Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Biblical story of Ruth, said to have been written by Samuel, is one of the most popular and revered of Bible stories and often used to teach the virtues of faith and loyalty. Fox's 1960 The Story of Ruth does the story justice and then some, thanks to Norman Corwin's thoughtful script. New plot elements enhance the basic tale, giving the 1960 film a decided Cold War spin, but what we remember most are interesting performances from Peggy Wood and the elusive Elana Eden. That's her face on the cover, and she's even prettier in the movie.
Elimelech (Les Tremayne) and his wife Naomi (Peggy Wood) have been living in Moab for ten years after being driven from Israel by a famine. Their younger son Chilion (John Gabriel) has married Orpah, a Moabite (Ziva Rodann). Older son Mahlon (Tom Tryon) is attracted to Ruth (Elana Eden) a priestess raised from birth to serve a cult that makes human sacrifices to the Moab god Chemoth. Mahlon interests Ruth in the idea of a single invisible god that does not demand human blood, and Ruth's supervisors Hedak (Thayer David) and Eleilat (Viveca Lindfors) watch her carefully for signs of disloyalty. Ruth is punished for interrupting the sacrifice of a small girl, which leads to the enslavement of Mahlon and the deaths of his father and brother. Ruth frees Mahlon but he is mortally wounded in his escape. They marry before he dies. Naomi decides to return to Israel and tells her daughters-in-law that they may return to Moab, but Ruth has decided to adopt Hebrew ways and tells Naomi not to entreat her to leave: "Wither thou goest, I will go."
The story of Ruth and Naomi is a fascinating because it covers a lot of detail of how families, tribes and nations lived in Biblical times, identified here as the 'time of Judges.' In the unembellished Bible version, Elimelech sons marry Moabite women after he dies, and Naomi's decision to return to Israel is less forced; screen adaptor Corwin seems to have invented Moab's "little Babylon" of pagan rites and child sacrifice as a nod to present day (1960) Middle-Eastern tensions. The Bible story of Ruth doesn't involve miracles, and Corwin's only addition along these lines is to introduce a prophet-like character, Jehoam (Eduard Franz) to bring good tidings to Naomi when things are darkest.
Once in Israel, Naomi and Ruth's story follows the Bible closely on most counts. They do become gleaners of the fields and there is a rivalry for Ruth's hand by two of Naomi's relatives. In the Bible the triangle seems to be resolved through negotiations over real estate holdings. Some accounts make the case that Ruth actually had premarital sex with her favored suitor, Boaz, on the threshing grounds. But the scripture itself says that Ruth and Boaz "did not know" one another on that evening, which certainly seems consistent with the characters involved. When they are finally united in a recognized Hebrew marriage, Boaz and Ruth beget sons that eventually lead to King David.
The Hebrew social rules seem terribly strict on women, with a patriarchy in place that considers females as property. If a woman of child bearing age is widowed, the eldest brother of the dead man has the right to marry her. The Bible story discusses Naomi and Ruth in terms of a property settlement between two brothers. The Hebrews' stern system of laws must have been a reaction to the difficulty in surviving as a tribe in harsh conditions.
Norman Corwin's rather liberal changes leave the basic story untouched, but place it in a wide social context. Pagan idolaters run Corwin's Moab, and they regularly sacrifice tiny children (tellingly, only females) to a god that demands blood. Sold by a poor family into the Moabite "religious" life, Ruth barely survives being chosen to die. 1 As a young woman, Ruth instructs young girls to anticipate the bliss of becoming immortal through sacrifice. She then questions the system and is immediately imprisoned by the cautious priests. When Naomi and Ruth flee Moab, it's as if they're escaping from behind the Iron Curtain.
The Story of Ruth finds its footing when the two women attempt to resettle in Israel. The local women are hostile and suspicious, especially when they discover that Ruth was once a Moab priestess aiding in pagan rites. Interestingly, it takes the whole male society to redeem her. The elder judges demand that Ruth face a hearing and Boaz (Stuart Whitman) defends her. He loses heart when two strangers denounce her. It takes the speechmaking skill of the rival brother Tob (Jeff Morrow) to clear Ruth's name. Neither man is perfect.
