concerns. There’s a bit of license here. Lomboko was wiped out in 1849, eight years after John Forsyth, to whom Fitzgerald dictates a pithy letter once the fortress has been smashed, ceased to be Secretary of State. But the impact of this moment is still colossal. Yet Amistad’s final note is perhaps the most outright tragic Spielberg left off on since The Sugarland Express, with Cinqué, his fellows, and Covey too, making their way back to Africa, where civil war and the decimation of his village awaits, just as it looms in the America he’s left behind. Even those who beat the odds of history must still bow to it. l
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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.