Ruth seems even more worthy when she openly submits herself to the ways of a foreign land, for love of her lost husband Mahlon and his mother Naomi. In Corwin's interpretation she's really rejecting the ways of Moab. For Ruth, love, faith and loyalty are all one. It's interesting that the Hebrews consider a woman a politically plastic commodity: If she comes to Israel and renounces her background elsewhere, she's okay ... social tolerance is possible, even if difficult. It also helps when the petitioner is a head-turning beauty of marriageable age.
Corwin's best touch is a bit of symmetrical structure as harmonious as the best of Bible stories. Ruth avoids marriage to the undesirable brother Tob by getting him to reject her over an imagined fault. She simply announces to the wedding party that she 'spent the night' with Boaz on the threshing floor, without further details. It's a smart trick conceived by Naomi, who sent Ruth to sleep with Boaz, and at first it seems unfair, especially because Tob is drunk. But by his readiness to believe Ruth to be a "wanton", Tob reveals the shallowness of his commitment. Ruth is freed to marry her true beloved.
That's an interesting echo of the strange event that saved Ruth from being sacrificed when she was a child of 3 or 4: The priest Hedak spots an odd blemish on Ruth's arm and rejects her at the last minute. The blemish fades almost immediately; it may be a case of hives or it may be a sign from God. But Ruth is spared by an 'intolerant' system -- she's not "good enough" to be slaughtered. At the other end of the story, Naomi saves Ruth from an unhappy marriage to Tob by exposing the intolerance of the Hebrew patriarchy -- Ruth's not "good enough" to be Tob's trophy wife. It's a beautiful wrinkle to the Bible tale.
The Story of Ruth is not much different from other Biblical movies being made in 1960. The lighting and costumes are tasteful but essentially artless, and the direction is perfunctory. But the interesting story and rich characters transcend the usual pageantry about kings and warriors. Acting honors go to Peggy Wood as Naomi; she of course went on to play the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Tom Tryon is good as Mahlon, especially when he convinces Ruth that even the idol Chemoth has to be an invisible god, if people can pray to him when there are no idols around. Stuart Whitman is kind of a lump in other religious stories, such as the awkward Francis of Assisi, but his decisive Boaz is well suited to Ruth. Jeff Morrow from The Robe is better known for fighting monsters in Universal science fiction movies; his theatrical tone and general stiffness is appropriate for the Tob character.
Elana Eden is quite a mystery, a real beauty easily as expressive as other actress imports of the day. Ruth is a woman of silent convictions and Eden does a lot of good acting with her eyes. A simple web search for her turns up a big blank -- just about all we discover is that there are plenty of people curious to know what became of her after this high-profile film. As difficult as it may be for some to believe it, I like to think that Ms. Eden just didn't care for the work and opted out: "You mean, leave Los Angeles and stop taking money?"
The supporting cast yields some fun names as well. Viveca Lindfors (These Are the Damned) is again wasted as a cold-hearted Moabitess. Thayer David (Journey to the Center of the Earth) glowers as the bluest Moab meanie, with John Banner (Hogan's Heroes, The Wonderful Country) as the Moab King. A young Victor Buono (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) is another portly priest along with Bruno VeSota (Dementia/Daughter of Horror). Berry Kroeger (Gun Crazy) gets the film's only silly line as a servant trying to get an inebriated Tob back on his feet: "This happens at all the festivals!"
Fox's DVD of The Story of Ruth looks terrific; a number of readers have been asking for this one and they should be pleased. The enhanced transfer has bright colors and a clear audio track in 4.0 surround; Spanish and French mono tracks are included as well.
The extras consist of a trailer, two premiere newsreels and a third newsreel snippet. Yes, Elana Eden appears in them, giving us more evidence that she actually existed!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Story of Ruth rates:
Supplements: newsreels, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 23, 2006
1. It really appears that tiny Ruth has been saved from slaughter by a case of hives -- perhaps she was freaked out by being stabbed and burned up, you know, subconsciously. Parent's Magazine flipped for The Story of Ruth as an all-family picture, but I can see little kids being traumatized to see two little girls walk so happily to their doom.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson